Colours are changing, there is a nip in the air and the hedgerows as well as the garden are full of fruit including plums, apples, hips, haws and sloes. I saw a whitethroat the other day balancing precariously on a bramble bush and tucking into a juicy blackberry. We like blackberries too and have picked plenty for the freezer.
The garden is full of purple and white Cyclamen hederifolium. The seeds are spread about by ants which are attracted by the fleshy coating. These helpful gardeners take the seeds carefully back to their underground nests where the coating feeds the colony, but the seed germinates and a cyclamen will pop up somewhere unexpected.
My new colchicums (naked ladies) have just put in an appearance. The large strappy leaves, which appear after the flowers (hence the naked), are untidy and take up quite a lot of space but I think the flowers may be worth the investment. I have Colchicum byzantinum “Innocence” (white) and Colchicum speciosum (purple) – just a few flowers of each as it is their first year but they hold promise, always provided the slugs leave them alone.
Garden giants and dwarfs
Helianthus salicifolius (willow-leaved sunflower) has produced clusters of small yellow daisies more than 6-foot up, far too high to enjoy them properly. It is just as well that I grow the plant for the architectural impact of the wonderfully long narrow willow-like leaves that clothe the arching stems leaves rather than the flowers.
At the other end of the scale is the dainty Acis autumnalis, (autumn snowflake) in my gravel bed, no more than a foot in height, with tiny nodding, bell-shaped, white flowers. I would like to have the pink form too- something to look out for when I browse the catalogues this autumn.
It has been a while since I have sat down to write something. The garden has been looking lovely and when lock down eased a few weeks ago, we opened for the NGS charities on a number of weekends. The new system is so easy for garden owners.All we do is let the NGS know when we want to open, the length of each timed slot and specify the number of people that can come safely into the garden in each slot- in our case ten people per hour. No teas, no cake, no loo, no money to be collected as tickets are booked on line and no local advertising- it all happens on the NGS website. It worked very well. Everyone is keen to get out and we enjoyed chatting, albeit at a safe distance, to real people, many of whom were keen and knowledgeable gardeners. We will continue to open so do check the NGS website and come and see us.
I thought I would share some of the garden highlights over the last few months.
Most tulips are over by May but the pillar-box red flowers of the late flowering species tulip, Tulipa sprengeri, are a delight and as it self-seeds, it is slowly spreading. It likes well-drained soil so does particularly well in the gravelly soil on my rock bed. The fat striped seed heads are also decorative but I need to be careful I do not break the stems until the seeds are ripe.
The combination of Rodgersia podophylla and Iris pseudacorus ‘Variegata’ is particularly lovely in spring. We had a frost in early May, but this year I remembered to protect the rodgersia with a fleece blanket when I heard the forecast, so the only damage was at one edge where the wind lifted off the fleece. Those leaves soon curled up, became crispy and turned a sad dark brown. You can also just make out the small starry orangey-yellow flowers of Epimedium ‘Amber Queen’ in front of the rodgersia.
I was thrilled by my fabulous Formosan lady’s slipper orchid, Cypripedium formosanum, which looked great in the damp bed throughout April and much of May.
Roses and Lilies
By now the garden was in over-drive. The weather was hot and everything has been early this year. The roses were magnificent. The weight and shadow cast by the vigorous growth of the ramblers, Rosa ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’ and Rosa ‘Francis. E. Lester’, are threatening the health of the apple trees that support them. This year we will have to indulge in some fairly radical pruning. The apricot flowers of the climber, Schoolgirl, looked so lovely against the brick walls of the cottage and combined beautifully with the adjacent orange flowers of the lily ‘Forever Susan’.
I confess to having mixed feelings about pots because they need cherishing and even more mixed feelings about succulents which not only need cherishing outside but have to come inside in the winter. However I have to admit that I am enjoying this collection of odds and ends and the sempervivums are a tough bunch, which do tolerate my rather laissez-faire attitude.
We have missed contact with the grandchildren but Peter made a fine bug hotel out of some old pallets. Lena (5) enjoyed adding to it when she finally came to visit us again.
It has been so mild that the garden has really come alive but the unseasonably warm weather that led to all that flowering has also led to the rapid demise of some garden beauties including many small tulips. To my horror I discovered that the muntjac have been busy munching emerging tulips in the front garden – they had stopped doing this in recent years- so I have re-erected a protective barricade around the stately and rich dark purple “Queen of the Night” – which means of course that neither I nor the muntjace can take pleasure in the flowers. However the muntjac do not seem to be interested in smaller varieties of tulip and they are welcome to the leaves of the invasive spanish bluebells which I inherited from a previous owner and muntjac seem to enjoy. Fortunately muntjac show no desire to eat the wonderful Allium schubertii nor the large leaves of the colchicums I planted this year.
