Artichokes to Zucchini

parsnips, carrots

Parsnips and carrots before and after the storm.

It is interesting that so many of us have rituals which precede the starting of a job and I find it difficult to start a post unless I have a title. This one was almost entitled ” Stable, Horse, Bolted” but on reflection I decided that it was probably too confusing for the Google algorithms!
It could be said that artichokes (Jerusalem) and zucchini (courgettes) are the alpha and omega of the vegetable garden with beetroot, broad beans, broccoli, cabbage, celeriac, carrots, fennel, onions, parsnips, peas and shallots providing the substantial middle. The success of each crop is totally weather dependant, but even in really abysmal summers I can just about manage to produce something.
Last summer so was cold and wet that even the most hardy and reliable crops failed, so I began this year with the optimistic hope that it couldn’t get any worse. The summer began well, blue skies, sunshine, very little wind and no rain. The soil was warm and still moist from the winter rains, so the seeds germinated and I was so confident that I even planted a courgette and butternut squash outside. May moved into June and the sun shone and there was no rain. My seedlings began to look a little crispy and although I watered twice a day, it was like pouring buckets on water into the moat of a sandcastle.
Fortunately help was at hand, Scottish Water declared that South Uist was about to run out of water and while a hosepipe ban was not imposed we were told to be frugal with our water while they shipped in transporter loads of blue pipe to pump water from Benbecula. This left me a little confused as Benbecula is a small island just to the north and has the same climate. Had they borrowed our water and not given it back? While I was puzzling over this conundrum, the announcement by Scottish Water, even though they had not used the D(rought) word, had done the trick, it started to rain and for good measure when it wasn’t raining we had mist!
A rainy July merged into a wet and windy August and on several occasions I was “caught napping” when the strength of the wind was more than forecast and I’d not protected some of the young plants with mesh! So a premature end to my experiment with growing spinach outside and the finale of the Florence fennel!  A summer storm can also reduced an established crop to a mess of burnt and crushed foliage, but given time most seem to recover.
As usual there were successes and failures, surprises and disappointments. The root crops, carrots, parsnips and celeriac have all grown well despite regular battering from the wind. The crop of onions and shallots was respectable, although they would have benefitted from some more sunshine. I’m still having problems with the beetroot, in my very light soil the plants are lifted from the soil by the wind, even when protected by enviromesh; provided of course, I remember to cover the plants! Perhaps I should try one of the cylindrical varieties?
The standard peas cropped well, but the very dwarf variety I tried was just too short and fed the slugs rather than us. So it’s back to a scaffolding of bamboo sticks and twine – how I miss a supply of “pea sticks”. For the first time the broad bean crop failed! After two wet winters wrapped around a cold wet summer the populations of bumblebees are in trouble, as indeed are many of the other insects. Bumblebees were scarce for most of the summer and so my lovely broad bean flowers remained unpollinated.  To compound my woes we had an invasion of diamond-backed moths which devoured the rocket and made growing brassicas a waste of time!


Once again we had a bumper crop of currants, enough rhubarb to fill the freezer, the usual glut of courgettes to turn into cakes and enough tomatoes to gorge on for lunch every day and to make sauces for the winter. I’m even optimistic about the state of the peppers which are beginning to look more red than green.
We’re currently enjoying the equinoctial gales so work in the vegetable garden awaits some calmer drier days. It is time to take stock, make plans for next year and sort out the polytunnel for the winter regime.

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Going nuts in May

Apple Blossom

Apple Blossom

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.

Vegetables in the polytunnel

Vegetables in the polytunnel 13 May 2015

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.

Little Gem Dazzle

Little Gem Dazzle

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.