Slip slidin’ away

coastal erosionSeveral times this winter high tides have coincided with storm force winds and re-arranged the topography of the beach and shingle coves at Ardivachar. Nothing too serious and although it has happened more frequently than hitherto, the coastal erosion has been minor. So although the Spring equinox gales are still on the horizon, I was beginning to think that the worst was over.
Since December we have had 472mm of rain, and although there is standing water in most of the machair fields we have had no serious flooding. On the sandy west coast the water just slowly percolates away, but this winter we have had so much rain that the fields have become waterlogged.
The torrential rain over the last few days and the subsequent run-off was responsible for this landslip on the edge of one of my fields yesterday. This area is quite fragile and we’ve been working hard to stabilise the bank for the last 3 years. So its back to square one. Fortunately there are probably more JCBs, tractors and trailers per capita on this island than anywhere else in the UK, so with a little help we should be able to at least bridge the gap.
Apart from this little civil engineering problem, it was a lovely sunny morning and we were serenaded by a skylark as we inspected the damage.

coastal erosion 2

It didn’t look much better from the other side of the fence!

P.S. This area is not near the cottage or the house.


A Slow Start

Bulbs on the bench
Bulbs on the bench

I fear that whatever I write about the garden and the weather I will end up either a Jeremiah, Job’s comforter or even worse a Polly Anna. So we will summarise the current state of the vegetable and cottage gardens as wet, sodden, saturated and waterlogged, which is quite remarkable as I garden on almost pure sand, and move on.
This winter the weather has been so bad that we’ve had to move the bulbs into the main part of the polytunnel. The low light levels and lack of ventilation are not ideal for the bulbs, but we should get a few more flowers as we move into March.
Nothing much happens in the garden during January and February, primarily because the light levels are so low. We now get 2 hours 20 minutes per day more daylight than a month ago, but under leaden skies, it is still very dreary. It will be another week before we reach the magic 10 hours of daylight and then it is time to start seed sowing. I now know that if I sow too early, the seedling become very etiolated and never really recover. However, if I wait until the end of February by the time the seedlings get going there is normally sufficient light to initiate healthy growth. There are exceptions of course, some seeds need a cold period to germinate, and these are sown during the winter and kept outside in the fruit cage – exposed to the weather but sheltered from the wind. Most will germinate in April, but others will hang around for a year or so.
The early potatoes were planted in the polytunnel last week and I have also sown a row of carrots and spinach. As part of the “fighting the hungry gap” strategy I have sown fennel, beetroot, Chinese cabbage and winter lettuce in modules. These are given a boost of a little heat to get things moving and will be grown on before planting in the main ploytunnel bed. A little later I will direct sow mizuna and salad leaves as the soil becomes a little warmer and there is more light. Next comes the celeriac, which can be slow to germinate (bottom heat helps) and needs a long growing period to get a good crop. It will be grown on in pots and planted out in April, or if it is as cold as last year in May.
At the beginning of March we will be getting 12 hours or more of daylight and then it is time to get busy with the peppers and tomatoes. Thereafter it becomes the regular logistic nightmare of trying to sort of priorities for the propagators and room on the benches for the seedlings before they’re ready for planting or hardening off. My careful schedules are always cast into chaos by the weather, it will either be too hot or too cold, too dry or too windy, but at least I will be busy gardening!


We have both a commercial and home-made propagator. The latter is a soil warming cable in a box of sand with a polythene cover which can be closed to maintain humidity and heat as required.

The vegetable and herbs seeds always have priority, feed the body first and the rest will look after itself. This year I am trying a new approach in the cottage garden, using direct sown annuals between the herbaceous perennials to fill the gaps which appear when the bulb foliage dies down. This is a risky strategy as they will either not germinate, get swamped by weeds, turn up their toes when their roots encounter my sandy soil, become a slug salad, get blown over or rot in the wet. As I can’t nip down to the garden centre to buy replacements, I  plan to grow some additional plants in modules and have some extra packets of Eschscholzia and Calendula for emergencies. As I write I am beginning to see the weakness of my cunning plan, but it is too late as a lorry load of seed has been ordered!
Sowing the first seeds of the year is one of my great pleasures and the child-like delight of seeing the first leaves appear never fails. I might be au fait with the science, but it does not diminish the simple pleasure of watching seeds germinate. So tomorrow I will put on my survival suit, wellies, Mae West and sou’wester, and splash  and squelch down to the polytunnel to see if anything has germinated.

