If you have ever wandered along the coastal cliffs of the north and west of the British Isles, you may have encountered one of the most delicate of our native spring flowers, the Spring Squill, Scilla verna. Nestling in the short turf or tucked into crevices, when abundant it can form a misty blue haze. Eventhough my garden has the right climate and soil, I have never tried to grow our native squills, although I cultivate a number of their close relatives.
The Alpine Squill, Scilla bifolia, is one of the earliest of the spring bulbs to flower in my garden. It nestles in the shelter of the orchard and as soon as it emerges forms clusters of pale blue flowers. The colour is perhaps not as intense and the flowers not as large as some of the other cultivated Scillas, but it has a gentle charm. Found in central and southern Europe, the Caucasus and Anatolia, it naturalises readily in British gardens, and despite its delicate appearance will survive a Hebridean gale.
The second species which is widely scattered throughout the garden is Scilla siberica. It originates from south-western Russia, the Caucasus, and Turkey and is a robust plant which has invasive tendencies is some gardens. It is a little larger than S. bifolia with more robust, nodding, bell-shaped flowers of an intense blue. There are white and pale pink varieties, but I prefer the rich Persian blue of the common form.
The final component of my quartet of early flowering squills is Scilla ramburei which is grown in the alpine house and is just starting to flower. Found in North Africa and the southern Iberian Peninsula, it may be a little less hardy than some of the other species. It has more compact inflorescence with pale blue flowers and broad, glaucous leaves. This group of bulbs were grown from seed and is probably now ready to split. I am tempted to try some outside in a sheltered corner either in the orchard or rock garden.
There are numerous Scilla species; diverse in their form, flowering times and habitats, with a geographical range from Northern Europe to western and central Africa. Taxonomically they are a mess, with Chionodoxa now classified as part of the Scilla bifolia group and other species moving to genus Hyacinthoides or visa-versa, or possibly to entirely new genera
Traditionally plants were classified according to their floral morphology, however plant taxonomy and classification has moved on substantially in the last 300 years. Seed and seedling morphology, bulb characteristics, biochemistry and DNA are all now included in the analysis and there are probably as many interpretations as to which species belong in which genus as there are taxonomists. I tend to stick with the name that I know or can remember, which works well, unless I have to consult the internet to check on cultivation conditions. It is really not that important to me that the plants labelled Scilla litardierei and Scilla pratensis are the same species and will probably be renamed as Nectaroscilla littardierei. I certainly won’t be able to remember that S. siberica is now Octhodes siberica or that S. ramburei is now Tractema. I suspect that by the time I have learnt the new name, that it will probably have reverted to Scilla.
“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. I think I will remain faithful to “scintillating Scillas“.
March arrived as docile as a lamb and then began to roar, continued to roar and will leave still roaring. Spring took one look at the weather map and immediately fled southwards, leaving us cold, wet and miserable. Any daffodil foolhardy enough to raise its head was immediately decapitated, the primroses huddled in corners and even the skylarks were grounded. Day after day we listened to the shipping forecast – would it be a gale or severe gale, storm force winds from the south or north, with or without torrential rain or just squalls, or no wind and a heavy blanket of grey mist? Had the big island cast us adrift and kidnapped the sun?
After a long winter, in March any thoughts about the imminent arrival of Spring are delusional. As one swallow “doesn’t make a summer”, a few warm sunny days in March or April do not mark the departure of winter. Spring may flirt with us and flash her petticoats, but we all know that in this part of the world that she never arrives before May.
Today it is blowing a strong north-easterly and the arctic airflow is keeping the tempearture down to a chilly 7 °C. Even the Whooper Swans are getting desperate to leave for their breeding grounds in Iceland. This morning we watched a herd of 30 set out, flying low over a turbulent sea and struggling against a strong north-easterly headwind. Eventually sense prevailed, they turned back, flew around the house a few times before settling in the bay to rethink their migration strategy.
My small greenhouse is full of seedling waiting to be “hardened-off”, and with a forecast of snow for the weekend, I am in need of a distraction activity. Decorating eggs for Easter? Making a Simnel cake? No it had to be a real challenge. I love seasonal foods and something with fruit and spices is irrestible. I have always been hesitant about yeast cookery and have produced some undistinguished loaves of bread in my time. However, watching Himself make brioche using the dough-hook on the food mixer, convinced me that it was OK to skip all the kneading by hand nonsense.
