Monday, 31 March 2014

Waiting game

March has done us proud. Sunshine, just the right amount of rain, enough of a breeze to aid the drying of the ground but insufficient for any real chilling of the bones. And now, for the very reasonable price of one lost hour at the weekend, British Summer Time has arrived, the days lengthening perceptibly and, with the change in the clocks, remaining light until almost eight. The effects of photoperiod on the flowering of plants is complex, though well documented. Its effect on gardeners, while more anecdotal in proof is, I am convinced, no less true for that, the equation being expressed in the following manner: a longer day equals a happier gardener.

And with the light comes the heat – if anything, the temperatures over the last few weeks have been slightly above average. Try telling that to the tomato seeds I’m stubbornly attempting to germinate in an unheated greenhouse. Just as stubbornly, they’re making me wait, of the three varieties only the stalwart  'Money Maker' is showing much sign of life, although, peering very closely, I think I may have seen some embryonic roots emerging in the other modules today. Possibly, just wishful thinking. I tell myself any delay actually plays to my advantage; in previous years I’ve sown indoors both too generously and too early – just becuase you can sow tomatoes in February, doesn’t necessarily mean you should. The resulting small forest of lanky plants never really got away as well as those started a few weeks later. This way, I tell myself, as long as I can protect the tiny seedlings from any late frosts (fleece at the ready in the greenhouse), the timing will be just right. We shall see.

And whie I’m waiting for the tomatoes to do their thing, I can cheer myself with more cooperative characters, among them cleomes (new for me this year), salad leaves and of course the sweet peas. Stil loads to sow, and running rapidly out of space.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Plant identification

Identifying plants can be a minefield. It’s one thing when you haven’t the foggiest idea what you’re looking at, but quite another when you have a sneaking suspicion. Nine times out of ten, you should probably go with your gut.

Last Friday, I found myself in such a situation, up to my eyeballs in creeping buttercup, and faced with something that initially felt not altogether different. Perhaps if I’d stuck with the same family, Ranunculacae (admittedly quite large, including buttercups and anemones and celandine but also –perhaps less obviously – hellebores, poppies, aquilegias and clematis, amongst many others), I’d have identified my mystery plant more quickly. But unfortunately I allowed my brain to get in the way, which sent me off on quite another route. With no tell tale flowers to help me, I became distracted by the cut leaf and stubbon, longish single root, which reminded me of something like cow parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris, and although I knew it wasn’t that, I wondered if perhaps it was a member of the same umbellifer family, the Apiaceae.

Just to add insult to injury, I elected to live tweet my mental process as I painfully worked things through. In verse. Nothing like public, self inflicted humiliation. But for those of you who missed it, here’s an account of events, more or less as they unfolded. You need never feel bad about misidentifying a plant again.

Ode to an Umbelliferous Thing

O Umbelliferous Thing, it’s my belief
your great tap root and compound leaf
should lead me, ’fore the morning's old
to cry your name out, loud and bold.

More numerous than buttercup
and twice as tricky to pull up,
why is it not so plain to see
the truth of your identity?

Not Hogweed, then you would be hairier.
P’raps Aegopodium podograria:
Ground elder? No, the root’s all wrong
You clearly sing a different song.

Not knowing irks me; hands all clammy.
Maybe you’re spawn of summer’s Ammi?
Can’t be, that really would be queer
We planted none of that last year.

A brutish Carrot? Here? How raucous
would be the cries. Daucus –
in the flower beds – how fey!
It’s not a bleedin' pottager!

So neither chervil, parsnip, parsley...
but here a thought intrudes-how ghastly!
A nagging doubt, at first quite small...

This one here has a thing quite odd;
A longish stem and seeded pod...
Umbellifer, this plant is not.
If that’s the case, the question’s: WHAT?

There’s many a plant – family, to boot –
compound of leaf and long of root,
I clearly was too quick today
to take the Apaiceaen Way.

I’ve really been supremely soppy
It’s Meconopsis – a Welsh Poppy!

Meconopsis cambrica, via a very circuitous route

Thursday, 13 March 2014


Male catkins of the goat willow Salix caprea – also known as pussy willow for the soft furriness of the unopened buds. My ears detected a steady buzzing as I wheeled the barrow back from the bonfire area towards the end of the day; the sun was about to set, the temperature had noticeably dropped, but there was a distinct sound of activity coming from one of the four large multistemmed trees which preside over the hazel coppice. The source of the sound was at first difficult to locate, but the richness of the tone suggested a significant number of individuals, reminding me of standing below a hornets’ nest as countless creatures flew in and out, completely ignoring me in their determined industry. A bit early in the year for hornets, I thought. Surely early too for bees to be swarming – I silently berated myself for not knowing more about these fascinating things, resolving to buy Dave Goulson’s A Sting in the Tale, on my wish list for months, without further ado – and, look as I might, I could find no sign of a nest. But still, the closer I got to the tree, the louder the insistent thrumming noise. Only one direction left to look, then...

