Out with the Old, In with the New

March 31, 2020

Gardening at this time of year always reminds me of the apocryphal resolution of some town council in Scotland somewhere to 1) build a new prison, 2) save money by using the bricks from the old prison in the new prison, and 3) to house the prisoners in the old prison until the new prison is built …

Veg plot in March

The focus at the moment is getting everything planted for the coming season but the old season isn’t finished yet – and at a time when access to fresh veg feels like a luxury I’m not ready to cut it off before it’s done. The purple sprouting broccoli is just getting into its stride, the kale is still hanging in there, the Swiss chard is gearing up to produce a final flush of leaves before it bolts for good, and the leeks … well the last remaining leeks are doing a convincing impression of spring onions. With the weather warming up and the days lengthening, they might well have plumped up a bit more before they bolted too but like time and the tide, seed potatoes wait for no man so today they got eaten, ready or not to make room for the spuds. ‘Baby leeks’ are totally a thing, right?

very small leeks

I’ve also been taking the chance to plant some of the hardier flowering plants I have been raising from seed. There’s still a lot of garden to take back control of, and I’m generally too tight-fisted to buy actual plants from a garden centre (village plant sales are another matter) but I have great difficulty in walking past a display of seeds without some seductively illustrated little packet ending up in my basket. Not all of these are successful, and my failure to find a plant labelling solution that remains legible after a few months means that those that do grow often end up as mystery plants before they are planted out, but I’m pretty sure that these are my white foxgloves (we have plenty of the normal pink ones) which I planted underneath our wedding anniversary birch trees while catching up with the latest government announcement on the radio.

foxglove seedlings

There’s a weird disconnect involved in doing something as generally pleasant and hopeful as planting out young plants, while listening to the daily announcement of the coronavirus death toll. I can only hope that by the time they are in flower (if indeed they do flower), the memory of this time will seem like something from the distant past.

Lockdown Life

March 28, 2020

We’re so lucky to be experiencing this lockdown where we are – with a large garden and plenty of places to walk and cycle safely nearby – that I’m almost hesitant to blog these days because it feels a bit like bragging. The fact is, I’ve basically been preparing for this for approximately the last 10 years: not just the gardening and working form home, but the knitting (there’s a real danger I’ll finish the jumper I started more than a year ago if this goes on), sourdough starter to deal with the yeast shortage, and even the fact that I haven’t troubled a hairdresser for a decade so I won’t be emerging on the other side looking any different from normal, i.e. as if I was recently dragged through a hedge backwards. So I’m sure all of you will be tuning up your very tiniest of violins because I can no longer get my daily paper because it’s not an essential purchase and we’re too far away from any newsagent to take advantage of the free delivery offer (I was still super excited this morning when the other half went shopping for the first time in a week and came back with the Saturday Guardian – and I’ll be making it last all week).

Meanwhile, with spring battering on as if everything was normal, which of course for much of the non-human world it is, I am getting on with as much as I can. This is the year when there will be no excuses for not getting everything prepared and planted in good time, although at least the garden visiting committee is also under lockdown and can’t spring one of his surprise inspections on me (at least, I don’t think so but he’s a bit of a law unto himself so I’m not ruling it out). Indeed I have actually made a fair start of getting the veg underway and tackling various projects, like sorting out my fedge, but the real luxury now that everything is cancelled is that I’ve time to just potter, which is my favourite form of gardening of all.

Mostly I like to work in the garden with Radio 4 chuntering away soothingly in the background but these days that can backfire. Apart from the mysteriously coronivirus-free Archers, the radio now delivers a steady diet of doom and disasters, distracting me from the job in hand. I can’t remember what I was listening to when I was planting my kale and broccoli seeds – the coronivirus special Moneybox Live? The coronavirus special Inside Health? – but it was clearly a bit too compelling. As kale and broccoli are both brassicas, and hence basically the same species, you can’t really tell them apart until the plants are fairly mature so it’s important to correctly label your seed trays after planting. Even more important is not absent-mindedly planting broccoli seeds in the same modules where you’ve just planted your kale. Oops. Especially as broccoli is about the only thing that really produces anything to eat at this time of year … I’m just going to have to do another sowing that’s definitely broccoli and see if I can work out what’s what when the seedlings emerge in the other tray.

