This is a new thread on an old project. About 15 years ago we moved to the Isle of Skye having bought an old croft house on 6 ½ acres of windswept sheep grazed field. More ignorant than I realised, but hopeful, I had the ambition of making the land into a coppice woodland to provide heat for heating and cooking, together with food producing plants and shrubs. I started blogging in 2017 (SkyeEnt 'blog) and posted about once a month for 4 years. Since I’ve joined Permies I’ve let the ‘blog slip. I find it much easier to create posts here, especially since Wordpress changed it’s user interface significantly a couple of years ago. I’m going to carry on describing miscellaneous projects related to the tree field and orchard area on this thread on Permies along with my existing project threads: Natural Farming, Chinampa, and Crater garden.
I’ll just use a few posts to summarise what has happened so far and try and be brief. If you want more detail ask in a reply, or look at my SkyeEnt 'blog.
The land is basically an East facing slope down to the river at the bottom of the valley with the house at the top. It had a neighbour’s sheep grazing on it keeping the grass very short for most of the year. Prior to that it had a silage crop (which was still bagged up in big bales near the barn) and goats. The only trees were along the river bank and around the house garden. To keep the project manageable we decided to plant trees in sections starting at the river and evict the sheep section by section over a few years. This also seemed like the fairest way of dealing with the neighbour’s sheep, although there had never been a formal arrangement at all.
My husband dug a pond at the bottom near the river where there was a damp spot. I’ve never been happy with the landscaping of the pond, and it does tend to dry up in the late spring. However we get frogspawn in it most years, and in summer you don’t notice the banks quite so much.
Although it is usually advised to plant bareroot trees in late Autumn/early winter in the UK, we have always planted them in spring. At the end of March we usually get a dryish spell making it much better for working outside. The winter wet and winds means that the young trees don’t get established very well earlier anyway in our experience. I came up with a planting plan that involved permanent rows of trees as windbreaks with trees for coppicing planted in between. There is a trackway wide enough for a Land Rover to be driven down to collect up the firewood to the house, and pedestrain pathways have developed organically according to where we or the dogs want to walk.
Because I didn’t really know what would do well I planted a mixture of trees that seemed likely and one or two that would be more interesting but less likely to do well. Each year we planted up another section with a bit of help from our friends. We used the haylage from the bales on top of newspaper around some of the trees to mulch them. Unfortunately we didn’t have the time or energy to mulch all the trees, and even now you can see the ‘edge effect where the trees along the trackways benefitted from being mulched early on. Amusingly for several years you could see the rows of mulch spots on the satellite view of the holding!
Initially we planted the trees with no protection at all just to see whether it was required. We had no deer fencing, only stock fencing. We found that some trees were much tastier to the voles and suffered more than others. For example, oak, birch, and ash are vole dinner, hawthorne, alder and pine don’t tend to suffer at all. The second year we used some home made vole guards out of large pop bottles donated by our shop customers cut off at top and bottom and wired to a stick to stop them blowing away. These were pretty effective. The only downsides to them I have found is that being bigger they do need the stick and this slows me down. Also I have found a few times that shrews get inside the shelters and can’t get out. I’ve described this elsewhere. They also need removing in time, and because they have no stretch need to be cut off large trees, so can’t be reused.
We did get some deer problems. Not too bad in the first couple of years, but the third year we had a pretty dry spring, and the deer came through and pulled out virtually all of the larch and spruce I had planted. The roots quickly dessicated in the wind and we had a lot of losses. About that time we decided to go to the Woodland Trust for help with the planting, and deer fencing was a prerequisite for the scheme. The Woodland Trust scheme was a simple scheme whereby we could buy native trees at a bulk rate organised by the Trust, and still plant the extra tree varieties we wanted. They also supplied simple spring plastic vole guards, which just push over the baby trees and expand if necessary as the trees grow. These are quick and easy to apply, although the hoodies (crows) had fun pulling them off the baby trees again the first year we used them. Other than requiring the trees to be protected, there were few onerous conditions so I was happy. Some of the forestry schemes in the UK are much more prescriptive about tree spacing and additions to the soil when planting. I simply turned a turf 2x2 spade widths over to create a clear space to plant the tree. The majority of the trees got no further feeding or mulching due to lack of time/materials and weather! It’s difficult to mulch with paper in the wind….I did try and mulch with the cut grass from the pathways as much as I could.
