May can be a bit of a growler, and this year it has been a perfect storm of grumpiness. So far it has been the coldest, windiest and wettest May for a number of years. The weather is so unpredictable that one day it is shirtsleeves, factor 30 and a sun hat and the next it is back to jumpers, fleeces, waterproofs and a wooly hat! Unfortunately sitting by the fire with a cup of tea and a good book is not an option when the weather is foul. The latest round of Common Agricultural Policy reform has spawned another bureaucratic nightmare of form-filling complete with an all singing, all dancing, user-friendly, non-functioning on-line system which has turned even the most mild-mannered crofter, small-holder and small farmer into a snarling beast. This is one of the busiest times of the year in the islands, lambing is in still progress and the ploughing has to be done before the end of the month and we have to waste our time filling in forms which we don’t understand for subsidies which most of us don’t get.
Normally I’d utter some rude words about numpty bureaucrats and politicians in Brussels, Westminster and Edinburgh and go and work in the vegetable garden, but it’s blowing a hooley with squalls of rain and hail, so I’m going to escape to the polytunnel. Want to come? I promise not to growl too much.
We grow a fairly standard mix of vegetables in the polytunnel each year. The year begins with spinach, carrots, beetroot and rocket, progressing to lettuce and salad leaves, fennel, radishes, spring onions and early salad potatoes. By-mid May we are ready to plant the tomatoes, cucumbers, French beans and courgettes. The peppers and strawberries are in pots on the bench jostling with various cuttings, seedlings, tender herbs such as lemon verbena, French tarragon and lemon grass, and pots of scented-leaved geraniums and salvias. We’ve not reached crisis point yet, but unless the weather improves we may have to impose triage and put some of the more robust plants into the tunnel out-riggers for hardening-off. Normally I have sown some of the annuals such as Cosmos and annual scabious, but unless I get a move-on it may be a waste of time. However, there is still time as our long daylight hours partially compensate for our cooler temperatures and the plants can catch-up very quickly.
I have my favourite list of varieties for most of the vegetables, but I can’t resist trying something new. Little gem lettuce always performs well, but this year I’ve tried a red-leaved variety (Dazzle) which is producing beautiful plants.
Each year is different and I am having problems with getting some seeds to germinate. I’m not sure if it is because I’m trying a new supplier or if it is the weather conditions. It is proving very difficult to keep the temperature reasonably constant even with a propagator. When the sun is out the temperature in the tunnel can soar to more than 30°C, even with ventilation, on other days it barely makes 15°C, and at night it can fall to around 5°C. So I’m rushing around trying to keep seed trays and seedlings cool and moist or trying to keep them warm.
Outside the vegetable beds look desolate. The onions, shallots and potatoes are cautiously pushing shoots above ground, the first beetroot seeding have just appeared but may not survive to produce plants and as yet the parsnips and carrots have not germinated. I suspect the soil is too cold and I may have to try again. In a good year I would now be planting the first broadbeans and early peas so I’m having to resort to the alternative option of putting them in the fruit cage. The celeriac has germinated, but the plants are growing so slowly that I doubt I will get a crop this year. This is one of my winter staples, but they need a long growing season, so I am not optimistic.
Fortunately there is less doom and gloom in the fruit cages.
The red currants were pruned to single cordons in the winter and given a mulch of rotted manure and seaweed a few weeks ago. So we have splendidly healthy plants and an abundance of flowers. It has been too chilly for the bumblebees on most days, but the flies do a good job of pollinating the flowers. I know all about counting chickens, but I’m hoping for another good crop this year. Last year we replaced all our black currants with new plants (grown from hardwood cuttings). This year they have produced some flowers, so a modest crop is anticipated.
We were concerned about the two damson trees but they have survived the winter. They were pruned in the early spring and the fan shape is now emerging. Will they flower next year? Possibly, but whether they will ever produce fruit is another matter.
We also have an asparagus bed in this fruit cage and I have been eagerly awaiting the first spears. Most of the crowns have produced nice thick shoots, but I have to control my greed and wait until next year. If it is as good as it looks, then I will be planting a second bed. Asparagus, with quince and figs, is one of the things that I miss most from my last garden.
