Stormy Seas, Serpents and Shipwrecks

…. the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
Sea Fever – John Masefield (1878-1967)

shipwreck Ardivachar beachStorms, shipwrecks and sea monsters are strewn throughout our cultural heritage, a tidal wrack of sagas, sea shanties and symphonies. Selkies, serpents, swans and sea birds feature as allegoric devices to convey moral tales or act as elegiac metaphors for death and the voyage from this world to the next. The sea has a rich mythology and retains its power to inspire and enthral.
Stormbound, watching the surf break over the reef and the squalls race over the horizon, the wind rising as a cannonade of rain batters the house and the skies turn from grey to deepest indigo; snatches of long forgotten poems weave their way through my day dreams. Romantic and tragic stanzas from Tennyson, Coleridge and Browning mixed with Homeric epics and Celtic myths fuel my sea fever. An intoxication which leaves me mesmerised by the sound of the wind and the sea, content to sit and watch the equinoctial gales, waiting for the tide and wind to retreat.
In the aftermath of a storm, the beach is often strewn with a rich harvest from the kelp forests, long tangles of amber dabberlocks and furbelows, dark ochre and olive fronds of wrack, strands of sea spaghetti, velvet green sea-fingers and translucent sea lettuce. Food for the land, the islanders and the shorebirds.
Too often there is an ugly tide line of plastic and assorted human debris, a wretched symbol of our contempt for our environment. This poisonous and ugly flotsam and jetsam disfigures even the most remote shores of our planet and leaves me with an aching despair. Too often a walk along the beach becomes a garbage gathering exercise only relieved by the delight of watching the sanderling scurry along the tide edge.
If the wind is in the north, the beach will be scoured, leaving a complex sculpture of sand ripples and beach cobbles. A novel landscape to explore for mysteries as the power of the storm can bring exotic visitors or reveal messages from the past.
Finding the wooden ribs of the vessel exposed on the beach presented an intriguing mixture of possibilities, tinged with an aura of romance and perhaps tragedy. It may have been the relatively recent wreck of a fishing boat or perhaps an echo of a more distant time when the islanders travelled by sea and traded with Ireland, Scandinavia, the Baltic and beyond. A reminder that from early prehistory the Isles were well-populated by complex and sophisticated communities and in the time of the Lords of the Isles were the seat of a maritime dynasty considered to be a second royal house in medieval Scotland. Traders, raiders, missionaries, messengers, diplomats, fishermen or adventurers, their story will never be told, but it is ours to imagine.
The magic of 21st century technology recorded its location for those who might one day seek to uncover its secrets, but with the turn of the tide it disappeared from view and was once more covered by the sea and the sand. Perhaps another maritime metaphor.


Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

August borderThe earth spins, the seasons change and each autumn I look at the photographs of the cottage garden and wonder at its metamorphosis and my complete inability to impose any sense of order.
The basic structure of the garden is dictated by the landscape, the climate and my desire not to impede the view from the window seat in the cottage – beloved by the visitors to Croft Garden Cottage. I also have to remember that during the summer months the presence of the gardener must only be seen as a retreating figure when the visitors return after a day exploring the islands’ other delights. The relaxed, informal planting scheme of the garden is tolerant of this minimal intervention and often appears resentful of the intrusion of the gardener. At times it seems that the more I try to take control the more protean the garden becomes.
In June I described the garden as a riotous assembly but the cooling rain of July dampened its ardour and the borders became lush and green. There were the usual exuberant colour contrasts, but I have learnt to love the random invasion of orange from the escholzias and grown tolerant of the army of calandulas which dominate some parts of the garden. However, I feared my delight in the oriental poppies was probably to become an indulgence I might regret later.

Each year I nibble away a little more grass as the borders continue to overflow and I introduce a few new plants. This year the outstanding success was the Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum × superbum), grown from seed last summer, over wintered in the polytunnel and planted out in May. A stalwart of many Hebridean gardens (of any description) it took me a long time to get round to growing it. The brilliant white daisies seem to add the perfect counterpoint to the anarchy in the rest of the garden.
In August the borders often have a soft, gentle, rather over-blown, fin de siècle feeling, but this year the mix of aestheticism and decadence was in danger of being overtaken by a rambunctious, marauding mob intent on spreading anarchy even to the most sedate parts of the garden. Spires of Verbascum competed with the seed heads of the self-sown poppies and did battle against the borage. The aquilegias are obviously setting a bad example as the even the astrantias became profligate and sought to usurp the geraniums. Orange horned poppies (Glaucium flavum var. aurantiacum) migrated through the borders but met their match with the corn marigolds. The salvias sulked and refused to flower again as the scabious grew tall and flirted with all and sundry.

