Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Best Day of the Gardening Year

There is a day (usually some time in February) when I take a sandwich outside and sit in the low winter sunlight. This sandwich is called the Hope of Summer Sandwich. I could give you a recipe for it, but I am no Nigella Lawson and in any case, the filling can be whatever we fancy, as long as salad is involved. Chocolate spread has never been included in the Hope of Summer Sandwich. I understand that this might appear to be a shocking omission for a chocoholic, but I am not crazy about chocolate spread and in any case, we must consider the salad element (even my relatively untrained tastebuds recognise that tomatoes do nothing for chocolate spread). 

Crocus tommasinianus
You may quite rightly be thinking that I should stop all these thoughts of bread and get out more. I agree, but I have had a brief spell in hospital and have been stuck indoors since late October. Consequently there has been plenty of time to think about food and not much time to garden, so the gardening to-do list is lengthening by the second and I may be ready for winter some time next spring. Instead of being tucked up in fertile soil, bulbs are strewn across my rather less than fertile office floor and the heating is turned down in a vain attempt to keep the bulbs happy until I am finished with the whole convalescing malarkey. As you can imagine, preserving the bulbs is playing havoc with my typing speed as my fingers are fair freezing to the keyboard - something which will not be happening when I tuck into my Hope of Summer Sandwich.

Helleborus x hybridus
The Hope of Summer Sandwich is significant because it is eaten on my very favourite day in the gardening year: the first day it is sunny enough to sit outside and perhaps even justify accessorising my lunch attire with a pair of sunglasses. It is a day which fills me with hope that summer will return and I will eventually warm through to the marrow, throw off my thermals and barbecue some corn on the cob. Even better, if it is windless and sunny enough for me to eat al fresco, there is a chance that I might be joined for lunch by an early bee.  

There are many contenders for the best day of the gardening year. Switching on the propagator should rightly be accompanied by a fanfare, champagne and a party until dawn. The first snowdrop nudging through the soil is certainly cause for a giant bar of chocolate; and the completion of just about any gardening task really ought to be celebrated with a hot coffee and a jolly good sit down. But it is that first sunny lunch time which is my favourite. It seems a little inadequate to celebrate it with a sandwich (especially as I am a coeliac and gluten-free bread is rarely delightful) but it is a decades-old tradition and it wouldn’t be right to upgrade it to something more upmarket.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Diane'
Of course, if you live in a place where winter isn't very cold, Hope of Summer Sandwich day is not going to take priority in your gardening year. Perhaps you like the cold and the first frost of winter is a cause for celebration, but for me, much as I love the heat of summer, Hope of Summer Sandwich day is more of a cause for celebration than summer itself. 

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Evolving Gardeners

Anyone who has ever caught a tube train in London will know that even if there is barely a square inch of floor showing in a carriage, some twinkle-toed commuter will pop their feet onto it and we will all squeeze a little closer to accommodate those parts of their body which are broader than their little toe, because there is no such thing as a full tube train. In much the same way, there is no such thing as a full garden border. The plant lover will always find room to squeeze in one more must-have plant which has leapt unbidden into the shopping trolley. I have the same problem with books. Thankfully, the introduction of e-readers has alleviated the shelf space issues caused by my fiction habit, but when it comes to gardening books, I am old-school.

The trouble with gardening books, lovely though they are, is that gardening advice changes over time. Crocks in pots are now a thing of the past; tree planting holes have changed shape; and what was once a weed might now have developed into a deeply desired wildflower. One of the most significant changes in my lifetime is the way in which we put a garden to bed for winter. Once upon a time, I might have left leaves and stems only on borderline hardy plants as a means of protection during the colder months; now I leave the stems on all of the perennials. The closest I get to an autumn tidy is harvesting the leaves off lawns and paths for my favourite crop from the garden (at least, until I work out how to grow chocolate bars) - leafmould. 