We have also been looking at the apple trees on a regular basis. They were pruned to produce the first tier while they were still dormant, so we have been waiting to see if they would shoot. They are just coming into leaf now and one tree actually produced some blossom. Did I skip up the path with a silly grin or leap into the air and shout “YES”? Well almost, a few flower buds are a long way from an apple but like the swallows sitting on the fence looking a bit glum, a sign of hope! Fortunately there is always the rhubarb to sustain us and poached rhubarb with ginger has been back on the breakfast menu since Easter.
The sky has turned an interesting colour of indigo and the wind is picking up as another squall approaches. Time to go home for tea. Fancy a cuppa? I think there may be some ginger cake in the tin.
My last post was a gentle introduction to the topic of INNS (invasive non-native species) and the problems which they can have on vulnerable ecosystems. INNS affect us all and in Britain cost in the region of £1.7 billion each year. The impact of INNS on biodiversity, our environment and infrastructure are severe and growing. Once a species has been introduced the problems persist and escalates as it spreads. Control and eradication are often difficult and expensive, but there are steps that we can take to limit their spread.
Fortunately geography is on our side and the islands of the Outer Hebrides have only been affected by a limited number of INNS. Our problems are not as serious as in other parts of Scotland and so far we have not been invaded by giant hogweed although both Himalayan balsam and Japanese knotweed have now arrived. Our major thugs are Rhododendron ponticum and Gunnera and my particular bête noire Crocosmia.
Rhododendrons were originally planted in the last century as cover for game, whilst Gunnera and Crocosmia, along with Cortaderia (pampas grass) are all garden escapes, albeit with a little help over the garden fence in some cases.
Identifying the big thugs is easy, but some like Canadian Waterweed Elodea canadensis and Nuttall’s Waterweed Elodea nuttallii are more insidious and difficult to identify. So before we (the amateur naturalists of Outer Hebrides Biological Recording) could add these species to our monitoring blacklist we had to learn how to identify them. So on with the wellies and into the loch!
So woe betide any fisherman who does not follow the clean and dry code or any gardener or ignores the plant wise advice and brings aquatic INNS into our lochs.
Islands are very special places and whilst their wildlife may not be as diverse as that of the nearest mainland, sometimes it has evolved to have some unique characteristics. Isolation also makes island communities very vulnerable to the arrival or introduction of non-native species, including those which may be native to the mainland. So not only are we fighting to control and eradicate invasive plants like Gunnera and Rhododendron ponticum we also have problems with hedgehogs and feral ferrets. Everyone adores hedgehogs, but since they were introduced here in the 1990s they have spread through the islands and are having a seriously detrimental effect on our populations of breeding waders. It is perhaps not commonly appreciated that hedgehogs are partial to eggs.
The climate in Britain has warmed over the last four decades, and in response to changing environmental conditions, some species have been able to extend their distributions northwards. The extent of distribution changes has varied greatly among species, with some showing rapid expansion and others showing none at all. Many of these changes do not appear to have an adverse effect on the local flora and fauna but there will be cases where the effect can have a significant effect on the local wildlife.
Here, in the Outer Hebrides, perhaps the most noticeable effects have been the appearance of some new species of butterflies, orange-tip, speckled wood and peacock, in recent years.
Deciding whether the arrival of new species of plants is natural or the result of a deliberate or accidental introduction is more difficult. Cowslips, Primula veris, are not native to the islands, but they have been recorded in South Uist on a few occasions in recent years. I grow primroses, Primula vulgaris, in the cottage garden, but they have not spread beyond the garden. It is a native species so I would not be too concerned if it jumped over the garden wall. I have never grown cowslips, so I was rather surprised to find them growing on a grassy area near the fruit cage and in the grass along the drive. These areas were not sown and are just areas of grass which we keep mown. To be honest they are more of a mix of wild flowers (including dandelions, docks and other assorted flora which is usually classified as weeds) and coarse native grasses than a manicured green sward.
So the origins of the new arrivals are obscure – natural colonists or an accidental introduction? Whatever their pedigree they are welcome, but I will be moving them into the cottage garden just incase they have hidden invasive tendencies.