June Cottage Garden

What a difference a year makes

Ardivachar Cottage Garden June 2013

Cottage Garden 16 June 2013

 I had planned to write about the cottage garden to accompany the description of the vegetable garden in June when my muse prodded me in the ribs (does anyone else have a grumpy, bossy muse?) and suggested that I might look at the photographs of the garden for May and June last year.

Ardivachar croft garden plan

Ardivachar croft garden plan (not to scale)

To help on the orientation I have added a sketch map of the garden. The areas I normally photograph are the borders beyond and to the left of the large gravel area with the stone boundary wall and the herb garden to the right. The row of sea thrift sits on the edge of the raised bed, although it is spreading rapidly obscuring the path in a cloud of pink cushions. The other areas are still at the problem solving stage, but will be revealed later.
After a slow start the herbaceous borders are now coming to life, the alliums and aquilegas have replaced the spring bulbs and the hardy geraniums are brightening up the raised bed and corner garden by the ossuary (a collection of beach finds, bones, shells, stones, driftwood etc. – my outdoor cabinet of curiosities). There is no grand design just a desire to create a simple garden with drifts of plants just to carry the eye to the sea view beyond. In such a beautiful natural landscape it would be criminal to obscure or compete with the view. I could have just left it and mown the patch of scrubby grass, but it would have been too harsh a contrast against the stone walls and sea of waving grasses and wildflowers in the adjoining fields.
The plant choice is whatever I can get to grow, so the colour mix is perhaps not what I would have chosen – too many pinks, but they mix with the blues of the salvias and geraniums and the purple of the alliums are good contrast. As for the orange of the knifophias and sea poppies and the occasional explosion of cerise from a mutant achillea, their contribution is an unexpected flash of intensity, almost a Christopher Lloyd pastiche perhaps.
The herb garden is still in the experimental stage as I am trying to find a core of plants which will survive the winter. Although the soil is well drained, I think it is the winter wet which does the most damage and the spring gales seem to finish off the rest.  I over-winter a stock of plants in the polytunnel so I can replace the casualties. This helps restore an important component of the garden – not just for the croft kitchen but for the insects, especially the bees.
I am an impatient gardener and get frustrated at my lack of progress with the parts of the garden that are beyond impossible, where, because of the wind, I really struggle to get anything to grow. However I am persevering and learning all the time. I find it difficult to accept that the garden does not really get going until late June and it can look very desolate in early May, despite the best efforts of the spring bulbs. I have also come to accept that the plant casualty list will be high and that even the toughest plants will take at least a two years before they begin to thrive. A year to decide whether they can cope with the soil and the weather, a second year to sulk and beyond that either death or glory. I should not need to remind myself that to create a garden takes a lifetime and that at least 5 years is needed to even begin to understand how a new garden might work. So a look at the photographs from May and June last year was a real kick up the derrière and produced a wry grin.

May 2012 and the start of a garden

May 2012

May and June 2013

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June Vegetable Garden

strawberriesJune flamed briefly but has now retreated into a sulk adopting a grey cloud mantle and a cool demeanor. The vegetable beds still look very forlorn, the plant growth can only be described as sluggish even though the levels of moisture in the soil are good and we’ve had plenty of sunshine. It is obviously time to go round with the liquid seaweed tonic.

Broad beans - better late than never

Broad beans – better late than never

In contrast the growth in the polytunnel can only be described as exuberant and in some cases riotous.Polytummel-June-2013

New-Potatoes-Charlotte

New Potatoes Charlotte

It is normally too windy to grow early potatoes here  – it is a case of now you see it, now you don’t, as luxuriant top growth can be reduced to brown shreds in an instant in a spring gale. As I only have one wish for my midsummer birthday – freshly dug, home-grown new potatoes, Himself had to come up with a solution! So we have started planting early potatoes in the polytunnel in March. I think it must have been the copious amounts of manure and seaweed which we had added to this section of the bed during the winter, but the growth has been phenomenal and the first tubers were harvested in early June. Is there anything more delicious than the first new potatoes served with melted butter and some chopped mint?
Until the outdoor vegetables begin to perform we have to rely on the tunnel, this tends to be spinach, early spring carrots, lettuce, mizuna, radish and mixed salad leaves. No shortage of greens in our diet! Normally the early fennel is very successful, but this year the fluctuating temperatures caused the bulbs to bolt. I’m hoping that the first outdoor crop will be more successful.

