Monday, 28 February 2011


As I was leaving work on Saturday afternoon a muntjac ran right across the car park and disappeared by the bonfire heap.  It was around first thing this morning, so the gamekeeper was called and the member of staff working in the polytunnel on the far side of the car park evacuated.  Then the dog escaped from the house and ran after the deer, which bolted in a direction where the gamekeeper couldn't get a safe shot at it.  It'll be back.

The question of culling deer is a sensitive one, which conservation bodies like the National Trust and Woodland Trust don't seem keen on addressing head-on.  I can see their dilemma.  Many of their supporters, probably especially town-based ones (the majority of the population) may think that killing deer is cruel and wrong, like of the death of bambi's mother.  But muntjac do an enormous amount of damage in the countryside.  In woodland they graze on the ground level plants such as oxlips to the point where they may be unable to seed, or killed outright, and they eat the emerging shoots of coppice stumps so that traditional woodland management through coppicing may be impossible.  They are equal wreckers of gardens, given half a chance, and damage crops.  Muntjac were only introduced to Britain in the last century, and their numbers are rising rapidly.  Oliver Rackham, fellow of Corpus Christi and one of the leading experts on British woodlands considers damage by deer to be one of the major threats facing our native woods.  So I'm not averse to properly qualified people shooting them, who are licenced to hold firearms and skilful enough to make it a merciful clean shot.  And I don't see how anyone is entitled to say that shooting muntjac is cruel and wrong if they themselves eat factory farmed chickens or battery eggs.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

how not to plant an orchard

One of my colleagues had left a note for the Sunday shift that a customer was coming in at 11.30am to collect nine bare root fruit trees, and that as there were quite a lot of them it might be a good idea to lift them and have them bagged up before the customer came.  As there were only two of us on duty this seemed sensible, so we dug them up and put their roots in plastic bags.  Some of the root systems were too large for the normal bags and we went and found old compost bags and used those and tied them at the mouth with string.  We laid the trees down behind the shop where they wouldn't blow over or be trodden on.  Then the customer telephoned to say that his site was saturated and he would appreciate my advice but he didn't want to plant the trees today.  Which decoded meant that regardless of my advice he didn't want the trees today.

I asked how wet the site was and he told me that, put it this way, a couple of cars had to be towed out recently and that the water table was very high.  I suggested that maybe it might not be suitable for an orchard as it was and he might need to think about land drains.  He thought that as it was on a slope it should drain in a week or so.  I don't know what he thinks his trees are going to do the next time there's heavy rain.  It then transpired that the trees were going to be planted in grass, and he hadn't lifted any of the turf yet.  I advised that the trees would need a clear 1m square around them.  Lifting 9 square metres of turf takes a while and  I don't think he'd have been tree planting this afternoon even if he had collected the trees at 11.30am.  I asked if he could heel the trees in somewhere himself, but was told there was no room.

My colleague and I unbagged the nine trees and heeled them in again.  The customer is always right, but some customers are fools.

After that it picked up.  The retired long distance lorry driver from Clacton came in with Ruby the white terrier, who was looking very spruce after having a bath this morning.

I saw a flock of starlings on the way home, not so large as the ones of my childhood in east Devon, but still wonderful, in their mysterious fast-shifting cloud.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

the joy of mulch

The beds and borders at work have been spread with a wonderful crumbly dark brown mulch.  I looked at it enviously and wondered where they got it from and if I could get some.  But there isn't anywhere convenient to dump a load of mulch, and I don't want a mulch-based repetition of the dumpy bags of gravel experience.  I think I'll just have to make do with what we can make at home.

I believe firmly in the benefits of mulch.  Years ago, when the shrubs were all newly planted and the spaces between them seemed practically endless, I used chopped bark to try and retain soil moisture and suppress weeds.  I don't use it nowadays.  As it rots down it temporarily robs the soil of nitrogen, and our soil is infertile enough already, and the visual effect is a bit municipal.  Composted mulch doesn't stop weeds, on the contrary it provides a lovely seed-bed for them, but it is easy work to pull the seedlings out, and the soil-conditioning effect makes most plants grow faster.  From late winter through to late spring my ambition is to get the soil covered by the leaves of my plants as quickly as possible, then they will largely crowd out weed seedlings by themselves (perennial weeds are another story).

I don't dig organic material in very much, leaving the worms and soil organisms to do it, unless I'm renovating an area.  I don't enjoy digging, it doesn't do my back any good, and I don't believe it does the soil any good either.  Some experts would vehemently disagree with me, so I prefer to confirm my prejudices by listening to the experts who agree, like Charles Dowding (organic vegetable producer and no-dig gardening guru).  Soil is full of networks of fungi that live in co-operation with green plants, called micorrhizae, which have received a fair bit of media cover in recent years.  Digging damages them.  Plus there are worms and beetles and lurking toads that aren't going to be improved by being chopped in half with a spade or speared with a fork.  I spread compost on the surface, as much as I can get my hands on (never enough) and over time it is miraculously incorporated.  Organic material helps sandy soil retain moisture, and helps clay particles clump together so improving drainage.  It is the stuff of life.

Everything that is not full of weed seeds or pernicious roots goes on the compost heap, unless it is woody enough to make wood chippings or be burnt.  Even evergreen hedge clippings from the Eleagnus x ebbingei compost pretty well if put through the shredder and mixed with grass cuttings.  A mixture of woody and green, that is the secret.  Grass clippings by themselves go slimy, but they are great for activating other prunings.  The litter from the chicken house and run go on to the heap, as do all vegetable peelings.  And the brown paper bags that the rolls from the farm shop come in, and old cotton dishcloths.  I began to suspect I was getting slightly unbalanced on the subject of compost when I found myself tut-tutting that my colleagues were throwing away the banana skins from their lunch boxes, rather than taking them home to compost.  Asking other people for their old banana skins would be a step too far.  The bins stand in a row, and I do periodically turn the contents from one bin to the next, to mix and aerate it.  I do this a little gingerly in case the bins are occupied.  Last year I found some baby grass snakes in there.  No rats so far, thank goodness.

Friday, 25 February 2011

beehaus demo

I went last night to a meeting of my local beekeepers' association, where someone from the Omlet company gave us a demo of the beehaus.  This is the new trendy beehive that appears frequently in newspaper photos in articles about beekeeping, and I was curious to know how it worked.  The name itself is pure genius.

It turns out to work on essentially the same principles as all other western beehives, which isn't surprising as it is designed to house the same bees.  Wild honey bees in a hollow tree build a series of flat wedges of honeycomb with gaps between each wedge just wide enough for the bees to move around.  Human honey hunters have to destroy the nest to take the honey.  Beekeepers persuade their bees to live in a beehive instead of a hollow tree, and fit the beehive with flat wooden frames filled with wax sheets embossed with a honeycomb pattern.  With any luck the bees build their combs on those sheets, then the beekeeper can remove the wooden frames to harvest the honey or see what the bees are doing without destroying the nest.  That is the essence of a modern beehive.

To get honey without bee grubs in it the beekeeper exploits the fact that the queen bee is larger than the worker bees to limit her to her own part of the beehive.  This is known as the brood box, and it is separated from the part of the hive where the bees store the surplus honey (if any) by a grid with holes large enough for the workers to pass through, but too small for the queen.  So the workers can go scooting around through the entire hive, but the queen has to stay in her own quarters.

