An impossibly monochrome afternoon, the island is dreich and damp. Chronic procrastination is allegedly symptomatic of creativity, this bagatelle of a post as an excuse for not finishing a very long and tedious report in data mobilisation.
A friend recently sent us a photograph of our croft house (now Croft Garden Cottage) taken in the 1980s. This was the perfect excuse to look for photographs of the cottage taken since we purchased the croft in 2007.
About 15 years ago the original stone blackhouse was renovated – the dorma windows were replaced by modern velux roof lights, the original slates replaced by tiles and the whitewashed stone covered in harling. In 2013 we removed the leaking roof lights, replaced all the windows and door, installed new plumbing and central heating and the old croft house became Croft Garden Cottage. Architectually it has lost some of its rustic charm, but the the location is still as beautiful as ever. I would like to think that the garden also adds a little something, but that is pure vanity.
And the canon – the story of myth and legend, allegedly genuine, but we were just left the concrete plinth!
As 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!
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).
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.
In 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. Most 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.