Tuesday, 19 February 2013

winter flowers

This morning I went to the Beth Chatto gardens.  A friend I'd only seen fleetingly since before Christmas got in touch a few days ago, and we decided we'd go this week on Tuesday or Thursday depending on weather.  By yesterday evening we'd narrowed it down to Tuesday, and today dawned so much brighter and more beautiful than the forecast early fog that we agreed to strike while the iron was hot, and before fog could roll in from the North Sea like it did on Sunday, and go this morning.

The famous gravel garden had that pinched look of plants that don't relish an English winter.  I was interested to see a young gardener digging large amounts of some sort of compost into one section.  I believe Beth Chatto when she says that after planting the garden is not irrigated, but what she does not say is that the soil is periodically renewed and improved section by section.  I know what the earth in that garden would look like without the addition of compost, since it is very similar to the sand in our front garden, and it would not be dark and crumbly to at least a fork's depth like the area I saw being dug over this morning.  That's fine, there's nothing wrong with improving the soil, but visitors should be aware that while they are looking at a genuine example of what can be achieved given low rainfall, no irrigation and sharp drainage, it is not representative of what you can expect to achieve on raw sand.

The snowdrops in the main garden were looking great, at their absolute peak in full bloom, while we were a week or two early for the hellebores.  There are lots of those to come, and I felt a pang that muntjac have eaten so many of mine.  The lawns were terribly wet, and odd corners and sections had been fenced off to visitors.  They must be desperately hoping we don't get much more rain in the next few weeks, to allow the grass to dry out somewhat before things get busier.  The garden was quiet today, despite the sunshine, with no more than half a dozen other people wandering around at the same time as us.

The only trouble with visiting other people's gardens on a nice day is that while you are doing that you aren't working on your own.  I was delighted to have heard from my friend, and genuinely pleased to see her.  I like the Chatto gardens, and it is much more pleasant walking around them in bright sunshine with birds singing than trudging around in freezing fog (which I have also done, on a pre-booked snowdrop walk).   However, I did find myself remembering a lunch in London several years ago, with someone who tended to be more interested in updating me about their life than hearing about mine, who suddenly observed with an unusual flash of insight that I must be disappointed to be spending the only dry day of the week in town.  They were right: I was.

After lunch the Systems Administrator and I finished clearing away the last of the hedge cutting debris from the back garden, so that I could finally admire the late winter flowers without the foreground distraction of piles of brush.  The Crocus tomasinianus are blooming in the middle of the bottom lawn, and look very pretty, only I need more of them.  Really lots more.  This summer when I'm putting together my order for autumn-planted bulbs I must forget articles I've read by gardeners who claim to have planted a couple of hundred bulbs a few years ago and now have sheets of thousands, and order lots, a thousand rather than two bags of a hundred each as I did last year.  Maybe our grass is too thick for them to multiply, but they are not bulking up quickly enough to make a real show.  The bees found them all right, and were busy in the sunshine collecting pollen.  As soon as the sun goes off the crocus flowers they close up again, and become almost invisible in the grass.

At four o'clock as I passed by the chicken run the hens all came rushing up to me expectantly, though not the rooster who had already gone to bed.  It was such a nice day, and they looked so hopeful, that I let them out for a run.  We got on pretty well except when they made a determined effort to scratch among the dwarf iris in the gravel.  I tried shooing them off, and bribing them with sultanas to play somewhere else, but ended up chasing the old lady Maran several times round the Mount Etna broom.  Once a hen has an idea in its mind it can be very difficult to shift.  I still remember the moment at which I first thought that chickens could be interesting animals.  It was on a visit to an open air museum with reconstructed houses, one of which had a chicken run which contained a hen, which had stuck its head through the bars of its enclosure and was trying very hard indeed to reach a piece of greenery just out of range of its beak.  I had only seen free range chickens outside farms wandering about in what seemed a desultory fashion, and it came as a revelation that a hen could want something so much.  I picked the coveted plant and gave it to the hen, and the germ of an idea was born that one day I would like to keep chickens.

I cleaned their roosting board first thing, before going to the Chatto gardens.  The ridge of the hen house is leaking slightly, and needs the SA to fit a new strip of flexible waterproof whatever it is over the hinges.  Chicken keeping is not only about sentiment and making yourself feel good by giving them tasty titbits.

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