February is the shortest month but as we have crammed so much into the month it feels as if it must have been at least six weeks long.
A Busy Month
We have had three poly tunnels erected despite the mixed weather which prevailed almost the entire time the team was here to erect the tunnels. We have had a shelter belt and thicket planted which is a posh way of saying we have planted a native hedgerow of hawthorn, elder and sloe. 10-ton bags of compost have been delivered, 20 new, heritage apple trees, 36 blueberry bushes, raspberry canes and seed potatoes and we held out first ‘Illuminations Event’ on Leap Year Day.
Leap Year Celebrations
The ‘Illuminations Event’ was a first for us. Using the woodland walk, special lighting was positioned to create dramatic colours on some of our beautiful trees and this created a magical effect against the darkness of the arboretum. Then, following this path, visitors were led round to the front of the house where stunning patterns and designs were projected onto the facade of the house with swirls of blue or red psychedelic designs, leopard spots and geometrical patterns which rotated and shrank to the accompaniment of suitable music. The event was rounded off with a hot plate of stovies or steak pie and the rain was kind enough to wait till we were nearly all safely home before the heavens opened. A memorable evening.
Wet, Wet, Wet
February began in rain and it finished in rain, and my memory tells me that it rained for much of the time in between, in fact February 2020 has gone down on record as the second wettest February ever in Scotland.
In the first week of the month we began making preparations to build a road for access to the East Field where our polytunnels would be situated. Amazingly it was a dry day. The road was quickly created and within two days instead of muddy, rutted soil tracks we now had an impressive, curving road taking us from the cobbled courtyard at the Cottages to the East Field. The ability to walk around on a part of the gardens without getting wet, muddy feet was a novelty.
The following week, the team that arrived from the north of England to install the polytunnels got off to a frustrating start as their journey here on Monday, 10th February, took almost 6 hours instead of the expected 3 owing to blizzards, accidents and roadworks.
However, they worked hard in biting winds, rain, hail, sleet and snow and it was amazing to watch these structures rise out of the mud and glaur. By day two, the steel skeletons of all three tunnels had been built and their curves and arches which were protruding above the rugged stone wall of the garden created a sculpture of beautiful, rhythmic poise.
We gathered up a pile of dead wood and decaying tree branches from the boundary of the gardens and had an enormous bonfire on Tuesday afternoon as we knew that any future bonfires in this sheltered space would be out of the question once the tunnels were covered. I had hoped to finish the burning on Wednesday morning but very quickly, within the first hour of the day’s work, the team had put on ‘the skin’ and the polythene cover was tightly hugging the frame of tunnel 3.
Any future bonfire was forbidden but we put the remaining embers to good use and had delicious baked potatoes for lunch that day.
Working on the east side of the house, we were sheltered from the worst of the SW winds but as this was happening in the aftermath of Storm Ciara, the conditions were still horrendous and the saturated ground underfoot rapidly became churned up to the consistency of chocolate cake mix approximately 4 inches deep. If any tool was accidentally dropped, it completely vanished into the muddy custard.
Fairly quickly tunnel two emerged by the middle of day three. It was an extremely windy day and we were astonished when a huge gust of wind caused the heavy wooden door of the tool shed to slam shut. It crashed against the left-hand door with such force that it jumped out of its socket and crashed down onto the cobbles. Fortunately, no damage was caused to man nor machine and we had to spend couple of hours refitting the massive door back onto its frame.
By noon on Thursday the weather had calmed, all the tunnels were covered but there was no respite for the team because although they were now sheltered from the wind and rain, the muddy conditions made it extremely hard to move about on site. If only it had been hard frost and solid ground!
Storms & Swimming Pools
Reflecting on the week, we were very lucky weather wise as to the south of us there was heavy snow and not very far north the same snowy conditions prevailed. A narrow belt across Central Scotland escaped the snow that week and we were lucky to have been in the right place at the right time.
Whilst up at the house feeding Susie the cat, on Saturday, 15th, I decided to check on the tunnels and the surrounding area to see if they were beginning to dry out. I have to announce that thanks to ‘Storm Dennis’ we temporarily became the owners of three covered swimming pools because there was so much water on site, it had flooded the soil floors of all three tunnels making it hard to imagine that we will be growing salad leaves and tomatoes in there within six weeks. Ever the optimist, I have ordered vast amounts of compost to create the growing beds in the tunnels. It has been delivered and is now safely stashed on site. All I need now is Spring and some drainage channels.
Goodbye Veteran Ancient Oak
In a lull after the strong winds and stormy weekends I decided to have a walk through the woodland to check on some of our older trees. It was a shock to discover that, sadly, our veteran Ancient Oak tree has been felled by a combination of the gusts of wind from the repeated storms and the excessive rainfall loosening the soil around the roots of the tree. We built a deer fence around this tree last September to protect it from winter grazing by deer who eat the young shoots trying to grow from the trunk.
Can you Help?
It is unknown how old this tree is, but estimates range from 300-500 years old (or more) so it is a great sadness to know that it may have reached the point of no return on our watch. There is still one root in the soil and there are a couple of small live branches so it may live on for a while yet. Following advice from Kew Gardens, RBGE, the Botanical Gardens in Glasgow, Drummond Castle’s Head Gardener and our local tree surgeon we are currently searching for someone who could graft some of the living tissue onto another oak tree and so hopefully produce some acorns that we can grow on in memory of this amazing old tree. Meanwhile, we have heaped some soil over the exposed living root to protect it from frost and extreme temperatures and we hope it will have enough energy to create some new roots that will ultimately feed the living branches and perhaps prolong the life of this magnificent, wounded specimen.
Our last group of contractors, this month, came on site for the week commencing Monday, 23rd, to plant a hedgerow and thicket of trees which will create a shelter belt for wildlife and the new vegetable gardens. The native hedgerow, 103 metres long and 3 metres wide with a thicket of native trees – Birch, Rowan, Cherry, Oak and Crab-Apple will grow along the North/East side of the gardens where our land is open and unprotected to abrasive winter winds from the colder points of the compass. Who can forget the Beast from the East?
Doing Our Bit
We are planting a mix of 821 trees and bushes and so doing an extra bit for carbon capture. It feels really appropriate to have planted 10 oak trees as the first part of this thicket so it becomes a homage to the ancient, fallen sentinel in the woodland.
The King is dead, long live the King!
Blog by Margaret in the Gardening Team