The beehaus has all these parts, but arranged differently.  It is made out of brightly coloured rotational moulded plastic instead of wood, and looks like a giant coolbox on legs.  The developers of the beehaus, who designed it as a follow-up to their first product, the trendy plastic chicken house called the eglu (another brilliant name) studied industrial design at the Royal College of Art.  The beehaus is designed to meet a set of formal design requirements, which are to make beekeeping physically easier for the beekeeper, and socially more acceptable instead of being something that only middle-aged and elderly rural eccentrics would do  (the chap doing the presentation, who was fairly young and very charming, struggled slightly to explain this bit tactfully, faced with a room full of people at least half of whom obviously were middle-aged and elderly rural eccentrics).

The beehaus is on legs so that the beekeeper doesn't have to stoop and their work is made easier.  This is entirely sensible, though you can put any beehive on a stand of some sort.  It is brightly coloured and curvy, like something out of the Teletubbies, to make it more visually appealing to young and fashion conscious people, who might find a row of grungy brown wooden boxes offputting.  Again this is a nice sales pitch, though commiting yourself to keeping bees because you like the box is possibly unwise.  The beehaus is long because the brood box where the queen lives is designed as a double cube: put a divider in the middle of it and you can have two colonies side by side.  This means that when the beginner who got their first colony of bees earlier that year suddenly realises that they need to do some swarm control, for which they need a second beehive, and they don't have a second hive because they only bought one to spread the costs, well with the beehaus this will not arise because they already have a second hive at the other end of the beehaus.  Again that is fair enough, though you could just buy two hives to start with (but people don't).  The boxes that go on top of the brood box for the surplus honey are smaller than traditional boxes, to make them lighter to lift when they are full of honey, and you can spread them further across the top of the hive so that you don't have to pile them as high, which again is useful if you don't find it easy lifting boxes weighing over 10 kilos at shoulder height.  There is a big curvy roof that fastens on with chunky elastic.  The beehaus is UV stabilised and said to last at least twenty years.

The chap from Omlet was giving away copies of the brochure you get if you buy a beehaus, and since I had agreed to write up the meeting for the Essex beekeeping magazine I felt justified in taking one.  I haven't read it cover to cover yet, but it looks pretty good.  Part of the sales pitch is that new beekeepers can get all their equipment from Omlet, and shopping on their website is a lot less confusing than having to wade through the catalogues of the traditional beekeeping equipment suppliers, which do tend to be pretty dry and technical.  Looking at the brochure and what you got for your initial £465 double width beehive I did think you would need to buy some extra bits and pieces fairly early in your beekeeping career.

So I thought hats off to the Omlet people for thinking fresh thoughts on an old subject.  I won't actually be buying a beehaus.  Partly this is because I already have sunk costs in traditional equipment, but mainly because I don't want one.  I would rather set up my hives individually and be able to choose which direction to point the entrance than be forced to arrange them back to back.  And I like things made out of wood.  If they get accidentally damaged they can generally be mended, which is more than you can say for rotationally moulded plastic.  And I am not young, or trendy, and don't want a brightly coloured giant coolbox at the end of the garden.  But it looked great for people who like that sort of thing.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

some shrubby honeysuckles

It was definitely warmer today, warm enough to bring the bees out foraging.  They were on the crocus, hellebores, daphnes, and the shrubby honeysuckles.  It is always a pleasure and a relief to see them, though I did take a quick look at the hives a few days ago and they all had live bees in them then.  If you look carefully at foraging bees you may see little brightly coloured balls of something on their hind legs, which is pollen (apologies to my beekeeping friends who already knew that).  Pollen is high in protein, and bees need it to produce food for their larvae.

A couple of shrubby honeysuckles are in flower now.  Lonicera x purpusii 'Winter Beauty' has made a largish rounded shrub in semi-shade.  The flowers are brilliant white, bourne in pairs from the leaf axils.  The leaves of honeysuckles are carried in opposite pairs up the stem, so two clusters of flowers are held opposite each other making four per cluster.  The cluster towards the end of the branch seems to open first, then successive clusters down the stem, which prolongs the display.  The edges of the petals are frilled and the stamens protrude beyond the mouth of the flower, so the whole effect is decorative in a restrained way.  The knockout feature and real reason for growing this shrub is the scent, which is strong, sweet and carrying.  I have heard gardening pundits dismiss it because it is fairly dull, if not downright scruffy, out of the flowering season.  It wouldn't be in my top ten shrubs for a small garden where everything needs to be contributing virtually all the time, but it's a good plant where you have the room.  I struggle to remember the difference between this and L. fragrantissima, which I don't grow and which always sounds so similar in books.

Far more aristocratic is Lonicera elisae.  This was only introduced to western cultivation in 1983, by Roy Lancaster.  It comes from China.  It was originally called Lonicera infundibulum var. rockii, which is a bit of a mouthful to remember, and I was slightly piqued when just as I'd learnt that off by heart the botanists changed it.  I fell in love with L. elisae on first sight.  My perception that it is a posh plant is based partly on its appearance, which is extremely elegant, and also on the fact that it was one of those plants that my employer would take with him as a present when visiting his gardening friends, and he moves in higher echelons of horticulture than I do.  Lonicera elisae is very beautiful.  The flowers are carried in the same arrangement as those of L. x purpusii, but they are longer and more slender, only flaring out at the tips of the petals.  Hillier describes them as pale primrose-yellow, tinged pink outside.  Viewed from any distance the effect is a pale apricot.  The leaves are just starting to break as the flowers open.  As they emerge they will turn a fetching shade of bronze for a time.  Hillier describes the flowers as fragrant, which is not something I really detect, but my plant is near 'Jacqueline Postill' and it's difficult to smell any other scent above that.  The growth habit is upright, slightly arching.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

creatures of the night

We invested in one of those motion activated waterproof cameras I was talking about.  It turns out they are called trail cameras, and there is a whole internet community chatting about them and posting pictures of nocturnal animals.  Deer, wild boar (not in north Essex), all sorts.  You can set it to do time lapse photography as well, and short videos.  A new world of technology and wildlife spotting beckons, once we've got the hang of it.  We put the camera up by the chicken house, and I was convinced that the fox would go past, but all we got were a couple of shots of the cats wandering out in the early morning, and one blackbird (we're going to train the camera on the cat door one night, and see if any of the rodent operatives bother to stir themselves outside after we've gone to bed).  Then due to an error in setting up the camera it ran continuously and the batteries went flat before it could capture anything.  Last night, getting anxious to see something, we put it by the far end of the wood.  We got lucky.

A fox did go by.  I knew there were foxes, given they've taken several chickens over the years, we've seen them (I kicked one once, but that's another story), we hear the vixens call, and something had the carcass of last week's roast out of the dustbin.  It was running fast, so only stayed in camera shot for one picture, and that's blurry, but it's quite clearly a fox (photo).

There were also muntjac, two in fact, so they hunt in pairs (photo) .  Again, I knew we had muntjac.  I've seen them, and heard them bark, and they come into the garden and eat the leaves of the evergreen shrubs.  We need to use the camera to work out where they are hippity-hoppitying over the wire, then I'll raise it, and pile brushwood outside to make it the muntjac equivalent of a Grand National fence.

