Tuesday, 04 July 2017 16:57

The mystery of growth

Apart from the late April frost this year (which was much lamented in my last blog) the Winter, Spring and early Summer have been relatively kind here – fewer strong winds and torrential downpours making all the difference.

So now, three Summers in, the garden is beginning to look quite established. Most (but not all) of the gaps have been filled and I am doing more “tending” than buying and planting.

But it is clear that some plants have done exceptionally well whilst others have done less well or even struggled and I have been trying to work out why.

For example, in the Zen bed I have two “ground cover” roses called ‘Rushing Stream’. They are at either end of the bed. One looks like this (below). It is huge (2m x 1.5 m x 1.5m) and is swamping many of the dwarf conifers it was planted between.

The other looks like this (below). It is much more meagre although one part of it has decided to climb up the fence.

I had never grown ground cover roses before so didn’t really know what to expect but I certainly didn’t think any would become so huge or upright. I think I expected them to stay close to the ground – as their name somewhat suggests? So why is one so huge and the other less so? Of course I don’t know. That is the mystery.

The bed was created from nothing (previously gravel over solid clay) but we didn’t put manure in because I was planning to grow Cistus and dwarf conifers. We only added soil improver and grit and then I added manure, compost and Vitax Q4 to things I planted later that like it richer and Mychorrizal fungi to everything.

Both roses were treated the same when I planted them. The large one gets fractionally more sun and has no tree cover (the smaller one has some light tree cover). They get the same amount of wind (quite a lot when it blows through the car port and gate). Perhaps one was simply a stronger plant (though they both looked the same when I planted them). I wonder, therefore, if the large one has simply hit something deep that it loves whilst the other hasn’t. (Remember my ‘non-climbing’ rose, R. Arthur Bell, that was first up and over the rose arch? It had obviously struck rose gold somewhere down there and is still gi-normous and dare I say it, almost thuggish now.)

In the same (Zen) bed I planted one of my favourite trees for a small garden – Cytisus Battandieri (yellow broom tree otherwise known as the Pineapple Tree). I had one in my London garden and it look like this (below) in full bloom – a lovely shape, scented, beloved by the bees and simply fabulous.

I adore this plant as a tree (it can also be a shrub) so I planted this single stemmed version with ultimate care, giving it everything it needed for a successful life. But it has failed. It is lacklustre, hasn’t grown much and certainly hasn’t flowered in three years.

Clearly it is either hating it where it is or it was a poor specimen. I fear the former must be the truth so I think I have got to move it. But it has a large root ball as I remember, so digging it up will disturb the bed. In London mine faced East. Here it faces West and has more wind. Is that why it is suffering? Who knows. It’s another garden mystery.

Where to put it is the next mystery. The flowers are bright yellow and I don’t think there is room in the hot ‘Kennett’ bed where bright yellow is encouraged – unless I take out another tree that is not loving it – the Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’ (below).

It was tall and possibly a bit skinny when I bought it and it has not put on much growth. I should explain. Having razed the garden I was keen to buy some quite well-grown trees and shrubs to establish some quick height but most trees perform better when grown from smaller saplings and I think I bought this one too large. Digging up the Sorbus would be another hugely disturbing task given everything that is now growing around it. At the moment this includes a thriving yellow/green Elder, a Philadelphus Belle Etoile (also very happy), Clematis Arabella (loving scrambling through the Philadelphus), Galega ‘Lady Wilson’ who is going bonkers again this year, a Rhamnus Alaternus argentiovariegata and the Arbutus unedos Rubra which is also thriving. So I am not sure I have it in my heart (or wherewithal) to dig up the Sorbus and replace it with the Cytisus.

Talking of which this section of the garden which is in a fair amount of shade from early afternoon is doing particularly well. My ‘pot transplanted’ acer is still loving it and I have a Physocarpus Diabolo (the dark red shrub to the right of the picture above) which is only supposed to grow to 1.5m high. Last year I had to cut it back because it was over 2m and is very “front of border” but already it has grown to over 2m again and is hiding the many other glories behind it. I feel another secateurs moment approaching.

It is no mystery however that most of the roses are thriving (they love clay) and I think I have solved the mystery of those few that weren’t (the underground water problem spoken of in a previous blog). But it is more of a mystery that the peonies (shown in the picture below on the top row) have been doing as well as they have in this heavy soil.

Top row above: Peonies. Bottom row: Roses

The new ramblers planted at the end of this year in the raised beds as a result of the underground water problem (Albertine on the left and top right below and Francis E Lester on the bottom right) have each put on an amazing show, especially given it was their first year. And they are both wonderfully scented. Albertine has a one-time show but I think it has to be one of the most beautiful roses with its stunningly bud, leaf and open flower combination and lovely scent.

 

The Clematis have been/are being wonderful again this year (see pic below), as have many others plants too numerous to mention.

