18 Feb 2015

Wednesday plant ident

Can anyone help me identify this plant?  I went for a wander in the Regency Garden near to my parents' house on the south coast last Sunday.  Gorgeous sunshine, lots of plants waking up and I even saw my first bumble bee buzzing manically from plant to plant!

The garden was a wreck 20 years ago and has been completely transformed by local gardening volunteers to its current Green Flag status.  The planting design is based on which plants would have been used when it was first built in the early 1800's - hence 'Regency Garden'.

There were so many lovely plants there and a wonderful tranquil atmosphere - even a couple of trees that I may be tree following this year (Monkey Puzzle and Tulip tree).  A few years ago I would have been hard pushed to identify many of the plants and shrubs in this garden but I was relieved to find that my memory was up to naming most of the plants last weekend - except this one.  The oval leaves are about 2 inches long on long branching untidy stems. This shrub stood just over a metre high, in an untidy dome shape.  There's no scent on the leaves - I rubbed them as they reminded me of sage or Salvia but surely it's too early in the year for that.  I feel I should know this plant but it escapes me!

I love the look of these little purple flowers (again, the shape is so familiar) so I'd like to fix in my head what this shrub is.  Wild guesses, positive identification and other suggestions gratefully received!

(I'll be back with more photos from this garden but came away from a busy and quite stressful weekend looking after my parents with a three day headache and haven't felt inclined to sit in front of the computer until now.)

5 Feb 2015

A small winter of dis/content

“A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water.” 
― Carl Reiner (Actor in Ocean's Eleven)

Oh boy, was I happy when I opened the curtains on Tuesday morning to find that a blanket of snow had settled overnight.  Only a thin blanket, mind, so I knew it wouldn't last.

I love the stillness of fresh new snow but I'm not so keen once it's been trampled or the disruption it causes. Luckily I was working from home that day so I popped outside to take a few photos for the blog (as you do) before it all melted.

As Flighty has said in his snowy post, I was expecting to see animal footprints, particularly as I've seen several very bold (and obviously hungry) foxes around in the past week, but there was nothing except pristine clean snow. A few photos and numb fingers later, I headed for home.  It was then, as I retreated back to the warmth of my flat, that I slipped on an icy patch. As I grabbed hold of a rail to steady myself, the sudden movement ripped at a muscle at the top of my arm. Ouch!

Luckily my plants are made of sterner stuff - the broccoli, PSB, kale and even new shoots on the chive plants appear almost waterproof and shrugged off the effects of snow.

By midday the snow had melted away; two days later, the pain in my arm is also easing. I can only hope that's winter over and done with. 

“Winter is nature's way of saying, "Up yours.” 
― Robert Byrne (Author)

27 Jan 2015

"Pruners learn by pruning"

Pear harvest, 2014. Not to scale! 

Pruning has a reputation for being scary, right? It makes new gardeners nervous because of the very real possibility that a tree or shrub can be pruned into non-fruiting, non-flowering or, worst of all, non-existence.  I love a bit of pruning, everything looks tidier afterwards but I have to remember that I'm no expert and have a tendency to be a tad over-enthusiastic with the snippers. As such, I'm always open to any tips which will increase my knowledge (and therefore confidence) in how to do this job properly to benefit the plant, especially where my fruit trees are concerned.

My pear trees have been on my mind because so far in their short lives (six years), they've yet to bear fruit. They're Conference pears and although they're self-fertile, I have two of them for better pollination.  Last year there was lots of blossom, lots of bees, lots of teeny tiny fruit and then the slow realisation that they'd all fallen off. I did find a solitary two inch long fruit that had fallen from the tree in high winds midsummer but that was it for 2014.

The pear trees in the veg patch garden were one year old bare root whips on a 'semi-dwarfing' Quince C rootstock when we planted them in December 2009.  I knew very little about pruning and believed that the rootstock would limit the trees to what I then thought was an acceptable 3 metres tall (around 10 feet).  I also thought they were supposed to fruit within 3 to 4 years.  Well, time has proved me wrong.

Fruit trees in March 2014 - plums nearest, then apples, then pears. 

