18 Dec 2013

The wishing tree (almost Wordless Wednesday)

Having started to float along on the festive tide with my christmas garden post at the weekend, I took two toddlers to the zoo in Regent's Park yesterday to see the reindeer, as you do.  Their day was made up when one of the reindeers obligingly turned his back and did a poo right near to where we were watching.  Joy and laughter are very poo related in the life of a two year old.

Christmas outside

My day, on the other hand, was complete when I detoured to see the hippopotamus and came across a giant decorated cedar tree. Its lower branches were covered with wishes and hopes, written on luggage labels and other tags, tied to the tree.  It was a glorious sight and made for some lovely reading.  If only they'd thought to use waterproof pens! The synchronicity of seeing this when I'd just written about creating a wishing tree was very thrilling, not to mention inspirational.

16 Dec 2013

A Christmas Garden: perking up your plot and a competition

Rowan berries and ivy
Pink Sorbus berries where they'd fallen onto ivy - I'll use these plus more in a wreath.

Is it really only 10 days until Christmas? The veg patch garden is still being treated to resolutely mild weather so I'm able to potter around getting ready for next year but I can't ignore the festive lights in trees along local avenues or the buzz of people preparing for christmas.

Those lovely people over at Plant Me Now have provided the kickstart to think about extending seasonal decorations into the garden with their Christmas competition on Facebook. I'm giving the heads up on this one as the prize is £100 to spend in their online shop and let's face it, who wouldn't want to win that!  Their plug plants were well reviewed by Helen over at Patient Gardener this year and I'm always happier with a personal recommendation. Personally, I've fallen in love with a gorgeous dusky rose coloured delphinium that I'm coveting for my flower patch next year, middle bottom of this link.  (Oh, be still my beating heart!) You've only got one week to enter as the deadline is next Sunday, 22nd, (take a photo of your decorated garden, 'like' their FB page, upload your photo); it's worth a shot as, so far, there's only a few entries.

Although bright sparkly lights are good for jollying things up on a commercial level, I prefer something altogether more subtle in my own home - and that also extends to the garden. I love the simplicity of cinnamon sticks and dried orange peel tied onto a swag with a bit of ribbon. For  me, colours should harmonise with nature: think wood, robins, nuts and cones, stones, grey skies, white snow and icicles. Wonderful. Nature offers plenty of inspiration if you look around and that's what I went in search of.

Here's a robin I saw earlier.  I love that this photo has the feel of a Rob Ryan print (in my humble opinion!)

On Saturday I went for a little wander, bag over shoulder, secateurs in hand (just in case!). In the York Rise gardens I found rose hips, cornus stems, juniper branches, rosemary stems and ivy leaves. Walking in the Capel gardens, I'd already foraged fallen crab apples and - to my extreme delight - the fallen pink berries from the Sorbus hupehensis tree (Rowan). The purple berries from Callicarpa would also have been wonderful, as would the fluffy tips from a Miscanthus grass but I'm loathe to take something that nature isn't quite ready to part with.

Crab apple decorations
Fallen crab apples tied with florist's wire and hung on a christmas tree.

Walking through the woods, I spied a sheath of branch tips lying on the ground; they look like silver birch and I presume a child had gathered them up while walking and then been told to leave them behind. As I picked them up and rolled them into a circle to fit my bag, it occurred to me that they're so fine and pliable, they would be perfect as a base for a door or tree wreath. Bizarrely, I couldn't find any pine cones, despite large numbers of pine trees up at Capel but I did find plenty of acorns and their cups which were added to my goody bag (inspired by the acorn babies in the collage below).

So now I'll be crafting in the evenings in the week ahead, making decorations from my nature finds that will find their way into the garden. If you've thought, however briefly, about jollying up your garden for the forthcoming holidays, here's a few things to inspire or be aware of:

• Real christmas trees. I absolutely hate to see all those sad, brown, rootless trees dumped after christmas. If you must have a real tree, please buy one with roots, plant it properly in a deep pot of soil with good drainage, by all means decorate it but put it outside where you can see it. Your tree will thank you for  it and you'll be happy as you won't have to clear up thousands of pine needles. Leave it in the pot, well watered throughout the year, and you won't find yourself with a 40ft tree outside your back door in ten years time but will be ready when christmas comes round again.