For me, cutting back plant stems at this time of year is an opportunity lost. I care about the wildlife in my garden. Offering protection in the form of these stems is not a hardship for me, but it could mean the world to seed-eating birds or to minibeasts and (sadly for the little critters) those creatures further up the food chain who feed upon them. Before I took the decision to garden with wildlife in mind, I had started to leave a few seedheads in place, simply for the pleasure of their company over winter and to see them donning their frosty hats on a cold January morn. 

My favourite task in the garden is cutting back spent flower stems in spring. I don’t compost them immediately; I leave them stacked neatly for a few days to give any wildlife the opportunity to move on. In spring, plants may be already coming back into growth; certainly there is barely any time to wait until fresh foliage emerges and bulbs begin to bloom. I find cutting back in autumn depressing as the tidied-up plants will not be back in growth until next year. Cutting back in spring is exhilarating because we can see something new emerging; we have something to look forward to!

Cutting back in Spring
If you are thinking about cutting back your perennials now, why not try resisting the urge? Hang up the secateurs and do something filled with hope for a new season, like planting bulbs or sowing seeds. I understand that tidy gardeners might struggle with the idea of not cutting back, but placed in the right spot, perhaps with repetition further along the border, seedheads are structurally interesting and can make pleasing design sense. You never know, if you take a chance and leave the stems, a new seedhead design opportunity might present itself. When you cut back the plants in spring, you can seize the moment to divide, replant and create your new scheme. Then you will be able to enjoy the fruits of your labours through summer, autumn and winter, while at the same time offering shelter to minibeasts; and it won't have cost you a penny.

I am linking this post with Wildlife Wednesday at  Why not pour yourself a drink and saunter over there to see some fabulous photos of the diverse wildlife to be found in gardens around our beautiful planet?

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Stephen Fry, Sexy Words and a Bundle of Autumn Roses

Some words are more fun to say than others. I have yet to meet the person who can say that flirty kiss of a word “plinth” without sounding sexy (which makes buying a kitchen more fun than it should be). Miranda Hart apparently savours a “slash” and Stephen Fry allegedly relishes a “bundle”. I, on the other hand, enjoy raising my eyebrows, outstretching my arms, bowing my head, and indulging myself in that glorious musical tongue-roller of a word with the cheeky staccato ending: "remontant" (it's even better when you curtsy as if you've just enjoyed a jolly good Gavotte).

It’s not just great fun to say. This word describes one of the more alluring characteristics of plants: their ability to flower more than once in a season. It is used particularly in conjunction with roses; and at this time of year, remontancy (not such a fun word to say) is more obvious than ever. 

'Souvenir de Saint Anne’s' is a very highly scented bourbon rose which is attractive to bees. I actually think that it looks better now than it did in summer.

Rosa 'Souvenir de Saint Anne's'
Rosa MacMillan Nurse has flowered all summer long and is showing no sign of stopping. It is scented, very disease resistant and tolerates some shade, which is as well, since it doesn't get any sun in my garden until lunch. This modern shrub rose is said to attract bees and other wildlife. I haven’t seen many bees visiting the flowers; they look quite hard work for a bee and in any case, the bees are probably sidetracked by the rose's underplanting of Nepeta racemosa 'Walker's Low'. If you live outside the UK, you might not have heard of our wonderful MacMillan Nurses. These specialist palliative care nurses who support those affected by cancer are funded by the charity, MacMillan Cancer Support.

Rosa MacMillan Nurse = 'Beamac'
Another scented modern shrub rose is 'Rose Ball'. Clusters of powder pink blooms have been adorning one of our sunnier borders all summer long. It is attractive to bees and is still flowering beautifully.

Rosa 'Rose Ball'
Rosa x odorata is a very old China rose. It is highly fragrant, tolerates some shade and is attractive to bees. 