Protection around enrging tulips
Tulip “Little Beauty”
At this time of year the spring bed comes into its own and Amelanchier × grandiflora ‘Ballerina’ is a definite highlight. The dainty white blossom is followed by unfurling bronze-tinged foliage. The profusion of large, white flowers gives it the name, Snowy mespilus, and these flowers produce little purplish edible berries (I have never tried to eat them). The small tree adds to the dappled shade for woodlanders in this bed.
My Dad’s old camellias have been magnificent this year in their tubs of special compost for acid-lovers. The blossom on Camellia × williamsii ‘Donation’ has been particularly fine. But it has been so dry I have had to water already using our precious rainwater.
More spring bulbs
Fritillaries are true stand-out plants. I love them all but fail to grow so many. However the crown imperials and snakes-heads have excelled. I am also delighted that the tiny clump of Scilla siberica below the apple tree is ever so slowly enlarging. Not a river of blue or even a trickle yet – more of a small puddle, but on the increase nevertheless.
What difficult times we live in but thank goodness for the garden which is bursting with life. Daphne, camellias, daffodils, tulips, primulas, fritillaries and so much more. Spring has arrived with a bang. I have seen the first butterflies of the year- brimstones, small tortoiseshells and even a lone peacock. The birds are pairing up and nest building has commenced. But the local pheasant and the muntjac deer are not such welcome visitors- bother. A game pie would be very tasty.
Narcisssi come in all shapes and sizes, the deer do not eat them, most are easy to grow so the clumps thicken up with time, many are sweetly scented and, at this time of year, they provide so much pleasure.
Tulips are another spring flower that give the garden a lift, but sadly the muntjac deer will make a meal out of them given half a chance and a deer was trotting through our “fenced off” back garden this evening. There must be a gap somewhere or the deer is prepared to leap higher than in the past and I wonder how many of my lovely tulips will still be standing in the morning.
And then there are fritillaries. I have had problems with crown imperials in the past but this year they are standing tall and the yellow ones have even increased. The snake’s head fritillaries never fail – they are looking superb in the marsh and are even spreading in our little meadow area.
The sun is shining and drifts of snowdrops, “February’s Fairmaid”, are a joy. I have been preparing a very brief chat on snowdrops for the Friends of the Oxford Botanic Gardens who meet for coffee on the first Friday of the month. This prompted me to look up some of the legends associated with this most magical of winter flowers. For example did you know that snowdrops have been known as “Eve’s Tears” or “Eve’s Comforters”? Apparently poor Eve was weeping when she was cast out of the Garden of Eden and a friendly angel breathed on a tear and changed it to a snowdrop. They are linked to purity in the Catholic church and were traditionally carried in Candlemas processions which is why they are often found growing along the way to village churches.
In Greek mythology, Persephone brought back snowdrops from the underworld so they are linked to both death and, according to the language of flowers, hope- the emergence of the hardy snowdrop heralds spring and the start of a new year. The snowdrop may even have been the magical plant “Moly” that Hermes gave Odysseus to protect him from beautiful Circe’s magic. Snowdrops contain the centrally acting anticholinesterase, galanthamine, while Circe’s potions may have contained centrally acting anticholinergic toxins to induce amnesia in Odysseus’ crew (although I am not sure that includes turning them into swine- but perhaps they just thought they had become swine). Perhaps a snowdrop might have helped to vanquish Circe, but Odysseus also brought his sword.
I was pleased to read that, according to garden folklore, before moving a snowdrop, one should always tell it what is happening or it will not thrive- I am not the only gardener who chats to her plants. But I suspect my leaf mould and little bonemeal also help.
The taxonomy is complicated. There are at least 20 species of snowdrop and probably more than 2500 hybrids and cultivars. Identification depends on the morphology of both the leaves and the flowers and now DNA. My snowdrops are mainly types of nivalis (the Common snowdrop), plicatus (Crimean or Turkish snowdrop with broad dark green or greyish pleated leaves) or elwesii (Greater snowdrop with broad silver-grey leaves).
The first record of G. nivalis in this country is in John Gerard’s herbal (1597) and G. plicatus was brought back by soldiers returning from the Crimean war in the 1800s. One of these days the snowdrop market will surely crash, as with tulipmania in the 1600s. Many of the cultivars look pretty much identical, even when you “lift their skirts” to check out the green markings, and I am not sure for how long these fancy snowdrops will command ridiculous prices. One bulb sold for more than £1000 in 2019 on e-bay- crazy! However I am enjoying my growing collection and it is a delight to share my love with other enthusiasts who visit the garden- as well as with the early solitary bees, queen bumblebees and other emerging insects who need the snowdrop nectar and pollen.
