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...

Thursday, 27 August 2015

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lambeth Palace Fig

Far be it from me to suggest that gardeners are an inquisitive bunch, but if we were to see a long, high wall which hid a garden from public view, would we turn down an opportunity to visit that garden? I know I wouldn't, especially if those garden gates had been closed to the public for 800 years. EIGHT HUNDRED! It feels as if I have been waiting every second of those 800 years to see this garden!

Lambeth Palace, home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, has the oldest continuously cultivated garden in London. Imagine! If you, like me, spent eternal terms at school colouring in booklets about Tudors, and then immersed yourself in televised Tudor shenanigans in later life, would you be able to contain yourself at the idea of wandering around Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s patch? The very notion that this garden had already been in cultivation for 300 years in Henry VIII's time was almost enough to sidetrack me from the plants!

Of course, the garden is not as it was when Cranmer annulled Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and married Henry to Anne Boleyn. Major changes took place after 1783, when John Moore became Archbishop. Walkways, tree belts and contouring made at his instigation can still be seen today. A fig tree, which was over 200 years old at the time, survived the changes. Ficus carica 'White Marseilles', was planted by Reginal Pole, the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1556 (the year Cranmer was executed and just nine years after Henry VIII's death).

Archbishop Pole had been in exile for part of Henry VIII's reign, and it is thought that he brought the fig cutting to Lambeth Palace from Southern Italy. Last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, gave Pope Francis a cutting from the fig tree. 

Nowadays the garden is maintained according to organic principles where possible. For the compostholics among us (which I hope is everybody), here is a photo of the engine room of the garden. Apart from the aforementioned wall, you can just about see the edge of the compost bays with their more advanced contents opposite these bins. I wouldn't normally excite us all with compost pictures, but then again, inspecting composting areas at palaces isn't an everyday occurrence for me.

At around ten acres, it is the second largest private garden in London (the garden at Buckingham Palace being bigger). It is located across the river from Parliament and right under the nose of St Thomas’ Hospital, so it is a busy place, yet it is surprisingly peaceful. Bee hives, flowers, lawns, trees, a swing, topiary, and a heron fishing in the pond. If it wasn't for the tops of double-decker buses and the Palace of Westminster peeping over the wall, we might be forgiven for thinking that we were in the countryside. 

This private garden is used by the Archbishop, his family and staff. Despite its size, the layout makes it feel comfortable. It is one of those rare gardens that has a dimension which goes beyond design. It is not just all the layers of history; it is a special place to be. 

The garden is only open to the public on two more occasions this year: the first Wednesdays in September and in October. If you happen to be in London on one of those Wednesday afternoons, I recommend that you grab the opportunity to visit; entry is just £4. It is next door to the Garden Museum, so it is very easy to combine a visit to the two. 

Friday, 14 August 2015

New on the Menu for Bees in 2016 from Thompson & Morgan

When faced with a smörgåsbord of floral delights, which flowers are the favourites of our pollinating friends? This is something I constantly observe when visiting gardens and nurseries as it helps me to decide which plants will best broaden the nectar sources available in my own borders. I am always on the lookout for new plants, so I was delighted to visit Thompson & Morgan’s Open Garden at Jimmy’s Farm in Suffolk to take a look at some new introductions.

Thompson & Morgan's Open Garden at Jimmy's Farm
Scabious are excellent bee plants and Scabiosa 'Kudos' is no exception. This new pink cultivar, described as virus free (presumably from cucumber mosaic virus, which can be a problem for scabious), looked delightful in a pot at the open garden, although I would gladly give this gorgeous plant plenty of border space.

2016 will be the Fleuroselect Year of the Cosmos and the party has started early at Thompson & Morgan's Open Garden. I posted photos of lovely pink Cosmos bipinnatus 'Cupcakes' last August and this year 'Cupcakes White' really grabbed my attention. I am clearly not the only fan of these beauties. Stocks of 'Cupcakes' sold out before the end of the spring sowing season this year and it is thought that only small quantities of seed will be released for the 2016 season, since bulking up stocks of new varieties takes time. If you are fortunate enough to grow this plant, it will be worth saving some seed for next year.

In this Cosmos celebration, Cosmos rubiata made an attractive and popular addition to the bee's buffet with its maroon blooms fading to pink, giving different shades of flowers on the same plant. 

I am a fan of foxgloves, so I was interested to see Digitalis hybrida 'Polkadot Petra', which is a hybrid perennial foxglove from Thompson & Morgan's breeding program. It is a shrubby plant which flowers over a long period and I am told that it is more hardy than 'Illumination'. 

