The Wall of Herbage

In the kitchen-to-be in the croft house there is an awkward half-wall of space alongside the appliance wall that isn’t deep enough for a cabinet and too awkward for shelf access, but which begs to be used.

I’ve considered many things to make the best use of this small space. Everything from putting up a wall mounted wine rack (with the bottles side on) to a rack for my chopping boards.

My latest idea is a wall of herbs. Maybe not quite so many as in the photo (this looks fabulous in the picture when fully stocked but might look a bit less so with patchy gaps from usage or failures), but maybe a couple of wall-mounted copper or wicker planters that I could pop pots of herbs into for easy access.

We use a lot of fresh herbs. I’m planning to plant herb beds outside the back of the croft, but nipping out for a bunch of parsley in the wind and rain in your flowery apron and wellies isn’t always an attractive proposition. I invariably remember I need herbs after I’ve started cooking 🙄..

We use parsley, coriander, thyme, chives, rosemary, sage and mint most often. Has anyone got experience of successfully growing these indoors?

Mushroom growing

One of the foods that I really love is mushrooms. Just about all mushrooms, but especially the meaty, flavourful ones such as ceps or shiitake mushrooms.

Living in France for many years gave me an even deeper appreciation of them, with the wild mushroom season kicking off an almost religious fervour in the locals, and restaurants using them in everything whilst they were fresh and plentiful. The flavour and textures were unlike anything I’d tasted from shop bought mushrooms, and I was hooked.

We’ve been looking at growing mushrooms using spore-loaded plugs drilled into beech logs on the croft. We have the wood, the rain and the space.

Skye has a good climate for mushrooms – relatively mild and wet – and there used to be someone who grew mushrooms commercially there until recently, so we think that they would be successful.

It takes a few years for the mycelium to take, spread into the fibre of the logs and the underlying ground and fruit into mushrooms, but then it’s possible to crop for many years.

Mycelium, the thread-like network of spores that propagate mushrooms are fascinating.

Research has shown that the presence of mycelium is beneficial to spreading and keeping nutrients locked into soil, and the no-dig method relies on not disturbing this network for maximum soil fertility and crop health.

Trees also use a network like this to communicate and exchange food and healing chemicals to each other beneath the ground. It’s remarkable.

However, back to the edibles!

We can get spore-loaded plugs online for shiitake, oyster, chicken of the wood and enoki mushrooms, all of which are worth a try.

Will keep you posted (but with a trial period of two to three years before we would expect results and enough for a portion of mushrooms on toast, don’t hold your breath..!)

Cobnuts or filberts

Whilst browsing for seeds to take with us to the island in a few weeks time, I noticed that one of the online smallholdings that I was shopping from had filberts, or cobnuts, for sale.

Husband loves nuts, and has reminisced often about eating fresh filberts as a boy in Istanbul. I recall picking them too as a child, where they grew in the woods adjacent to our house in Dorset.

As soon as I saw these I couldn’t resist.

The small box arrived at the house yesterday, hand-packed with a layer of hazel leaves on top of the nuts to keep the dampness in. Opening them released the scent of woodland.

They have a unique taste and texture quite unlike dried hazlenuts. Slightly sweet, nutty and milky. They are only semi-hard with a moist, almost chewy texture. If anything could taste of ‘green’, this is it.

It’s inspired us again to make sure that we plant plenty of hazel on the croft.

The hazelnuts that don’t get eaten in handfuls off the tree can be dried and stored, chopped or whole, for use in bread, cakes or puddings. Or preserved in jars of honey for spooning as luscious toppings over cooked apples, pears or ice-cream.

Managing Small Woodlands in the Highlands and Islands

The Scottish Crofting Federation has recently published this useful little tome, packed with goodies about planting and managing woodland on the croft.

Husband and I have just spent a happy hour or so debating the wisdom of tree shelters vs. spiral tree guards for the protection of newly planted whips and young trees. A lot will depend upon the strength of the wind on the slope, which we won’t really be able to assess until we’ve lived there through a year or so of seasons.

