Operation Garden Maintenance

Garden maintenance tool kit

Croft map

The sea is our boundary to the west and the boundary to the east and south is shown by the green line. A single track road runs through the croft to the cemetery which lies just beyond our southern boundary. It is about 250m from the new house to vegetable garden

My gardening arrangements are a little unusual particularly as I have 24 acres of land at my disposal. A stroll along the track to the garden is probably  no different from wandering off to an allotment every day. However, there is a twist in the tail. The vegetable and cottage garden and sit either side of the holiday cottage so they have to be invisibly maintained. In theory this is a simple case of nipping down to the garden, doing the weeding, grass cutting, planting, watering and everything else while the visitors are out exploring the delights of the island. Unfortunately the sun does not shine every day and some of the visitors enjoy the cottage and its garden so much that they stay put. So there are times when garden maintenance requires the meticulous planning and discipline of a military operation.
So pay attention and get ready to garden commando style.

  • Intelligence – check the weather forecast and post a look out to watch for the departure of visitors
  • Preparation – ensure that the tools are assembled – there is not time to search for the favourite trowel or hunt for the scissors
  • Planning – work out the list of priorities and the work rota – there is no time to ramble around aimlessly deciding what to do first
  • State of Readiness – be prepared to go as soon as the look out gives the signal – no time to look for the gardening fleece/sun hat/glasses/clean socks and remember exactly where you left your gloves/scarf or packets of seeds that Seamus the postie delivered yesterday.

The briefing notes may just contain the faintest hint that the theory is sound but the execution is more Hebridean than Sandhurst. It normally starts to go pyriform as soon as I leave the house when I get diverted to watch a bumblebee assaulting the clover or  admire a patch of wild carrot. By the time I get to the polytunnel to collect my tools, I will have discovered that I have forgotten something or that before I begin to hunt for my trowel that I must water the seedlings. Eventually when I get into the cottage garden I am so exhausted by all this thinking that I just have to sit on the garden bench and admire the view. Now to consult my list of jobs, which is of course in my other jacket/trousers. So a ramble around the garden to make sure the bees are busy, admire the butterflies, hunt for ladybirds and count the hoverflies becomes essential. After several trips to collect assorted tools, plants and essential miscellanea I am ready to start work.  Oh well, there is just enough time to remove the biggest weeds and water a few pots before lunch.
Hebridean style garden maintenance is so relaxed that it allows your mind to drift and meander in the most delightful and unstructured manner. Watching the bumblebees fumbling the clover on a very warm afternoon brought Henry Reed’s poem Naming of Parts to mind and so the seeds of this post were sown. As for the cottage garden, its slightly unkempt appearance is part of its charm, after all it is a place to dream and be seduced by the hum of the bees and the songs of seals.

Great Yellow Bumblebee

Great Yellow Bumblebee


Man at work


Entomologist at work in the garden

The Head Gardener is a man of many talents and still surprises me with his ability to acquire new skills. The photographs of insects and fungi which often appear in my posts are his work and, although I always acknowledge his contribution when praise is offered, I think he deserves an individual paean of praise. So I am adorning this post with laurel leaves.


