Friday, 27 April 2018 19:14

Spring means trees - and pain

Weve waited a long time for some sunshine and heat. April suddenly delivered both for a few days and got the tulips going, thank goodness. But gosh. So much work to do in a very short time because it has been too miserable to be out there. Spring and I are horribly behind.

My onion sets had been waiting to be planted out for weeks and all the other weeding needed in advance of planting anything had been on hold thanks to the wet and the cold.

But all is now forgiven – sort of. Finally I managed to get out there and the recent sun in early May is making all the difference.

I have planted many of the onion sets. More will follow later. I have improvised netting (not the expense of a full cage) held up by cheap climber trainers plus some bird netting to stop the blackbirds and others pulling them up just for the fun of it - as is their wont.

It’s a lot of hard work to do everything that needs doing all at the same time when one thinks the frosts may or may not be over. Neighbours had a frost on 30th April. Luckily we didn't but I am still praying the huge Wisteria buds front (first below) and back (second below) will enfold into gloriousness this year (having lost most of them last year).

So I am now (slowly between showers) working my way through the borders cleaning up the old growth from Geraniums, Geums and grasses, cutting down the now straw-like stems of the tall grasses whilst carefully missing the young new shoots, weeding everywhere, tieing in the rapid growth of the Clematis and doing final pruning of roses - all much later than normal and, following my Winter report, doing some re-thinking re the garden and some of the plants.

Trees - A Magnolia?

I wasn’t planning to plant any more trees, ever, let alone this year but I witnessed a wonderful Magnolia recently that I covet. It comes over the fence from my parents’ neighbours’ garden in Worcestershire. It is a medium sized tree with pink and white flowers on bare branches and the flowers become stellata in form as they open from strong buds. I know it is the one I want one but I don't know what variety it is. Everything online looks likes it's a "Leonard Messell" bit I am not convinced. LM is too white and small. It must be something else. A pink stellata tree form.

Also, officially, I have nowhere to put it. The only place it can go is where other plants are. At the moment the ideal location for my new Magnolia is directly in the place of a Styrax Japonica ‘Pink Chimes’ (which I had hoped would grow into a tree but is clearly not going to) and two increasingly large Daphnes (odora ‘Aureo marginato’ and D ‘Rebecca’) that are thriving in the bed shown below. Depending on the tree’s pot size there is a chance I could squeeze the tree in between the Daphnes if I simply remove the Styrax. But Daphnes notoriously hate being disturbed and are in flower now. They won’t mind the extra shade if I can squeeze it in but their roots might not take kindly to ‘new tree disturbance’.

So I am going through the process of thinking “am I prepared to potentially kill three happily thriving plants to put in a new tree that will flower for only two or three weeks in early Spring?” It’s a toughie. It would look fab in April and also look lovely in its leaf most of the rest of the year and, with luck, the branches will do what Magnolia branches do best (which is sort of magical) as they gently twine and umbrella out. I want to duck underneath it, work around it and marvel in its form and bark. And I really want a tree in the middle of this bed! The Styrax just isn't doing it.

Ooops!

Whilst thinking of trees I forced myself to reconsider my failing Cytisus Batandieri in the Zen bed. It is still alive but it is definitely not happy. I think it needs moving to a site with more sun. So I have had to think of a tree that might work in its place. I decided that a Sorbus aucuparia (native Rowan tree) of some sort might thrive because they are very tolerant of clay and wet (and a little shade), they have white flowers and red berries beloved of birds (which can also be made into jelly – especially if you are Scandinavian). I had a fabulous one in my London garden that even attracted the famous Tiger Moth - but I inherited it, so I don’t know its exact form.

I researched them and decided that either Sorbus commixta ‘Embley’ or Sorbus ‘Chinese Lace’ would work well in the bed, soil, aspect and conditions. Both have white blossom and red berries and great Autumn colour but Chinese Lace has rather unusually divided leaves. I visited lots of local places which had them and of course couldn’t decide, so bought one of each (from different places) ie I now have two to be planted. Ooops! Now that's three trees I didn't plan to plant.