Finally, both the two more unusual, smaller flowered Clematis that I bought a couple of years ago have decided they like 2017. The pink and white one called 'I am a Lady Q' is thriving on the swing seat. She is very floriforous on the South side (see below).......

......but I think the flowers on the North side, inside the swing seat (shown below) are more beautiful. They are more protected and don't seem to mind the aspect or more shaded situation at all.

The other one, C. 'Vanessa' which is pale blue has a very fine tracery of stems which at the moment are covered in buds which are just opening on time (she is August to October officially) and may go on until the frosts. See below.

And, as promised, I have finally addressed my pots problem which was this year's project. I have been ruthless-ish. It involved much cutting into pots with a tree saw, pulling, cajoling etc plus a few pot smashes to get old root balls out and then many trips to the dump.

All this takes longer than you might expect because I like to save worms (where I can) and put them into the beds rather than into the green waste or  compost bins. It is up to them from thereonin and sometimes it can be a race.

I am now regularly joined by a very savvy and brave robin who arrives the moment I deal with earth of any sort. So whether he takes the worms or the many other insects disturbed by the activity is down to nature and how quick they all are.

Then it required new compost and plants (shopping trips hurray!) plus all the new thinking and planting. There are still a few old pots from London around the place that need dealing with, cracked and full of weeds as they are, but most have now been re-planted to create something respectable around my kitchen terrace and on the pond terrace.

And before you ask that swing bin in the top right is there to stop my delightful, happy, always busy puppy Daisy from sneaking out between the gatepost and the gate - she is very skinny.

And finally I should announce that I have a new, part-time garden helper. She potted my Dahlias up in March – now already in flower before my sweet peas (which I got to very late this year).

 

She helped plant the onions (which are looking great) and to harvest the winter ones below (which I am now eating and storing).

Talking of which I harvested the first garlic I have ever grown a couple of weeks ago. There are two types - four Elephant ones which have done well and about 16 others that I don't remember which are a bit small but very tasty.

So of course I had to try to plait them. I can do three strand plaits - no problem. 20 strands in one plait is quite an ask. I went online to get instructions but inevitably my plait doesn’t look anything like the theirs.....

........but it’s sort of there and looking suitably rustic on my wood store under the carport. Apparently it should hang somewhere airy, cool, dry and shady (which is quite an ask in July).

And I have cropped and stuffed my first home grown marrow.

It's an F1 hybrid called Tiger Cross. It looks just like it should and I have to say I think it is very beautiful. It is also delicious except the skin is so hard it has to be discarded - which they don't mention in the blurbs. But I suppose this makes it better protected from slugs as it grows - so it is swings and roundabouts. I have to admit I quite like edible marrow skin so I may seek a new version for next year. I am very partial to a stuffed marrow. They take lots of time, string, and silver foil but are very special as a result.

In the same bed as the marrow I have a yellow courgette (doing OK) and a very small pumpkin which was grown from seed in a lab in water and cotton wool by my new helper (who is my new Japanese ward). At the moment she is at language school but she'll be going to proper boarding school to do her GCSEs and A’Levels in September and staying here in between on her shorter breaks.

So now, near my marrow and courgette plants I also have an unplanned pumpkin. It is taking up a huge amount of space in the raised bed but I am assuming it will grow very large. It is still looking pretty meagre at the moment but it is growing at last.

Whether a pumpkin will be ready for Haloween is another mystery.

Saturday, 06 May 2017 18:57

The highs and lows of Spring

The high and lows at the start of this year have been personal and weather based. Winter was rather good to us here. It was cold enough to kill lots of bugs but was nothing like as wet or windy as my previous two winters. So Spring started well.

My first plant in flower is almost always a stunning Japanese Prunus mume ‘Beni-Chidori’ which has deep pink, highly scented, flowers that spring directly from the dark stems in February.

It was fabulous this year and was followed shortly by the three Daphnes (which flowered properly for the first time), the snowdrops, Helebores (below), daffodils and early flowering Arabis ‘Little Treasure Pink’ by the edge of the pond.

 

Then my newly (last Autumn) planted small flowered Clematis along the difficult rose arches bed came good (C. Alpina Frankie’ and C. macropetala ‘Wesselton’) as did the one on the oil tank trellis (C. macropetala ‘Propertius’).

The “smaller flowered plants” planting plan in my difficult border has gone quite well. The little Chionodoxa ‘Lucilae’ were charming very early on and are now followed by the Anemone ‘De Caen Blue’.

In April the temperatures soared and we had uncommonly high ones (27 degrees in the sun one day – which is basically a very good Summer temperature here) and everything got very excited and came into bud.

 

The tulips were magnificent (more about one of them later) but we had no rain for about four weeks so I was watering where needs be.

