Sunday, 13 April 2014

Admin matters

For a while now, it seems, there's been a problem with this blog.

Who said, "Yeah, the bloke writing it."? Cheeky so-and-so!

No, it would appear that commenting has been a problem for some, but not for others.

Following some sterling research by laligalover, I have changed the manner in which the Comments appear. No longer will they be embedded within the post, they will be in a separate pop-up window.

Can I ask that anyone who has had trouble posting comments (constructive, humorous or otherwise), please have another attempt and let me know if there's an improvement in service? Regular commenters, hopefully, you will be unaffected, but please feel free to verify that you can still comment.

Thank you.

Fifth bloggiversary

Well, there wasn't a five year plan, but here I am. Who'd've thought it, eh? Not me, that's for sure. To be honest, when I reached last year's anniversary milestone, the events that have transpired in the intervening twelve months were not on our radar or hidden over the horizon, let alone remotely constituting a plan.

(Anyone new to the blog may wish to play catch-up with the first, second, third and fourth anniversary posts, but it's not compulsory and there's not a list of questions at the end.)

Lots of folk have had Five Year Plans through history, with varying degrees of success. I suppose Stalin's will be the most well-known? But I have no intention of doubling the grain harvest from our half acre plot, or even having a grain harvest in the first place. The jokes are corny enough, there's barley a week goes by without a terrible pun and excerpts from the blog aren't about to be cerealised.

Idly flicking through the stats, the top five posts from the past five years are a mixed bag. There's not a trend as such, and the number of 'pageviews' registered are a law unto themselves.

But happily ignoring that, here's the 2009-2014 chart rundown...

At Number Five, we have 'Look what turned up on the post!' from 2009, a tale of derring-do in the insect world (373 pageviews).

At Number Four, just nudging ahead, is 'A pun to eclipse all others' from 2013, the Dark Side of the Moon track-infested post about the 40th anniversary of Pink Floyd's famous album (394 pageviews). 

At Number Three, out in clear and possibly hot water, is 'Post post post' from 2011. The title referred to the fact that this post (announcement) was about a post (timber), but er... afterwards (508 pageviews).

At Number Two, several hundred hits to the good, is 'A setting sun and daughter', one of my final blogposts before leaving Milton Keynes last year. Quite why my burble about an Autumnal walk with Second Born should be so popular is a mystery (857 pageviews).

But at Number One, from 2012, with a stonking 12894 pageviews, is 'Disco no more', my eulogy to Taffy the Truck, our dear departed Series 2 Discovery. The referrer spammers and internet robots must've been busy back then.

But not this robot...

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Glanced and gone

In the scudding sky, a solitary Raven glides over ephemeral diamonds in the dust, 
as a vague, misty and mythical vision of distant hills teases my eyes and thoughts.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Man flu and mind games

I had been under the weather for several days, finally succumbing to Our Lass's cold bug, which we were now both struggling to throw off.

Some rather pleasant Spring days had come and gone, whilst I could only gaze longingly out of the window, at vast blue skies and the occasional scudding cloud. My eyes ached both with yearning and with cold symptoms. Meantime, Our Lass, who had a week's head start on the illness, pottered about the nascent garden like a newborn lamb in lush green pastures.

By yesterday, I felt that a little energy was returning, but I was still slow to wake and start the morning. In no particular rush over breakfast, I listened to the local news on Radio Orkney, fired up my pc and scanned emails from presumably healthy folk (or, at least, ill ones who weren't such a wuss as Yours Truly), before eventually deciding to have a shower.

At that point where you're wet all over and have soap suds in your eyes, I suddenly thought,

"It's Tuesday!"

(Ok, there may have been a teensy expletive in there somewhere.)

Not hugely earth-shattering news, I'll admit, seeing as how it was the day between Monday and Wednesday. Even on Orkney, the days of the week tend to follow a similar pattern to elsewhere.

Was there some important deadline to meet? A vital decision to make concerning the fate of nations? Or the publication of a report to secure the future of our planet?

No, the reason for my panic was a bit more prosaic than that... it was bins day.

And I had forgotten.

Worse still, which bins this week?

In Orkney, the local authority operates a fortnightly system; household waste, one week, and recyclates, the next. Laid low by a virus, I wasn't sure where in the alternate universe we were.

