Outside the Backdoor

Observing what can happen in your own garden even in suburbia!

More than just poppies – Icelandic adventures

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This summer we paid our seventh visit to Iceland. Yes, you did read that correctly, seventh! I will admit it is a bit of an obsession and when I announced that we were going again, as well as being asked, ‘ Why?’, I found that this was often followed up by the question, ‘Would you like to live there?’ I guess a lot of people who holiday frequently in France or Spain often end up with a holiday pad or retiring to their favourite country, so it’s a natural question to ask but my response is always a resounding, ‘No!’ For a start I don’t like snow and ice – one visit to Iceland in February (2016) confirmed this!

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Thingvellir National Park (c) John Malone

And whilst the scenery is truly spectacular, it is also an extraordinarily challenging landscape for growing anything and I honestly can’t imagine gardening in Iceland or, for that matter, choosing to give up gardening. Neither John or I set out to be enthusiastic gardeners but we both really value the relaxation it affords and the rewards of growing things both to eat and as things of beauty. So on this particular holiday I decided to take note of what it is like to have the Icelandic landscape outside your backdoor.

Iceland is volcanic and there are reminders of this at every turn. From the moment you land at Keflavik airport you are greeted by, what at first glance appears to be a rocky, unforgiving, barren landscape. Look closer, however, and you soon realise that you may well have a wealth of flowers outside the back door but they will be wild ones and that green won’t be lawn but moss covered lava! Iceland does moss covered lava rather beautifully with densely springy mounds of delicate grey/green that are so fragile that one foot in the wrong place can destroy them for centuries.

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Moss covered lava along Route 1 (c) John Malone

Iceland remains a small and sparsely populated island. A population of around 350,000 and approximately 36% of those people live in Reykjavik and its suburbs. Move out of this urban hub and the next ‘town’ along the Ring Road has no more than around 2000 inhabitants, in fact a ‘town’ in Iceland is often home to as few as 500 people served by a single shop cum service station. That ‘town’ will, however, almost certainly have a spectacular backdrop of mountains or be adjacent to a thrilling waterfall, or be fringed by a dramatic black sand beach. What it won’t have will be a garden centre! In fact, I’m not sure that the concept of a garden centre even exists in Iceland!

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Seagrass growing in volcanic sand at Jokulsarlon (c) Elizabeth Malone

Icelandic houses are so surrounded by the countryside that it’s often hard to define what is ‘garden’. Occasionally you see a house that does appear to have a fence and a defined garden and these are often quite quirky. The Icelanders love these miniature houses!

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Eskifjordur (c) Elizabeth Malone

That doesn’t mean that you won’t see planting. This ‘planter’ was one of the more obscure sights that I spotted this time around, being a leftover from the whaling industry.  Least said about that, the better!

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Planter, Faskrudsfjordur (c) Elizabeth Malone

We also came across some almost municipal planting outside a church in Eskifjordur where these stunning meconopsis were to be found.

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Meconopsis, Eskifjordur (c) John Malone

The weather in Iceland can really be unforgiving, especially the wind! In the East Fjords we stayed in a newly built hotel (the delightful Hotel 1001 Nott) where I was amused to see the precautions they had taken to ensure their newly planted trees had some chance of staying upright!

Which brings me on to trees.  Trees in Iceland could be a topic for a blog in its own right. Deforestation occurred in the early years of the settlement and, as a result of thin soil the trees have struggled to grow back. Re-foresting Iceland is a project in itself. When we first visited in 1996, the joke about what to do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest (just stand up!) was absolutely true. Now there are trees of significant size although the area they cover is still relatively small. At the end of the day, you have to remember that Iceland, even in these days of climate change, is still mostly covered in ice.

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Part of the national forest at Skriduklauster (c) John Malone

What we tend to forget is that often the wonderfully scenic surroundings of a large country house in England, are a man-made illusion. The likes of Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton thought nothing of moving rivers or entire villages to create the perfect landscape for their wealthy clients. The Icelandic landscape, however, resists all attempts at taming it. Krysuvik might be a rather extreme example but when we visited this volcanic site on our first trip in 1996, we marvelled at the steam vent screaming boiling water out of the ground just like a kettle. When we returned in 2013 we were astonished to discover that the entire area had been re-formed by a miniature explosion that had sent rocks, boiling mud and water in all directions! In more extreme examples, earthquakes have caused entire valleys to sink by metres and in the town of Hvergerdi, as recently as 2008 an earthquake ruined many of the greenhouses used for growing vegetables.

Krysuvik (c) Elizabeth Malone

So rather than garden outside the back door, Icelanders make the most of their natural surroundings and are fiercely protective and proud of what grows naturally. In Faskrudsfjordur we fell in love with the gullies teeming with both water and wildflowers.

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Flower filled gullies, Faskrudsfjordur (c) Elizabeth Malone

Every time we hiked to a waterfall or stopped the car in a lay-by, I was busy taking photos of the flora and fauna – so many beautiful wild flowers and the scent of wild thyme in the air.

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Too many wild flower photos to choose from! (c) Elizabeth malone

That said, the use of lupins to halt soil erosion has led to an invasion. Swathes of previously bare landscape now glow purple. In some areas it’s very attractive but there’s no doubt that it is now the lupin that needs to be halted before ‘ice’ land becomes ‘lupinland’.

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Knee deep in lupins at Svinnasfelljokull (c) John Malone

As someone who loves lupins to form part of a deep herbaceous border, brimming with colour and a little bit of chaos as plants intertwine, I can’t imagine only having plant colour for a few short months of the year with growth relatively restricted by the thin layer of soil. An herbaceous border simply wouldn’t and couldn’t exist in Iceland. Neither could some of my favourite plants – dahlias, roses, clematis, to name a few. That said, I envy the Icelanders’ range of wild flowers and grasses, a reminder of so much we have destroyed with our intensively farmed land. There is a very natural beauty to Iceland and I pray that it may stay that way but the combination of the banking crash, the subsequent massive increase in tourism and the seemingly inevitable march of climate change, mean that the landscape is under threat. It is very sad to think that, in a perhaps less than a century, an English garden could be possible in Iceland …

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Fields of buttercups surround Strokkur at Geysir (c) John Malone

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