So by mid-afternoon I’d produced my first batch of Easter buns. Clearly a work in progress, they are a little mis-shapen (!) and not identical, BUT the texture is light and they taste good. Clearly I have to work on the hand-rolling technique and incorporating the raisins and mixed peel into the dough was not too successful. The recipe I used directed me to add the fruit and peel to the dough after it had risen and been “knocked-back”. I have since found other recipes where the fruit and peel are added to the flour, sugar and butter before the yeast-milk-egg mixture, so that it is incorporated during the kneading. I am not deterred, but as we can’t eat too many batches of Easter buns, perhaps I’ll try a Selkirk Bannock next.
I used a recipe by Felicity Cloake (who is always interesting and reliable) and I think any shortcomings were due to may faulty technique. However, incorporating my own mixed peel and using the syrup as the glaze was a piece of pure genius – in my opinion!
“Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam” – Dr. Brewster Higley (1874)
This is not exactly the Hebridean equivalent of the Great Plains, but it is an example of unimproved grassland and although it looks like a completely natural habitat, it is the product of careful grazing management. If left unattended it would eventually become dominated by tussocky, coastal grasses and most of the wild flowers would disappear. Conservation grazing management is as much an art as a science, and after 12 years of trial and error, we think that we have finally got the management of the headland about right, but some of the other fields are still a work in progress.
Early risers and aficionados of the BBC4 radio programme Farming Today, will immediately understand the title of my post and, if they are of a certain age, the opening quotation. Over time we have improved the biodiversity and quality of our coastal grassland, but we still think we could do better. Two years ago, we decided to change our grassland management and introduced a modified system of rotational and range grazing. This mimics the way that wild herbivores range over grassland in response to forage and water supply, and other factors such as predators and seasonal changes in the weather. It allows selective grazing, which creates a more heterogeneous habitat and reduces problems of pasture degredation associated with restricting animal movements. This is not a new idea, although the agricultural policy makers have now given it a new name (agroecology) and are trying to sell it as agricultures answer to climate change!
Range grazing on a croft of 12 hectares is not exactly on the same scale as the Great Plains or the Serengeti, but some of the same principles can be applied. A small flock of Hebridean sheep are used to winter graze the lower-fields and are moved between them on a regular basis. We have also reduced the grass cutting to an absolute minimum and use a quadbike and hand-raking to limit the damage to the sward and prevent wind erosion. On the headland we are using a small herd of six native breed cattle (Galloways and Belted-Galloways) which are hardy enough to cope with our Hebridean winters and graze from October to February without any supplemental feeding. Using a low stocking density of small cattle enables the animals to develope a natural free-range grazing pattern.
This is all very interesting, but what has it to do with gardening? The answer is Monty Don and his views on lawn maintenance. Conservation grazing may not be the most practical solution, but the principles can be applied. A few daisies and the odd buttercup or dandelion with some soft, green moss is more wildlife friendly and less sterile than a perfectly manicured, rectangle of emerald turf and the “Don’t Walk on the Grass” sign. Lock the mower in the shed, throw away the lawn feed and borrow a couple of grazers!
Douglas, the Manx ram and two of his ladies, who “mow” the grass between our garden boundary and the stock fence. In addition to producing perfectly cut grass they also supply the manure!
If these are a little too big, you could always try a family of Guinea pigs.
A couple of weeks ago, iris-type leaves emerged in the lean-to-garden and produced a bud. No plant label, which is not too unusual, but the Head Gardener had no recollection of planting iris tubers in this particular spot. Eventually the identity of the mystery plant as revealed as the flower opened. It is a plant I’ve always known as Hermodactylus tuberosum – the Snake’s Head or Widow Iris. Recent taxonomic work has returned it to its original genus of Iris, although it is a little atypical with quadrangular leaves and no vexillum tepals. However, I think this can be overlooked as the colours and texture of the flowers are stunning.
It is a plant with a long history, it was known to the 17th century apothecaries, herbalists and botanists. I’m not sure that I agree with John Gerard’s description of the flowers as being “goose-turd green” and the described medicinal properties do not inspire confidence:
“They purge flegm, especially from the joynts, therefore are good for gouts, and other disease of the joynts. Their vices [side-effects] are corrected with long pepper, ginger, cinnamon or mastich: I would not have unskilful people to busy with purges.” Culpeper, Nicholas. (1653). The London Dispensatory.
