garden days


One of the saddest things I had to do in the months following my stroke was to give up our Edinburgh allotment. I simply did not have the strength and energy to maintain a garden, and since then I have rather missed growing things. Our new home has lots of outdoor space, and happily I have more energy and strength (though I have to leave the digging and hauling stuff about to Tom). This is the first time we have had a garden of our own and we are really enjoying it.


Looking North and West from the top of the garden you can see Ben Lomond. The West Highland Way is just behind us, and you often hear the clink of the gate and the voices of walkers and cyclists as they pass. Away down the garden and past the house to the South there is the loch, and woods, in which, today, the first cuckoo of Spring was singing. It is a grand spot. I am trying not to be too ambitious with the planting this first year, and we are mostly growing things in pots and a couple of raised beds (which Tom is currently digging out). I have also put up a lean-to next to the shed, where I am bringing on the plants I started indoors.


There will be salad leaves and herbs and tomatoes. I am very fond of sweet peas, and have planted several varieties, the shoots of which are currently colonising the bathroom. The other day, I found a few forget-me-nots behind the shed and potted them on.


. . . and things in other pots are flowering



There is blossom on the exciting spiny shrub that I’ve now been told is an ornamental quince (thanks, Lynn and Miriana!)


Time for tea.



How very nice it is to be able to grow a few things and have this space to potter about in.


A post for those of you who have been wondering about the earlier appearance of the Himalayan poppy. On our drives through Argyll to catch the Islay ferry, I am often struck by the displays of azaleas and rhododendrons in the front gardens between Inveraray and Lochgilphead. These, in lurid 1970s shades of pink and orange, look amazing when set against the slatey blue-green waters of Loch Fyne, and I have often wondered if the locals are buying their plants at Crarae.

An Edwardian garden acquired by the National Trust in 2002, Crarae showcases an important collection of Himalayan plants in an absolutely stunning setting. Rhododendron Ponticum rightly gets a bad press in a Highland context, but Crarae is home to 600 different rhododendron species and hybrids, which are carefully managed among the native woodland.

The Crarae burn tumbles down the hillside to Loch Fyne, and the garden is built around the water and its gorge. Petal-strewn paths and bridges criss-cross the burn through colourful, gloriously scented woods, while the presence of larches, firs, and and tantalising glimpses of the surrounding lochs and mountains remind you that you are in Scotland, not the Himalayas.

I am sure the garden looks beautiful when it puts on its Autumn hues, but surely nothing beats the colourful eye-candy of the place in early June.

It was a beautiful, sunny day, and I was definintely in the mood for Crarae’s crazy floral confectionery.

The paths around the garden are very well-designed, with several waymarked routes for different walking abilities. I was particularly pleased to see that the Trust had designed a low-level wheelchair-accessible route, which took in the wonderful display of meconopsis at the top of this post. But, after my walking experiments, I was feeling ambitious, and decided to attempt the “white route”, which covered a couple of kilometres and some steep stretches up and down the gorge. The paths are managed, so unlike a “real” hill, there are steps, hand-rails, and benches to assist those who are tired or uncertain of foot. This was a great way for me to to attempt some inclines, and to enjoy some glorious sights and smells along the way.

I managed without the crutch again, as you can see, and am thinking more and more that gardens (of which there are many superb examples in Scotland, including Inverewe, which I shamefully have never seen) are a marvelous way for me to enjoy the outdoors while I am rehabilitating.

In other news, I must also report a resounding confectionery success, relative to which I have a query. While my own baking is rather workaday and unexciting (limited to bread, scones, and the occasional carrot or marmalade cake) Tom has a penchant for fancy cakes and pies which he makes extremely well. He has quite an exacting approach, and can spend months comparing and testing different recipes for tarte tatin or clafoutis. (This means, of course, that I get to try out these delicious treats and I am not complaining). While I was in hospital, Tom did not bake much, and consequently found himself buying a fair few cakes. He developed a fondness for a particular dessert made by Maison Blanc for Waitrose – a sort of chewy, nutty meringue, sandwiched together with mascarpone. He has been wanting to make this since he first tried it, but the cake was bewilderingly unnamed on the Maison Blanc box, and his search for a recipe was initially hampered by the fact that neither of us really knew what to call it. When I was a kid, Smiths, our local bakers sold something similar, (albeit less deluxe) which we referred to as a japonais, but a search for this did not turn up a recipe. Tom finally found a description of something called “Swiss Meringue” in Leith’s techniques bible, which, with chopped hazelnuts and white-wine vinegar to assure chew, sounded about right, and he tried it out on Sunday night. We lacked mascarpone, so he whipped up a vanilla cream instead. This thing was really unbelievably good – much better, indeed, than the Maison Blanc original. Courtesy of the swiss meringue, we have been happily floating away to pattiserie-land for the past couple of evenings, and it has whetted Tom’s appetite to attempt more in the way of such desserts. He has never made macaroons, and has read conflicting things about their ease (or lack thereof) of execution. He wondered whether you had recommendations of a good macaroon recipe, or whether you might have any macaroon-making tips. Any advice very gratefully received!

