Highland burgundy red. Black silkie. They sound like beverages you might find lurking in a wine connoisseur’s cobwebbed cellar. But one is a potato and the other is a chicken. The former has been growing in Rose Castle garden for years; the latter is a new arrival here. Both have their practical values, but if the truth is to be known, appearances are the main attraction in both cases.
Sometimes I am asked why I still grow twenty-two varieties of potato, and what happens to all the potatoes that are harvested from the garden, now they are no longer required for the bishop’s table. The answer is simple: beauty and barter. Over the years, the collection has increased to include varieties with unusual colouring, others that are commercial growers’ favourites, and a few that are considered heritage varieties. ‘Highland Burgundy Red’ is fairly useless in the kitchen, but there is that one precious moment in summer when I shake the potatoes from the soil and their freshly-scraped skin exposes the most beautiful shade of wine-coloured glistening flesh. Then, when a tuber is halved, you can see the narrow, cream-coloured border surrounding a red interior, and spend a few moments marvelling at nature’s ability to produce such art in something dug out of the soil. Gazing at potatoes, however, is probably an obscure habit.
The barter system is alive and well in the garden, especially at this time of year when produce is plentiful. So much of the help I am given is borne of good will. The farmer pulls my sunken mower from the mud with his quad bike and chain; tree surgeons and other contractors do much more work than they need to do; the joiner offers to go to the very top of the double Ramsay ladder to finish off awkward rose pruning; the castle’s plumber shares his knowledge of all the water flowing to, from and beneath the garden; friends bring presents of plants; neighbours look after the glasshouse and fowl if I am away. In exchange, the garden can give a home-grown token of thanks; fruit, potatoes, vegetables, and bunches of cut flowers and poppy seed heads find their way to those who help. This way, the garden functions.
Recently, though, I have been growing fewer vegetables, and instead I fill more beds with flowers. Dahlias are amongst the most useful cut flowers because they continue to bloom until the frosts. Slowly, I am increasing my collection of dahlias from cuttings taken from overwintered tubers that are started into growth in the glasshouse in spring. These cuttings with their soft stems are regarded as a potential feast by the slugs, so once they are rooted, my kitchen windowsill is always the safest place for them.
Some plants are more prone to slug damage than others. This ever-present problem is part of the rationale behind purchasing the trio of black silkies from Wetheriggs Animal Sanctuary because I have never forgotten my previous experience working in a garden that was noticeably bereft of slugs because of the presence of pet bantams. From one side of the public footpath that passes Rose Castle, walkers can look down over the wall towards the canvas of colour that is the vegetable garden; on the other side of the path, the trio of black silkies roam freely in the new woodland we planted fifteen years ago. These little black hens are adorable, friendly and fluffy – so much so, that in previous centuries, breeders of bantams were confidently able to assure buyers that silkies really were a cross between chickens and rabbits.
Queen’s counsel for August
Potato ‘Highland Burgundy Red’
This early maincrop variety, thought to have earned its name because it was used to add suitable colour to meals served to the Duke of Burgundy, has bright colouring that is a reminder of varieties still grown today in South America.
Botanically known as Symphytum officinale, comfrey should have a place in every vegetable garden. The flowers of this fairly tall, deep-rooted herbaceous perennial are attractive to bees, and its foliage can be harvested to add nutrients to compost heaps or used as a mulch.
The butterfly bush lives up to its reputation during August when blossom lures butterflies from far and wide. Buddleja davidii is usually grown as a tall shrub with arching stems, but there are now several miniature cultivars available for small gardens or containers.
Dahlia ‘Bishop of York’
Dark purple foliage of the ‘Bishop’ group of dahlias provides the perfect backdrop for bright flowers in late summer and early autumn. Tall varieties are ideal for cutting because flowers have long, strong stems, and blossom lasts well in a vase.
Lettuce and rocket sown before the first week in August will still have time to germinate and produce a usable crop of young salad leaves. Beneath the protective cover of a cloche placed over plants in September, green leaves will be harvestable until early winter.