Slow painting

Monday 25 August 2008


An article on the Gardeners' World website about plants on railway embankments made me think about a railway journey I made this summer. It was familiar territory in many ways, from the Moray Firth to Aberdeen, then down the east coast to Edinburgh. It was a fraction of the journey I did many times as a student: the long haul down to London as the starting point for some trip or another, often getting the boat train from Victoria. The return journey was always a sheer delight, no matter how fed up with trains and planes I was by that time. Coming from France, it was an immediate re-possession of Britain by way of railway embankments, back gardens and allotments, and railway stations. The journey north from King's Cross to Aberdeen took most of a day, with the changing geography rolling past the window. Quite apart from the splendours of the North York Moors, Durham and York cathedrals, the Forth Rail Bridge and the cliffs near Stonehaven, I especially loved the railway stations with flower beds and hanging baskets.

On my most recent journey I was sorry to see that the stations which used to have quirky flower beds and a general mass of colour were now bare and empty. Only one station had anything growing in platform flower beds - Ladybank, in Fife - and those were sponsored by some company or other (obviously its advertising opportunity was lost on me). Understandably railways have to be staffed by people who are trained to run a safe and on-time (?) service, but I really missed seeing flowers at stations. It makes me feel a hundred years old to be saying this.

Tuesday 19 August 2008

Still wet

The last two precious days of holiday, and it's raining in stair rods. When I took husband and son to the station at 6.30 this morning (a university open day over the border) it had the feel of an October morning. An hour later, it's even darker, and the rain heavier.

I had hoped for a morning at the allotment after being away for a long weekend of sailing, kayaking, windsurfing and hillwalking (the rest of the family got wet - I stuck to dry land). We were lucky with the weather, which was dry but windy, except for rain on the last afternoon. That lulled me into thinking that I would have a pleasant morning today doing whatever most needed doing at the allotment. I should have known. As Flaubert said, 'Never construct'.

My on-the-hoof garden notebook is getting rather repetitive:

Too wet to lift shallots.

Too wet to paint shed.

Too wet to sow anything.

Soil too wet to stand on to pick green peas.

In spite of the rain, I should go along, if only to rescue the leeks from what I suspect will be strangulation by pumpkin by this time.

Friday 15 August 2008

Gardeners' World

So it's Toby Buckland. Chris Beardshaw would have been...restful to look at, but otherwise I'm happy that it's not one of the current lot.

Sowing for spring

This is the first time I've sowed seeds for a spring crop. Looking at the points of green peeking through in their tray on the windowsill, I felt what I can only describe as a temporal lurch. I'm so used to just sowing in the spring. Perhaps this is one of these significant steps on the way to becoming a true gardener. It feels hopeful, too, in the way that planting spring bulbs on a raw autumn day is some sort of bastion against the long Scottish winter.

I think I'm rather late though to be sowing broccoli. It just didn't seem to be possible to do it sooner, since we've had a summer of visitors (Norway, Austria twice, USA), and have been away for two separate weeks. Although we took the hamster and all her luggage with us on holiday, even I balked at a tray of seedlings added to the rich and overflowing mix that is our packing when we holiday in the UK. Our next door neighbour would normally be happy to water any plant, but as she's just had an operation I couldn't ask her. So I've delayed until now, and hope that an indian summer allows for decent growth during the autumn. Finger crossed for spring cabbage 'Wintergreen', spring greens 'Spring Hero', broccoli 'Bordeaux' and 'Claret'.

Sunday 10 August 2008


Days and nights of continuous rain, and not much inclination to squelch along to the allotment. When we did get along in a lull yesterday afternoon we found that the dahlias had begun to flower.

Apart from that splash of colour, everything was a quagmire. Not the sort of conditions to be tramping over the earth, but beans needed picking, and the new growth of raspberry canes had begun in the space of a few days to lean outward from the parent canes. In fact there was a definite tendency towards the south.

I wonder if the amount of daylight is already declining to the extent that the canes are seeking the sun. Our plot is shaded by trees to the west, and by this time of year more than half of the plot is in the shade. If the canes are leaning towards the light, it would seem to mark the beginning of autumn - in mid August. In the past two weeks there's been quite a difference in the length of the evenings. It's now almost dark at 10 pm, and already I'm regretting the light nights of June.