They say there is always room for another Clematis (which I have found to be pretty true) but is there always room for another tree - or three?

I have made it happen of course. I have planted the S. Commixta on the edge of the left hand border where it will match the lovely Crataegus prunifolia (frosted thorn) tree the other side of the “gate” at the end of the garden. Both have blossom and deep red berries for the birds but the Sorbus doesn’t have the wicked thorns.

The Sorbus ‘Chinese Lace’ will go in the zen bed to replace the Cytisus where I hope its divided leaves will be more Japanese-like and fit in well with the Acers, dwarf conifers and sculptures.

The Cytisus will be moved (wrong time I know) to the end of the garden by the swing seat (after I have completely re-dug the bed, removed the two Ceonothus that were killed by the frosts and snow this Winter and the myriad weed grasses and other invaders –major blitz). There it will get much more sun (happy making) but also more wind – potentially a problem. If it thrives where I move it to then fab.. If it dies I’ll find something else to replace it. If this marvellous shrub/tree that I really want in my garden doesn’t want to live here with me then I’ll just have to cope. I have finally hardened my heart.

Pain

But all this sudden energetic heavy weeding, digging up and planting after almost no gardening work all Winter, has left me with strained muscles. Gosh. I hadn't even thought about that. I used not to have to. But now I am nearing the end of my 50s I am horrified to realise that I now have to really think about the strenuous work I do in the garden.

I have been aware for some time that it's good, at my age, to do one type of activity (like weeding on your knees) for a bit and then do something different (like dead-heading or pruning) for a bit before doing something else (eg heavy digging work) but I have never before been as affected by the early year work as I have been this Spring.

The first thing I did one day when the sun came out was to clear a huge area of weeds in clay, plant a tree, remove an old vertical tree post (really hard), then start to dig up large dead shrubs etc and I can tell you this is not a good idea! I had to have a week off hard graft whilst my muscles recovered. So I spent the time in the greenhouse as the rain came down.

What next

I had thought this blog would be all about new perennials and annuals - not about trees. But because the growing season is so late I have decided to postpone my purchases of the aforementioned until I go to the Malvern Spring Show in early May. It’s always a treat and now I shall have things to really look forward to buying from some very good specialists. I recommend The Malvern Show to you if you are in the UK. It’s the perfect time to buy and plant almost everything and it is a wonderfully relaxed and friendly event. It’s my favourite of the year and I much prefer it to Chelsea, Hampton Court etc.. Perhaps I’ll see you there? I am going on the first day.

I also visited National Trust House and Garden 'Hinton Ampner' for the first time the other day. It's a truly wonderful garden with spectacular views. The garden is well worth visiting and really well looked after with an amazing walled veg and fruit garden that feeds the restaurant (much better than most NT cafes) and it is filled at the moment with blossom on really unusual and wonderful old versions of apples and pears. Is there anything more beautiful than the deep pink, light pink, white and young green of apple blossom? This is my Bramley coming into blossom.

Hidden away at Hinton Ampner I found a border where the ground cover is all glorious Epimedeums. Their low, heart shaped leaves and slender flower stems are very attractive and it set me thinking. I have a bed that is being overtaken by ground elder and I am wondering whether planting Epimediums throughout might help eradicate the ground elder. I know it's an ask but the conditions are sort of right. Watch this space. In the meantime I am eating the ground elder (since that what the Romans did when they introduced it - thanks a bunch) and tonight it is performing the role of parsley in a fish dish!

And as the sun shines on this May holiday the Dicentra is out ......

... as are the early Clematis...

and the Ranunculus in the pond....

...which is full of fish and a gazillion "toadpoles".

I have just seen a couple of orange tip butterflies and a cream spotted ladybird which is rather fun because it has a rich brown coat.

