The smallest thing

Early Marsh Orchid Dactylorhiza incarnata coccinea

Early marsh orchid Dactylorhiza incarnata coccinea

Dactylorhiza incarnata coccinea

Early marsh orchid mature plant

There are times when the small irritations in a gardener’s life can begin get out of perspective e.g. when the rabbits start digging up new plants and eat all the flower buds off the alliums or when you realise that the only way to get the mint out of the herb garden is to dig up the whole bed or that the bittercress is joining the chickweed in the race to swamp the vegetable garden.
Usually five minutes listening to the skylarks with a cup of tea is enough to raise the spirits and restore the equilibrium. But sometimes even this incantation fails and something special is required. Yesterday, with rain threatening, the grass to cut in the cottage garden, the fruit cages to weed and the prospect of clearing and replanting part of the giant hedge the under-gardener was a trifle grumpy and there was no tuneless whistle accompanying the squeak of the wheelbarrow. Then when checking to see if the cowslips had dropped their seeds to enable us to cut the grass along the drive, a flash of dark red caught the eye – the tiny flower spike of an early marsh orchid.
Early marsh orchids grow in the grassland on our headland and are relatively common in the islands and I had been hoping that eventually they might appear in the cottage garden. The strip of grassland along the drive has not been sown with grass and is a natural wildflower meadow – full of daisies, bird’s-foot trefoil, self-heal, red bartisa, plantains, clover and other machair flower species. There was always a strong possibility that there would be orchid seed in the soil or that seeds would arrive from one of the nearby populations, but after eight years I was beginning to become less optimistic. It was worth the wait, the grumpiness dissipated, it didn’t rain and my smile was as bright as my canary yellow gardening gloves.
Eventually this tiny plant may become as magnificent as some of its siblings and in time we might have a small sward of orchids spreading up the drive.Dactylorhiza incarnata coccina swarda-plants

The Gardens In-between

Towards-the-cottage

The natural garden between the house and Croft Garden Cottage

Sic transit gloria mundi  – Northern summers are short and as August begins there is a whiff of autumn on the horizon. The days are already growing perceptibly shorter, but the glory of the machair flowers still lights up my in-between garden. Between my house, the sea, and Croft Garden Cottage lie over 18 acres of the most perfect wild garden.
The summer home of breeding lapwing, oystercatcher, redshank, snipe, elusive corncrakes, skylarks and pipits; the haunt of hen harriers, peregrine falcons, merlins and buzzards and a resting place for migrating geese and waders. There are butterflies, bumblebees, beetles, assorted bugs, other things with wings, carapaces, shells, some with slimy trails and those which buzz or hum. There are fungi in profusion, hopping frogs and cheeky rabbits; over 80 species of flowers, grasses, rushes and sedges, not counting the mosses and lichens. Rare or common, with or without names, they are all important in nature’s garden. I am not even an apprentice in this garden, I am the custodian and apart from inviting the cows to do a little grass cutting and manuring in the winter, I am required to do nothing but sit and admire.


As the summer progresses, the colours ebb and flow from white to gold, blue to yellow and pink to purple, the mosaic changes with the intensity of the light from morning to evening, day by day, month by month and sometimes moment by moment. It is ruffled by the fingers of the wind, speckled with crystals by the mist, saturated by the rain reflecting the ever-changing moods of a Hebridean summer.
Yet the picture is incomplete, gardens are multi-dimensional and not just a visual landscape. A backing track of humming insects, vibrating butterfly wings, the sush of the waves and the whisper of the wind accompanies the skylarks, drumming snipe, clamouring oystercatchers and the mournful the pee-wit pee-wit of the lapwings. An infusion of honey from lady’s bedstraw and clover mixes with the tang of salty sea air and with a tickle of grasses on bare feet releases the essence of summer.
This is a perfect garden and its transient nature is the quintessential expression of sic transit gloria mundi. For a garden it is and without some gentle intervention the biodiversity would decline as the natural succession of vegetation replace the flowers with a mixture of rushy pasture and tussock grass.

Site-SouthThis was the situation on a piece of ground behind the house, between the solar panels and the shed. The first part of the restoration of this area was described in the Birthday Project post. Over the past two years we have been landscaping the area around the greenhouse and trying to turn it into a garden.
It would be pure hubris and folly to try to re-create or compete with the natural grassland which surrounds the house, so the intention was to compose a variation on the theme. Two years later, the landscaping has been completed and planting has begun in the small garden between the shed and the solar panels.


The beds have been edged with driftwood and beach cobbles and interspersed with broad gravel paths. Each bed is slightly different in its composition, some are lightly enriched with a little garden compost and given a bark mulch, others are almost pure sand with a gravel and pebble mulch. The soil is very well drained which encourages the plants to put down deep roots and as the minimal nutrition produces hardly, slow growing, compact forms, they should be able to withstand the gusty winds in this very exposed site.
Predictably there is no planting scheme or grand design, just a hazy vision and a vague concept. This is the evolutionary school of garden design – all trial and error. I have used plants which have performed well in the cottage garden – kniphofia, tulbaghia, astrantia, aquilegia, galtonia, nepeta, verbascum and scabious, added some herbs – chives, hyssop, thyme, sage and lovage, and some more experimental species such as dwarf iris, thalictrum, penstemon, dactylorhiza orchids, dicentras and pulsatillas.
The garden looks rather formal but as it matures it will assume a more relaxed  Hebridean form.  Seedlings (other than weeds) are already starting to appear in the gravel paths and some plants are becoming very assertive in their demands for space. I am inclined to let the garden settle and allow natural selection edit the original planting before I reach for my trowel. Although I have already decided that the lovage must go and that I need to remove some of the Viola tricolour, which is developing thuggish tendencies.
This garden was created to echo the perfect natural garden which surrounds the house and act as a bridge between the natural landscape and the unnatural intervention of the house and it’s associated structures. Perhaps there is always an element of vanity and ego in seeking to create a garden, but if the bees like it, that is good enough for me.