Making as much haste as decently possibly, once cleaned, dried and dressed, I ventured to the window to check what our neighbours had decided to do.


Eh? It is Tuesday, isn't it? After checking the calendar and the refuse collection timetable, I could confirm that, yes, it was the afore-mentioned day and that it was also a recyclates week. Odd, then, that no-one else had bothered? Especially as they are usually reliable with their rubbish bin deployment.

Trying to put aside the awful conclusion that, due to my tardiness, the bins had already been emptied and returned to their respective homes (aarrghhhhh!), I wandered outside to look up and down the road, in that time-honoured method of determining what is going on.

Still nothing.

Not a bin or bag, of any hue or size, to be seen... anywhere.

This was becoming weird (as opposed, dear reader, to the weirdness of my befuddled thought processes).

Then I wondered if the approach of Easter had changed the schedule, after all, we're new to the area and perhaps everyone else 'just knows'. A flick through the local newspaper and a brief search online didn't give any clues as to whether this was the case.

Therefore, hoping against hope, I trundled our two green wheelie bins out to the roadside, weighted down their lids with a couple of rocks (because it's Orkney and it's windy) and sloped back inside to see whether the fickle hand of Fate would cast her dice in my favour.

Barely an hour later, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the bins neatly laid down behind our wall. And another consignment of paper, plastic, glass and tin was on its way to recycling reincarnation.


It's true, from time to time, Our Lass has been known to mutter that I worry about all the wrong things.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Willow and dark sarcasm

Updated 7th April 2014 with additional species information
Sorry, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alyson Hannigan fans, not this Willow, I'm afraid. And very specific apologies to Captain Sundial, who is still carrying a torch after all these years.

Nope, this blogpost is about Salix and my first tentative steps at planting up our garden. The first watch words in Orcadian gardening are 'shelter belt', to provide conditions for other plants to grow. In some ways, this is like choosing a sacrificial lamb (o-oh, veering Buffy-wards again!) to take the brunt of the prevailing winds and the most obvious candidate is Willow. Opinion is divided upon whether it is the best provider of shelter, but it's certainly the cheapest to source and easiest to plant.

Following my trip to Orkney ZeroWaste's Spring Fair and Plant Sale last month, I was the proud owner of 160 cuttings of what I think is Grey Willow, Salix cinerea, one of the native Orkney willows. (7th April 2014. See note below for further clarification, Thanks again Jenny!

Here's one of several bundles, keen to bud
But first there was the small matter of preparing the ground. In an ideal world, the whole half acre site would be weed and stone free. However, very little of that has yet occurred and the budding bundles of potential tree-ness won't wait forever.

So, putting all perfectionist and pedantic thoughts to one side, I roughly cleared a swathe 23m long and 0.5m wide. This was to make room for the first double row of planting, beginning in the bottom southern corner of the garden and progressing along the south-westerly boundary.

When I say 'roughly cleared', I meant removing the Docks. The Willow will have to take its chances with the dandelions, buttercups, various grasses, thistles and heaven knows what else. Well, they are native trees, so they must have got the hang of coping with this sort of stuff, you'd think?

What's up, Dock?

I do wonder if these have a use...
I decided to leave a significant gap between the first row and the boundary fence, so as to leave room for maintenance and restrict farm animals from grazing, hence the row was marked out 1.5m from the fence.
Doesn't look very promising, eh?

The first bundle is placed in position ready to be planted
The actual planting was reasonably easy, the instructions I was given were carried out to the letter...

This is my kind of gardening!

OK, Pink Floyd fans, think of it as another stick in the wall.
And just when you were wondering where the 'dark sarcasm' came in!

The cuttings went in at about 0.5m intervals and then the second row was planted 0.5m inboard of that, but offset by 0.25m.

Yeah, I know it's not straight. Jeez, lighten up!
On cue, as I hammered in the eighty-oddth stick, although not forecast, it began to rain. At least it saved me from pondering whether to water in the cuttings, or not.

The next step is to repeat the above, but along the south-easterly boundary, at which point I will have run out of cuttings. No worries, there's a plan...

