I sometimes despair at reading general gardening magazines as nothing really reflects the growing conditions up here in the very north of Scotland: tomatoes outside…no! Pumpkins outside…no!
Growing vegetables in the severe climate in the far north of Scotland presents many challenges but I try to grow what I can to eat during the darker months in Shetland.
Shetland lies on the 60th parallel of latitude, the same as Quebec, Canada, Narsaq, Greenland and Uppsala, Sweden. Our weather is severe, we do not get much heat or sun in the summer. We have hardly any trees as the wind is so strong and they take much longer to grow. It is a 12 hour ferry trip to get here from Aberdeen and we distinctly feel our distance to the rest of mainland Scotland, especially when autumn hits and the strong gales begin again. Some Shetlanders joke that we only have 2 months of summer and the rest of the year is winter! The average wind speed over the year is force 4 but in the winter, hurricane force 12 is not uncommon and the degree of wind chill is very high. When the autumn nights draw in our light disappears, gradually leaving us with light from only 9am-3pm in mid winter.
So here in Shetland we have to maximise the use of indoor growing space. Last year I had no indoor space and just grew outside. I still had a decent harvest and food all winter, by using cold frames but it is definitely more productive having a greenhouse, polytunnel or polycrub. I bought a cheap polycarbonate greenhouse, heavily reinforced it and my husband built an 8 foot fence around it. That may seem extreme but with the strength of the wind here it was necessary – and it has lasted a Shetland winter, the best accolade a greenhouse can receive!
Although I have a large garden, I really have had to learn about small space gardening this year, learning how to maximise a small growing space inside the greenhouse. Vegetables like carrots, tatties and peas do well outside but anything slightly more exotic has to be grown undercover.
Inside the greenhouse, I have grown pumpkins vertically and tied runner and French beans by rope to the roof. It has given me a good amount of food so far and I have squashed in four tubs of oca plants, a tub of sweet potato, six early corn plants, three courgette plants and two physalis peruviana plants to really maximise the growing space.
It is somewhat trickier to grow food here in the far north of Scotland in the darker months of winter. Living on an island it is hard to buy fresh vegetables, the vast majority is imported and old before we get it. Sometimes we do not get any fresh food at all when the force 12 gales hit as then the ferries stop and the supermarket shelves empty quickly. This encourages me try and grow as much as I can so we can still eat some nutritious vegetables.
I try and prioritise growing veg in summer that can store well, like potatoes, root veg, garlic and onions. This year I have grown plenty of broad beans which I will leave to dry and use in recipes over winter – I fancy roasting some as crisps.
I make sure to sow all my module grown winter vegetables and outdoor sown vegetables by early August: they need the light to germinate and get a good head start before autumn weather hits. I grow what I can inside my house on the windowsills too, maximising all possible space. This autumn I am growing pea shoots which are great for stir fries, and lettuce on my windowsills. I am also very much looking forward to harvesting ginger from a supermarket root that I grew – an exotic treat in a dark Shetland autumn!
What I am Harvesting this Autumn
- From Outside: leeks, beetroots, kale, salad, neeps, Pak Choi, cabbage, Daikon radish, Swiss chard, carrots, Kailaan, dill
- From the Greenhouse: pumpkins including crown prince, Marina Di Chioggia and kuri squash, spring onions, sweet potatoes
- From inside the house on the windowsills: ginger root, pea shoots, lettuce
What I Have Growing for Later Harvest
- From Outside: Shetland kale, spring cabbage, curly kale, Russian kale, spinach, chard, dill, leeks
- From the Greenhouse: Oca, kholrabi, kale, cabbage, purple broccoli, spring onions
Note: I grow some of the same vegetables inside and out to maximise the harvest but the ones inside will tend to grow better as the winter winds can destroy outside crops.
What I Have Harvested and Stored for Eating over Winter
- Tatties, stored in hessian sacks – including Kerr’s Pink, Maris Piper, Shetland Black, Red Rooster
- Garlic and onions
- Dried broad beans
- Frozen runner beans, peas and courgettes
Cairi Balmain grows lots of vegetables in her garden in the Shetland Islands where the weather is extremely challenging. She also makes traditional, cold process, botanical soaps and botanical balms from home grown herbs and flowers. You can follow Cairi’s vegetable growing and botanical soap making adventures on her Instagram account.