• Let your garden have a holiday. Don't go mad sweeping up leaves and tidying the garden. If you've done a bit of pruning or have logs for the woodpile, great. Leave them in a heap for hibernating hedgehogs, if you're lucky enough to have them. Ladybirds and other beneficial insects like bees need somewhere sheltered and safe to over-winter and will still be in your garden in spring if they find a welcome there in winter and nectar when they wake up. Birds too need food and water. I like the look of these apple decorations but would hang them outside for the birds rather than indoors.  And put out home-made fat balls, recipe from Fiona at The Cottage Smallholder.

Image from my Pinterest page.
• Embrace the great outdoors. Wrap up and get outside to breathe fresh air! Look around and see the potential in found objects. Take a leaf out of my book (not literally, I need them for my collages!) and take a bag with you to collect interesting finds. (I have to warn you, this becomes a very addictive hobby!)

Acorn babies!  Decorated rakes! Loving Pinterest at the mo … 

• Take time out from festive fussing. Make decorations and cards from your found objects. Relaxing, therapeutic, calming - and, for kids, you could even work in a bit of anti-consumerism through baking and craft. (You see what an optimist I am?)

Images from my Pinterest 'Christmas Garden' page but … loving those candles tucked into hagstones! 

• Connect. Next Saturday is the Winter Solstice. (Interesting Yule facts and the story of mistletoe through the Solstice link.)  It's a day that I always observe with quiet contemplation as the world starts to turn towards spring and renewed life. The days will start, imperceptably, to get longer; we may not notice but the plants will.  It's a day to connect with nature, neighbours and family - perhaps over tea and cake.

• Dream.  Look over the bare bones of your garden and plan for next year.  I love this time of year for looking through catalogues, reading gardening books and visiting public gardens - the structure of the garden without its summer dressing is revealed and there's a lot to be learned from that.

• Decorate your garden!  Bare branches of trees are perfect for adding ribbons, nut or fruit garlands, stars cut from recycled milk containers or, if you have time, laminate little messages of hopes, wishes  and thanks for the year ahead and the year behind us and hang them up with pretty ribbons.

I hope that this post will inspire people; if I have time, I'll post about the crafts I make … and don't forget the competition!

There are fairies in the garden!
Seen at Capel: Mushrooms and fairies in the garden!

14 Dec 2013

Capel Moments .. A winter's day

Dew-berries Capel
Surreal: so still that the droplets of thawed frost just hung there - not one of these fell!

The icy fingers of Jack Frost have not yet touched the veg patch garden so I was super excited on my drive up to Enfield yesterday to see frosted allotments at the side of the road as I knew this meant it would be proper frosty in the gardens at college, at least at the start of the day.  Crystallised plants have a novel beauty at the beginning of the winter and I wasn't disappointed.

Frosted rose.

Proper frosty. Frozen grasses.

By lunchtime, a light mist and perfect stillness hung over the grounds; so peaceful in the walled garden, it was hard to believe that the traffic of the M25 was zooming around the north perimeter of the college.  A pale winter's sun added to the ambience and made it a perfect day for a lunchtime walk. (That's when the berries were photographed.)  I thought that would be the end of my photo opportunities but by 4 pm, the end of the college day, one last treat lay in store - a low lying mist hovered a few feet off the ground at sunset. I just managed to grab a few shots with my iphone before dark settled. (And wished, not for the first time that day, that I'd thought to bring my proper camera with me!)

Field of mist

Back in the veg patch this morning, it's quite mild but nonetheless I've popped a cloche over a couple of the more tender herbs. I say 'cloche' - actually, it's an upturned clear plastic storage box which did the job perfectly through the last year's winter and ensured the vigorous survival of the French Tarragon, a herb widely known for keeling over in the bitter cold. Herbs that need protecting in my garden are lovage, blackcurrant sage (still with beautiful bright pink flowers!) and french tarragon.  All the others are tough as old boots and come back year on year without my help: fennel, mint, oregano, horseradish. Flat and curly leaved parsley, lemon thyme and sage are still going strong and being regularly used by me and my neighbours which encourages the plants to keep producing and stay healthy.

And the work goes on: I love being outdoors, particularly this week as I have a heavy cold and feel so much better for being outside! I'm gradually getting more raised beds built and filling them with spring plants and strawberries for now - white violas, polyanthus, saffron crocus and dianthus - all edible flowers that will have lettuce sown into the gaps in late spring.  And the next big push will be to decorate the garden a little bit to mark Christmas and the year end.  More next post.

