Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Following a tree in April

Well I am beginning to wonder whether I chose the right tree.  I can't say my rowan is doing very much.  All the other trees on Lucy's tree following blog seem to be making a bit more of a stir.

There is the very slightest swelling of the buds but this particular tree remains very determinedly bare.

At its feet the celandines are shining and the grass is growing.

The badger path which runs beside the tree and under the fence into the next field is becoming well worn.  I wonder how many badgers are using it?  I must ask Ian to set up the wildlife camera over night up here so we can see.

I am blaming the badgers for the fact that these daffodils have had their tops and flowers nibbled off.  I am not sure if badgers do have a weakness for daffodils and certainly most of ours seem to have survived unscathed but these are right next to the path - perhaps just too much temptation, like a piece of chocolate left on the worktop.

There is much new growth to be found in other parts of the garden.  I knew the bottom of the field was more sheltered than the top where my rowan stands by the shepherd's hut.  The huge hollies take the wind from the hut but the whole top boundary is more exposed than the bottom one.

Quite how much more sheltered I only realised when I wandered down to look at the native tree bed, trying to ignore quite how much grass has invaded it.  Any part of the field which I am trying to garden is always trying to go back to being field.   I was astonished to find that the rowan down here, which I believe to be the same native variety, is already in full, delicate leaf.

The bottom of the field is sheltered from the prevailing wind by a small group of trees on the other side of the hedge and by the lie of the land and that shelter is clearly enough to let the tree down here burst into leaf well ahead of its sister.  You can see the line of the trees along the top edge of the field behind the rowan.  They are about fifty metres from the rowan and up a gentle slope.

I couldn't resist seeing what else was in leaf or flower.  For the last week the countryside all around here has been greening: grass, hedges are suddenly bursting into growth and trees into blossom.

The damson tree, a proper little tree now, four years after planting, is a mass of white flower.  Last year the bitter cold struck just as the tree was in blossom.  Four damsons I think there were when the crop ripened, compared with buckets full the year before.

And all along the mixed hedge we planted there is leaf and blossom.  Next month surely my tree will be in leaf.  Here it is last month when it first appeared on the blog.  Now off to post my link on Lucy's blog.  Such a great idea!

Friday, 4 April 2014

Perennial starter plants

If you have been reading this blog for a while you may remember that last year I reviewed a variety of plants from Plant me Now, an online plant nursery.  The plants were always well grown and everything I had from them last year  has survived really well so I was very pleased to be asked to review some perennials for them this spring.

I am on a bit of a mission to increase the number of perennials in my cutting garden.  I have so far relied heavily on annuals and grown most of them from seed.  This is fine when you have the time and attention to devote to seed raising but this year is not the year for that.  I can pretty much guarantee that if I disappear down to Devon  every couple of weeks for a few days things will die and I can do without that.  The garden has to sustain me this year and not be too hard work.  It has to be somewhere that restores and recharges my batteries (is that possible?  not looking too likely just now with the march of the creeping buttercup and the return of the monster bindweed.)  Anyway, I digress.

I love echinacea, its a great favourite with pollinating insects and it works really well as a cut flower so I decided to devote one whole square of the patchwork which is the cutting garden to echinacea.

As before the plants are sturdy and well grown with good root systems.  Some came as starter plants in these square pots and these will be potted on in a couple of weeks.  Some came as plug plants and these I potted up into square pots as soon as they arrrived.  I will grow everything on in the greenhouse for another few weeks and put them out when they have a hope of being big enough to survive marauding slugs.

I have chosen four varieties of echinacea:

Double scoop cranberry
Pow wow white
Pow wow wild berry

Sombrero Lemon yellow

These are all images from plant me now.  I rarely use double flowers but I really liked the shade of the double scoop.  I am hoping that there will be so many flowers which are readily accessible to pollinators that I can indulge myself.

I have also received some gaillardia and some monarda bergamo.

monarda bergamo

It is the attention to detail that I like about plant me now.  The packaging is sturdy and efficient and I have never had a delivery which has been in any way damaged.  All the labels are clear and they can be transferred from the original packaging to my new square pots very easily.  The plants don't appear to be grown too "soft".  They are not floppy and sappy and over large so that they collapse and sulk when they arrive in my coldish greenhouse up here on the hill.

Now I really must dig over the cutting garden and put lots of compost on to give everything the best start in life.  I try not to have to feed constantly but conditions here are not that easy and it really helps to give everything a good start.  It also helps if plants go in reasonably small and grow to maturity in our stony soil.

