Let me a conjure a vision – a late December afternoon as the sunlight begins to fade and the shadows deepen, the trees are skeletal, an elegant tracery against the translucence of a winter sky. The wind swirls among the fallen leaves hustling them into corners to hide among the glowing stems of Cornus and flirt with the last of the autumn crocus. The faint perfume of winter box teases the senses as you hunt for signs of the first snowdrops sheltering between the mounds of primroses. The holly hedge is garlanded ready for Advent, as yet its scarlet berries shunned by the blackbirds in favour of the windfall apples.
A cruel delusion, a mere figment that drifts through the mind’s eye, images sown from the artful photography in a glossy gardening magazine. In a garden that has no trees, no architectural evergreen shrubs nor graceful seed heads to be glazed with hoar-frost, it is easy to become prey to seasonal gardening angst and serious plant or even garden envy.Sitting on the bench in the cottage garden contemplating the changes to be made for next year, it was hard not to be disappointed by the forlorn and bleak nature of the garden. The debris from the last gale has been cleared away and I have been busy weeding and mulching, but it still looks neglected. The garden has retreated into the earth. Tufts of dry bleached stems, scorched evergreen branches and tangles of shredded stems are all that is left the summer’s ebullience. However if I raise my gaze, the vista is so awe-inspiring that the interplay of light, clouds and sea sweeps my tattered winter garden into insignificance.
My feeble efforts could never compete with the landscape, but there is always room for improvement. Sometimes you just have to sit and hope the gardening muse will strike. As the sun made a brief appearance, illuminating a stand of fennel stems, I reached for my camera and realised that in viewing the bigger picture I was missing the point. In the summer the cottage garden is a tapestry of colours, a magic carpet that sweeps the eye over the wall and beyond. Individually the flowers are lovely and merit attention, but it is the combination of colour, form and texture that makes the garden live. In winter the scale is too big and the colours too soft for the garden to borrow the landscape and become part of the panorama. In the garden where the colours are subdued, texture and form become ascendant and the mood grows contemplative. The gaze is drawn not to distant horizons but is focused on a series of transient, minimalist miniatures.
The relationship between structure and light are the foundation of the winter garden. If the bones are elegant the garden will always be beautiful. I had been momentarily seduced in wishing for the moon and had failed to see the potential for paradise beneath my feet. Sometimes we just need a nudge and I am grateful to Cathy (The Rock in November) for providing the inspiration.
1st December 2013 the first Sunday in Advent and the start of my Advent Calendar.
I began 2013 with a post on the Year of Natural Scotland and have continued this theme throughout the year. So as our celebration of the flora and fauna of Scotland grows to a close I am going to use the device of an advent calendar to feature more of the wildlife of the Outer Hebrides.
Autumn in the Outer Isles can be somewhat blustery and at times storm lashed. Each year we get our share of violent storm force winds (Force 11 – winds over 64 mph) when it’s normally dinner by candle light and an early night with a hot water bottle.
The winds can be very destructive and, although the bane of every gardener’s, crofter’s’ and fisherman’s life, they helped save the island from being covered by the conifer plantations which blighted so much of Scotland. However, we did not escape entirely as there was some planting by the Forestry Commission and other land owners at the end of the last century. Many of the Commission’s plantations were experimental and slowly these have passed into community ownership. These are now being transformed into an educational and recreational resource for the benefit of local communities and visitors.
Langass Community Woodland on North Uist is one of our regular haunts, and although primarily Lodgepole Pine and Sitka Spruce, it supports a diverse community of mosses, lichens and fungi. The trees were planted in 1969 but in 2005 and subsequent winters many of the large trees have been blown-over by the gales. Some of the fallen stands of timber have been partially cleared creating sunlight mossy glades where ferns and wood sorrel flourish. These new open areas and fallen timber have done much to increase the biodiversity and landscape value of the woodland.
The island landscape is sculpted by the wind, its the physical form changing over millennia and sometimes more dramatically in the lifetime of a storm. Such elemental forces may appear to be superficially destructive but they are also creative, forming new habitats and acting as one of the many agents of evolution and natural selection.