After all the rain we’ve had recently, I took this morning’s rainbow to be a symbol of hope. Perhaps the deluge is coming to an end – or do I have to wait for the dove with the olive branch to appear? Preferring to place my faith I science, I consulted the oracle, and indeed the jet stream has moved south and there is a high probability of a relatively calm, dry week with some sunshine. I’d settle for the dry as I’m not sure how much more we can take. One of our fields is flooded and the drive has been so badly eroded that the potholes are now the size of tank traps.
The days are lengthening and there is a definite feeling that the plants are ready to emerge from their winter hibernation. So it’s time to clear away the winter debris from the polytunnel and start sowing the first of the early spring crops. The garlic and winter peas (a gift from a friend to try) are shooting and the early potatoes are ready for planting. I’ve also put in my first row of carrots, a couple of rows of spinach, some rocket and purple mizuna. In the polytunnel temperature is not the limiting factor, it is the amount of daylight that counts. Towards the end of the month I’ll start the Florence fennel, lettuce (probably little gem) and possibly some beetroot. I usually start my tomatoes and peppers at about the same time, any earlier and the low light levels produce ‘leggy’ plants.
What happens next, depends on the weather – if there is a promise of some decent spring weather I’ll start sowing seeds for outdoors. It is always difficult to restrain the enthusiasm, but gambling on the arrival of spring is a high risk strategy.
There is nothing nicer than pottering around in the polytunnel on a warm February afternoon – planting a few seeds, titivating the over-wintering plants and planning the growing schedule for the summer. However, there is work to be done outside, all the routine maintenance and preparatory work that never quite gets done in the winter has to be started now. The first major task is to get muck and seaweed onto the vegetable beds. This should be an early winter job, but it didn’t happen, so it has to be now or not at all. The organic matter is well-rotted and in theory it should be fairly easy to fork it into the barrow, wheel across the garden and fork on to the vegetable beds. Unfortunately after a wet winter, it is the consistency of squelchy pudding with the gloopy consistency of porridge and twice as heavy. It sticks to my boots and the wheels of the barrow and after a couple of hours I am six inches taller and the barrow wheel is clogged up with a mixture of muck, grass and gravel. I am not amused.
For the afternoon, plans to top dress the beds in the orchard with garden compost are postponed as the compost looks as sticky as the muck heap. Fortunately, it is also too wet to even consider starting work on the herb garden. Last year the mint and marigolds fought for territory all summer and I think the mint won. So this year I really must have a serious attempt at exerting some control. Next on the list is weeding the herbaceous borders. Usually I’m quite happy to spend a few hours weeding on a sunny afternoon, but at this time of year the ground is wet and cold and I am rapidly covered in damp, gritty earth. However, if the creeping bent, buttercups, nettles and docks are not removed now I will be fighting a loosing battle all summer.
The ‘things to do’ list seems to grow exponentially and to create any semblance of order I will need more than a few sunny afternoons. The jobs are perhaps not the most pleasant, but there is a sense of achievement as progress is made, the garden regains its composure and begins to look less like a natural disaster. After a winter confined indoors, it is such a delight to be in the garden in the sunshine. Although the routine works takes priority, I can’t help taking the ‘planning walk’ looking at areas which could be improved, redesigned and, of course, enlarged. It might be slow progress, but I’m determined to get rid of another chunk of the scrubby area of grass and weeds which masquerades as a lawn. So perhaps I should order a few more seeds, as enlarged flower beds need more plants!
Iris histrioides ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’
Photograph © Chris Johnson
Oops sorry we’re late – technology went down!
Horrid Henry is trying to blow the roof off today, so even for Rambling Cathy, I’m not inclined to go searching for the shredded primroses which are stubbornly flowering in a corner of the cottage garden. I very rarely pick a bunch, although they grow in abundance, as they lighten up a few dark nooks and crannies in the garden and remind me to be optimistic. So instead, as one of my rare offering to “in a Vase Monday”, I am featuring the best our wind torn island can offer at present.
The glowing amber of the kelp is intense even on the gloomiest days, with the long, smooth ribbons of the fronds intricately woven through the tangle of thick furry stems. Torn from the off-shore kelp forests, it is thrown up onto the beach and contorted into sculptures by the waves and the wind.
It needs no man-made installation to display its attributes, the contrasting textures of the smooth grainy sand, silver ripples of water and a framing of dark outcrops of rock could not be surpassed. The lighting is subdued, but from time to time, between the squalls, the sun throws a shaft of light through the clouds to burnish the edges with gold.