Going home through evening mist.

22 Nov 2013

Capel Moments: Going, Going ....

We've had some really blustery and cold days this week, yesterday being one of them. I did wonder whether it was just too windy to be able to get any good photos at college this week and, frankly, with the skies being overcast, a Capel Moment was not looking promising.  I was happy to be indoors in the morning,  drawing up garden planting plans in the studio, as it was more than a bit chilly outside. When I looked out of the window at lunchtime, though,  the skies had cleared and fresh air beckoned.

I headed round to the walled garden by the manor house with an ulterior motive of collecting fallen 'quince' fruit from a Chaenomeles shrub but it's also useful to see what's still coping with the weather at this time of year.

There are, of course, masses of shrubs covered in plentiful berries but the veg beds have been cleared ready for spring with only a few leaves and some rhubarb under forcers in evidence.  The roses are still blooming (just) and I was very taken with this pink beauty, especially with all the abundant hips on the same bush.  I'm seeing rose petal and rosehip jelly when I look at this! (But will, of course, leave it for the birds.)

I wandered over to the north wall and saw Chinese Lanterns (Physalis alkekengi) with their bright orange skins turning to lace ...

Not long now before these are just bare twigs in the earth.

But, as a gardener, the moment that really caught my eye was the barrow piled with seasonal tools and boxes of bulbs waiting to be planted - the morning's work finished and the afternoon's work still to come.  I didn't see anyone else about so assume the gardener had nipped back into the warm indoors for a spot of lunch. It's a very comforting thought that as one season slips away, the next is being prepared for.  The work goes on. 

17 Nov 2013

A Capel Moment: Autumn gold

I don't want to jinx future Thursdays but I'm tempted to say that we've been very lucky with having dry weather on the day I go up to college!  It makes getting out for a walk round the grounds so much more pleasant - and, of course, the colours are more vivid for taking photos!

Being indoors more at this time of year really highlights the beauty of autumn when I can get out so I had two Capel moments this week.  On the way back to the design studio after lunch, the sun popped out momentarily to highlight the beech walk (actually, the trees may not be beech, I'll find out)  - I had to tell the others I'd catch them up as I whipped out my phone for this photo! (Yes, I do tend to lean to the right!)

Autumn afternoon

The second moment was during the ident walk.  Last year, without fail, the class went out every week for a 'plant ident walk'; this is a quick stroll around the grounds looking at and discussing that week's chosen eight plants.  Doesn't sound much, does it?  But by the end of the year, we knew - and, more importantly, could identify - over a hundred and forty plants.

This year, studying 'plants and planting' for Garden Design, the ident walks have been increased to learn ten new plants each week. I'm finding that many of these are old friends from last year but a few of my classmates studied elsewhere before so aren't so familiar with the Capel grounds. It makes me realise, yet again, how fortunate I am to study with access to 35 acres of planting. 

This week we were told there would be only eight plants to learn;  as our tutor put it "there's not a lot going on out there".  Excuse me?  How about this:

Autumn colour!

The gold leaves are an Acer palmatum 'Sango-kaku' - even without the red berries (and I have no  idea which leafless shrub they're growing on!) and the ceanothus flower, the Acer is stunning. Of course, it will all be over in a few weeks but Acers are very slow growing trees so for a small garden this would be ideal for a splash of autumn colour.

The above photo was modified slightly by Instagram, even so here's the tree in situ:

Like having a little bit of sunshine in your garden!

12 Nov 2013

Sticks of potential..

Glaskins Perpetual

In between normal weekend routine stuff and rainfall, I managed to squeeze a couple of hours in the veg patch. There's mainly just clearing and tidying now, including putting away bags of compost until next year, emptying and cleaning pots, chopping back herbs that have flopped (and preserving for winter where possible).  All this in preparation for mulching and bulb planting.

So what's all this to do with the rhubarb?  The top herb bed was tidied a week ago (horseradish, a couple of mints, rosemary, fennel) and I'd planned to do the bottom herb bed yesterday - the pineapple sage and lovage had got blown over in the recent storms.  The sage got a stay of execution thanks to its glorious fuchsia pink flower spikes plus I got distracted on the way down the path by the enormous rhubarb.

