From Dawn to Dusk

November dawn

The rosy glow of a November dawn

With less than a month to go to the winter solstice, the days are very short and the list of wintering gardening chores grows ever longer. October and November have been predictably wet and windy, but we have had some glorious sunny days perfect for some of the heavier winter jobs in the vegetable garden.
The roots crops: carrots, celeriac, parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes; the brassicas: Savoy and red cabbages, cavolo nero, broccoli and winter cauliflowers; and the leeks remain in the ground and are harvested as required. As each bed is cleared it is weeded and given a top-dressing of manure and seaweed which will have rotted down by the time we are ready to start growing again in April and May. After the recent heavy deluges the muck/seaweed heap has the consistency of wet porridge and manuring the vegetable beds is heavy work.
After the October gales the beaches are strewn with great rotting piles of seaweed which team with turnstones, purple sandpipers, gulls and starlings gorging on the invertebrate life.  However, when we get a calm sunny spell, there a strong marine miasma and the warmth often triggers a mass hatching of seaweed flies. This induces a frenzy of fly-catching amongst our local starling flock and grumpy gardeners. These little black flies are harmless but irritating en mass!
In the polytunnel and around the compost bins we are waging an unusually prolonged rodent war. This year seems to be particularly bad for rats and our traps are working over-time. It is not a pleasant task, but gnawing rodents do enormous damage and have to be kept out of the polytunnel. The mild winters must have caused a population explosion as I would have expected that the local gang of feral cats, a couple of buzzards, a hen harrier, a kestrel, a peregrine falcon, a pair of merlins and a white-tailed sea-eagle to be as effective as any pied piper!
All is quiet inside the polytunnel, the over wintering plants slumber on waiting for the light levels to rise before they come back into active growth. The rocket and the beetroot produce enough leaves for the occasional winter salad and if I’m desperate I can also raid the baby spinach. I have just planted the garlic and in fit of optimism decided to sow a row of carrots and chervil. The soil is warm enough for the seeds to germinate, at first the growth will be slow but I can be patient. The polytunnel is a sedate haven in the winter, a place to potter about on a grey winter afternoon, deadheading the scented geraniums, checking on the pots of herbs and cuttings until it begins to go dark and it is time for tea.
To the casual onlooker the cottage garden appears neglected and desolate. I have removed the dead foliage from the annuals but left the old flower stems on the perennials. These provide winter homes for a host of invertebrates, seeds for the birds and also help protect the dormant crowns from damage by the winter gales. Unfortunately these tangled stems rarely get transformed by a glitter of frost but for the wrens and winter thrushes they form safe refuges, places to forage away from the beady eyes and sharp talons of the avian predators which patrol the coast.
The cottage garden is another of my winter sanctuaries where sunny afternoons can be frittered away weeding, planning changes and deciding which plants will be split, moved or end their days on the compost heap. There are still one or two sedums in flower and the odd clump of marigolds provide a discordant flash of bedraggled orange, a token of defiance and resistance against the darkening winter days. The garden feigns sleep but close inspection reveals the first green shoots of the jonquils, some fresh green leaves on the eryngiums and heucheras, and pots of snowdrops full of tiny green spears. Sitting on the bench absorbing a little winter sunlight, soothed by the shush of the waves, is a therapeutic treat and a welcome relief from shovelling muck.

November sunset

November sunset

Grey days, red flannel shirts and stripey socks

Ardivachar-beach-winterAccording to the Celtic calendar this is the time of Great Darkness;  the short, cold days of November and December when hunger stalks the land and death awaits. It is not quite that bad on the islands on the edge of the world but there are times when strong magic is needed to award off an attack of the Hebridean Horribles.
The days when the weather gods stir the sea into a foaming cauldron, throw darts of icy rain at the windows or whip the wind round the chimney are full of energy and drama, and will rouse even the most lethargic souls. It is on dreich days when the grey mists of melancholy creep into the crevices of the psyche of the unwary. Waking in the dark, watching the dawn slither in on a monochrome tide, the soul is chilled as the winter sun, obscured by a heavy veil of cloud, is too feeble to warm the land and suffuse the clouds with rose. The air is dank and even the local buzzard looks morose as it sits hunched on a fence post as lugubrious as a brown clad cleric.
stripey-socksOn dark mornings a little thaumaturgy is needed to break the desire to hibernate and incantations may be required to ward off lethargy. The wearing of amulets is obligatory, such as oversize, red flannel shirts or stripey socks, to conjure smiles and fits of giggles to drive away any lingering melancholic humors. In the gloomy twilight hours the baking of oblations will fill the kitchen with the incense of warm spices and the fragrance of molasses sugar, ginger and sun-dried fruits to create an aura of well-being and please the gods. Finally a libation of hippocras or uisge beatha  completes the daily rituals to ward against the pavor nocturnus and summon sweet dreams. However, all will be of no avail if a thimbleful is not left for the aos sí .
Alas there is only one cure for a serious attack of the Hebridean Horribles and that is sunshine. Ardivachar-beach-winter-sunshine

Gardener, Botanist, Citizen Scientist?

Waiting-for-the-ferry

Waiting for the ferry

Most gardeners are good botanists and when interrogated will often reveal a profound knowledge of garden ecology and the wildlife that inhabits their garden and beyond. Many of us take part in all kinds of surveys from garden birds to butterflies and have unbeknowingly been secretly recruited as “citizen scientists”. We have all been citizen scientists long before the PR guru/media nerd, who invented this awful phrase, was let out of kindergarden. Infact amateur naturalists have been pottering way in the countryside since before Gilbert White took holy orders and William Turner became the father of English botany.
It really has taken the men in grey suits rather a long time to realise most of our knowledge on the flora and fauna of the British Isles is based on the work of amateur naturalists. Moreover this army of volunteers can be mobilised to provide a whole host of environmental information for almost nothing. A prospect to make any government accountants heart beat with joy. However, appearances can be deceptive and some of these genteel and mild-mannered amateur ‘ologists, whilst not exactly eco-warriors, can be surprisingly fierce when roused
So as one of the “leaders” of a ragtag gang of assorted ‘ologists (we can only manage a dozen or so on a good day so we don’t count as an army) last week I was on my way to Inverness to “speak truth unto power”. I don’t normally drag my soapbox all the way across Scotland, but sometimes you can’t beat a face to face frank exchange of views and even a little metaphorical table thumping. This was just the opening skirmish, and it will be a hard fought battle, but we are a stubborn and determined bunch and even if we can’t win we will gain major concessions.
So far the only casualty has been my blog which is suffering from neglect and my posts are more erratic than ever. My muse is also grumbling but has been told that she has to exercise her grey matter and put her literary pretensions aside. So my apologies, the periods of AWOL will be more frequent, but I’m still around, reading your posts, visiting your gardens and enjoying your adventures.
If you want to discover more about the “edge of the world ragtag gang” (aka Outer Hebrides Biological Recording) we have a website and a paininthe*book page (I don’t understand social media but apparently we have to have one).