And there they were. A cloud of what looked from the ground like fat bumbles (though I couldn’t be sure), making the most of the pollen and nectar from this early flowering tree – good for them. And, by extension, for us.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Battling the borrowed view

Wednesday’s garden takes the notion of ‘borrowed view’ to an entirely different level. It’s one thing to appropriate visually your neighbour’s Betula utilis var. jacquamontii as a focal point for a particular view in your garden. It’s quite another when your every boundary is surrounded by the most breathtaking scenery; turn one way for the rolling downs with their patchwork fields and woodland; turn another to gaze out over the village church and country cottages, oast houses and orchards. In a very obvious sense this location epitomises what it is to be gardening in the Kentish landscape; look up from your weeding and it’s there, rolled out before you in all its glory.

It would be misleading to suggest that this borrowed landscape intrudes; it’s too pleasing a view to be unwelcome in any respect. If there’s any downside in being surrounded by such a generous expanse of loveliness – and, being British, I’ll have a good stab at locating any downside – it’s that any sense of ‘garden’ you try to establish can all to easily become overwhelmed by the wider context of the glorious countryside. Tall hedges and structures artfully arranged to create a sense of enclosure, opening up at strategic points to provide choice glimpses over the surrounding weald would certainly be high on my list of solutions for starting to address this tension. But other factors are at work – cost, time, client preference – calling for approaches of a subtler nature.

I think that’s why the area in the photograph is one of my favourite spots in this garden. Out of shot to the left, and down a rolling bank, a group of sedate birches provides a visual stop, while a mature purple smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple') provides the top and right hand edge of the frame. Standing here, the landscape beyond is perfectly visible, but you are conscious of having to look through the garden to see it. It’s a sensation that lasts only fleetingly – a few steps down the slope and you’re back out in the open, glorious rolling Kentishness on all sides, but it gives a hint as to what can be achieved without having to resort to great blocks of evergreen hedging.

As for the spot itself, it’s an area into which a fair amount of thought and work has gone, though perhaps you wouldn’t know it to look at it. The image shows the cotinus in semi-recumbent pose – a combination of waterlogged soil and winter winds have done their best to fell the old soldier, but we’re hoping he’s made of sterner stuff. The majority of the root system is in the ground, and we’ve done our best to protect that which became exposed. I’ve also elected not to perform my annual hard prune for larger leaves at the expense of the smokey flowers – the plant has been under enough stress as it is and, in any case, the loss of some of the roots will inevitably lead to a degree of self pruning in the aerial parts, if it survives at all. So far the signs are good, with the tiny dark red buds emerging with encouraging vigour. The foot of the shrub has been rescued from a tangle of uninspring vinca, no doubt planted due to its chief quality of being decidedly unappetising to rabbits, from whose attention this garden suffers greatly. In the rich soil, however, the vinca can quickly become rampant, and an unruly mound of its arching stems did nothing visually. Wisely, the furry critters have also chosen to leave un-nibbled the native digitalis and hellebores that have replaced the periwinkles. The lilac coloured primrose, not somethng I’d normally choose, seems to have settled in of its own accord, and I think it can stay, certainly for the moment. While I decide what to do about it, it can be left to enjoy the view – although, apparently unimpressed, it appears to be facing entirely the wrong way. One presence here, at least, that would rather gaze into the garden, than out to the landscape beyond.

Friday, 7 March 2014

What’s so good about: crocuses?

I took some cracking photos of crocuses this week and, though I tweeted them instantly, I wondered if it might be too much to post them to the blog, having featured an image of a crowd of crocuses at the head of last week’s post. Well. Poo to that with knobs on. The sun’s out, fast fading snowdrops are old news, and the crocuses are coming into their own.

Crocus. It’s an awkward word, isn’t it? It’s much more satisfying to pronounce the Greek word from which it derives (krokos), although this itself apparently has its root in the semitic languages of the mediterranean area, and refers explicitly to the saffron for which the stamens are harvested (from Crocus sativas, which is the autumn flowering saffron crocus and not, confusingly, the autumn crocus Colchicum autumnal which – to confound matters further – isn’t in fact a crocus at all, but a member of the lily family. The crocus, as any fule kno, is in the iris family). I’m also aware that the plural should almost certainly be croci, but can’t quite bring myself to write it, let alone say it. Crocuses it is, then.

