Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Heathered Walking

I've been back for more than a fortnight now but I can still see the walk through the leafy neighbourhoods of Chicago to the Peterson Garden Project Global Gardens more clearly than the way into Thurso or Wick. I need to reconcile the images of the Book Cliffs of Utah and the Golden Gate bridge with my own here and now.

That means walking myself back into this landscape and all that is associated with it. Timespan (https://timespan.org.uk/14230-2/) was promoting walks around a recently discovered crater site. OK not even up here could someone overlook a great whopping hole in the middle of everything. Geology has flirted with it for thousands and thousands of years, but if you look closely at the evidence and know what you are seeing (I was walking with geologists who spoke their own language), then it is there.
For those of us less geological, it was a walk through a heathered moor, a bit of northern woodland, and boulders and hills. No confusing this for Chicago or San Francisco or even the wide open spaces of the west.




And within this now familiar landscape, I picked up one of my ongoing projects: getting a truly representative photo of the stunning combination of heather-boulder-lichen-moss.
I have a ways to go yet to get a good photo, but for those of you who have never had the chance to walk among the heather, I pass this along as a hint of what it's like.
Thanks to John King, walk leader, and my new friends from Highland Geology Society, it was a great way to reconnect with my life on this side of the Atlantic.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Back in Caithness

You have to love Caithness both for what it does not have (there is a lot of that) and for what it does have. This was what I saw last night  as we ease into the season of the long dark:

low slung sun shortening the horizon so the sea in silvered blues appears to float above the hills
driving home like being in a gallery where the lights are dimmed and an ancient scroll of sun and sea and sky is stretched out for a rare and special viewing.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Auriferous Gravel

 I'm riding the California Zephyr, one of Amtrak's long distance passenger trains. I have a roomette--something akin to the images of the beds in 'Some Like it Hot.' From my window I can see some of the most stunning of American scenery on the way to San Francisco.
My travelling companions are books. The first, Bold Spirit, about a woman and her daughter who walked across America in mid nineteenth century. Her adventure was so resented by her family that her diary and her handwritten book about the trip were burnt. Her grandaughter, however, remembered the family stories and encouraged her son to write about it in his eighth grade essay. From that came the spark for the research and the story and the meta story about Helga Estby and the power of family stories. It's a good companion for the train trip for many reasons, not least of all, she and her daughter followed the train tracks on their walk as much as they could. From time to time I look out at the terrain and think how hard it would be even now for walking.

My other companions are a series of books--a gift from my daughter--Roadside Geologies for each of the five states I'm travelling across. It is from one of these I take the title of this post--auriferous gravel--gold-bearing rocks which washed out of the mountains and led to the 1848 discovery of gold and the '49ers. There is still auriferous gravel in the hills, my book notes. Some day perhaps it will wash out again, but I am reminded as the train slides through less picturesque parts of America that not everyone finds gold in America.

Red earth, recently graded, shimmered with the uneven glitter of broken bits of glass and metal as the train rolled through the wrong side of someone's small town. The area was a roadway, a no man's land, a short cut perhaps from somewhere to somewhere else. It seemed an odd place to find a tent. My first thought was of wild camping--why there with so many other places to choose?

And then I remembered that now as always America's bigness has included the gap between those with and those without.  In America as in other countries shanties are cleared and moved along only to return again with the wind like sand dunes.My friend in San Francisco conforms this. 'Some nonprofit got the idea to give them tents a few years ago.'



Saturday, April 15, 2017

Square Metre Gardening Adenture Chapter One: The Empty Cage

If the title has not been enough to warn you--here's the spoiler: this is a garden post. Look away now if you don't have or yearn for a green thumb.
In the dark of winter my gardening pal and I thought and planned how to implement the ideas behind square metre gardening.  Here in Caithness every garden idea has to start and end with--what about the wind? Square metre gardening recommends wire mesh cages. His model is just mesh wrapped around itself and shaped--maybe not even with a wooden base as a support. However, in Caithness, more sturdy preparations are always necessary.
So this cage has top, bottom, and side reinforcements. In addition, you'll notice that this is inside the chicanery--the first line of defence against the worst of the winds. Is this over cautious, you may ask. No. Last year the wind ripped the leaves off my tatties just as they were ready for their last full growth spurt. (The four tattie bags for this year are just to the left of the square bed that has broad beans in it and maybe pea seeds in the back where the sticks are unless the birds got to them.)The back wall served only as a bumper for winds so whatever leaves survived the first cold blast had to try to make it through the swirls caused by wind bouncing off the back wall. I'm hoping the cage will provide a buffer for any other parts of the garden where the breeezes blow as well as sheltering the main veg crop in its own bed. Gardening in Caithness is like Odysseus after his homesick sailors let the winds out of the bag.

