Make Do and Mend

keder green houseAt 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.cottage herberyThe 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.


Tisane for Two

TisaneTisane – an infusion or decoction or herbs, spices or other plant material in hot water.
A tisane conjurers visions of delicacy and elegant refinement and seems a more enchanting invitation than the offer of a cup of herbal tea. It is strange that the interchange of one term for another can create an entirely different impression. Herbal tea still carries a medicinal whiff and a suspicion that it will be a dark green, evil tasting concoction. In contrast a tisane is light, refreshing and if it does not heal the body it will sooth the spirit.
Plants are integral to traditional and alternative medicine and in the modern pharmacopoeia many modern drugs are either derived from plants or synthesised from botanical compounds. So a glass of herbal tea might aid your digestion, help you relax, assuage the fevered brow, or even contain the elixir of eternal youth and if not, it can be enjoyed as a refreshing drink on a hot afternoon, a pleasant end to a good meal or a healthy start to the day.
The best tisanes are made with fresh leaves and water that has almost reached boiling point. The time for the infusion depends on personal taste and the strength of the herb. Delicate herbs like lemon verbena are left for the mere twinkling of an eye, mint and sage for a minute or two and ginger or fennel seeds about 5 minutes. A sliver of lemon or lime, a spoonful of honey can add to the pleasure and remove the lingering medicinal association. If you miss the caffeine kick, try a rosemary infusion to start the day. This is not for the timid and is reputed to be a reliable hangover cure.
On the next sultry afternoon when reduced to somnolence in the garden try a light infusion of sage with a sliver of lime and a tiny teaspoon of honey as an alternative to a cup of Earl Grey. Not as good as Pimms, but scores points with the Health Police!

Cottage Garden Herbs

Herbs for tisanes and borage for Pimms


Falling in love again…

The cottage garden and I have reached the stage in our relationship where the honeymoon is over and reality beckons. All was bliss in April, even if the starlings did peck the heads of all the scillas. May was a little more difficult as the herbaceous plants were slow to get going, the weeds rapidly filled the bare patches and the slugs ate every new shoot before it had a chance to think about producing leaves. The chickweed and the nettles made a bid for world domination and I grew grumpier and grumpier as all my time was spent on my hands and knees weeding. My normal Zen contemplative approach to weeding was replaced by an angry seething of discontent. Penance for being seduced by the pictures in the Sarah Raven catalogue and being deluded into thinking that I could create beautiful herbaceous borders too. Such hubris! Oh the temptation of the glossy photograph! I couldn’t even blame the weather, as the spring and early summer have been wonderful – perfect for growing weeds and feeding slugs!
I was tempted to reach for the “Round-up” and order a ton of grass seed or a lorry load of gravel, but fortunately common sense prevailed and I realised that my garden and I had to have a full and frank discussion of our problems. The garden equivalent of my “marriage guidance counselor” is my camera. It makes me look at the garden and the plants in an entirely different way. The weeds and imperfections are still there, but camera is objective, although with selective angles and close-ups it can be made to lie. This had to be a warts and all study, a forensic analysis resulting in an action plan.long-border-2 I deliberately chose an overcast day so that I would not be fooled by the effect of the sunlight, so the photographs are deliberately dull. Like all gardeners I am hyper-critical and often fail to stand back and take the long view. So for once a little consideration instead of recklessly reaching for the shears and the spade.
The path to the ossuary bed is getting a little overgrown. Dead heading the thrift will help, but it will need some thinning in the autumn. The raised bed is still “under-development” but is now less of a problem child.Ossuary-cornerThe ossuary corner is still a little thin in places but the thuggish Polemonium has been replaced by Verbascum, which is reasonably slug resistant. The leaves of the Hemerocallis remain a sickly yellow, despite regular dosing with high potash food and seaweed, and refuse to flower. I think these will be on the compost in the autumn. However, the real problem is at the far end of the bed which has degenerated into a tangle of rampant chickweed and Alstroemeria. I have a love hate relationship with this species, I love the flowers, but it is a thug and I always let it get out of hand before getting out the fork and the plastic sack. The time has come for its removal and I vow I will never be tempted to grow it again! I know that it is reckless to keep the Alchemilla mollis, but is such a favourite that I can live with its bad habits.

The structure of the herb garden is best described as informal, although it was not  designed to be this relaxed. Predictably the mint has escaped, the comfrey is about to collapse, the buckler leaf sorrel is profligate with its seeds and the chives are looking ragged. So the chives and sorrel will be severely clipped and although it will look dreadful the new growth will soon appear, provided we have some rain soon. As for the comfrey, three plants will have to be removed as they are badly affected with comfrey rust; the fourth has a reprieve as it is a great favourite with the bumblebees. I will probably replace them with either lovage or sweet cicely; I am tempted to try angelica, but this area may be too dry. However, while I’m thinking about it and growing some more plants, the mint and marigolds will doubtless take over the vacant ground – squatters rights!

big herbaceous border in the croft cottage garden

Looking from the herb garden into the big herbaceous border.