There was also a badger (photo).  I'd never seen one before in seventeen years, but thought they were around.  They are very fond of peanuts, so if we regularly set bait out for them we should get some more photos.  Badgers are clean animals that rather than soil their setts create latrines for themselves at a distance.  I once heard a R4 interview with someone whose job required him to monitor the territories belonging to different badger setts.  His method, which he had been using for about twenty years, was old-fashioned and low-tech science, as he cheerfully admitted.  He fed the occupants of each sett peanuts, laced with a mixture of golden syrup and non-toxic coloured plastic balls, a different colour for each sett.  Then he meticulously recorded which coloured balls appeared in each badger latrine.  I think we'd better skip the golden syrup.  With the beehives on the premises I don't want to encourage these badgers to develop a sweet tooth.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

time to get on with the winter pruning

The outstanding winter pruning has begun to feel more urgent.  I've been working my way round the garden, but suddenly buds are swelling and breaking and I want to get it finished.  I'm quite a lot of the way round the roses.  Many of them are shrub or species roses, because I like them, they look right in a fairly wild country garden, and they seem to cope well with light soil or a degree of shade so are versatile plants.  With them all I do is remove dead wood and the old, much flowered and branching oldest branches.  The plants pretty much tell you what needs to come out.  I've learnt to treat the modern shrub roses with a degree of respect.  I took 'Sally Holmes' down by a half a few years back, as she'd got much larger than I was expecting, and rather straggly.  She hated it, responding with weak regrowth and some dieback, and recovery was slow.

I've taken a badly placed internally crossing branch out of the Zelkova carpinifolia which grows in the lowest part of the garden.  I was smitten by the beauty of the bark on a wet day at Wisley years ago, and got one out of a packet of seeds to germinate (which was enough as I only wanted one tree).  It was planted out as a youngster in late summer 2001 (not the most obvious time of the year to plant a tree but that must have been when I was doing that part of the garden) and is now about 4m high and wide.  From when it was a few cm high it has never wanted to grow vertically, or limit itself to a single trunk, and the books do say that in cultivation they tend to have a very bushy habit.  Mine has two main trunks, which are sinuous and a nice shade of amber, plus a third smaller trunk which I think needs to come off, but want to be absolutely sure before making the cut.  As they say, you can't put it back afterwards.  The badly placed branch snaked around between the two principle ones, and I could see it exerting pressure in all the wrong places and making the crown mechanically unstable as it grew, so it has already come off.  The tree should be long lived (unless it succumbs to Dutch elm disease.  They are in the elm family and can catch it) but its bushy shape can make it vulnerable to windthrow.  I hope ours is sheltered enough to survive.  The leaves are toothed and turn a pleasant yellow in the autumn.  The gardener at work tells me that our employer doesn't rate zelkovas, dismissively calling them 'bio plants' because they just have green leaves and no exciting features.  I can't decide whether on this occasion my tastes are more rarified than those of my boss, or if I'm a sad person to be happy with a dull plant!

I started on the Buddleia davidii today, but didn't finish them.  Their leaves are growing by the day, so I don't want them wasting any more energy breaking buds on bits I'm about to prune off.  Buddleia davidii are such useful plants.  They are fast growing and while not evergreen are in leaf for much of the year, so are good for fast screening, though that's not why I grow them.  The butterflies love them, of course.  Every now and then customers come into work who have read some magazine or newspaper article about which cultivars are especially attractive to insects, but the butterflies here don't seem that fussy.  We have 'Black Knight' below the veranda, which one customer told me was not a good one, but ours were covered in Painted Ladies last year.  Buddleia davidii does not seem the most root-firm plant, and I have known them blow out of the ground in very severe gales, but they do also have an amazing capacity to regenerate from the roots.

I had to tackle a row of Hebe topiaria earlier than I would have chosen to.  These run in front of one of the decks, and we needed access to the front of the deck to replace it.  The reason for having shrubs by the deck was to use foundation planting to anchor the house to the garden, and to cover an awkward sloping bit of lawn that was a pig to mow, and that I was too idle to level.  The hebe looked good for about seven years, but had begun to get open and spreading with age, while snow landing on them two winters running hastened their decline.  I'm fairly confident that if I feed them up they will reclothe themselves completely from the base.  I've done this in the past with Hebe 'Mrs Winder' and it worked OK, though if it hadn't been for the decking I'd have left it another month in case of frosts.  I haven't bothered taking cuttings.  I went through a period of being very keen on hebes, but am not so enthusiastic as I was seven years ago.  I think it's the long slow decline in the shape of the bush from a perfect dome to something less perfect.  Nowadays I'd rather have clipped box if I wanted a dome.  Some hebes are good bee plants, but H. topiaria is not very floriferous.  Given I sound so unenthusiastic about it maybe I ought to take them out!  But the roots of a healthy hebe are extremely hard work to shift, and I'm saving my energies for the Rhododendron ponticum in the end of the wood.  When those are gone I can have a nice Eucryphia in their place.

Monday, 21 February 2011

another busy day at the plant centre

Today was a busy day.  There are still odd bits of potting: this afternoon I potted up some rootballed lilacs and yew and a few bare-root crab apples.  A couple of colleagues were on a roll creosoting (it is actually creosote substitute now that old fashioned creosote is banned.  'Creosoting' is like 'hoovering'.  You can't say that you spent the day creosote substituting, any more than you would say that you had been dysoning).

Plants are moving around the plant centre in great swirls and eddies.  The polytunnel on the far side of the car park ('the other side') is so full that the aisles are mostly reduced to half a trolley's width and the potting bench is jammed into the smallest possible space just inside the tunnel door, but bulbs that we potted last autumn, like tulips, daffodils and alliums, have started going out for sale.  Some shrubs that were put under cover in the plant centre to protect them in the worst of the winter have also been put out again, which keeps us all on our toes when it comes to helping customers find things.  Viburnums were in the tunnel with the climbers last time I was at work, but today they were back outside on the opposite side of the walled garden.

Customers sometimes find it confusing that shrubs like hollies, that they thought were hardy, have been put away in a tunnel for the winter, but there is a great difference from the plant's point of view between spending the winter outside in a black plastic pot, which may well freeze solid in cold weather, and having its roots safely in the ground.  Even during periods of frost the ground is rarely frozen more than an inch or two deep (though I don't know how far the frost penetrated last December).  Frozen roots can be particularly tricky for evergreens, because they can't take up water, while their leaves are still losing moisture through transpiration.  Anyway, the hollies, viburnums, osmanthus and arbutus have all been turfed outside.

There will be a lot of deliveries in the next few days, and some of the plants will have customers waiting for them.  Unfortunately the system for matching new stock to eager would-be purchasers is rather basic.  We have a list of customer names and their desired plants.  Plants arrive.  The staff try to spot which of the arrivals are on the customers' wish-list, in between interruptions and distractions while we do lots of other things as well.  Occasionally well-meaning customers who have obviously been conditioned by too much supermarket shopping wave their purchases at us at the till, enquiring 'don't you want to scan the bar code?'.  Er, no thank you.  We don't actually use bar codes.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

good as new

Yesterday my Felco secateurs arrived back from servicing.  They had been getting a bit blunt and tired for a while, then when I cut through a moderate sized twig one day they fell to pieces in my hand.  Fortunately they can be refettled to be good as new (for a moderate fee).  The agents for Felco in the UK are Burton McCall, and if you send them your no-longer functioning secateurs with a cheque for (at the time of writing) £14.99 then a few days later you get them back in perfect working order.  Mine had been fitted with a new spring, new blade and new bolt to hold them together, and lavishly smeared with what looks like vaseline.  (They used to come back with a miniature carton of WD40 and strict instructions on the importance of regular lubrication, but no longer.  Maybe this has been dropped to save costs, or maybe it was a marketing initiative by WD40 that has come to an end).

