Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Vita Sackville-West, a Bowl of Popcorn and a Radish

If  I could be a plant, I would be Fritillaria meleagris. Unfurling balletically from a deep sleep, stretching gracefully, then flowering sophisticatedly and elegantly. Instead I am a radish. I leap out of bed before everyone else and there is a strong chance of fieriness as I bumble around, ruddy faced, trying to get to grips with the day. Lately the days have involved chunks of time spent of turf-staring, for which I blame Fritillaria meleagris. It is all very well enjoying this plant in full flower, but missing the gentle unfurling would be a crime. 


Fritillaria meleagris is the ultimate maverick plant. For a start, it thrives where other bulbs won’t cope. If your soil is heavy and damp, rejoice and forget the grit. Just plant this fritillary deep (four times the depth of the bulb) and look forward to years of flowers. If your soil is sandy and dry, you had better enjoy this plant in someone else’s garden, because it might cope in your soil for a while, but you will need to replace the bulbs far too soon. 




Since it was first recorded as a wild flower in 1736 (it had already been recorded in gardens in 1578), Fritillaria meleagris has been the subject of debate. Is it native to England? If not, how did it get here? Did it arrive with the Romans, or is it a cheeky escapee from a Tudor garden? Mysterious Fritillaria meleagris certainly keep us guessing. Where mystery and controversy lead, bad publicity often follows; and Fritillaria meleagris is no stranger to negative press.




While the commonest common name these days is snake's head fritillary, these delightful little flowers are also known as leper lilies. There must have been plenty of bells with happy connotations clanging around in the Middle Ages, but this quiet beauty got its name because it resembled the warning bell carried by lepers. To add insult to injury, Vita Sackville-West didn't seem overly fond of Fritillaria meleagris:

And then I came to a field where the springing grass
Was dulled by the hanging cups of fritillaries
(The Land)

Oh dear. Galling as it must be to have a human radish disagree with you, I see them as jewels in the field.



Vita Sackville-West would have seen fritillaries growing in the wild; I haven't, which is one of the reasons why I value this plant so dearly. Boggy pasture was drained and cultivated to increase food production during the Second World War and fritillary meadows disappeared. What was once a common wildflower can now be seen growing naturally in just a handful of locations in Southern and Central England. 



Obviously I can’t plant a natural fritillary meadow, but I can grow these lovely bee magnets in a damp corner of the orchard. Having tried and failed with fritillaries in a previous garden, I didn’t plant too many. Happily, these fritillaries have been with me for two years now and appear to be establishing well. I grew them from bulbs for financial reasons and this revealed another of these pretty little flowers' idiosyncrasies. They might be delicate and elegant, but they grow from bulbs which bear more than a passing resemblance to popcorn. 




Fritillary meadows can be found here: http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/reserves-wildlife/great-places-see/fritillarymeadows

I am linking this post with Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day hosted by May Dreams Gardens and I will now be heading over there to see what is blooming elsewhere on the planet. Here's the link: http://www.maydreamsgardens.com/2015/04/garden-bloggers-bloom-day-april-2015.html

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Gardening Sins and Penitent Pigeons

When I was five years old, I entered a name the doll competition at my school summer fair. I studied the list of potential names and rejected any I recognised in favour of one which my emerging reading skills were unable to decipher. It might not be the most scientific approach to competition winning (in my defence, the field of dolls' names guessing is notoriously under-researched), but it worked; and as I scrambled onstage to collect the doll with the name I couldn't read, I felt like the luckiest child alive.


Chaenomeles speciosa 'Nivalis' in the Barn Garden
Maureen the doll travelled with me through childhood; a daily reminder that I had once been lucky. I haven’t won many prizes since then, but I do count myself as lucky, particularly when it comes to gardening. Garden luck comes in many guises; be it the weather, a happy chance seedling, or getting away with gardening misdemeanours. My gardening life has to fit around whatever else is going on at home and at work. Gardening calendars and years of horticultural training count for very little if the diary is filled with appointments with humans rather than plants. Worrying about a recurring failure to garden in a timely fashion is not going to help. Gardening should be fun and relaxing, not stressful. So I eat crops when they ripen and I try not to worry about tasks which will wait until tomorrow (or a week on Wednesday).