It's a Glaskins Perpetual which I grew from seed in 2012, in a pot. It survived so, in early spring, I planted it out into the veg patch.  The patch isn't big so I dithered over where to put it (hence why it stayed in its pot for so long), in the end just plonking it into a large space.  It obviously loves where it is (heavily mulched clay soil) and is now enormous. All those big leaves are just the one plant!  Unfortunately it's overhanging the path so it was tidy up time for the rhubarb.

Just one rhubarb plant ...

I've resisted picking any stalks this past year so that the plant could get established. (Leaves were about 3 inches high when planted out.) I haven't grown rhubarb before so I wasn't sure whether the plant died back in winter or got cut down.  I noticed that a few of the bottom stalks needed removing as they'd become brown and a bit mushy.  They pulled away easily which made me think that the whole plant would eventually die back to this state over the next few weeks.  I needed to take a few stems to clear the path anyway; these were originally destined for the compost but my curiosity got the better of me; I hate waste so I decided to chop just the leaves into the compost. The rest was brought up to the kitchen.

Happily, I've also got Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata) growing here; a few chopped leaves added when cooking rhubarb reduces the amount of sugar needed. Although it's coming on for winter, there are new soft leaves on the Cicely so I picked a small bunch of those as well.  I half expected the rhubarb sticks to be inedible, tough, stringy and sour but no, not a bit of it.  Fifteen minutes after getting home, stems washed, chopped, poached with a spoonful of water plus one of sugar and a handful of finely chopped cicely leaves, I had myself a delicious dessert to go with supper.

Now here's the science: All rhubarb has high levels of oxalic acid (poisonous!) in the leaves and roots, less so in the stems; as temperatures become colder, oxalic acid migrates from the leaves back into the stems, making them poisonous to eat. With Glaskin's rhubarb, the oxalic acid levels in the stems stay very low throughout the length of the year so stems can be harvested from early summer through to late autumn.  Thus, it's become known as Glaskin's 'Perpetual'.

I'm not sure it was wise to pick so many stems as a certain amount are needed to build up the root for next year but there are still around half a dozen new little stalks on the plant.  I'll mulch it with well-rotted horse manure over winter (leaving the crown clear).  That should do it.  I may even have to grow another rhubarb plant - I've seen so many yummy sounding recipes!

And a final word of caution:  Never, ever, eat the leaves or root of rhubarb; they're poisonous and will make you feel most unwell!

I bought Glaskins Perpetual seeds from More Veg who supply a range of seeds in small quantities, perfect for the small space grower.

9 Nov 2013

A Capel Moment: Japanese Niwaki Pruning

Cloud pruning in Japanese Garden

There's so much autumn colour around this week but still, on my way to the library, my eye was drawn to the intense red of the Acer japonicum leaves against the red bridge in the Japanese garden.  Moving into the garden for a closer look (and photo!), I was struck by the intense concentration of the gardener carefully pruning and shaping the Juniper into neat layers with one handed shears.

Cloud pruning, as it's become known in the western world. This is when branches of a young tree are trained and cut to resemble cloud layers as it grows. In Japan, pruning (Niwaki) is to enhance the plant and work with nature, often echoing the shapes of the landscape - all traditional Japanese gardens have clipped shrubs or trees but they're not necessarily pruned in cloud layers. It's a style that lends itself very well to English gardens; in my mother's garden, I've pruned and clipped an extremely unruly Forest Flame (Pieris) bush in this style, as well as a Choisya ternata. It's a lovely thing to do and the results are stunning.

I stopped to watch and soon a conversation was struck up. The gardener had initially trained at Capel but then spent time over the years in Kyoto learning the art of Niwaki. In Japan, I was told, it takes years to learn the art of pruning and is taught by having a master gardener as a mentor. We talked a little about Jake Hobson who has mastered this art form and taken it on into 'Ornamental Topiary' to be used in English gardens.  At Capel, small trees in this particular garden are cloud pruned to enhance the Japanese ambience.  Elsewhere in the grounds, ornamental topiary has been used to shape a Cotoneaster lacteus  and Osmanthus x burkwoodii into a mushroom shape. Really eye catching and, of course, small semi-shade loving plants, eg Arum italicum, Geraniums and ferns, can be grown underneath.

But, cloud pruning aside, here's what really caught my eye: the juxtaposition of the brilliantly red Acer leaves next to the glaucous (blue/green) scale needles of the Juniper.  Even on a gloomy, grey skies kind of day, the colour in this planting combination was stunning!

Acer and Juniper

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