mead mountain x2

A White Christmas! And time, once again, to ascend mead mountain. Does doing this more than once make it a ritual or tradition? Whatever it is, the excitement of uncovering a bottle of home-brewed mead, buried at the top of a mountain, really never goes away. This bottle had a full twelve months to mature in its trusted site . . .

. . . and if possible, it tasted even better than last year’s vintage. Slainte!

To add even more fun to the mix, we had brought our fell shoes along with the idea of having a reviving Christmas run in the snow. So I took off my boots and donned my trusty Walshes (thanks once again for the super socks, Viv!) . . .

I can assure you that mead plus fell shoes is quite a heady combination. The feet securely grip the ice; the body glows with the power of delicious home-brewed fuel; one generally feels quite invincible. It was an exhilarating descent.

Phew! After a crazy snowy hurtle, we made our way homeward, stopping off at the allotment to collect the finishing touches for dinner.

It was very satisfying indeed to pull something we’d grown out of the cold ground. And one of my favourite gardening buddies stopped by to say Merry Christmas.

The allotments looked beautiful in the snow.

We are having a lovely holiday, and I hope you are too, however you like to spend it. Thanks so much for being with me throughout December, and particularly for all your comments, which I always appreciate and love to read. Seasonal joy to you, till we meet again in 2010!

on show


Today I visited the Edinburgh and District Allotments and Garden Associations Show. I found out about the show too late to enter (not that anything I’ve grown would have won any prizes, mind, but I do have hopes next year for the “any knitted item” category). I really enjoyed myself — it was great to see everyone’s veggies and chat to fellow gardeners — and, despite the weather over the past couple of months, there were some marvelous vegetables on show.


The onions gave me serious onion envy, and I confess to a brief, wistful moment when I looked at the tomatoes. For, I am very sad to report that all of my tomato plants fell prey to blight. This was a distressing sight when I returned home from the Hebrides, but I also felt bad for my allotment buddy, who was kindly taking care of things, and in my absence witnessed the onset of the evil spore. (I was able to salvage a crop of green tomatoes for chutney, so all was not lost).

I took note of some evidently successful and interesting vegetable varieties. I definitely want to try milan purple tops (you can see some inbetween the swedes and the carrots – beautiful).


There were some gorgeous blooms on display, too. Dahlias in abundance.


I was very impressed with the stained glass panel that won the “art or sculpture” category. Here is a detail. . .


. . . but my favourite entry was this arrangement, “the dark heart of savoy” — it was awarded second prize in its category.


I love the rich colours, and the incorporation of all kinds of produce into the display — there are brambles, beetroot, and broccoli in there! I enjoyed chatting to the chap who entered it — he was very pleased with his prize.


After the show, I spent a glorious golden afternoon on the allotment. I started cutting back the unruly hawthorn hedge that is currently stealing sunlight light from my beans. The hedge must be tamed, and the veggies must have light. The hedge resisted, but me and my pruning saw won in the end. That said, despite the goggles and industrial protective gear I was wearing (which would lead any observer to assume that I’d just got out of the puzzle factory) I managed to cut myself several times (the blood actually spurted! hawthorn is evil!) There is more of this to be done, but I think I might leave battling the remainder of the hedge till Tom returns from his immunological extravaganza in Berlin. . .

hawthorn(I chopped it).

Having been thoroughly inspired at the show, it was nice to come home with my own modest basket of veggies, and begin making plans for next year.




Sarah (possessor of much gardening wisdom) popped round for lunch today. The weather was just right for pottering about down the allotment, and I took the camera along so you can see how things are progressing.


The tomatoes and courgettes are ripening nicely, and at least some of the beans survived the Evil Slug Attack which decimated many of their comrades in their early stages. I love the beautiful blue borage flowers, and am pleased that the bees like it just as much as I. (Perhaps we need to get our hands on a bottle of Pimms?) After some enthusing about the flourishing leeks, and commiserations about the non-existent lettuce (slugs again – bah), we sowed “pronto” beetroot, chinese radish, and a few more varieties of turnip (my neep obsession deepens daily). Sarah inspected the pond. The resident frog did not appear, but I know he’s in there.


