Slow painting

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Heading North

I'll be enjoying a midwinter garden in the Highlands for the next while, and on a slow dial-up connection. I'll still be hoping to look in at gardening blogs - tho it seems as if many places are blanketed by snow just now.

Sunday, 21 December 2008


After a day of gale-driven heavy rain on Friday the soil was too wet on Saturday for any serious digging. All rather frustrating, since the rampant wild forget-me-not is spreading. However, it's easy to dig out once things dry up a bit, so I mustn't get too downhearted about its onward march. I cheered myself up by a bit of year-end tinkering: checking the netting over the broccoli and spring greens and pegging it down more firmly, and planting some very late bulbs up against the shed, where the sunflowers had been in the summer.

The bulbs were the result of an exuberant order from Avon Bulbs in September, when I was confident of finding time to plant them up both at home and at the allotment. As it was, only my daughter got her share in on time, planted up in the courtyard of the Music School at her school - the beautifying of which she and a friend have taken on off their own bat. I was especially keen to finish planting, as the leftovers included some rather lovely White Parrot and Abu Hassan tulips. We'll see what manages to come up from this Christmas planting. As well as the tulips I popped in the last of a bargain bag of narcissi, reckoning that cheap and cheerful might have to carry the day.

I pulled a couple of leeks, sorted out some shallots to take home from the rack in the shed, and with daylight waning went for a muddy stroll round the site to see what was happening. There are always plots which I look at enviously - pristine, dug to perfection - and those which make me feel that others are in the same boat.

Evidence of Friday's gales - this tree was well and truly blocking the main access road.

Some greenhouses had broken panes, and sheds had tar paper ripped off the roof. I didn't take photos of those, but I felt that this lucky glass shed cum greenhouse deserved to be featured. One of the classic do-it-yourself allotment constructions, all tidy and ship-shape for winter, and eco-friendly down to its little push mower.

That was probably my last visit to the plot for this year. Very shortly I'll be heading north, to what looks like being a warm, wet Christmas.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure

That's going to be my mantra for the rest of this winter and into the next growing season. I had naively thought that I might get away without netting the broccoli and spring greens/cabbages since there was no actual broccoli in evidence yet. When I popped along to the allotment today with the kitchen waste I was horrified to see the plants almost stripped to skeletons in some cases. Much tangling and soft cursing later I had rigged up netting over a cobbled-together arrangement of canes and climbing frame poles. It'll do for now, but I hanker after a rod and ball cage with more robust netting, one that would fit together each year with a minimum of make-do. It would very definitely be an 'investment', but at the moment I feel I'm investing time in bringing on plants and not getting the full crop from them that I could if they were better protected.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Year-round interest

I didn't realise that strawberries put on a show of autumn colour. After they'd finished fruiting I cut back the foliage. It's now grown again, and given a pleasing display as a decorative plant.

Sadly this is all I have to report from the allotment this week. Hard ground frost coupled with extreme pre-Christmas busy-ness have meant no time at all to get along to the plot. Perhaps next weekend - if I manage to finish my Christmas shopping during the week. Now there's an incentive.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Not natural

In late February or early March this might be a welcome sight. But in November...? I did a true double take when I saw the daffodils at the front of the plot not only through, but about 9 inches high. This is definitely a new trend over the past 10 years or so. I remember in the year my now teenage son was born looking out for the first signs of spring bulbs peeking through at the end of February. Over the years they've been coming earlier and earlier, but never as early as this.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008


For some time now I've been meaning to post about kale. It's the current (only) star of our plot. I am a great fan of kale. Husband and children less so. I'm inspired to write this post by the epic three-part ode to kale at A Corner Garden.

This year I've deviated from the traditional Scottish varieties such as Pentland Brig or Westland Winter and have gone European with Cavolo Nero. The photo above shows it looking less nero than it actually is, because of the combination of sunny day and a hurried point and shoot with earthy hands. I don't know whether it's the refined Italian nature of Cavolo Nero, or because I didn't warn the family of its presence, but I sneaked it into a stir fry at the weekend and none of the usual grumbles were raised.

Kale and I have a long history together. It's part of one of my earliest memories: holding my grandmother's hand while walking along the pavement - oh so far - to a neighbour's house to get some kale to put in the scotch broth. My maternal grandparents lived in the fisher town of a village on the Moray Firth coast. It's now a trendy conservation area, but then it was just where the trawler fishermen lived, in rows of houses gable end on to the sea to take the brunt of the winter storms. There was very little room for gardens, but my grandmother's friend Bessie had a small sheltered plot in which she grew kale. I think that was it - just kale.