Aubretia living up to its reputation as a bee magnet
Sometimes the delay can seem endless. Instead of being planted when the bulbs arrived in autumn, beautiful Iris reticulata 'Blue Note' endured a twelve week sojourn on my office floor before I finally found the time to pop the emaciated bulbs into the soil on January 17th. At the time I was uncertain whether this was a planting or a burial, but guess what? The lovely Iris forgave my gardening sin. From planting to flowering in nine weeks. How lucky is that? 


Iris reticulata 'Blue Note'
I often meet new gardeners who are frightened of putting a foot wrong with their plants. Fear seems to hold back their gardening potential and reduces their enjoyment of their plots. I have always believed that plants will survive if it is at all possible, irrespective of the level of care they receive from me. Of course they need to be planted correctly in a suitable soil and location, and their dietary needs should be met, but they can be remarkably forgiving when we garden a little less than perfectly.


Crocus tommasinianus forgave a very late planting
Had there been an award for the most neglected fruit in England last year, my strawberries would surely have won first prize. Mulch was a distant memory, as were food and water. I didn't have high hopes of a single berry, but they proved me wrong. With luck like this, the pigeons will be sauntering past my cabbages, cooing, "We're sorry we ate your crops last year. Please don't hoe and net on our account, we've discovered the No Cabbage Diet and we only eat weeds. Oh yum... delicious dandelions.” 



Actually, my good fortune in the strawberry patch left me feeling deflated. Had I tended those strawberries, I would have been delighted that the care I had lavished on them had resulted in a bountiful harvest. Since they cropped well irrespective of any effort on my part, the question of why we bother to garden raised its ugly head. I garden because I love gardening. I may rely too heavily on luck and I might not garden according to the timeframe I learnt in order to pass my exams, but I remain optimistic that the plants will forgive me and that one day I might achieve perfect timing with all my gardening tasks. As for the strawberries, even if they don't need it, they will be receiving abundant care this year. After all, my garden might manage perfectly well without me for a while, but I don’t believe in pushing my luck.

Monday, 9 March 2015

The Great Garden Challenge - Anglesey Abbey

I like an easy life; the sun on my back, well-behaved weeds and a garden fitted with wall-to-wall perfect tilth. Instead I get iron-willed weeds and fifty shades of clay with a few bits of ironmongery thrown in for painful spade-jarring.


Digging clay isn't The Great Garden Challenge though; nor am I planning to scramble up and down mountains, camel it across The Sahara, or make some unspeakable effort on behalf of my abs. My challenge involves industrial quantities of tea, cake and gossip. For I have pledged to visit 50 gardens with 50 different people or groups of people in a year. Tough, isn’t it?

Sunshine and Viburnum
Training for this Herculean task has been demanding. Exhaustive research involving salivating over beautiful garden photos was taxing enough without the arduous trial runs I endured in order to hone the vital skills of packing supplies (money) and equipment (camera). 

Acer griseum
It hasn’t all been plain sailing: one friend was refused entry to a garden thereby rendering the visit invalid, and I missed a tour when my chickens were attacked by dogs just as I was about to leave the house. Then there is the ongoing issue of my garden-loathing offspring. When asked where she would like to go on holiday, my youngest child googled this: 


Is there any hope? 

On a positive note, The Great Garden Challenge is an opportunity to catch up with friends and meet other gardeners. A group of friends who live nearly 100 miles away from me came along for my first ever visit to Anglesey Abbey, where The Winter Garden is in full swing. 

Chimonanthus praecox 'Luteus'
The design of The Winter Garden makes inspecting little Iris, Crocus and Galanthus flowers or stroking the bark of Acer griseum so easy. The scent of the great swathes of Sarcococca growing by the path is stronger than ever thanks to the enclosed, sheltered nature of this area. It is as if the plants are coming to us, rather than us having to seek them out. So often we scatter our winter flowers around the garden, filling gaps hither and thither, but having them all cheek by jowl and sited by a path adds to the wow factor of these early beauties and it must be a flashing fast food sign for any pollinators on the lookout for sustenance. It is a lesson I will apply to my own garden. 