Meanwhile, I’ll maybe stick to Gardeners’ Question Time when doing anything that requires any concentration. Although no doubt even GQT will be doing a coronavirus special in a week or so’s time …

A Short Walk in a Different Wood

March 25, 2020


Today being Day-How-Can-It-Only-Be-Two of lockdown, and an impossibly lovely spring day to boot, I tempted the other half onto the bike for our state-sanctioned single period of exercise to vary our usual tramp up through the nearest woodland and back.

at the bridge

We are so massively fortunate to be here. I can’t say our roads were any quieter than normal, but that’s mainly because it’s they’re quiet all the time anyway so it’s hard to tell the difference. There were perhaps a few more bikes out on the road than normal, but we were able to keep our distance from everyone but each other and the tractor driver who decided that coronavirus or no coronavirus, a metre is plenty when you’re squeezing past a cyclist.

bikes in the woodland

I’m not really that used to just going out for a bike ride – most of my trips on the bike have a purpose in mind, however tenuous. Today was mainly just about getting out and enjoying the first properly nice day of the year, although we did also gather some wild garlic in the woods by the waterfall for our supper, which I suppose counts as going to get food.

bridge over the waterfall

Oh, and seeing as we were in the area …

low water at ford

Chicken Run

March 24, 2020

Yesterday – or what feels like three weeks ago, in COVID-19 time – I had a message from a pal. Her rescue hens, which she’d picked up in a hurry on Sunday before everything started to shut down, were all laying and she already had a dozen eggs. Did I have a lidded plastic box she could use as an honesty box for the surplus?

Fortunately enough, I had the very thing because when Bigtownshire stopped doorstep recycling a decade ago before it was fashionable, we were all left with a lidded blue plastic box that was exactly the right specification and naturally – what’s 10 years, after all, but the blink of an eye (while also approximately a half century in COVID-19 time) – we still had ours hanging around. It was currently storing the final handful of tatties so I promptly rehomed those, gave it a good scrub inside and out, and hitched up the trailer to take it down to her before you could say ‘would anyone like an excuse for a bike ride?’

happy hens in new run

After an acceptably socially distanced chat and a chance to admire the hens, who were soon discovering the joys of scratching for grubs in the soil, and a trip to the shop for the paper, it was back home with half a dozen eggs for what turns out might be the foreseeable future. The hens will soon get the run of my friend’s garden (once she’s protected her new veg patch)  while we’ll be the ones being cooped up. We’ll still go out for our government-sanctioned walk or bike ride as long as it’s recommended, and we’ll be doing the occasional food shop when supplies run out but we’re neither of us essential workers so there’s no real reason for us to go and mingle with anyone. I’m sad not to have my daily paper (don’t worry, the Guardian will still get its money as we’ve paid for the vouchers) but that’s a tiny sacrifice compared with what others are facing.

Things are changing all the time, but for now stand by for many more gardening posts – and rather less ranting about the coonsil. I might even make it down to check out the ford …

Stay safe out there.

Blasted Stockpilers

March 18, 2020

So, with everything being cancelled now, and spring advancing fast across the land – you might be wondering how my gardening is getting on. Surely this will be the year when everything gets planted in good time, the weeds get tackled, the wilderness beaten back (except where I’m actively encouraging it to come forward)?

Well, maybe. Today I did venture up to the greenhouse to water the seeds I’ve planted so far and to start preparing the beds for their future inhabitants. Peering at my sweetpea planters I noticed that one of them had what looked remarkably like a broad bean seed in it. Funny, I thought and looked again and realised that, no, it was two broad beans. And that the modules where I’d planted my broad beans had a neatly excavated little hole in each one.

excavated planting modules

The mice have clearly figured out a way into the greenhouse and had been busy storing up their own supplies by excavating every single broad bean and pea seed I’d planted, stashing some (I expect there will be misplaced pea and bean plants all over the place) and – from the evidence of the little pile of bean shells in the corner – scoffing the rest. So much for us gardeners having a ready source of food in the coming months.

broad bean remains

Fortunately, between the ones I found and the leftovers in the packet I had enough seeds to replant (and the modules are safely in the utility room until they sprout). I feel a tiny bit guilty about stealing the poor mice’s supplies but then again, if they hadn’t been greedy enough to dig up too many to hide properly, then I might never have noticed and they could have consumed the rest at their leisure. I’m sure there’s an Aesop’s fable along similar lines…

Before the Storm

March 17, 2020

It’s safe to say we’re in a fast moving situation – even here in Bigtownshire, which is saying something. After the PM’s announcement of the latest coronavirus measures yesterday afternoon, I spent this morning alternating between sending out emails cancelling things and receiving emails from other people cancelling things. As of now, pretty much everything I had pencilled in for April, May and most of June except actual work has either been cancelled, moved online, or postponed until September (and boy will that be a busy month).