Note: The cuttings I got at ZeroWaste were not native willows - the bundles contained mostly some of the biomass willows that were grown by Orkney College (fast growing Salix viminalis hybrids, long narrow leaved) plus maybe a few of the Salix hookeriana (which is a North American willow with wider silvery leaves). We wait with bated breath for growth and leafage, so that we can attempt to decipher the Salix code.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Death in paradise

It would seem that, even this far north, the Spring migration is well and truly under way. This is a good and pleasing thing.

Local birders have been reporting sightings of Hawfinch in a few gardens and the Bird Observatory on North Ronaldsay has experienced an increase in migratory species, blown across the North Sea on easterly winds.

However, it's all fairly quiet in our neck of the w.... er... dochans? Bare earth doesn't attract many birds and I don't think Stone Curlew make it to Orkney! I am starting to hear more territorial birdsong, but it is limited to a Blackbird and a Greenfinch. But being outside in the garden does allow sounds from farther afield to reach my ears. Whilst turning over the soil, I am accompanied by the calls of distant Oystercatcher and Lapwing. I never tire of hearing the skirling notes of the Curlew. Starlings chatter and mimic from their perches on the roofs of the nearby farm barns. An almost ever-present sound is the plaintive mewing of Common Gull, and occasionally but somewhat bizarrely, a Peacock, which seems to live somewhere to the east of us.

There's plenty of life in the soil too, which is a pleasant surprise. No shortage of earthworms and all manner of ground-dwelling invertebrates. I remarked upon this fact, this morning, whilst visiting the Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) office in Kirkwall, only to be told that, in some parts of Orkney, the New Zealand Flatworm has decimated native earthworm populations. Crivens! We will have to be careful when moving new plants into the garden, to try to minimise the chances of accidentally bringing this alien predator to our doorstep.

I was also warned to keep an eye open for Stoats, because although they are seen infrequently, they are a fearsome predator of ground-nesting birds. Many of the species of birds that choose to rear their young in Orkney are already declining in numbers. The last thing they need is another mammalian egg and chick thief. Stoats are not native to Orkney and are likely to have been introduced, either accidentally or misguidedly. Hmmm, one creature's island paradise is definitely another's nightmare from hell.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014


Shhhh! The weather has been reasonably dry for nearly a week! Still overcast and with a fair old breeze, but our half acre of mud is beginning to look more like a garden-in-waiting. Perhaps it was the subtle turning of the year as we passed the vernal equinox, but a gentle pressure drove me outside, like a new leaf bud, keen to burst into the Spring air.

It was time to dig.

There's a small patch of earth at the front of the property, maybe 20m by 2m, which looked as if it would be a good place to start. An attainable goal, I reckoned, for muscles that had forgotten what they were for and, conveniently, couldn't remember how back-breakingly achy turning over soil can be.

They soon found out!

We were well aware that the soil we could see would be a thin veneer over what had been, until recently, a building site. Sure enough, I began to unearth plenty of stones, so began to construct a cairn in the corner of the hard standing. The odd breeze block and kerb stone appeared, along with various bits of twisted metal. However, the predominantly, and overwhelmingly, main constituent of this garden is Dock, Rumex obtusifolius. This is a perennial weed with a deep tap root, so a long and uphill struggle (even on the flat bits) awaits me. It's not all bad news, as the leaves of the Dock are a useful tool in the natural First Aid kit against the stings of Common Nettle, Urtica dioica, which often grows in similar habitats.

So far, I have dug about a third of this small area, in short bursts of energy punctuated by vociferous complaints from my back. I have filled about six compost bags with Dock roots and made a decent start on the cairn.

Recently, whilst on the internet, I discovered this photo of the garden, taken by Google Street View in 2009. Apart from realising that our 'new' home has been in existence, almost complete but empty, for five years, the other shock is the sheer amount of Docks present. And then some, allowing for another five years' spread!

The area behind the house is now populated by another four homes.

I wouldn't wish to give the impression that I spend an inordinate amount of time surfing the web, but today I quite coincidentally came across another blog, also written in Orkney, whose subject was Docks, or Dochans as they are known up here. It features some poems written about Dock, although I must admit that my feelings towards this plant haven't quite risen to the heights of rhyming self expression.

For those readers who are sharper than the average nettle sting, the previous blog in that series can be found here.