Monday, 29 April 2013

An uplifting afternoon

I have a cold. This is very annoying, as the light outside today is shining with an intensity not felt for many months; the sky alternating between sunny and overcast with dramatic, silver-fringed clouds, and the air thick with a cacophony of birdsong. By late afternoon everything in our west facing garden is backlit: the bamboos in the courtyard, the early white tulips lining the path, and most impressively the amelanchier, now looking its very best, every stem heavy with pale cream candelabras of pristine new flowers. It’s impossible to stay indoors feeling sorry for oneself so I plug my constantly running nostrils and make my way to the greenhouse for more sowing and potting up activity, while Bill lies on the lawn outside, making himself sick with an all-you-can-eat buffet of lawn weeds, chief among them the strap-like leaves of Plantago lanceolata. Perhaps he’s trying to tell me something, as the ribwort plantain is used medicinally for, amongst other things, alleviating respiratory problems, and is an effective expectorant. Seven years after beginning to carve out something resembling a garden from the blank, weed-strewn canvass we took on it still loves our garden – especially the grass paths – as not only is it more than happy to grow in compacted soil (earning it one of its many common names, ‘waybread’ for its habit of growing on paths), but also likes to seed itself into the much more open soil structure of the borders. Truth be told, although its ground hugging rosettes are something of a pain in what little lawn we have, when grown in open ground I rather like its leaves and look forward to seeing the dark flowerheads with their little creamy tonsures, which hover above the plant on slender stalks and sway with the breeze, reminiscent of a small sanguisorba. Prodigious they are if allowed to set seed but, in the border, they’re not hard to pull out. I think I shall miss them if ever I become so efficient at home that I manage them out of our garden, although that day shows no sign of arriving.

But there’s something far more exciting which has drawn me away from my desk. These past few weeks I’ve been peering into the gloom below the pyracantha hedge, looking for signs of life in the leaf mould. Ever since I carefully snipped off last years mature leaves at the beginning of the month I’ve been waiting in excited anticipation for the unfurling of delicate, two-tone yellow flowers accompanied by heart-shaped leaves on impossibly thin, wiry petioles. The strong yet delicate and airy structure of the plant suggests some tiny eccentric aeronautical construction – you could almost be forgiven for thinking that the epimedium was designed to take to the air and fly. But the levitation for which this plant is known is of an entirely more earthy nature, with its reputation as an aphrodisiac. In a mood of uncharacteristic gentility I had decided that the nickname ‘horny goat weed’ for some reason referenced the horns on a goat’s head. It doesn’t, as another name, ‘Randy Beef Grass’, should have told me. Sold in tablet form as a the Chinese herbal medicine equivalent of Viagra, the uplifting effect was allegedly first observed in his charges by a Chinese goat herd, and is attributable to the compound icariin in which the plant is rich. Enough. Of more interest to the gardener are the properties of cultivars which provide robust and evergreen ground cover – many exhibiting attractive bronze markings on the leaves – several of the hardier types able to cope with dry shade. I have a fairly generic, but reliably hardy Epimedium x versicolour 'Sulphureum', whose leaves should emerge tinged with red, although mine refuse to, an annoyance which I feel may be due to the almost complete lack of any direct sunlight. I’ll move a clump this autumn into a more exposed position to test this theory next spring. In the meantime, I have a long shopping list of cultivars to acquire, starting with E. x rubra with its red bordered pale yellow flowers, looking for all they’re worth like something you’d buy by the quarter from a glass jar. Probably best not to eat them, though. The kind of sweeties that would keep a chap up all night.

Rather impressionistic due to the photographer wobbling about in low light

Friday, 19 April 2013


Spring rushes in wearing an expression of apologetic tardiness, a picture of windswept dishevelment. Better late than not at all and, now that the worst of the frosty nights seem to have passed, we can get on. On with rejoicing over meetings with old friends, and on with remembering the new ones you’d forgotten you’d invited. I have no recollection of planting Chionodoxa last year, but they’re here now, where they weren’t last year, where I was expecting crocuses which I seem to have planted further towards the back of this motley ensemble. The effect is harmonious to the extent that I begin to believe I had a sensible plan at planting time, albeit one which I’ve since forgotten. Appropriately then, forget-me-nots will join swarthy self-sown spanish bluebells and grape hyacinths Muscari in completing the late spring cerulean spectacle, though these last two will quickly become thuggish and require careful management. In May they’ll be succeeded by the white blooms of Paeony lactiflora ‘Shirley Temple’ and a pair of Dicentra aurora, while Corydalis ‘Purple Leaf’ with its tubular neon blue flowers and deep cut foliage will complement the dicentras and the ever-present ferny backdrop. Each of these has recently declared itself a survivor of the winter months, unfurling fresh, vibrant foliage above the well-mulched soil. I’m particularly excited at the prospect of watching this small section of the garden unfold this year.

Corydalis 'Purple Leaf' peaks out from behind the bluebells

The blue-green foliage of the dicentra emerges from a winter slumber

It’s at this point I realise that something is amiss. A californian lilac, Ceonothus ‘Concha’, presides over this corner of the garden, clothed in May with light blue liquorice alsort flowers which, in slowly deteriorating, clothe the ground below in baby blue confetti. Only right now it’s not looking quite as perky as it should. In fact, it’s looking decidedly – and there’s no gentle way of putting this – dead. Shrubs of this genus are often not particularly long lived on our heavy Kentish soils, and it’s not unheard of for them to croak after five or six years. This particular specimen, although in a corner and sheltered from the coldest gusts from the east, could be exposed to winds from other directions which would seize its top heavy growth and rock it about in spite of our best efforts to stake it securely. Well, no matter – I wasn’t overly convinced by it in that spot (truth be told, I find its leaves rather too small and ungenerous) and its loss presents an opportunity. What to put in its place, now...there’s the question.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

On Tufty’s tail

Something is digging up the lawn. And it’s a different something from the Something that’s making holes in the turf at the top of this garden. That Something is a rabbit, or rather, a community of rabbits, their fiendish excavations discovered by the unexpected disappearance of my foot, and with it a good part of my lower leg, while surveying the kitchen beds. A surprisingly deep hole which took a lot of filling in, for all the good it will do, as the rabbits will no doubt simply pop up elsewhere. Little sods.