It may may have disappeared from the Pharmacopoeia, but it has great merit as a garden plant. Always one of my favourites, I have struggled to get it to flower on an annual basis. For ages it sat in a pot, producing a few leggy leaves and no flowers, and was forgotten. However, I have no idea how it migrated to its new home. It is a Mediterranean species, ranging from southeast France to North Africa and Israel, growng in shallow rocky, well-drained soils where the dormant tubers are baked by the summer sun. A Hebridean rock garden is absolutely perfect, apart from the lack of hot summer sun, but clearly it can persuaded to flower if grown in under-cover. Unfortunately it comes into growth early in the year, which probably explains why it has become so elongated. Perhaps if we can get it to establish, a later move into the greenhouse with the South African bulbs where there is more light might resolve this problem. Or I could just buy some more tubers!
We have just survived one of the worst weeks of weather I can remember for a long time. Storm force winds had been forecast for Saturday 13 February and by the late afternoon it was gusting about 70 mph, so we were not too surprised when there was a electrical power surge which blew several circuits and left us in the cold and dark. On Sunday the power was restored and we managed to revive the central heating system. The wind got stronger and stronger, until it blew out the middle section of the big polytunnel!
On Monday the wind had dropped to gale force and the torrential rain had been replaced by squally showers. The damage report – one trashed poytunnel, a serious list on the big fruit cage, and the loss of a couple of inches of soil from the vegetable beds. The metal framework of the polytunnel, although galvanised steel, had been showing serious signs of corrosion for sometime. We had hoped that it would last a little longer, but we had not expected such a catastrophic structural failure, even with the wind gusting upto 95 mph.
With the help of a friend we managed to make the structure safe and removed the whole centre section. Unfortunately, the weather has prevented us from starting to take down the remaining structure, but the two ends appear stable, even in 70 mph winds.
So what next? Last week’s plan is in the bin or at least subject to a major reappraisal, as the priority is to dismantle what remains of the polytunnel and see if we can repair the fruitcage. This is likely to be a slow process as the weather forecast for the remains of February appears to be a continuous succession of southerly gales, and until we are released from lockdown we can’t arrange for deliveries of hardcore or gravel. Good thing we didn’t sell the concrete mixer!
If you are going to live on the exposed west coast of a Scottish island on the edge of the North Atlantic with nothing between you and North America, you have to have a degree of stoicism when your garden gets trashed by the weather. So you clear up the mess, try to learn from the experience and continue gardening. To be horribly pragmatic, I also have the new challenge of what to do with an area of 19 x 17m! I’m open to suggestions and offers of serious sponsorship from anyone who would like to build a hurricane, corrosion proof covered garden.
To be continued when the weather improves……..
“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near one“
We might not have dragons, but we do have weather. Over the years we have learnt how to storm-proof the garden to the best of our ability, but as soon as I hear the shipping forecast giving gale warnings for Hebrides severe gale 9 increasing to storm force 10, I begin to worry. If it gets to violent storm 11, I cease worrying about the garden, hide under the duvet and hope the roof doesn’t blow off!
This month the long tentacles of the Beast from the East have held us in an frozen embrace and caressed us with its icy breath. The chilling effect of the strong north easterly winds has not been ameliorated by the bright sunshine, so gardening has been limited to planting early potatoes in the polytunnel and optimistically sowing a few seeds. However, the Easterly Beast has a sting in the tail and this weekend we are promised gale force conditions (9 to 10) with wintery showers.
It is tempting to retreat to the sofa with a good book, a pot of tea, and toast my feet by the fire. However, the days are getting longer and it is time to start planning the serious business of growing vegetables.
It is a while we visited the vegetable garden, so for new visitors to the Croft Garden and to remind old friends, I’d like to invite you to a “visitor orientation field induction process illustrated with appropriate sitemaps to ensure that it is effective in keeping visitors safe“. For those of you who are not up-to-speed on risk assessment management speak: “here are some maps so you don’t get lost, please watch your step, try not to trip over the hosepipe and if you leave the garden please be aware that there is a bull with the cows in the top field“.
The vegetable beds and orchard are all protected by internal fences, a hedge on the west, north and east boundaries and either the polytunnel or the fruit cages on the south. The garden is flat, altlough there is a step up to the orchard. The area between the cultivated beds and borders is gravel.
The vegetables grown in each of the beds are rotated annually. As the growing season is very short it is only possible to produce one crop each year. Apart from parsnips and carrots, all the other vegetables are grown from seed in modules or pots and hardened-off before planting in the beds. Young plants are covered with enviromesh to protect them from the wind until they are established. After ten years of trial and error, I have finally settled on the list of vegetables to grow each year, although I will often try a new variety to see if I can improve the productivity. The choice is vegetables is based on what we like to eat and what will tolerate our climate and soil conditions.