Her sweater makes me want to knit another one.

In the greenhouse, the grapes are abundant, and fill me with consternation. I can’t believe that the unruly woody thing I chopped back and trained across the roof a couple of months ago is producing these wonders. Now, I inherited this vine from Billy (the allotment’s former gardener), and, never having grown grapes before feel something of a novice. While poking about in my books tells me that these grapes are likely to be bianca, or black hamburgh, I don’t know how to distinguish grape varieties, and really have no clue what these are. Nor am I sure if a grape should look like this at this particular stage of growth. I’m a little worried by those black specks on the fruit too. . .


Can anyone help me out? Should I be concerned by the specks? Any tips that you may have for successful greenhouse grape-growing would really be very much appreciated. I have been happily dreaming of Tom incorporating these beauties into a tasty home-brewed beverage later in the season, and must make the dream A Reality.

Talking of making dreams reality, thanks so much for your support in my quest for the “promotional non-cereal breakfast product” (to paraphrase Liz), also known as The Dorset Cereals Eggcup of Dreams. This wee clip from Father Ted pretty much sums up my feelings.

(now available to watch on 4 OD)

Thanks, everyone! Now we must wait and see. . . .

* Gardener’s Question Time



It has been an insanely busy week! On top of the usual examining mountain that one must climb at this time of year, there has also been a whole lot of administrative gubbins that I’ve had to sort out quicksmart, as for the next couple of weeks my time is going to be taken up with. . . jury service. Amidst all of this, I have managed to spend a few precious and very excited hours here: yes, it is indeed the allotment. Honestly, I am completely blown away by it — I feel as if someone has given us an amazing gift of entirely unwarranted proportions. Actually, there’s no as if about it: someone has, and that someone is Billy, the bloke who tended it before us. . . (oh, and not forgetting the redoubtable Mr W of Edinburgh allotment services, who finally came through for us). Billy’s allotment is not just a piece of ground — it has an entire infrastructure. The sheds (note plural) come well-equipped with furniture, some tools (in reasonable nick), a stove and (joy!) a working chimney. There is also a greenhouse, a pond, well-built benches, fencing, and several bird boxes. The whole place is, of course hideously overgrown and in need of some repair — Billy can’t have done much here for the past season or two — but beneath the weeds we are beginning to uncover the shape of a thoughtfully laid out landscape. We are tackling the ground, and in a couple of small beds will be sowing what salad leaves and legumes we can — thanks to seeds from my dad (and some of you!) and a generous colleague who has donated squashes, tomatoes, and cucumbers.


Hacking my way through the undergrowth this week I have found many surprises, including an entire bed of strawberries battling stoically against the mare’s tail. Best of all, though, and in some wonderment, I discovered that the nettles of gigantic and primeval growth in the greenhouse disguised a thriving grape vine. I confess I was foolish enough to think of the eighteenth-century American women whose letters and diaries I read, many of whom were keen gardeners. These women’s politics – whether revolutionary or loyalist – often found articulation through the language of gardening, and they were fond of quoting that verse from the 4th chapter of Micah about sitting under one’s vine undisturbed. Whoa there! I’m getting historically carried away! Better get off down the allotment. . . .

the gardens at ardfin


Would you like to come for a short walk on Jura?


Leave your money in the honesty box by the tree, and follow the path to Jura House garden. With its mix of Scottish wild flowers and victorian woodland planting, the surrounding landscape looks like a fairy glade.


Then you open a door in the garden wall, and enter another world entirely


Because of the gulf stream, Jura has a very mild climate, but, as one might expect from a Hebridean island, it is buffeted by wind. Sitting on a sunny south-west slope, and protected behind high walls, the garden flourishes on Jura.


Laid out in the early nineteenth-century, the garden was originally designed to provide produce and flowers for the estate. The feel of the Victorian kitchen remains here, but the planting is now managed with a looseness and informality that I really liked. The feel of the space is intimate, comfortable, and not at all pristine.


each pathway opens up another delicious combination of colour and texture.


and there are plenty of places to rest and enjoy the fragrances and shifting sounds of the garden. The air is alive with magnolia, wild garlic, and many buzzing things.