It is true that for £14.99 you could buy a pair of secateurs, but the point of Felcos is that they are incomparably nicer to use than anything you will buy in that price bracket, especially if you do a lot of pruning and cutting back.  Mine are number sevens, which have a grip that swivels as you cut to reduce the strain on your hands.  They are of the bypass type, meaning that the cutting blades move across each other in a scissor action instead of pressing the material to be cut against an anvil.  They are very sharp when newly fettled, and hold their edge well.  They do not crush plant stems or leave ragged edges.  In short, they are very nice bits of kit.  I know the old saying has it that a bad workman blames his tools, but over the years I've come to believe that appropriate tools make most jobs almost infinitely easier.  Not gadgets, and not always anything very complicated.  Just the right thing for the job.

Burton McCall's website does not advertise this service prominently.  When I was hunting around it to check the current fee and address where I should send the secateurs I couldn't find details, and ended up ringing them.  The address at the time of writing is 163 Parker Drive, Leicester, LE4 0JP and the phone number is 0116 234 4646.  I posted my secateurs off on 11th February and they were back with me on February 19th.

I never know how to answer when they ask me in the Post Office whether the package is valuable.  What is the value of a pair of secateurs which are a decade old, are currently broken, will cost £14.99 plus outwards postage to repair, but will be as good as new thereafter, and the list price is £62.99?  At any rate I'd rather the PO didn't lose them.  They haven't, so far.  You don't need to pay list price for new Felcos.  Garden4less will do you a pair of number sevens for £41.99.  Other models are cheaper, if you don't want the swivelling handle, and left handed ones are available.  I bought a Felco pruning saw from Garden4less and it was excellent, very sharp, definitely the real thing and arrived very quickly.  Quality garden tools are such a small and specialist market I can't believe anyone would bother to make fakes anyway.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

big trip

We are going out for the day, to Kent.  A trip involving the A12, the M25 and the Dartford Crossing.  What could possibly go wrong?  I record this fact now in case by the time we get back it is too late and I'm too knackered to post anything else.  I did have a Thought for the Day, as I listened to the Today programme discussion of the relaunch of The Big Society.  Maybe Big wasn't a very good adjective to choose.  Big Friendly Giant.  Big Yellow Teapot.  Big Bad Wolf.  Big isn't a word associated with complex ideas for grownups.  Big Mac.  I rest my case.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Iris unguicularis

The Iris unguicularis are out.  They grow in a row along the bottom of a south facing house wall, in very light soil, which ought to suit them fine, and normally does, but this isn't a vintage year for them.  The plants themselves still look dishevelled, and while there are dense clusters of bloom at some points along the row, there are also stretches that are devoid of flowers.

The flowers are larger than on the dwarf irises I wrote about on 5 February.  They are the same shade of mauve that you get in crocuses, with a lustrous sheen.  There are three standard petals, shaped like elongated spoons, that stand upwards, and three falls that curve and hang gracefully downwards.  The overall shape is like the classic fleur de lis, though I believe that was based on Iris florentina, the source of orris root, not I. unguicularis.  The falls are marked with a creamy blotch at the base, striped yellow up its centre and flecked with purple.  Named varieties are available, though I don't have any of them.  You can find details of them on the excellent Avon Bulbs website.

It was a struggle when I first planted them years ago to get them to establish, and I had to replace more than one of the original plants before getting an entire row.  Even now there is one missing at the end, though I don't mind that now the space has been used for a shrub needing wall protection.  Some gardening writers do comment that they can be hard to get going in the garden, so it may not just have been me.

I wonder if their indifferent flowering performance this season is down to the weather.  They come originally from north Africa and Greece, so the snow, cold and persistent damp may not have suited them.  I know I'm not the only local gardener to be having a bad year with them, as the great and knowledgable gardener of the solitary 'Katherine Hodgkin' (see 5th February) lamented that hers weren't up to much this year.  She blamed it on the fact that the girl who helps in her garden had given them a very thorough tidying last year, which she thought they must have resented.  What to do about the old and tatty leaves is an issue that divides gardeners.  Lots of people say to cut the leaves down by half after flowering, to let the sun ripen the base of the plant as well as to make them look less disreputable.  I tried that one year, and got a pretty poor crop of flowers the next year so went back to my previous method, which is to go through them at some point in the summer pulling out brown leaves in their entirety, and trimming off any dead ends.  I'm pretty sure I never got round to it last year, though, what with all the extra work caused by the previous winter's damage.

They used to be called Iris stylosa, worth knowing if you happen to be reading about iris in any old gardening books.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Daphne bholua

The flowers on the Daphne bholua 'Jacqueline Postill' are opening.  I'm pleased about this after the cold weather, as it provides proof that the shrub is still alive, and anyway I shouldn't have liked to miss them.  The buds are held in clusters at the end of fairly stout twigs.  They are a middling shade of mauvy pink, opening to pale pinky mauve, darker on the reverse.  The four petals are quite fleshy, and glisten slightly, their texture reminding me of African violets.  'Jacqueline Postill' is generous with her flowers, not one of those plants where you have to peer deep into the depths to discover one or two blooms, so the overall effect is quite showy.  Best of all is the scent, rich, penetratingly sweet and carrying far from the source so that you get wafts of it while working in other parts of the garden.

The habit of growth is strongly upright.  Mine after several years is over two metres tall, but less than that across.  Books give the ultimate height as up to 3m or more.  It does sucker, so unless you removed the suckers it would get wider in time.  I succeeded in potting some up couple of years ago, but am not entirely sure if the parent plant was grafted, in which case they would be straight D. bholua and not the named form.  I couldn't see any traces of a graft, but they haven't yet flowered and shown what they're capable of.

I also have the white form, D. bholua 'Alba' (Latin shouldn't strictly be used as a variety name, so this must have been named a long time ago, although the species was only introduced to Western horticulture in the mid part of the twentieth century).  So far it seems slower growing than 'J. Postill'.  The latter is a more popular variety, to judge from the number of suppliers listed in the RHS Plantfinder, and the relative number of enquiries I get at work.  'Jacqueline Postill' has been championed by Roy Lancaster, someone whose opinions on the worth of a shrub I take very seriously, and it is the only D. bholua form to hold the RHS Award of Garden Merit.  I don't know if 'Alba' is difficult to propagate, or if there is just less call for it, but at the plant centre we haven't been able to source any so far this season.

The daphnes grow in the lower part of the garden, where the soil is a mix of sand and silt and the water table is high enough that creeping buttercup grows enthusiastically in the lawn.  The contitions might even be described as moist but well drained, circumstances that are not often easy to arrange in a part of the world where rainfall averages about 525mm (21 inches).  They get sun for all but the first part of the day, and are fairly well sheltered from the wind.  They seem happy so far, and 'Jacqueline Postill' in the first few years put on growth quickly.  This is my second attempt at growing it.  The first plant was positioned further up the garden in sandier soil and exposed to more wind.  It died.

According to W.J.Bean's 'Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles' the bark of D. bholua is used for making paper in its native Himalaya.  Maybe fibrous bark is characteristic of its family, the Thymelaeaceae, as the bark of daphne relative Edgeworthia chrysantha was traditionally used for the same purpose in Japan.  In Greek myth Daphne was a nymph who, to escape the pursuit of Apollo, was turned into a tree, but rather confusingly for us now that was into a laurel, not a daphne.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

mystery pests and the problem with chopped bark

I went down the garden to plant out a tray of primroses I got at the farm shop (twelve chunky module grown plants for a fiver.  I had some before and they were excellent).  Something has been digging again.  Looking at where the holes were and the remains of leaves lying around I worked out it had gone for the variegated leaf arums.  From the scale of the holes this wasn't a mouse or a vole.  Rabbits?  Badgers?  I can't blame the cats for not taking on badgers.  We were chatting a few evenings ago about how nowadays you can get small motion sensitive infrared cameras mounted in a waterproof box, that store their own data for several weeks so don't need linking to a computer.  I think we might need one sooner rather than later.  I want to know what it is and where it's getting in.  (A friend rigged up a camera on the end of his garage to find out what was setting off his dogs at one o'clock every morning, attached to an old PC in the garage.  Unfortunately the noise of the fan or the faint light from the box scared off whatever it was, because it never came again, except on the one night when the system was switched off for some reason).  Maybe on this basis I don't need a camera, just something that makes a little noise and emits some light.

