This article appeared in the Kitchen Garden magazine, Nov 02

LAIKENBUIE - a garden in a hidden glen

by Jon Jayes

In 1984 Therese and Peter Muskus moved onto an undeveloped plot of land at Laikenbuie in a hidden glen, just a couple of miles outside Nairn and a few miles from the Moray Firth coast. At that time they not only had to build a house but also had to establish their 140 acre croft and early in 1987 Therese began to develop her own organic, kitchen garden.

Garden

Companion planting plays a big part in There's garden.

Therese is passionate about organic growing and has been interested in this method since reading books on the subject as a teenager and later becoming a member of H.D.R.A. After a spell at Horticultural college she moved to this area of Scotland and with her husband, Peter, set up home in a small cottage on the farm where they worked. "The cottage had grass growing outside and so I just dug it all up. I was desperate to get growing on land of my own." said Therese of her first garden.

Her current garden is about 60m above sea level and is partially sheltered by trees and the house but the south side is open to views across their 'hidden glen' which contains a small loch and stream. The soil is perhaps not as sandy as it might be nearer the coast but it is still shallow and stony and what meagre amount of top soil there was when the house site was cleared was piled to one side and used on the new garden.

Tatties and beans

Bark chippings are used as path coverings between potatoes 'Cara' and 'Sante' and peas 'Rondo' and 'Sugar Pod'.

The area designated as a vegetable garden consists of 125 sq. mtrs. on the east side of the house with an orchard of 80 sq mtrs on the west. The plot is divided into beds approximately 1.25 mtrs. x 9.25 mtrs. with narrow paths in between which makes it easy to work each bed without walking on the growing area. This is important because Therese favours the 'no dig' principle and relies on the natural process and the assistance of worms to turn and aerate the soil. Manure and compost are spread over the surface in rotation during late autumn or winter and the only digging is when the potatoes are harvested. This method is labour saving and when the plots were first formed, with a top soil which, in places, may only have been 150mm to 200mm deep, Therese felt that there was always a danger of excavating the sub soil which wouldn't help her carefully composted ground.

Sprouts

'Groninger' brussels sprouts growing outside the netting but surviving caterpiller attacks.

Kale

'Westland Winter' kale looks good under netting.

Compost is something which she is very serious about. On the edge of the garden there are six home made wooden compost bins which stand back to back and measure approximately 1.25mtrs x 1.25mtrs.

Hens "I'm very proud of my compost." said Therese. "I believe that good compost is at the heart of the garden." - and how true that is. The recipe for the heaps consists of weeds, grass cuttings, vegetable waste from the kitchen, comfrey, which is grown near the compost bins, and chicken manure, from her own flock, as an activator. There are two types of compost bins. One set contains the fast rotting materials which are turned once and become useable in a few months and the other bins contain the harder material which is covered and left to rot for up to a year. By this time the lower half has reduced very well and is dug out ready for use.

"It all makes beautiful compost - almost good enough to eat." laughed Therese.

Compost bins; comfrey; speckled wood butterfly; tomatoes and parsley; birch logs.

The traditional four year rotation is used on the garden with two beds used for each type of crop. Some brassicas are grown in the open but a sectional steel cage, fabricated by Peter and covered in old fishing nets deters most of the pests which might otherwise attack the cabbages, kale, brussel sprouts and cauliflowers. These were all very lush and pest free under cover and the 'Westland Winter' kale looked beautiful with its curly blue/green leaves

Flowers

Flowers grown along path edges and amongst the vegetables make a pretty vegetable garden.

Companion planting is something which predominates throughout the plot and in some areas the flowers, dahlia, sunflower, nasturtiums, marigold, lilies, just to mention a few, are so thick it is hard to realise that this is essentially a vegetable garden. Encouragement of natural pest control is also high on the agenda.

Therese is philosophical about pests. "I want to work with nature and not against it. I don't worry too much if the slugs, mice and voles take a few things but encourage the natural predators to maintain the balance." She does, however, draw the line at rabbits and a secure rabbit fence around the garden has so far kept out these voracious destroyers of vegetable plots.

Being organic she accepts that there will be some losses, perhaps on occasions more so than if the conditions were chemically manipulated, but she also knows that these risks can be reduced by good management and vigilance.

Walking into the garden there is an immediate feeling of lushness. This part of Scotland can have brutal conditions but here the potato plants were a rich dark green, and blight free, stood almost waist high and the neighbouring peas ('Rondo' and Sugar Pod ll' ) and beans ('Prizewinner' and Scarlet Emporer') were so thick on the cane supports that it was almost jungle like walking through the narrow paths between the beds.

A small pond is roughly in the centre of the garden and frogs feed gratefully on the slugs and other pests which lurk around the damp rich soil.

Polytunnel

A wide range of crops from sweetcorn to salads and early potatoes do well in the polytunnel- including courgettes 'Nero di Milan' below

Courgettes

The wind has been the greatest problem at Laikenbuie but with sensible planting, and the assistance of shelter from the house on one side and the polytunnel on the other, the garden has a fighting chance, although this didn't save the greenhouse in one memorable storm when the glass was completely blown from the frame and it looked 'like a bomb had exploded in it'.

