Sunday, 29 December 2013

Floods and frosticles

Awoke to frost, and finally it feels like winter. God knows we’ve had enough of mild and wet days, particularly here where storms and flooding have taken a harsh toll over Christmas. The river is bound by its banks once more and neighbours are starting to return to sodden homes, allowing us to welcome the most decorative incarnation of the third element with a combination of gladness and relief.

Fields that only a few days ago were under several feet of water have now drained, crisp tussocks of frosted grass receeding into the distance in the morning sunlight, instead of a stretch of eerily silent water. Things, it would seem, are getting back to normal; pasture and gardens will survive relatively unscathed, and the amazing resiliance and cheerfulness exhibited by even our worst affected neighbours suggests that it will take more than tempest, storm and flood to subdue the holiday spirit in this part of Kent.

26 December: Boxing day floods

29 December. Business as usual, albeit frostier

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Planting hedges in the mist

The shape slumped in the doorway was unrecognisable in the early evening gloom. Reversing the land rover onto the drive, I allowed a minor curse to escape me, directing it towards remote sensor for the porch light which since the start of the recent damp weather spell has been working only intermittently. I’d been expecting a delivery but had left instructions for it to be left around the side by the log store, so The Shape by the front door was either what I was hoping for, but in the wrong place (a minor thing), or...something else. It was not something else. The shape in the porch was a large polythene sack containing 50 bare-root yews and an assortment of similarly naked dogwoods. In essence, a nascent wood, in a bag. Just add soil.

The yews I had ordered for a gap-toothed hedge which I’ve been looking forward to rectifying all year, while the majority of the dogwoods, Cornus alba 'Sibirica' AGM, were destined for a particular long border in the same garden, red stems forming a rosy thicket about the large-lobed, rusty winter foliage of Hyndrangea quercifolia. Come spring and summer we can look forward to the leaves of the dogwood – a green of particular freshness and intensity – providing a backdrop for the white pyramid flowers of the hydrangeas. These shrubby cornus species are not grown for their flowers, unlike their more showy cousins (the kousas and the floridas, for example) and, while the flattish florets of creamy white flowers and blue berries are incidental as a garden spectacle, they are welcome all the same as an interesting detail and an additional food resource for birds and insects.

Cornus alba 'Sibirica' in early spring

Frosted leaves of Hydrangea quercifolia

The final occupants of the large plastic sack – a handful of Cornus 'Midwinter Fire' – are to find a home in our own garden where over the years no doubt we will increase their numbers with hardwood cuttings. I remain entirely unapologetic about my love of a bed full of fiery stemmed dogwoods over the winter months; the more I can cram in to the allotted space the more content I feel about the prospect. There are plenty of other views within the humble plot that excel in presenting monochrome vignettes in drabs and browns, and so it’s welcome to have a splash of flame at this end of the year to echo autumn bonfires and the more distant, hot colours of late summer blooms.

Thick mist lay heavily across the wealden landscape the next morning, and persisted for most of the day. Perfect conditions for hedge planting; the ground damp but workable, water hanging thickly in the air all around, like a fine persistent rain, but one in which on closer observation the droplets of water appeared reluctant to obey the laws of gravity, seeming to travel sideways as often as downwards, and apparently even upwards on occasion. This is a garden on a high ridge where often it’s unclear whether a cloud has descended to envelop the hill, or the mist has risen to achieve the same effect but, whatever the cause, I knew there was little need for concern that the young sapling yews would lose moisture through their bare roots while they waited to be lowered into their planting position. In any case, immediately upon removing from the plastic sack, each fresh batch of ten plants was plunged into a large tub of water to help rehydrate them after their journey from the nursery’s fields at the other end of the county.