So, I wish you good gardening, good weather and please keep your fingers crossed that we don’t get last years’ very late frost because my Wisteria buds front and back are looking even more amazing than when I started this blog and I don’t think I could cope if they got zapped again!

Friday, 30 March 2018 18:26

Snow effects

The snow this year has been enormous fun, damaging and rewarding. We have been snowed in twice (so far). You should know that it is almost all hills to get out of this village and we are well off the Council’s salting and gritting route. So, unless you drive a tractor or an old fashioned Land Rover (which of course a number do), the roads have been impassable and virtually empty in the snow until one unknown farmer with a snow plough attachment to his tractor, kindly clears some of the roads in the early morning when he thinks the snowing is over.

Fun

The fun has been siege mentality, village fun – closed schools, sledging on the hills, nearby volunteers (including me) wading through snow to keep the community village shop open and everyone going to the local pub (much to the horror of the regular locals). People dressed up in ski gear waded across the fields to buy from the shop. There was lots of hot chocolate drunk and those that could invited everyone with kids to their swimming pools etc., etc.. It generated a huge amount of special village bonhomie. It’s been much better than Christmas as someone said. It was an unplanned break, other family members couldn’t invade and there was no pressure to cook huge meals. It was all about basic survival and making-do - which is fun and easy when you know it’s not going to last long.

The first snow came with wind and left huge drifts. It was shortly followed by the iced rain (which I have never seen before and is amazing). This left an iced crust on the top of some 15-40 cms of snow. Daisy, my younger dog, was light enough (at 3.8 kilos) to skit across the top in many (but not all) cases but my heavier Pickle sank and didn’t enjoy it much – except eating it.

My newly acquired, wildly expensive, Daphne bholua ‘Peter Smithers’ stood it during the first snows and continued flowering. However, afterwards he looked very shocked and suddenly dropped almost all his leaves. I worried he had given up the will to live but, on closer inspection, he was still flowering and budding new leaf buds, so I had my fingers heavily crossed that he would not die on me.

We then had a gap of warm weather - sun, blue skies and rain with amazing rainbows at the end of the garden.

But after the thaw one of my neighbours, a retired local farrier, said “There be snow still lying in’t fields and they say it be waiting for more to join it”. And he was right.

The second snow was predicted for end of day on a Friday but started in the morning. I didn’t think Daphne 'Peter Smithers' could take a second blast so I rushed out and in whirling, snow-filled winds, put three bamboo sticks around him and wrapped him in fleece. It was a tricky affair as the fleece kept blowing away and snagging on nearby roses but eventually I wrapped him up – as did the snow that came in for real later that evening and through the night and next day.

This second snow was less powdery and much more fun for children and dogs – it worked for snowballs, snowmen and rushing around in and eating. It has taken a long time to thaw completely and there are still patches around as I write – waiting for more to join it again? My ex farrier neighbour says so. I sincerely hope not. “Peter Smithers” remains in his fleece for the moment and I am doing very little in the garden. I am leaving all the old and dead stuff as protection for the plants underneath until I think the coast is clear re snow and frosts.

In the meantime have weeded the third raised veg bed, pulled up some horrendous brambles and raised some Sweet Peas in the greenhouse but not done much more. I think things are going to be very late.

Damage

All this freezing fun comes at a cost and I have been surveying the damage. Two large Euphorbia were in flower and one is now looking very sad indeed. I think I may have lost three Hypericums at the back of the large border too. I have definitely lost a large number of “completely, 100% guaranteed frost proof” terracotta pots which have “exploded” exposing the roots of the plants within them and I expect I have lost the Agapanthus within them and a couple of Ceonothus in a bed near the pond and my huge Salvia 'Hot Lips'. This may not be a total tragedy because she was very "tarty" and I have ideas for her replacement.

Reward

Regular readers will know I love the birds here and thrill in new and unusual ones. The first snow brought in many new ones (Fieldfare, Lapwing and Redwing) as related in the last blog. So I have made it a priority to make sure there is lots of food for them through the snows and not just in the feeders in the air. I have been putting apple puree, seeds and fat out for the ground feeding birds too. The second snows brought back my lovely and quite rare Lesser Redpolls.