Now we move to the herbaceous borders, the large square border which sits over the stub wall from the herb garden and the long border along the wall on the southern edge of the garden, all of which have their problems.
I hate to confess that the big border also has the Alstroemeria blight. This has to be tackled immediately as it is a major source of irritation. I know it will leave an empty patch, but it has to be better than the current mess. There are a couple of very sad and chlorotic escallonias to remove and a barrow full of borage seedlings along with assorted docks, nettles and thistles to eject.
l still have to solve the problem of how to hide the dying foliage of the spring bulbs. Sowing annuals has not worked as the bulb leaves persist until July and autumn arrives in August. I need to think about this some more – any suggestions would be appreciated.

I still have some gardening dilemmas to solve and I’m still short of plants, although I have some ideas for next year. Apart from nasturtiums and escholtzias I think I’ll forget about annuals, our growing season is too short, and stick to perennials. I have to be more disciplined about cutting plants back after flowering, that way I may have a chance of keeping the garden a little more under control.
Finally after all this angst, I remembered that I’d photographed the garden last June and after looking at the garden in 2012 and 2013 I’m beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about. Just a lover’s tiff!

In the land of plenty

Vegetables in polytunnel in May MayAt last salad rationing has come to an end and there are rewards for hard labour. Each spring is different, but by the end of May we have stopped anticipating and started eating! The first new potatoes with fresh mint, slim, sweet carrots with feathery chervil, finger courgettes and baby fennel with a drizzle of fragrant olive oil, ribbons of juicy beetroot, crunchy radish, fresh milky lettuce, peppery rocket and dark green baby spinach. No culinary skills required, no sublime sauces, no exotic ingredients just fresh flavours. No additives, no food miles, no pesticides, no preservatives, no packaging, no flavour enhancers, just green goodness. This is why I grow vegetables.
And for desert…strawberries

June Cottage Garden

What a difference a year makes

Ardivachar Cottage Garden June 2013

Cottage Garden 16 June 2013

 I had planned to write about the cottage garden to accompany the description of the vegetable garden in June when my muse prodded me in the ribs (does anyone else have a grumpy, bossy muse?) and suggested that I might look at the photographs of the garden for May and June last year.

Ardivachar croft garden plan

Ardivachar croft garden plan (not to scale)

To help on the orientation I have added a sketch map of the garden. The areas I normally photograph are the borders beyond and to the left of the large gravel area with the stone boundary wall and the herb garden to the right. The row of sea thrift sits on the edge of the raised bed, although it is spreading rapidly obscuring the path in a cloud of pink cushions. The other areas are still at the problem solving stage, but will be revealed later.
After a slow start the herbaceous borders are now coming to life, the alliums and aquilegas have replaced the spring bulbs and the hardy geraniums are brightening up the raised bed and corner garden by the ossuary (a collection of beach finds, bones, shells, stones, driftwood etc. – my outdoor cabinet of curiosities). There is no grand design just a desire to create a simple garden with drifts of plants just to carry the eye to the sea view beyond. In such a beautiful natural landscape it would be criminal to obscure or compete with the view. I could have just left it and mown the patch of scrubby grass, but it would have been too harsh a contrast against the stone walls and sea of waving grasses and wildflowers in the adjoining fields.
The plant choice is whatever I can get to grow, so the colour mix is perhaps not what I would have chosen – too many pinks, but they mix with the blues of the salvias and geraniums and the purple of the alliums are good contrast. As for the orange of the knifophias and sea poppies and the occasional explosion of cerise from a mutant achillea, their contribution is an unexpected flash of intensity, almost a Christopher Lloyd pastiche perhaps.
The herb garden is still in the experimental stage as I am trying to find a core of plants which will survive the winter. Although the soil is well drained, I think it is the winter wet which does the most damage and the spring gales seem to finish off the rest.  I over-winter a stock of plants in the polytunnel so I can replace the casualties. This helps restore an important component of the garden – not just for the croft kitchen but for the insects, especially the bees.
I am an impatient gardener and get frustrated at my lack of progress with the parts of the garden that are beyond impossible, where, because of the wind, I really struggle to get anything to grow. However I am persevering and learning all the time. I find it difficult to accept that the garden does not really get going until late June and it can look very desolate in early May, despite the best efforts of the spring bulbs. I have also come to accept that the plant casualty list will be high and that even the toughest plants will take at least a two years before they begin to thrive. A year to decide whether they can cope with the soil and the weather, a second year to sulk and beyond that either death or glory. I should not need to remind myself that to create a garden takes a lifetime and that at least 5 years is needed to even begin to understand how a new garden might work. So a look at the photographs from May and June last year was a real kick up the derrière and produced a wry grin.

May 2012 and the start of a garden

May 2012

May and June 2013