The height of the trees now makes me think that we've planted them too close together, fitting 8 fruit trees into a 35 ft long border.  The intention had been to plant 4 of each variety (pear, plum, apple, cherry) in the border with a matching border on the other side of the garden.  Biting winds and a lack of time changed our plans and all 8 went in together.  Last summer I looked at the dense canopy of the plum and pear trees (no fruit on either) and had recurring thoughts about chopping down one of each tree to open things up.

Luckily a Plan B has emerged in the shape of a few videos and book recently reviewed on Emma Cooper's blog - Grow a Little Fruit Tree by Ann Ralph.  I immediately bought a copy and read it within the next couple of days. I've also watched You Tube videos (links below) by Paul Gautschi (reknowned for being a master arborist in his Back to Eden garden in the USA) and Bill Merrill, a Californian edible landscape gardener.  All these people believe in keeping their trees to a manageable height (no more than six feet) for ease of pruning and fruit picking. Apple branches are pruned to grow outward, so that no branch shadows another, or down because horizontal branches crop more heavily. Pear centres are opened up - as Bill Merrill says "So the little birdies can fly through the middle" (possibly where I've been going wrong) and they've found that their trees still give a good crop but without having to persuade neighbours to take the excess after making industrial quantities of preserves.

Braeburn apples last summer. This is a spur bearing tree  with the apples hanging from near horizontal branches.
Pruning will promote spur growth. 

The book's author, Ann Ralph, believes pruning should be done twice a year - around the winter solstice for growth and the summer solstice for shaping.  The theory goes that in late winter the tree is ready to break dormancy with the energy going up the trunk and into the limbs. By late summer the energy is directed downwards, back into the roots, as the tree prepares for winter dormancy again.  Winter pruning stimulates growth, pushing the tree's energy out into the remaining limbs. Summer pruning does not have this effect and is done to shape the tree aesthetically and to manage fruit production.

It all sounds so plausible and logical. Also, there are lines in her book which really resonate with me:
Fruit tree pruning […] is less of a science and more of a conversation. You prune, the tree answers, you prune again.
We're not talking chit-chat here but cause and effect. This reminds me of the Chelsea Chop, which is timed to promote vigorous and healthy growth for the flower show, and deadheading in our own gardens to prolong flowering.  All plants will respond to the attention that we give them.

On the subject of rootstocks (remember my pear trees are on semi-dwarfing rootstocks), Ann writes:
Semidwarf means only "smaller than standard". If a full-size tree is thirty feet tall, then a semidwarf might grow to be as high as twenty-five feet.  
Yikes.  This is a comment well-aimed at urban and small garden growers. Big trees will block the light; smaller trees are more suited to a domestic garden. And the smaller the tree, the more can be fitted into the garden, increasing the varieties that can be grown by an individual. There's also the more practical aspect of reaching the fruit on a tall tree.  I'm 5'2" - how am I going to pick fruit at the top of a 15 foot tree? I won't. It will fall to the ground and rot.

There's a little voice in my head reminding me of air-borne diseases and other reasons why we're advised to prune when we do (stone fruit in summer, pomes in winter) but I can't help being swayed by these arguments.  I'm going to give it a go. In fact, I started on my apple trees last weekend, taking a more considered approach than before.  (Winter pruning lets you see the shape of the tree clearly.) The pears are next, an altogether more daunting prospect given their height.  The proof will be in the pudding - hopefully, pear pie and apple crumble! - this coming summer. (Or maybe next.)

Apple trees before pruning: leaning together, tangled branches.

And after pruning: One main leader stem and strong branches not touching.

And any mistakes that I may make can be corrected in the next prune and will only help to improve my experience. The title of this post is a quote taken from the book; it will be true whatever the outcome.

You Tube: Worst case and best case pear tree pruning by Bill Merrill (GreenGardenGuy)
You Tube: How to prune apple trees by Paul Gautschi (Back to Eden)

PS.  I'm sending my thanks to Erin at Organic Gardening in Sidney (Canada) for sharing the Back to Eden pruning video on her blog which is where I first saw it some time back. Thank you, Erin!

22 Jan 2015

Scents and sensibility

(Now there's a title that's been trotted out more than once in blogland, I'll wager.)

(I don't need to tell you this is Honeysuckle, do I?)

In the winter months, while waiting for the garden to wake up, there's something really special about the scent of flowers on the breeze or in the still of an evening. It's there to attract pollinators and is particularly helpful to bumblebees who start to wake up in January and need to stock up their food reserves.