I was very surprised to see them. Normally they are January visitors and move on elsewhere. March is not their season here. But there they were, feeding greedily on the nyjer seed.

On one snow covered Saturday morning I was up early and, whilst boiling the kettle for my first coffee of the day, heard "the thud" on my kitchen French doors that means a bird had flown into the glass. It’s an awful sound. My heart sank and I looked out. Almost a metre away all I could see was a tail. The bird was beak down in 20cms of snow and probably drowning - if it was alive. I abandoned my coffee, donned a pair of gloves and boots, edged out into the drifts whilst keeping both dogs indoors and gently lifted the bird out of the snow. It was tiny, delicate, streaky brown backed and initially I thought it was a small sparrow – until I saw the red cap on its head. A Lesser Redpoll! “No. I can’t have a Redpoll die here” I screamed internally.

I cradled it into the warm kitchen and brushed off all the snow. It was alive but only just. I very gently checked it out. It hadn’t broken its neck, its wings seemed OK and its legs the same. But then what? I havered. I don’t think I have knowingly “havered” before. It was a very strange feeling. For a few moments I didn’t know what to do for the best. According to the Collins English Dictionary, to haver is to dither. I am not sure I was dithering but I was certainly searching for a solution. It was still snowing outside. I couldn’t keep a wild bird in the house with the dogs and I didn’t want to put it in the greenhouse where, if it lived, it would end up flying into glass again.

I’m told that, if they are going to survive, birds who hit glass need about an hour or more to recover. Warmth helps. It was still snowing outside and the bird couldn’t move. It would be buried in seconds if I put it back out. So, after my moments of “havering”, I created a nest from a plastic food tray and a tea towel and put it outside, under my carport, on the top of a outside “fridge” cupboard where it wouldn’t get snowed on. I checked on it every 20 minutes or so and each time I went out it moved its head a little more to try and check me out, obviously wary and scared.

And, finally, it didn’t want to be with me, was recovered enough and flew off into the nearby trees. It was a wonderful moment.

The snows melted that evening and I was able to night-walk the dogs by the light of only the moon (ie with no torch) in a “dark” village with no street lamps. That was a great day.

Sunday, 04 March 2018 18:41

My "Winter term" report

As we all know there is no "Winter" term at school but I have a 16 year old Japanese ward, Sky, who is at boarding school nearby and whose reports I read. So these have inspired me to decide that the garden and gardener need a report after three plus years (though I haven't had a report for about 40 years). Winter is a hard time to judge a garden but a good one. For me it should still have structure, texture, colour and, yes, scent.

Herewith the report - with interesting subjects, most of which I didn't study at school.

Design and engineering

The garden has a fair amount of hard landscaping and structures, for example: the low walls around my terrace for growing alpines; the huge iron arch parade for climbing roses, Wisteria Clematis and Lonicera (honeysuckle); another iron arch for the same; a pond with bridge and rockery area; and sculptures. On the plant side I have evergreens; dwarf conifers; and trees. I also have low evergreen edging to two of my beds (which I never guessed I would do so they are sort of a surprise to me too - but the beds that are bordered by paths seemed to need it). One edging is box (which needs cutting) and the other is Lonicera nitida Golden Glow. I also have three strategically placed box balls. No box blight so far but it is probably inevitable.

Interestingly I felt pressure to create such structure much more in this larger, flat, open garden (and this village) than I did in London where the garden was so much smaller and anyway hard fenced on three sides. This part of the world is full of really skilled gardeners and fabulous gardens small, large and seriously landed.

Looking at it now, I think it has mostly worked especially in certain places. It is now quite well structuredand, dare I say, almost formal near the house (as below).

 

I am still undecided as to whether it needs more structure toward the end. I think, on balance, I like the way that it loosens as it approaches the fields and the view of ancient oaks and woodland of our village dairy farm.