These are worrying times but although I’m generally a fairly anxious person, I’m not finding it’s quite cut through to me yet. In fact there’s been something quite liberating about watching all the things I usually fret about fall by the wayside, one by one. Other worries will take their place (and more serious ones, as the epidemic starts to properly take hold) but for now it all feels a bit remote from our daily lives.

empty rural road

Partly this may be because – so far at least – Bigtown and the surrounding area remains resolutely unpanicked. I enjoyed empty roads as I cycled into town this lunchtime to meet the other half for one last hurrah at our favourite (indeed, only) local Syrian restaurant but then again, our roads are always empty so that was nothing new. Once in Bigtown the traffic was pretty much as normal, the car parks as full as ever, and the restaurant – which we thought might need our support and possibly not even have opened – actually busier than it usually is on a Tuesday lunchtime. I suspect things will change – the other half was only in work because he was picking up the files and things he needed to work from home, and I imagine others will be in a similar situation. But as I cycled home again in the rain, laden with emergency supplies of baklava, it felt like, up here at least, we were still in the first stages of the phoney war, before the real dangers commence.

baklava boxes

I hope that’s the case, because we’re taking the calculated risk of making a quick visit to my parents for a couple of days before any possible lockdown takes hold. On balance it feels like the right thing to do, given how long it could be before we have another chance, but I hope it’s not a decision that will come back to haunt us.

Then by the weekend we’ll be back home and ready to settle into a peaceful few weeks of gardening, pottering and other socially distanced activities until all this is over and we can get on with our lives. If, as Huttonian always used to say, we are spared. A phrase that feels just a mite too close to the bone right now….


Buns in the Time of the Coronavirus

March 15, 2020

So this has been a strange week with gathering doom and gloom online and on the news, combined with largely business-as-usual so far in what passes for the real world (working from home in an isolated house up a hill it would actually be quite hard to tell if I was social distancing or not). I’m guessing this is the calm before the storm, and I have the same worries of older parents and friends with underlying health issues as many, but so far the main impact on us has been a couple of cancelled events, a shortage of pasta shells, and rather too much – possibly garbled – information about epidemiology and virus transmission than I really feel I can do anything sensible with other than take steps to clean my phone (a soapy damp cloth, apparently, for those of you still catching up).

A couple of weeks ago I was added to a Facebook group of people who bake to alleviate anxiety which mainly just added to my anxiety that I might not be making the most of my anxieties by doing anything as productive as baking. However, it did serve to nudge me into attempting sourdough cinnamon buns this weekend. Unfortunately our panic buying/sensible stocking up policy (delete as appropriate) had failed to include enough eggs to attempt this recipe from a friend’s blog, but I did manage to adapt my usual Chelsea bun recipe using sourdough starter instead of commercial yeast, and with a butter and cinnamon filling instead of the normal currants.

I don’t know that it did anything to relieve my anxiety, but at least it gave me the excuse to post something on social media that wasn’t about coronavirus, hopefully leavening other people’s timelines briefly from a diet of drawn-out tweet threads from experts in something or other explaining at some length why, actually, we probably should consider panicking now.*

They were also rather delicious whether you’re in the throes of a gathering pandemic or not, if perhaps a little worthier than the non-sourdough version (mainly because my starter has a fair bit of wholemeal flour in it). We’re still working on the icing – these are glazed with lemon juice and icing sugar which was nice, but tended to just disappear when poured over the warm buns. Still, it looks like we might have time on our hands over the coming weeks to perfect the recipe.

Indeed I might even manage to catch up with myself in the garden … I wonder if there’s a Facebook group for that?

* Unless you only follow cyclists, in which case you may not be aware that there’s anything going on at all:

Missing: One Mojo

March 9, 2020
sprouting rhubarb

I would have illustrated this with a photo of the little lambs, but rhubarb stays still to be photographed and lambs don’t

The problem with the seemingly endless, relentless weather we’ve had this winter is that when the weather warnings finally stop and the wind drops and the sun even ventures out briefly, I seem to have become too ground down to take advantage. Despite lengthening days, lambs appearing in the fields, and a general sense that spring might actually be on its way, I haven’t really felt the gardening urge yet (to be completely honest I haven’t felt much of an urge to do anything – I think the constant drip of bad news is finally starting to get to me).

seedlings in propagator

This year, for the first time in ages we’ve missed potato day so I haven’t had a chance to make a random selection of seed potatoes, and nor have I ordered any seeds, apart from the chillies and tomatoes we’d started in the propagator. But spring waits for nobody and arrives when it likes, ready or not, so yesterday we had a quick trip to one of Bigtown’s garden centres and this morning I took advantage of a window in the weather to visit the other one to complete my planned purchases.

Tree-lined road

And then, with more rain forecast later but the morning remaining fine, I went off on a little mini adventure to see if that might reset my mojo a little.