I've been thinking about scent in the garden since being asked to advise on a bare patch of earth destined to become a front garden. The client is a florist who wants her garden to be welcoming and uplifting whether viewed from the street or indoors. So my recommendations will encompass scent, colour, movement and seasonal interest.  I then read that Sue, author of Backlane Notebook blog, and Louise 'Wellywoman' Curley were proposing a monthly round up post of the scent in our gardens. Open to all, join in! Wellywoman's first post is here.

I headed outside to see what was scenting the air locally.  There are two stands of Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn' in the gardens here - a shrub well-known for its subtle scent and pretty flower clusters in the middle of winter. I say "subtle" but at times I've been able to get a whiff from a good five paces away.

Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn'

There's also some ancient honeysuckle snaking through an overgrown Hebe - I think it's Japanese honeysuckle which is supposed to flower in summer but I found a few blossoms among the evergreen leaves and quickly snipped those for a vase indoors. They're wilting after five days but even now I can catch a whiff as I walk past.

But an unusual winter niff, at least from these gardens, is from Petasites fragrans.  Popularly known as Winter Heliotrope and related to Sweet Coltsfoot and Butterburr, it's more commonly found on roadsides and woodland verges. It's perennial and non-native, being introduced to the UK as a garden plant back in 1806 when George III was still our monarch. By 1835, it had escaped from gardens into the wild.  I only found out what it was last year thanks to an article in the RHS magazine on scented winter flowers.

The flower spikes are about ten inches high and only really look good for a few days but get up close, or pick a few for a small vase, and their sweet scent is revealed.  I've read that they smell like vanilla or honey.  As a keen baker, I have to disagree - to me, they smell sweet, like baby talc.  If the colour soft pink had a smell, this would be it.

But that's it - its one and only season of interest. In these gardens, the flower spikes start to appear in late December and the flowers - small tubular clusters - show up in early January.  The leaves are soft, bright green and shaped like lily pads but even those will be blackened or mottled by a sharp frost. The plant spreads by underground rhizomatous roots and there's my problem.  It's quietly invasive and hard to get rid of except with some determination and a lot of digging.

It dominates one of the raised borders here and is earmarked to go. So far it's been left alone because it provides dense ground cover until I'm ready to use the space but I've noticed that it's spread along under the Hebe where it usefully grows in shade. I suspect it's providing cover for a host of over wintering bugs and bumbles so I'll relocate some when (or if) I dig it up.  It would make a good alternative to ivy in a lightly shaded garden, I think, but it grows to the detriment of other plants nearby.

I think I mentioned that it spreads easily …  

I have no idea why it's growing in the gardens here - I can't imagine anyone deliberately choosing to plant it and I'm fairly certain you can't buy it - but it does provide a rich source of early nectar for bumblebees.  Because bumbles are warm-blooded they can fly in cooler winter temperatures (unlike the honeybee) so an early source of food for them is vital - especially if you want your veg pollinated in due course. They can fly up to six miles from the nest site so it's in the gardener's best interest to ensure they stick around by providing a good source of nectar.  In her book 'The Natural Gardener', Val Bourne says that they have a preference for tubular flowers - foxgloves, aconitums and nepetas being their favourites.  It seems that Petasites might be more friend than foe.

PS. Don't think my search for winter scent stopped at home; next up, Daphne bholua and the winter walk at Wisley.

2 Jan 2015

2015: A graceful New Year

~ Frosted Purple Sprouting broccoli in the Veg Patch 30th December 2014 ~

Having my face slapped about with two days of face-chilling frost was the absolute best finale to 2014.  That bitingly crisp freshness coupled with clear bright blue skies felt like the perfect wintry pause between one good year and the next.  Am I being optimistic?  Yes! Always. But there is definitely a sense of confidence in the air for 2015 - I guess a good year will do that. Other blogs are buzzing with gardening plans and hopes for the coming year - trips, garden visits, seeds to be sown. Here, too, I hope to build on 2014.  Every year of gardening brings fresh insights and knowledge; I've got winter veg growing again - kale, broccoli, cavalo nero, spinach. The microclimate induced by growing between two blocks of flats means that I still have parsley, mint (just), thyme, sage; my cape gooseberry has lots of green lanterned fruit which I hope will ripen early next year.  I know to watch out for rosemary beetle (my plants are looking very ragged) and to grow my tomatoes in a line, not a cluster. This year I'm determined to make space for cut flowers so I need to re-evaluate the space.  Last year there was a new flush of estate children who declared an interest in joining in and learning so space will have to be found for each child to have a little patch to call their own.  It's all possible but first I have to move some plants and draw up some plans and now is the perfect time to do it.

