Slow painting

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.