So Spring was looking good – as were my Wisteria. One of things I am proudest of in my new garden is that I managed to get the existing Wisterias at the front to flower the first year after I was here (they hadn’t before). They just needed a proper prune. They have been good for the last two Springs but this year the flower buds were massively abundant. This is what they looked like around mid April – I was so excited and looking forward to a fabulous display.

I have three younger ones on the rose arch parade too and they were also in amazing bud – so it was going to be Wisteria heaven chez moi this Spring.

But then, on the nights of 24thth and 25thth of April everything changed and we had overnight frosts and cold winds. It went down to -3 degrees plus the wind chill factor. I awoke to a white lawn but wasn’t overly worried because my outside plants are hardy (officially to -5 or more) and I’d put all the geraniums and pelargoniums etc back into the greenhouse.

But then I saw the Wisterias with their “oh so promising” buds flopping like dead things in the light wind. I walked the garden - the Dicentra were drooping, a new rose stem was doing the same, young leaves on the multi-stemmed Circis Siliquastrum (Judas tree) and some of the Acers were “burned”, and the Camelias were totally finished off. The catalogue of plant misery was too much to burden you with (if you are of a sensitive disposition) but suffice to say it was devastating.

On the upside some things seem to have brazened it out. The tulips have recovered, the roses are mostly fine. healthily in bud with some just coming into flower, the Geums have weathered the storm with impunity and once again are in blazing flower. Even my somewhat tender Pittosporums and some of the Acers seem to have ignored the shocking freeze.

And despite the general drought most things continue to flourish.

My lovely Actinidia Kolmikta is becoming a nice shape on the workshop wall. Training the helpfully pliable stems sideways has the same effect as with roses. It creates new shoots vertically from the more horizontally tied stems. It is supposed to be a twining climber but it seems to respond well to this treatment. I love the white and pink tipped leaves and many people don’t realise that these hide tiny flower buds which, when open, exude a fantastic scent in the sunshine. It’s always great fun seeing people trying to work out where this amazing smell is coming from this early in the season.

And re tulips … last Autumn I read in one of my Gardening magazines about a new tulip called ‘Vaya con Dios’ (Let’s go with God). It is huge, open cup shaped, slightly frilly on the edges and yellow in the photo. I wanted to try it and the only seller online seemed to be Kelways. So I ended up ordering all this year’s tulips from them (pricier than many but very good quality bulbs). All of them have been great – large, tall and strong. But Vaya con Dios has been astoundingly wonderful.

 It starts out as a huge, slightly frilled, bright yellow cup the size of a small noodle bowl when it opens – much larger than a Peony flower. It's the yellow one at the bottom of the top photo. It then takes on raspberry ripple-like pink lines until it slowly develops an overall pink with a glowing yellow centre and it never fades – unlike some of the others.

Despite the tulip success I am already grieving for my frost hit Wisterias. Some buds have survived. As you can see there will be some flowers but they are not going to look anything like as magnificent as they should have done.

And talking of grieving, the reason I haven’t written a blog since September is firstly because it became Winter and not very interesting, secondly because I got busy work-wise but mostly because my beloved dog Lottie (who has featured in lots of the garden videos) became very ill in November/December (at only six and half), was finally diagnosed with a large, inoperable brain tumour in early January, and I had to have her put down which was the hardest but kindest thing I have ever done in my life. Her absence knocked Pickle (my other dog who loved her dearly) and me sideways to say the least and, honestly, I haven’t been inspired to write about the garden again until now. So please forgive me. I just wasn’t in the mood. A little Lottie gallery is below.

But onwards and upwards. I now have a wonderful new, very shaggy puppy called Daisy who is a Poochon (half toy poodle and half Bichon Frise) who is growing fast. She looks a bit like Lottie (similar colouring) but with a longer nose and longer legs. And she is a very different and busy girl – always playing with things, bringing me presents with a madly wagging tail and generally wriggling, running and jumping with the joy of being alive.

And she is my new joy. Pickle was very unimpressed when she arrived and it took a full month of keeping them physically apart in pens and cages in the kitchen and garden before I was confident that he would not kill her. Joyously, they are now best friends and do a lot of dog kissing.

So a new balance has been restored to our household that means I can again relax, enjoy the garden – and write about it. But we still miss our lovely little Lottie (20.08.2000 – 09.01.2017).

RIP my darling.

Thursday, 29 September 2016 20:12

Insect visitors - welcome or not

The video above gives movement to the interersting insetcs featured below. It is very short - so worth watching.

Dragonflies

This year the pond has attracted a number of flying visitors including the charming and common red, blue and green Damsel flies with their extraordinary mating circle. I had these around my smaller pond in London but, more excitingly, this year I’ve had a range of the larger dragonflies I never saw in town. The most prevalent of these have been large, hairy Brown Hawkers, the smaller green, red and orange ones and the gloriously coloured, large blue and green ones.

