Saturday, April 15, 2017

Square Metre Gardening Adenture Chapter One: The Empty Cage

If the title has not been enough to warn you--here's the spoiler: this is a garden post. Look away now if you don't have or yearn for a green thumb.
In the dark of winter my gardening pal and I thought and planned how to implement the ideas behind square metre gardening.  Here in Caithness every garden idea has to start and end with--what about the wind? Square metre gardening recommends wire mesh cages. His model is just mesh wrapped around itself and shaped--maybe not even with a wooden base as a support. However, in Caithness, more sturdy preparations are always necessary.
So this cage has top, bottom, and side reinforcements. In addition, you'll notice that this is inside the chicanery--the first line of defence against the worst of the winds. Is this over cautious, you may ask. No. Last year the wind ripped the leaves off my tatties just as they were ready for their last full growth spurt. (The four tattie bags for this year are just to the left of the square bed that has broad beans in it and maybe pea seeds in the back where the sticks are unless the birds got to them.)The back wall served only as a bumper for winds so whatever leaves survived the first cold blast had to try to make it through the swirls caused by wind bouncing off the back wall. I'm hoping the cage will provide a buffer for any other parts of the garden where the breeezes blow as well as sheltering the main veg crop in its own bed. Gardening in Caithness is like Odysseus after his homesick sailors let the winds out of the bag.

Now a question for my gardening pals out there--we have a full moon just now. Does one plant when the  moon is waxing or waning?

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Wildflowers Can be Divas

Most meadow flowers give up easily when faced with weeds like nettles and dochans and the pernicious couch grass, so my gardening pal Angie has been working very very hard to get all the weeds out of the strip at the end of the 'orchard.' The idea began to make a defensive perimeter to keep creeping buttercup and dochans and nettles out of the bed on the other side of the fence. And then as my friend and I do, we grew a bigger (and better) idea. A strip of wildflower meadow. Beautiful, wildlife friendly, encouarging pollinators for the orchard and more palatable as weeds if they choose to venture beyond the fence.

But the cornflower meadow seeds do not like sharing their stage with amateurs, hence, the careful weeding and re-weeding and then laying down newspapers so that any weed seeds lingering would be starved of light and moisture--I know it's harsh, but think of the corn cockles and corn chamomile and blue cornflowers and the bright red field poppy. They deserve a good home, don't they?

And so today was the day for putting down the seeds.
OK I can take photos with people's faces in them, but Angie preferred to be anonymous or faceless. |She did put her best foot forward. We decided that newspapers were maybe still too formidable a barrier for our diva seeds, so we poked holes in them before putting down the seeds.
We had 100 grams, which we calculated was enough for a medium distribution over our area. We divided it roughly into 5 areas and mixed about a fifth of the seed in more or less equal parts sand, about like this--sort of mathematical but then eyeballing it in situ. (Thank you John O Groats ice cream store--your leftover ice cream tubs come in very handy!)

And then we covered seeds lightly with a mix of good, loamy compost and perlite--I dont like the white colour, but for holding water and stablising temperatures it does a good job.

Mixing it and then lightly covering seeds and watering in ever so lightly.

OK now I'm ready for the results to show.  Angie, ever the cynic, says the first things to come through the soil are likely to be weeds. I'm banking on the divas taking centre stage.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Lessons from Primulas

Primulas do well here. Perhaps a bit too well, but that is always the way of it for gardeners trying to cosy along our favourites against the odds and not cherishing the sturdy ones that flourish. OK this post will go some way to making amends for that.
First, this little guy. His strategy is to begin his flowering life close to the ground and then gradually rise up in the world.

Another strategy is to keep your head down.

In case you're curious, this is what they look like if you look at them from below.


I am happy to see them all sharing space with my hellebores and leading the way for other things barely in bud or still snuggling under the ground, but I need to remind them now that they will have to learn to play nicely with others as well.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Hellebores and the Courgette Crisis

Imbolc and Pauxatawney Phil have delivered their equivocal predictions about the length of winter remaining. Probably no matter how brief it will be too long. My garden pal and I were planning our veg and flower patch and wind protection strategies for the upcoming season. 'If' played a major role, as always. If we do not get a sudden cold snap--it is possible. If we do not get the cold cold northeasterlies late in March when bulbs and leaves and such have begun to think Spring is all the way safely here again then we have our optimistic scenario. But we've both lived up here long enough now to have our more cautious plan.

And for all our planning, the plants and the weather will do what they decide to do. The snowdrops are in bud and the hellebores, those most hardy of flowers, are blooming in the perennial bed.


Weather has asserted itself in the food supply chain. It is hardly a crisis that we can't get courgettes in February in the supermarkets because of floods and cold weather in Spain and many parts of Europe, but it is a reminder that buy local is not just a hippie slogan or empty localism in the face of rampant globalism. Eating things in season and eating them where they are grown just makes good sense.

Ok having dabbled in growing veg I have the luxury of my own approach to what the media have dubbed the Courgette (zucchini to my American friends) Crisis. I have seeds to start in a pot in my sun room. I can pick a few of them at a time rather than fretting about how to get through the multi-portion bags they sell in the supermarket.  A recent addition yo the veg aisle in the supermarkets is pea shoots--very tasty, so again, I'm going to use some old pea seeds and harvest them as tender young plants.  If I had courgette seeds, I would be tempted, but that is probably a step too far even for a sunroom in this latitude.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Snow Blindness

This piece was first published in the Caithness Courier with photos from the editor, Elizabeth-Anne McKay.