Nature’s sea sculptures are ephemeral and remind us of our own mortality in the face of the power of the wind and the waves.
As my neighbour Seamus observed, after a long account about a difficult calving and a tirade about the weather, “it’s January, it rains and it’s windy”. A timely reminder that if you choose to live on an island in the North Atlantic you can’t demand Mediterranean weather. So as Gertie gathers strength to go and torment our northern neighbours, Howling Howard and a chain of nameless tempests are racing across to Atlantic to harass us into February and beyond. It is January but we were warned that if you wreck the planet it may turn round and bite you. In this part of the world we can cope with the succession of gales and heavy rain, but I have real sympathy for everyone who has been so cruelly damaged by the wind and rain this winter.
I have had an usually himalayan mountain to paperwork to keep me chained to the desk this winter, so while we were plague-stricken I sent my muse on holiday with instructions not to return until Easter. However, I got bored with government forms and computer manuals and summoned her back. So bulletins from the Croft Garden will resume, if only to keep me amused.
Fine days, or brief intervals when the sun appeared, have been few and far between. It has been a struggle to get out and do the regular counts of our wintering wading birds on the beach and the all island goose count next week might be an interesting exercise! However, those tantalising glimpses of magic, when the grey blanket of cloud lifts and a little light infuses the landscape with gold, are the gifts of the weather gods. As much as I love watching the ever changing kaleidescope of light as the squalls come rushing over the horizon and the waves batter the reef, I begin to fidget if confined for too long. It is frustrating when the daily walk is limited to a dash to the shed to fill the log basket or an expedition to dig a few carrots or collect some kale from the polytunnel.
Winter kale and Cavolo Nero
Our supplies of root vegetables and winter greens are rapidly diminishing and it will be a few weeks before the light levels are sufficient to think about starting the early spring crops. The hungry gap is rapidly approaching and the sad array of “fresh” vegetables in the local shops is not inspiring. So I will bank the food miles and we will have to use our culinary skills to eke out the stores. I might even invest in some gro-lights and try some micro-herbs.
Fortunately the Seville oranges arrived last week, so the kitchen has been perfuming the house with the delicious aroma of oranges. Himself has taken over making marmalade, as I always seem to be beset by paperwork in January. I have been musing about marmalade and wondering what influences our choice of flavour and texture. When I make marmalade it is dark, chunky and has bitter under-tones cutting through the sweetness; Himself produces a light golden preserve, with very fine shreds of peel, not sweet but intensely orangey. You may draw your own conclusions. I’m not sure if it works with other citrus flavours, as we don’t see enough to even consider making marmalade. If you are a marmalade maker or just a consumer, you might like to ponder the marmalade mystery.
The garden has been ravaged by the weather, but there are a few shoots emerging, and I hope at least some of them will survive until spring arrives. Unfortunately the mild winters encourage the bulbs to shoot to early and the herbaceous plants never achieve full dormancy. The combination of mild temperatures and a very wet atmosphere is not ideal for the over-wintering plants in the polytunnel or the greenhouse either. It has been too windy to open the vents and so the conditions are optimum for the growth of mildew and sooty moulds. Not great for the plants, but identifying the fungi has kept Himself happy with his microscopes.
My inner Pollyanna is fighting to get out, and although the February will arrive with a fanfare of storms, the first of the early bulbs are beginning to flower in the greenhouse. When Katharine Hodgkin arrives, I know that the days are lengthening and I can start gardening again.
Image of the moon from the International Space Station. Armagh Planetarium 2014
The plague flag has been flying from the gate of the croft for the last 10 days and we’ve been confined to the house by the weather and self-imposed quarantine. The winter solstice supper was cancelled along with the Christmas Eve lunch with friends. The croft kitchen has been eerily quiet, just the bubbling of nourishing soups accompanied by sneezing and hacking coughs. So there has not been a great deal of festive spirit around.
After another sleepless night, I wearily dragged my aching bones from under the duvet and made my way to the kitchen to make the morning tea. As I waited for the kettle to boil, I sleepily looked out of the window and there it was – an enormously full moon suspended just above the waves. The ripples of the waves were etched with silver and the face of Caillech was partially obscured in diaphanous wisps of cerulean cloud. I was mesmerised by the moonlight and, although I usually do not need to be reminded, remembered that our planet is beautiful and that I am fortunate to be able to lookout of my window and be inspired by the landscape.
May your Christmas, New Year and Mid-winter celebrations be filled with magic.