Other than the dessicated larch, we got few absolute failures. Although year to year, presumably according to where the seed was sourced, and how deep/wet the soil and weather was, some trees did better or worse. Birch and Hazel were quite variable. I found that Sweet Chestnut doesn’t like it here (very slow), ditto for yew (one survivor from 6 trees). Beech needs a well drained spot, then it is happy, similarly for Holly. Holly and Hawthorne would often outgrow their roots and blow over in the wind. Surprises for me was how well the Wild Cherry grew and also Holm Oak which I thought would be borderline, has actually been very happy. I’ve had a few sudden deaths of birch and cherry that were well grown trees. I’m assuming that the root rotted out in the winter wet, but it was strange this happened after several years….and Ash dieback has also been a problem for many of my Ash trees. I’m gutted about this, since if I had realised I could maybe have sourced more local Ash and not imported the problem to the Glen. It’s easy to be wise in hindsight though.
Initially I selected mainly native trees, with some Spruce and Larch for shelter, but as time has gone on I have become more relaxed about this. I’m more interested in how well a tree will grow for me than where it came from now! That being said, I wouldn’t plant Rhodedendron Ponticus for example which is known to be invasive in Scotland and causes issues further down the line. Hopefully none of my species choices will be a problem for the future.
Tree field from view point at top of field showing the fourth year's planting area
The soil on the field is pretty shallow – silty and compacted over rock. Having the sheep cutting the grass up to the point of planting seemed like a good idea at the time, but I wonder now if I would have been better having the whole lot deep ploughed on contour and sown with fodder radish or soil building green manures, to relieve the compaction. The area which I am using for my natural farming area is particularly badly affected, but some of the birch growth elsewhere is also pretty poor. Elsewhere there are areas with very good growth but not obvious reasons for it.
As we got to the top of the hill and the final years broadscale plantings we could really start to see which trees were doing better and which ones were lost in the grass or to the wind. We also got some trees appear of their own accord. In retrospect we could have left most of the area adjacent to the pond and the river clear and the mice and birds and wind would have planted Hazel and willow for us! There have been one or two rowan appearing elsewhere on the field, but not very many. There is not a big seed bank of tree seeds, so I think we would have seen little regeneration overall in the field.
What did appear along with the long grasses, were lots of wild flowers that there was no sign of when the sheep were there. I did do a survey as best I could in a few areas in the first year. It would be interesting to redo the survey now.
In terms of problem plants the worst I have is probably the creeping thistle, but really since it doesn’t bother the trees, I’m not too concerned about it. There was also a bit of bracken creeping in from the river bank and the semi-abandoned land next door. I try and pull this in early summer and it is definitely weaker now. As the tree canopy is starting to closes, both of these will be shaded out a bit.
It’s interesting to see how the predominate flower colours change as the season progresses. The field goes blue with the bluebells, yellow with buttercups, then white with pignuts, then clouds of pink and purple cornflowers and thistles in late summer.
Most of the plants are perennial, like bluebells and pignuts, but we also had yellow rattle appearing, which is an annual plant which is parasitic on grasses. I have been spreading the seeds along the paths, thinking this might keep the grass shorter. Orchids appeared spontaneously. Mostly near the pond area, but odd ones further up the field too taking me by surprise and delight. I’ve enjoyed researching the uses of many of the new plants, especially those that are (sometimes allegedly) edible.
Choosing the photos for this thread has really cheered me up - the contrast in undergrowth at this point in the year to these cheerful photos is quite stark!
After about 8 years here I stared to notice more and more caterpillars on the trees and other plants. It wasn’t something I considered very much when we started planting them. I was thinking about the trees, growing and producing firewood and fruit, maybe doing crafty things with twigs and fibre and exciting things with tree sap. It seems daft, but I hadn’t really considered the new habitat we are creating, albeit slowly. The insects eat the trees and plants, and other things – birds and mammals – eat the insects. As well as learning more flowers and plant species I am therefore learning more about insects and birds as well.
Emporer Hawk moth caterpillar It is a little frustrating, since there is lots of information about butterflies, slightly less easily available about moths, but rather less about their larvae. For example this one below with a fiery bum. I think it’s a pebble prominent moth caterpillar. They feed on my aspen trees, I don’t think I’ve ever noticed the adult moths though.
Possibly prominent moth caterpillar We get lots of looper caterpillars on the alders as well – maybe sawfly. When they’re undisturbed they feed in a continuous stream of caterpillars, but when they sense danger they all rear up and pretend, rather unconvincingly to be twigs. When they are larger, and single I guess it works better, but I think they’re very cute.
