After the storm

It’s a maybe gardening day today, blowing a mild gale (Force 7 about 35 mph), a little on the chilly side at 6°C with the threat of rain so the domestic chores win. However, I might just sneak out down to the polytunnel to water the seeds and give my tomatoes some encouragement. I’m determined to do better with the tomatoes this year so each plant is being personally supervised – daily health checks and a controlled diet!
We had a be careful what you ask for storm at the weekend, I’d been musing about needing some rain and so I got it by the bath full with a stiff breeze thrown in for good measure. So if you want to know what happens to plants when hit by 70 mph winds for 24 hours:

Garlic and shallots

Garlic and shallots

Allium cowanii

The aquilegias are on the critical list, the young knifophias have multiple amputations and most of the geraniums have second degree burns but should pull through.
According to Dr Johnson “a balanced life requires a man to be a serious and devout scholar in his study, and a lively and amusing companion when at large in society, getting the best of both worlds”. So I try not to jump up and down and shake my fist at the wind gods, burst into tears and declare my life to be ruined or shut myself in the shed with a bottle of gin and application forms to emigrate to Australia or anywhere with sunshine.
So to all the gardener’s who are experiencing a cold spring complete with rain, hail snow or drought – take heart you could be living in the Outer Hebrides where it is always like this and your garden will recover, mine always does.


Survival of the fittest

Now where did I put that book on gardening in the Bahamas?


Undercover Harvest

Poatoes, shallots, onions

Shallots, onions and main crop potatoes just emerging. Cauliflowers protected by enviromesh (wind and cabbage root fly protection). The house on the horizon is the new croft house where I live and the original croft house is now Croft Garden Holiday Cottage

We now have over 16 hours of daylight and there is no lack of sunshine, but with the northerly winds the temperature barely rises above 12°C even on calm days. Even with this lovely weather the vegetables beds are still empty and forlorn. The main crop potatoes were planted at the end of April as were the shallots and onions and they are just emerging – in beautifully straight lines as I did not plant them! Still no sign of the parsnips but the first wiggly row of carrots is making a very tentative appearance. Impatient as ever I have broad beans, Florence fennel, some early cauliflowers, beetroot and lettuce (Winter Density) sheltering under enviromesh and growing very, very slowly.

garlic and shallots

Garlic and autumn shallots

Vegetables in the polytunnel

Vegetables in the polytunnel: carrots, spinach, fennel, lettuce and potatoes

The garlic and autumn shallots, planted in January are coming along nicely, but if we have bad weather forecast they might disappear under a mesh tunnel. A series of severe westerly gales in May 2011 destroyed my entire crop of garlic!

In the polytunnel the atmosphere is a balmy 25°C (if not ventilated it will shoot up to over 35º) and the vegetation is lush and verdant. We are now harvesting new potatoes, spinach, rocket, lettuce, mizuna, radishes, carrots and Florence fennel. Perfect ingredients to make a spring salad to go with the first lobsters of the year. A minor digression: mayonnaise (made with free range eggs, Scottish cold-pressed rapeseed oil, a squeeze of lemon, and a touch of English Mustard) flavoured with some finely chopped fennel fronds is a magic combination with shell-fish.
The night-time temperatures still drop to 1 or 2° which makes growing some of the tender crops: tomatoes, aubergines and peppers, tricky. As our growing season is short they have to be potted up or in the raised bed by early May – even though the conditions are not ideal. I’m still struggling to get these to grow really well, I suspect that variety is the secret to success this far north.
I’m still experimenting with the succession of vegetables in the polytunnel to ensure that we can achieve something which resembles self-sufficiency. As the outdoor vegetable beds don’t produce a harvest until the start of June (if May is warm) and from September onwards we’re down to brassicas, leeks, carrots and parsnips, there is a long “hungry gap”. Maximizing the potential of the undercover growing system right is vital if we want to eat anything green after Christmas. As one crop is harvested there are always young plants or a packet of seeds ready to fill the space. With this repetitive cropping maintaining the soil health and fertility is important. After each crop is removed we add garden compost and a top-dressing of slow release organic fertiliser – this is either nitrogen or potassium rich depending on the crop. I will also use liquid seaweed to help maintain the micronutrients and have to help the tomatoes along with a liquid feed that is high in potash and magnesium. Fortunately our very freely drained soil means that we don’t have a problem with the build up of mineral salts.

Plants hardening off

Please form an orderly queue!

We also need to be vigilant and try to keep the aphids under control – hand squishing is good, if messy, liquid soaps will also work. If a plant gets badly infected it is removed to the compost heap (no last chance or appeal it has to go). I also plant Tagetes in the tunnel to encourage the hoverflies, sadly ladybirds are as rare as hens teeth here.

The wind is moving into the SW in a day or so bringing severe gales and heavy rain, so my queue of plants waiting to be put out grows longer and longer. If the weatherman is right I’ll be confined indoors, catching up with the household chores and getting more and more grumpy. If it is really bad I might even blow the dust off some half-written blogs.

Turner and the stealth bird

JMW Turner, Crimson Sunset

JMW Turner, Crimson Sunset (1835), © Tate, London 2011

In April and May, when these islands in the far north-west are caught in a northerly air flow the long days are bathed in sunlight. The cold air brings a crystalline clarity to the light and on calm days the distant islands of the archipelago appear to float on the horizon. We have not entered the period of the white nights so the as the day ends the sun is extinguished by the sea as it melts into the heavens.
On clear evenings when there are no clouds to give drama to the sunscape, the colours suffuse along the horizon in a glowing band of pink and yellow. As the colours slowly metamorphose into the night sky a ghostly apparition drifts past the window. The tail closed and straight, the wings slightly raised in a V-formation, as pale as moonlight, hunting by stealth: a male Hen Harrier on a crepuscular patrol. The merest twitch of the tail and angling of the wings and he’s gone.  Slowly the colours fade and the night sky changes from madonna to deep blue adorned by the diadem of Venus rising.
The islands have been weaving their enchanters spell once again. This was not a night for the technology, to capture this magic you need the artistry of Turner.