Walls, of course, mean private property: they are there to keep the outside out. At Ardfin, this is forcibly brought to mind in the story of one notorious nineteenth-century estate owner, who cleared the nearby crofting community of Brosdale because it spoiled her prospect view. Today, however, the walls of Jura House are permeable, and its garden is very much a public space. One of the most impressive things about it is how it fits into the surrounding landscape: through careful estate management, the garden’s inside and its outside work in harmony. Beyond the garden walls, you can continue your walk along a spectacular cliffside to Poll a’ Cheo, (the misty pool) and its stone-age burial site.

To the south-east you see the mull of Kintyre, and the hills of Arran beyond:


And lovely Islay lies across the sound to the west:


Wild orchids thrive on the hillside, and, by the water’s edge, the shilasdair is coming into bloom:


A walk with a perfect mix of the cultivated and the wild.

green. and white. and pink. and blue


If you are wondering why I’ve not mentioned our allotment, this is because I was hoping that ‘the situation’ that has unfolded around the allotment would have resolved itself by now. This is ‘the situation’: basically the allotment man at the council managed to double book our plot, and it was assigned to someone else. We were then offered another allotment, at a site several miles away, but have decided to hold out for the plots nearest to us. As I may have mentioned, ‘our’ allotments are a short walk from our back door. Allotment man, having admitted his error, is apparently doing all he can, but the wheels of allotment administration move extremely slowly. Still no allotment, then, I am very sad to say. And, having stomped our feet both at allotment man and the council, there’s not much we can do but wait. But its very frustrating. The season is advancing, I am listening to gardeners question time, reading my veg growing books, and watching others getting on with the happy business of digging and planting with no small degree of wistfulness.


Meanwhile, Spring comes on in all its crazy abundance. I was put in mind the other day of a singular moment a few years ago when, having spent a couple of months working out of the country, I returned to Scotland in early May. Everything was just so damn green — the whole world was singing with green, with that colour’s energy and potential. I remember thinking the obvious stuff– were things always this green? What have I been missing?


So while I have no part in the making of green things, I am enjoying the general green immensely. Over the past few weeks, the paths on which I walk have been completely transformed. Blank brown spaces have suddenly become ridiculously verdant. Weeds are pushing up through paving stones, and every hard edge I used to see has been softened by the lines of stems and foliage. And flowers. There are flowers everywhere, and I am enjoying them all: the blossom past its best on the straight lines of municipally planted cherry trees; resilient, fragrant gorse and hawthorn; bluebells lighting up the undergrowth with their almost neon glow. So while I don’t yet have my allotment, right now, the whole city seems like my garden. A poem of colour: of green, and white, and pink . . .


. . . and blue.


happy birthday, Doris


Doris is one year old tomorrow. She has really made my day. Thankyou, Doris, for providing these lovely, sunny pictures which will illustrate the imminent owlet pattern. And hearty thanks, too, to Abi and Alby who were kind enough to pop out and meet me this lunchtime. These photographs were taken in the small pavilion that forms part of the Queen Mother’s Memorial in Edinburgh’s Botanical Gardens. I love this tiny grotto-like building, and in this instance, my fondness for shell-lined interiors supersedes my antimonarchical tendencies. The pavilion is built of Caithness stone and while its interior walls are lined with mussels, scallops and spoots, the ceiling is decorated with highland fir-cones. It is a very beautiful and distinctly Scottish space.


Many happy returns to Doris, and many thanks, again, to Abi!

belle’s summer quilt

The quilt is finished!

To recap: The quilt-top is made out of twelve of Belle’s stripey t-shirts, cut up and pieced together; I used an old blue sheet for the quilt back and one layer of light cotton batting. I tried various methods of hand-quilting the top, but didn’t like the way the stitches interfered with the fabric. So I tied the quilt with opal sock yarn (left over from a pair of socks I made for Mr B) and the ties are fixed so that they show through on the back rather than the front. Finally, I cut 2″ strips from a pair of gingham trousers, sewed them together, and used them to bind the quilt.

I am very pleased with the finished quilt. It was a difficult thing to make, but the process has been a thoughtful and a focused one.

Today we took the quilt out for a picnic in Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens. Everything is flourishing.

We picked a nice spot. . .

ate a picnic. . .

and enjoyed the scenery. . .

Here’s me shaking the crumbs from the quilt when it was time to go

and folding it up

and here’s a final shot of the quilt out on the grass in the sun.

In 2002, just after we moved to Edinburgh, Belle came to stay with us, and we went with her to the Botanic Gardens. It was this time of year, and just this kind of summer weather too. We had a lovely day. Belle loved flowers and plants and had a beautiful garden. It felt right to be taking a quilt made from her things to a place she liked so much, full of the plants that she enjoyed. Here she is in the glasshouse in the Botanic Gardens six years ago.


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