On a completely different topic, anybody who suggests that chopped bark over mypex makes a good surface for a path hasn't tried living with the results for any length of time.  I had this along the end of the house by the dustbins, and after a few years the bark has composted down and weeds grow in it freely.  I'm now having to pull up the weeds, and scrape up the rotted bark (which would be a jolly nice mulch if it weren't full of weed seeds).  I shall use stones instead.  In fact to start with I shall use all the stones I find while weeding that aren't especially attractive.  I found another today with a hole in it.  Only a small one, but every little helps.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

tidiness can be good

Today I finally finished clearing away the remains of the second of two dumpy bags of sharp sand that had been sitting in the front garden for about six years.  They were in full view of the front door and one of the first things visitors saw as they approached the house.  They were originally ordered when I had a scheme to lay the slabs on the paths in the veg patch properly (brought on by reading too many books about the French vegetable garden, the ornamental kitchen garden etc. etc.).  After I'd taken a lot of the slabs up, and before I'd got most of them down again, I developed a novel range of lower back problems, and heavy building work was off the agenda.  In the last couple of years I've learnt to manage my back much better (Pilates works) and would have been up to moving the sand, but there were always lots of other things to do, and I'd got used to the bags.  They sat there even when the garden was en fete for big parties, while guests' eyes conveniently glided around them, or they were too polite to comment.  After enough time has passed you don't really see things any more, or mind them particularly (the spare bedroom door has been held shut with a piece of bent coathanger for a decade on this principle, after the mechanism of the doorknob broke and we didn't immediately work out how to fix it or call in someone who could).  But the front garden does look a lot better without the bags.  Really an awful lot better, and it will be better still once I've got some turf to fill in the bare patches in the grass.

It's a common failing.  In my days as a (mature) horticultural student I had a summer job doing people's gardens.  It was rather low class gardening, more outdoor housework for those who wanted their garden to look tidy but weren't very keen on plants per se.  Cutting down shrubs that naturally grew too large for the position where they'd been planted figured regularly.  I was surprised by how many customers were willing to pay for someone to come (unseen, while they were at work) to cut their grass and pull up their weeds, while leaving mess around their gardens: hoses that had no obvious place to be put away, tools, unused toys, partly used bags of compost from when they did their ornamental pots.  Just stuff.  Clearing away stuff isn't as much fun as fiddling around with plants, but doesn't half makes the garden look better.

I suppose the other moral of the story is to use up one dumpy bag of sand before you order a second.

Monday, 14 February 2011

roots and music

A couple of us finished the last of the herbaceous potting that arrived last Thursday.  The hardy geraniums and Thalictrum are prototypical plants, with a neat solid central crown and a tuft of roots beneath.  You know where you are with them.  Aconitum carmichaelii 'Arendsii' has great chunky roots like giant molars.  The new leaves are already emerging and it's clear which way up they should go.  (I like these autumn flowering monkshoods.  They bring an attractive shot of blue to the border usefully late in the season.  All parts of the plant are poisonous, but I'm not going to eat them so that's fine).  Veronica consists of a tangled mass of wiry roots and things that might be thicker roots or stems, and it is frankly a puzzle with some of them which way up to put them or how deep they should go.  Lily of the valley has long brittle-looking white roots, with nodes from which emerge quantities of frizzled white side roots.  There are shoots at one end of the long white root, which I kept at the surface.  The roots look fragile and as if they could rot at the slightest provocation, and I'm not surprised that the plant has a reputation for being tricky to establish in the garden, or that once it is happy it can run like hell.  Hemerocallis roots are neat and chunky like pencils.  Hosta roots are funky, brilliant white and crinkly.  They make me think vaguely of some deep fried Far Eastern delicacy.  The roots of Mertensia, the Virginia cowslip, look like petrified dog turds.

Listening to the car radio on the way home I got exasperated with Eddie Mair and flicked over to Radio 3, where I found the most unearthly, etherial singing which turned out to be Trio Mediaeval, a Scandinavian three voice female polyphonic outfit who do mediaeval music plus Scandinavian folk and recently written material in the same vein.  I never heard of them, although having looked them up they have been around for years, tour extensively and have a fair-sized discography.  They are singing tonight at the Wigmore Hall and then not again in the UK for the foreseeable future.  I rarely manage to get to concerts in London anyway, but I shall certainly add one or two of the discs to my (admittedly over-optimistically long) Amazon wish list.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

another busy day at the plant centre

Today was another busy day, despite the weather having turned grey and a tad drizzly.  Hamamelis are going well, which is fair enough.  They do look very pretty, and choosing your plant when they are all in flower and you can see which you like best seems sensible.  Fast growing evergreens for screening were in demand yet again (I can't warm to Photinia  x fraseri 'Red Robin'.  That's a pity, because it is a useful plant, but there is something soulless about it).

I succumbed to the buying mood, and got myself a Helleborus x sternii Blackthorn Group.  It is a plant of rare beauty and I had been lusting after one ever since they arrived last Monday.    It would almost be worth growing just for the leaves, which are trifoliate (three leaflets), thick and glossy, with red stalks and huge wonderful teeth around the margins.  The flowers are a strange pale green, pale plum on the reverse with a prominent boss of stamens.  It holds the RHS Award of Garden Merit.  Our label says it would prefer neutral to alkaline soil, so I had better plant it with a dusting of lime.  It is a hybrid between H. argutifolius and H. lividus, and according to my Gardener's Guide to growing hellebores by Graham Rice and Elizabeth Strangman should be easy to grow in full sun and seed itself about.  I did once have the Boughton Beauty strain of the same hybrid, which did not last with me, but maybe it was in too much shade.  At any rate the plant is so beautiful that I'm willing to try again.

Addendum  Having marshalled my failing energies to write a post after a day at work, and my mind running on hellebores, I sat down in front of the fire to read more of the hellebores book.  The very first photo at the start of chapter one is of H. x sternii 'Boughton Beauty', and I see that while it is lovely the leaves just have plain margins and not the fabulous teeth of the Blackthorn strain.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

the plant centre is getting busier

Things are starting to get busier at the plant centre.  People are beginning to think about replacing the things in their gardens that have died over the winter, and favourite questions are coming up like ideas for quick growing evergreens to screen views to/from the neighbours' windows (not as easy as you'd think).  There was a spectacularly scorched piece of sweet bay (yes, it was almost certainly due to cold, no, I wouldn't cut it back quite yet in case we have another cold spell.  It's only the first half of February).  A new one, which I didn't know the answer to, was the identity of some wriggly grubs in a jam jar that a chap had found in his homemade compost.  He wanted to know, not unreasonably, if he could use the compost or if they would eat living as well as dead plant material.  I offered to show them to the manager on Monday, which he was very happy about, except that he wanted his jam jar back, and I had to find something else to put them in (an empty milk bottle but I'm sure the dairy company will wash it thoroughly).  It would have been an even better day if we hadn't realised, at 5.00pm when it was time to go home, that the paraffin heater needed filling.  Jerome K Jerome had the measure of paraffin when he said that it started at one end of the boat, and moved down the boat until everything smelt of paraffin.  The same is true when you get it on your trousers.

