We departed with snow on the ground and returned to a tropical paradise. Time to hunt for the sun hats, t-shirts and factor 50+. However, the weather was not the only surprise. The rabbits had being doing what rabbits do and there were micro-bunnies nestled in the grass in the orchard. Fortunately they were too small for the pot and were gently deported into the field and given a stern warning about trespassing.
I try to garden in a wildlife friendly manner, but sometimes the other inhabitants of Ardivachar Headland take advantage and squatters’ rights. One of our local pairs of Oystercatchers decided that my new gravel garden was the perfect des res in which to start a family.They are sitting very tight, and we are having to dash out to the greenhouse or compost bin to try to minimise the disturbance. However, the incubators seem unperturbed, they just waddle off quietly and hide behind the fence until we’ve gone. With an incubation period of 24-27 days, the garden is going to get very weedy while we wait for the egg to hatch. Normally 2-3 eggs are laid, so it is either a second attempt or one or more of the eggs was predated while we were away.
The garden was looking very sparse at the end of April, reluctant to spring into life as the strong northerly winds brought cold arctic air and clear skies. However, as soon as the wind direction changed and the north-easterly winds immersed us warm continental air, the herbaceous beds took on a bright green, lush tropical hue. It was the start of the annual chickweed wars and it was growing faster than I could remove it. Underneath this all enveloping green duvet, my plants are struggling for light and air. This happens every year, and despite my best efforts, I never seem to gain a semblance of control. I have tried mulches and various planting strategies, but with no success. It seems that I’m destined to spend most of my summers on my hands and knees weeding and cultivating Hebridean Zen.
Although it has been a cold start to the growing season, in the polytunnel the plants have benefitted from the sunshine and the protection from the chilling winds. We are eating spinach on a daily basis with lettuce, rocket, radishes and beetroot in various combinations for lunch. Can one have too much of a good thing? One of the delights of this time of year are the first green vegetables and I’m watching the strawberries in anticipation. We’ve already sampled the first new potatoes and picked the first peas. Our winter peas have been an outstanding success and I am amazed that they produced a crop at all. For the first time we are able to eat small, sweet home-grown peas before July! Fortunately there are plenty of pods as the temptation to eat them straight from the plant is almost irresistible.
Outside the vegetable garden remains stubbornly empty (apart from the weeds) with just one bed planted with onions and shallots and one with celeriac. The weather is still very unsettled, the temperature oscillating by 10°C or more as the wind direction changes. The soil is just about warm enough for the carrot and parsnip seeds and I hope that by the time the peas and beans are ready to go out that June will be warm with balmy breezes rather than wet and blustery. It can’t be as bad as last year and the omens are good as my tomato plants are all producing flowers. Wishful thinking, no just an optimistic gardener.
We have five species of bumblebees (Bombus) and two species of solitary mining bees (Colletes) in the Outer Hebrides, some of which are rarely found on the mainland; including the lovely Great Yellow Bumblebee (Bombus distinguendus) which I rely on to pollinate my broad beans. In the absence of honey bees, our bumbles, aided and abetted by the hoverflies, other pollinating flies and beetles, are kept busy during the summer.
Crofting is low intensity agriculture which uses no agricultural chemical, only small amounts of artificial fertilisers and a system of growing cereals involving a two year cycle of fallow and cultivation. This system of land management has helped to create the perfect environment for bees and other insects, but we have to be vigilant if we wish to ensure that our precious bees remain safe. It is possible to keep honey bees (Apis mellifera) here but the flowering season is very short and it is difficult to keep the hives going through the long winter period. The absence of commercially introduced bees may also have helped keep our local populations safe. Bumblebees do not carry the varroa mite but they are susceptible to deformed wing virus and a fungal parasite called Nosema ceranae which are carried by honey bees.
Bumblebees are used to pollinate horticultural crops in the UK and it is estimated some 60,000 nests are imported annually, 45,000 of which are for glasshouse crops (e.g. tomatoes or cucumbers) and 15,000 for soft fruit. Since 1988 commercially reared bumblebees (mainly Bombus terrestris dalmatius and Bombus terrestris terrestris) have been shipped around the world. Despite reassurance by producers, research has shown that commercially produced bumblebee colonies may carry multiple parasites that are viable and can infect other species of bumblebees and bees.