Courgette-Best-of-British

Courgette Best-of-British

By early June we are harvesting the first of the indoor courgettes. Last year I grew Tuscany which was prolific but tasteless, I’m now trying Best of British. The plants have a good upright, open habit and are producing one fruit a day. The flavour is good, but they are very long, even the baby fruits have to be sliced. Delicious raw (thinly sliced and served with a light dressing of olive oil, lime and lime zest) they will keep me going until the cucumbers are ready. As more space becomes available the summer plants begin to demand space – French beans, basil and coriander have priority. No more spinach until the winter!
We always have one experimental crop and this year it is Cape Gooseberry (Physalis peruviana). We have some in pots and some growing directly in the bed – in the area where we have cleared the first row of potatoes, so the soil is rich in organic matter. The plants are just starting to flower,  it will be interesting to see how they develop. We are always desperate to grow more fruit, as much as we adore rhubarb and currants, a little variety is nice, so we are always looking for new ideas.
The strawberries (var, Alice) have been excellent this year and so we can indulge in strawberries, muesli and yoghurt for breakfast. You know you are cherished when the Head Gardener brings you freshly picked strawberries for breakfast! Last year we tried growing them outside and the what the slugs didn’t devour turned grey and furry. I swear every slug on the island congregated to feast on our fruit. So although they take up a lot of bench space they are back under cover and I’m working out how we can accommodate more plants. I doubt if we’ll every produce enough strawberries for jam, so it will be case of waiting for a glut of cheap local (Scottish mainland or even English rather than Spanish) fruit to appear in the supermarket. As we can only produce small amounts I like to make a French style conserve, it doesn’t last as long as a more traditional jam but it is delicious. This is June on a spoon and has to be eaten with scones. So a new recipe for the Croft Kitchen pages: Strawberry and Sichuan Pepper Conserve.

The lady trembles

Year of Natural Scotland aspenThe expedition to the east coast of the island to listen for gowks is normally followed by an outing to look at trees. Once the islands had extensive woodlands, but now the forces of nature and man have left the mountain slopes and moorland virtually treeless. Only the toughest specimens survive on inaccessible islands in lochs, on cliff faces or in ravines and hide their beauty in silent and remote havens. So a visit to admire the creamy blossom of the rowans and the new pale green leaves of the birches and the aspens is more akin to a pilgrimage than a stroll in the park. Hecla-South-Uist
To reach the ravines on rocky slopes of Ben Mhor or Hecla requires a trek of an hour or more over moorland and sphagnum bog; or in our case several hours as we are constantly distracted and fritter the time away looking at the flora and the insects. This absorption in the miniature world at my feet not only slows the rate of progress but normally ends up with partial immersion in a bog! However, the aching knees and wet feet are a small penance to pay for entry into this enchanted world. Cool, damp and shady the deep crevices carved into the hard grey rocks hide nature’s secret gardens. The narrow gorges are clothed in mosses, liverworts and ferns in rich hues of green and in the dappled shade the rocky niches protect clumps of violets and primroses which delicately scent the air. Mayflies and red damselflies dance above the tumbling waters and creamy butterflies languidly glide from flower to flower. Up above, clinging to the rock face are the aspens, a shimmering diadem and the object of our quest. Slow growing in a harsh landscape and climate these are venerable trees. I am told that the aspen does not produce viable seed this far north and it is possible that these trees could be vegetative clones of the original trees which once graced these hillsides over 3500 years ago.
Aspen South UistThe aspen’s leaves shimmer and quiver in the wind; hence the scientific name Populus tremula, the trembling poplar. The Gaelic critheann  (crith – to tremble) and the Scots vernacular name old wives tongues similarly refer to the movement of the leaves. Here the aspen is a faerie tree  –  an aspen leaf placed under the tongue produces eloquence, traditionally a gift of the faeries.
Although a crown of aspen was reputed to allow Celtic heroes to return from the underworld and shields made from its wood were endowed with magical qualities, as a faerie tree its reputation suffered a reverse with the advent of Christianity. In the Uists no crofter would use the cursed wood of the aspen in the house or the field; for the aspen trembles in shame for having supplied the wood for the crucifixion cross. Such taboos are widespread in Scotland and are also attached to other faerie trees such as the rowan.
Whatever its reputation to me the aspen is the lady of the wild wood, tall slender and pale, and perhaps a little aloof. As the fresh apple green leaves rustle in the faintest breeze, they whisper faerie secrets to those who have time to listen and dream in lost Edens.

Aspen, Hecla South UistHecla waterfall