This is the second year I have been working on getting vegetables growing on my croft here on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. It’s a steep learning curve and not so straight forward as raising vegetables in England or places with more favourable climates.
First – there is the problem of constant high winds. The Outer Hebrides, or also known as the Western Isles, is one of the windiest places in Europe. Winds are regularly recorded at the Butt of Lewis in excess of 100mph during the winter. While temperatures don’t go to extremes here, it’s the wind that gets to plants. Anything over a few inches will get blown over or ‘wind-burnt’. So first and foremost, a kind of windbreak needs to be thought of.
Windbreaks can come in many forms: traditional stone dyking, sheep fencing with “50/50” mesh, hedging started with quick growing species such as willow or leyland cypress and polytunnels. Here on Lewis, one can see the old stone dykes all over the place, particularly in more remote parts of the island such as Great Bernera on the west coast. With the old black houses, the folk used to build ‘planticrues’, which is basically a walled garden next to their houses. We have a derelict black house on our croft in Great Bernera and it has one of these next to it – just the right size for a vegetable patch. While there are more than enough stones in the soil here to build walls, the problem is knowing how to build the things as it’s a ‘traditional craft’. On Lewis, there are the odd evening courses offered in ‘dry stone dyking’.
Barring the stone dyking, many people opt to go the sheep netting with the green “50/50” mesh sewn to it. This is the first course to take, but it by no means permanent. It will give just enough of a windbreak until you can get the leyland cypress or willows established. Ours ended up shredded eventually, such is the power of the wind here! But it held long enough…
So, as I mentioned before, Leyland cypress or willows (salix viminalis) are good, quick growing trees to start off a shelter belt. Once you’ve got them established, you can then plant more deciduous trees behind them (such as larch and rowan). While I would never recommend Leyland cypress down in places like England due to the fact that they grow so huge in a very short space of time as well as dry out the soil excessively, they seem to do better here for hedging for that very reason! We planted a hedge here over 7 years ago and it’s still barely more than 4 ft high! – whereas in England in that same amount of time, they would be over the top of a house!
Polytunnels are widely used here on Lewis and the other islands to help protect the plants more from wind than from frost. We’ve sited our next to a shelter belt of trees. Some people have constructed strong fences with 50/50. The polytunnel itself needs some protection. But they do stand up better to the gales than conventional glass greenhouses, which end up in shatters – the shards flying around dangerously onto other people’s places, not to mention your own. The greenhouses that seem to do better here are the geodesic dome types as the wind just goes up and over the round shape.
Secondly, the question of soil acidity. Due to the fact that the Western Isles is basically rock and peat bog, this makes the soil quite acidic. Some places are more fertile if they are what is known as ‘machair’ which is basically sand dunes. As the sand is made up of shells, it’s calcium-based or ‘lime’. This helps to neutralize the acidic peat to make quite fertile soil. But the majority of places don’t have this, so liming the soil is necessary. This is of course, adding sand. Also adding sea weed is a good additive – the local garden centres sell seaweed soil conditioner which is seaweed composted down. It’s quite expensive. Another alternative is to actually go to one of the beaches and collect up seaweed to put directly on the soil in the winter time. This makes a good mulch for overwintering plants such as rhubarb or cabbages, but it also adds in calcium and minerals, which are so depleted in the Hebridean soil. It’s a good idea to put it down in the polytunnel too! We are doing this in addition to adding organic compost and horse manure.
Thirdly, the wet and boggy conditions. It’s not so bad in the summer, but in winter it’s a real pain! We’ve got drains under the ground in quite a lot of places on our place. It helps so much, but the water always seems to find somewhere else to gather… As for the polytunnel – we had problems with dampness inside causing the tomotoes, peppers, aubergines and courgettes to wilt with mould and mildew as well as the ground being covered in green algae. Unlike in a greenhouse where you can put in roof ventilation which you can open and close at will, it’s more difficult with a polytunnel. Our doors have the mesh on them, which helps a bit, but the problem is more along the ground. On our next polytunnel, we are going to do what they’ve done at the Shrub Stall in Tolsta – put mesh about a foot or two high around the bottom to let in air flow.
Finally, the midges. There’s no getting away from them in the summer – they are worse in the polytunnel! The only way to make gardening half-way pleasurable is just to wear a midge net, long sleeves and plenty of insect repellant.