There are some nice hellebores about.  'Walberton's Rosemary' is a recent introduction with largish single pink flowers held upright so that you can look into their faces.  I bought one last year, which was the first year we'd stocked it, and am interested to see if it is long-lived with me.  The H. orientalis forms seem very perennial here, but some of the glamorous recent hybrids have not lasted so well.

Friday, 11 February 2011

starting to count the winter losses

I'm beginning to count the winter's casualties, and fear there will be quite a few.  It was colder for longer last December than in the previous winter, and some things that made it through 2009-10, albeit looking a bit burnt by the cold, are now looking dead, like my Acacia pravissima.  I don't like to assume the worst too early, as plants can have amazing powers of regeneration, but I'm concerned that things like Callistemon that were cut to the ground the previous year and had begun to reshoot from the roots won't have the energy to repeat that trick a second time.  Even so I won't rush to dig them out, just in case.

I have no hope at all that the crisped up leafless remains of my rosemary 'Severn Sea' are still alive.  It only went in last year.  I chose that variety because the flowers are a very beautiful shade of blue, and it is supposed to flower over a very long season, and I wanted a low growing one.  Rosemary can be short lived as shrubs go, but the prostrate ones tend to last for longer than the upright growers because the branches root where they touch the ground, and the plant renews itself that way.

I try to be philosophical about losses in general, on the grounds that these things happen, it is interesting to see how plants behave and what succumbs or surprises you by surviving, and the gaps created do offer opportunities to try new things.  But it is galling to lose a lot two years in a row.  Partly it is the expense of replacing plants, and the extra work created by having to clear away the remains and replant.  Plus weeds love bare soil, and established plants act as weed suppressants.  Each lost plant, or failed bit of 2010 planting that has to be done again, represents another bit of ground that will have to be kept weed free this year, when I had hoped that it would be starting to look after itself.  I might need to take a slightly more hawkish view about what can be regarded as hardy, and how much doubtfully hardy stuff I can cope with.  I saw a wonderful rose at Wyken Hall a couple of years ago and have been wondering where I could fit one in.  Maybe in the space previously occupied by Acacia pravissima?

Thursday, 10 February 2011

failure of the rodent operatives

Something has been eating the crocus bulbs in the bed by the ditch.  When I was weeding there (mostly pulling out goose grass seedlings, which come up as thick as a box of supermarket cress at this time of the year) I found their poor stalks, severed and discarded.  I presume it is mice, or voles, or some sort of wretched rodent, and feel slightly aggrieved that, given we are over-run with cats and owls, something couldn't try a bit harder to keep the rodents under control.

The cats don't do rodent control.  Once it gets dark and cold and we light the stove they lie in front of that, or within a three metre radius of it, thank you very much.  The only cat that patrols the garden properly is Black and White Alsatian Killer Cat.  He is a short haired, short legged black and white creature that got his name because early in our acquaintance he jumped up and snapped at my forearm like a police dog.  I was wearing a heavy coat at the time, and didn't pay undue attention.  Then he started coming into the house, and after he had bitten both of us (he got me on the wrist and I spent a week on antibiotics and it took a couple of months to regain normal sensation in one finger) he was evicted from the house.  Then we discovered he was nominally the neighbours' cat, and had his own bed and a name and everything.  We explained that we had enough cats of our own already, besides which he was a biter.  Nowadays we have reached an understanding.  Black and White Alsatian Killer spends a lot of his time slinking around our garden and sitting in the borders.  We don't try to touch him, and he doesn't try to bite us, just gives us an enigmatic but vaguely unpleasant glance as he passes.  Sometimes he comes and sits and stares in through the veranda window, like the evil manservant Quint.  Our neighbours don't mind not seeing so much of their pet now that they have discovered he hates both of them, and only likes their daughter-in-law.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Ribes laurifolium

I said I would return to the subject of Ribes laurifolium.  This is an evergreen ornamental currant, which is just coming into bloom now, so it is ahead of kinds of currant in the garden.  The flowers are individually small, five petalled and faintly fleshy in appearance, held in racemes (a raceme is a simple elongated inflorescence with stalked flowers.  Now you know).  They are a pale creamy greenish yellow, paler than primroses, and they are very pretty in a lush but restrained way.  Bees love them, and looking at the spray I picked for my desk so that I could examine it as I typed I see the base of each flower glistens with what is presumably nectar.  I have never detected any scent, pleasant or otherwise.

It makes a spreading bush, wider than tall.  Mine after some years is about a metre across, and less than that in height.  The leaves are leathery, mid green with toothed edges, about 10cm long, ovate (the broadest part of the leaf is towards the stalk end).  They are not very exciting but make a perfectly pleasant background for other things later in the year.  Gardens where everything is exciting all the time are not very restful anyway.  It will bear a lot of shade.  Mine is between two conifers on the north side of a hedge and never sees direct sunlight.  It is in part of the garden where the water table is high for most of the year, and I don't honestly know how it would do given dry shade.  In this shady corner it makes an open shrub, though healthy.  Some of the ones pictured on the internet are bushier, and I wonder if they're growing in more light.  I've found it good natured and reliable, the main problem being that muntjac like to have a nibble if they can.  A friend who is a good and skilful gardener had no joy with it at all, though she did plant it on her dog's grave.  Maybe it doesn't like rich living, or maybe it is temperamental and I've been lucky.

There were a couple of honey bees out foraging yesterday afternoon when it was warm and sunny, on the dwarf iris and the snowdrops.  They didn't succeed in recruiting many other foragers, though.  Consensus in the hives must have been that it was still too cold and too early.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

folk music old and new

We watched the Radio 2 folk awards last night.  The BBC televised the whole ceremony for the first time this year.  I was brought up on folk music, my father being one of the first wave of revivalists in the 1950s, and a pretty fair unaccompanied singer.  As a teenager I never had any problem with simultaneously adoring Blondie and The Police, and Planxty and Paddy Tunney.  My father's tastes were purist in the extreme.  Irish traditional music was his favourite, with some English trad and a little Appalachian.  He disliked Scottish music, English dance music unless played strictly in the correct tempo for morris dancing, and anything involving an electric bass, drums or a brass section.

As a lifelong fan I'm disconcerted that the media have recently pronounced that folk music is now fashionable.  It's as bad as with the beekeeping.  I don't want to be fashionable, then in a couple of years become unfashionable.  Folk music's new fashionability is apparently due to the refreshing wave of new talented young artists that are reinvigorating this faded musical scene.  Really good musicians like, er, Laura Marling and Mumford and Sons.  I did once think about buying  Sigh No More, after hearing their first hit single, until I heard some more of their songs and realised that I only liked the first one.  I suppose it would be too much to expect journalists to go away and actually listen to the folk music that has been going on over the past thirty years that led us to a dark sad place from which we needed to be rescued by, er, Laura Marling and Mumford and Sons.