Rising to the challenge of visiting Anglesey Abbey's wonderful
 Winter Garden with dear friends (can't imagine why I'm laughing)
Unexpected turns in gardens are always good fun. I will never forget the first time I clapped eyes on the Desert Wash at East Ruston Old Vicarage and yelped with surprise (I am not the coolest, calmest garden visitor). At Anglesey Abbey, the way in which The Winter Garden path opens out into a grove of Betula utilis var. jaquemontii is a quieter, but nonetheless lovely surprise. There is an other-wordliness to this area and I am delighted to see that saplings have been planted to extend it. I am not sure what unexpected turn I shall plan for my garden; a patch of flint free soil would be surprise enough at the moment.

Betula utilis var. jacquemontii
So The Great Garden Challenge is underway. My brain is already reeling with ideas for my own garden and there is a long way to go. It was a lovely day out, but physically demanding on our jaws and we had to stop for no fewer than three coffee/lunch/tea breaks. Tough times indeed, judging by the big smiles on my lovely friends' faces. 



Tuesday, 24 February 2015

A New Breed of Supergardener

I love the winter garden with its skeletal structure and great nostril-loads of scent. On a bright, frosty day what could be better? Actually, quite a lot. The problem is that although I delight in the great outdoors, I absolutely cannot stand being cold. In no particular order, my pet hates are: cold hands, cold feet, and cold hurting ears. It takes me back to hockey at school, only then I had cold blotchy knees to add to my misery.

Luscious Lonicera
I don't like to show off, but these days I am blessed with a fine collection of thermal undergarments, a woolly hat, lined boots and an array of mismatched gloves. Hacking icy flints from the borders and untangling bare-root hedging plants which have knitted themselves together (presumably for warmth), I am an advertisement for wearing everything at once. To put it succinctly: I am a walking wardrobe.

Eranthis hyemalis

This whole business of being so cold that I am barely able to move for all the layers of clothing has got me wondering why gardeners haven’t evolved over time. We have been cultivating our plots for thousands of years and while I appreciate that many gardeners of the past might have inhabited warmer areas of the globe, there must have been a fair few green-fingered pioneers who ventured out on a frosty morning to prod a stick at a patch of cold earth. 

Frosty Phlomis italica

If we were climbing plants, we would by now have adopted aerial roots or adapted our leaves into tendrils, so why have we not developed ever-warm extremities? I think that the answer might lie with the cooks of the world. We have been burning food for longer than we have been cultivating gardens, so where are the chefs' heat-resistant hands and unsliceable fingers? 


Echinops with an ice cap

Cooks' and gardeners' adaptations might be mutually beneficial. I am no chef, but I wouldn't mind having heatproof hands for those occasions when I forget about hot pan handles; and I am sure that chefs could adjust gardeners' adaptations to suit their own purposes (although I'm struggling with adaptation number 8 below). 

Were I a time traveller, I would have a word with our ancestors and ask them to initiate a few improvements so that all gardeners nowadays would be blessed with:

1. Constantly warm hands, feet and ears

2. Thorn-resistant skin

3. An ache-free back

4. The ability to prune with the scissor action of the fingers of both hands, thereby adding hours to the gardening year which might otherwise be lost searching for secateurs 

5. A dripless nose

6. The ability to hover mid-air while pruning, thereby rendering ladders unnecessary

7. A reviving stare which rejuvenates listless plants and makes old seeds viable

8. Toes which double as hoes.

There must be something I’m missing from this list..... what do you mean I need to get out more? It's cold outside.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

On The Menu in February for Bees

I grew up in a hospitable home and while my culinary skills may never set the world alight (indeed they might arguably give the world a dicky tummy), my desire to replicate this wonderful part of my childhood extends beyond the dining table and out into the garden. I don't mean that I am in a permanent state of barbecuing, although that would be fun, rather that I like to offer food to wildlife, not just in the feeders we have dotted around the garden, but also in the form of the plants I choose to grow. 