St Queran's Well

My destination was St Queran’s Well – not because I believe in its reputation for healing (although in these uncertain times perhaps a little magic water wouldn’t go amiss if your local supermarket shelves have been stripped of supplies of hand sanitiser) – but because it seemed like it might be interesting. It seems to have been a place of pilgrimage for centuries (when cleaned out in the 1870s, several hundred coins were found in it, some dating back hundreds of years). It is still visited by those seeking something from its powers, going by the ribbons and other bits of cloth attached to the nearby cloutie tree – although the Tibetan prayer flags suggest this is more down to new age practices than the survival of ancient cult beliefs – or possibly just someone hedging their bets.

cloths hanging from a tree

The sheep had left some offerings too, albeit probably unintentionally.

sheep's wool on wire

I didn’t take the waters, just a few photographs. There were an older couple there who I think were visiting out of more than just curiosity so I left them to it. I hope if they were seeking something they found it.

And me? I got home before the rain started, which is always most pleasing, and I’d enjoyed a pleasant detour on my bike, so any lift in my mood is probably down to that. With two bags of seed potatoes and a veg-plot worth of seeds to plant we’ll see if it’s been enough to restore my gardening mojo when the rain stops again.

The Wind in My Hair …

March 3, 2020

Well, March nearly got off to the worst possible start with the discovery yesterday that I had lost my tweed cap. Normally it’s fairly safe from my tendency to lose things (see gloves, right handed) as it either lives on my head (if I’m out) or if I’m in the house then it will have come into the house on my head and so can’t have got far under its own steam. Unfortunately, on Sunday, faced with another gusty headwind home, I had taken the precaution of taking it off and putting it in my pocket in case it blew off and into the river. From there, it had undoubtedly fallen out, something I only discovered yesterday afternoon when I was ready to go out again.

This could have been a disaster as it would be tricky to replace. It’s not that tweed caps are hard to come by in Bigtown – every old boy in the town would appear to be issued a ‘bunnet’ on his 60th birthday with strict orders to wear it at all times. They are indeed the perfect headgear for around here being warm, waterproof and fairly secure in the wind; for the cyclist they also offer the benefits of a peak against occasional outbreaks of sunlight and a modicum of buzzard protection. The problem is that they do not usually come in my pinheaded size and they need to be a snug fit to stay on. Last time, I even investigated children’s hats, but they tend not to come in proper Harris Tweed, which is the only appropriate material for a proper bunnet. The current incumbent of my head had to be specially ordered for me by my mother and it might be a while before I was suitably behatted if I had to wait for that process again.

So there was nothing for it but to retrace yesterday’s ride, scanning the road verges with more than usual attention. And there it was, fortunately on a quiet side road, apparently unscathed from 24 hours lying on the ground, for such is the magic of tweed. It may not look like much, my little road-coloured hat, but boy was I glad to see it again.And yes, I did put it straight onto my head (after a good shake). It might be March and no longer actually snowing or blowing a gale but it’s still pretty bloody freezing all the same.

hat on road

Marching On

March 1, 2020

I think I may have mentioned this before, but I’m pretty much done with this weather. We may not, fortunately, have had the flooding they’ve suffered further south but it seems to have been day after day of pulling on the waterproofs, hoping I remembered to dry my sodden gloves out after the last outing, and heading out for the next battering. I’ve reached the point where if it’s ‘only’ raining or ‘only’ blowing a gale, it doesn’t actually feel that bad, considering some of the other days I’ve had on the bike.

On Friday I knew I was in for a wet one but I felt I was more or less prepared as I readied myself. Gloves, check. Waterproof socks, check. Boots, check. Waterproof trousers, check. Hat, check. Glance out the window to see snow of some description mixed in with the rain, ah well, these things are sent to try us. What I hadn’t factored in until I’d set off was that these weren’t fluffy soft gentle snowflakes, oh no. These were vengeful handfuls of ice being flung by the wind into my face and – especially painfully – my ears. Stinging doesn’t begin to describe the sensation. It is of moments like these that cycling in February is made, and even the most ardent evangelist of the joys of cycling can claim there’s any pleasure to be gained from it, other than a grim sense of satisfaction at having endured the month.

Today, though, it is March and while the wind is still pretty ferocious, we must surely be within sprinting distance of spring. Storm Jorge was still raging this morning as I headed down to Bigtown for a little path clearing, but working out of the wind and in the sun we felt … actual warmth. Layers were even removed, albeit mostly only temporarily. Could it be the end of this endless winter is in sight?

Actually, Weather Gods, maybe don’t answer that question.

Me, contemplating another three weeks of winter