What do I like so much about crocuses? Aside from the colours – white ones and cream ones and orange ones and mauve ones and deep purple ones and even stripy ones – I’m rather fond of the leaves. Described technically as ensiform (sword shaped), the leaves are long, thin, and grass like, although there are considerably fewer leaves to each corm than there would be to a tuft of grass, so you’re unlikely to mistake one for the other. Quite apart from which, the leaf of the crocus usually features a central silvery-white stripe along the whole length. If I’m honest, they are not things of great beauty; but their appearance in February is a sign that some colour is about to appear in the garden. Unless you spend an awful lot of time staring at the ground as I do, it won’t be the leaves that you notice, but the flowers. Each flower has six petals, two whorls of three, one cupping the other; the outermost often being slightly larger. When closed, these give the flower its characteristic goblet shape, but in full sun some species – particularly C. tomasianus with its longer, slender petals – will open out fully, exposing stigma and stamens in colours ranging from golden yellow to a deep, egg-yolk orange. Welcome, bright splashes of colour in drifts across the garden, just the thing to banish the winter blues.

Where to plant?
Lawns are better than beds or borders, where the corms may be disturbed by weeding and planting activity. Most crocuses appreciate full sun – many will sulk and refuse point blank to open their flowers without it. Drainage is important – although you can grow crocus with a degree of success on clay soils, incorporating grit is a good idea, as is avoiding areas which become waterlogged.

How to plant?
In short, in great numbers. “Splurging is the only way with crocus,” writes Anna Pavord in Bulb, and you can’t really argue with that. Anything less than a generous expanse looks plain silly, like an afterthought. Plant each corm to a depth three times its own height, and one and a half times its width apart (as the corms are not large, this is close, meaning that one or two bags from the garden centre won’t achieve much of an effect. It’s best to buy in large quantities from a bulb wholesaler, which works out at under ten pounds for a hundred corms). The drifts will bulk up by seeding, but it is important to remember not to mow the grass for a couple of weeks after the foliage has died back, a period which will allow the seed pods resting on the ground to open and release their cargo into the sward.

Crocuses also look wonderful planted in containers, which can be brought into the house to enjoy their scent as well as their cheery flowers. Use a free draining compost, incorporate a sprinkling of bonemeal and top dress with fine grit.

When to buy?
Autumn flowering varieties should be available as corms to plant now. Spring flowered varieties are usually available from September.

Autumn crocuses of note
In addition to C. sativas grown for saffron, the autumn flowering crocuses also include one of the bluest flowered species, Crocus pulchellus, while the award for the craziest stigma (the orangey lady parts of the flower) goes to Crocus tournefortii. Autumn flowering varieties should be available as corms to plant now. Spring flowered varieties are usually available from September.

The Good Taste Brigade
A word of warning with which to end. There is, as with many things in the world of gardening, an element of snobbery regarding certain varieties. The larger flowered crocuses – cultivars of C. vernus – appear to be considered by some to be rather uncouth. Particularly the all white 'Jeanne d'Arc', and the cheerfully striped 'Pickwick'. I think Pickwick’s rather fun, and Joan of Arc is splendid. Perhaps care should be taken not to plant these with more delicate forms. But then again, perhaps not.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

A fistful of snowdrops

Galantho thievery
What is it that’s so satifying about having a fistful of snowdrops? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that some people are willing to pay silly money for bulbs of the rarest and most desirable varieties (over £700 for Galanthus woronowii 'Elizabeth Harrison' in 2012 - which has golden markings on the petals and a matching golden ovary at the base (well, top as you look at it) of the flower). Maybe it’s just the feeling of having your hands around such a delicate and iconic plant, as if you’re somehow holding the key to spring itself. Whatever it is, it’s a sensation that caught me off guard today, as I carefully moved clumps of self sown plants into one area in preparation for revamping this particular bed. Normally, I don’t touch them until they’ve done their thing, if at all, but I don’t want them getting lost in the melee. I tried where possible to take as big a rootball with the plants as possible, although in separating out some of the intermingled undesirables, the odd bulb was displaced, and it will take a little longer for these to reestablish in their new positions, as they’re not hugely keen on root disturbance.

A snowdrop nursery would, I’m sure, be happier to move plants during the dormant period, rather than ‘in the green’. Just imagine working in a place like that, where you’re shifting the things about all the time. That’s a job I’d be happy to do. For a few snowdrops more.