Monday, 18 February 2019 19:05

Wind in the Willows?

Tonight I heard a toad - my first of the year. My heart soared.

I was up far too late. It was a light but foggy night and I was letting the dogs out for their final Ps and poos. Whilst the BBC 24 hour news intoned horrific stories behind the double glazed garden doors, the toad croaked – and told me the beginning of Spring was happening. And he makes my “Wind in the Willows” winter complete.

The key characters of Kenneth Grahame’s delightful stories are Toad, Mole and Ratty. Toad is the only one truly welcome here.

“Ratty” should not exist thanks to next door’s “killer cat” but Pearl seems to be off her game at the moment and I have seen the most splendid rat running across my back terrace recently. It is a beautiful version of its species – large, well-fed, brown, healthy and clean looking. It’s not a dirty, grey, straggle-haired sewer rat – let’s face it there are no sewers here where we all cope with sess pits and drain-aways. It’s a beautiful, healthy farm/countryside rat. And it’s big. It is about 28 cms long plus its tail -like the one below.

And it's clear it has been living in my log store and moving from there to my neighbours' as it feels fit. Its fairly large droppings are the evidence both of it and its size.

There were smaller rats outside here when I first arrived. As a new owner arriving from London I shuddered and put some poison down where the dogs couldn’t get it and I hadn’t seen a rat since then – until now. But, in the nearly five years since I have lived here, I have become less and less able to kill or even imagine killing any living creature except mosquitos and flies. I gently capture spiders, bees, moths, dragon flies, hornets etc and simply move them out of the house. Rat poison kills horribly. One should leave water for them apparently because it makes them thirsty as they die. This all sounds horrific and I am not sure I can do it to this beautiful, intelligent creature. I just want it to move away.

Also tonight, a mouse was scampering on the wall under my bird feeders. It was so brave and ignored me completely. I even went into the house, called my Japanese ward, Sayaka, to come see and it was still there when she came out to join me. So I took pictures and it "froze" in the flash but remained with its food source. With its huge ears and white belly it was as cute as could be and there is no way I would want to kill it. The rat was substantially larger but no different in any other major way. Why should I want to kill it any more than the mouse, unless it wants to come and live indoors with me or threatens the dogs?

 

Of course, one mouse or one rat “seen” usually means many more of each unseen. I hope that the much more plentiful food available at the farm down the path (from whence I hope it came to eat my bird food) will lure it back again.

“Mole” has caused me much greater trouble this winter. The lower end of my lawn now resembles a battlefield. When Mole appeared “Dorset Reg”, who mows the lawn, advised putting empty wine bottles into the ground. Apparently, the wind passing over the open necks makes a noise moles don’t like.

However, my mole seems more than happy with the songs from Cotes de Gasgogne and Sauvignon Blanc bottles and has gone on to decorate the whole area.

He headed to the pond and I was seriously worried he might burrow through the sand, under-liner and cause a leak in the butyl liner but luckily the pond remains intact. I also bought four buzzy, solar “mole detractors” from Amazon - to no avail. So the lawn is now adorned with brown clay/soil mounds, two green bottles and four buzzy mole deterents. Not my idea of the ideal lawn.

But the idea of a mole trap? No, sorry. Again I can’t do it. I just hope Mole heads into the fields and has a happy time there. Reg and I will have work to do to reinstate the lawn later in the season.

I have just nipped out before heading to bed (even more horrifically late having written this) and toad has been joined in song by others and by frogs. Oh joy! That sound does something very special to me. Weird but true.

Watch this space re dealing with Mole and Rat and the survival of the progeny of toad in the coming months but, despite the invaders, I am deliriously happy. Spring is on the way.

Friday, 01 February 2019 19:03

February moan

"Warning" This is a non photo blog. It's a real moan.