Now a question for my gardening pals out there--we have a full moon just now. Does one plant when the  moon is waxing or waning?

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Wildflowers Can be Divas

Most meadow flowers give up easily when faced with weeds like nettles and dochans and the pernicious couch grass, so my gardening pal Angie has been working very very hard to get all the weeds out of the strip at the end of the 'orchard.' The idea began to make a defensive perimeter to keep creeping buttercup and dochans and nettles out of the bed on the other side of the fence. And then as my friend and I do, we grew a bigger (and better) idea. A strip of wildflower meadow. Beautiful, wildlife friendly, encouarging pollinators for the orchard and more palatable as weeds if they choose to venture beyond the fence.

But the cornflower meadow seeds do not like sharing their stage with amateurs, hence, the careful weeding and re-weeding and then laying down newspapers so that any weed seeds lingering would be starved of light and moisture--I know it's harsh, but think of the corn cockles and corn chamomile and blue cornflowers and the bright red field poppy. They deserve a good home, don't they?

And so today was the day for putting down the seeds.
OK I can take photos with people's faces in them, but Angie preferred to be anonymous or faceless. |She did put her best foot forward. We decided that newspapers were maybe still too formidable a barrier for our diva seeds, so we poked holes in them before putting down the seeds.
We had 100 grams, which we calculated was enough for a medium distribution over our area. We divided it roughly into 5 areas and mixed about a fifth of the seed in more or less equal parts sand, about like this--sort of mathematical but then eyeballing it in situ. (Thank you John O Groats ice cream store--your leftover ice cream tubs come in very handy!)

And then we covered seeds lightly with a mix of good, loamy compost and perlite--I dont like the white colour, but for holding water and stablising temperatures it does a good job.

Mixing it and then lightly covering seeds and watering in ever so lightly.

OK now I'm ready for the results to show.  Angie, ever the cynic, says the first things to come through the soil are likely to be weeds. I'm banking on the divas taking centre stage.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Lessons from Primulas

Primulas do well here. Perhaps a bit too well, but that is always the way of it for gardeners trying to cosy along our favourites against the odds and not cherishing the sturdy ones that flourish. OK this post will go some way to making amends for that.
First, this little guy. His strategy is to begin his flowering life close to the ground and then gradually rise up in the world.

Another strategy is to keep your head down.

In case you're curious, this is what they look like if you look at them from below.


I am happy to see them all sharing space with my hellebores and leading the way for other things barely in bud or still snuggling under the ground, but I need to remind them now that they will have to learn to play nicely with others as well.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Hellebores and the Courgette Crisis

Imbolc and Pauxatawney Phil have delivered their equivocal predictions about the length of winter remaining. Probably no matter how brief it will be too long. My garden pal and I were planning our veg and flower patch and wind protection strategies for the upcoming season. 'If' played a major role, as always. If we do not get a sudden cold snap--it is possible. If we do not get the cold cold northeasterlies late in March when bulbs and leaves and such have begun to think Spring is all the way safely here again then we have our optimistic scenario. But we've both lived up here long enough now to have our more cautious plan.

And for all our planning, the plants and the weather will do what they decide to do. The snowdrops are in bud and the hellebores, those most hardy of flowers, are blooming in the perennial bed.


Weather has asserted itself in the food supply chain. It is hardly a crisis that we can't get courgettes in February in the supermarkets because of floods and cold weather in Spain and many parts of Europe, but it is a reminder that buy local is not just a hippie slogan or empty localism in the face of rampant globalism. Eating things in season and eating them where they are grown just makes good sense.

Ok having dabbled in growing veg I have the luxury of my own approach to what the media have dubbed the Courgette (zucchini to my American friends) Crisis. I have seeds to start in a pot in my sun room. I can pick a few of them at a time rather than fretting about how to get through the multi-portion bags they sell in the supermarket.  A recent addition yo the veg aisle in the supermarkets is pea shoots--very tasty, so again, I'm going to use some old pea seeds and harvest them as tender young plants.  If I had courgette seeds, I would be tempted, but that is probably a step too far even for a sunroom in this latitude.