Most are, however, extremely difficult to film because they move around so fast and seldom settle, certainly not long enough for me to rush back to the kitchen to get the camera-on-tripod out, attach the right lens etc.. A few, like this orange/red one, like to sunbathe so are more readily available for pics and video but they tend to be small.

So, just as I was thinking this blog was going to have to be without representation of a large dragonfly this afternoon a huge blue and green one flew into the kitchen and caused us all (the dogs and me) some disquiet as, with a great deal of noisy flapping, it seemed to get stuck in one of the overhead lamps.

Having removed the bulb to help it escape it flew the wrong way towards the front window and flapped around there.

Once I’d opened the window however, rather than fly away, it just sat there seemingly recouping after its lamp foray allowing me every opportunity to take pics and video - so here he is in all his glory.

I say ‘he’ because I now believe he is a male Southern Hawker. He, and all those like him, are very welcome visitors – though best around the pond and not in the kitchen in future please.

Wasps

Less welcome visitors have been (and still are) the wood stripping wasps. My neighbour has a wasp nest being built above her porch. It is obviously a very upmarket nest, fit for the most demanding of Queens, for it is being built in the chewed up and regurgitated mush of wildly expensive oak (my bridge), finely decorated with inlays of teak (my garden furniture) and cedar (my greenhouse).

I must say the wasps are very industrious. They munch and chew all day, mostly in line with the grain, which means I have stripes missing from my garden chairs, greenhouse, shed and bridge and ovals evident all over the table.

Not much deters them and they ignore me even as I eat outside. I am guessing that my savoury rather than sweet palate is aiding our co-existence at the table.

My neighbour of course refuses to accept that they are “her” wasps - which technically of course they are not. Luckily we are great friends so this is good teasing material. But I cannot find signs of a nest being built in my garden, sheds or house so I am continuing to blame her, which is great fun.

And look who came to visit the terrace recently.

At first glance I thought it was a large slug but the way it moved and its long, trunk-like nose soon made me realise it was a giant caterpillar. I am sure all you insect experts out there are shouting “Deilephila elpenor” right now but I had to resort to my Butterfly and Moth books and Google images before I could identify it as the caterpillar of the Elephant Hawk-moth.

In defence, which it did after Pickle accidentally sat on it despite my best efforts, it also makes itself resemble a snake.

Luckily Pickle didn’t kill it and it “caterpillar-ambled” away into a flowerbed where I hope it will be allowed to transform itself without further disruption.

Some of you might remember I found an Elephant Hawk-moth just out of its chrysalis in a pot in my London garden some years back so I know what size it will be. Strange how large the caterpillar is before it metamorphoses.

Other than these three specimens there is nothing much unusual to report. The Butterflies have been less numerous and only the usual suspects (ie Peacocks, Red Admirals, Whites, Brimstones and various Browns) turned up ie the Painted Ladies didn’t show this year sadly. The bees have been numerous, many coloured and sized and as busy as usual. There have been few greenfly this year (good news) but as a result, sadly, very few ladybirds. The black fly had been scarce too but in the last two weeks a flock has decimated my chives. And there are a fair few too many earwigs hiding in the petals of my Dahlias (along with myriad baby snails) so I have to chase these out of the kitchen when the cut flowers come in for arrangements.

Talking of the kitchen again - it seems somewhat of a magnet. A large black/brown grasshopper/cricket lost its way and was in here the other day too. Obviously they are all bored with being unseen and seek the bright lights of the Internet and being featured in a blog. My pleasure!

Friday, 02 September 2016 17:06

Right plant, right place - 2016 planting and problems

Apologies for the radio silence - village life is more hectic that I had expected. Paid for work has also been busy.  So I got behind – in the garden and in blogs. However, below is a bit of a summary of what I have been dealing with this year – and it's not been all good to say the least.

Bog problem

Late last year I discovered I had a serious problem. One of my beds, alongside the rose arch parade, is a “bog” at all times of year. I think this because a Victorian clay pipe land drain, designed to take water off the house toward the fields, has been broken at this point. Possibly we broke it as we dug to create the garden or when we installed the parade arches. Possibly it was already broken - who knows? But the resulting bog is ruining my best-laid, rose arch planting plans (ie some of the roses and other plants are struggling badly).

There were two obvious choices: dig it up, again, re-do underground drainage and stuff or accept it and replant with things that will thrive in the wet conditions. I simply couldn’t face digging everything up again so there was really only one choice – the latter. I had to find plants to work.

So I bought two great books on bog gardening via Amazon, the wonderful Beth Chatto’s “The Damp Garden” and John Simmons’ “Managing the Wet garden” to help. I also went online to good plant selling sites like Crocus and Claire Austin perennials to see what they recommended.

I am sure Beth Chatto’s book is a masterpiece but it is very long. My copy is an old paperback and all the words are in tiny type and it has very few pictures. I really didn’t have time to get to grips with it. However John Simmons’ book (hardback) is full of useful pictures and is much more accessible visually. I have therefore pretty much read the whole thing and it has been really helpful.

