In our first year back on the mainland we grew nothing other than some strawberries. We did bring some chickens over from Rum and got back to Rum five times to pick fruit, deal with the sheep on the croft and generally just settle in here and get back there as much as possible.
Last year though a combination of more work tying us to the mainland and lockdown preventing us from getting to Rum at all meant we did some growing in the garden here. On the decking I created a container / pot garden with herbs and flowers in a huge variety of pots. Our strawberry bed started to establish with runners bought across from my plants on Rum, we put up a mini greenhouse and turned our spare room into a growing space for starting off seedlings too and we created two large raised beds in the garden.
Slugs were my nemesis. They munched through a vast proportion of what I had grown and even munched through replacement sowings AND a few more established plants which I bought off a friend. I think four crops of chard made it into the beds. Four crops of chard were enjoyed at various stages by slugs. No chard at all was eaten by any of us. The greenhouse was not up to the job either, despite many repairs, a whole new cover, bracing and tethering efforts and several emergency dashes outside in high winds it really struggled with the weather here.
My dwarf beans were a lot more dwarf than I had anticipated. I am still giggling at myself for my grand arches I constructed for them next to much smaller pea supports. The peas grew up and down the supports several times reaching up and beyond…. the beans grew about 3 inches, were mostly eaten by the slugs and I think I picked one single bean which was sad and small and curled up, quite probably feeling inadequate in the face of the towering bean arch!
I sowed too many peas which meant I planted them out too close together and probably had no bigger crop than if I’d planted half that number although that was by far the strongest crop providing garden snack opportunities for all and several dinners.
I lost the potential sweetcorn crop (although sweetcorn outside up here is always ambitious) to a late frost despite us covering the beds with old sheets to try and protect them. My cabbages, broccoli and cauliflower were all slug fodder. They also munched on all the carrot tops and any salad leaves or lettuces I sowed into the beds.
I tried egg shells and slug picking at nightfall, neither seemed to have much impact.
My leeks, finally harvested on St David’s Day were more spring onion than leek. Having tried – and failed – to grow leeks in sunny Sussex, wet and rainy Rum and now soggy and slug infested Strontian I may concede defeat and accept that it’s not them, it’s me.
The triumphs were salad leaves and other salady bits like tomatoes and spring onions, regular cut-and-come-again crops in containers, the peas, the herbs and all the flowers (including edible ones which we used in salads and as cake decorations.) Our decking was a riot of colour with bees and butterflies all summer long, glorious scents and lots of faffing around with arrangement of the pots opportunities as things grew up and got moved around. We also had fresh mint, coriander, rosemary, sage, garlic chives, lavender, basil for cooking with. I freezed and dried some of it and shared the lavender with the bees! We had a decent crop of potatoes although our plants grew like mutants and never flowered. We did worry that they may come and get us in our sleep as they were taller than me! I grew some comfrey which did quite well and I have planted some in the garden and chopped up some of the leaves to make a tea for feeding this coming years crops.
We built a little wildlife pond which we raised some tiny froglets to release in to and also rehomed a rescued toad that Scarlett saved from the beach (salt water is a killer for frogs and toads but they often find themselves washed down to the loch after heavy rain turns burns into rivers) although we have seen no evidence of either frogs or toads in the garden this spring. Bonnie Dog did bring a hitchhiking newt into the house last week though, riding on her back! This is excellent news for biodiversity in the garden, for slug population control and for having interesting critters around. It does mean we won’t stock the pond with frogspawn this year though as that might just be a buffet for the newts!
In the autumn once I un-netted the raised beds to let the chickens go back on the soil to scratch around, keep the weeds down and maybe help with the slugs we dismantled the greenhouse, saved what was salvageable from it (the plastic cover is being used to cover our log pile – more on the shelves in a minute) and planted loads of spring bulbs in the pots on the decking, around the fence line of the garden and around the pond. We have been rewarded with daffodils since early March, iris, crocus and now have tulips and grape hyacinths starting to bloom.
Which brings us to this year – the spring equinox has arrived and we’re already nearly in April. Despite a flurry of snow last week and a still cold feel to the temperatures the lengthening days and the calendar tell us it’s spring once more.
