The Gardens In-between


The natural garden between the house and Croft Garden Cottage

Sic transit gloria mundi  – Northern summers are short and as August begins there is a whiff of autumn on the horizon. The days are already growing perceptibly shorter, but the glory of the machair flowers still lights up my in-between garden. Between my house, the sea, and Croft Garden Cottage lie over 18 acres of the most perfect wild garden.
The summer home of breeding lapwing, oystercatcher, redshank, snipe, elusive corncrakes, skylarks and pipits; the haunt of hen harriers, peregrine falcons, merlins and buzzards and a resting place for migrating geese and waders. There are butterflies, bumblebees, beetles, assorted bugs, other things with wings, carapaces, shells, some with slimy trails and those which buzz or hum. There are fungi in profusion, hopping frogs and cheeky rabbits; over 80 species of flowers, grasses, rushes and sedges, not counting the mosses and lichens. Rare or common, with or without names, they are all important in nature’s garden. I am not even an apprentice in this garden, I am the custodian and apart from inviting the cows to do a little grass cutting and manuring in the winter, I am required to do nothing but sit and admire.

As the summer progresses, the colours ebb and flow from white to gold, blue to yellow and pink to purple, the mosaic changes with the intensity of the light from morning to evening, day by day, month by month and sometimes moment by moment. It is ruffled by the fingers of the wind, speckled with crystals by the mist, saturated by the rain reflecting the ever-changing moods of a Hebridean summer.
Yet the picture is incomplete, gardens are multi-dimensional and not just a visual landscape. A backing track of humming insects, vibrating butterfly wings, the sush of the waves and the whisper of the wind accompanies the skylarks, drumming snipe, clamouring oystercatchers and the mournful the pee-wit pee-wit of the lapwings. An infusion of honey from lady’s bedstraw and clover mixes with the tang of salty sea air and with a tickle of grasses on bare feet releases the essence of summer.
This is a perfect garden and its transient nature is the quintessential expression of sic transit gloria mundi. For a garden it is and without some gentle intervention the biodiversity would decline as the natural succession of vegetation replace the flowers with a mixture of rushy pasture and tussock grass.

Site-SouthThis was the situation on a piece of ground behind the house, between the solar panels and the shed. The first part of the restoration of this area was described in the Birthday Project post. Over the past two years we have been landscaping the area around the greenhouse and trying to turn it into a garden.
It would be pure hubris and folly to try to re-create or compete with the natural grassland which surrounds the house, so the intention was to compose a variation on the theme. Two years later, the landscaping has been completed and planting has begun in the small garden between the shed and the solar panels.

The beds have been edged with driftwood and beach cobbles and interspersed with broad gravel paths. Each bed is slightly different in its composition, some are lightly enriched with a little garden compost and given a bark mulch, others are almost pure sand with a gravel and pebble mulch. The soil is very well drained which encourages the plants to put down deep roots and as the minimal nutrition produces hardly, slow growing, compact forms, they should be able to withstand the gusty winds in this very exposed site.
Predictably there is no planting scheme or grand design, just a hazy vision and a vague concept. This is the evolutionary school of garden design – all trial and error. I have used plants which have performed well in the cottage garden – kniphofia, tulbaghia, astrantia, aquilegia, galtonia, nepeta, verbascum and scabious, added some herbs – chives, hyssop, thyme, sage and lovage, and some more experimental species such as dwarf iris, thalictrum, penstemon, dactylorhiza orchids, dicentras and pulsatillas.
The garden looks rather formal but as it matures it will assume a more relaxed  Hebridean form.  Seedlings (other than weeds) are already starting to appear in the gravel paths and some plants are becoming very assertive in their demands for space. I am inclined to let the garden settle and allow natural selection edit the original planting before I reach for my trowel. Although I have already decided that the lovage must go and that I need to remove some of the Viola tricolour, which is developing thuggish tendencies.
This garden was created to echo the perfect natural garden which surrounds the house and act as a bridge between the natural landscape and the unnatural intervention of the house and it’s associated structures. Perhaps there is always an element of vanity and ego in seeking to create a garden, but if the bees like it, that is good enough for me.

The Quest – Lost and Found

Molingeanais-pathI promised I would tell you the story of the Reclaimed by Nature photograph – so if you’re sitting comfortably…..
Himself was asked to undertake a mission on behalf of the Lost and Found Fungi Project to try to find Peltasterinostroma rubi  a fungus which was first recorded on bramble near Molingeanais (Molinginish) on the island of Harris in 1974 and has not been seen since. As Himself is the only resident mycologist on the islands we were keen to help and so an expedition was planned. This is hardly equivalent to searching for the holy grail, but in scientific terms a worthy endeavour. Mycologists with an interest in micro-fungi on plants are few and far between in the UK, so it is not surprising that very small black dots on bramble stems and leaves may have been over-looked.
During a settled spell of early summer weather in May we took the ferry to Harris, drove to Tarbert and headed east towards Scalpay. A few miles along the road is the footpath to Reinigeadal and Molingeanais on the east coast of Harris on the shores of Loch Trolamaraig. Harris is a very rugged island and although it is not a very long walk, about 6 miles, the climb up the slopes of Beinn Tharsuinn to the pass and down to coast is steep -maybe not for fit Munro baggers but perhaps for those who are more accustomed to rambling along the beaches of South Uist. However, the only reason it took 2½ hours to get to our destination was to allow time to look at the view and stop to record the flowers, lichens and other wildlife.