Bog planting proper needs the soil to be reliably moist ie even in a hot summer. I think it is, lower down, but I am not sure. In the heat of mid Summer the surface clay still cracks despite all the manure and soil improver I have added, but just a few inches down there is lots of water. I am told mulching is therefore very important to help retain the moisture in drier weather.

Because I have been planting in a pond for many years now, I am aware of those flowering plants and grasses that cope with full water and marginal conditions (like Lobelia Cardinalis, Iris, Equisetum and the dreaded Ranunculus etc). However, because this "bog" is not in a pond but, very inconveniently, on the house end and East side of my huge rose arch parade which is supposed to be covered in roses, Clematis and Wisteria, I really don’t want it to be filled with pond/marginal plants.

The key knowledge I have gained from my reading/study is that small flowered Clematis and roses cope much better with wet conditions than their larger flowered versions.This seems to proven by the fact that my smaller flowered  C. “Wisley “ (which did very well last year on the other side last year in similar-ish conditions has been amazing this year and flowered for months).

 

I have also found out that just raising the crown of lots of plants helps them to survive the waterlogging lower down. 

So, I have done both. I have built two more large raised beds to cover most of the area. They are only raised by six inches and I have filled them with the friable Viridor compost from the council tips.

I have planted two rambling (ie small flowered) roses in this new environment, R. Francis E Lester (scented, white with yellow centre) and R. Albertine (scented and pink). They’ll be more vigorous and shorter flowering than the roses originally there but at least they should thrive whereas the others are struggling. As an aside, this brings the total number of roses so far in the garden to a staggering 51.

Talking of roses, the only one that is already up and over the 8 feet high arch is one of the NON-climbing ones. It seems R. Arthur Bell (admittedly a tall rose – 5ft or so usually) had not read its own, very clearly marked, “non-climbing” label and must have hit a horse manure spot or something. In its first year it put on two huge new shoots, both about 5cms in diameter. I cut one back but let the other go, and it has shot - upwards and over.

I have also planted more of the smaller flowered Clematis up both sides of the arch including C. alpina 'Frankie' (blue/white), C. macropetala 'Wesselton' (purple/white) and C. 'Brunette' (purple/white) plus the very late flowering C. Vanessa’ (pale blue) and a pink and white C. viticella which I think wins the prize for oddest named plant in the garden being called “I am A Lady Q”. This one is climbing up the back of the swing seat and has flowered following the C. Montana and with the Pasiflora given to me as a cutting by a neighbour.

As an aside the Pasiflora flowered for the first time this year and one of the flowers was a “Siamese twin” (see pic below) with a conjoined upper and lower flower created from one bud.

And talking of Siamese twins, I've also had a Siamese tomato.

So, back to the bog. Since the new raised beds are officially in the “vegetable” garden, I filled them with bulbs of Allium of every sort, decorative purple and white Allium flowers, plus edible ones such as leeks, onions, spring onions, garlic and chives So far they are all appreciating the conditions and thriving and I am thrilled with my first ever crop of brown, red and white onions.

And the dried heads of Alium Christophii are also now looking fab as decoration in the house.

In the wet gap between the two raised beds I planted mint, which loves water. However, I’ve planted it in pots sunk into the ground to help limit it spreading everywhere. Putting terracotta pots into the ground helps to keep the plants cool and the clay is supposed to let water move through them. Perfect!

And between the raised beds and the path I have planted bog irises (Iris Ensata) and Lobelia ‘Hadspen Purple’. They are lovely but the Irises have failed leading me to worry that the bed is not waterlogged all the time. Crikey. That’s a real bore.

Further, this general planting failure means I still have a big flowerbed gap to deal with. It is not good enough at all yet - but that will be this Winter’s challenge to solve.

Weeds

They say a weed is just a plant in the wrong place and late Spring/early Summer saw a huge number of weeds in the garden and I have been pulling them ever since. By weed I mean basically “something I haven’t planted on purpose”.

Just a few however looked (and still look) rather splendid and have been allowed to flower before being removed before they set seed – I hope. In fact anything that looks like a daisy, especially with long stems, is welcome here.

However, I have a new weed that is a nightmare. It spreads by growing up and flowering (ie by seed), by over-ground runners, and also, like Convolvulus and Ground Elder, by underground shoots which multiply every time you pull/dig them up and leave a miniscule amount in the soil. It wasn’t here when I arrived (as far as I know) so it has come in with a bought plant or in the compost. It has quite attractive, velvety, heart shaped leaves, small purple flowers so it could beguile you into thinking it’s a welcome visitor. But it’s not. It has spread into lots of my beds and I am now seriously considering chemical removal over Autumn/Winter with a Glyphoshate spray. I haven’t used a single chemical since I arrived here, so this will be a major step change. If anyone can tell me what this weed is and how to deal with it I would be ever so grateful.

