Early marsh orchid Dactylorhiza incarnata coccinea
Early marsh orchid mature plant
There are times when the small irritations in a gardener’s life can begin get out of perspective e.g. when the rabbits start digging up new plants and eat all the flower buds off the alliums or when you realise that the only way to get the mint out of the herb garden is to dig up the whole bed or that the bittercress is joining the chickweed in the race to swamp the vegetable garden.
Usually five minutes listening to the skylarks with a cup of tea is enough to raise the spirits and restore the equilibrium. But sometimes even this incantation fails and something special is required. Yesterday, with rain threatening, the grass to cut in the cottage garden, the fruit cages to weed and the prospect of clearing and replanting part of the giant hedge the under-gardener was a trifle grumpy and there was no tuneless whistle accompanying the squeak of the wheelbarrow. Then when checking to see if the cowslips had dropped their seeds to enable us to cut the grass along the drive, a flash of dark red caught the eye – the tiny flower spike of an early marsh orchid.
Early marsh orchids grow in the grassland on our headland and are relatively common in the islands and I had been hoping that eventually they might appear in the cottage garden. The strip of grassland along the drive has not been sown with grass and is a natural wildflower meadow – full of daisies, bird’s-foot trefoil, self-heal, red bartisa, plantains, clover and other machair flower species. There was always a strong possibility that there would be orchid seed in the soil or that seeds would arrive from one of the nearby populations, but after eight years I was beginning to become less optimistic. It was worth the wait, the grumpiness dissipated, it didn’t rain and my smile was as bright as my canary yellow gardening gloves.
Eventually this tiny plant may become as magnificent as some of its siblings and in time we might have a small sward of orchids spreading up the drive.
Narcissus tete-a-tete with jonquils
I rarely manage to participate in Cathy’s In a Vase on Monday meme, but sometimes I feel sufficiently inspired to make a modest contribution. As you can see I am a founder member of the “plonked naturally in a jam jar” school of flower arranging.
Although my small bunch of “daffs” may not have great artistic merit, apart from their intrinsic beauty, they are filling the house with the most sublime perfume.
Narcissi are the stalwarts of the cottage garden from February to May. Tete-a-tete is always first to flower and was the first bulb to be planted in the cottage garden. It came from my garden in Worcestershire along with the jonquil (alas un-named) which also appears in my vase.
Narcissus tete-a-tete with jonquills
In the orchard and the cottage garden the cyclamineus narcissi, Little Witch, Jack Snipe and Jet Fire, are already fading, but the triandus varieties, Hawera and Thalia are still to flower. There are also other un-named daffodils which flower year after year in the cottage garden which delight the eye and perfume the air regardless of their unknown provenance.
More delicate species are cosseted in the alpine house until we have sufficient stock to try them in the garden. N. bulbicodium will be planted out this summer, and if it flowers it will be a delightful addition to the garden. N. assoanus was planted in the garden last year, but it will probably take a little while to establish. This also came from my last garden, but I am not sure whether it will flower this far north. A native of Spain it needs a good summer baking to flower, not a regular feature of Hebridean summers. However, N. canaliculatus is reputedly also difficult to flower, but seems to produce some flowers every year despite the rigors of our climate. Sometimes the plants don’t follow the rules, so it is always worth a try.
Little Witch with Jet Fire in the background
Narcissus February Gold
At last the polytunnel has been repaired and we’re ready to garden again. After being exposed to the elements for two months a major clean-up was required. This mainly involved shovelling up sand and wind-blown debris, fortunately the local starling flock preferred the warmth of my neighbours cow shed as a roost. The accumulation of assorted pots, containers, labels and old bamboo poles was ruthlessly sorted along with the bits and pieces of junk which “might be useful one day” but never are. The polytunnel has not looked so clean and organised for more years than I care to admit to. So with a new propagator, lids for trays and a big envelope of new seeds I am all set to start gardening again.