So, here we go! 2015 already.  Both in the past and this year, I've read other blogs choosing a symbolic word for the year. Previously I haven't been able to single out one particular word that might be meaningful to me but as I reflect on the past year I realise that it was a year made special by the people I encountered.  Some of those I met through social media, some have become familiar to me through this blog, some are from my local community, some from college and others are long standing friends.  All of those people, to my way of thinking, embody my word for 2015 and the touchstone which I'll strive to carry forward with me:

It's a lovely word with nuanced meaning; my favourites are to have poise, decency, respect, generosity, kindness, to enhance, to favour and to enrich.  All qualities which I feel I've been on the receiving end of, certainly through comments and meetings. So when I next find life getting a tad annoying, I hope to take note of this one word, pause (give myself a moment's grace) and respond in a gracious manner. I'm not one for any horoscope malarkey but I do have one or two of the Aries attributes and I swear one of my Irish ancestors must have kissed the Blarney Stone more than once!

The frost had gone by the morning of New Year's Day but I wanted to use one of my frosty veg patch photos to greet the New Year in.  I kept thinking that the photo reminded me of something and, look, there it is - a Union Jack, brassica style.  How very British!

So after a quiet and relaxing Christmas and New Year which suited me very well, I'm now looking forward to 2015 and wish everyone a productive and successful New Year! 

My first snowdrop (ever) is almost out! 

25 Dec 2014

God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen (and women)

Finally, we're there. Christmas Day. For the next 24 hours I can put my feet up.  Sort of. The winter solstice, my favourite landmark day for the inherent optimism it brings, has passed; now we're at the start of winter, the days will start to get ever-so-slowly longer, brighter and, eventually, warmer.  I've had enough of putting the lights on indoors at half-two in the afternoon.  No wonder plants struggle.

So, onwards to the bleak midwinter. It's one of the UK's little ironies that just as we feel we're into a new year with Spring to look forward to, the weather can suddenly plummet into minus temperatures.  I'm ready. I have a new woolly hat and toasty sheepskin lined gardening boots.  Nothing like 'being prepared'.  (And, no, I was never a Girl Guide. Missed opportunity there, I think.)  Dare I say that, here in London, signs are good for another mildish winter like last year?  Hopefully without the wind and slightly less rain.

I've had a severe cold for the past week - the sort that gives you a temperature and sore throat, makes you ache all over, cough, sneeze, sniffle and generally be entirely unappealing to visitors.  Lots of hand washing has been taking place as I prepare for the big lunch today.  I'm quite proud of myself having put together a Charlotte Russe late last night, enduring through the fog of a head cold. It's one of those popular-in-the 70's retro puds that my mum used to make involving jelly, mandarin oranges, savoiardi biscuits (aka sponge fingers) and loads of cream and eggs. (Sensible eating will resume shortly.) It's one of my son's favourite puds and a complete faff to make although very delicious. Now all I have to do is turn it out of the mould in one piece and I shall be the (self-styled) Queen of the Kitchen.

Added afterwards, as requested!  
Here's what's left of it the Charlotte Russe - it was enjoyed immensely, despite colds.

Apologies for the lack of a post about wreath making - I've been feeling too wretched to think about taking photos.  I will do a post though as - to paraphrase - a wreath is not just for Christmas.  On my wanders I've seen some gorgeous flowerheads, foliage and seedpods which has made me think about making a wreath a permanent but seasonal feature in my home. It's a good way of keeping your eyes open and really noticing what the changing seasons are doing.

Sage, bay, juniper, lonicera, ivy, hebe, clematis seedheads, pine cones.

But for now, I'm going to wish all you lovely people the best of the season - with many, many thanks for coming back time and again to read and comment on my posts.

Happy Christmas and a fabulously productive 2015!