It has been possible for gardeners to buy Bombus terrestris (Buff-tailed Bumblebee) in the UK for sometime. This is a native species, but there is no guarantee that they are of British origin, or free from disease or parasites. With respect to claims that they will “reward you with increased pollination of fruits, flowers and vegetables” this at best doubtful. If you have pollination problems it is probably due to the absence of the right kind of flowers in your garden rather than a lack of pollinators, so releasing a few bees won’t really help. It would be better to spend the money on buying some bee-friendly plants.
Several species of our native bumblebees are declining, but Bombus terrestris is one of the most common species and is not threatened. Therefore, the release of commercially reared bees in gardens may do more harm than good. Bombus terrestris is scarce in the Scottish Highlands and only occur in any numbers around the Moray Firth. It is not native to the Outer Hebrides and an introduction could have serious consequences for our local bees. Island ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to introduced species, even when they are native on the mainland. Even a well intention introduction can have disastrous consequences as we have experienced following the release of hedgehogs on the South Uist in 1983.
So if you would really like to help our wild populations of bees and other pollinators it would be better to plant more insect friendly plants and send a donation to Bumblebee Conservation Trust.
With less than a month to go to the winter solstice, the days are very short and the list of wintering gardening chores grows ever longer. October and November have been predictably wet and windy, but we have had some glorious sunny days perfect for some of the heavier winter jobs in the vegetable garden.
The roots crops: carrots, celeriac, parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes; the brassicas: Savoy and red cabbages, cavolo nero, broccoli and winter cauliflowers; and the leeks remain in the ground and are harvested as required. As each bed is cleared it is weeded and given a top-dressing of manure and seaweed which will have rotted down by the time we are ready to start growing again in April and May. After the recent heavy deluges the muck/seaweed heap has the consistency of wet porridge and manuring the vegetable beds is heavy work.
After the October gales the beaches are strewn with great rotting piles of seaweed which team with turnstones, purple sandpipers, gulls and starlings gorging on the invertebrate life. However, when we get a calm sunny spell, there a strong marine miasma and the warmth often triggers a mass hatching of seaweed flies. This induces a frenzy of fly-catching amongst our local starling flock and grumpy gardeners. These little black flies are harmless but irritating en mass!
In the polytunnel and around the compost bins we are waging an unusually prolonged rodent war. This year seems to be particularly bad for rats and our traps are working over-time. It is not a pleasant task, but gnawing rodents do enormous damage and have to be kept out of the polytunnel. The mild winters must have caused a population explosion as I would have expected that the local gang of feral cats, a couple of buzzards, a hen harrier, a kestrel, a peregrine falcon, a pair of merlins and a white-tailed sea-eagle to be as effective as any pied piper!
All is quiet inside the polytunnel, the over wintering plants slumber on waiting for the light levels to rise before they come back into active growth. The rocket and the beetroot produce enough leaves for the occasional winter salad and if I’m desperate I can also raid the baby spinach. I have just planted the garlic and in fit of optimism decided to sow a row of carrots and chervil. The soil is warm enough for the seeds to germinate, at first the growth will be slow but I can be patient. The polytunnel is a sedate haven in the winter, a place to potter about on a grey winter afternoon, deadheading the scented geraniums, checking on the pots of herbs and cuttings until it begins to go dark and it is time for tea.
To the casual onlooker the cottage garden appears neglected and desolate. I have removed the dead foliage from the annuals but left the old flower stems on the perennials. These provide winter homes for a host of invertebrates, seeds for the birds and also help protect the dormant crowns from damage by the winter gales. Unfortunately these tangled stems rarely get transformed by a glitter of frost but for the wrens and winter thrushes they form safe refuges, places to forage away from the beady eyes and sharp talons of the avian predators which patrol the coast.
The cottage garden is another of my winter sanctuaries where sunny afternoons can be frittered away weeding, planning changes and deciding which plants will be split, moved or end their days on the compost heap. There are still one or two sedums in flower and the odd clump of marigolds provide a discordant flash of bedraggled orange, a token of defiance and resistance against the darkening winter days. The garden feigns sleep but close inspection reveals the first green shoots of the jonquils, some fresh green leaves on the eryngiums and heucheras, and pots of snowdrops full of tiny green spears. Sitting on the bench absorbing a little winter sunlight, soothed by the shush of the waves, is a therapeutic treat and a welcome relief from shovelling muck.