A Snowdrop Brunch and Newts

Snowdrops- what a joy

The snowdrops are still fantastic and I had the fun of sharing them with a group of friends when we hosted our first ever “Snowdrop Brunch” to-day. Between the showers (a pity it was not like Thursday when the sun shone all day) we all got outside and thoroughly enjoyed the snowdrop display. In fact the sun did come out later on so a number of our guests went out for a second look and I tried to remember both names and the subtle differences. I can cheat when they are in situ because I pretty much know what is planted where (and there is a helpful label) , but I have much more difficulty when they are in a vase.

I must have more than 60 different varieties now. Inevitably I bought some this year including Lapwing, Wasp and Comet from Pottertons Nursery as well as a few from Avon bulbs who have served me so well in the past. Chris Brown, our wonderful gardener, came bearing gifts on Wednesday – a bag with another 7 or 8 un-named varieties that he has selected and been growing up for several years. Each one is just that little bit different.  I have some way to go before I can call myself a true galanthophile but they do grow so well in our heavy clay lightened with a little leaf mold that I am determined to keep going. Perhaps I will be a galanthophile when I hit the hundred mark? And I really should be able to name them all without relying on a label.

 

The return of the newts

The newts are back- hurrah. We had to redo our leaking pond in the autumn, putting in a new liner and taking out the invasive Houttuynia cordata.  I was worried that our newts would not find the pond to their liking when they reappeared in the spring. Great crested newts hibernate between November and February in frost-free places and we sometimes find them in our log pile or under paving slabs. But they have made it back to the pond and we counted 14 by torchlight last night. They must trek across the garden to the pond. I did find one by the back doorstep and should have taken a photo. We saw them several weeks ago moving rather slowly in the chilly water and then the temperature dropped and the pond froze over. They must have hunkered down in the mud and gravel at the bottom of the pond and now they have re-emerged ready to mate and lay eggs. They are so tough. Nature is wonderful.

Spring treasures

Bulbs are pushing up all over the garden. I am particularly enjoying the Iris reticulata or are they Iris histrioides. Lady Beatrix Stanley in the rock bed provides a wonderful patch of cornflower blue. She appears very early each year because she is planted up against a grass that I wrap with fleece to provide some winter protection. Lady Beatrix appreciates being cherished and I have to remember to uncover her in January. An iris in a small alpine pot by the front door, also provides a fine splash of colour and it was only when I took a photograph that I realised how lovely the buds are, the feathered stripe of yellow contrasting with the purple. It is labelled Gordon but that cannot be right as he is supposed to be pale blue (Mr B says I could always call him “Not Gordon”) and nor does he seem right for the purple George. Still I will just enjoy him in all his glory.

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Christmas Colour and Snowdrops

Snowdrops

It is a good year for the snowdrops- the hot summer must have suited them. Galanthus elwesii ‘Peter Gatehouse’ , one of the earliest proper winter snowdrops, has been out for some weeks but the now flowers are looking tired. I plan to divide the clump while “in the green” as the bulbs are in a rather solid clay bank and the numbers have not increased as much as I had hoped. Some of my precious leaf mold around their roots should do the trick. The large flowers of the very worthy Reverend Hailstone- a relative newcomer in this garden- are making a good show. I know that two snowdrop flowers are not a lot to shout about, but it is early days for this particular bulb and there are more to come. A good effort in the first or is it the second year?

The clump of Galanthus elwesiiMrs McNamara‘, another early variety, continues to spread  and the flowers are lighting up the bed beneath my Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula). Galanthus plicatus ‘Warham’ is close on its heels and has spread extensively. Both enjoy the shade in this north bed. I walked around the garden this morning and saw snowdrops nosing their way above the earth in  many places. I was particularly pleased (and relieved) to see the tip of Galanthus ‘South Hayes’. Last year I invested in one of these striking snowdrops and I am looking forward to admiring the bold green outer markings on petals that flare outwards in a pagoda shape. Perhaps this year I will have doubled my investment. How many bulbs does one need before one can say “I have a clump”?!

Heavy Wet Clay

The weather is mild but it is pretty damp and not really conducive to gardening. My heavy clay does not appreciate being trodden on when it is sodden and nor does the soggy grass appreciate the wheelbarrow. The grass never got a final cut despite my efforts to encourage Mr B into action, so it is really too long and of course continuing to grow, albeit slowly. The grass cutting question is an all-year debate.

