Tree Planting Plans

When we first saw the land, a number of pieces of life’s puzzle slipped neatly into place. The croft was steep and unsuitable for agriculture, but it would be perfect for trees.

Hugh and I both love trees and believe that there is a strong need to plant them, both to increase the biodiversity of the land but also to offset the effects of climate change with carbon capture in whatever way that we could.

We started to look into Woodland Croft creation. Despite the northern latitude, strong winds and exposed coastal location, many types of tree are naturalised and grow well on the island.

Sleat is the least exposed part of the island, a peninsula turning its face towards the mainland on the south side of Skye. As such, lying nestled between the Cuillins to the North West and the Knoydart hills to the South East, it’s at least partly sheltered from the full force of the Atlantic.

Although Skye is almost barren of trees, being famous for huge expanses of high moorland and mountain, Sleat has more trees than the rest of the island. We are lucky, and the more we looked into it, the more we felt that a diverse planting would be completely viable.

The Woodland Trust offer advice and help with tree planting, but due to the recent rise in interest in this area, they are completely overloaded. There are long lead times to even get to see them to discuss plans. They’ve handed over some of their work to the Scottish Forestry Commission, who have been in touch at last and who will be assessing the croft land for tree planting viability next week. We can’t wait for the report.

We expect the recommended species to be a mix of trees such as rowan, alder, blackthorn, grey willow, downy and silver birch, sessile oak, scots pine, hazel, wych elm, holly and aspen.

We want to supplement these plantings with wild, edible hedges filled with crab apple, blackberries and hawthorn, and an area of sheltered orchard with hazelnuts, apples, cherries and pears.

As soon as we have the Forestry Commission report we can discuss deer protection and build a planting plan for the land. Even though we know that the first trees probably won’t go in for at least another year, it still feels like a milestone in the journey!

The relative slowness of this process is frustrating, but in a way it’s also contemplative, allowing time for our initial thoughts to be challenged and supplemented with local wisdom. We’re watching other local crofts start this, and learning what works and what doesn’t.

Don’t get me going on the merits of spiral guards, staking, vole protection and windbreaks now…☺️

The taste of autumn

There are old crab apple trees lining the streets in this part of London. They’re well established, probably twenty metres tall, and planted closely enough that their crowns touch in the wind.

At this time of the year they drop their fruit – tiny, hard, sour crab apples that crunch underfoot in the leaves as you pass by. I walked through them at the weekend, smelling autumn in the air, and it made me crave the apple and blackberry pie that my mother used to make.

This was one of my mother’s specialities. She made it infrequently enough that it was a treat, which considering her busy life, it was. Her pastry was crumbly, sweet and slightly biscuity, with a hint of lemon zest.

The blackberries were never bought from a shop in those days. When the season was right, we kids were dispatched out with a bowl to collect them from the bushes, bribed with promises of pie, crumbles and turnovers. We’d return with purple juice-stained fingers and mouths, and enough pickings to fill the kitchen for a week.

Served with a spoonful of good cream for richness, this is the taste of autumn for me. I can’t wait until we’re picking our own in the hedgerows on the island next year. Bring on the pies, the jam and the blackberry wine!

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.

Dappled shade and wild garlic

Wild garlic (or ransoms as they’re sometimes known) grow in dappled shade in woodland, on the banks of streams and in hedgerows.

Brushing through undergrowth or overgrown hedgerows as you walk will often release their pungent scent and alert you to their presence underfoot.

For me, they’re reminiscent of old woodland and drowsy, warm days in summer.

They’re also handily tolerant of thin, acidic, damp soils – perfect for the croft.

I can’t wait to get them started – and to be able to harvest enough for wild garlic butter, or to add trimmings to salads or pasta. I’ve even seen a recipe for homemade wild garlic pesto that I’d love to try.

As such I have a bag of seed to take with us on our trip to the croft in a few weeks time, and will try scattering them on the banks of the little stream to the north of the croft as well as in the copse of trees on the western boundary.

That and the bluebells and pignuts will be our first seed sewing on the croft.

It may take some years for them to establish, but the sooner we start…

Horticulture for crofters

I’ve just received this copy of Horticulture for Crofters, a fabulously useful handbook published by the Scottish Crofting Federation.

I’ve been trying to get my hands on this for months, and so its arrival in the post this week was a cause for much excitement on my part.

It’s an incredibly detailed read on vegetable, fruit and tree production in Scotland, with lots of advice on crop shelter, soil care, crop selection and drainage. There are plenty of examples from growers in the inner and outer Hebrides, many on Skye. Just what we need to provide solid advice on local conditions and challenges.

Not to mention the wonderful illustrations by Chris Tyler, generously scattered through the chapters, which sadly I don’t have the rights to share here.

Bring it on! That’s the next weeks reading sorted.

Wilding the land

We want to wild the land. And that means trees. Lots of them. I have always been drawn to trees.

Woodland Trust (those wonderful people) are taking applications now for grants for the November 2019 to March 2020 planting season.

It’s pretty amazing to me that they will help with up to 60% of the cost of planting mixed, deciduous woodland, as well as providing advice and tree protection. We are going to need all the help we can get as we plan to use around 1.5 hectares of the land for trees, and along with the deer fencing will plant edible hedges around the perimeter of the croft.

Husband is a a total fruit and nut fiend, and is especially taken by the idea of wild fruit and nuts in the hedging – blackberries, sloes, wild strawberries, cloudberries, raspberries, haws and rowan berries. We may even try planting some hazelnuts.

On a recent summer trip to the island we were blown away by the plant diversity of the hedgerows on the lanes in Teangue, just up the road from where our land is. It was like going back in time.

We’d mainly visited the island in winter before. Summer on the island on a calm, sunny day was an experience that took me straight back to my childhood, with bird and insect life in sleepy, buzzy, happy profusion. We want to help protect and build more of that and to grow as much wild, edible fruit as we can.

I’m being a bit premature I know, but I’m already stacking up crabapple jelly and blackberry wine recipes in happy anticipation…☺️