Rosa x odorata
Elsewhere in the garden, rich autumnal hues reign, but in the borders where roses mingle with gentle blues, there is the sense of an English garden preserved in summer. I love these roses for helping to make October look like June. I also love them because they are giving me plenty of opportunity to indulge in saying my favourite word. Go on… you know you want to. Arms stretched, curtsy and... "remontant". 

I am linking to Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day, which is hosted by May Dreams Gardens. It's well worth a visit to see what is flowering around the globe at the moment

For more info on MacMillan Cancer Support:

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Gardening for Wildlife in a Courtyard

Sometimes a place looks as inhospitable to wildlife as it is possible to be. When I started work on converting a boar pen into a courtyard last year, there was little to recommend it to our wilder friends. 

You can just see our front door on the right. Welcoming, isn't it?
The 17th century threshing barn which formed one wall to the boar pen was converted into our home, and the farmyard is in the process of becoming a garden. A biodiversity survey undertaken prior to the build concluded rather damningly that "this barn site proved to have quite a low Biodiversity presence and potential". I immediately decided that I would garden with wildlife in mind to see if it could make a difference.

Looking down from the barn to the courtyard. The doors lead
 to piggeries (now rooms)
I did wonder if a courtyard was capable of attracting much wildlife. This area is treated like part of our house as there are rooms around it which all require access. Paving is a necessity here, but it didn't all need to be paved so some concrete was removed to create borders.  

                  Spring 2015
Having barrowed in a load of topsoil, I popped in plants which would be particularly attractive to pollinators; and guess what? The plants did their job. Walking along the garden path is a joy because of all the butterflies and bees. 

I might have selected plants for pollinators, but other wild friends had their own ideas. Acanthus mollis proved to have broad wildlife credentials. A magnet for pollinators in summer and a hiding place for minibeasts in autumn (I don't cut back the flower stems as they make superb bug hotels), it also provided valuable cover for this young lady who hatched 11 ducklings under its lush foliage.

The courtyard now has a rather splendid resident newt and we are being visited by an increasing number of birds, including a cheeky pied wagtail which frequently perches on my office door handle. 

This is a very new garden. I still haven't finished planting it, yet it is already attracting a range of creatures. The farmyard might once have had quite a low biodiversity presence, but even the most unlikely places can become a haven for wildlife.

Lavandula x intermedia 'Sussex' in the courtyard

I am linking this post to Wildlife Wednesday at Why not pop over there to see some beautiful photos of wildlife in gardens elsewhere on our wonderfully diverse planet? 

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

If Bees and Butterflies Gardened

1980s fashion is making a comeback. Incredible though it might seem, one of my daughters has proudly claimed ownership of some of my old clothes! 
30-year-old 501s no less, or should I say pre-loved vintage jeans? Suddenly I feel in tune with today’s teens, which is a welcome change, because usually I am at odds with them due to my lack of Kardashian general knowledge and a prehistoric preference for gardening blogs over make-up vlogs.

Sometimes I find my tastes at odds with pollinators too. I may bill and coo over a spectacular bloom, but the pollinators might have other ideas, lavishing all their attention on a gentler, quieter flower. These plants are easy to overlook, especially if they bloom all summer and continue into autumn with little intervention from the gardener. One such long flowering perennial is Scabiosa columbaria subsp. ochroleuca. For the past fourteen weeks, bees and butterflies have been lavishing their attention upon its flowers. Fourteen weeks! And it will continue to flower its socks off well into October.

It is a dainty plant which prefers sun and well-drained soil. Masses of delicate primrose flowers are held aloft grey-green filigree foliage by wiry stems which sway gently in the summer breeze, yet shrug off autumn storms and torrential rain. It isn’t huge; it reaches just 50-60 cm tall (20-24"); and it may be quiet, but it is tough.

I left this scabious unwatered in dry weather this year and it thrived irrespective of my lack of care. I have a number of these plants in a demanding area of our garden: the carpark. It is unfenced, so deer and rabbits can come and go as they please. They cause damage to other plants, but they have never touched this scabious.