Caro xx

15 Dec 2014

Sneaking up on Christmas

Here's one for a tiny reindeer. 

Let's see now, what have I been up to? Well, I confess there's been very little gardening and even less blogging. I did take photos for the end of month records but then went away for a couple of weekends to visit family so lost the opportunity to post. Until now.  No, despite the glaring omission of a festive tree in my life (so far), I've been sidling in a most casual way towards Christmas. As I embrace a simple-ish life for most of the year, I don't see why Christmas should be different. This is partly for financial reasons but also I'm just fed up with excess consumerism and I refuse to lay my soul bare to seasonal stresses. It used to be different when I was younger (didn't everything?); there was less emphasis on presents, parties and dressing up for the big day and more focus on family, community and creativity - decorations went up at the beginning of December with the excitement and jollifications building up on Christmas Eve, not Hallowe'en.

Just yesterday, I put aside all pressing tasks and hopped off to a morning of outdoor festive willow weaving down in Covent Garden's Green Gym. (More about that later.) I had a lovely time, met some super people, made a door wreath out of natural materials and then wandered down to Covent Garden shops to buy some sketchpads (love Muji). All I could see as I gazed down Long Acre towards Leicester Square tube was a sea of slowly moving people, ebbing in and out of the shops. The streets were heaving with people moving about in a very lacklustre fashion to get their gift buying done. A fair few looked desperate, more looked bored or resigned (husbands, sons) and me?, well I took a deep breath, stayed calm and moved quickly towards the tube station after having made my purchases.

Compare that to last weekend when I drove to Oxfordshire to join family for a day of foraging and wreath making (this time with a foam core). We all went for a long muddy walk to gather supplies from the hedgerows, listening to the local steam train puffing along the line a few hundred yards away while Red kite birds of prey flew overhead; twenty five years ago, they were an endangered species and now it's estimated there are over a thousand pairs in the Chilterns area. It's quite the thrilling sight.

Rosy cheeked from our brisk walk, we headed home past another of the steam trains setting off (this time being pulled backwards by a diesel locomotive), to a bowl of home-made soup and an afternoon of pushing stems, berries and faux robins into foam. I was the last to finish by a great many minutes which has left me wondering over the past week whether I'm perhaps embracing life in the slow lane a little too enthusiastically.

Still, that mindset has stood me in good stead for a bit of bread making. I love it on two counts - one, the rhythm of stretching out the dough is very relaxing, especially with Radio 4 on in the background; two, it tastes so much nicer than anything bought in the supermarket and you can choose the flour/s you want to eat. A wholemeal spelt/wheat/rye combo is my current favourite, although this one is white flour, maize meal, honey, hazelnuts and cranberries. My nod to a festive loaf.

Mince pies have also made an appearance. I made my mincemeat in late October when plums were still plentiful and used a River Cottage recipe for Plum and Russet Apple mincemeat. Of course, there's no actual meat in it - no, not even any suet so perfect for vegetarians. It's all cooked dried and fresh fruit with walnuts and a good slosh of sloe gin/vodka. So good, I could eat it from the jar. I took a jar for my niece on the previous weekend when I went to babysit and ended up staying for the weekend to make felt animals for the Christmas tree. (And Barbie outfits.) It wasn't all foxes but these are the first we made - aren't they cute? Love that my niece's 8 year old made one in ten minutes flat. Good girl. Chip off the old creative block.

Cake, coffee and creativity; just about sums up my weekend perfectly.

Last Thursday I had a surprise package.  I was grumbling slightly as I had to collect it from the sorting office on a busy day and had no idea what it was.  I soon had a smile on my face when I opened it as Green Books had sent me a copy of One Magic Square for review.  I'm hoping to get more children involved with the gardening next year and I think this book may have more than a few ideas to help with that as that's what they'll have to garden with - one magic raised bed each.

So, that's me for now. The next few posts will be book reviews and a bit of wreath making how-to, so let's have a quick look at the garden in December. We've had only one real ground frost, not even severe enough to see off my nasturtiums. So while there's only a few bits of veg in the garden (broccoli, spring onions, a bit of lettuce,  herbs), there's also a few splashes of colour and even, unbelievably, a few last raspberries in the first week of December from the Polka bushes. Amazing. And the rhubarb can't decide whether it's coming or going.

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