Most years I have a vague planting plan in my head or scribbled on the back of an envelope, which inevitably gets lost or forgotten, so things are a little ad hoc. So this year, as I’m confined by the Easterly Beast I have produced a planting plan! To add to this list there are cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, rocket and various other salad leaves which are grown in the greenhouse in the croft house garden. It may appear to be a little excessive for two people, but what we don’t need is given to friends.
The large fruit cage has always been used for growing fruit and vegetables, but this year we are using it to grow peas, garlic, sweet peas and sunflowers. For the last 2-3 years, the red and black currants had produced very little fruit as a result of a very heavy infestation of gooseberry sawfly. As I was not prepared to use a pesticide, we decided to take more radical action and removed the bushes. The larvae over-winter in the soil, so by removing the host plants we should remove the flies. The plan is to improve the soil in the small fruit cage, which is currently used for growing bulbs, and buy some new currant bushes. If the sawfly reappears, I will try biological control.
The weather forecast for the rest of the month is not particularly encouraging, so I will have to delay the start of my gardening year a little longer.
- Broad Beans – The Sutton
- Broccoli – Purple Sprouting
- Broccoli – Matsuri, Stromboli
- Celeriac – Ilona
- Carrots – Sugarsnax
- Herbs – Parsley, Fennel, Coriander
- Kale – Starbor
- Kale (Cavolo Nero) – Raven
- Leeks – Stromboli, Cairngorm
- Parsnips – Gladiator
- Beetroot – Cylindrica
- Early Broccoli – Stromboli
- Early Carrots – Sugarsnax
- Courgettes – Parthenon
- Florence Fennel – Chiarino
- French Beans – Isabel
- Garlic – Early Purple Wight
- Lettuce – Moonred, Amaze
- Pepper – Midas
- Early Potatoes – Charlotte
- Spinach – Trombone
- Spring Onions
- Tomatoes – San Marzano
Creating a Garden 2: the Grand Tour
Although we have clear blue skies, the sun still slinks low over the horizon and its weak winter rays are insufficient to penetrate the frost. This is a garden tour that bears no resemblance to a wonderful Sunday afternoon amble around a perfect English Yellow Book Garden. There are no riotous extravaganzas of herbaceous borders, not a whiff of the perfume from rambling roses cascading over walls and arches, and sadly no tea and homemade cakes on the terrace.
We are held firmly in winter’s icy grasp so there are no plants to distract us. The winter is one of the best times to look at the structure of the garden, to examine the bare bones which form the design framework and underpin the vision. The structural colours are muted to blend in with the bleached hues of the winter landscape and to fade into the background in the strong light of the summer.
1 – Through the garden gate
2 – The lean-to
3. The lean-to is a garden in a shed. It is built on the side of the big shed, has a wooden framework clad in larch and a polycarbonate roof. There is a large window at the far end. The east side is partially covered with mesh which is open to the elements and partially “glazed” with polycarbonate.
There is a central large raised bed which is used for growing, bulbs, succulents, alpines and small plants which cannot withstand our wet and windy climate.
Originally the area beween the big shed and the “in-between garden was a general depository for wood, driftwood, fencing stakes and assorted other bits and pieces “that might be useful”. When the idea of a lean-to was proposed I was expecting another shed. However, although the Head Gardener’s building projects are never modest or predictable, this one took me by surprise.
3 – The in-between garden
This is the oldest part of the garden, and has been re-designed a number of times. The boundary walls give some shelter from the wind, but it is too exposed to grow shrubs, unless they are very small or prostrate.
Breeze blocks are a pragmatic option for wall building. Bricks are not available and our granite is not suitable for building supporting walls. I have managed to get some honeysuckle to grow on along the walls and I might try some ivy or even a clematis.
The raised bed on the south side was originally desiged for ericaceous plants and housed some beautiful sculptured driftwood logs. Unfortunately, the plants did not like the exposure to the north wind and the mice decided that tunnelling under the logs would make a very safe place for raising a family. So this bed is scheduled for redevelopment.
4. – The alpine house
The alpine house sits in a fenced compound, with the solar panels on the south side and the greenhouses and garden shed to the north.