Winter flowers, seed-heads and leaves

Judicious pruning has resulted in a superb show from both Jasminum nudiflorum, now studded with yellow flowers, and the Viburnum × bodnantense ‘Dawn’. The branches of this viburnum are covered in pink blossom including the lower ones. As the shrub grew, the sweetly scented blossom had become increasingly limited to higher branches, both less visible and out of reach of our noses, but the right pruning has cracked the problem.

Clematis are always good value. Clematis cirrhosa var. balearica– the fern-leaved clematis- is clothed in hanging white bells, the interior of which are dotted with maroon freckles. The finely cut, dark green leaves are supposedly evergreen, but I find that the  leaves turn brown in the summer and most are shed only to emerge again in time for the winter season. The decorative silky seed heads of Clematis orientalis ‘Bill Mackenzie’  have persisted despite the rain and wind, and are covering the old greengage tree.

The flowers of Cyclamen hederifolium have vanished to be replaced by attractive mottled ivy-shaped leaves. The flowers of Cyclamen coum will not appear until January or February but I can enjoy the small rounded silvery leaves now. The fat flower buds of Helleborus orientalis (the Christmas or Lenten rose) are just appearing. I have cut off the leaves so that the large clusters of saucer-shaped elegant flowers in shades of dusky purple, cream and yellow will be  easier to see but also to prevent spread of disease.  So much to enjoy despite the wet!

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Cyclamen Coum ‘Maurice Dryden’

 

 

Autumnal leaves, berries and colour

Autumn foliage

What a wonderful autumn. The colours in Upper Green lighten the heart even when it is pouring with rain (as it is now). The leaves on the climbing hydrangea, Hydrangea petiolaris, are a bright buttercup yellow; those of the smoke bush, Cotinus coggygria (not the purple one) have changed to a rich mix of red, oranges and gold (I hope the gale that is raging as I type does not blow them all away), the little maple on the patio Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘Seiryu’  was looking wonderful with beautiful bright red leaves that have fallen now, Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea  is fulfilling its promise with deepening red-purple foliage and even the apple trees are dressed to delight in mix of golds and fading green.

Autumn fruit

The lawn is covered in fallen apples which we box or leave for the winter thrushes (fieldfares and redwings) which I can hear in the trees. The well-named cockspur thorn, Crataegus crus-galli, which is protected by thorns up to 8 inches long, is laden with deep red berries that are larger than those on our native hawthorn. The foliage also turns a rich mix of colours. It is a fine small spreading tree- just don’t get too close and personal! The hips on many climbing roses, such Rosa ‘Scarlet Fire’, add to the fiery autumnal display.

 Autumn seeds

Autumn seeds can be equally eye-catching, especially my Auntie Margery’s spindleberry, Euonymus europaeus ‘Red Cascade’, in which the intriguing red capsules split to reveal the orange seeds. I always think of Northern Ireland and more especially her garden on Island Reagh, when these seeds appear in the autumn. I took a small sucker back with me more than 20 years ago and now I have this wonderful spreading tree with lots of it own suckers produced from the roots.

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Euonymus europaeus ‘Red Cascade’

Autumn, snowdrops and the new pond

Early Snowdrops

I have been preparing my snowdrops for the year ahead with a feed of a little bone meal and a mulch of our 1-year old leaf mold- still not fully decomposed but fine for mulching. The first snowdrop is in flower – Galanthus reginae-olgae ssp. vernalis corcyrensis. What a mouthful! Galanthus reginae-olgae is the earliest of the snowdrops, but it has not flowered well in previous years (in fact not at all in some years). It must have liked the hot summer because I have 4 flowers and I think there are more to come. This snowdrop comes from the mountains of Greece and when discovered in 1876 it was named in honour of the Duke of Edinburgh’s grandmother, Queen Olga, then Queen of Greece. The flowers appear well before the leaves.

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Galanthus reginae-olgae ssp. vernalis corcyrensis

Leaf mold mulch

A number of plants appreciate our leaf mold including the witch hazel Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ and spring treasures such as winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis), dog’s tooth violets (Erythronium dens-canis)  and wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa), none of which thrive in my heavy clay….but I keep trying. I am just so please that all those leaves we collected and chopped up with the mower last autumn have turned into such a great mulch. It was worth all the work.

