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.
Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘Seiryu’
Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea
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.
Rosa Scarlet Fire
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.
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.
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.
Leaf mold mulch under Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’
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.
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.
Darmera peltata, the umbrella plant overshadows much of the bog
Clearing the bog
Roots of Houttuynia
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).
Job done! All that remains is to put back the plants (I hope without Houttuynia).
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.
Ajuga reptans ‘Burgundy Glow’
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.
Stipa gigantea in the background
Drought tolerant planting
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!
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 forms, cotton 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.
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?!
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.
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!
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 elata ‘Aurea’, 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.
In the meanwhile I am enjoying the garden and planning what we should do before we open for the NGS on June 17th.
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.
Helleborus × hybridus ‘Cinderella’
Helleborus × hybridus ‘Harvington Shades Of Night’
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’ ).
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.
Asarum maximum ‘Silver Panda’
Asarum maximum ‘Silver Panda’
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.
The snow has melted and the snowdrops and narcissi are upright again. In fact many of the snowdrops are well past their best but their lush foliage still makes a statement. The narcissi on the other hand have come into their own so the garden is Easter-ready, abounding with cheerful nodding daffodils. I have more than 40 varieties, generally purchased from Avon or Broadleigh bulbs over the years. I still prefer the small ones especially the cyclamineus cultivars (Div 6) such as ‘Mite’ , a small cyclamineus that I planted in the damp bed. Narcissus nanus ‘Midget’ (Div 1) in the rock bed really is a midget, a trumpet daffodil only 10cm high.
Narcissus fernandesii var. cordubensis, Scilla siberica under the Himalayan birch
Narcissus fernandesii var. cordubensis
I am thrilled that Narcissus fernandesii var. cordubensis (Div 13) has flowered. This delicate little daffodil (25cm high) has narrow thread-like leaves and scented flowers about 3cm in diameter. I planted it under the multi-stemmed Himalayan Birch (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii) which is just mature enough to start to show some striking patches of white bark. A few of the brilliant blue flowers of Scilla siberica have also emerged. Perhaps one day I will have swathes of both beneath the silvery bark of the mature tree, but I am afraid that I may have to wait some time.
Daphnes and sweet perfume
Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’
Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’
The clusters of pink flowers on Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ in the gravel bed perfume the air by the front door, particularly in the evenings. Daphnes may be short-lived but this one is easy to grow from cuttings so I shall take some later in the year. The fragrant purplish flowers on Daphne mezereum appear before the leaves and also offer a welcome splash of winter colour along with their scent. I have just planted a D. mezereum f. alba (no more than a twig at the moment but flowering nevertheless), which has fragrant white flowers. Eventually it and an even more tiny specimen of Daphne retusa I have just planted, will fill the space which once held the Garrya elliptica. As Marina Schinz said “Gardening is an exercise in optimism. Sometimes, it is a triumph of hope over experience.”
The garden is open for the NGS charities and the British Skin Foundation on April 8th so we are keeping our fingers crossed for good weather and a good turnout of visitors. Despite the cold, I think there will be plenty to see………but there is still a lot to do.
A combination of the “Beast from the East” (icy blasts from Siberia) with Storm Emma caused havoc on the first day of spring. It is bitterly cold and the garden is covered in a blanket of snow, but we are lucky in Oxford as it is much worse in other parts of the country- up to 50cm (20in) of snow in some places and numerous roads are impassable. Schools are closed and our grandchildren have been out building snowmen and tobogganing. Definitely not gardening weather.
Garden under snow
Birds are feasting on the food we have put out and appreciate the water in the Giant’s causeway rock for both bathing and drinking. Fieldfares and blackbirds fight over apples on the lawn, robins tuck into mealworms, while siskins, assorted tits, a nuthatch and great spotted woodpeckers hang acrobatically from feeders with nuts, fat and seeds. Woodpigeons, chaffinches and dunnocks hoover up the debris on the ground.
Snowdrops Mighty Atom in frost and some snow
Snowdrop Mighty Atom completely flattened
The snowdrops are flattened (but will stand up when the temperature rises), early narcissi that I photographed last week are barely visible and crocuses are buried.
Camellia × williamsii ‘Donation’
Camellia japonica ‘Sylvia’
Camellia japonica ‘Sylvia’ damaged by frost
Camellias come into their own at this time of year. Unfortunately many of the lovely red blooms on Camellia japonica ‘Sylvia’ are an unsightly brown. Frost-damage is a problem as the plant faces east and catches the early morning sun. I really ought to move the rather weighty tub but where to (and how)? The slightly later flowering Camellia × williamsii ‘Donation’ is sheltered from the early sun, so the fat pink buds which are starting to open will soon provide a fine show. I have knocked the snow off both shrubs. The camellias belonged to my father and he cherished them with such care that I felt I had to bring them here when my parents’ house was sold. I can still envisage him watering them with the rain water he had collected, doing a little careful pruning, feeding them and happing up the tubs for the winter. These plants are almost 40 years old, but camellias are extraordinarily long-lived and may survive well over 200 years. Perhaps the children or even the grandchildren will take over their care one day.