I am dreaming of a long hot summer like last year's, with bees on the monarda, clouds of butterflies and a rug under the sycamore tree.

Do you have any other suggestions for a more perennially focussed cutting garden?  I already have lupins, rudbeckia and achillea and I always grow a lot of dahlias.  I suspect I need more foliage plants but am a bit stumped as to what will really earn its keep.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

March: the lion and the lamb

The end of March.  The clocks have gone forward  Surely, surely it must be spring.

"March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb."  I have always loved that saying but this year and last it has not proved true.  Last year here in North Wales March went out with the cold savagery of a snow tiger.  We had ten foot high snow drifts and many farmers lost sheep and lambs in staggering numbers to the devastating spring snowstorms which come only once in a generation.  This year the lamblike part of March was in the first part of the month with sunshine, warm temperatures and gentle breezes which made the daffodils open in a great yellow rush down the hill under the fruit trees.

I love these little Tenby daffodils, narcissus obvallaris,  and they are naturalising busily now.  They are small in scale with a jaunty, upright stance, perhaps less graceful than the pseudonarcissus which were Wordworth's daffodils but gloriously happy somehow.

These are pseudonarcissus with February Gold behind them.  There are plenty more to come which are not yet in flower: creamy white Thalia, scented Sweetness and the Pheasant's Eye, narcissus poeticus.  I try to have daffodils in flower for about three months, from late February through March and April and into early May.

And now March is ending with a warm breeze and hazy sunshine.

The damson tree is in flower as is the blackthorn in the mixed hedge we planted.

In the side garden the tiny little tulip greigii which I love are popping up all over the place and the pulmonaria is humming with bees.

I am sure there were bees on this when I took the photo!  Oh well.

We have had our older son and daughter in law staying for the weekend.  I was surprised by a lovely card and present for Mother's Day.  We are not great ones for celebrating special days in our family.  Ian and I never buy each other anything for Valentine's Day.  Mothers' Day and Fathers' Day generally pass unnoticed.   I rarely sent a card to my mother and rarely receive them from my children and step children.  We can even forget birthdays without anybody minding which must seem unutterably odd to those who notice and celebrate and mind.  It is just our way.  My mother knew I loved her and I know my children and stepchildren love me but it was unexpectedly lovely to have a card and thoughtful presents from my stepson and one from my daughter.  I was deeply touched and for a moment my throat was thick with tears.  It takes me like this at the moment.  When Ian and I were walking the other day we passed a florist's crammed with flowers for Mothers' Day.  It must have been the scent.  Supermarkets have been full of things for Mothers' Day and that has left me quite unmoved but the cool damp scent of narcissus caught me unawares and the loss of my mother welled up in a second and turned my insides to water.

Tomorrow older daughter and her four year old son are coming to stay for a few days.  There will be more noise and laughter and young energy rushing around the house and meals to be shared with younger daughter and her fiance.  My concern for my father walks with me and haunts my nights but here we are: the sun shines, the daffodils blow, life goes on.  Thank heavens for family and food and springtime, the love you give and the love you receive.

There are tadpoles in the pond.   Joseph will like that.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Knitting as memory

Last year we had a precious few days away in the Outer Hebrides.  I had wanted to go for years.  We hired a campervan and drove and ferried and kept on driving to the edge of the world.

It was a special snatched few days of sun and wind and the simple, slightly uncomfortable but ultimately calming life that is life in a van, away from home, with nothing to do but look and listen and walk and read and eat.  I have almost lost it now, under the huge tides of this winter with my mother's death and my father's illness and the care of my father in law and the flood of need.  Almost but not quite.

While we were away I bought some wool from the Hebridean Woolshed, handspun fine Merino in the colours of the seas around South Uist.

Here it is far away from home on my kitchen table in Wales.  I was going to make a cowl with it but after a couple of false starts I decided I wanted to have a go at doing something of my own, not a pattern or a design made by someone else but something or other that would be wholly mine, something that would remind me of South Uist and Berneray and Eriskay.  This is quite a big deal for me.  I know that the world of blogs is full of creative people making and dreaming and producing everything from the twee through the astonishingly accomplished to textile pieces which are as much art as a sketch or a painting or a sculpture. I am not one of them.  My skills, such as they are,  are academic or intellectual ones: skills with words or numbers or analysis.  I enjoy practical things too and I have quite deliberately explored the satisfactions of using my hands  since I gave up my job, looking to use the bits of me that were put to one side when all my time was eaten up by work.  I can cook and sew and garden and knit but my skills at all of those things are competencies, life skills in the long tradition of women's work.  There are better cooks and knitters and gardeners amongst my acquaintance,  friends and family and there are worse ones too.  I am competent, that is all, and I enjoy being competent and using my hands and making things.