East coast Harris, Shiant Islands

Looking east towards the Shiants before the descent to Molingeanais

As we walked down the narrow path to the east coast the Shiant islands came into view and after a rapid descent we reached the gate to Molingeanais.Gate to Molingeanais
Molingeanais village comprises a few houses in a steep valley which cuts down to a  small bay on Loch Trollamarig, at the mouth of Loch Seaforth. It was once part of the Scalpay farm and occupied  by shepherds. In 1823 the entire population on the west of Harris from Bunamhuinneader to Loch Resort was cleared and the lease of Molingeanais was given to a family who had been evicted from Teilisnis on West Loch Tarbert. Other families arrived and the population grow to about 40 in the 1880s.
As in most coastal communities subsistence level agriculture was supplemented by fishing and the production of tweed. The herring fishery declined after the First World War and the village population slowly dwindled. After the war the Board of Agriculture encouraged families in Harris to relocate to new crofts at Portnalong in Skye. Although a number of families from  Molinginish left a school was built in 1921. This continued until 1935 when the authorities withdrew the teacher and paid a lodging allowance for the children to go to school in Tarbert. This must have been a long hard walk for the children from Reinigeadal and Molingeanais each week, particularly in the winter gales, as the path reaches a height of 280m at the bealach (narrow pass) between Trolamul and Beinn Tharsuinn. Molingeanais deserted village
The last inhabitants died in the 1960s and the village is now deserted, although a pair of stone cottages are used in the summer by a local family.
Molingeanais houses
This is a magical place, and unlike many of the abandoned settlements, is not troubled by the ghosts of those who were evicted or forced to leave when their way of life became unsustainable. The village is slowly being reclaimed by nature as the coastal ferns begin to take hold amongst the amongst the stones of the houses and primroses are now nestling old field banks and along the burn.

Asplenum trichomanes and Asplenummarinum

Maidenhair Spleenwort Asplenium trichomanes and Sea Spleenwort Asplenium marinum

As for the fungus, we found a single bramble, which was remarkably healthy, but no fungus. However, I suspect we will be looking at brambles all summer for black fungal lesions. We might not have found the lost fungus but we encountered a magnificent green tiger beetle (Cicindela campestris) which appears to be rare in the islands and has not been recorded since 1977.

Green Tiger Beetles Cicindela campestris

Green Tiger Beetle Cicindela campestris

Riotous assembly

Ardivachar-HeadlandWinsor and cadmiun lemon, bismuth, chrome and cadmiun yellow, Naples and Indian deep and light yellow, jaune brilliant and yellow ochre have been splashed and dripped across Ardivachar headland as the sun has irradiated the islands for the past month. The machair is in its yellow period and the early summer flowers are glowing and radiating with the golden light of the sun. The palette begins with subtle hints of primrose but quickly gains energy and sparks with the acid citron of charlock; warming to gold as the buttercups, celandines, silverweed and kingcups occupy centre stage only to be eclipsed by the rich aureate tones of the bird’s-foot-trefoil.

As we move into mid-June this golden glory is softened as the grasses begin to flower and swathes of red fescue drift across the fields in a gentle maroon mist. The floral kaleidoscope has been twisted and the first blue spikes of the tufted vetch appear as the spectrum changes from yellow to blue and the tapestry of flowers becomes more complex.
Alas the cottage garden lacks nature’s refinement and is defiant in flaunting a riotous mix of colours, forms and textures. There is no restraint, kniphofias flaunt their brilliant orange and yellow spikes defiantly amidst a swathe of aquilegias which profligate and promiscuous create an amalgam of the palest and most delicate of pinks with deep violet and blue.

Purple pompoms of chives sit against the fronds of fennel feigning refinement before marching off down the path to parade their glory against the candy floss pink of the thrift and London’s pride. Pillows of blue geraniums spill over the path, smoothering the primroses, their dominance soon to be upstaged by the flaming scarlet of the opium poppies. In the strong light of a hot June afternoon, the garden hums with the sound of insects as the exuberant flowers offer a surfeit of delights.
There are no contrived vistas in this garden, no artful arrangement of rooms, as beyond the garden walls there is an unrivalled panorama of sea and shore, distant islands and natural grassland. The eye is always drawn to the horizon and the extrovert carousel of colours in the garden is a mere distraction. However, there are tiny oases of calm which sit quietly in shady corners and form miniature green refuges.

There is no gardener’s restraining hand strong enough the constrain the summer revelery in the cottage garden, nor a garden designer’s scheme to discipline the arrangement of plants. It is the same on both sides of garden wall, plants grow where it suits them. I am the servant of the garden, I nurture the plants that choose to grow and replace the casualties. I might suggest a planting plan, but it is generally ignored and I suspect that left to its own devices the garden knows best.