Snow is rare here, especially the soft, lightly falling damp flakes that pile gently atop one another like the snow of my childhood. And it is always the snow of my childhood that comes to my mind as they fall slowly out of the pastel sky. Of course driving was treacherous and power would be lost and cars would be stuck at intersections and without question or complaint anyone and everyone nearby would pile out and push. Those episodes of pushing cars out of snow drifts come to mind now not as effortful but with the vague wonder that we shared as we trudged back to our own individual cars alone—why can’t we behave like that as if every day were a snow day. But it isn’t. And that is what makes each of them a wonder as individual as the flakes.

I know as certainly as I know that you can’t make a good snowball with mittens that the flakes are not actually exactly completely unique, but each is unique enough for me to continue to watch snow with that metaphor firmly fixed in my mind. I accept science without compromising my faith. Snowflakes, like people, never experience exactly the same things in the same way. Even if two snowflakes look alike to the rational, discerning eye of a physicist, I believe that their inner selves bear the traces of their individual experiences just as we all do.

When I remember the last snowfall before I left the prairies for the place where the sea determines the weather, I no longer feel the anguish of my brother faithfully but erratically coming to my rescue. He still remembered that he had to look after me and had the strength and will to maneuver a snow shovel adroitly, but he had lost his spatial sense by then. When he ploughed into the centre of the road, shovel firmly in hand, one or the other of us would bring him back. Now that he has gone as completely as that snow, I remember all the snow times before that, such as the first time he showed me how to make a snow angel.

It takes more than a few inches of snow to make a proper snow angel, and it works best if the snow is pristine, not too cold or too wet. Good snowball-making snow will work but only if the snow is fresh. I cannot count the number of times I flopped, face up to the sky in the fresh-fallen snow to leave my impression there. It would often take several attempts to get the arms, working like windshield wipers, to make a good effect to create wings. Only now does it occur to me that all those times I was making impressions in the snow, the snow was making impressions on me as well.
I don’t remember getting cold in the snow, but I remember how wonderful it felt to get warm again afterwards: the almost painful tingling of snow-chilled skin in a hot bath slowly coming back into its own, and then hurrying into thick pajamas with feet attached and sliding into bed before I lost that superheated temperature.

Just as I can’t recall the way playing in the snow chilled me, I can no longer recall the pain of a snowball aimed at my face. In the ethics of snow fights, it was considered poor form to aim at someone’s face. Ill grace and poor aim were made allowances for, but I was a target for such abuse when I tried to play with the boys. As every tomboy then and now well knows, you have to earn the right to play with the boys. After I don’t know how many snowballs in my face, I earned their respect and the right to play with them. Having won, however, I discovered that the prize had not been worth the effort. I still persist in taking snowballs in the face—often more than is reasonable-- if I think the prize might be worth it. 

 



Saturday, January 14, 2017

January Sky in Three Pieces

We have snow again and
there may yet be more--that's what this piece of sky--a milky sky--says to me. This is the view from my front door as I set out to crunch through the snow up to the Loch--my favourite local walk. I have put on mini leg warmers, knit so long ago I had forgotten them, to keep the unusually deep (for us at any rate) snow off my cuffs.



Halfway to the loch, with the wind propelling these we-mean-business clouds in my direction, I decide to head back home. My last walk I barely missed a pummeling of hailstones--my least favourite of all the wintry precipitation.

It's 10:30 in the morning and we are a bit more than 30 days past the solstice--the longest night--so we have gained about 30 minutes of sunlight, but still this is the season of the lazy sun. High noon does not have the same meaning up here. The sun is about three fingers high in the sky--about as high as it will get.




 The home stretch for me. The roof top of Ivy Cottage visible beyond the bare branches. The foreshortening makes it look as if we sit directly on the moor--Greenland Moss, but there is a road between us, a kind of demarcation of the frontier of current versus past habitation. In the spring a flowering currant blossoms where people once lived and there are deep ruts where peats were dug. In early spring, the roadway that once crossed the moss is visible.  The snow covered hills on the horizon lie beyond that long stretch of boggy, peaty land but one of the many virtues of hill walking--even in my own back yard--is the marvellous sense of King of the Hill perspective it gives.


Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas Day Loch Heilan

A pause in the weather after yesterday's battering. I thought I'd enjoy the sun --while it lasts up here. Nearly noon and the sun is only one finger's width above the horizon. This is the season of the lazy sun, but we have passed the solstice, the longest night, and we are accruing more minutes of daylight with each day. I set out for Loch Heilan, my favourite walk in my 'back yard' as I think of this little patch where I've landed.

The ducks, the geese, the gulls have all taken flight long before I get to the Loch, but the  swans have simply moved further into the loch, eyeing me warily. I stand on the road. I can feel the wind freshening already, but I decide to walk the lane down toward the loch.

This deeply rutted path is muddy and mucky. I pay attention to my feet and my camera and only as I look through my lens to my right do I notice that the 'will I won't I sky' has made up its mind.

 The wind was full in my face and halfway home the small rain started. I was relieved to see Morris coming in the car to rescue me. Even so I would not have forgone those golden moments.