5 – The greenhouses
You can never have too many greenhouses or sheds. The greenhouses were built in 2018-2019 and sit in a fenced area with the garden shed. They have a breeze block base (to be timber clad this summer), a wooden framework covered with polycarbonate panels. Ventilation is provided by a series of louvered glass panels in the sides. Although they have an electricity supply, these are not designed to be heated.
6 – The rock garden
The rock garden is an expanse of glaciated Lewisian gneiss (Precambrian metamorphic rocks) with bands of quartz. It is a beautiful feature, which needs minimalist planting. There is no soil, so pockets have to be constructed. Predictably the weeds always seem to find a niche, while I struggle to excavate a planting crevice.
12. Looking north east across the rock garden. The garden slopes down towards the house, so the border of cobbles is not only decorative, it is functional. It channels the rain water run-off from the rock surface down and away from the house. In the top left corner in front of the fence is a built in garden seat, sheltered by the greenhouse and green garden shed.
13. Looking south west. The back of the house and log store are visble to the south. In the foreground, is a triangular raised bed. This has been planted for a couple of years, but is scheduled for a make-over.
7 – The periphery
When we put in the stock fence last year, we needed to have a gap between the fence and the house for purely practical reasons. The options were to do nothing and just strim the grass once a year, put in a gravel path or put in a low wooden fence and create a peripheral garden. The area between the wooden fence and the stock fence is the wild garden. This requires minimal attention, we just graze it with 4 or 5 sheep for about a month in the winter – the grass gets cut and a light dressing of organic manure is applied all at the same time.
This is the end of the tour. In the winter the garden can look bleak and skeletal, but the eye is drawn beyond to the wider landscape – stormy seas, dramatic cloud formations, rosy dawns and golden sunsets. Today I can see snow on the hills of Harris and the Cullins of Skye – these panoramic views are an integral part of the garden and do more than compensate for the absence of trees. On days when the horizon is shrouded in low cloud and obscured by rain squalls, there is often something in flower in one of the covered gardens.
I deliberately chose a series of photographs taken on the same day at the beginning of January. If you would like to see more, the following photographs were taken in April last year and show a little more detail.
Creating a Garden 1
In the beginning there was a house in a coastal meadow, then there was a shed and then there was a garden. Originally, I thought that the house sitting amongst wildflowers with panoramic views required nothing more. Unfortunately this was a romantic illusion. In winter there are no wildflowers, the sunny days are replaced by winter storms and if the practical demands of life requires sheds and fences, you might as well have a garden. We started the garden in 2013, just after we had built the big shed and installed the solar panels.
Most of us inherit a garden and, even if it is mature and developed, there is usually scope to tweak it a little here and there, or take more radical steps, to impose our own style and personality. We are usually constrained by boundaries: physical, climatic, topographical, geological, spatial, temporal and financial, but the heart and soul of the garden is always a reflection of the gardener. This is my third garden on the croft – I still own the vegetable garden, but the cottage garden is now in the care of the new owners of Croft Garden Cottage, and it is the most challenging.
I was given a blank canvas, as much land as I wished, stunning views for borrowed landscapes and an impossible site. It is exposed to storm force, salt laden winds from every direction, there is no shelter or shade and just below the tussock grass is granite bedrock and sand. Fortunately we had learnt a how to build fences that would withstand the strong winds, to use marine grade stainless steel fixings and I had a long list of plants that I knew would not tolerate our soil and climate. All I needed was a vision.
I knew I couldn’t compete with the magnificent natural flora, so “prairie” planting was not an option, but at the same time, I wanted something that was soft and natural that would merge with the landscape beyond. First we had to get the structure right and include all the elements to make the garden and our domestic life work. A garden needs “good bones”, this is the framework for the planting, and it can be hard to correct if you get it wrong.
The garden has evolved over the last 7 years and grown in a number of unexpected directions. We have mixed tons of concrete, shovelled sand and gravel, moved turf, shifted stones and driftwood, built sheds, greenhouses and raised beds, erected fences and put in gates. I have grown plants, watched them die and put them on the compost, weeded and mulched, moved plants and planted-up pots. I have sat in the garden, watched the bumblebees, butterflies and beetles, removed slugs and snails, and listened to the skylarks. There are still some changes to be made and jobs to be completed, but at last I am beginning to understand my garden. Last year I sat on the garden bench on sunny evenings and quiet mornings and looked, not at the plants and the weeds and the ever growing list of jobs, but at the structure and the landscape beyond. I can now see what I want to achieve, I have finally found my vision.