 

So: 7-8/10 for effort and achievement

Art and sensory perception

In flower right now we have scented and none scented plants. The scented ones are: a number of Sarcococca confusa plus a red budded version S. ‘Winter Gem’; Viburnum bodnatense ‘Dawn’ and V. tinus ‘Eve Price’; a Daphne bholua (more of which later); and my amazing Prunus mume ‘Beni-Chidori’ (below).

On the less or unscented side we have snowdrops, pink and white and speckled Hellebores, pink Prunus sub Autumnalis Rosea, a white Camelia, yellow Cornus officinalis in the veg bed and many different Rosemary, cascading and upright, displaying their fabulous pale blues (as below). So I think I am doing pretty well having flowers and scent in this season.

The Zen bed (above), with all its dwarf conifers, the huge evergreen Cistus Alan Fradd’, bright red rose hips plus sculptures is probably the best-looking bed in Winter. It is almost entirely evergreen with lots of different colours of green (from yellows through to almost black), so much texture etc.. I added green slate to it last year to help keep the weeds down and the Narcissi Tete a Tete and Primulae are proving strong enough to move the slates aside as they determine to rise up and flower in early Spring. The major failure is the Cytisus batandieri (pineapple tree) which is clearly hating it where it is and needs moving. I think/hope it simply needs more sun. It is still alive - just - but needs saving.

The small wall bed (above) which is opposite the Zen bed is the star Winter scented one because of the three sweetly smelling Sarcocca confusa which are in serious flower now - and I don't have to venture far from the kitchen to appreciate the scent. It also has a smaller, evergreen Cistus (C. dansereaui Decumbens), deciduous, purple flowered Daphne mezereum Rubra which, somewhat surprisingly, is doing well and will flower soon and then produce fruits, and a number of Hellebores. However, I think I dont like the basic (simple flowered) white Geraniums and the rather boring Aquilegia I planted as fillers early on and havent yet replaced. Winter term 8/10 (evergreen structure and scent). Overall 6/10. Could do better! Something fun to plan to improve on next year.

Indeed, without taking you through all the other borders and beds, my overall report for them on this subject is 6/10 for effort and achievement. The basics are there but more finessing and detailed work needed.

Cookery

I have just used my last home grown onion (sob), the tomatoes, beans and Bramley apples are long gone and I have to admit that the only things I am still cropping outside are rosemary, thyme, sage and bay, plus chillies in the greenhouse.

So, this deserves a dire Winter term report - and many more onions next year. Yes. I have discovered that I love growing onions! They are so easy from sets, they need almost no work (except protecting the young ones from cheeky blackbirds pulling them up for fun), I love deciding when to pull them and dry them (in the greenhouse) and then making them look beautiful by cutting and twisting their necks. They store well and they taste so much better than shop bought ones. These are onions that make you cry when you cut them – like they did in the old days. I am protected from this by my contact lenses but my Japanese ward can’t cut them without weeping copiously. I started two years ago with a mixed bag of white, red and brown sets from T&M. The white ones have been a little disappointingly small but the rest have been fabulous.

I love to cook and make dishes from everywhere in the world. I use hundreds of onions in a year so I have decided that, in my small veg garden space, on this soil, in my three raised beds, what grows best is onions. Thus I am going to devote most of my kitchen garden beds next year to onions. Well why not? Every single one will go to a good, “foody” cause. This year I have ordered Hercules, Hi-Tech and Red Baron. They’ll be going in as soon as I have weeded the beds and the weather improves.

So: 1/10 for Winter term I am afraid (because of slim pickings) but shows promise the rest of the year and must do more.

Economics and planning

As ever in Winter, I am now buying seeds for next season especially tomato, pepper and chili seeds for the greenhouse. I always grow Suncherry and Sungold cherry tomatoes (ab fab and really reliable), sometimes Piccolo, and I always experiment with one large, beef one. I havent found a good one yet. This year I am trying Country Taste F1 from Thompson & Morgan.

