Falling in love again…

The cottage garden and I have reached the stage in our relationship where the honeymoon is over and reality beckons. All was bliss in April, even if the starlings did peck the heads of all the scillas. May was a little more difficult as the herbaceous plants were slow to get going, the weeds rapidly filled the bare patches and the slugs ate every new shoot before it had a chance to think about producing leaves. The chickweed and the nettles made a bid for world domination and I grew grumpier and grumpier as all my time was spent on my hands and knees weeding. My normal Zen contemplative approach to weeding was replaced by an angry seething of discontent. Penance for being seduced by the pictures in the Sarah Raven catalogue and being deluded into thinking that I could create beautiful herbaceous borders too. Such hubris! Oh the temptation of the glossy photograph! I couldn’t even blame the weather, as the spring and early summer have been wonderful – perfect for growing weeds and feeding slugs!
I was tempted to reach for the “Round-up” and order a ton of grass seed or a lorry load of gravel, but fortunately common sense prevailed and I realised that my garden and I had to have a full and frank discussion of our problems. The garden equivalent of my “marriage guidance counselor” is my camera. It makes me look at the garden and the plants in an entirely different way. The weeds and imperfections are still there, but camera is objective, although with selective angles and close-ups it can be made to lie. This had to be a warts and all study, a forensic analysis resulting in an action plan.long-border-2 I deliberately chose an overcast day so that I would not be fooled by the effect of the sunlight, so the photographs are deliberately dull. Like all gardeners I am hyper-critical and often fail to stand back and take the long view. So for once a little consideration instead of recklessly reaching for the shears and the spade.
raised-bed-path
The path to the ossuary bed is getting a little overgrown. Dead heading the thrift will help, but it will need some thinning in the autumn. The raised bed is still “under-development” but is now less of a problem child.Ossuary-cornerThe ossuary corner is still a little thin in places but the thuggish Polemonium has been replaced by Verbascum, which is reasonably slug resistant. The leaves of the Hemerocallis remain a sickly yellow, despite regular dosing with high potash food and seaweed, and refuse to flower. I think these will be on the compost in the autumn. However, the real problem is at the far end of the bed which has degenerated into a tangle of rampant chickweed and Alstroemeria. I have a love hate relationship with this species, I love the flowers, but it is a thug and I always let it get out of hand before getting out the fork and the plastic sack. The time has come for its removal and I vow I will never be tempted to grow it again! I know that it is reckless to keep the Alchemilla mollis, but is such a favourite that I can live with its bad habits.

The structure of the herb garden is best described as informal, although it was not  designed to be this relaxed. Predictably the mint has escaped, the comfrey is about to collapse, the buckler leaf sorrel is profligate with its seeds and the chives are looking ragged. So the chives and sorrel will be severely clipped and although it will look dreadful the new growth will soon appear, provided we have some rain soon. As for the comfrey, three plants will have to be removed as they are badly affected with comfrey rust; the fourth has a reprieve as it is a great favourite with the bumblebees. I will probably replace them with either lovage or sweet cicely; I am tempted to try angelica, but this area may be too dry. However, while I’m thinking about it and growing some more plants, the mint and marigolds will doubtless take over the vacant ground – squatters rights!

big herbaceous border in the croft cottage garden

Looking from the herb garden into the big herbaceous border.

Now we move to the herbaceous borders, the large square border which sits over the stub wall from the herb garden and the long border along the wall on the southern edge of the garden, all of which have their problems.
I hate to confess that the big border also has the Alstroemeria blight. This has to be tackled immediately as it is a major source of irritation. I know it will leave an empty patch, but it has to be better than the current mess. There are a couple of very sad and chlorotic escallonias to remove and a barrow full of borage seedlings along with assorted docks, nettles and thistles to eject.
l still have to solve the problem of how to hide the dying foliage of the spring bulbs. Sowing annuals has not worked as the bulb leaves persist until July and autumn arrives in August. I need to think about this some more – any suggestions would be appreciated.

I still have some gardening dilemmas to solve and I’m still short of plants, although I have some ideas for next year. Apart from nasturtiums and escholtzias I think I’ll forget about annuals, our growing season is too short, and stick to perennials. I have to be more disciplined about cutting plants back after flowering, that way I may have a chance of keeping the garden a little more under control.
Finally after all this angst, I remembered that I’d photographed the garden last June and after looking at the garden in 2012 and 2013 I’m beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about. Just a lover’s tiff!

The Birthday Project

I don’t think that I was ever really convinced that the orchard would be our last project and nor will regular readers who are now familiar with the Head Gardeners modus operandus. So when the new project was announced at Christmas I didn’t know whether to have hysterics or give him a big hug, particularly as it was called the Birthday Project! All credit is due to Himself for the concept, but I have to confess to sowing the seeds of the idea, but as usual I got rather more than I bargained for.
Although it was my declared intention not to even attempt to create a garden around the new house, how could I compete with nature’s garden? There is an area on the east side of the house which was in need of care and attention. It contains the compounds for the bins, the shed, the washing line, solar panels etc. and therefore cannot be grazed and as the bed rock is near the surface it cannot be mown either. For the past five years it has remained an area of very scrubby, tussocky grass. A gardening dilemma of not insignificant dimensions, but not big enough to defeat the croft gardeners.