Planting up the pond and marsh

I spent a number of very satisfying days replanting the new marsh bed and pond with all the plants we had bedded out temporarily in Mr B’s vegetable patch or kept in buckets of water. Plants such as bog bean (Menyanthes trifoliata) and water hawthorn (Aponogeton distachyos) went into the pond and marginals including water forget-me-knot (Myosotis scorpioides ‘Mermaid’), variegated sweet flag Acorus gramineus ‘Variegatus’ and the fern Onoclea sensibilis are planted at the edges. I reunited thousands of snakes head fritillary bulbs with their new marsh and hope we will have a stunning display in the spring, but I do not know if they will like the fresh loam. In fact I must check the pH and keep an eye out for weeds as I have no idea what unexpected bounty I will gain from this new sieved but far from sterile loam. However the pond and marsh are complete and the net is in position (suspended on 2×2 wood battens provided by Mr B)  to collect the autumn leaves, so now all I can do is wait until the arrival of spring.

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The great pond redo-what a job!

Pond problems

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More of a puddle than a pond!

1. Succession

According to Mr Google ponds are “nothing more than shallow holes where water collects. Yet, if left alone, ponds will fill in with dirt and debris until they become land” This is succession and was exactly what was happening to our 30 year-old pond despite my best efforts to remove the more vigorous water plants.

2. Invasion

Houttunynia cordata ‘Chameleon’ has pretty red, yellow and green leaves and, 30 years ago, when I constructed the pond and adjacent bog, I had made the mistake of introducing just one small specimen of this alien invader into my bog garden. The rhizomes have crept relentlessly strangling many other choice plants. It had to go, but Houttuynia rhizomes resist weedkiller and are brittle and easily break. Even the tiniest fragments are viable so to eradicate it, all traces must be removed. This is easier said than done, particularly when the rhizomes, which have a characteristic orangey smell, are tangled up with the roots of other plants. The umbrella plant, Darmera peltata, has also spread but much more slowly than the Houttuynia and the large rhizomes can at least be removed, although it takes forceful digging with a spade (or even an axe) to cut through the thick woody layers of rhizomes.  Digging up the entire bog and margins of the pond seemed to be the only option to get rid of these unwanted invaders.

3. Liner leak

In our efforts to disentangle Darmera from a very fine specimen of Bowles’ golden sedge, Carex elata Aurea,  it became clear that after 30 years the sedge had managed to penetrate the liner in several places. Our claggy soil was partially controlling the leak but the holes explained why we were endlessly having to top up the pond. This was the final straw. It looked as if we either had to accept that we were going to lose the pond (and the habitat) altogether, or we had to bite the bullet and redo the wet area.

Rescuing plants and wildlife

Decision made, we embarked on the project this month and thank goodness the weather was kind to us. The first few days were spent removing plants I wanted to keep and planting them temporarily in Mr B’s vegetable patch (no garlic sown yet this year). The old paddling pool was inflated and used for the sludge from the bottom of the pond, associated wildlife, and many of the pond plants (I suspect the pool will never be the same colour again). I also acquired a couple of buckets for storing pond plants such as bog bean. Alarmingly, bits of Houttuynia seem to have come with the hostas and are popping up in the veg patch. I just hope that I remove them all and that Mr B does not found he has acquired a problem.

Digging out the pond

We had to get a mini-digger into the back garden but the path at the side of the house was too narrow. The digger came through the bottom fence (courtesy of a kind neighbourly farmer), through the “window” in our hedge, across Mr B’s grass-and under our wooden garden arch, (we had to dislodge the top) to the pond.

A large skip was placed in the farmer’s field on the other side of our ha-ha and boards arranged so we could barrow up the slope of the ha-ha and tip the contents into the skip. The remaining water was scooped out by hand and digging commenced. After a long day the old liner was finally exposed.

During all this activity, a Southern Hawker dragonfly was investigating progress and seemed to be laying eggs on the sensitive fern at the edge of the muddy hole. Fragments of Houttuynia were still present in the bog area and the pond-edge so I doubt we have got rid of it. It should definitely be sold with a clear warning. On the second day we finished digging and removed the old liner revealing a layer of sand and the true extent of the pond and bog we had created all those years ago.

 

Good bye digger and skip!

 

Remaking the pond

A new layer of sand was added and raked, then levels checked. Sand was covered with a protective matting to ensure the new butyl liner is not going to be punctured by sharp stones. We laid the butyl both in the pond and across the base of what would become adjacent bog.

Another layer of protective matting was laid on top of the butyl as recommended by the wildlife expert, Chris Baines. As Chris suggests in his wildlife gardening book, we also added a layer of loam and some gravel so wildlife would have a home. The gently sloping sides ensure wildlife can easily get in and out and in the centre, the pond is about 3 feet deep. This is exactly how we constructed the pond last time so I hope it proves equally successful. A hose pipe that connects to water butts draining the roof runs under the grass and into the pond so that we can use rainwater to top up the pond. A line of breeze blocks separate the bog from the pond and prevent all the claggy loam in the bog from falling into the pond.

