January means January?

january-grey-skiesAs January draws to a close we’re still wrapped in a cocoon of grey spun from wet silvery threads of salty cloud whipped up from a plumbean sea by the breath of Zephyrus. The rain slowly dissolves the coating of salt from the windows to reveal a monochrome landscape highlighted only by a pale yellow wash of grass sloping down to the grey rocks. A bad case of  sequential North Atlantic depressions.
On the western horizon there is an ellipse of clear blue sky, edged with brilliant white cloud. Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero! Will there be time to pull on the wellies and the waterproofs and rush down to the vegetable garden to check on the bulbs? No time to finish the coffee, listen to the end of the symphony, there is another band of rain approaching from the south!january-skies
As a pale winter sun appears the winter colours begin to glow. The tide wrack is a glistening amber line snaking along the rocks like a discarded boa from a midnight tryst and the siren sush of the waves beckons me to the beach to search for natural curios. However, my inner gardener urges me on across the field, there should be just enough time to see if the snowdrops survived the last gale and discover whether there are enough primroses for a tussie-mussie (a nosegay –tuse meaning knot of flowers and mose referring to the damp moss that was wrapped around the stems to prevent the flowers from drying out). primroses snowdrops
Alas the primroses are a little wet and weather worn, but given a dry, calm day or so they will fill the sheltered corners of the garden with a promise of spring. As the days begin to lengthen the garden is starting to come to life – the first frilly roundels of aquilegia leaves, the soft bronze fronds of the fennel, spiky tufts of chives and soft green arrows of the buckler-leaf sorrel signal that the winter darkness is coming to an end.



Foraging on the beach

log on beachIn January the Hebrides can live up to their reputation of being cold, wet and very windy, so before cabin-fever sets in, as soon as the rain stops and the wind strength drops to blustery, it’s time to get out for a walk.  Actually it’s more like a waddle with a full set of thermals, the thickest jumper I can find, a full set of waterproofs, wellies, etc., a rucksack and pocket stuffed with collecting apparatus, an elegant stride is not really possible.
After a storm you never quite know what is going to appear, it could be anything from a beached leviathan or more likely a seal (hopefully not to smelly) and tons of seaweed to something as mundane as a fish box or as romantic as a message in a bottle. On our beach what we really hope to find is driftwood. I’m not too fussy about size, anything from odds and ends for kindling to full size tree trunks for logs.  Himself gets really excited about the pieces which are too big to be moved, as this means getting the chainsaw and various accoutrements (splitting wedges, sledge and lump hammers) down to the beach. I have no ambition to become an apprentice lumberjack so I’m quite happy to be the sherpa and carry the logs from the beach to the car.
The wood is mainly pine, but sometimes it can be rather more exotic – eucalyptus or redwood. If it has been in the water for a considerable amount of time it has gained its own flora and fauna, so before it is turned into firewood, scientific curiosity has to be satisfied and any interesting bits and pieces carefully removed for later examination. Goose barnacle on a logMost of the time the attached fauna are goose barnacles and whether fresh or slightly decaying they are incredibly difficult to scrape off, highly gelatinous, slimy and very smelly. Carrying logs with bits of barnacle adhering is not at all pleasant and the wood is stored outside the shed for as long as possible.logging on the beach
Splitting the logs can also reveal some equally slimy and smelly inhabitants. These are usually big-ear shipworms (Psiloteredo megotara), except that they are not worms but marine bivalve molluscs (like the inappropriately named goose barnacles). The shell is very reduced and used to bore through the wood, so all you see is the muscular tube-like body, or more often just the burrow in the wood.

Big-ear shipworm Psiloteredo megotara

Big-ear shipworm Psiloteredo megotara

They enter the wood as very small larvae, so from the outside all you see is a very small hole, but internally the burrow can be  up to 20cm long and 10-12mm in diameter. This particular species is found in driftwood and is related to the notorious naval shipworm which bored its way, often with disastrous results, through wooden ships and the Dutch sea defences in the 16th century.

Pine log with ship worm holes

Pine log with ship worm holes

There are, are of course, some more interesting edible species to find on the beach, but in winter, unless you’re partial to whelks, winkles or limpets, it is a case of being grateful for some firewood and assorted natural history curiosities.