What I have never really done is anything creative, unless you call trying to weave a good life out of the everyday creative.  Perhaps the most creative thing is what I am attempting to do with my garden but just now the space is too big and my time and energy are too small for me to be able to engage with it on the scale it requires.  I don't know what made me want to make this wool into something more wholly mine but I did.

I decided to make a cushion because this would allow me to treat one side as an image, something to be looked at rather than something to be worn.  I knew I wanted to use the colours of the wool to recreate for myself the sense of the Hebrides.  It couldn't be a picture.  It would somehow have to be something that represented the islands, even if it meant nothing to anyone but me.

I messed about.  Finally I came up with something which reminded me of the waves of the sea.

Somehow I wanted sea and sky and wind and stillness.

You can see that this was in January because son and daughter in law's lovely dog was still with us.  By then I had decided I had the sea and the sky.

The reverse of the cushion uses garter stitch, perhaps another version of the sea.  I swatched and knitted and measured and sometimes gave it up and sometimes sat with it by the fire.

Each piece was finished with a row of single crochet, followed by a row of double crochet to make something with the echo of a frame.

The two pieces were then joined using single crochet and here it is.

I do completely love it.  I love the fact that it is so entirely mine.

In a world of mass production I love the fact that I have something that is unique, something that means something to me and into which I have poured hours of thinking and working and trying and starting again and seeing it come to life under my hands.  I love the fact that it feels good and looks just as I want it to.

Generally when I make things I am very aware of the flaws and the places where, if I were doing it again, I might do something a little differently, a little better.  Somehow I can't feel like that about this cushion.  I don't mean that I am entirely satisfied with it.  How would you ever learn if you were entirely satisfied?  But it makes me happy.  Out of a beautiful material and a beautiful place I have created an item with meaning and memory knitted into it over a long and difficult winter.  It makes me feel something of the calm I felt when we walked the beaches of the Hebrides.

Whatever it does to others, it sings to me.

Monday, 10 March 2014

I'm following a tree

Encouraged by Lucy from Loose and Leafy I am joining in with a group of people following a tree for a year. Now I have to be honest and admit that I started this last year but somehow lost interest quite quickly. Shameful I know.  Last year's tree was a horse chestnut and while it excited me mightily in spring, it then spent a lot of time in the summer looking pretty much the same.  I suspect this assessment is more to do with my failing to look closely enough at what was going on than with any lack on the part of the tree.

This year I wandered about looking at trees and waiting for one to choose me.  I love the really big trees by the house.

I considered both of these, the sycamore by the drive and the yew by the house.  Somehow they were just too big.  I felt I was not up to the challenge of doing them justice and also they are so damn high.  There would be worlds of life up there that I wouldn't know anything about, however carefully I photographed them every month from the ground.

I wondered about the Howgate Wonder apple tree in the field which has a lovely spreading shape and an astonishing yearly crop of huge round apples.  I contemplated a walnut (too late coming into leaf if I wanted my readers to keep awake), a crab apple (new and beautiful but very small) and a blackthorn (might get cut to shreds by the thorns if I got too close).

Walking around the field it struck me that the rowan in the boundary hedge next to the shepherd's hut would be perfect.  Not too big, right outside the window when I am working in there so not easy to forget or ignore and I knew the tree was full of bird life because I watch chaffinches and sparrows and a little wren come and go when I am at my desk.

So here is my tree.  She is multistemmed and graceful.  The little path you see to her left, disappearing towards the fence, is the badger track where they come in at night from the neighbouring field.

Right behind the tree the animal track dips beneath the fence, just large enough for a small dog or a badger to get through.

You can see where Ian took one or two of the lower branches off the tree so that they would not scrape against the shepherd's hut.  You can also see that the tree shares this corner of the field with a tiny self sown yew tree and, on the other side of the chestnut palings, a three big holly trees.  Interestingly all of these trees are associated in folklore with protection.  Holly trees in fields and near houses were said to protect against lightning strikes and when a branch was cut and brought into the house it protected against malevolent fairies, or at the very least helped humans and fairies to rub along together without the humans inadvertently causing offence.  In most parts of the country farmers did not uproot holly trees and indeed our neighbouring farmers here in North Wales leave them and generally do not cut the hollies when the rest of the hedges are trimmed. Yew trees were symbolic of death and regeneration in Celtic myth, presumably owing to their incredible longevity, and churches were built in places where yew trees were already growing as the Christian church appropriated that symbolism for its own purposes.  Rowans were believed to be protective against witchcraft, a belief found throughout England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland.  The Welsh for a rowan tree is cerddinen, pronounced ker-thin-nen, and it is a feminine noun, as most tree names are in Welsh.  I had never noticed before how the trees which curve around the hut protect us from all sorts of harm.  The hollies certainly protect from wind when it is in the North.