High Society, Low Life and the Menagerie

Ask any gardener designer to describe a garden and you will get the predictable mix of hard and soft landscaping, colour palettes and texture, formal and informal garden rooms and a selection of the latest meaningless buzz words from world of gardening glitterati – tactile, surrealist, matrix, herboretum …………….!
As I am feeling particularly waspish I am not going to allow any discussion of the intellectual and moral merits of practice over voyeurism or whether “the artist’s garden, opens up a space between an individual and social ecology of values, implicit in our desire to plan, design, tend, cultivate and control the natural world”.
Find yourself a real gardener with grimy hands, broken finger nails and a face as weathered as an ancient mariner, ask the same question and you will get a slow smile. The answer, when it eventually arrives, may not be articulate but it will be passionate and will talk about plants rather than philosophical concepts and sophistry.
A garden is a reflection of the character and dreams of the gardener, but nature is the Head Gardener. Climate, geography and geology are the final arbiters which will always have the last word, dictating how our grand designs will be transformed by cold reality. Whilst we may not always get the garden of our heart’s desire and be foolish enough to yearn for the mirages of perfection that adorn the glossy magazines, it is worth taking a little time to enjoy nature’s gifts and the fruits of our labour.
However manipulated and manicured, a garden is a living, breathing ecosystem – a complex, dynamic community of plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms. Upset this delicate balance and the system will fail, try to understand and nurture it and the glory of the garden will be yours, even if it is not exactly what you wanted.
In my garden the animal community provides as much pleasure as the plants and I can spend more time watching their behaviour and speculating over their identities than getting on with the serious business of weeding. I should be disciplined and use their scientific names, but the lure and the fascination of the vernacular is always too strong. Where else could you find admirals flirting with vipers and rubbing shoulders with chimney sweeps, sextons, soldiers and rustics or for that matter painted ladies, drinkers and high flyers consorting with Quakers? More predictable is the menagerie of peacocks, swifts, magpies, foxes, pugs and pusses; not to mention the garden tigers, but sharks on the sow thistles! We’ve even had a visit from an emperor, will a small phoenix be next?

If you are curious you can find photographs of the other moths mentioned in this post on the Hebridensis website.

Turning Bears into Tigers

“Of necessity, he who pursues a very specialised task will do it best.” Xenophon

Garden Tiger

Garden Tiger with its woolly bear

On a still, warm summer day if you lie in the grass or stick your nose into the herbaceous border you can almost hear the sound of munching. A whole army of insect larvae are chewing their way through the foliage. In amongst them are the woolly bears, large and hairy and, to the unwary predator, deadly. As the summer progresses they will disappear and re-emerge as garden tigers. This is not the work of Greek gods or shamans, this is evolutionary magic. The woolly bears are the caterpillars of moths of the Arctiidae (from the Latin arcticus representing the classical Greek ἀρκτικός ‘of the Bear’) family which includes the tiger moths. The beautiful Garden Tiger was once common in gardens throughout the UK, but sadly this beautiful creature, like many other moths, is becoming increasingly scarce.
The transformation of one creature into an apparently totally different life form, as in a caterpillar to a butterfly or a tadpole into a frog, is an amazing process. In some animals the juvenile form is a smaller version of the adult, in others, they are unrecognisable members of the same species  e.g. the aquatic dragonfly nymphs (larvae) which dwell in ponds and are liberated as free flying acrobats on gossamer wings.
In the insect world metamorphosis is a common phenomenon. It is, therefore, not difficult to understand why the mystery of shape changing has intrigued and fascinated mankind, permeating the classical literature from Ovid to Kafka. Scientifically it is a simple case of post-embryonic reprogramming of gene expression i.e. the genes which make larval cells are switched off and those which make adult cells are switched on. So when the caterpillar begins to pupate and forms a chrysalis all the larval cells are destroyed except a small group of stem cells which differentiate to form the body and organs of the adult.

Six-spot Burnet - larva, chrysalis, adult

Six-spot Burnet – larva, chrysalis, adult

This explains the how, which is probably only of interest to the nerdy brigade (yes I am a fully paid-up member), but not the why which is equally as interesting. Superficially it seems to be a lot of trouble to go through at least two additional stages to get from egg to adult so there must be an a good reason. Nature is not always “red in tooth and claw” but the name of the game is to out-compete your rivals and maximise your chance of getting your genes into the next generation. You don’t really need to know about evolutionary strategies and game theory to work out why metamorphosis is a successful strategy and why it is so common. It is  a case of division of labour between the adults and the larvae, hence the evolution of two very different specialised forms within the life cycle. The larva is the eating machine which accumulates energy and raw materials when there is ample food around, and when the time is right the focus moves from food to sex and the adult reproductive form takes over. Some adult insects only live for a very short time, concentrating on procreation and not feeding at all.
So the next time you see a small green caterpillar munching its way through your cabbages, pause for a moment and marvel at nature’s ingenuity. Remember there are no butterflies without caterpillars. At which point I will remind everyone that it will soon be time for the Big Butterfly Count (20 July – 11 August).