Since the current year's canes have finished fruiting I should have cut them back and tied in the new growth, but the secateurs were safely at home. So I settled for the untidy job of tying the new canes in to the wires - a job that will have to be re-done neatly and securely in a few weeks. That was annoying, given that I'll soon be back to work full time and be fighting to find time for the allotment.

The rain had brought on the sunflowers. With a lot of luck they might flower and enhance the harvest theme.

I had a look at the rampant sunflowers on a neighbouring plot, and took the photo below. It strikes me now that it might be called 'sunflowers with sheds.' From some angles it seems as if the most prolific crop at the site is variegated garden sheds.

After I'd taken the photo I looked down to see the fox looking at me.

After a moment it decided that its fleas were more interesting than my presence, and sat and had a good old scratch.

Friday 8 August 2008

Summer reading

Among my summer reading this year have been three gardening-related books, quite apart from a more or less constant diet of Monty Don's 'My Roots', 'The Jewel Garden' and 'Fork to Fork', which I find essential ongoing reading.

First up, read quickly over an evening and the next day, was 'Trowel and Error', Alan Titchmarsh's autobiography. I found it in the tiny library of my home village in the north. I'm not a particular Titchmarsh fan, tho with Monty Don no longer on Gardeners' World I'd be delighted if Alan would return and save me from weekly fury at the sight of Carole 'plunting' her scarf. Anyway, the book was a good, unpretentious canter through the trajectory of parks department apprentice to national figure.

Then 'The Morville Hours', by Katherine Swift. I had high hopes for this, and put off reading it until I had enough time to savour it. Based on the structure of a medieval Book of Hours, and the divine offices of the monastic day, it's the account of the author's creation of a garden reflecting the history of those who had lived in the house and area, from Celtic Christianity onwards. The further on in the book I went, the more I was aware of determinedly savouring its 'profound knowledge', as one reviewer put it, and trying to revel in the descriptions of plants and flowers and seasons. I finished it feeling just - sad. For all its fraught beauty and richness, I felt an emptiness at its heart - an unhappy childhood, her parents' unhappy marriage, her own childless semi-detached marriage which then ended - which left me thinking, 'poor woman', and from the perspective of my tiny suburban garden and part-time allotment, not envying her beautiful, infused-with-meaning garden one jot.

Now I'm in the middle of 'A Little History of British Gardening', by Jenny Uglow, and enjoying every word of it. After 'The Morville Hours', it's an absolute delight, and I'm having to spin it out so that I don't finish it too quickly.

Thursday 7 August 2008

En route

The way to the allotment has changed again.

The dog roses and elderflowers of midsummer are past, replaced by encroaching branches and the green heads of elderberries. We missed making elderflower fritters here, but we caught the later, northern elderflowers on holiday, and made some fritters then. They were surprisingly good, good enough to make us determined to take advantage of the local harvest next year. From that same expedition we picked the wild blaeberries that grow on Scottish moorland.

Back home, we squeeze past the branches of gean, through the gap in the railings, and into the dark tunnel of high summer.


A city fox trots around the allotment site. Normally it's on the move, warily. This week however, on a warm, still day, it was sunbathing on the plot next to ours, on a patch of weed-supressing carpet. It must have provided much the same cosy effect as a dog bed.

We were sitting having a cup of tea when we noticed it. We were certainly chatting loudly enough to be heard by it, but it drowsed on in the sun. When it did wake up it started grooming itself, and at times looked directly at us.

Tuesday 5 August 2008

Fallow period - holidays

Another weed growing period - the traditional British seaside holiday. Somewhat bracing this year. A wet beach, with beach huts closed up against the stiff northerly wind.

Not a bikini in sight.

No swimmers in the sea, either.

Couldn't resist taking a photo of the local plant:

It wasn't all cold and wet, thankfully.

Back home to weed clearing operations, for the umpteenth time. The green peas were submerged.

A good crop of mouldy strawberries was building up.

Something was eating the broccoli, despite the netting.

But there was some reward, and suddenly it did feel like summer.