The bark is mottled with lichens and has a faint sheen to it.

There are no buds yet on the bare branches.  Rowan does not come into leaf early. Around here it is usually after the elder, hawthorn and horse chestnut but before the oak and the ash so I would expect it to leaf some time in mid to late April.  I am really looking forward to seeing the tree change with the seasons and to reading about others' trees.  How poor the world would be without trees in it.

Friday, 28 February 2014

The Year in Books - February

I came rather late to The Year in Books, hosted by Laura at Circle of Pines.  So my January book, "Miss Pettigrew lives for a Day", was reviewed in February.  This time I am running to catch up and hope to sneak my February book in just under the wire on the last day of the month.

There are all sorts of contenders for the book of the month this time.  I have read Louise Doughty's "Apple Tree Yard" for my new book club choice and "The Language of Flowers"by Vanessa Diffenbaugh.  I have also reread two books by Mary Stewart, "Airs above the Ground" and "This Rough Magic".  None of this is heavy stuff and I have enjoyed all of it, particularly coming back after many years to Mary Stewart's thrillers written in the 1950s and 60s and just bristling with intelligent, period charm.  Thanks so much to Chris of Home Thoughts Weekly for reminding me of these.  They are just exactly what you need for a burst of pacy, well written and intelligently plotted escapism.

I have plumped in the end though for another form of escapism, "Summer at Fairacre" by Miss Read.  I used to see the Miss Read books on my mother's bookshelves and to be honest I was always a bit snooty about them.  I imagined they were soft centred, sentimental light reading,  a Hallmark card in book form.  I should have known better.  Mum could not abide sentimentality and she was a great one for getting rid of things.   If a book was on her shelf it must have earned its place.  So a few months ago I picked the first one up, mainly because I was looking for something easy, Ovaltine for the brain.  Wrong.  While no-one could say they are heavy weight literature and they certainly do offer an escape into a simpler world, pap they are not.

The Miss Read books were written by Dora Saint and purport to be the diaries of a middle aged spinster school teacher who lives and works in a small, two teacher school in the village of Fairacre, somewhere high on the Downs in the South of England.   Miss Read is clearsighted, acerbic, compassionate and self sufficient.  She loves her single life and the children she teaches.  She is a sharp observer of human nature with a fine line in gentle wit.  She is also a lover of the natural world and her descriptions of her village in its changing seasons are superb.  There is nostalgia in these books no doubt, partly simply the reader's nostalgia for a simpler life and our own schooldays.  Many of the books were written in the 1960s about a life which even then was beginning to disappear as village schools closed, village life changed and villages became dormitories for those who worked in towns and cities.  Miss Read herself does not look at life in the countryside through rose tinted glasses.  She sees hardship and poverty in the cottages with roses around the door.  But she also sees kindness, decency, a quiet devotion to the welfare of others and a readiness to find ways of getting along with one's neighbours.

The strongest impression one takes from these books is of the importance of community, the tight knit life of a small village where everyone knows everyone's business.  To live it might perhaps be claustrophobic but to read it chronicled by the wry, sympathetic pen of Miss Read is comforting, amusing and therapeutic somehow.  The annual story, determined both by the seasons and by the rhythm of the school year, rolls around. Nothing much happens and everything happens, much like most people's lives.  Dora Saint is a little like Barbara Pym in her eye for pomposity or hypocrisy but the overriding feeling that reading these books generates is of a quiet joy in a life well lived in a place well loved.  Reading them helps your fur to lie smooth again when it has been rubbed the wrong way by 21st Century life.

If you decide to read them it is a good idea to start with "Village School", the first of quite a long series. They remind you that you can read for all sorts of reasons.  These won't excite you or educate you or turn you inside out or make your stomach turn at what man can do to man, but they will make you nod in smiling recognition and look a bit more closely at the world around you .