The Garden as Art

Levens Hall

Levens Hall. © David Wright. Photograph: Bradford University.

My efforts in the cottage garden yesterday could hardly be described as artistic endeavour, but the mundane task of chopping bits of weedy grass from the border edges was sufficiently menial to give me time to muse over the recent post by Chloris on Is the Garden an Art Form?
It is too easy to be predictable and trite with the “well that is a matter of opinion” riposte, or be pompous and classify gardening as artisanal craft. However, I think the question, hoary old chestnut that it is, is still worthy of consideration.
The problem of how to define art has been debated by philosophers, art critics and art historians for what seems to be millennia without anyone managing to agree on a working hypothesis never mind a definition. For example Morris Weitz (The Role of Theory in Aesthetics 1956 ) proposed that “it is a logical impossibility to establish a set of necessary and sufficient conditions that define art”. He argues that previous theories are unsustainable because they do not cover the range of things that we would like to classify as works of art and do not include the concept of art. So according to Weitz a work of art is the product of “unbound, adventurous creativity”. This probably brings us back to the elegant definition proposed by John Ruskin “Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together.”
Any debate on the subject would not be complete without a waspish quote from Sir Roy Strong  “Of course gardens can be works of art. They may be vulnerable and they can be transient, but definitely art. Not all gardens – but then not all paintings are works of art”.
For many gardening is an immensely creativity activity, it can be experimental and intellectually adventurous, but this does not necessarily produce a work of art, despite the artistic impulse that may have inspired the gardener. The process may have intellectual, spiritual and artistic elements, but it is essentially about the doing. We may aim to produce something that is aesthetically pleasing, but I doubt if most gardeners have the intention of creating a work of art, nor is it their raison d’être.
If the cognoscenti chose to declare a garden a “Work of Art”, then of course it (and they) should be open to criticism. Indeed anyone who invites the general public into their garden, whether for profit, pleasure or altruism, should be prepared to have their work assessed. From there it is but a short step to include anyone who writes about or publishes photographs of their garden in this category. Not that I am advocating that we should necessarily move from our gentle and encouraging appreciation of the work of our fellows into strident and deconstructive analysis. Gardening is a very personal activity and each garden is as individual as its creator, so gardeners are naturally very chary about criticising the efforts of their fellows. However, criticism can be constructive and maybe we would all benefit from an honest assessment from time to time. After all criticism is usually just a matter of opinion and can be ignored with a suitable superior air of disdain should we choose to do so.
I would like to see a slightly more cutting edge to garden reviews, at times they border on the obsequious and verge on the sycophantic. Let us call a spade a spade and start to see gardens without the rose-coloured spectacles. When it comes to looking at gardens there are times when we need to use our minds as well as our senses. A great garden combines many elements, it may not be a “Work of Art” but it will contain design characteristics which are intellectually stimulating and visually satisfying. So for those correspondents who wish to express an opinion on the merit of a garden, in whatever media, let us see a little more intellectual rigor and the courage to divest of the emperor of his new clothes.

Hold the Front Page

Theresa Bonney

Theresa Bonney, photojournalist, 1942

WP gave my muse a bit of a nudge today with a reminder that I’ve now been blogging for 2 years!  At this juncture, with a world-weary sigh and a Gallic shrug of the shoulders, my muse departed muttering something about a world cruise.
So on a wet Monday afternoon I’m muse-less and have a deadline to meet for my contribution to the community newspaper. This is tea and cake country and hardly requires the grit of a Martha Gellhorn. I’m not sure a trench coat, typewriter and a quart of the hard stuff would solve my problem, but if I get desperate….
As usual my head is buzzing with ideas, a veritable hive of inspired nonsense. Unfortunately the problem seems to be finding the impetus to get the words into some sort of semblance of order. It is too easy to get distracted, to procrastinate until the deadline concentrates the mind.
When I’m dithering and cursing my fickle muse, I should really look to the women journalists, who worked and lived on the edge, for inspiration and just get on with it. Writing for Am Pàipear is not going to win me a Pulitzer nor change the world. Nor for that matter is my eccentric blog, which brings me to the point of this periphrastic post. To my regular readers, those who drop-in from time to time, the intrepid and experimental cooks who are brave enough to try my recipes and especially everyone who joins in the craic, thank you, I have enjoyed your company.
There will be more once I’ve hunted down my errant muse. Now where did I put that eye-shade……….