I try to economise by buying things as seed rather than as plug plants but I have found that my onion seed growing has been extremely unsuccessful and that the more expensive (but still cheap) onion "sets" are the answer and deliver a 100 per cent better return ie lots of wonderful onions v none.

I am also buying runner bean seeds because this is my favourite green vegetable. On the basis of grow what you want to eat I need lots of runner beans as well as onions. Wisley Magic, Firestorm, Enorma, Snowstorm and Moonlight have all done well here and, truth be told, I cant taste any difference between them when cooked. They are all delicious and are so easy to propagate. I also rather enjoy the whole process of creating the structure to accommodate them (seen behind the onions below). And, of course, the harvest is in the air, so not taking up too much ground - a "space economical" harvest.

And, to that end, I intend trying to grow next year's courgettes up a climber so that they take up less room. I have seen people doing this in magazines so surely I can do it do?

However, on the same basis, ie grow what you want to eat, my attempt last year to grow fennel (which I use often - in many fish and chicken dishes especially) seems to have failed disastrously. I dont know why. They were seeded in the raised beds but I think I put them in too late (after I harvested the onions) and weeds just took over.

I am also thinking of seeding salad crops between the onion sets. I am not sure if this is a good plan or not but I am going to give it a go.

So probably: 7/10 for effort but we await "achievement" results from her somewhat "experimental" approach later this year.

Languages: Dutch

Obviously the tulip photos above are last year's. They are of the same bed from different angles and at different times and show how the bed changed colour during March and April. Last year I dug up all 80 of them and stored them in a cold larder where, miraculously, the mice didn’t find them and they survived well. But I should admit that I only managed to get the bulbs back into the bed in late December, in a last minute, “essay crisis”, way. I am not worried. They should be fine. Late planting is supposed to help against a nasty disease and some are already beginning to show.

I have also bought about 30 more bulbs (Sanne, Minton Exotic, the famous Angelique, Orange Princess, and Abba’ – mostly all fragrant - plus five more Vaya Con Dios which, you might remember, was new last year and which I tried and loved). I bought these extras because I have cleared some self-seeded wild geraniums from some of the other beds and, until I find perennials to fill the gaps, the tulips will be fab.. It will also be interesting to see how much better, if at all, the new tulips perform over last years ones. I am told the bulbs peter out, so well see. Its one of my ongoing experiments.

So: 7/10 for effort but with a somewhat cavalier approach to the subject. Awaiting proof.

Languages: Latin

It would be wrong to have a garden report with languages and exclude Latin. As a child I was forced to study Latin because it used to be a required paper for Oxbridge admission. I was useless at it, got a D in my first O’Level attempt but then changed teacher, saw the light and finally achieved a B in my re-sit. Then, just as I was applying, Oxbridge decided it was no longer a requirement. I could have killed my parents at that point for all my years of struggling with Latin. However, ever since I became a plant lover and gardener (some 17 years ago now), I thank them almost every day for putting me through it. It is the language that means all of us, all over the world, can communicate our love of plants in. It usually tells us where they come from (so what conditions they need) and can tell us how large they'll be, what they look like (flowers and leaves), what they smell like and all other manor of things (even without a photo label). The only issue is the pronunciation – which we all seem to do differently and I have no real idea who is right.

I think I am pretty good at my Latin plant names (only because I learned about plants from my huge dictionary of them - my bible), so will award myself: 8/10 for written work – with oral “debatable”.

Languages: English

As above, I am working on my knowledge of our English names for plants but: could do better. 6/10

Orienteering

Ill admit now that the plant I have missed most since leaving my garden in London nearly four years ago is Daphne bholua Peter Smithers’ (above). Daphne hate being moved so he stayed to thrill my buyers and they tell me he is still enthralling them.