One of the best guitarists on the planet, and from the 1970s to the 1990s one of the best and most original songwriters, is generally considered to be a folk musician.  He is of course Richard Thompson.  An utterly mellifluous guitar player is Martin Simpson.  He has an accurate feel for British and American traditional music, and has written some songs that will enter the tradition in the truest sense, which is that they will still be sung in a hundred years time by people who have forgotten who wrote them.  His musical career stretches back about four decades.  June Tabor has been declared by Elvis Costello to have the finest female voice in Britain.  She can make the big Scottish ballads sound as immediate and relevant as if the events (mostly ghastly) happened last week, and she has been recording since the 1970s.  Katherine Tickell is a Northumbrian piper and fiddler of genius and total authenticity who released her first record in 1984 and has been performing live ever since.  And so on and so on.  Great singers and instrumentalists continued to emerge in the 1990s and beyond (Julie Murphy and Fernhill, Julie Fowlis, Tim Van Eyken, the Vass twins).  My CD racks, and the cupboard where the pre CD era vinyl still lives, are weighed down with really fine music, some traditional and some recently written, that has been made over the past forty years by musicians who have worked very hard touring around the UK (and the world) and been supported by people who have noticed and valued what they were doing.  If good musicians can play to bigger audiences and find it easier to make a decent living that's great (as long as they don't get too exclusive.  There aren't many art forms where you can see a world class practitioner close up and live for twelve quid a ticket!).  But please spare us the myth that the moribund folk scene is being saved by, er, Laura Marling and Mumford and Sons.  They're OK.  They're just not nearly as good as a lot of the musicians who were occupying the scene already.

Monday, 7 February 2011


At work the financial year end has passed, the days are lengthening, and new stocks of herbaceous plants have started to arrive at the plant centre.  This morning a ten tonne lorry arrived from Norfolk with six thousand plants for us, which was the entire lorry load.  Some were already potted, on Dutch trollies (those multi-storey aluminium trolleys with wheels you may have noticed in garden centres) and some were bare root divisions in cardboard boxes for us to pot up.  These are in addition to the roots needing potting that arrived last Friday, and are starting to get a bit etiolated and sweaty in their plastic bags.

I enjoy the occasional day potting.  I wouldn't want to do it five days a week all year, as it would get repetitive, and standing all day at a potting bench is actually harder physical work than walking about, but it is interesting to see what has come in, and what the root systems of different species and varieties are like.  There is a certain Goldilocks art to potting everything to the correct depth, not too deep and not too shallow, and a detective art to working out which way up some of them should go.  Indeed there is an art to unloading the lorry when you have half a dozen people involved.  The suppliers make one label do for all 20 or 30 of the same variety, stacking them on the same shelf on a trolley and relying on us to keep like with like when unloading.  Once two different sets of dormant hostas have been mixed up you are completely sunk, until they come into growth and you can see which is which.  We pot into a herbaceous compost which has an anti vine weevil chemical in it, and nothing is allowed out for sale to the public until we can see roots at the bottom of the pot.  A few things like Incarvillea have the exasperating habit of flowering before they have rooted in properly, which is a nuisance.

The ready potted stuff just has to have labels stuck into every pot, but of course they are at ankle level while you do it.

Addendum regarding Fitzroy  I got yesterday's biographical details from the Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia, since the main thing I knew about him was that he founded the Met Office.  In passing I had noted that the BBC (why does the BBC website have an entry on Robert Fitzroy?) said that he was the fourth great grandson of Charles II.  At the time I thought little of it, but returning later in the evening to Jenny Uglow's splendid book about Charles, 'A Gambling Man' (a Christmas present) my brain belatedly tottered into gear.  Charles II did not have any legitimate children, but there on page 199 is a little black and white reproduction of Lely's portrait of Charles' beautiful and temperamental mistress Barbara Castlemaine, with their son Charles Fitzroy.  At school I was taught that the Norman name Fitz denoted son.  My informant who read history at university and did include the medieval period (more than I did) tells me that Fitz specifically denotes illegitimate son.  Fitzroy, Fitz Roi, bastard son of the king.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

the shipping forecast

I was doing a bit of washing up and happened to catch the shipping forecast. It said Force 6 to Gale 8 for sea area Thames, maybe 9 later.  Rule of thumb you can subtract one from the Beaufort wind strength for the sea to get an estimate for the nearby land, but that's still windy.

I rather miss sea area Finisterre, which was replaced by Fitzroy a few years back.  Robert Fitzroy (1805-65) was an admirable chap who certainly deserves a shipping area, and was practically local, being born in Suffolk near Bury St Edmunds.  He was commander of The Beagle, surveyed the coasts of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego then circumnavigated the globe with Charles Darwin as scientific observer for the voyage.  He seems to have been socially enlightened far ahead of his time, being recalled in 1845 from his Governorship of New Zealand because of his belief that the Maoris had as much right to the land there as the European settlers (!).  He became head of the meteorological department of the Board of Trade, which became our Met Office, but I can't blame Fitzroy for the Met Office's 5 day forecast (they did get today right, to be fair.  They said it would be windy).  And he invented a barometer.  He seems in all respects a worthy person to have a sea area named after him.  It's just that Fitzroy doesn't have the same ring as Finisterre.  Finis terra.  The end of the earth.  Carol Ann Duffy's poem Prayer ends:
Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer —
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.
Rockall.  Malin.  Dogger. Fitzroy.  It just doesn't work.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

dwarf iris

In the past couple of days the first of the dwarf iris in the middle of the front garden have started to open, which has concentrated my mind on weeding the gravel around them.  They will show to their best advantage standing like little jewels among the stone chippings, not as they were this morning emerging from a mat of low growing weedy vegetation.  First to open in quantity is a relatively large dark purple flowered variety with yellow splashes, and there are plenty of less advanced clumps to come.  I see from my records that I've planted 'Cantab', 'George', 'Harmony', 'J S Dijt' and 'Katherine Hodgkin' at various times, but apart from 'Katherine Hodgkin' I've lost track of which is which, having not gone for the pets' graveyard approach of labelling each individual clump.  'Katherine Hodgkin' is an unusual mixture of blue and yellow, strange and lovely.  I think the large and early one is 'George', and 'Cantab' will presumably be light blue.  They are all very pretty, purple or blue iris flowers standing above strappy foliage, which lengthens as the flowers fade to 20-30cm tall, but quickly dies down.

These are hybrid forms of Reticulata iris.  They have a reputation for not being reliable repeat flowerers, partly because the bulbs can break up after their first flowering into many small bulbs that take years to grow back to flowering size.  I called the other day at the house of a very knowledgable and experienced gardener who had one early 'Katherine Hodgkin' out by her front door, and as I admired it she observed that they tended not to last with her.  I said that they were fairly perennial with me on very light, poor soil and she replied (with a hint of asperity) that her soil was pretty well drained.  I don't claim any credit for ours, but the conditions do seem to suit them.  I start them in 1L pots so that I can plant them out in the spring when I can see what other bulbs are there, so they grow in an island of multipurpose compost plunged into extremely light acid soil.  They are mulched with gravel, and receive no kind of top dressing of organic material because of the gravel.  They get sun for most of the day and are exposed to the south westerlies.  Annual rainfall is around 21 inches or 525mm.  Some say that if you plant the bulbs deeply they are less likely to split.  Mine get potted with 2-3 inches or 5-8cm compost above them, which is dictated by the dimensions of the pots, and I plant them out to the same depth.  And that's it.  They seem to last for several years, and I periodically top them up.

As well as the dwarf iris there are Scilla siberica, Chionodoxa and miniature tulips.  One of these has been seeding itself and I kept finding tiny bulbs amont the weeds, which I buried again.  This area of the garden hosts an annoying fine leaved annual grass which is entirely absent from the heavier soil further down the slope.  I did find a seedling Genista aetnensis, which I ought to pot up quickly while it is small as I rather think they dislike transplanting.  The gravel needs topping up, but with any luck there'll be enough in the thick bits round the edge of the drive for me to take it from there.  I'm going to have to order another load one of these days, but I'd rather not at the moment, as there are enough jobs to do already without saddling myself with a large pile of gravel in the front garden urgently needing to be spread out.

