Mind the Gap

March-spinach March-beetrootNothing but blue skies……

With high pressure over Scandinavia and the jet stream well to the south the northerly air flow has turned the islands into a frigid riviera. Long sunny days and balmy temperatures of 5°C, which in the lightest wind become a chilly 1°C, are perfect for brisk walks along the beach but hopeless for vegetable gardening. So until the soil warms to a tropical 10°C, between seed sowing and dreaming of summer, there is time to enjoy the skylark’s serenade and watch the lapwings sky dancing.
The green shoots peering wistfully between the brown stalks of last years flower stems promise future delights and allow the spring bulbs their moment of glory.
The vegetable beds remain dormant under their winter blanket of seaweed with only the spikes of garlic and clumps of chives tough enough to brave the winter sunshine. The buds are swelling on the currants and gooseberries and there are tender ruby stalks of rhubarb ready to be transformed into crumbles.
The garden may be “plump with promise” but “a promise is a comfort for a fool”. The hungry gap looms and the cupboard is almost bare: 2 sacks of potatoes, 14 garlic bulbs, 2 celeriac and half a red cabbage. Two bags of broccoli, 4 of cauliflower, 6 of broad beans and 2 of tomatoes in the freezer. The spectre of scurvy hovers and not even a nettle shoot in sight!
This glorious sunshine may nourish the spirit but makes a thin soup. Fortunately all is not lost – there is beetroot, spinach and Florence fennel in the polytunnel, soon to be supplemented by early carrots, mizuna, Chinese cabbage, winter lettuce and radishes. With the heat of the sun the temperature in the tunnel soon soars to 20°C, but with night-time temperatures falling to 0°C and below, delicate seedlings have to be coddled and wrapped in fleece.
It is easy to get impatient and although I know that, provided that weather gods are not too unkind, in May I can stand in the garden and watch the plants grow, my fingers itch to sow yet more seeds. So instead I will turn my thoughts to tonight’s supper (celeriac gratin, mash or gratin?) and meander down to the garden to see if there is enough rhubarb for a breakfast crumble.The next generation - early carrots

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From Devil’s Matchsticks to Powderhorns

Year of Natural Scotland – Lichens in Miniature

Cladonia floerkeana, Florke's Cup Lichen or Devil's Matchsticks

Cladonia floerkeana – Florke’s Cup Lichen or Devil’s Matchsticks

Is it a plant? An animal?
No it’s a fungus, well actually it is a lichen,  a compound organism comprising a fungus, an alga and sometimes a cyanobacterium. They co-exist in a mutually beneficial partnership: the algae and/or cyanobacteria are protected from the environment by the fungal body, and the fungus receives nutrients from the algae which are produced by photosynthesis. The cyanobacteria also have the ability to fix nitrogen. This complex relationship enables lichens to colonise a very wide range of habitats.
Some are common and fairly ubiquitous, others more specialised with very particular requirements, some grow very, very slow whilst others grow relatively quickly often colonising new areas: everything from concrete and tree bark to old peat diggings. I particularly like the group known as cladonia, probably because of their very tactile fruiting (spore producing) structures which give rise to their common name of pixie cups. They are small so you need to get close to appreciate their splendor – which, in this part of the world, usually involves kneeling in a peat bog.

The genus Cladonia also includes reindeer moss, but that will have to wait for another Year of Natural Scotland post.

Right plant in the right place

Olearia-traversii-cuttings

From small beginnings – Olearia traversii cuttings

Anyone who gardens on the coast or on a wind swept hillside will understand the shelter belt catch-22 – how can I establish a shelter belt when the plants need a shelter belt to get established?  The obvious answer is to protect the plants with a physical wind break, which is feasible if the prevailing wind is from one direction but more of a problem when your position is so exposed that the wind comes from all points and can be in excess of 70mph at times. The problem is compounded on coastal sites where plants have to be able to withstand salt laden air and light sandy soil usually with a high pH.
This was the subject of one of my first posts and it has taken us 5 years to solve this particular garden dilemma –  what to plant and how to get it to survive. It has been largely trial and error, hard work, a little application of science but hardly Vorsprung durch Technik, and some damage to the bank balance.
The key element was the discover that Olearia traversii, the Chatham Island akeake  or  tree daisy, would tolerate our climate and soil conditions. Chatham Islands is an archipelago in the Pacific about 680 kilometers southeast of New Zealand. The climate is cold, wet and windy with average high temperatures between 5°C (41°F) and 10°C (50°F) in July, the southern hemisphere winter, very similar to the Outer Hebrides. It tolerates the wind and the salt and seems to thrive in our poor sandy soil, growing over 30cm (12 inches) a year.
As the soil is very light, we have discovered that planting at high density provides adjacent plants with support and helps prevent the plants from being torn out of the ground. However, even if the plants start to rock or develop a list to starboard, provided that the ground around the base of the trunk is heeled in, or in severe cases eroded soil is replaced, the plants will continue to grow.


This winter we have also increased the width the of the shelter belt beds. Ultimately the increased depth of the planting should increase the effectiveness of wind filtering and even if the outer plants are damaged the core of the “hedge” will be protected. The original plants are now over 1.5m (5 feet) tall and in theory could reach 3m or more, but I suspect that wind pruning will limit their height.
Oleariia traversii is attractive shrub, even though the flowers are insignificant and it bears no fruit. The leaves are a rich glossy green with a silvery underside so when the wind ripples the foliage the whole hedge shimmers and shimmys like a green and silver ribbon. It is also a wonderful refuge for the garden life – ever seen a flock of 60 House Sparrows disappear in a twinkling!

International Women’s Day – In Praise of the Cultivators

Womens Land Army

This posts celebrates all the women who garden, grow food for their families, flowers to delight us and make ours a green and pleasant land.

To all the ladies who toil in adversity, never give up and who will never receive accolades for their triumphs other than a smile, I salute you.

God made rainy days so gardeners could get the housework done.” – Anon