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.


A sunflower with an image problem

Jerusalem artichoke

Ferdinand Vietz, Icones Plantarum 1800-1822

When is an artichoke not an artichoke?
When it’s a sunflower!
Unfortunately a totally inappropriate vernacular is the least of the problems of the Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus).
It  has a reputation as a garden thug and according to the gardener John Goodyer, the 17th century gardener and botanist,  quoted  in Gerard’s Herbal “Jerusalem artichokes: which way soever they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause a filthy loathsome stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented, and are a meat more fit for swine than men.”
So we have a plant that is not an artichoke and not from the Middle East but a sunflower from North America with a bad reputation. The misnomer has two apparent sources, a corruption of the European name (girasole) and an assertion from the French explorer, who sent the first samples to France, that its taste was similar to an artichoke. Unfortunately its thuggish reputation is well deserved, as once you decide to grow it, it can be difficult to remove. Even if every small tuber is removed, any remaining tuberous nodules or section of  rhizome will produce a nice crop of small shoots the following spring. If you quarantine the bed and keep digging it will eventually disappear but perhaps not before, in despair and desperation, you’ve reached for the glyphosate .
On the positive side, it is easy to grow, disease resistant and will continue to crop well provided that you keep the soil fertile. I grow it in a contained bed between the compost and the rhubarb, with a path on one side and the hedge on the other. It is sheltered from the prevailing winds and can’t escape. Each year I retain a handful of the large tubers for replanting in the spring, although there are always some left in the ground to keep the crop going, and dig in some manure and seaweed. I do nothing else until I start to harvest the crop in December. Unfortunately it has never produced any flowers, but that is possibly because I’m so far north.
As for its reputation for causing flatulence, well that results from the activities of the  bacteria which inhabit the human intestines. Jerusalem artichoke tubers store carbohydrate in the form of inulin, rather than starch, which the human digestive system is unable to break down. However, some bacteria can digest it and a diet which contains inulin (also present in other vegetables such as asparagus, leeks, garlic, bananas) is considered by some to help maintain a healthy intestinal biota. The composition of the bacteria found in the human intestinal system varies between individuals and some people are more sensitive than others to the bacterial fermentation of inulin. So some of us can eat Jerusalem artichokes with impunity and others prefer to avoid the discomfort and the risk of embarrassment in polite company. It is probably wise not to over-feed your friendly bacteria with large portions of Jerusalem artichokes, the secret seems to be a little and often.
On the positive side they’re nutritious; rich in iron, potassium and vitamin B1, with a low glycemic index and they aren’t fattening. They have a deliciously nutty, slightly earthy, aromatic flavour and can can be roasted or pan-fried, pureed, baked into a gratin, or used raw (thinly sliced) in a salad. Perhaps the easiest way to start is with a small helping of rich creamy soup. You’ll find a recipe in the Croft Kitchen with some suggestions on how to help ameliorate the side-effects of over active friendly bacteria.


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.

Scarlet Ladies

painted-ladiesEach year I try to grow something different and as I’d been given a packet of runner bean seeds the subject of my experiment was self selected. A few years ago I’d tried growing them in the polytunnel – beautiful plants and a mass of flowers, alas no beans.
Fortuitously there was room in the fruit cage and although I was probably a little late in planting and I’d not prepared a well-manured bean trench in advance, the results were surprisingly good.
As my broad bean flowers had not been pollinated I was not too confident that we would actually get any beans, but we did get a small crop. I was also surprised how well the plants stood up to the windy weather – they’re still flowering and producing a few beans!
So I am encouraged to try again next year, although I might look for a dwarf variety or perhaps try some climbing French or even borlotti beans. Runner beans were originally grown for their flowers and that is probably a good enough reason to continue to grow a few plants each year.


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.