When I first bought him, some twelve years ago, he was a Sir but he seems to have lost his title recently. He would start coming into massively scented, pink clustered, flower on the North side of my swing seat in late November and would scent me through until March/April. It was amazing how many dry (albeit cold) mornings, afternoons and evenings I could find in Winter in London to wrap up in rugs and sit out on the swing seat opposite ther pond with a friend and a cup of tea, coffee or wine and Sir Peters unbelievable scent to heighten the experience. He is scented throughout day and night and adds enormously to the dark months of Winter. This type of Daphne (bholua) is now not easy to find in normal garden centres or even nurseries because they are so difficult and slow, thus costly, to propagate and grow on. Most commercial Daphne breeders cant be bothered so I had sort of given up on the idea of replacing him here.

However, as I was writing something similar for a local magazine and bemoaning his absence, I was suddenly inspired to track down another D. bholua Peter Smithers. And, thanks to the RHS nursery finder, I found him "relatively" nearby in a fabulous nursery deep in Somerset called Junkers.

I trekked cross country down the thinnest lanes (and even had to reverse about five miles for an East European lorry that had got lost on its satnav) and then, deep in the middle of nowhere between Wellington and Taunton, I found this amazing place specialising in Acers, unusual Daphnes, Cornus and others. Its not obvious and you are allowed in by timed invitation only.

I was able to buy a very well grown D. Peter Smithers (which was in fab condition, already about 1 metre tall and encouragingly already had a single flower on it at end November). It was probably the most expensive plant (excluding trees) I have ever bought and it is now planted close to a path (so I can smell it - I hope), on raised ground (they dont like being waterlogged), and where it will be somewhat shaded in the Summer (they dont like being overly exposed to sun). Fussy? Yes. Worth it? Yes, if it thrives. It has already opened more flowers so I hope it will survive. Daphnes are famous for simply dying on you and it has just had the toughest introduction to its new life with the recent winds and snow. My one in London clay thrived so my fingers are majorly crossed for this one.

By the way, the other recommended highly scented D. bholua is Jaqueline Postill’. She is much more widely available and you can even buy her from Waitrose, apparently. I might try her too if I find one.

So, at last, a 10/10 for effort and fingers crossed for the result.

Nature

 On the wildlife front things are thriving. I have toads and frogs by the pond and newts waking up in it. The prolific slug and snail communities also seem to be thriving - grrrrr.

 

Starlings, sparrows, wrens and collar doves are nesting (in the house and garden) and there are many regulars such as blackbirds, thrushes, robins and tits plus many visiting birds. For example, the goldfinches and redpolls are back (first below), as are the long-tailed tits (second below). 

And during the recent snow I have been visited by a glorious Fieldfare, a very colourful member of the thrush family I have never encountered before (sorry no photo). I have also seen a Redwing and huge Lapwing on the common outside the front of the house.

Something that’s making me especially happy in the "uncultivated" element of the garden is that I have some amazing mosses growing (one/some of which above). They are particularly beautiful after a frost, tiny as they are. There are lichens as well on the trees and fences. However, I have not yet got to grip with some of my nature. The weeds are everywhere. It is a constant battle. Brambles are throwing themselves in from neighbours' hedges to East and West and trying to root in my borders. The moment they touch the ground they "layer" and a new plant starts. And unwelcome grasses are coming in from everywhere, especially from the surrounding fields.

I now even have grass growing happily on one of one of my outside door mats as well as on the swing seat (above). It’s ridiculous and their control is never ending.

So 7/10. She shows promise but applies herself too selectively. Some areas need serious improvement - and the swing seat covers need replacing.

Head’s comments

Overall the structure and planting is working well but Rosie needs to apply herself more to individual beds to improve their planting, her vegetable growing (to lengthen her harvest) and to controlling the onset of nature (weeding). She is an enthusiastic and promising gardener but has been letting extra curricular activities (especially paid work and village commitments) get in the way of the work needed for tending - and blogging.

Ideas 8/10, effort 6/10, effect 7/10. Could do better and we hope for improvements this year.

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!

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