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.


Short back and sides?

Olearia traversii hedge uncut

Olearia traversii hedge before cutting

We’ve added a new task to our list of winter maintenance jobs: cutting the hedge. After the struggle to find an evergreen shrub which would tolerate our sandy soil and windy climate we have finally succeeded in growing a wind break. Unfortunately we have become victims of our own success and have reached the stage where the great hedge has to be trimmed. In fact we probably should have started last year but somehow managed to convince ourselves that when it reached 3m it would stop growing.
So in autumn we had to accept that we had a problem and the Head Gardener began the search for the biggest hedge cutter he could lift.
In other parts of the kingdom the sensible solution would be to find a neighbour with a tractor and flail trimmer – however, because there are no hedges to cut here, there is not a flail cutter to be found on the island. Eventually a suitable machine was located from a supplier, who was prepared to arrange carriage to islands on the edge of darkness, and enough cash was found from the piggy bank, coat pockets, old handbags and other unlikely places to make the purchase and include a new chain for the chainsaw too!


I don’t think I can reach

On a suitably calm day, with the Head Gardener’s face lit by a grin that would not disgrace the Cheshire cat, the cutting of the great hedge began. Reality dawned rapidly – the hedge was too tall and too wide.
The word topiary or the term sculpted pruning or cloud cutting are guaranteed to give the Head Gardener apoplexy accompanied by expressions of derision. So he was not happy when he realised that his vision of a neatly trimmed hedge with parallel sides and a flat top was transformed into something that resembled a storm cloud with a Mohican crest.

As a very experienced apprentice I knew that when the muttering began that it was wise to quietly take myself off to the other end of the garden and start picking up the hedge cuttings. I think the Cheshire came with me.
Once again the olearia hedge has produced a garden dilemma. Do we get out the loppers and reduce the height; do something more brutal and reduced the width or wait for the Head Gardener’s new plan? I suspect the severe gales and storm force winds forecast for next week may concentrate the mind.

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.

The Ambivalent Fundamentalist

Galanathus nivalis Flore Pleno

Galanathus nivalis “Flore Pleno”

Somewhere along the line the botanical purist meets the gardening hedonist and the ambivalent fundamentalist emerges. In the garden there is not too much of a conflict of interest as I am quite content to grow pure species, subspecies, hybrids, geographical  and horticultural varieties, plants of doubtful parentage or even clones. The growing conditions in the cottage garden dictate that I can’t be too fussy, if it survives and does not upset my sensibilities too much, it stays. However, I’m not over fond of doubles and varieties which produce little pollen or nectar for the insects. Otherwise anything goes, even the odd thug is temporarily welcome.
There is, however, a little “pushing and shoving” in the bulb collection. This territorial dispute is not at all lady-like and it would certainly not qualify as intellectual debate. In theory I grow only species and geographical varieties (i.e. a subspecies from a defined geographical area), however, there is a tendency for hybrids and selected forms to seduce me. The gardener covets the pewter leaf forms of Cyclamen coum, the botanist frowns and insists the C. balearicum has very attractive leaves and the dispute flounders completely over Cyclamen graecum ‘”Glyfada” which originated from wild collected material and has pewter type foliage.
The discussion over cyclamen is really just a warm-up round, by the time we get to narcissus, it is probably time to call in the U.N. In the garden it is irrelevant whether it is a jonquil, bulbicodium or a tazetta cultivar, which is fortunate as although the name of the breeder maybe known the botanical parentage is often obscure. So Jack Snipe is allowed to mingle with Minnow, Hawera, Little Witch and N. caniculatus to create a range of forms and to extend the flowering period. The situation among the smaller species grown in pots is more fraught, as it can be difficult to decide whether a named form is a selected variety or a geographical variant. Although, in theory, a selected variety will not “come true” from seed. In the spirit of harmony, the gardener has agreed that, as space is limited, her alter ego is allowed a small triumph. Moreover the occasional  “straying from the paths of righteousness” is only greeted with a wry smile, particularly when it come to reticulate iris.
So treading with great delicacy, I arrive at the snowdrops and here the fundamentalist is transcendent. The genus Galanthus comprises some 20 to 30 species and that is enough for me. I confess that I grew a number of the cultivars in my last garden and they gave me enormous pleasure. However, I now struggle to grow them in the garden and the prospect of growing even a few of the 2000 named varieties in pots induces a yawn. A reformed galanthophile? Well I confess, I grow G. nivalis “Flore Pleno for sentimental reasons!
Sagely the Head Gardener does not get involved in this cerebral trivia and grows what he fancies!

With a nod to Mohsin Hamid for inspiration.

Right plant in the right place


From small beginnings – Olearia traversii cuttings

Anyone who gardens on the coast or on a wind swept hillside will understand the shelter belt catch-22 – how can I establish a shelter belt when the plants need a shelter belt to get established?  The obvious answer is to protect the plants with a physical wind break, which is feasible if the prevailing wind is from one direction but more of a problem when your position is so exposed that the wind comes from all points and can be in excess of 70mph at times. The problem is compounded on coastal sites where plants have to be able to withstand salt laden air and light sandy soil usually with a high pH.
This was the subject of one of my first posts and it has taken us 5 years to solve this particular garden dilemma –  what to plant and how to get it to survive. It has been largely trial and error, hard work, a little application of science but hardly Vorsprung durch Technik, and some damage to the bank balance.
The key element was the discover that Olearia traversii, the Chatham Island akeake  or  tree daisy, would tolerate our climate and soil conditions. Chatham Islands is an archipelago in the Pacific about 680 kilometers southeast of New Zealand. The climate is cold, wet and windy with average high temperatures between 5°C (41°F) and 10°C (50°F) in July, the southern hemisphere winter, very similar to the Outer Hebrides. It tolerates the wind and the salt and seems to thrive in our poor sandy soil, growing over 30cm (12 inches) a year.
As the soil is very light, we have discovered that planting at high density provides adjacent plants with support and helps prevent the plants from being torn out of the ground. However, even if the plants start to rock or develop a list to starboard, provided that the ground around the base of the trunk is heeled in, or in severe cases eroded soil is replaced, the plants will continue to grow.

This winter we have also increased the width the of the shelter belt beds. Ultimately the increased depth of the planting should increase the effectiveness of wind filtering and even if the outer plants are damaged the core of the “hedge” will be protected. The original plants are now over 1.5m (5 feet) tall and in theory could reach 3m or more, but I suspect that wind pruning will limit their height.
Oleariia traversii is attractive shrub, even though the flowers are insignificant and it bears no fruit. The leaves are a rich glossy green with a silvery underside so when the wind ripples the foliage the whole hedge shimmers and shimmys like a green and silver ribbon. It is also a wonderful refuge for the garden life – ever seen a flock of 60 House Sparrows disappear in a twinkling!