Bare-root hedging plants are tough as old boots, and native plants such as yew have formed part of our familiar hedgerows for centuries. With relatively small plants such as these (60cm in height), a perfectly acceptable way to plant them is to make a ‘slit’ in the ground with your spade, rocking the handle to enlarge the opening and then, once the spade has been removed, to insinuate the roots of your plant into the hole to the same depth as the plant had been grown in the field (the mark between the aerial and the subterranean parts of the plant is quite apparent once you get your eye in), finally closing up the hole with your booted foot. For several reasons, I don’t use this method, trie, tested and ‘old country’ as it may be. Firstly, actually I find it a bit of a faff. Secondly, I’m not usually planting in an open field, but often in areas where previous plantings have had to be cleared. And thirdly, while I know there will be a pretty good success rate with plants grown in this way, somehow it doesn’t feel like a particularly auspicious beginning for a garden feature you’ll be looking at for decades to come. Planting a long line of hedgerow as a field boundary would be an ideal time to use this slit planting method but, in a garden, I like to be sure that everything I plant gets off to as good a start as possible. I include a couple of soil conditioning products; a handful of bonemeal as a slow release organic fertiliser, and also a sprinkling of myccorhizal fungi – sold under license by the RHS under the brandname ‘Rootgrow’ – over the roots. This fungi forms a symbiotic relationship with the plants via its roots, exchanging nutrients taken up from the soil through the fungus’s wide network of hyphae with sugars synthesised in the plant. My usual method is to sprinkle a small amount over the roots with the plant in its final position before backfilling the planting hole, although I noticed in this pack that the manufacturer is now including a sachet of a wallpaper paste like substance (actually, I think it might be wallpaper paste, hopefully without the anti fungal additive) which can be mixed with the Rootgrow crystals in a bucket to form a dip for the roots.

Yews planted and trenches backfilled, I mulch with well-rotted manure – compost would do if it’s not too weedy, otherwise it largely defeats the object, which is to supress competition from weeds while the new hedge is getting established); likewise woodchip would be fine if, again, well rotted, as fresh organic matter will rob the establishing hedge of nitrogen. There is just time to plant the cornus at the top of the garden, as the sun begins to set and the mist starts to thicken, visible across the valley like a white, fluffy sea surrounding islands of bare trees.

And then all of a sudden the mist is gone, and golden sunshine glints and sparkles from a million tiny lenses on dew laden grass and leaves. For a moment, it is breathtaking, and I remind myself; this is my office. What a lucky so and so.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Lords and ladies

The first week of December and, rather late to the party, Arum italicum makes an appearance in the garden, just as everyone else is leaving. So late in the year is its appearance that one could almost consider it indecorously early for spring, but advent has barely begun and we should really be on the other side of Christmas before we can even think about such things.

Of course, the plant in question has not been absent from our gardens throughout the rest of the year. In spring its pale green spadix is a feature of damper, shadier spots, and the short ankle-height columns of orangey red berries are a familiar site in gardens and woodland in autumn. The berries are highly poisonous and will cause breathing difficulties from irritation to the tongue and throat. Now, from among the detritus of the year, dark green leaves emerge on the floor of the garden, marbled with bold tracings of ivory. It’s a reminder that nature never sleeps; we express our belief that throughout the winter months she is at work beneath the soil, plumping bulb and swelling root, and the faithful are rewarded with signs as miraculous as these, unfurling, richly luxuriant while all around is pale and limp and dead.

A very good friend has a ‘rude border’ in her garden, for which I periodically supply plants whose names appeal, for all the wrong reasons, to those with minds that might obtain puerile amusement from such things. Here specimens such as horny goat weed (Epimedium spp.) and Rubus cockburnianus have found a home; I am not quite certain, but surely she will have included a plant with such a variety of lewd references amongst its common names. Arum italicum is known variously ‘Lords and Ladies’, ‘Priest's Pintle’, the ‘willy lily’ and, my favourite, ‘Cuckoo Pint’ - a reference to the fandigulare of the male bird. Having never knowingly been in the vicinity of a gentleman cuckoo's undercarriage I find myself unable to comment on the accuracy of the likeness, but posterity in its wisdom has chosen to preserve this particular nickname, and so we can consider it safe to assume that at some point in history a person, or persons, who were in the position to make the comparison found it an apt one, and so made it.

Arum maculatum shares many of the same features as its showier cousin. Its large mid green spear-shaped leaves lack the attractive marbling, but are handsome nonetheless. It also shares the same common names, and is consequently equally qualified for my friend’s garden.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Manure for the garden: a fundamental matter

Not quite seven in the morning, and I’m on site to make preparations for an early delivery. The faintest glimmer of daylight fringes the trees bordering the fields of the stud farm opposite, but nearer to hand the tarpaulin laid out over the drive bounces the harsh brightness of the security lights about the garden. A slightly surreal, not-quite-half-light time of the day and on the chillier side of mild and dry – which is very good news. As with most garden tasks it’s possible to do this job in the wet, but a day without rain makes for a distinctly more pleasant experience. All is set; I pour myself a large mug of tea from my flask and walk across to the lane outside to await the arrival of the tipper.