Water was trickled gently into the pond over some scraps of butyl so that the soil was not dislodged and the contents of the padding pool returned (including at least a dozen dragonfly larvae).

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Job done! All that remains is to put back the plants (I hope without Houttuynia).

 

Upper Green is open today

NGS Open Garden

The great day has arrived and for the last of our 3 open days this year we are predicted  a warm sunny afternoon-hurrah. The garden is looking pristine, paths swept, lawn cut, edges trimmed, beds weeded and, despite the dry summer, there is plenty to see.  The view across the fields at the bottom of the garden is perfect through the window we have cut in the hedge.

Colour in August

Highlights in the drive bed include the salvias which have thrived in the hot dry summer, especially Salvia ‘Amistad’. Its deep purple tubular flowers contrast with the black calyces. I also enjoy the bright blue flowers of the shrubby Ceratostigma willmottianum and Sedum ‘Purple Emperor’ which the bees love. Cyclamen hederifolium have seeded around (helped by ants) and their flowers are set off by Ajuga reptans ‘Burgundy Glow’ which I have just planted nearby.

Drought-tolerant planting

The gravel bed has flourished this summer. Stipa gigantea is a perfect backdrop to the drought-tolerant planting. Scabiosa ochroleuca is a magnet for bees. The stiff orange tinged leaves of Libertia peregrinans (wandering Chilean iris) continue to wander. Self-seeded Cyclamen hederifolium have popped up here too.

White bells of summer

But my August highlight has to have been the slowly enlarging clump of Acis autumnalis which are over now. Such delicate little white bells- what a treat!

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Acis autumnalis

Drought, heat and survival

It has been a long hot summer, the garden is suffering and so am I. We had one welcome downpour but that was it and plants that perked up are looking sorry for themselves again. Still it is remarkable what has hung on and I am optimistic that once we do get rain (it must come in the end), the garden will revive. I am taking note of what is growing and will plant more drought-tolerant plants next year.

The gravel bed looks great with Allium carinatum subsp. pulchellum, both white and purple formscotton lavender, silver-leaved Lotus hirsutum, lavenders, orange spikes of Libertia perigrinans,  Euphorbia stricta ‘Golden Foam’, and various creeping thymes against a backdrop of the oat grass, Stipa gigantea.

I have watered the troughs and am particularly enjoying the superb show put on by my tiny specimen of Origanum ‘Emma Stanley’. What a treasure and it relishes this hot weather.

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Our thatch has been redone, a 7 week task. I am going to be collecting up wheat straw and pulling out wheat seedlings for some time to come. Our thatcher has done a superb job removing the old thatch and giving us a lovely new roof, which provides excellent insulation, so the bedrooms in the cottage are delightfully cool.

Our next task is to prepare for the NGS opening on Sunday 2nd September- will there be anything to see?!

June, roses and NGS Open Garden

Roses

The roses are magnificent this year. The climbers, ‘Paul’s Himalaya Musk’ and ‘Frances E Lester’,  are tumbling out of the old apple trees and filling the garden with their perfume, especially in the evenings. ‘Kiftsgate’ has almost reached the top of the willow tree and ‘Bobby James’ is covering the pergola in the front garden.

The old-fashioned shrub roses, mainly gallicas,  are at their best now- perfect for the open day tomorrow. ‘Charles de Mills’ has fragrant deep purple double flowers which contrast with the beautiful crimson-striped flowers of ‘Camaieux’. But I have more stripes for the discerning visitor-  ‘Ferdinand Pichard’ is also at his best and the suckering clump of Rosa gallica versicolor ‘Rosa Mundi’ (the earliest known stripped rose dating back to the 1500s) is just starting to open in a shady corner at the back if the pond.

Herbaceous shape and colour

The garden so much to offer at this time of year – texture, colour and scent  – as well as weeds if one’s back is turned. The astrantias (Hattie’s pincushion or masterwort) have taken off since I moved them to the shady damp bed. ‘Shaggy’ has enormous flowers and ‘Roma’ is a sizeable pink clump.

The elegant spires of the strawberry foxglove, Digitalis x mertonensis, with its slightly furry leaves, provide height in the central bed. I do prefer this to the common foxglove, Digitalis purpurea, but both have  a place in the garden. I must collect the seed again.

My new bark path has evolved into shady passageway, fringed by the pheasant’s tail grass, Anemanthele lessoniana, that self-seeds happily if you will let it.