The area is usually fairly dry and rainfall can vary. However, 2002 was a comparatively wet season, but the use of a polytunnel does provide some stability when experiencing difficult climatic conditions. The tunnel at Laikenbuie is approximately 4.30mtrs x 6.50mtrs and is used for a variety of crops including parsley, sweet corn, tomatoes, courgettes and early potatoes with the inevitable sprinkling of French marigolds to deter the bugs.

Despite regular coverings of compost the stones from the sub soil continually work their way to the surface and in the beginning parsnips grew very poorly and forked frequently. Therese's cure for this is making holes in the ground to accommodate the plants and filling them with fine compost. The seeds were then planted into this compost and the parsnips grew satisfactorily from then on.

Plastic cups and cut down plastic bottles are also used around the base of plants which helps keep slug damage to a minimum.

Brassica cage

Brassicas under one of Peter's cages made from steel and fishing nets.

Generally there are no favourite crops and any new varieties which seem potentially suited to the Laikenbuie climate are tried out in the garden. 'Nicola' are an enjoyed second early potato but a recent trial of 'Premiere' turned out to be a failure as far as growth and taste were concerned.

Therese likes to experiment and is currently working with the lunar system for planting and trying a system of growing to a plan for planting at suitable times for leaf crops, or fruit crops or roots etc. So far she is pleased with the results but probably needs at least another season to confirm the results on her own garden.

The biggest success in the garden as far as Therese is concerned is the' no dig' policy that she adopted - closely followed by the companion planting.

"The pollinating insects help with the production of all the garden plants and besides the practical side of it there is the sheer beauty of seeing the flowers in between the vegetables."

Clogs Not all butterflies can be classed as the enemy as far as brassica growers are concerned and with a large wood only 50 mtrs. away from the garden, Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria) butterflies visit frequently to take nectar from the garden flowers. These insects lay their eggs on grasses and are of little threat to the gardener.

The garden has been open four times in the last ten years as part of the Scottish Open Garden Scheme and anyone who has visited Laikenbuie may have been intrigued to see Therese in the garden wearing a pair of wooden clogs. These were given to her by a Dutch student at the Horticultural College some years earlier and she finds them very comfortable for working in the garden.

"I wouldn't dream of walking any distance in them but they are convenient and comfortable to slip on in the garden and easy to clean."

She supports local charities through the garden scheme and says, "I look upon opening the garden as a two way thing. Visitors come to see the garden and I meet people with a similar interests; and I can share what I enjoy doing with other people."

As part of an organisation 'Willing Workers on Organic Farms', visitors often come to live and work as part of the family for a short period of time and learn about organic farming and gardening. Workers with an age range from 17 years to 77 years have stayed and worked 5 days a week for 6 hours per day and are given board and lodging and an insight into the organic croft and way of life in the area.

The crofting way of life means diversification and together with agriculture and livestock Laikenbuie has holiday lodges where paying visitors can stay and enjoy the peaceful surroundings and get to know organic farming and gardening at first hand.

Greenhouse, pears and potatoes

An unexpected 'extension' to the organic garden is the production of Shitaki mushrooms. Therese has what might be described as a 'polyshed' where birch logs, soaked in water and injected with the Shitaki mycelium, are left in humid conditions in a small shed sized plastic construction to produce the meaty flavoured and textured mushrooms which are gathered at suitable intervals.

A flock of sixty hens roam free range a hundred yards from the garden and the eggs are sold locally. The hens also provide much needed organic chicken manure for the garden.

In the orchard quince and damson trees grow alongside the apple trees and two ten year old pears, 'Conference' and 'Beurre Hardy' grow very vigorously on the side of the workshop. Pears are notoriously difficult to sustain this far north, due mainly to the short growing season, and these are particularly fine examples. Some of the apple trees had suffered from recent winds but the 'Arthur Turner', 'Reverend Wilks' and the 'James Grieve' were looking good in early August.

On the site there is the remains of an old crofting cottage abandoned many decades ago. The foundations could be seen through the grass and the walls have been built up by Peter and Therese. Currently it has been made into a cycle shed and the timber roof supports a layer of turf which next year will play host to a variety of wild flowers but Therese has an ambition to establish a walled garden so its current use may not last very long.

There was no soft fruit in the garden and this is a project which is on the drawing board for next year. An area has been earmarked near to the polytunnel and raspberries, blackcurrants and strawberries may be planted there soon.

Meticulous book keeping and planning is evident in Therese's vision of the garden. She has records of past years and plans for the future. Lists of what type of crop performed well and what didn't and which plots were manured and composted etc., are all recorded in her garden diary.

Some kitchen gardens may be larger and some may have a greater variety of crops but in an area of Scotland which can be subject to destructive climatic changes there cannot be many gardens which are worked with such enthusiasm and a love for the organic system as Laikenbuie is. This becomes obvious to anyone who visits this special garden in the hidden glen.