Apologies for the gaps between blogs. I have been busy elsewhere but, more relevantly, I have been “garden depressed” for the first time since moving here and creating this garden. Why? During this year the mid and bottom end of my lovely “Kennett” bed, down the left hand side of my garden, was taken over by ground elder, nettles, briars, bindweed and grasses.

Nettles and briars I can (and do) pull out relatively easily though it is eternally boring, needs protective clothing and generally makes me cross when I am doing it, especially since I usually get stung and pricked in the process despite wearing gloves etc. - and they seem to be coming from my next door neighbour’s garden! They take space other plants would like and they disrupt the tending of my other plants by making it generally painful and difficult. The grasses are coming from the surrounding fields, plant themselves very deep, are very invasive and boring to remove.

But it is the bindweed and especially the ground elder that are my true nightmares. OK, if one chooses to be positive, ground elder could be seen as quite attractive, plentiful ground cover and it is edible but it invades the roots of everything and I have plants such as Acers in there that hate root disturbance.

I don’t want it there but it is so hard to remove organically. It spreads underground via white, beansprout-like, roots – like bindweed does. If you even leave a trace of one of these roots when you try to dig them up they will multiply even more.

I blame the Romans

The Monty Python-esque question “What did the Romans ever do for us?” normally results in all sorts of positive answers but few know that they brought ground elder with them as a salad crop. I really wish they hadn't!

Iinitially I thought “if I can’t beat it at least I can eat it”. I tried it. Sayaka, my Japanese ward, and I ate it in salads. It's not great or very interesting but fine. However, she and I simply can’t eat the quantity that has been growing in my garden and there seems to be no market for it at the greengrocers. I need to kill it but without killing my other plants in the same bed. I am loathe to use weed killers but trying to dig it up simply isn’t working and seems to be encouraging it. I am in a tough and negative place.

However, I think what I resent most about it and the other invasive weeds is that I hate being put in a bad mood when I am in my garden. It should be a place of creation, contemplation, therapy, scent, visual interest, love, joy and good mood whilst also being a place of positive hard work, normal weeding, digging, tending, cutting, growing, pollarding and pruning etc..

Yes, we always have to deal with aphids, slugs, snails, the odd plant disease etc but it shouldn’t be a constant unpleasant battle in the borders that upsets us in theory and in practise. The Kennett bed has been just this to me for the last six months.

I apologise for burdening you with this moan but my roses there have been swamped by bindweed, many of my plants have been root threatened by these weeds and being in the border has been painful and depressing for me. Ttchh!

I know I am not alone and I have to deal with it/until I do I won’t be happy/I can’t be defeated by it etc etc..

I would, however, choose to do this without chemical weed killer but I think I may be heading in that direction in the Spring when the ground elder starts appearing again. Otherwise I would simply have to re-dig up the entire bed, to a huge depth, remove all the plants except trees and then put a cover over it for about a year – which I am not going to do.

Watch this space for an update!

In the meantime, I feel I can’t leave you on my moan. After all, I am a “glass half full” sort of person in real life.

There are, of course, some major positives at the moment. The garden is full of birds. I have many Sarcococca, Daphne and my Japanese Prunus mume “Beni-chidori” in massive, scented flower. The overall structure has looked good in the Winter (and in the recent snow). The snowdrops are out, the daffodils and Camelias are coming into bud and the tulips are poking up from the soil. The roses, clematis and other plants are showing new buds and Spring is on its way-ish. The daylight hours are getting longer (slowly) and one day soon it will dry out and the sun will shine again on my flower-filled garden. I just need to deal with the weeds first!

Tuesday, 07 August 2018 15:27

A scented garden - at last!

I had imagined this blog was going to be about the race to flower in May – a catalogue of the first of everything suddenly appearing and the amazing wonders that have been unfolding in the garden every day and sometimes hour by hour. But the most astounding, different and wonderful thing that happened in my garden in early Summer was been the scent.

As many of you know I seek flowers and scent all year round and, whilst individual plants have been scented beautifully, the whole garden or parts of the garden haven’t been – until this year.