Unfortunately none of my winter crops survived, apart from a few sad-looking carrots and some parsley. So this year the “hungry gap” is going to be longer and leaner than usual. My first sowings of mizuna, radish, winter salad leaves and winter purslane have germinated but it will be a while before I can even think about feasting on micro-leaves, nevermind a green salad. It will be even longer before the baby spinach is ready and not much hope of some beetroot or fennel until June. However, anticipation is everything and I promise not to complain about a glut of anything due to my over enthusiastic sowing of everything at once.
Most of my over-wintering herbs were only fit for the compost, and the surviving six very small sage plants and a rosemary are not going to have much impact in the herb garden. So my plans for introducing some discipline and order into the cottage herbery are in abeyance. Once again it will be a riotous assembly of chives, fennel, mint and buckler-leaved sorrel with self-sown Calendula, nasturtiums, and borage fighting it out with the fennel and carraway. Perhaps a beautifully arranged physic garden would not be quite right for the cottage garden where the main design feature is plant anarchy.The herbaceous plants and bulbs were nearly all rescued, and whilst some look a little the worse for wear, after a period of intensive care they will eventually be moved into the borders or containers. The Agapanthus look a little sulky, but the scented-leaved pelargoniums are already producing flower buds and enough shoots to enable me to take cuttings. Alas the salvias joined the herbs in the compost.
There is definitely no procrastination in the garden and all this hyper-activity will doubtless result in the predictable logjam of seedlings waiting to be potted on and young plants needing to be hardened-off. Our ancient cold frames have also been repaired which will provide some additional space, provided of course I don’t buy any more seeds.
January, 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. We 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.Over 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.
The earth spins, the seasons change and each autumn I look at the photographs of the cottage garden and wonder at its metamorphosis and my complete inability to impose any sense of order.
The basic structure of the garden is dictated by the landscape, the climate and my desire not to impede the view from the window seat in the cottage – beloved by the visitors to Croft Garden Cottage. I also have to remember that during the summer months the presence of the gardener must only be seen as a retreating figure when the visitors return after a day exploring the islands’ other delights. The relaxed, informal planting scheme of the garden is tolerant of this minimal intervention and often appears resentful of the intrusion of the gardener. At times it seems that the more I try to take control the more protean the garden becomes.
In June I described the garden as a riotous assembly but the cooling rain of July dampened its ardour and the borders became lush and green. There were the usual exuberant colour contrasts, but I have learnt to love the random invasion of orange from the escholzias and grown tolerant of the army of calandulas which dominate some parts of the garden. However, I feared my delight in the oriental poppies was probably to become an indulgence I might regret later.
Escholzia and Geraniums
Escholzia and Salvias
Each year I nibble away a little more grass as the borders continue to overflow and I introduce a few new plants. This year the outstanding success was the Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum × superbum), grown from seed last summer, over wintered in the polytunnel and planted out in May. A stalwart of many Hebridean gardens (of any description) it took me a long time to get round to growing it. The brilliant white daisies seem to add the perfect counterpoint to the anarchy in the rest of the garden.
In August the borders often have a soft, gentle, rather over-blown, fin de siècle feeling, but this year the mix of aestheticism and decadence was in danger of being overtaken by a rambunctious, marauding mob intent on spreading anarchy even to the most sedate parts of the garden. Spires of Verbascum competed with the seed heads of the self-sown poppies and did battle against the borage. The aquilegias are obviously setting a bad example as the even the astrantias became profligate and sought to usurp the geraniums. Orange horned poppies (Glaucium flavum var. aurantiacum) migrated through the borders but met their match with the corn marigolds. The salvias sulked and refused to flower again as the scabious grew tall and flirted with all and sundry.
Scabious and Wild Majoram
Orange Horned Poppy
Next year, will be different, but only in that some of the plants which self-seed will move to new locations, I will transplant some and others will just appear elsewhere or perhaps not at all. Some of the new plants which were introduced to the borders this summer will either die or survive the winter and prove their worth. I may tinker with the details or even introduce major changes, but the ethos will always be more “art for art’s sake” than the formal impressionism of Miss Jekyll or an homage to Piet Oudolf. Plus ça change!