Jonathan & Denise >
… and Warm To Storm !
It was a long and tedious winter : cold – but never frozen ; the wind ever wuthering – but never wrecking ; and always wet – but never worse than wringing wet. A non-descript, irritating sort of winter. Thank heavens Spring arrived, suddenly, two weeks early!
Early Spring, in the the north and west of Scotland, is generally cold, dry and very sunny. Winds from the North and North-West bring air that, in the frozen realms where it has come from, have been entirely stripped of water vapour, microscopic dust, and other aerosols that scatter sunlight before it reaches the ground. The dry belies the cold, and the cold, in turn, belies the fire of the sun’s ultra-violet rays. In this half season, when outdoors, we must choose – and choose again – between sweating in the sun, or stripping off a layer two – and catching cold. Bare skin must always be protected with either max-factor sun-cream or clothing, but even so the skin dries and cracks or flakes, and infection can easily set in.
Nonetheless, if the wind is from the north, the sun-drenched south of our house, with its solid materials in walls and paving, soaks up the solar heat, becomes an outdoor oven, with heat radiated from the sun above and the hot paving slabs below. At such a season, Denise relishes the opportunity to put on shorts and shades, and to bask with a book.
An Garradh Mor : Denise sunbathing in shorts – in April
The shade temperature, at the north side of the house, was around 8 deg C !
After six weeks or so of these fine dry but cold conditions, the weather turned more unsettled, at times sunny and breezy, at other times dreary and damp, but always much milder, and overall more moderate and considerate for the plants that clothe our island, feed our bodies, and nurture our good spirits. The grass began to grow green and long, and our sheep less interested in their bagged feed. The sandy soils of the walled garden plumped up as the compost we worked in, during the winter, soaked up the rain ; and potato haulms poked their heads above ground ; the clumps of chives filled out and flourished – their greens plump and tasty and free of any yellow ; and beans, peas, onions, shallots burst into life. In the greenhouses, life continued as normal, the tomatoes and mediterranean herbs basking in the privileged conditions provided for them.
By mid May, even on cloudy days, the outdoor shade temperature was normally over 10 deg C, and on sunny days it really felt quite warm ; and, indeed, so it continues, with temperatures advancing – in fits and starts – into the upper teens (Centigrade).
But then, quite abruptly, warm turned to storm.
XC Weather, HS8 5TT, 20200522
A couple of evenings ago, the forecast suddenly turned ugly. An Atlantic depression advanced rapidly towards the UK, pushing ahead of it – like the bow-wave of boat – a warm front thousands of kilometres long, that would sweep across the west of Europe, from Faeroes to Gibraltar, with the strongest winds concentrated into a small area, the track of which would pass directly over us. Together, after running through our collective mental checklist, we realized that all the preparations for a storm of Severe Gale force were either already in place, or were too late to do – but low risk.
A storm like this, during the winter, would be completely inconsequential – an everyday occurence, and causing no damage whatsoever : island life – both human and non-human, is accustomed to such storms and indeed much worse. But such a storm in Spring (or in Summer – even worse!) after many weeks of fine weather encouraging trees to put out their delicate new leaves, and rhubarb throwing out huge and heavy leaves on thick but tender stalks, can devistate the crops we depend on to feed ourselves through weather both fine and foul. The low timber fences you see in photos of the walled garden are there mainly to protect the soil from dessication or even erosion by dry winds ; and yet, depending on the direction and turbulence of the wind, they can in certain conditions, exacerbate the damage from a storm.
During the evening the wind built up, becoming noisier and noisier, and we lit the wood-burning stove – if only for the psychological comfort of the fire ; but the stove roared in concert with the wind. We watched a film, read books, talked … anything to not have to think about the likely damage being wrought on the garden.
The next morning, we surveyed the garden from the upstairs office – as best we could through the film of salt-spray encrusting the windows. The wind was still strong : trees still swayed, though somewhat less due to having lost almost all their leaves ; but our eyes were drawn first to the row of comfrey – the big fuzzy leaves reduced to blackened rags hanging limply from broken stems. We said nothing : we’d survey the garden properly later in the morning, after our coffee and toast that’s our habit after completing the morning chores. This is what we found :
We have two beds of comfrey, one in the middle of the garden, but on the north side of a 3ft 6in shelter fence ; the other at the foot of the high garden wall, in the south-west corner of the garden. We grow comfrey mostly for making a potent, organic liquid manure – it’s a very important crop! The first of these beds of comfrey is badly wind-burnt, but up close it’s apparent (though it wasn’t from the office window, this morning) that low down, the younger leaves are relatively undamaged. If we cut away the withering taller leaves and put those on the compost, the young leaves will soon grow back. The other bed, at the foot of the wall, has suffered much less damage, and there’s plenty of young leaves to restore the plants’ vigourous growth. This is a relief, as a similar storm a few years ago, but in June, completely destroyed all of the comfrey above ground, and most of the plants died.
All these shrubs will survive, but their development will be negligble this year, and stunted for the following few years. The young Escalonia is badly wind-burnt, but a few green leaves at the base give hope of recovery. The privet is almost completely stripped of leaves, and much of the smaller branches and twigs will die off : it will need to be pruned hard next winter, but may not survive that. That particular Wigella was getting too big for its boots, and needed, anyway, to be pruned back hard next winter : it will recover, but look lopsided for a year or two. The Forsythia may just survive, but the Elder, which was pruned back hard this winter and had thrown out dozens of vigorous new stems in response, will very likely never recover.