Many things work against “scenting” this garden, particularly the lack of walls or solid fences to encapsulate it and the winds that fly through and eddy round it, surrounded as we are by the commons to the front and the open vistas at the back onto the dairy cow, oak tree and jackdaw-filled fields beyond.

And honestly, a terrible admission, last year I sort of gave up on having whole areas of the garden scented (like I had achieved in London) and resigned myself to smelling individual plants. A “scented garden” seemed beyond the possible in this particular, somewhat open and windy spot.

However, the extraordinary weather we have had in the early part of this year seems to have been loved by the plants. Yes, we had very low temperatures and snow and Spring was late but we didn’t have last year’s killer late frost at the end of April. Everything that sprung to life in May looked healthier and happier than it has ever done. Plants that failed last year suddenly showed me they love to be here. Plants I had forgotten I had or was about to remove came up and said “Hi, look at me, I’m great.”

This rose (above) for example, which I think is R. "Falstaff", has hardly flowered before but this year has been aboundant - and still is. It has repeat flowered non-stop.

Indeed all the roses, Clematis and honeysuckle were bug and black spot free and threw themselves into bud and flower in an abundance of un-called for exhuberance that was almost embarrassing. I have never seen them all look so happy.

But most excitingly (and somewhat amazingly) the whole garden smelled wonderful. I can’t tell you what a surprise this was and thus how exhilarating.

Strangely it started with the Cistus. The flowers don’t smell but the leaves do. They give off an aromatic scent and I have three around the terrace area, in light shade, including an increasingly enormous C. “Alan Fradd” (below). In May their leaves started to ooze scent into the garden.

Then the two white and one blue Wisteria on the rose arch parade came into flower properly for the first time and walking through and weeding around them suddenly became a heady experience.

(And the Wisteria at the front was fabulous too after its "bud execution" by frost last year.)

Then yellow Rosa Arthur Bell (the non climbing version that is supposed to be 20 x 30 cms but was up and over the 2.5 metre arches in the first year) came into massive scented flower followed swiftly by R. Gertrude Jeykll (below) and a whole host of others and now the whole rose arch tunnel is a scented experience. I always hoped it would be of course when I designed it and have been disappointed for the last three years. But this year it is more than fulfilling my wildest dreams. For the first time since I created this garden just standing or walking or working in it has become a glorious, scent-filled experience. And the two Lonicera came out a few weeks later just adding to the experience. Wow!

Is the scent down to the plants’ maturity? Is it that they are now old enough, tall enough and large enough to start covering the arches and create their own mini microclimates of scent? Is it that it is simply less windy? I don’t know. I just know I love it whilst it’s available to me.

Even now, as I write late at night with the doors open, wonderful wafts of scent tantalise me. It turns about to be both white Dianthus and Nicotiana which opens in the evening to be pollinated by moths.

Talking of insects, the lack of greenfly has meant a complete lack of ladybirds which is a shame but, on a positive note, I have witnessed my first huge dragonfly ‘casks’. There were four initially on the dinosaur grass in the pond and they were shortly followed by many more. It’s hard to tell if they are coming or gone because they are almost see-through and very papery looking. But they grip onto the stalks and seem to climb up from the watery base below so I assume they are alive and not “vacated” shells.

It turns out that most of them were broad bodied chasers (below) and a couple were red/brown dragonflies (possibly darters amd chasers) and at least two were the huge blue and green Emperor dragon flies. They exploded into life around the pond and I spent ages trying to identify each.

 

But possibly the most welcome new visitors to the garden this Summer have been a family of thrushes. They are quite shy (hence no photos) and I saw a couple a few times but the major evidence has been the enormous number of empty snail shells. Bless the thrush and its taste for garden snails! Between them and the toads they are doing a grand job and the early slug and snail devastation in the garden seems to have been arrested by them.

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.

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