Anemone blanda
I have seen bees or butterflies during every month in my garden, so I have challenged myself to continue to increase the quantity and variety of forage on offer all year round. It is the most wonderful way to garden. 


Choisya ternata
In any year there will be the rule breakers - those plants which strut their stuff irrespective of the fact that it isn't their turn to take centre stage. Choisya ternata appears to have given up on the concept of waiting in the wings and has reinvented itself as a year-round flowerer, as has Pyracantha. This is all marvellously above the call of duty, but who is to say that they will manage the same generosity of flowering period in the future? 

Iris reticulata
The pollinators' pantry is surprisingly well-stocked in February and it contains too many wonderful plants to focus on here, so I have selected three glorious February flowers which the bees and I couldn't live without. 

Gorgeous Galanthus
February without snowdrops is like Friday without chocolate (or any other day of the week in my humble opinion). Good old Galanthus nivalis not only raises our spirits in the darkest days of winter, these little beauties provide a valuable source of quality pollen. They flower for weeks on end, probably because pollination can be a bit hit-and-miss at this time of year given the weather and the reduced number of pollinators on the block. But when the weather is right, bees will be busy working those snowdrops and lifting our spirits even higher. If you don't already grow snowdrops, now is the time to order some and plant them 'in the green'.


Crocus tommasinianus

The Crocus lawn is coming into flower now. It is only small, but it is a valuable source of nectar and pollen for bees. Bumblebees are always the most entertaining foragers; I love to see them dive headfirst into the flowers of Crocus tommasinianusCrocus flowers close at night and bees will lie swathed in the petals until morning when they can enjoy breakfast in bed (such is the life of a queen bee). If you are able to grow Crocus and have not yet tried a mass planting of them, please think about adding Crocus tommasinianus to your autumn bulb list so that you, too, can sit with a warm drink on a sunny winter day and watch bees. I can’t recommend this pastime highly enough.


Hurrah for Hellebores (and Lonicera fragrantissima
  
in the background)
Garden blogs are usually swamped by photos of Hellebores at this time of year and for good reason: they are an all-round fabulous plant. Not only are they beautiful; their evergreen glossy foliage makes a stylish weed-suppressing ground cover and best of all, they are a valuable source of nectar for honey bees and queen bumblebees. Queen bumblebees can hibernate for up to six months. Consequently, they wake in desperate need of food. If there are no flowers and no nectar, these bees may die. Fortunately the plants which make all the difference to the bees happen to look wonderful too. Isn't gardening with wildlife in mind wonderful? 


You may rightly have spotted that the photos in this post were taken in the dark. Unfortunately I was so busy digging that I forgot to take any pictures until sundown. I am linking this post to http://www.maydreamsgardens.com/, where you will find plenty more posts written by bloggers who don't wait until dusk to photograph their plants. I am now heading over to May Dreams Gardens to see if I can steal some menu ideas for next February. Happy GBBD. 


P.S. If you want to see cute bee pictures, there's one here http://thegardeningshoe.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/bottoms-up-bees.html

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Three Dogs; Two Chickens; and a Lost Garden Visit

I had been looking forward to joining fellow garden lovers today for a visit to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, but as I picked up my coat to leave the house, three dogs came into our gated and fenced garden and attacked our chickens. 



Despite wintry weather, our hens have been laying. This morning as I let them out to wander around our garden, I stopped for a moment to admire Herby's golden feathers shining in the winter sun. Now Herby is in a box in my office. I am bathing her wounds and hoping that she is not in too much pain. The day out I had been looking forward to for weeks has gone ahead without me. Why? Because someone failed to look after their dogs properly. The owner of these animals is responsible for turning a relaxing, enjoyable Sunday into a day of stress and pain and sadness.  



I hope that our beautiful chicken makes a full recovery. I also hope that the owner of the dogs takes better care of their animals in the future. 

Thank you to those on Twitter and Facebook for your prompt advice so generously and thoughtfully given. You illustrated the very best side of the power of social media. Thank you.