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Our thatcher, Mark, has almost finished the back of the cottage roof and will soon make a start on the front. It is a 6-week job but the pigeons cannot believe their luck- so much seed!

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Colour, scent and an Emperor moth

Time has rattled past and it is the end of May. The garden is full of shape, scent and colour. The plants are exuberant after all the rain.. and the slugs and snails are having a field day. Tulips were fantastic earlier in the month, but they are over except for the wonderful Tulipa sprengeri – the elegant red flowers on tall stems provide a real splash of colour in my rock bed and borders where they are spreading gently by seeding. I do my best to leave the delicate tulip seedlings when I am removing those of nearby alliums.

A clump of the ladybird poppy, which survived the winter, is also providing great colour under my silver birch.

I was thrilled to come across a spectacular Emperor moth, Saturnia pavonia, in my wildflower patch where I was clearing long grass and admiring the cowslips and emerging yellow rattle. Apparently the males fly during the daytime in search of the less dramatic greyer females, which fly at night (that does not seem like a great arrangement but they obviously manage). He sat peacefully for some time so I was able to get a decent photograph – what a great moth!

Tragedy- our pond is loosing water. The liner is almost 30 years old and it turns out that the large clump of Bowle’s golden sedge, Carex elataAurea’, which we trying to divide, has actually grown through it.  So the next project will have to be a complete revamp of the pond – a task that is not for the faint-hearted but is full of opportunity for the gardener. This time I will definitely avoid invasive thugs such as Houttuynia cordata and reject gifts from well-meaning friends such as the brownish “seaweed-like” thug given to me as an “easy” water plant. Beware gifts from friends with ponds, the plant is bound to be vigorous and may turn out to be a menace.

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In the meanwhile I am enjoying the garden and planning what we should do before we open for the NGS on June 17th.

 

 

 

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April and visitors from Oxford Botanic Garden

 

Spring colour and visitors

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Spring Bed

An intrepid, knowledgeable and enthusiastic group of twenty-seven visitors from Oxford Botanic Gardens came to the garden to-day, all happed up in coats, hats and gloves. Despite the inclement weather, they enjoyed the garden and we enjoyed their company. The small spring bed under the ash tree always looks wonderful at this time of year. Early flowering plants such as Pulmonaria ‘Bowles Blue’, hellebores, Narcissi ‘Tete-a-tete’, Valeriana phu ‘Aurea’ and Euphorbia amygdaloides provide a patchwork of colour. My tiny clump of Cardamine pentaphylla is flowering for the first time as is Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’. The delicate unfurling buds on Amelanchier × grandiflora ‘Ballerina’ just add to the picture.

Once the rain really started to pour down, we retreated inside to enjoy warming mugs of tea or coffee supplemented by simnel cake (my Mum’s excellent recipe), lemon drizzle cake and oatmeal biscuits.  So much for spring, but at least the daffodils and hellebores have lasted well in the cold and I still have a snowdrop in flower (Galanthus ‘Polar Bear’ ).

Primulas

Primula vulgaris (our lovely common primrose) flourishes in my heavy clay and self-seeds widely. I also love my Auntie Margery’s Primula ‘Wanda’ which came from Northern Ireland. Primula elatior (Oxlip) which came from my Mum thrives in my marshy bed and I hope that Primula veris (cowslip), which is not out yet,  will colonise our small wild flower bank. Primula ‘Garryarde Guinevere’  is hanging on but not happy and I find it difficult to retain my candelabra primulas. I think I may have lost Primula japonica ‘Miller’s Crimson’ as I did some replanting in the marshy bed and I cannot see any sign of it, but perhaps it is too early.  Primula florindae , the Tibetan or giant cowslip, should appear later and I hope I still have some Primula sieboldii.

Woodland Plants

I know that I should not try to grow woodland plants that need humus and neutral to acid soil, but I keep on trying. My clumps of dogs-tooth violets have enlarged at last, thanks mainly to large quantities of leafmould. I succumbed (for a second try) to an exotic Chinese woodlander, Asarum maximum ‘Silver Panda’, for sale in the Rare Plant Fair. Foolish I know, but the combination of glossy, evergreen, leaves marbled in silver, with such extraordinary, open-mouthed, black and white flowers that open at ground level was irresistible. I will spend the next week on my hands and knees. Perhaps I should put it in a pot.

NGS Open Day

The garden is several weeks behind last year. The tulips and snakes head fritillaries are barely open but I hope that with a little warmth in the next few days, things will have moved on by Sunday afternoon, when we open again for NGS charities and the British Skin Foundation.