The layout of our low protective fences reflects the fact that the majority of damaging winds come from the south-west. Fruit bushes are mostly tucked away on the lee of such fences, which are about 3ft / 1 metre tall – about the same height as the bushes. Below the top of these fences, the damage is minimal – a wayward branch of a gooseberry bush snapped off, and some leaves lost. The younger, smaller blackcurrant bushes were completely unscathed. But above the top of the fences, especially amongst the blackcurrant bushes, the vigorous but tender new growth (which will bear next year’s fruit) is mostly snapped off and trusses of tiny fruits are scattered. We will lose some fruit this year, and perhaps some next year, but had the storm come last week, when the flowers were still unfertilized and very tender, we would have lost far more. It could have been worse : our defenses largely did their job.
We are especially proud of, and anxious to protect and nurture, our trees. There is, however, little we can do to directly protect them once they have surpassed the height of neighbouring shrubs – and especially once they reach the height of the garden walls (3m to 4.5m) : the only protection we can give is to plant even more tall trees, and allow shrubs to grow tall, so that the wind will largely ride straight across the tops. The Hawthorns have lost flowers on their windward sides, but thanks to very favourable locations are otherwise unharmed.
Sycamore leaves appear relatively early, and are large and – in May – still tender : almost all the leaves have been ripped off, the few remaining hanging like sodden black flags on a dreich day. They will be severely stunted this year, and there will be much dye-back of their most extreme branches and twigs ; and the stunting will no doubt show up in the meagreness of canopy, and ultimately in the tree rings, for a year or two. Sycamores are robust vigorous trees, though, and they’ll survive no problem. The trees that are dearest to us, though, are the Ash trees, of which we have a half dozen or so, here in the walled garden. They bud and put out new growth later than almost all other trees : when the storm struck, they had only just started unfolding their first leaves ; and they, too, have been either ripped away or are hanging black and limp.
Last but not least, our apple trees : all these are in carefully managed sheltered locations, sheltered by surrounding trees or the garden walls, and none of them has suffered any significant damage : in the far SW corner, just 25 metres or so from the Atlantic, an apple tree still has blossom intact, and other flower just transitioning from fertilized flower to tiny apples. That’s quite remarkable!
The young green stems of shallotts and onions are mostly bent over by the storm. That’s what a gardener does to stop well-grown onions growing any further, and to force them to ripen whilst there’s still some strength in the late summer sun. From past experience, these prematurely bent-over shallots and onions may still grow a little, but nothing like they should. This is bad news indeed, as the onion family are extremely important to the self-reliant household! Rhubarb plants have survived with relatively little damage – some leaf-stems broken, but all of those were big enough to harvest anyway, so they’ll go into a desert. The crowns will survive untroubled. Peas and broad beans had only recently put their heads above ground, and though blackened somewhat, they don’t look as if they are completely wind-burnt : we shall have to wait and see, but, like onions, we can ill afford to lose these incredibly important crops, which are otherwise very reliable. Each year, we fill an entire freezer with just peas and beans – to last us year-round. Chives and garlic chives are grown in exceptionally sheltered locations, and they look completely unruffled by the storm – good news, as we use these a great deal in salads and summer cooking.
Sweet Cicely grows amongst the trees, and has benefited from the shelter of the trees. The flowers turned into seed a week or more ago, so they’ll come back next year as if nothing has happened. In the cold frames (with wooden sides against wind, wire-mesh covers against birds) we grow radishes, lettuces and have seed beds for other crops : these have done their job perfectly, and there’s no damage apparent at all. [ Incidentally, we used to have solid transparent covers to these cold frames, but the wind was forever ripping them off and smashing them up. With the wire covers, we have no such problems! ] And last but certainly not least, our delight in summer, and our staff through the winter months – potatoes. The haulms had only recently started to appear above ground and we have been earthing up as fast as they grow, so there was little above ground to get blasted by the wind. But potato haulms do not recover from the wind blast, and so we can only hope that there are other haulms still just below the surface, or that the seed potatoes still have sufficient energy left in storage to send up some new shoots. We can only wait and see, but it would be difficult to face the humiliation of being seen in a supermarket buying potatoes!
The Big Garden : Renewal of wind-break fencing – a few days before the severe gale
It’ll be a few weeks before we get to see how much damage has been done, but there’s no doubt we’ve suffered worse. More than one year during our time here, a gale off the sea in late June, under brilliant sunshine – but heavily laden with salt-spray, has utterly devastated every growing thing in the garden. Fingers crossed we don’t get that as well, this year.
Uist and Barra – the so-called ‘Southern Isles’ [Gaelic : Na h-Eileanan a Deas] of the Outer Hebrides, are still free of coronavirus – at least as far as we know. No cases. No deaths. But we can’t remain forever with the ferries barring all but emergency traffic and the airspace closed. Just like the weather, the longer it goes on, the worse it will be when it finally arrives, because relatively isolated communities tend to have reduced biotic resistance anyway, but we’re also a relatively older population. We don’t know anyone at all, here or elsewhere who has had coronavirus, let alone anyone taken into hospital – or worse.