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. 

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. 

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Border Rebellion

Would you believe it? There are still bees bumbling about in the garden and brave butterflies are being buffeted by the autumn wind. Has nobody told them that it is mid-November in rural England?

Centaurea montana 'Alba'
I garden with wildlife in mind and spend time selecting plants so that my garden can offer year-round food sources just in case a passing creature should find itself in need of refreshment. This year, in spite of all of my painstaking planning, the plants have thrown the rule book out of the window and have decided that mid-November is the time to strut their stuff. It's a fabulous party of flowers which never usually meet. Eryngium, Chaenomeles - even spring-flowering forget-me-nots have all forgotten their slot in the gardening calendar and are joining in the fun. If they hang on a bit longer, we may discover Delphinium and snowdrops having a ball.

Astrantia major 'Venice'
To post photos of every last one of this merry band of rebels might lead to you being confronted by the longest post in the history of the blogosphere, so you will doubtless be mightily relieved to learn that I am only going to show you a small selection from this mutinous and beautiful bunch.

Cerinthe major
In the annual department, we have been enjoying Cerinthe major since March. March! For the price of a packet of seeds! Other exceptional performers which don’t know when to stop are Echium vulgare 'Blue Bedder', Cosmos bipinnatus 'Purity' and Nicotiana langsdorffii. I planted Nicotiana langsdorffii in the most windswept, inhospitable corner of the garden and it stood proud and unstaked all through summer. It remains unblemished by autumn and if we don’t get a frost soon, I suspect it might keep going into winter.

Nicotiana langsdorffii 
Of the climbers, the honeysuckles have lost all sense of timing and are continuing to bloom. Good old Lonicera x brownii ‘Dropmore Scarlet’, with its red trumpets blazing, is roaring across a rabbit fence to a family reunion with its quiet winter-flowering cousin Lonicera fragrantissima.

Lonicera fragrantissima
The flowering shrubs are showing unprecendented tenacity. Most of the Hydrangeas are sporting their lovely brown papery flower heads now, but half of the Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ plants are still in flower, with some starting to take on that tinge of pink we see as they go over. 

Hydrangea paniculata 'Limelight'
Lavandula x intermedia 'Sussex' is still throwing out new flowering stems, while Choisya ternata is showing immense confidence in British winters with masses of buds waiting to come into flower alongside the blooms which are already out. Flower buds on Cistus and Helianthemum are valiantly unfurling while in the shops, Slade are belting out "Merry Christmas Everybody". Then there are the roses. Although a number of rose cultivars flower until November, Rosa 'Rose Ball' has really impressed me. It is blooming beautifully and the flowers are holding well, with only slight damage to their outer petals, despite strong winds and rain.

Rosa 'Rose Ball'
Summer-flowering perennials appear to be blissfully unaware that they are a fortnight away from being two seasons out of season. Echinops is a real bee magnet and it is still producing new flower buds. Lamium maculatum, both 'White Nancy' and 'Beacon Silver' are blooming, as is a Delphinium! My hardy Geranium collection grows by the year which is no surprise since there are so many to choose from and we have been enjoying flowers since late spring. I could have photographed any one of six cultivars in the garden today. This one is the reliable and very beautiful 'Rozanne'. 

Geranium 'Rozanne'
I suspect that this might be my favourite ever autumn. There are seed heads and berries for the birds; pollinators have more flowers than I could have ever planned for; and frost is a distant memory.

Echinops ritro
My gratitude goes to the weather for providing a mixture of sunny and rainy shots. Special thanks go to the wind for the fuzzy photos and to the temperature for convincing the flowers that it is June. Let's face it, if you were an Echinops, would you go to the trouble of throwing out a new flower spike if you sensed frost? Without you, beautiful English weather, this post might never have been written. Thank you. 

Echium vulgare 'Blue Bedder'

I am linking this post to Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day which is hosted by May Dreams Gardens. I am now going to grab myself a warm drink and read about what is happening in gardens around the planet. Why not put on the kettle and pop over to http://www.maydreamsgardens.com/ and see what’s happening in other gardeners’ gardens? 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Bottoms up Bees!

There are people on this planet who are always prepared for every eventuality. They have wrapped bottles and chocolates under their Christmas tree waiting for unexpected guests and a drawer filled with every conceivable type of card ready to commemorate any event requiring stationery. Sadly I am not one of these people. The sight of a bottle under the tree has me reaching for the corkscrew and I seem incapable of leaving a shop with chocolates still in their wrappers, since shopping is one of the most snack-inducing chores on my long festive to-do list. As for cards, if I write one, I rarely have a stamp, so my good wishes sit forlornly on the postage pile for months on end.

Happily, pollinating insects do not require celebratory stationery and their chosen source of refreshment is not top of my snack chart (although I am unable to resist nibbling Hemerocallis flowers which is a bit embarrassing on garden visits). Since there are plenty of plants which aren't Hemerocallis, I am in with a very solid chance of being prepared for pollinating visitors; and bulbs are a massive help when it comes to having refreshments ready for any early arrivals.

Iris reticulata
Top of the earlies at Le Grys Farm has to be Crocus tommasinianus. Last year I planted a little crocus lawn and on a sunny day in February, I sat on a bench and watched bees tipsily plunging head first into the blooms. Bottoms up my dear friends. 

This year I will be planting more Crocus tommasinianus and they will all be sited close to benches to entice me to sit down and enjoy offering the bees this little hospitality. 

Another flower which saw bee action earlier this year was Tulipa clusiana 'Peppermint Stick'. The outside of its petals are rose-red, edged in white and they open to reveal glorious pure white inner petals. The flowers last very well and it is a joy to have them in the garden, so I will certainly be adding more to the borders this autumn.

Iris reticulata is a late winter bulb which I wouldn’t wish to be without. Two streams of them flank the path to the old farmhouse and although the foliage seems to elongate forever after flowering, they are planted among Geranium which quickly grow up and disguise the dying leaves. In summer, Iris hollandica punch through the Geranium plants. If you have never sat and sipped coffee while watching bees disappearing into these beautiful flowers, you need to get a batch of bulbs and grab a mug. It is one of life’s simpler pleasures and one which is truly worth experiencing. 

Of course, there are plenty of wonderful pollinator-friendly plants available in summer and one I love to see in the garden is Allium. Now is the time to plant the bulbs, not least because buying the plants in spring or early summer will cost a great deal more than a bag of bulbs.

I am always interested to hear about which plants are popular with bees on other gardeners' plots. It can present a garden-based shopping opportunity which is up there with bulb planting as one of my favourite gardening tasks. It certainly makes a very welcome break from the boredom of digging out the clay pan from hell. This seemingly typical clay pan has now mysteriously metamorphosed into the 6" deep concrete slab of a former farm building. Consequently, I am adapting to this alarming discovery by metamorphosing into Popeye. It's not quite the look I was hoping for.