Moving plants

“Right plant, right place” is a very useful rule to help us make sure we plant something in conditions in which it will thrive ie as close as possible to those in which it would grow naturally, wherever it came from (often not the UK) – soil type, temperature, hours of sunlight/shade, wind levels, metres above sea level etc..

In my garden “right plant, right place” is also all to do with the combination of flower and foliage colours, foliage types, heights and scent. To this end I have already moved three pink roses that were being far “too pink” in what is now the “hot” Kennett bed. Rosa ‘Pretty Lady’,’ Eglantine’ and ‘Scentsation’ are now in the “Shed bed” and seem much happier as well as now looking “in place”.

I have also added the clay loving Sanquisorba to the bed which, with its lovely little burgundy heads on light foliage is looking pretty great against the Miscanthus sinensis 'Strictus', 'Ghana' and the Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Silver Sheen' which, miraculoulsy, has survived the frosts and seems to be thriving.

And I seem, somewhat inadvertently, to have created a bed for transient plants. Last year this spot was filled with sweet peas. This spring it was filled with tulips (all now raised) and now it is filled with Dahlias and Cosmos which, after they are done, will be replaced by more Tulip bulbs later this year.

Bathtubs in front

I also tackled the front garden. I am not planning to change its overall design and layout at the moment but the area in front of my kitchen looked very naked and clean once I removed the leftover paving and stone sets/bricks etc which were cluttering it up.

The front is South facing so gets a great deal of sun and weather generally – winds being the other issue. I use thyme, rosemary and bay in cooking a great deal and never have enough. The back garden clay does not provide suitable conditions for growing it successfully. It needs to be in pots.

So I decided that two great big, well-drained troughs under the kitchen windows filled with low growing Mediterranean plants like cascading Rosemary, proper thyme and perhaps even some garish, bright red Geraniums/Pelargoniums (to match the roses out front) would bring it to life and keep my cooking pots well flavoured. And of course a new bay tree between them because I have used nearly all the leaves off my old one in a pot which came with me from London.

Somewhere in a different galaxy I imagined the troughs would be stone – until I went online and discovered how horrendously expensive, heavy and often small they are. I have tried large wooden ones before and they just rot after about 10 years, so I needed something else.

I am very lucky to live in a village that is also the antiques centre of the area. We have two huge emporia representing a great number of dealers. On a recent trip to one of the aforementioned emporiums (I gather both the “a” and “ums” plurals of “um” are acceptable) I spotted two old zinc bathtubs from Eastern Europe. They are real, old-fashioned baths for humans, with no plughole. But I wasn’t sure they would be “quite the ticket” for the front garden. What would “the village” say about bathtubs out front?

After discussing the alternatives with various friends, checking that it’s OK to grow edibles in zinc containers and negotiating hard, I secured both baths and another large zinc pot for a very reasonable amount. The baths are 140cms x 60cms and 40 cms deep – simply the perfect size and height.

I drilled lots of drainage holes in the bottom and I filled them with the lovely friable stuff from Viridor plus left-over gravel (herbs don’t like it too rich) and have planted them as planned. I also found a lovely new bay tree to sit in the round zinc pot between them. I’ll take the leaves for the cook pot from the back!

Initially they looked great and it seems the village ‘approved’ because others have copied the idea. But it has not been all been good. The heavy rain in early Summer seems to have pushed the gravel down to block the drainage holes and the Thyme has “drowned”. My cooking now is still relying on the 10 year old thyme in my tiny, neglected, terracotta window pot sitting by the greenhouse so I have invested in lots of sacks of horticultural grit for re-doing them - when I can bear it (probably when the Pelargoniums are done).

So, apart from these troubles, a couple of trees that look as if they are struggling, the mass devastation caused by this year's onslaught of slugs and snails and the fact that my very tardily planted out tomatoes, beans, sweet peas and salad sowings are only now bearing fruit and flowers, things seem to be working OK and it’s looking and smelling lovely. Phew!

Friday, 08 April 2016 18:27

Red heads, murders and massacres?

I feed the birds (despite the resultant rat threat) and I love watching them in my garden though I am not a bona fide ‘twitcher”. And, as you know from a previous blog, I have nursed Bob, a fledgling starling, to release.

Moving here from London has changed my bird environment somewhat - no more parakeets, lots more Buzzards, a fair few Red Kites and hundreds of crows in the oak trees in my view are the major differences.

All the usual garden suspects I had in London turn up here (Robins, every type of Tit, Blackbirds, Sparrows, Wrens, Starlings, Goldfinches etc) but the new ones I have seen a great deal of include the beautifully coloured Chaffinches, the ragged looking Pied Wagtails and the shy, elegant, colourful Nuthatches.