The broth making was a long process. First the barley and dried peas were soaked overnight. In the morning the vegetables were diced small - carrots, leeks and onions only. They were put to steep in a bowl of water while the beef was brought to the boil and skimmed. I remember thinking that the bowl of cut-up vegetables looked like little jewels.

The beef used in broth was a particular horror of my childhood known as boiling beef. Properly known as 'rolled brisket', it provided the stock for the broth, and made it into a meal. I hated it. Fatty, grey, hideous. I think it was probably rather tasty, but I never got that far. Shudder.

Anyway, the barley etc was added to the pan with the beef, and a long boiling ensued. Towards the end, but much sooner than I would do it now, the vegetables were added. Last of all, shreds of the precious kale were put in. The broth was served as the first course, followed by the ghastly boiling beef, along with potatoes. The broth was made in such huge quantities that there was enough for several days. After the first couple of days the beef ran out, and at this point the potato was added to each soup plate at the point of serving. Then I was in veggie heaven. Broth does improve each day, and 'second day's broth' (but without the beef) is a true delight.

So when I make broth, in goes the kale. I also use that staple of the Scottish kitchen, broth mix. I don't know if this can be bought anywhere else in the UK - perhaps just over the border in the North of England, or in trendy food stores in London. Here's a very hurried photo I took today. In fact a dreadful photo, but on a hectic working day it's the best I could do.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Ordered - at last

Finally! I don't know what's slowing me up this autumn. Well, I do - non-stop school activities and teenagers' social lives. So the time is going on and I had a panic that I had ordered nothing for next year's growing. A flurry of activity at the weekend will see the following on the way to us:

First Early: Charlotte; Maincrop: Desiree

And because I wanted a traditional floury potato, British Queen. It was very difficult to find a floury tattie. All the descriptions were of 'waxy flesh'. At last I found British Queen at Mr Fothergill's.

On the onion front, I've found that this year's Red Baron haven't kept as well as promised, so I've gone for New Fen Globe. Shallots will be Topper and Jermor.

But I still have to find garlic. Marshall's was sold out.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

All my own work

This time, it's all my own work. No 1970's plastic twine here - just good natural jute. And what a pain it was too. It took me more than twice as long as if I'd used my Dad's electric blue plastic stuff. At first it wasn't too bad, but as the sun dipped towards the horizon it got colder and colder - and damp. The jute twine began to tangle and snarl. The damp cold made my fingers clumsy. The twine got so damp, and so stressed with being wound round the wire that it broke, again and again. I only managed to tie in one row of canes, top and bottom, before dusk and cold forced me to stop.

When I get back to do the second row, hopefully next weekend, it's plastic for me.

Saturday, 1 November 2008


Raspberry canes all thinned and tied up firmly for the winter. Impressive. Except that these are my 82 year old father's raspberries, whereas mine are in goodness knows what state because we've been so busy with other bits of life. Note my father's signature electric blue plastic binder twine. I came home from our trip north with a good hank of it for tying up our raspberries. Now we just need to get along to the plot and do it.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Allotment quirks

Action figures suspended from pea netting - it can only be a British allotment. The Allotment Blogger posted recently about 'Allotment Psychology and what other people's plots say about them. In another allotment lull (busy busy weekend of Other Things coming up) I looked back over photos taken last summer when the sun shone and people had time and lightness of heart to be quirky in their allotment gardening. Her are some more:

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Broccoli frustration

It's just as well that I over-planted with purple sprouting broccoli. In the week since planting the snails and slugs have had a merry time with the soft new growth. I'm assuming it was mollusc damage rather than pigeons at this early stage in the autumn, but all the same we're researching a frame for a netting cage over the winter. Last year as a frame for netting we used lengths of aluminium tubing cut down from the children's old climbing frame, but there won't be enough of it to cover what we've planted this year. Somehow it feels like a betrayal of the whole recycling ethos of allotment gardening, but since we're in this for the long haul it's equipment that will be used again and again.

Strangely the spring cabbages weren't as badly affected. Fingers crossed that it wasn't just because the munching hordes hadn't worked their way round to them yet.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

For Thomas

When Thomas-from-Salzburg was here in the summer we had happy conversations about our respective tomato growing. My tomatoes were just starting to fruit at that point, in mid-August. Now that the days are growing shorter, and snow on high ground is forecast in Scotland, my tomatoes have at last put on a spurt and started to colour. I imagine I'm going to be ripening most of them inside shortly, or making the classic green tomato chutney.