We have spread some manure from our neighbour’s horse onto our raised beds, I’ve emptied our own compost bin (which was beautifully rotted down other than a few eggs shells, which I spread anyway, assuming it can’t hurt to annoy the slugs a bit even if it doesn’t entirely deter them!). I have used a dose of nematodes on the beds too to see if it makes a difference and will attempt to both plant out seedlings a little later so they are more established and perhaps a bit more able to tolerate a bit of slug nibbling. I will also have a look at some companion planting tips this year, using some crops dotted around that deter slugs too.
I will sow fewer peas, install taller pea supports and smaller bean supports. I will sow fewer tomato seeds (says every gardener every year and almost never manages to do it – if you live near me I bet I’ll be offering you baby tomato plants a month or two from now!). I was very conservative with my seed purchasing this spring, although Ady ruined my sensible behaviour by arriving home with six multipacks of flower seeds and some more pots so the decking will be florally adorned again this summer despite reticence in vegetable plans.
The main plan for this year though was a more fit-for-purpose place to start the seedlings off. I’ve been collecting loo roll inners and plastic pots to cut up for plant labels, digging out the sunflower and lettuce seeds I lovingly harvested, dried and saved last year and shuffling through my seed packets like a deck of cards putting them into sowing date order, crops we most like eating order and alphabetical order since early February waiting to get my hands in compost.
A friend gave us some old windows and Ady picked up an old pallet so one day a couple of weeks ago we assembled the windows, the pallet, power tools, screws and brackets,a clear space on the decking (we decided that was best – ease of location for regular watering and monitoring, south facing for most sun with east and west aspects too, backing on to the house for shelter / additional warmth, elevated away from slug action) and spent about an hour holding windows up in various configurations, talking ourselves in and out of ideas, measuring and cogitating. Finally we came up with this.
Three smaller windows around the front and two sides, a larger window on top, a pallet on the back. It is secured to the decking and to it’s component parts. The top slopes down to get the most daylight / sun and it has plenty of gaps for ventilation as condensation was a big issue with the mini plastic covered greenhouse. We repurposed some of the window hinges we took off to make the door on the front hinged. Originally the plan had been to have the top able to be lifted off but it is *so* heavy it would have been unsafe.
It is super sturdy and has been comprehensively tested with some very high winds. The recess of the glass set into the frame on top was collecting rainwater but Ady has drilled some holes so it now drains. We have sufficient windows left to create an extension to it once we get another pallet for a back. The pallet back means we can cover it with cloth on cold nights or open it up when it is warmer so we can control the temperature a little in there too. We could also cover the whole thing with something white and reflective (that old sheet!) if it got really too hot in there.
After giving it a day or so to ensure it was definitely up to the job and test in heavy rain (hence drainage holes) and high winds I was finally able to get sowing. Scarlett has collected all sorts of useful things off the beaches, mostly fish farm rubbish like fish boxes and trays which are really useful seed trays. I also have supermarket meat or veg packaging trays and of course my loo roll inners which with a few snips and some folding make perfect modules for sowing peas, beans, sweetcorn etc.
I managed to cobble together some shelving from the old doomed mini greenhouse too so there are several hundred little seeds all tucked up in warm compost doing their thing in there now. Watering proved slightly trickier than in the walk-in mini greenhouse where a fine rose on a watering can did the job but Ady had the genius idea of a pressure sprayer which he picked up for me from the supermarket for under a tenner. Thanks to it’s long arm I am able to reach in and perfectly deliver the right amount of water to each module AND feel like I’m in Ghostbusters (or is that just me when using a pressure sprayer?).
Two weeks on and this morning when I went out to water and cheerlead I was thrilled to spot the first little green leaves peeking through. Even more excitingly these are from lettuce seeds that I harvested, dried and saved myself last year.
Of course the reason I saved them was because they had bolted and gone to seed, so I cut them off, dried the seed pods and kept them, then crushed them open over the compost a couple of weeks ago. I am currently taking this to mean I am an excellent seed saver although if they bolt again then I may have to accept they are simply a very energetic and enthusiastic breed of lettuce and feed them to the chickens!
Excitingly though this could mean we are eating home grown salad by the end of April.
I have some seed potatoes to go in and some currant cuttings from a friend to get put in the ground, plus a bramble which I would like to train growing in the strawberry bed (train to grow in a certain direction, not train to do tricks!) and of course I need to keep doing succession sowings of things every few weeks too. It’s great to feel that the garden is coming back to life after winter though and think ahead to all those lovely summer days spent out there last year.