Jonathan: Recently I’ve been spending the occasional half-days at Eight Askernish installing the new whole-house ventilation and heat recovery system. But I’ve not been alone. and that’s not all that’s been going on there. Most of the willow trees now look as though they’ve been through a shredding machine – and a malfunctioning one at that. The blanket of orange-brown leaves fallen and decaying over the banks of mombretia have been scuffed away and there tubers are scattered over the ground. And were there any room for doubt as to the nature of our nocturnal visitors, there are little piles of dark brown nuggets – like sheep poo, but bigger and more pointy. Red Deer! At this time of year they are very hungry, and come down from the wild hills that line the east side of Uist to maraud our gardens. They’re stripping the bark off the younger willow branches, and the mombretia tubers are full of starch and vitamins.
Many islanders insist there are too many deer, and they need to be heavily culled to reduce numbers. Disturbing the mombretia is not really much of a problem – the tubers they leave will soon multiply, fertilized by the deer poo ; but the willow trees – and indeed trees of any description – are extremely difficult to grow and short-lived, and after the deer have finished with them they don’t exactly enhance the garden – and anyway will die off very soon. We’ve decided to respond by expanding our planting of rosa rugosa, the thorny stems of which protect it from deer, but which provide numerous benefits to all concerned: they grow well even at this extremely exposed site ; they provide excellent low-level privacy, shelter – for humans and for birds and insects ; they produce lovely flowers over a long season that scent the air, and then colourful hips which feed birds through late autumn and early winter ; and in early spring the green tips are tolerant of browsing by deer, as the taller shoots need pruning back anyway – it stimulates stronger growth nearer the ground.
Jonathan: A gloriously sunny day! A day when it really feels that Spring is springing! A light breeze, not a drop of rain, almost cloudless skies (solar pv output exceeded 10kWh – the first time for 2016), and despite air temperature if single figures, warm in the sun – especially if working. So we did and we were. I completed a second day of (long overdue!) heavy pruning overgrown borders – Hebe/Veronica bushes and Rosa Rugosa beds ; and then the pleasure of a really good bonfire (requiring – at the end of the day – a long shower and complete change of clothes). Denise tidied up borders – clearing away dead and decaying leaves, lightly forking the soils, and working in compost. I was working on my own, but Denise had help: the Buff Orpingtons were let out of their yard to pick over the borders for grubs and bugs, and they seemed to really enjoy their work. The cats, were busy, too: when we’re out working in the garden they love to keep us company, and make us aware of their presence by showing off – racing around, attacking make-believe mice, skipping along the ridges of the greenhouses, climbing and ‘hiding’ in trees and pouncing on another cat or on Tilly.
Tabatha in the trees
Buff Orpingtons cleaning up the borders
Hebe/Veronica pruning finished,
Pruning of Rosa Rugosa finished
Bonfire of Hebe/Veronica
seaweed mulch – see white grubs!
Jonathan: Yesterday was another glorious late-winter day, and I made the most of it by catching up with vital outdoor jobs long delayed by bad weather. Feeding the soil remains top priority, if we are to be ready for the planting and sowing in early spring, and whilst getting compost out from the compost heap onto the growing areas is of course included in that, fetching seaweed is more urgent because there’s no guarantee it will still be there in a few days time! So, after lunch I set off, again, with the van and trailer for seaweed. This time I went to another beach where there was only a shallow rise – and firmer ground – from the beach to the lane, and this meant I loaded the trailer more fully (32 barrows instead of about 24), but also managed it in less time – and with less risk of an early death.
Blackbird feeding on grubs in seaweed mulch
Blackbird rearranging seaweed mulch to get at grub
8 barrows of seaweed over 4 rhubarb crowns
Back at An Garradh Mor, I started offloading and spreading on the west side of the garden – more rhubarb, but also redcurrants and blackcurrants, but I’d started the job too late and I had to leave a third of it until this morning. When I took the first barrow up to the strawberry cold-frames, I caught sight of a rather plump female blackbird quietly picking over the seaweed that, I’d spread yesterday. The colours of her plumage was so close to that of the seaweed that she was well camouflaged, and it was only her flinging about of the seaweed that had caught my attention: yet she was no more than a metre or so from me, and seemed untroubled by my presence or movements. She stayed close to the low branches of the gooseberry bushes – presumably as a defensive strategy against predators – including – potentially – our own cats – and was feeding on tiny white grubs in the seaweed (there are millions of them amongst seaweed that’s started to decay whilst still on the foreshore) and seemed quite prepared to eat all of them. For one minute I counted her feed-rate: 97 grubs were consumed! I first saw her at about 10am, and – unless she retired for a siesta whilst Denise and I were indoors having lunch, she remained feeding by just two fruit bushes until 5pm – when ended work for the day, and never once did she react to my working in such close proximity. A well-dined blackbird indeed!