We are travelling up to the island next month and are hoping to be able to walk the land with a representative from the local Woodland Trust, who will be able to assess the site and recommend viable tree varieties. It would be good to start the tree planning even if the trees can’t go in for a further year. And of course, the whole croft will need to be deer fenced before anything much can be planted.

We’re thinking of planting willow to help drain the boggy bottom of the croft, which can apparently act as a pioneer tree and help preparation for other species, along with birch, alder, elm, rowan, hazel, sycamore, sessile oak, bird cherry and others elsewhere. But of course we’ll take advice.

Husband is a just wee bit excited to read that Walnut and Sweet Chestnut are now considered viable species in this part of the world. Being Nut Boy, anything nut-related is worth a try in his eyes!

Wilding, the book

Wilding, by Isabella Tree, is a book based on an experimental re-wilding of a 3,500 acre farm in West Sussex.

Forced to accept that the intensive farming of the heavy clay soils of their farm at Knepp was driving it close to bankruptcy, they handed the farm back to nature.

The results in terms of biodiversity, soil fertility and increased wildlife have been nothing short of astonishing.

This is a pioneering book describing a brave and far-reaching experiment. If we can achieve these results on a piece of intensively farmed, chemically fertilised, biologically sterile land situated under the flight path at Gatwick, with time and patience we can achieve them anywhere.

Books like this provide inspiration and reinforcement of the thought that given half a chance, nature will fight back and thrive.

What we do to our little six acre pocket of land on Skye will be much less impactful than the 3,500 acres at Knepp, and the soil, weather and environmental challenges will be very different, but to the local area of Sleat it will be just as important.

So many ideas and plans. We can’t wait to start.

Bluebells and pignuts

Our next trip to the croft is in September, and itching to make a start, any kind of start, we’ve bought some seeds to sew in the established patch of woodland on the western boundary.

We can’t start anything on the main croft land until the drainage and groundworks are complete, which won’t start until the Autumn, so the little woodland belt is the place to begin some underplanting.

First off, I’ve bought pignut seeds.

Pignut is small perennial herb, whose underground root resembles a chestnut and is sometimes eaten as a wild or cultivated root vegetable. It has fascinated me for many years.

The name Pignut comes from its popularity with pigs, who root it out for its flavour, which is said to be similar to water chestnut. Wild food foragers also love it and jealously guard their sources.

Secondly, I’ve sourced some bluebell seed from a small, licensed croft on the Isle of Eigg. Eddie’s Croft.

Bluebell seed can be procured from many places, but I particularly wanted to find Scottish bluebell seed, and being so close to Skye, seed grown on Eigg will, I think, be more naturalised to the climate and conditions there. We will scatter it in the birch grove and hope that in a few years we’ll have the beginnings of a sea of blue.

It’s a small start, but it’s a start, and it’s exciting to be making our first mark on the land, however modest.

Sobering reading

The sun is shining this Easter weekend and most folks in the U.K. are heading to an overcrowded beach in the rush to escape the cities, or consuming their body weight in mass produced chocolate eggs. Perhaps for our generation it has ever been thus.

In this home the long weekend break is a little different. This book is on the side table pile for consumption, and I’ve just started it. I’m two chapters in so far.

It’s not a book about the science of climate change. I’m sure that we’ve all heard about that, and although it’s something that I totally believe in, the most frightening thing for me is that I see that it’s almost impossible for many others to sustain strong feelings about it, such is its’ enormity. It’s simply too large and horrific to believe it’s real.

Others won’t believe it until it affects them directly. I watch people struggling to equate the facts with their protected urban reality in their continued disconnection with nature.

This is one of the reasons that we have decided to live at the edge and grow woodland, trying in our small way to leave a small patch of the planet able to support biodiversity and wildlife.

This book is about what it will be like to live on this planet should we continue the trajectory that we’re on. It’s a depiction of real Armageddon.

The writing is clear and powerful. I’d urge you get a copy and to read it.