Then, in mid January this year, I was visited by four Lesser Redpolls. To begin with, when I saw the blushed breast, I was worried I had a bleeding sparrow on the feeder but then I saw the red scull cap and knew it was something different.

They are small birds that, at first glance, look like little sparrows but when you see their rosy breasts and red caps you know they are something different. And they are full of spirit. They love the Nyger seed I put out for the Goldfinches and they will fight off the much larger Goldfinch to keep their position on the feeder.

I have also had Siskin and woodpecker feeding but they are very shy and I have not yet caught either on camera.

Last year I saw many Buzzards around here but one day I had a “special encounter” with one. I was driving out of my house and around the Common that fronts it when a Buzzard got up from the ground (no prey in its claws) and flew alongside my car, at driver side window level, his wing tip just centimetres from the window for about five seconds. Those five seconds seemed much longer. His head was turned toward me and I could look into his eyes, see his beak and fully appreciate his beauty and power in mind-blowing close-up. It was an amazing, unrepeatable moment – and luckily there was no car coming in the other direction! I spent the next few minutes as I drove on to Shaftesbury just saying “wow, wow, wow!”

I have also witnessed two smallish Starling murmurations over the commons in the village (an amazing sight) and recently a similar show from hundreds of crows. I don’t know what a synchronised Crow flying display is called. Given they are a murder in the plural might it be a “massacre”?

However, I have a bird problem in the garden. The West side of the new greenhouse is a bird killer. I don’t know if the old one on the same site was too but my gorgeous new greenhouse caused at least five bird deaths in 2015. That’s five two many in my book.

For example, last summer a gorgeous Nuthatch crashed into the glass of the front door. It survived but I had to stand around to keep dogs, cats and hawks at bay for about 45 minutes until eventually it was able to fly away. Then a few weeks later it (or another one) did the same and was killed instantly. I can’t tell you how desperately sad-making it is to put such a beautiful bird in the bin.

A Nuthatch on the feeder

A Goldfinch and a Sparrow have been killed in the same way. And most spectacularly, one Summer afternoon last year as I sat on the terrace chatting with a friend, there was a huge swoosh followed by a very loud, sickening thud. A young Sparrow Hawk had caught a baby woodpecker on the wing but then crashed into my greenhouse door glass. The Sparrow Hawk was killed on impact but the baby woodpecker was still alive. I tried to keep it warm and save it but sadly it died a few hours later. I guess the needle pointed talons of the Sparrow Hawk (they are unbelievably sharp) may have already done their damage internally. Or it died of shock. Whichever, the loss of the baby woodpecker was very saddening.

I have to admit I was less worried about the death of the song-bird-killing Sparrow Hawk (though the older I get the less I can bear the death of anything) and I put the beautiful hawk specimen in the deep freeze because I have a local artist friend who works with birds (mostly dead ones) and I thought she might want it.

It spent about three months there, visited by a huge number of local children who admired it and stroked its amazingly soft feathers (which were unaffected by the deep freeze) until my artist friend eventually claimed it. It’s a bit weird having a dead Sparrow Hawk amongst the frozen peas, chips and ice cream but I coped. This is the countryside after all.

So, since these very unpleasant occasions last year, I have been investigating ways to stop the greenhouse from killing birds. This is a new problem I have never had to deal with before and which is very troubling.

Initially I thought the birds flew into the glass because they saw their favourite tree the other side of it and thought they could fly it. But apparently (from research online) I understand it is to more to do with reflection - they think what is behind them is also in front of them ie they have a clear flight path.

So, on to trusty Google and Amazon I went to find a solution. At some expense I bought some window film, like stained glass windows, from Artscape, which I put up earlier this year. It's attractive, in a magnolia pattern, but it is now too dark inside the greenhouse.  I can’t see out into the garden and I am anyway not convinced that it stops the windows doing the reflection thing.

So early this year I took most of it down and bought some special film patches that are "especially designed to stop bird strikes". They are also from Artscape and called "Birds Eye view" window film patches.  They are easily available in the USA but in the UK you have to hunt harder and go to a very special site on Amazon if you want to buy them in Pounds Sterling. The link is http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00K65NNG2?psc=1&redirect=true&ref_=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00

They are massively simple to install and really quite attractive as you can see below. I shall report on their effectiveness through 2016. I pray they work. I want no more birds to die in my garden or to be killed by my greenhouse. So far none has been.

 And this is what they look like. Much less intrusive than the full-scale, patterned film (which you can see I have left at the edges of the greenhouse) in case. Apparently the texture and pattern make something in birds' eyes that tells them there is an object in their flight path. And you don't neeed many per metre of glass. I have over-done it for sfety's sake but only one of these patches should work for all the glass on the greenhouse end.

 

Monday, 18 January 2016 16:58

To Autumn

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;

To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,

    And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

 To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

 

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

 

Until they think warm days will never cease;

For Summer has o'erbrimm'd their clammy cells."