So for Thomas, a photo of Scottish tomatoes in October.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

The best of gifts

In the summer we had Austrian friends to stay twice, at the start and finish of their round-Scotland cycle trip. They came as visitors, actually, as most of us had never met, and left as friends. We wish they could have stayed longer.

The postman delivered a huge parcel from Salzburg yesterday. Tied up with blue ribbon, it contained an assortment of gifts chosen to suit each of our interests. For me, there was the best of gifts - some packets of Austrian seeds. I LOVE having seeds to sow from other countries.

Although the man with the strimmer has a degree in German, he's a bit vague on horticultural terminology. So next spring, armed with the German dictionary, I'll be sowing Austrian radishes, turnips, rocket, chives and hollyhocks. I already know where the hollyhocks are going - at the side of the shed, where the sunflowers are this year.

Monday, 29 September 2008


That's probably the most we can say about this year's potato experiment. Pink Fir Apple has had its moment on our plot, all five rows of it, and the family verdict has not been favorable. From "what is THAT?" from teenage son, to "it looks like something the cat might bury" from the man with the strimmer. Once they're boiled, or even better, roasted with a little olive oil, they do indeed have 'yellow flesh, with new potato flavour'. But getting them there is another matter. I never thought I'd feel squeamish about a vegetable, but digging them up actually makes me nauseous.

To begin with, they're...mottled. The pink bits give way to yellow-ish bits, which may just be yellow, or they may, as you discover when your fingers squelch through the flesh, be semi-liquid. Even if they're not mottled, most of the tubers are rotting away at the pointed end. And then there are the knobbles. Lots of knobbles, which make preparing them a tedious business. And they're so small...

It's probably in the Scottish genes to feel so acutely about a potato. Next year we're not deviating into any of this fancy nonsense. It's going to be a national stalwart, like Duke of York. How do we get through the winter with Pink Fir Apple? For my grandmother, the height of culinary satisfaction was having a decent "tattie to your soup" - a floury boiled potato added at the point of serving to a plateful of Scotch Broth. I now understand.

Here they are then, the horrid little pink things:

September contrasts

September opened like this.

And is finishing like this.

Yes, the sunflower is off-centre. It was blowing a gale, but at least the bee was sitting tight.

The very late broccoli and spring cabbage are at last all in - rather too close together, but at least they might have a chance to grow away now. As I was planting them I was aware of a difference in the soil, which nagged away as I worked. Eventually I realised - it was on the dry side, and I was going to have to water the plants in. What a novelty!

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Brassica tidy-up

In the three hour stint that I put in on Sunday before the rain came on it was difficult to know what to do first. So much needed doing, but the ground is still so wet that I had to give up on digging as preparation for putting in the spring cabbage and broccoli that I'd sown (late) in August. The kale and broccoli planted in the spring are now well established, but under attack by snails.

I'd put netting over the plants to protect them from pigeons, but since there are no broccoli spears yet I figured an attack on the snails was timely. It turned out that the plastic bottle ends that were holding the netting over the canes were acting as snail nurseries.

As I weeded around the stems 'our' robin appeared to take advantage of whatever beasties I was turning up.


For a while I hoped that the newly planted blackcurrant bushes would stay pest-free. No such luck. A few weeks ago the leaves took on a lacy look, and I realised that the dreaded sawfly had struck. Finding the little blighters took a bit of detective work until I sussed out where the tiny caterpillars were hiding. Look for a crinkled up bit of leaf, seemingly welded together. Prize it open to reveal a wooly nest. Squish the wriggling green caterpillar firmly. The squishing produces a virulent, alien-green blood. Well, it was either squishing or using some chemical which has probably been banned by the EU, which I'm still determined not to do. But no matter how much I squish the leaves are still being eaten. Perhaps there are actual sawflies now, which flit away at my approach. My father still laments the battery of powders and sprays he used to deploy in the garden, until they were banned by Brussels bureaucrats. I'm holding firm, but I can see what he means.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Allotment tools: the trolley

In the background of this photo is one of the essential workhorses of any decent city allotment site: the former supermarket trolley.

No-one knows how they get there. Certainly no-one would admit to relocating them, whether brazenly in broad daylight or in a night-time raid. But they're pretty useful, albeit tinged with collective guilt. I've seen very few wheelbarrows around - most people's sheds aren't big enough.
The trolleys wander about between the main gate and a mid-way trolley park just beside our site. On Sunday I was glad that I could rest my aching arms and push my load for the last stretch from the gate to the plot.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Shetland gardening

Sorting through some photos today I came to a folder from a holiday in Shetland a few years ago. Amazingly, we had two weeks of almost constant sun, and of course that far north it's never completely dark in summer - the 'simmer dim' as it's known in Shetland dialect. Since it's raining again today, and we were chased from the allotment by a downpour after a couple of hours of determined work this morning, I felt like letting some sunshine in to these posts.