I cannot remember having ever grown Zinnia. I have admired the flowers in other people's gardens for years, but was finally persuaded to add them to my seed list for 2016 when I saw Zinnia elegans 'Cupids Mix' strutting its stuff. This 50cm (20") tall plant was proving to be a spectacular bee magnet, and all for the price of a packet of seeds. 

In the UK we have surprisingly few native plants. Happily, we are able to grow hybrids and a vast variety of plants from around the globe which offer food and shelter to wildlife. As I sit at my desk, looking out over a lavender border brimming with butterflies and bees, I cannot imagine being without non-native plants and hybrids. Of course I grow native plants, but I wouldn't want a garden where I couldn't try out new introductions and expand the nectar sources available to pollinators. I am always grateful to those who breed good garden plants, for their success breathes new life into my borders. 

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Making a Garden for Wildlife

I was wielding the hoe through a recently planted border (AKA weed seed magnet), cursing taproots and apologising to dormant tulip bulbs wrenched from their summer slumbers by my frenzied hoe-flailing, when a lady stopped by and asked if I might give a short talk to the local gardening club about the development of the gardens at Le Grys Farm. Uncertain as to whether she had heard me begging the bulbs' forgiveness, but fairly certain that her sudden appearance had caused me to yelp in surprise (I imagine the bulbs probably did likewise when they were dragged from the soil moments earlier, if indeed bulbs yelp), I agreed to speak and immediately set about wondering what on earth this lady thought I might have to say.

The Farmhouse Garden
I have blogged in the past about gardeners’ minds being fixed in the future* and as I watched the lady leave, I realised that I had been so busy planning the next area of garden that there had been no time to appreciate the more established borders. Thanks to that lady, I found the time to look at the garden and to reminisce on what was originally here.

The dining room in 2000
When we bought Le Grys Farm in 2000, the 16th century Farmhouse had been empty for 20 years. There was electricity in just one or two rooms and there were no bathrooms, which was marginally inconvenient as I was pregnant with twins and the nearest public loo was 2 miles away. There was a Wisteria, which I can only describe as pollarded to within an inch of its life. Obviously this did little to aid the bathroom issue, but it did fill me with hope that we might one day have a garden. The only other plant in the garden was a walnut tree which was too young to fruit. I left the walnut to continue its childhood, put up wires for the Wisteria and set it free (in as much as anything trained along a wire is ever free), then I planted Old English lavender across the front of the house, had the lawn seeded and a gravel drive put in. That's it. We didn't live here and everything had to be very easily maintained in our absence. 

The Farmhouse Garden 2012
Over a decade flew by before we were able to move to Norfolk. Clearly a garden comprising a walnut, a Wisteria and a lavender hedge is hardly going to satisfy a gardener's desire to grow things, so I set about creating the first of a number of gardens here. The walnut was finally getting its act together on the fruiting front, so I sited the garden paths around it. I propagated and purchased plants to add to those I brought with me: Geum rivale which had been dug from my aunt’s garden and had flourished in two of my gardens since; and Salvia uliginosa, which I bought at a plant fair and hung from the back of my baby daughter’s pushchair. That daughter is now 12 years old, and The Farmhouse Garden is three. 

The Farmhouse Garden 2012
When we purchased the farm, there was an agreement with the vendor that he would have use of the farmyard and some buildings until 2010. In actual fact, they were used by him for a couple more years. By then, an ecological survey had revealed that there was a low biodiversity presence in the farmyard. I decided that this had to change. Starting with my plant selections for The Farmhouse Garden, I would garden with wildlife in mind.

The Farmhouse Garden 2014
Apart from providing shelter and sustenance for wildlife, The Farmhouse Garden has to be easily maintained within four hours a week, for it is a space to be enjoyed by holiday makers. Quite rightly, guests at The Farmhouse want their family pet to have a holiday too, so dogs are welcome. The lawn becomes a space for ball games, bouncy castles and barbecues so I cannot afford to be too precious about its state, or that of the plants. Toddlers will toddle through borders; dogs have a knack of leaving the path, so plants must be resilient to the rigours of family life. They must also benefit wildlife, be beautiful for the guests to enjoy, and not cost the earth to replace.

The Farmhouse Garden 2015
Propagating and shopping for plants is always a pleasure. Making a garden is a privilege; sharing that garden with guests and wildlife is a joy. Three years after beginning the first of the gardens here, the days of wondering where the wildlife is are well and truly over. There are pollinators and birds aplenty. We share our gardens with bats, owls, newts and ducks; and thanks to extensive fencing, we see, but are rarely troubled by rabbits, hares and deer. We still have a long way to go in making our gardens here, but now that I have taken the time to look at The Farmhouse Garden, I am surprised to see that we have already come a long way.