Saturday, August 31, 2013

Up the Hill and Down to the Loch

It sounds so simple--up the hill and down to the loch. And if you balance effort as a ratio of pleasure gained, then it was easy.  It was already later than we had expected to be starting and our first proposed walk site was not available, so walking up to the Betty Hill fort (or broch?) was already a compromise with a lateish start, but turned out to be a rare treasure of late summer flowers, thriving juniper, and heather near its peak of colour.

We parked the car at a bend in the road next to an old iron bridge that is passable--just--by a single car.  Not even a sheep--of which there are many on the roads up here--is foolish enough to linger there. We crossed quickly as if the bridge troll might get us and walked along the shingly gravel beach beside the meandering Naver river.  Sheep munched contentedly on the nearby grass, the tide was coming in, a cock was crowing and a dog was barking.  Within a few steps, the sounds were blanketed and obscured. As we climbed; the silence of a still late summer day welcomed us into it.

The objective, as much as our walks ever really have an objective, was the so-called hill fort behind Betty Hill. As usual, I was following along content with wherever the path took us.  We joked a bit about anything except bracken, which had dogged our steps on the last walk, as we found eyebright and fairy foxglove.

We followed the sheep's tracks up the first hill, often stopping just to catch our breath or breathe in the soft air and quiet.  We both had thought the occasional rustling we heard was water from a burn making its way down the hill. On one of these listening stops, however, we sussed that the sound was the rustling of  leaves from an aspen growing triumphantly, incongruously out of what appeared to be solid stone.

After our conversation with the aspen, we climbed further upward--not even the sheep had left a path here. Traces of wildflowers remained, but the vegetation was getting thinner, with juniper hugging the ground. And at the very top of the hill are these remains of a hill fort or broch.  The wall has been obviously rebuilt--the convention for amateurs and archaeologists to make any new construction clearly different from the original work.

We might have gone back, having met our loosely defined objective and aware that the days are getting shorter now, but like the bear who wanted to know what was on the other side of the hill, we couldn't resist just a few steps further, down to the loch.

Here the loudest sound was that of the bees hard at work on the heather. The warm sun filled the air with the mixed scent of juniper and heather. We were reluctant to leave but by now it was getting late and we still had to climb back over the hill.
Each walk we take, like each year's Christmas tree, is the best ever--until the next one--but I suspect this walk will be hard to beat.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Painted Ladies in the Loft

I might not have known they were Painted Ladies if not for the 'Butterflies of the Highlands' pamphlet in my hands.  I was in the loft looking for the little purple spiral bound book, 'Edible Flowers', so naturally I was standing there instead thinking about butterflies looking for love in all the wrong places.  I cajoled one limp-looking butterfly down the stairs and out into the fresh air, where it promptly spread its wings and revealed herself as a Painted Lady. So now I'll be back up the stairs for the others. After all, they come a long way and it's  hardly Highland hospitality to leave them stranded like the madwoman in the attic.

It has been one of those days where I thought I knew what I was doing next only to find myself detoured.

Still haven't found the edible flowers book or the red cabbage recipe, but the rose petals are drying nicely. More about that later. For now, back to Painted Lady rescue.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Time Out for Heather

I remember years ago my sister in law telling me that someone had said that she had not really seen Scotland unless she had seen a hill full of heather in bloom.  I resisted thinking that because it seemed so Brigadoonish, but I have lived here long enough now to feel the truth of that.

Ironically, less than 24 hours after submitting my article for this week's Caithness Courier in which I proudly proclaim that I do not sing that song about walking through the heather on the hill, I was tromping knee deep in heather and sang to my companion along with accompaniment of a lark.

We were in the heather--all three types are in bloom now-- looking for something in the ground.  A probable broch site (iron age North Atlantic round house is more correct term actually) shows up plainly on Google earth and we wanted to have a close look at it.