We rented a cottage from friends, undertaking to water their garden. In Shetland the great enemy of gardeners is the salt-laden wind. Many houses have shelter belts of 'rosa rugosa', with the seaward side of the bushes burnt brown by the salt in the wind. Tender vegetables are still grown inside the traditional circular stone enclosures. On my first visit to Shetland I took these for sheep fanks until I was corrected. Here's the gardening apprentice setting out to do some watering.

As well as the constant winds, the plants have to survive the attentions of the rabbit population, hence the chicken wire barriers.

When we returned to the mainland we were overwhelmed by the lushness of the vegetation after the wind-blown landscapes of Shetland. It all seemed too much - the municipal flower beds we passed in Aberdeen after getting off the ferry were psychedelic, and tall beech and chestnut trees seemed blowsy and fantastic. We have to go back. I think we all hanker after the space and sense of being at the edge of the world.

The lines of buoys marks out a salmon farm.

Gulf Stream notwithstanding, the sea temperature is pretty glacial. Who cares when you're young and have a beach to yourselves to build a sandcastle.

By car and ferry we made it right up to the tip of Unst, Shetland's northernmost island. Much of Shetland life revolves around the sea, and garden sheds on Unst are no exception.

We called in at the famous Unst bus shelter, which features a sofa, TV, microwave, lace curtains, a stuffed cat, and more.

The day we visited, the current planting was a trellis of sweet peas.

More about Unst here.

So today, on a gloomy Sunday afternoon, I wish I was in Shetland.

Thursday, 4 September 2008


'Soggy' makes a change from 'wet'. I pulled onions and shallots at the weekend. 'Lift onions and shallots and leave them on top of the ground in the sun until they have dried off', say the books. Not this ground.

Isn't that just disgusting? Wet and weedy.
Nevertheless, I lifted the rest of the shallots
and most of the onions.
We've run out of space at home to dry off
the oniony harvest, so I laid the shallots on a former
IKEA shoe rack in the shed, and took the onions home
to dry in the porch. Ideally they should all dry in the shed
and be stored there too, so that they don't begin to sprout
in the dark. As it is we'll just have to use them quickly.
The onions and shallots will get used up long before the
garlic - there's only so much garlic a Scottish family can eat.

We used to have a window in our shed, but we boarded it up after the first break-in, and after a second break-in we have no intention of replacing it. There's nothing of value in the shed any more, but I think the board is there to stay. The joys of city gardening. If we DID have a window, this is the sort of set-up we would have (perhaps without the Tibetan prayer flags).

I love this - it's so...'allotment'. Often I'll down tools and wander off round the site to see what's new, what's quirky, what's growing.

The ground still wasn't fit to be stood on, much less dug or weeded.

There are a couple of miniscule yellow courgettes just
peeking through. Normally by this time we would be
putting a brave face on yet another meal featuring courgettes, but this year I think we've picked four so far.

One crop that is doing well is the slug. The little horrors were feasting on every head of shallots I lifted. Some were the fat little pink-ish cream beasts as here, others were vast, bilious khaki green tiger slugs.

Thank goodness for dahlias.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Gothic horror shed

It was so wet one day (I forget which - all the wet days are merging into one) that I was reduced to taking photos inside the shed. We REALLY need to spring clean our shed, but I suppose it has its own little eco-system. The very biggest spiders scuttled away when the flash went off, leaving their defunct prey/predecessors. The effect of the flash disguises the true gothic horror nature of the scene.

The small camera I'd taken to the allotment wasn't great for indoors, close quarters photos, but I wasn't going to risk taking our decent camera since this summer has taught me that within 2 minutes of doing anything my hands would be covered with glaur, which I would make anything I touched absolutely yirdit.

Monday, 1 September 2008

A break from the rain

Not completely, but we did have two almost dry days in the hills/on the loch the other weekend. (I was going to write about the past two wet weekends at the allotment, but couldn't fact it).

While my family did various things on and in water:

I headed into the hills (Ben Lawers), accompanied by the man with the strimmer, who tore himself away from windsurfing.

The heather was just coming into bloom.

It seems to be a good year for cranberries and blaeberries.

I couldn't resist a 'bluebells of Scotland' shot:

And I've always loved the bog cotton. When we used to go to the north west of Scotland every year on holiday, I would collect bundles of the stuff, intending to 'do' something with it when I got home. I'm not sure what - spin it???? But at the age of 7 or 8 it felt very purposeful and self-sufficient.