Next year, will be different, but only in that some of the plants which self-seed will move to new locations, I will transplant some and others will just appear elsewhere or perhaps not at all. Some of the new plants which were introduced to the borders this summer will either die or survive the winter and prove their worth. I may tinker with the details or even introduce major changes, but the ethos will always be more “art for art’s sake” than the formal impressionism of Miss Jekyll or an homage to Piet Oudolf. Plus ça change!

Scarlet Ladies

painted-ladiesEach year I try to grow something different and as I’d been given a packet of runner bean seeds the subject of my experiment was self selected. A few years ago I’d tried growing them in the polytunnel – beautiful plants and a mass of flowers, alas no beans.
Fortuitously there was room in the fruit cage and although I was probably a little late in planting and I’d not prepared a well-manured bean trench in advance, the results were surprisingly good.
As my broad bean flowers had not been pollinated I was not too confident that we would actually get any beans, but we did get a small crop. I was also surprised how well the plants stood up to the windy weather – they’re still flowering and producing a few beans!
So I am encouraged to try again next year, although I might look for a dwarf variety or perhaps try some climbing French or even borlotti beans. Runner beans were originally grown for their flowers and that is probably a good enough reason to continue to grow a few plants each year.


Artichokes to Zucchini

parsnips, carrots

Parsnips and carrots before and after the storm.

It is interesting that so many of us have rituals which precede the starting of a job and I find it difficult to start a post unless I have a title. This one was almost entitled ” Stable, Horse, Bolted” but on reflection I decided that it was probably too confusing for the Google algorithms!
It could be said that artichokes (Jerusalem) and zucchini (courgettes) are the alpha and omega of the vegetable garden with beetroot, broad beans, broccoli, cabbage, celeriac, carrots, fennel, onions, parsnips, peas and shallots providing the substantial middle. The success of each crop is totally weather dependant, but even in really abysmal summers I can just about manage to produce something.
Last summer so was cold and wet that even the most hardy and reliable crops failed, so I began this year with the optimistic hope that it couldn’t get any worse. The summer began well, blue skies, sunshine, very little wind and no rain. The soil was warm and still moist from the winter rains, so the seeds germinated and I was so confident that I even planted a courgette and butternut squash outside. May moved into June and the sun shone and there was no rain. My seedlings began to look a little crispy and although I watered twice a day, it was like pouring buckets on water into the moat of a sandcastle.
Fortunately help was at hand, Scottish Water declared that South Uist was about to run out of water and while a hosepipe ban was not imposed we were told to be frugal with our water while they shipped in transporter loads of blue pipe to pump water from Benbecula. This left me a little confused as Benbecula is a small island just to the north and has the same climate. Had they borrowed our water and not given it back? While I was puzzling over this conundrum, the announcement by Scottish Water, even though they had not used the D(rought) word, had done the trick, it started to rain and for good measure when it wasn’t raining we had mist!
A rainy July merged into a wet and windy August and on several occasions I was “caught napping” when the strength of the wind was more than forecast and I’d not protected some of the young plants with mesh! So a premature end to my experiment with growing spinach outside and the finale of the Florence fennel!  A summer storm can also reduced an established crop to a mess of burnt and crushed foliage, but given time most seem to recover.
As usual there were successes and failures, surprises and disappointments. The root crops, carrots, parsnips and celeriac have all grown well despite regular battering from the wind. The crop of onions and shallots was respectable, although they would have benefitted from some more sunshine. I’m still having problems with the beetroot, in my very light soil the plants are lifted from the soil by the wind, even when protected by enviromesh; provided of course, I remember to cover the plants! Perhaps I should try one of the cylindrical varieties?
The standard peas cropped well, but the very dwarf variety I tried was just too short and fed the slugs rather than us. So it’s back to a scaffolding of bamboo sticks and twine – how I miss a supply of “pea sticks”. For the first time the broad bean crop failed! After two wet winters wrapped around a cold wet summer the populations of bumblebees are in trouble, as indeed are many of the other insects. Bumblebees were scarce for most of the summer and so my lovely broad bean flowers remained unpollinated.  To compound my woes we had an invasion of diamond-backed moths which devoured the rocket and made growing brassicas a waste of time!

Once again we had a bumper crop of currants, enough rhubarb to fill the freezer, the usual glut of courgettes to turn into cakes and enough tomatoes to gorge on for lunch every day and to make sauces for the winter. I’m even optimistic about the state of the peppers which are beginning to look more red than green.
We’re currently enjoying the equinoctial gales so work in the vegetable garden awaits some calmer drier days. It is time to take stock, make plans for next year and sort out the polytunnel for the winter regime.