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, 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

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. 

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Garden Gatecrashers

I have been digging up dandelions with roots like tree trunks and I have come to the conclusion that dandelions are the glitter of the weed world. When we are children, glitter is fun and we scatter it hither and thither. Then we grow up. Suddenly a fleck of glitter becomes a source of irritation and we realise that one fabulous fling with the sparkly stuff over Christmas will still be haunting us in mid-July.

Once upon a time I loved dandelions. They were an unending source of food and fun (unending being the operative word). When we weren’t feeding the leaves to any pet showing a slight inclination towards them, we were aiding the propagation of dandelions (as if they needed it) by blowing on dandelion clocks as a means of finding out the time. How often we needed to know the time! 

I am ashamed to admit that once I was the parent in charge of cutting and sticking, I swiftly replaced tubes of glitter with glitter glue, which still managed to adhere itself to the end of my nose all day long making me look a tad less professional that I might have liked, but at least it didn’t turn up unbidden on the sofa in the height of summer. Even worse, my children were discouraged from using dandelions as time pieces as I explained rather dryly about them being weeds. What a miserable parent. 

Now I am wondering where my love for dandelions went. Let’s face it, they might be considered attractive; they are valuable to pollinating insects; they have pretty seed heads; they are robust; they add year-round interest; they are rich in nutritional value; they make a handy, if unreliable time piece; and children love them. If this were the description of a border plant, we would all be chomping at the bit to grow Taraxacum officinale.

My new year’s resolution is to learn to love my weeds. It’s a tough task in the case of the dandelion, but as I try to dislodge those almighty tap roots from between two bricks (how do they always do that?) I am discovering a grudging respect for them. Learning to love, or at least respect my weeds is making the issue of tackling them less fraught. Whether you view weeds as a challenge; a mildly irritating addition to your long list of gardening tasks; or an overwhelming threat requiring you to rush indoors and put on the kettle (not as a mode of weed control, but because we Brits like a cup of tea in a crisis) in the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, they “will be back”. After all, one year's seed is seven years' weeds and while you might not dream of allowing a single weed to set seed in your garden, your neighbour might be less than vigilant in the weeding department. Then there is the messy issue of seeds dispersed by birds, like bramble. 

Ah blackberries.... there is so much to love about the humble bramble! Shocking as it might sound, there are weeds about which I actively do nothing (this is my kind of activity). Take nettles, I know they can be a pain, but I always like to keep a few patches for butterflies along with a lovely clump of thistles. I adore thistles! A wayward thistle is easy enough to weed out, but when the thistle patch is smothered in butterflies, it is a joy to behold. It doesn’t stop there (the tidier gardeners among you may wish to lie down at this point). I leave thistles to seed so that they can be swooped upon by marauding finches. 

I live in the countryside and my thistle patch upsets no one. I would not necessarily encourage thistles everywhere and while I am learning to love my weeds, I am always mindful that there are some weeds which mustn’t be ignored. Some of them call for immediate action and official notification depending upon where you live. Thankfully the majority of weeds don’t fall into this category and it is this group of garden gatecrashers which I have this year resolved to love or respect.... or at least to stop calling them rude names.

Of course, weeds shouldn't be too much of a problem until they start into active growth in spring, so I am hoping to be able to stick to my resolution until at least the end of January.

Wishing you a very happy new year. May all your gardens flourish and may all your pests be little ones. Oh... that doesn’t work. Happy new year anyway.

All the photos are of weeds I loved in my garden last year.... and a dandelion.