Driftwood riddles with shipworm holes – garden sculpture not firewood

A sunflower with an image problem

Jerusalem artichoke

Ferdinand Vietz, Icones Plantarum 1800-1822

When is an artichoke not an artichoke?
When it’s a sunflower!
Unfortunately a totally inappropriate vernacular is the least of the problems of the Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus).
It  has a reputation as a garden thug and according to the gardener John Goodyer, the 17th century gardener and botanist,  quoted  in Gerard’s Herbal “Jerusalem artichokes: which way soever they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause a filthy loathsome stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented, and are a meat more fit for swine than men.”
So we have a plant that is not an artichoke and not from the Middle East but a sunflower from North America with a bad reputation. The misnomer has two apparent sources, a corruption of the European name (girasole) and an assertion from the French explorer, who sent the first samples to France, that its taste was similar to an artichoke. Unfortunately its thuggish reputation is well deserved, as once you decide to grow it, it can be difficult to remove. Even if every small tuber is removed, any remaining tuberous nodules or section of  rhizome will produce a nice crop of small shoots the following spring. If you quarantine the bed and keep digging it will eventually disappear but perhaps not before, in despair and desperation, you’ve reached for the glyphosate .
On the positive side, it is easy to grow, disease resistant and will continue to crop well provided that you keep the soil fertile. I grow it in a contained bed between the compost and the rhubarb, with a path on one side and the hedge on the other. It is sheltered from the prevailing winds and can’t escape. Each year I retain a handful of the large tubers for replanting in the spring, although there are always some left in the ground to keep the crop going, and dig in some manure and seaweed. I do nothing else until I start to harvest the crop in December. Unfortunately it has never produced any flowers, but that is possibly because I’m so far north.
As for its reputation for causing flatulence, well that results from the activities of the  bacteria which inhabit the human intestines. Jerusalem artichoke tubers store carbohydrate in the form of inulin, rather than starch, which the human digestive system is unable to break down. However, some bacteria can digest it and a diet which contains inulin (also present in other vegetables such as asparagus, leeks, garlic, bananas) is considered by some to help maintain a healthy intestinal biota. The composition of the bacteria found in the human intestinal system varies between individuals and some people are more sensitive than others to the bacterial fermentation of inulin. So some of us can eat Jerusalem artichokes with impunity and others prefer to avoid the discomfort and the risk of embarrassment in polite company. It is probably wise not to over-feed your friendly bacteria with large portions of Jerusalem artichokes, the secret seems to be a little and often.
On the positive side they’re nutritious; rich in iron, potassium and vitamin B1, with a low glycemic index and they aren’t fattening. They have a deliciously nutty, slightly earthy, aromatic flavour and can can be roasted or pan-fried, pureed, baked into a gratin, or used raw (thinly sliced) in a salad. Perhaps the easiest way to start is with a small helping of rich creamy soup. You’ll find a recipe in the Croft Kitchen with some suggestions on how to help ameliorate the side-effects of over active friendly bacteria.


Surving the wulf-monath and the return of Pollyanna and the muse

winter beachJanuary, a time for new beginnings and transition, derives its name Ianuarius from the Latin word for door (ianua) and not necessarily from the Roman god Janus. I also like the alternative Saxon name of Wulf-monath, which conjures a much more northern vision of the cold, hard, first month of the year.
Here on the island January exhibited both these characteristics, as two-faced as Janus himself. It has been cold, dark and stormy, but being housebound provides time for planning and looking forward. This year the planning has involved rather more than a perusal of the seed catalogues. We are coming to the end of our “ten-year plan” and after eight years on the croft the outcome has been very different from our first naive visions.  However, we are more than content with our achievements, but complacency isn’t our style and it is time to look forward.
Last year we didn’t grow any main-crop potatoes, primarily because we have a fungal disease in the soil which makes it a waste of time and we don’t eat enough potatoes to justify the effort of growing them in another part of the croft. So I left a couple of my vegetable beds fallow. drying onionsWe usually have a good crop of onions and shallots, but because our season is so short it is almost impossible to ripen and dry the bulbs; consequently after a couple of months in storage they begin to rot. So it was not a difficult decision to stop growing onions, particularly as I had been looking for a suitable space to grow more herbs and bulbs.
This was start of the realisation that it was time to think about beginning to change my gardening habits as the heavy labour involved in vegetable gardening gets heavier and heavier as the years progress. This is not an easy fact to come to terms with, but on balance it seems to be easier to adapt slowly rather than to have a major change imposed and to be unable to implement an alternative strategy. Fortunately my inner Polyanna came to the rescue and provided visions of exciting new projects and a little retail therapy with the bulb catalogues did the rest.
All was rosy in the garden in November; the winter tasks complete and the mild weather had given the winter crops in the polytunnel a good start. I suppose it was too optimistic to hope that the jet stream wouldn’t meander south and subject us to the usual mid-winter storms. Predictably, just before Christmas, the weather changed and storms Barbara and Conor arrived. The rest is history, by Boxing Day the polytunnel was missing two roof panels and those in the western gable end were starting to tear.storm damageOver the next few days, tools, pots and assorted gardening odds and ends were re-housed, the over-wintering plants were evacuated and placed in intensive care, and the casualties put on the compost or in the recycling bin. The onions, garlic, carrots, coriander and parsley were covered with a double layer of enviromesh, a desperate effort to rescue something, particularly as the spinach, beetroot and winter salads had perished.
My inner Pollyanna was remarkably quiet for a few days – probably skipped off with my muse to the Bahamas, a likely pair of flibbertigibbets!  Fortunately the Head Gardener was around to encourage me to be pragmatic, switch into strategic planning mode, do the risk assessments, analyse the options and see if there was any money left in the piggybank. So after shaking the piggy bank, searching down the back of the sofas and going through all the coat pockets, I’ve scraped together just enough to repair the polytunnel and finance its eventual replacement. So there is a new plan on the drawing board and I’m looking at the future of the vegetable and cottage gardens from a slightly different perspective. Although everything in the garden is not quite as rosy as it was, Pollyanna and the muse are back, I’m perusing the seed catalogues and as soon as it stops blowing, raining and or snowing I’ll be back in the garden.