I grow it amidst a sea of Stipa tenuissima because the border gets buffeted by fairly lively wind. Since there is little point in fighting the weather, I have celebrated its excesses with grasses and scabious. Scabiosa columbaria subsp. ochroleuca is a pretty little thing. I love looking at it every time I park my car; yet it is the flurry of pollinators around the flowers which truly drew my attention to it and helped me to appreciate the huge contribution this quiet little plant makes to the garden. If bees and butterflies could garden, they would surely grow this plant. 

I am linking with May Dream Gardens to celebrate Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day. Why not head over there and see what else is flowering today on this wonderfully diverse planet?

Friday, 4 September 2015

The Trouble With Japanese Wineberries

A friend was recently bemoaning his lack of wineberries. I understood his disappointment. While my Japanese wineberry has always produced snackable quantities of fruit to sustain me as I ramble around the kitchen garden, berries have never made it into the kitchen where they might be arranged in a dish and adorned with double cream, or even cooked into some glorious wineberry pudding.

The solution to this dilemma came during my summer holiday to Croatia. My absence from our plot gave the Japanese wineberry an opportunity to build up a decent quantity of fruit for me to harvest. Clearly this is a problem with wineberries: it is impossible to walk past the plant without grazing on the ripe fruits. I look forward to hearing if my friend was met by a wineberry glut when he returned from his summer holiday. If so, I hope that he, like me, celebrated by adding some to his Sunday pud. Below is a pudding I thought I would never eat: apple and wineberry crumble, made possible by my absence from the garden.  

On a more serious note (as if the creation of my Sunday pud isn't serious enough), Japanese wineberries have placed me painfully on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, I am all for a plant which looks good in winter and offers protection to wildlife and food to me; on the other hand, Japanese wineberry is invasive in some areas of the world. 

Actually, I am perched on the horns of two wineberry-related dilemmas (this is truly an uncomfortable post). Invasiveness is one; the other is that while I garden for wildlife, I don't like my food being nibbled by anyone other than me. Joey not sharing food in Friends* springs to mind (which is unsurprising as my kids watched 236 episodes this summer... well, it did rain... a lot). If birds eat the fruit in the kitchen garden, I get upset. The developing fruit on a Japanese wineberry is protected by a hairy calyx, which makes eating the fruit trickier for birds, which means more berries for me. The birds here have plenty to eat: there are the plants I grow for them, plus the seed in the feeders, the chicken food when the chickens aren't looking, not forgetting the hedgerows, the windfalls in the orchard and some carefully selected weeds. The birds will not go hungry, but I do feel a bit mean about not wanting to share my food with them. 

Finches feeding on a thistle
(so why do I still feel bad about not sharing my wineberries?)
The good news for gardeners in our rainy isles is that I have found no reference anywhere to Japanese wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) being invasive in the UK. At around 2 metres, it is not a small plant, but it can be trained artfully against a wall or fence, or left free-standing with its stems arching hither and thither. Either way, it rewards us with year round interest: pretty white-pink starry flowers in early summer are followed by glistening burgundy berries in August. The leaves are bright green with white undersides and the orange-red bristly stems seem to glow in the low winter sunlight.

In my humble opinion, wineberries taste pretty similar to raspberries, but with a bit more zing. They are easier to maintain than raspberries (my wineberry hasn't walked anywhere, whereas the raspberries are taking great strides across the kitchen garden). Like summer fruiting raspberries, wineberries fruit on one-year-old stems, so cut the old brown stems down to the base and leave the young pink-orange ones for next season. If you are thinking of planting one, now is a good time. Designwise, try to site it where the stems will catch the winter sun, but where it won't dry out. Of course, like most fruits, it has its pests. The most formidable being the grazing gardener. The remedy is a gardener's holiday; about a week should do it. 

* Joey's stance on sharing food...