Friday, 4 February 2011

the lettuce farm stirs

Another sign that the growing season is approaching is the increased activity on the neighbouring lettuce farm.  There are no signs of actual lettuces yet, but it is a bit early for those, even under fleece.  The farm staff have been checking and mending the rabbit fences, banging in any wobbly posts with one of those hollow cylindrical metal wackers with a solid end and a handle on each side.  You put the cylinder over the top of the post, and lift and thump it down.  It makes a dolorous ringing sound like a King Kong size woodpecker.  We just use a sledgehammer at home, but I suppose the chance of a fatal accident is probably less with the cylindrical wacker.  Any bits of netting that have come loose from the top wire are being clipped on again, and holes in the netting criss-crossed with wire in a metallic darn.  Rabbits are devils.  I must have another go at our wire alongside the wood, as they are getting in somewhere.  The farm staff have also mended all the farm potholes today, using bags of ready mixed bituminous stuff.

The farm workers are mostly Eastern Europeans, Lithuanians or Latvians to judge from their car number plates.  They are unfailingly polite, pulling the farm vehicles over to let the residents' cars pass, and work astonishingly hard come driving rain or heatwave.  They live in mobile homes hidden away in the middle of the farm.  There was such a hoo-hah when the farmer applied for planning permission for the caravans some years back, you'd have thought the locals were expecting the Eastern Europeans to break into every house in the village, molest all the women and roast family pets on sticks.  In fact they keep themselves very much to themselves.  I presume they are saving whatever they earn for when they go home.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

warm air and dormant plums

What a difference a change in wind direction makes.  It has gone round to the west, bringing mild Atlantic air as the weather forecasters point out, and as the sun came out the thermometer reached 9 degrees.  Suddenly it was a pleasure to be working outside, instead of being something I braced myself to do because there were jobs to be done, and they can't all be done in March.  The westerly wind has even invigorated The Whizzer, which began working again yesterday after several days of immobility.  The days are lengthening too.  By the time I decided it was too dark to see to weed it was five o'clock.

The fruit nursery reassured me that plum 'Marjorie's Seedling' is not supposed to have visible buds yet, because it is a late variety.  Certainly there are some trees, such as Robinia and Gleditsia, that are normally late into leaf and don't push out big fat buds for weeks beforehand, and we sometimes get angry owners returning them to the plant centre insisting that the tree is dead (which it probably is by the time they've dug it up and brought it to us, though it was probably fine before).  I don't know if 'Marjorie's Seedling' is such a one, but it sounds entirely possible.  I don't honestly know all that much about top fruit.  If you have any concerns about a new plant it's always a good idea to share them at the time with the person you got it from, as they may be able to set your mind at rest, and if it does fail later you have smoothed the way to getting a replacement. 

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

grow your own fruit

Having said that I must get my skates on and order another cherry tree before it was too late I actually did so a few days ago, and this morning it arrived.  That is the slight trouble with bare root stuff, once you've got it you have to get on and plant it.  The arrival of the cherry forced me to get on with sorting out the mess in the fruit cage, which had got a bit weedy.  Most of the weeds pulled out easily enough, but there is some couch grass running around.  I extracted as much as possible by hand, but will probably end up treating the regrowth with glyphosate.  I'm very sparing in my use of this weedkiller, but would find it hard to do without it entirely.  The cherry is 'Summer Sun' which is a dessert variety generally described as doing well even in an indifferent English summer, so with any luck that will guarantee either cherries or a fantastic summer in a year or three.  It's on Colt rootstock, which in theory will produce a larger tree than I would want for a fruit cage, but on our miserable light soil I've found it pays to go for more vigorous rootstocks than you would think you wanted.  As I weeded around the fruit I was shocked at how sandy and mere the earth appeared, as if it had never received an application of organic material in its life.  There is one bin of compost ready to use, so that will go on.

I ordered a plum at the same time, 'Marjorie's Seedling', which should bear dark purple dual purpose plums in late September.  There's already a golden plum that's ready to pick in the first half of August, so the plan was to extend the season.  This is on St Julien A, and again I'm not expecting it to grow as large as the RHS guidelines suggest it will.  Unfortunately, having seen the plant, I'm not entirely expecting it to grow at all, as it doesn't appear to have any leaf buds.  Normally buying mail order from reputable suppliers works well.  I'm trying to contact the grower, and I expect it will all be sorted out one way or another, but it is a hassle.

While I was at it I went for some more raspberries, which are receiving mega doses of compost as I plant them, but half are still heeled in as the light ran out.  The challenge this year will be to try and prevent raspberry beetle destroying a sizeable proportion of the crop.  Last year I was throwing away half of what I picked, which is disheartening and makes picking a faff as you have to inspect each fruit.  It also makes it difficult to enjoy eating them as you wonder at every mouthful if your inspection failed and this one will be off.  The grubs live in the core of the raspberry, then move into the flesh, and the taste of fruit which has been attacked is vile.  The RHS only offers chemical controls so goodness knows how organic raspberry growers manage.

My cheerful reflections the other week on how economical it is to grow your own fruit did overlook the cost of buying the plants, plus the fruit cage.  Our fruit cage has suffered after two snowy winters.  Gardening books always say to remove netting roof from fruit cage in case of snow, but how often do we have that much snow in Essex?  After the first winter it was possible to bend the aluminium top bars back so that the cage was servicable, though wonky, but they wouldn't bend back a second time without breaking.  Sourcing replacements and fitting them is another job for the spring.  On a positive note, during the stock take at work I did discover we had a supply of angle irons for sale, and I shall get a few of those to make supports for the raspberries.  First time round we used tree stakes, but these have rotted and I'd prefer not to replace them with more stakes that will rot again.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

more winter flowers

A month into the blog I had another look around the garden to see what flowers were out.  That could be a regular posting for the first of each month, unless I'm on holiday, or ill.  There's not a lot of progress to report since the first of January.  The snowdrops are showing white, but still not fully out.  I think this is about the point that I worry each year that something has happened to them, and they have dwindled instead of making increase, then in a few more days they're properly out.  There are a few small cyclamen, but they look rather overwhelmed by the cold damp greyness of it all.  The witch hazels are great, glowing with colour and spicily scented, though I don't find they throw their fragrance across the garden so well as the Sarcocca confusa.  I wonder if that was flowering on New Year's day and got unfairly overlooked when I walked round the garden.  It was drizzling.  The buds on Daphne bholua 'Jacqueline Postill' look promising.  She has lost nearly all her leaves whereas she normally doesn't, but I think she'll be OK, given some other D. bholua forms are deciduous.  The buds on Ribes laurifolium are looking good too.  I'll return to the topic of those once they're fully out, as it is a good shrub that deserves its own post.  Viburnum bodnantense 'Charles Lamont' has opened some flowers, though the brown remains of failed earlier attempts slightly marr the overall effect.  Iris unguicularis is still not really performing, another subject to be returned to in a future post.  The Helleborus foetidus under the shrub roses have pulled themselves together in the past month and look much stouter and more cheerful, with greenish yellow flowers.  I hope these will start seeding about, as H. foetidus is wont to do, and start a colony in the gloom.  The catkins on the hazel along the edge of the wood and in the boundary hedge are looking really good.  We should prize our native Corylus avellanus much more if only it came from the Himalayas, and was expensive to buy and fiendishly difficult to grow.  The catkins provide an excellent pollen supply for early flying bees.

Overall the garden is looking rather beaten down and sad, with squashed patches where the snow has lain on evergreens and some of the twiggy deciduous shrubs, and the odd broken branch.  I'll just have to keep working my way round with pruning tools and string.