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Snowdrop count

Every year I channel my inner nerd and go out and count my snowdrops.  When we came here in 2005 there was a sprinkling of snowdrops along one side of the drive.  They took me by surprise when they came up in January 2006 when I was recovering from a serious illness and they were the first flowers this garden offered me, having moved into a cold and empty November garden.  Regrettably I had no premonition that I would get a bit obsessive about snowdrops so I have no idea how many there were.  I would guess at about a hundred.  In 2007 and 2008 I planted five hundred more in the green, mainly the common single snowdrop, galanthus nivalis, with a small amount of common doubles.  I am not a serious snowdrop fancier, a real galanthophile.  I do not collect rare varieties and shiver on my knees in the great snowdrop gardens like Cambo Estate and Hodsock Priory.  I have not spent hundreds on a single bulb of great rarity.  I am not totally immune.  I do sometimes see a snowdrop of such beauty that I am tempted.  But what I love is the effect of snowdrops en masse.  I love the purity of the flowers and the paradox of their delicate looks and toughness as they flower in the wind and the cold and the snow.

My snowdrops live in three main places: at the bottom of the drive, in the side garden, and in the long bed at the bottom of the field where we planted native trees.

At the bottom of the drive the snowdrops sit at the foot of the walls.

These are naturailsed in grass.  Here and there primroses grow too and increasingly the odd crocus.

I planted quite a lot of crocus tommasinianus to naturalise on the other side of the drive, in a different area by the lower gate.  Those have not established themselves very well but they do seem to have produced a source of bulbs which are moved about (by squirrels?) and which appear by the drive and in the side garden. And here, for those as nerdy as I am or for anyone else trying to establish a garden with a lot of ground and not a lot of money, is the gradual increase of the snowdrops by the drive:

           Left hand side           Right hand side
2009     123                            175
2010     138                            297
2011     290                            413
2012     355                            306
2013     233                            422
2014     395                            639

You can see that in six years we have gone from about 300 to just over a thousand here.  I haven't bought any new plants since 2008 and in 2011 I did pinch quite a few from the right side to start a new planting by the native trees.  I split any clumps which have grown to more than six inches in diameter by taking plants from the outer edge of the clump in groups of seven or so and replanting them where they have more space.  A really big clump might get lifted in its entirety and split into five or six smaller clumps.  I always do this either while the snowdrops are still in flower (in the white) or before the leaves die back (in the green).  I don't find it makes any difference to the success of establishing them whether I split the bulbs in the white or the green and there is advantage in splitting them while they are in flower in that you can more accurately see the impact they make if you are moving into a new area of planting.

Snowdrops do have a mind of their own however.  I lost quite a few when slates from the roof were piled against the wall for a few months.  They don't like being shut up in darkness.  I am also finding that the ones on the right hand side of the drive are considerably happier than the ones on the left.  They have less competition perhaps as alkanet has invaded the bottom of the wall on the left hand side.  I could try to control the alkanet but if you have ever tried to uproot it you will know that life is too short.

The best snowdrops are in the side garden.  Here they are not planted in grass but along the bottom of the wall in the large new flower bed.  At this time of year snowdrops and hellebores are all there is to see in this bed.  As other things grow up the snowdrops recede into the background.

I think it is a bit damper here which snowdrops prefer and there is no competition from grass.  They have really established here and they lift my heart every time I go out to the laundry room or into the field.  I have treated these in exactly the same way as the ones on the drive but the growth here has been phenomenal.

2009   251
2010   311
2011   436
2012   515
2013   552
2014   977

Nearly a thousand!  Fantastic.  I am going to split these in a couple of weeks and move more out into the field on the way to the workshop.  I love the way that the snowdrops do their own colonising, as well as being helped along by me.  The original planting was along the foot of the wall but little groups of bulbs are appearing further and further away from the sheltering wall and washing up like the edge of a wave into the flower bed.  And here too the occasional crocus is throwing up a startling spear of purple.

The most recent groups are down in the long thin bed at the bottom of the field where we planted some native trees soon after we first came.  This part of the garden is one of those areas which both delights and frustrates me.  At some times of year I think the planting in here is some of the best in the garden.  At others the fact that I have still have not got the basic form and shape of the wider area right just makes it look lost and silly, like a lace collar on a bit of rag.  That, however, is not the fault of the snowdrops.  These are about half and half singles and doubles and are planted with hellebores and hardy geraniums.

The spread of these show how unpredictable snowdrops can be, even when you think you are doing the same thing from year to year.

2011   111
2012   52 (how? why?)
2013   209
2014   441

So there we are.  My snowdrop count has gone from 725 across the whole garden in my first count in 2009 to 2693 today.  With a bit of splitting and moving over the next few weeks who knows where we will be next year?