I resisted taking photos of the heather at first because it is impossible to get anything like the real feeling (cue the Brigadoon chorus), but succumbed and did my best with my wee camera on smart setting. You'll have to imagine the fragrance for yourself, alas, until you come to visit.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Stretching the Season: Last Chance Garden

Things should sprout more quickly in summer, but this is Caithness and August may be warm during the day but cool--dangerously, cool in the evenings. At least dangerous that is if you are a wee seed. So after the first too cold evening, I put a bit of bubble wrap around the pot where lettuce was waiting on the deck.  And they have now obligingly sprouted--cause and effect or coincidence? Who can say. That's gardening for you.
 The idea of course is that the bubble wrap allows the pot to hold onto the heat accumulated during the day.
The bubble wrapped lettuce is sitting right next to Last Chance courgette (next year courgettes will be grown indoors for sure!) and the Happy Go Lucky mint, which just loves being out of the pot the store had it in.
Can we manage a courgette before the weather clobbers us? Will the bubble wrap and south -facing deck be enough to get the lettuce to leaf-size? Tune in later to find out!

Thursday, August 08, 2013

First Fruits

A handful of black currants seems like quite a bounty since last year any berries were snarfed by the birds, but it does pose a culinary challenge.  What do you do with only a handful of the roly poly tart little treasures?

I chose to lightly cook them by pouring just enough water from the kettle to cover them. Yesterday I had talked with folks who know a great deal more about black currants than I do, so I waded in with a little bit of knowledge. The skins gave way, as I was told they should if they were properly ripe, and the water turned properly purple, so then came the question of how much sugar?

One timid tablespoon full did not make a dent on their purpling sourness.  I hopped around the kitchen after my first tentative taste and heaped in another tablespoon.

Then I boldly added some porridge, some  raspberries, and some leftover brown rice--hey presto a quasi crumble rice pudding.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Question for a Sunny Day

 My Mondays as gardener's apprentice always give me lots of answers and at least a few more questions. As we dug and talked and browsed seed packets and talked about Square Metre Gardening (the book and the ideas) and economics of starting seeds, the question arose: How much gardening does it take to make an impact on the food budget?

I have lovely herbs. I made an omelet aux fines herbes--or my own backyard equivalent of that-- this morning, but what to do with the rest of them? Oh, pesto for my basil and more walking out with my tomatoes and parsley in the protected area reliably offers itself up through most of the dark season, but drying it? Putting it in ice cubes? Trading it to friends? Giving it as pressies?  I have the luxury of not having to justify it economically, and I must never forget that is a luxury. If I am in earnest about becoming more veg-independent, do I sacrifice my land-hungry herbs or make them pay their way?

One of the things I liked about Square Metre Gardening was his matter of fact ness when considering how much of something to plant--'how much did you buy at the grocery store last week?' He uses it of course to justify his own approach to gardening--more little and often than traditional long rows all getting ripe at the same time. I wholeheartedly agree.

He argues that there are three seasons to a veg garden, which may be true down south, but I think even with polytunnels or lights up here that is unlikely. I wish it were not so, but living with the seasons is something every gardener has to come to grips with no matter where they dig their patch.

So for the moment discounting the three seasons, Square Metre Gardening says that one square metre provides enough salads for one person. Another square metre bed provides sufficient veg. He divides the metre bed into 9 squares and takes advantage of companion planting and successional planting--cool weather crops are replaced by warm weather crops and so on, including possibly some crops that overwinter such as garlic. If true, that would make a significant impact on a food budget.

The author alleges that you neeed not be a gardener to do this method--once it is set up--and setting it up is easy. I agree and I am an enthusiastic supporter. Now having read the philosophy behind it I understand better some of the things my daughter learned in her community garden workshops that are counter to what gardeners learn, most notably using only 6 inches of soil in a special water-retention mix of his own design. I have seen the benefits of such gardening in action in Chicago.

Now back to the question of an impact on a family budget.  I would love to have some friends of mine trial it. I'll get the beds made and set them up and buy the seeds and even help with the planting out. I'm mooting this idea now for next year because we cannot properly plant out now. (Though we can start our own compost for next year's soil).

I gave my tomatoes--full of blossoms and green tomatoes living the good life in the sun room--a dose of  Tomorite today because I have felt in the past couple days a decided shift into autumn. The days have been shortening since May, but we do not speak about that. The heather is in riotous bloom--a bit early but welcome nonetheless--but today I found one of those giant cobwebs stretching across plants and I take that as a sign of autumn. It is the beginning of the end of the active growing garden season and the beginning of the time to plan.