Well the poetry is all, of course, thanks to John Keats and is the first verse of his 'Ode to Autumn'. As an aside, the pink flower picture above is proof that Dahlias can be bee-friendly despite being unscented. Indeed Dahlia centres almost always reveal themselves before the flower goes over, however ornate, decorative or pom-pom shaped the flower is. You will only frustrate the bees if you cut or dead-head them too early (which I know you'll do for competition blooms!). If you leave the dieing heads on for a bit longer the bees will thank you.

Anyway, in this time of lots of 'brown' in the garden - mud, bare earth, dead heads on roses, general 'over' plant material and fallen leaves that still need clearing, I thought some colour and remembrance of recent past glories was in order.

And I haven't really blogged Autumn. The colours have been fabulous and it has been so mild and gentle on the plants still in flower.

Indeed things in the garden are behaving very strangely.  Friends here already had daffodils out in December. I have them out now, along with Saxifrage that really needs to wait until later. And I still have last year's Geums, Geraniums and Roses in flower plus re-appearing Knautia macedonia 'Melton Pastels' and Clematis buds everywhere. I do hope these later frosts won't completely knock them out because they should really be resting at the moment and saving their energy for later in the year.

And six of the Armeria lovelies below (which I bought on an impulse as fillers) have flowered non-stop since March 2015 when I planted them in the terrace walls. They look like better-flowered chives in pink, red and white. The flowers are sort of papery and pre-dried from the start so they last really well too - even when cut. These little charmers are amazing value all round really.

So, post the poetry, I thought I'd give you just a few more Autumn pictures. They don't fit the other verses of Keats' ode so it is basically a photo blog from here on in - which I am sure you'll be grateful for - instead of the 'many thousand plus words' I normally end up writing.

This plant nearly got dug up a hundred times this Summer as it so resembled a thistle weed. And then, in October (much too late really), it suddenly did this (see below). Thus it remains on the 'Try not to dig up' list.

For me oranges, yellows and reds are the colours of Autumn and so many late-flowering perennials and Dahlias oblige. They work wonderfully with the contrasting purples of same-time flowering Verbena bonariensis, Chleome and Buddleja with all their butterflies and the textural contrast of grasses in flower.

These are tall Alstromerias 'Red Beuaty' and 'Orange Supreme' (dug up from a clump in my London garden) teamed with grasses Miscanthus sinensis 'Ghana' (the red one) and Nasella tenuissima and and the Verbena bonariensis and Geum 'Princess Juliana' below.

And I couldn't resist a couple of butterfly pics.. Butterflies seem especially to love purple flowers - above is a Red Admiral on Buddleja 'Lochinch' below is a Small White on Verbena bonariensis.

I have also had Peacock, many other types of 'White', Painted Lady, Tortoiseshell, the vibrant green of Brimstone and the delicate Meadow brown around, especially on the nettles and briars of the surrounding farm edges. I have not seen any Blues thus far, nor Fritillaries. Perhaps 2016 will yield more.

The Dahlias as ever have provided lots of Autumn colour and flowers for cutting - so many in fact that I have also filled pots in the local shop with them. Above are D. Karma Fuschiana (pink/orange) and D. Chat Noir. The D. 'Garden Wonder' below is such a bright red that it refuses to be properly photographed. The camera simply cannot capture the intensity of the colour.

The two plants that surprised and pleased me most last year were the Lupin and the Geum. I bought a mix of Lupins as quick fillers to plant when I was first able to get into the garden in late Spring/early Summer. But, rather than being 'early/mid Summer wonders' as I had expected, they have been in flower from May until late November. All they need is a bit of dead-heading and possibly the enriched ground(?) to keep them throwing up new spires. I have been most impressed and thrilled with them.

The orange Geums ('Princess Juliana' above - vibrant, double orange, tall and very strong and 'Totally Tangerine' - single, elegant and slighly less orange from a distance), have also flowered all year. I am sure this is also about the soil inputs and regular dead-heading I have done. It's laborious on Geums, because they have so many small flowers, but they really respond to it and I think it's worth it for the really long season of colour you get as a result.

Lupins (like Dahlias) are very prone to destruction by slugs early in the season as their new, young, shoots appear from the soil in Spring. So we'll see what happens this year. I expect them to be destroyed on their re-appearance. They were in London. I may need to simply dig them up and replace them with fully formed plants from a garden centre but, if so, I think it might be worth the cost for the amazing display they have put on almost all this year. Well established plants seem to beat the slugs. And I have kept some seed pods and will give those a go too in the greenhouse.

So that's my ode to Autumn - a beautiful time with lots of flora and insects - and, of course, here we get our fair share of rainbows in the huge skies overhead. So, I'll leave you with a wonderful one (and its shadow) which turned up to welcome January in over the garden on New Year's day......

...... and one of the Buzzards that keeps a beady eye on us from a neighborouring tree.

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