We have come a long way from a run-down croft house in a tussocky field to a refurbished cottage with a working vegetable garden, fruit cages and a polytunnel. However, the dream of spending my winters by the fireside with bulb and seed catalogues remains ephemeral, as once again I’ll be out and about in my wellies with my squeaky wheelbarrow.
When it comes to garden design, I belong to the slow evolutionary school. Fortunately the Head Gardener is a man of practical vision, otherwise I’d still be standing in the field dreaming about where to put the tattie patch! However, along with the practical genius comes the 5 YEAR PLAN. This might sound like a hang-over from the cold war, collective farms and the communist manifesto, but I’m sure it has its equivalent in Harvard business speak. After 35 years I still need to go and lie down in a darkened room when I see the twinkle in the eye that indicates that a new project is about to be announced. I realised long ago that a 5 year plan is never completed as it is part of the 10 year rolling programme which is integral to the 15 year strategic action review………….!
Life in the Outer Isles may be quiet and slow but it is never boring. In the last 5 years we have experienced two unusually cold winters, winds gusting over 80 mph and drought. I wouldn’t be surprised if a plague of locusts arrived at some stage. There are times when we still rage at the weather but adversity makes the small successes all the sweeter. Gardening is challenging and although we can now grow fruit and vegetables with a degree of success we could of course do better. Oh dear, that really does sound like a Stalinist slogan to motivate the workers!
Initially the vegetable garden comprised three rectangular beds with a wind break along the drive and in front of the cottage. Over time the height of the fence between the hedge and the vegetable garden has doubled and the width of the hedge increased. After numerous setbacks the serendipitous choice of Olearia traversii has proved a phenomenal success and the original plants are almost 6 feet tall. (It is rumoured that we might be the first crofters on the island to buy a hedge cutter). The vegetable garden is now relatively sheltered, although a stiff gale can still inflict damage and produce a grumpy apprentice gardener.
As the end of the first 5 year plan was growing to a close, I was hoping that, apart from extending the planting of the Olearia hedge along the roadside boundary and dividing the last section of cultivated ground into smaller fenced beds, the end was in sight. Ever optimistic, but classically deluded.
In September the Head Gardener was to be seen with a tape measure, clipboard, pencil behind the ear and a pensive expression. Finally the new project was revealed. I considered having a fit of the vapours, but as neither a nervous collapse, sullen rebellion nor hysterics would have any effect I went off to find my wheelbarrow and shovel.
The original three large, rectangular beds are now to be split into individual beds separated by gravel paths thus creating an array of 9 beds. There is also a new tall fence between the polytunnel so completing the enclosure of the vegetable growing area.
A change in the weather has reduced our rate of progress, so you will have to wait a while before I reveal part two the new project, particularly as you can no longer peer over the hedge.
or in my case 9 cows and their calves…..
The Ladies are back! These are my contract mowers who arrive every year for 4-6 weeks in October to graze the grass on our headland.
The grassland on our croft is managed to produce suitable breeding habitat for corncrakes, breeding waders such as lapwings, oystercatchers, redshank and snipe, and other ground nesting species such as skylarks and meadow pipits, and to maintain a high level of biodiversity. So in the summer our meadows are a tapestry of wildflowers which provide food for pollinating insects – hoverflies, moths, butterflies and of course the great yellow bumblebees. Also perfect for voles to feed short-eared owls and invertebrates for the smaller birds.
When we came here overgrazing had left the coastal grassland on the headland in poor condition. By controlling the amount and timing of grazing it has been possible to create a sward of the correct height and density for the breeding birds and ensure that the flowers have time to set and drop their seeds. The headland is grazed and manured by cows (with some unsolicited help from the Greylag Geese) which are removed when we think they have mown the grass to the right level. Over time this should restore the balance between the grasses and the flowering plants without any further intervention.
The adjoining machair fields had been used for producing cereals for animal feed using the traditional two-year rotation. However, no seaweed had been applied and serious overgrazing in the fallow and winter periods had caused erosion and the degradation of the soil structure – it was little more than pure sand. Restoring the floral diversity and improving the soil structure and ecology would prove to be a more difficult challenge. These fields are now in “intensive care”! They are mown and the hay is bailed and removed in mid September. In terms of hay or silage production this is very late, but we have to be sure all the young corncrakes have left and allow time for natural seed drop. In November we decide whether we will add a very light winter seaweed dressing. The intention is to improve the level of soil organic matter without increasing the fertility. If the winter or spring regrowth is too lush, the cows are introduced to control the level of grass growth.
We are now beginning to see improvements, particularly in the flora on the headland. It is more difficult to assess the effect on the insects, as they are more vulnerable to climatic conditions. However, if we can maintain a rich and diverse habitat we are at least helping to ensure their survival. Four years is a very short time in terms of grassland restoration and it will take much longer to see a real improvement in the machair fields. It is a difficult balancing act trying to restore the soil ecology without the over-enrichment which would enable the grasses to predominate and coarse weeds, such as docks and nettles, to become established. However, on very sand soil with low levels of organic matter and plenty of winter rain this is not too much of a problem as most of the added nutrients are washed away.
Their are times when I feel that land management, particularly of very fragile ecosystems, is more akin to an art than a science. There are plenty of case studies and background ecological theory, but the bottom-line is knowing your land, experiencing the climate, feeling the soil and watching the wildlife. Most of all it is about loving the land and trying to ensure that it is left in better condition than it was found it. After all it is the inheritance of the next generation.
I am extremely privileged to be one of the guardians of this croft and its wildlife but essentially I’m just a gardener caring for a natural garden. Here the natural landscape and combination of plants is far superior to anything I could ever create. So my house has no man-made garden just a seaside meadow, with some strategically placed rocky outcrops and erratics, a trickley burn with irises and a rushy bog where the snipe live. For perfection all it requires is 9 cows and their cows for mowing duties each autumn, and a little help from a man with a tractor.
syllables dancing in the spray
words rolling in grains of sand
antonyms hiding in fronds of kelp
synonyms twisted in shining alginates
will the wind release the rhymes
sonnets to soar above the waves
or leave them tangled in flotsam
poetic debris, drowned doggerel