I WASN’T going to mention the weather, but it is undoubtedly due to the endless wet and wind that the garden looks a good deal more thrashed than it should do in December. That mid-month dusting of snow transformed it for a day and a bit, then rendered it even more brown and soggy.
Lea Gardens is famed for its shelter; it has indeed been accused of having “all the shelter”, implying that there was none left for all the other Shetland gardens.
Nothing could be further from the truth. There’s plenty of shelter to go around, provided those in need of it are prepared to put in the work to create it, and those who still believe that I have all the shelter here are cordially invited to pay a visit during the next gale.
Once the trees are stripped bare at the end of November, the garden lets the draughts in in a big way. It turns from verdant and inviting to cold, empty and forbidding. Not the most inviting place to spend time in, and there’s really no need – apart from the weekly dash to the vegetable rig to dig up a supply of leeks, carrots, beetroot and parsnips.
When gardening on a slope in a very wet climate, the trick is to start harvesting at the bottom of the hill, where waterlogging and subsequent rotting are most likely to occur, while leaving those roots on higher ground, safe from having their toes in water, until last.
Brassicas, especially sprouts and curly kales, are ‘sweetened’ and rendered more tender by a touch of frost and should always be cut off rather than dug up, leaving their stalks to re-flush and provide rich pickings of spring greens when the time comes.
My garden soil is riddled with club root and cabbage root fly and any plants surviving this double onslaught might fetch a good price on the miniature vegetable market, but barely add up to much more than a couple of family meals.
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Black Tuscan kale, raised in pots on the Temple Terrace, is my saving grace this year and, packed with flavour, a little goes a long way.
While the flora looks after itself, the croft and garden fauna calls for attention. Sheep need feeding again; ad lib hay for the ladies and gentlemen, and hay and beet pulp for the poodles – the small hill lambs, barely able to survive a winter on the common grazing, but capable of putting on weight quickly in their cosy little byre.
In my balmy native Bavaria birds only need feeding when the ground is frozen solid or thickly covered in snow. In Shetland they also need supplementing during stormy weather, when they hide out to keep warm and conserve energy, and don’t get much time to forage.
During storms, Lea Gardens’ resident sparrows flit into the huge, grey tangle of a Clematis montana, where they chatter away softly to each other or bicker mildly. The blackbirds sit out the gales, hidden amongst the branches of an old Castlewellan Gold mock cypress, or huddle, puffed up to a great size, in the lee of hedges or large shrubs, while the robins and wrens creep deep into the dry-stone dykes. I’ve yet to find out where the starlings go. They simply vanish.
Alongside scraps of any kind, birds thrive on the standard austerity offering of porridge oats, enriched with cheap cooking oil. Quantities don’t matter, but if your garden birds’ plumage doesn’t look decidedly more glossy after a week on this diet, then you’re too stingy with the oil.
The annual larder clear-out turns the avian porridge into festive muesli with the addition of ‘past their best’ dried fruits, nuts and seeds.
There’s a great winter ahead for all of Lea Gardens’ carnivores, as our large chest freezer is full to the brim with lamb and mutton.
Hundekuchen (dog cake) features on the menu for both canines and felines and is child’s play to make. Great as a reward or special treat. Whizz some liver, or a mixture of lung and liver, in your food processor, add a few eggs, some oil and enough flour to form a stiff paste. Spread onto a baking tray and cook in a moderate oven until set. Cut into small squares and kept in the fridge, it lasts for at least a week.
From spring to autumn, our family dog keeps in, or rather is kept in, superb shape by volunteers and garden visitors alike. They never tire of throwing balls and sticks for her and she’s on the move from dawn to dusk.
As I’ve said already, the garden isn’t very inviting just now. So the dog has to be taken to a nice beach with nice clean shingle for her exercise, which keeps her in reasonable shape.
I wish I could say the same for myself. Try as I may, ’tis the time of year when I start to suffer from shrinking trouser syndrome – the length remains the same, but the width leaves much to be desired.
It just occurred to me that rather than taking the dog for a walk to keep her looking trim, perhaps somebody could take me for a walk?
Can’t see myself running after sticks, but I could conceivably make a dash for a Brussels sprout or a baby beetroot. I may even attempt a leap if somebody tosses a square of dark chocolate in the air, but that would defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it?
Rosa Steppanova (Lea Gardens)
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