Contact us on 01851 705743 or
email info@welovestornoway.com

Despite torrential rain, a croft tour at 44 Ranish on Saturday, 13 April attracted almost 30 growers and crofters.

Supported and promoted by Lewis and Harris Horticultural Producers (LHHP), the tour was designed to bring growers together and show what’s possible on a croft in the isles (writes Fiona Rintoul).

‘It was fantastic to see so many new faces and people keen to continue growing the local network,’ says John Hamilton, who combines crofting at 44 Ranish with working as a part-time gardener. ‘This is what it's all about. Making friends and inspiring each other to grow.’

Because of the high numbers, visitors were taken around the croft in two groups by John and his sister Martha. Meanwhile, their mother, Valerie, who recently completed a three-month Land’s End to John O’Groats walk in support of homelessness charity CRISIS, took charge of photography and organising refreshments in the newly renovated croft house.

Originally from Gloucestershire, the family have been at 44 Ranish for six years. Another sister, Miriam, a weaver, lives on a nearby croft in Crossbost and runs Two Sisters Tweeds.

Since moving to the island, the family has developed the croft, turning it into a kind of Hebridean market garden. The original goal was to create a food supply for themselves, but they now also sell produce through the farmers’ market at Perceval Square in Stornoway, as well as offering veg boxes in summer.

The tour started at the croft’s multi-bay composting area. Constructed from used pallets, the composting bays go through three main stages: filling, mulching down and finished product. Filling should ideally be done in layers, John explained, and you can compost just about anything. Food waste, garden waste and cardboard all go on the mix.  

‘We even composted a whole sheep once,’ he revealed. ‘And it did compost down.’  

Those worried about rats might want to avoid the whole-sheep scenario, as well as meat waste and potato peelings, especially if their compost bays are near their house. However, John said 44 Ranish had been little bothered by rats.

‘I saw one in summer, but that was about it.’

The tour continued in 44 Ranish’s 12-metre polycrub, which provides an excellent rain shelter as well as an ideal spot to propagate plants and grow vegetables, such as aubergines and peppers, that wouldn’t survive outside. Purchased with a crofting grant, the ploycrub allows the croft to be productive pretty much year-round, with oriental greens such as pak choi thriving in winter.

At this time of year, the ploycrub houses young plants and seedlings. The young plants, which include onions, cabbages, kale, radishes and salad, grow in beds that were built up from the ground with compost – much of which came from the composting bays. This avoids the need for costly raised beds and creates plenty of hanging space. At 44 Ranish, this is currently filled with strawberry plants growing in sections of polypipe that was found on the beach and filled with soil.  

With its double polycarbonate sheeting, the polycrub heats up more quickly than a polytunnel and retains heat for longer. However, John was quick to point out that he had started out with a second-hand polytunnel that he got off Facebook for £100, which is still in use on the croft.  

The bulk of produce at 44 Ranish is grown outside on long beds interspersed with woodchip paths. The beds are broadforked to loosen the soil and improved each year with compost. The paths mean the beds are never walked on. Prior to the open day, the Ranish crofters had started on the year’s planting with early potatoes and broad beans, the latter covered with a cloche.

‘We plant our potatoes using a no dig technique, simply making a small hole in the mulched bed and popping the potatoes in,’ John explained. ‘Then we cover over the potatoes with more mulch and leave them to grow.’

Elsewhere on the croft, visitors were introduced to techniques for creating effective windbreaks and the importance of including flowerbeds in the mix. Initially, there weren’t enough flowers to attract bees, John explained, which are essential for germination.

The final port of call before coffee and cake in the croft house was the impressive and well-insulated 44 Ranish shed. Built without a grant, the shed currently houses a workroom, a weaving shed and a bedroom for the WWOOfers (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) who help out at the croft in the summer.  

In the house, produce for sale included chard, potatoes and radishes. Preserves were also on offer in return for a donation.

The 44 Ranish open day is one of a number of events organised by LHHP this year to promote the growing of produce in the Outer Hebrides. There will be further open days at the 44 Ranish croft on 1 June, 6 July, 3 August and 7 September.