Sawfly larvae on Alder leaf Then there are the more glamorous adults. I don’t think any are particularly rare, just I never saw them before we planted the trees, so giving them shelter and food.
Dark green fritillary on thistle
Emporer Hawk moth adult I’m not too worried about them damaging the trees really, although sometimes we do get an odd tree partially stripped. This can be particularly noticeable with pine trees, since the needles don’t grow back like deciduous trees do each year. I now also see more birds and even at this time of year when things still look pretty bleak there is the sounds of birds in the trees and I’ve noticed nests in them from last year we did not notice at the time. We are particularly strong in small birds like wrens, robins and long tailed tits, and I saw a goldcrest (Britain’s smallest bird) last year. I think this is because although wet and windy, we are not very cold here, and smaller birds struggle particularly to keep warm in winter. Hopefully the lovely food supply in the form of caterpillars will help support more birds and keep them away from my own food plants!
I think project threads like this are really important, because they demonstrate how everybody's situation is unique. There is no one size fits all to permaculture, and it's encouraging to realize this and feel free to experiment.
So since the broadscale plantings mostly stopped, I was able to spend some time planting more edible plants and trees amongst the woodfuel trees. I still have some replanting to do. I lost a load of ash, and many of the birch and hazel gave up against the fine creeping grass that dominates some areas.
In terms of tree food crops, some are in the original plantings of course – acorns, sweet chestnut, rowan, lime (tilia cordata), cherries, crab apples and hawthorne, are amongst the more obvious. I’ve been delighted with how well my monkey puzzles up near the house have grown (see my profile pic!), so have planted several more seedlings spread down the hill, which are mostly doing well. I also have several Korean pines, which have just started to grow well now and should be relatively happy in our cool summers. Most pines with good sized nuts need hotter summers to do well.
Last year I planted some walnuts, some Japanese heartnuts seedlings and some Buart nuts (heartnut x butternuts) seedlings. We may be a bit cool for these to do well, but I thought it worth the experiment. I may be able to use the green nuts, if they are too late to ripen. I had planted some crab apples with a view to grafting eating and cooking apples onto some of them. I was able to get hold of some good fruiting local apple scion wood to graft with. The first of these cropped for me last year. I've also found some of the crab apples to be not bad fruiters too. I also have a few (allegedly) better fruiting haw varieties. A couple flowered for me last year, but no fruit yet. I managed to graft one on to a common haw, and the graft has taken really well.
I’ve also propagated black currants, raspberries and gooseberries cuttings amongst the trees. These all will appreciate the shelter that the trees are starting to provide and not mind a bit of shade. The raspberries are spreading nicely, and I have as many blackcurrants as I can pick. The gooseberries are so far a little slower to grow strong enough to fruit. I'm giving these minimal care - just pulling the grass from around them so I can see them, and mulching with cut grass during the summer.
Another soft fruit that has done pretty well is the chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa, which I grew from seed. I’m hoping to grow more of this. I like the flavour of my fruit raw - it may be from an improved cultivar, since the seed came from Martin Crawford of the Agroforestry Research Trust. One of my bushes fruited after only a couple of years. Honeyberries grow and fruit well, but are a bit slow to ripen for me. I made a low hugel bed area for some blueberries, and got a handful of tasty fruit last year. This year I have got several more varieties to plant out too. Our wet cool summers suit them pretty well, although the later fruiting ones probably won’t ripen here. Juneberries and saskatoon are doing less well: flowering, but not setting much fruit as yet.
I’d dearly love to try Gevuina avellana – the Chilean hazelnut, but it’s a difficult shrub to get hold of. I’ve had seed a few times, but struggle to get them to germinate. Our conditions here ought to be what it will like, although it will probably need a sheltered and free draining soil to do well. My one plant died a few years ago and I have one seedling ready to plant out now. Bladdernut (Staphylea pinnata) is another nut-like shrub that I’m thinking of planting some more of. My plants near the house flowered last year for the first time, and I have more seed to try and germinate.
I haven’t planted much in the way of herbacious edibles yet. I think I’m worried slightly that it might look a bit too much like a garden, but I can feel myself leaning more in that direction as time goes by and the grass is being shaded out. I have planted a couple of fiddlehead ferns, but so far they have not really taken off. I’m wondering if they need it wetter or warmer...