This project was going to need rather more than a shovel and a wheel barrow, so it was down to our neighbour to clear the site with his digger, tractor and trailer. Just in case you are wondering all the vegetation and excess sand was used to help fill the giant hole in one of our fields caused by the blow-out. We started this project during one of the wettest winters on record and at times I wondered whether I might end up with a bog garden.

Once the “turf” was removed and it had finally stopped raining we couldn’t resist starting to reveal the rock formations. However, this was put on hold when the builders arrived to lay the foundations and build the base.

The next stage was to fill the raised bed with rocks and sand and I must pay tribute to our friend Mike who devoted most of his holiday to helping the Head Gardener – my contribution was to make cakes! It was really getting exciting now.
In late May the contractors finally arrived and removed stage two from the shed and put it together. A bit like expensive flat-pack furniture!

The Head Gardener completed the fence (wind protection) and all we needed now was the official opening. Now as this was an exceptional present for a landmark birthday we needed someone very special to do the honours. Not just the President of the Scottish Rock Garden Club, but a past President too, who just happen to be our oldest friends! Cutting the ribbon was followed by some ceremonial rock excavating and a splendid dinner.

So a very special thank you to Mike, Ian, Carole and the Head Gardener for creating the perfect Birthday Project. Now let’s garden.

Time for Tea

Tea timeThere is nothing more glorious than June – roses, cricket, lawn tennis, the evening glass of chilled white wine on the terrace……….. You can smell and taste the nostalgia, the idyll only disturbed by the sound of hay fever snuffling and sneezing, and a summer storm! Oh well it must be time for tea.
Assam or Darjeeling? Will you take milk or lemon? Whether you prefer the delicacy and refinement of bone china and the finest single estate leaf tea or something more practical involving a mug and a tea bag; a cup of tea will refresh and console. Cucumber sandwiches may be reserved for only the most superior of establishments, but an afternoon cuppa is not complete without homemade cake or scones and jam.afternoon teaThe Chinese may have been drinking tea since the third millennium BC, but here afternoon tea did not become a fashionable social event until the mid 19th century. Whilst upper and middle class ladies adorned in tea gowns, hat and gloves, developed the rituals of afternoon tea, the working class remained firmly in the pub.
The days of tea parties on the lawn in the perfect English garden are part of the myth perpetuated by television costume dramas. In reality they were enjoyed by a privileged  minority and belonged to a society which was changed forever by the first world war. Afternoon tea is now reserved for high days and holidays, the preserve of genteel tea rooms and posh hotels. It is also part of the ritual of garden visiting as even the smallest “Yellow Book” garden will usually offer tea and cakes and the WI tea tent remains a quintessential part of the village fête.
The world and afternoon tea have changed and many of us now use the tea bag, with or without a tea-pot. Fortunately home baking is enjoying a revival and plain and fancy cakes are one again on the menu. The difference between fine leaf tea and the bag is probably equivalent to the difference between supermarket plonk and a good estate wine. There is room for both, as a fine tea like vintage wine needs time to be appreciated and enjoyed. Whether you drink Iris Orchid Phoenix Oolong, Darjeeling Bannockburn Supreme or supermarket own brand value range, take a little time to enjoy your tea and admire the garden.
So are you a tea bag dipper of leaf tea and strainer imbiber?china tea

The Machair in Flower – May

Meadow-Buttercup

Meadow buttercup, birdsfoot trefoil and ribwort plantain

I know that the machair is about to burst into flower when the grass becomes speckled with the small white flowers of our common daisy (Bellis perennis). As the days pass the grassland slowly turns into a sea of waving golden heads of meadow buttercups (Ranunculus acris). Tall and elegant they sway in the breeze and turn their heads to follow sun. These two plants are characteristic of dry machair plant communities.
Next comes the stylish ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) stately parading amongst the drifts of birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) which form pools of molten gold among the fresh green  grass.
These are not rare plants, and once hay fields across Britain would have been filled with similar flora  delighting the eye and humming with the sound of bees.
In the wetter parts of the machair the flowers of other species appear adding different colour notes to the palette.
Viola rivinianaEach year is different and after a very wet winter and an unusually moist early spring the machair appears to be particularly verdant. Common Dog Violet (Viola riviniana) is not a plant that I normally associate with machair, but this year it clothed some of drier banks, which rise above some of the moister grassland, with swathes of blue.

Birds-Foot-Trefoil

Common dog violet with birdsfoot trefoil

As the month progresses the squat spikes of the first marsh orchids begin to appear.  Short and plump and varying wildly in colour from magenta to salmon pink, the scattered early marsh orchids (Dactylorhiza incarnata) punctuate the flora tapestry.
Early Marsh Orchid Ladys SmockTall willowy spikes of lady’s smock or cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis) with their dainty, tissue paper flowers mark the areas of damp grassland; a warning to step carefully and look for some of the smaller flowers that also like wet feet.
Amongst the rushes and mosses are scattered groups of common butterwort, a plant with carnivorous habits. Its lime green leaves excrete sticky fluids to attract insects and then curl around to digest the trapped victims.

Common Butterwort Pinguicula vulgaris

Common Butterwort Pinguicula vulgaris

As the water begins to seep around your boots as you walk towards the wet margins of the lochs, clumps of marsh marigolds or kingcups (Caltha palustris) sit in the boggy areas or in the bottom of the ditches. An exuberant buttercup creating flashes of yellow against the water’s edge.Kingcups