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:

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:

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.