We had a brief spell of chilly weather in November with the odd frost which I hope destroyed some of the molluscs. The misty mornings were a bonus.
Mahonias are flowering and the green flowers of Helleborus foetidus, our native stinking hellebore, always look rather lovely at this time of year.
The gravel bed has shape and colour throughout the year.
Rain in December
Now it is just wet, very wet. It feels as if December has offered nothing but weeks of rain. The ground is sodden. Not a good time to walk on this heavy clay- stepping stones are essential in flower beds to prevent compaction. The sun has appeared briefly but this was soon followed by yet more rain or gloomy cloud. Despite the rain I have filled my leaf bin with a fine mix of mainly oak (collected from our village churchyard), and beech (collected from several nearby villages). Job done so I have removed my collecting equipment (large sack, 2 small boards and a bamboo rake) from the back of my car.
The pond is also full and ready for the return of the newts in the spring.
Colour and Scent
The garden has colour and scent despite the prevailing gloom. One just has to wrap up (hap up as we say in Northern Ireland) and get out there to enjoy it. I was delighted to see an early crocus (Crocus laevigatus ‘Fontenayi’)- which sadly was all too soon eaten by a marauding slug or perhaps the local pheasant. There are still a few flowers on the climbing rose (Schoolgirl) and Iris unguicularis‘Walter Butt‘ (previously known as Iris stylosa) has started to flower. This iris produced no flowers last year but this year it seems to be happy.
Shrubs such as Pittosporum ‘Tom Thumb’ and Viburnum tinus also offer welcome colour-shiny black leaves in the case of the pittosporum and white umbels on the viburnum.
And then there are the snowdrops! Much to look forward too.
The first snowdrops have been in flower for a couple of weeks (and I still think look a little strange at this time of year). Galanthus reginae-olgae has 19 flowers- what a contrast to previous years when I have been lucky to find one or two flowers. Something about this summer must have reminded them of their home in Sicily and the west and north-west Balkans. It is rather lovely to remember that the name honours Queen Olga of Greece (grandmother of the Duke of Edinburgh). The little snowdrops are overshadowed by the adjacent Nerine ‘Zeal Giant’ which has also done exceptionally well this year. The lovely pink Nerine bowdenii are also still in full flower.
Nerine Zeal’s Giant
I am fortunate to have one flower (a slug got the second one) on Galanthus peshmenii, a relative of G. elwesii, which I was given last year by my good friend and alpine expert, Barry Hennessey. Apparently G. peshmenii was originally thought to be a Turkish form of G. reginae-olgae. It grows in coastal Turkey and nearby islands, but it is now acknowledged to be a species in its own right. The little flower is dwarfed by the spectacular star-burst seedheads of Allium schubertii.
Autumn foliage and fruit
Autumn colours are reaching their peak. The light green leaves of Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘Seiryu’ have turned a spectacular crimson, lighting up the patio but the show will soon be over and the leaves will start to fall.
I am already collecting up leaves for leaf mold. It will take about 2 years for them to rot down to a fine dark brown tilth but it is worth waiting. I have just applied some 2-year old mold to my snowdrops- a most luxurious mulch. The addition of a touch of bone-meal should ensure a great display.
Colour in the garden is also supplied by the lovely rose-pink and orange fruits of the spindle, Euonymus europaeus ‘Red Cascade’ .
Shape in the garden
The topiary and cloud pruning are taking shape and are already giving the garden year-round structure.
I have just bought a book on Japanese gardens and pruning techniques which is full of inspiration- more things to try out in 2020!
Roses have been spectacular. The rambler, ‘Kiftsgate’, is still in flower reaching high into the trees at the bottom of the garden. ‘Bobby James’ which clothes the trellis along the drive has come to an end and we will soon have to take on the challenge of pruning to control and tie in the new growth which will produce next year’s flowers. Really it is too big and rampant for the trellis but the tree it did cover died (probably killed by the rose rather than silver leaf Mr B. maintains) and the trellis was a replacement support. We have also enjoyed the pale salmon flowers of the climber ‘Schoolgirl’ on the walls of the cottage, despite the fact that the leaves are disfigured by mildew as the bed under the thatch is so dry. The china rose, ‘Mutabilis’ will go on giving pleasure until Christmas if we are lucky. The blooms start out dark red and gradually fade to shades of yellow and copper- sadly it has no scent but it is a beautiful shrub.
Rosa Mundi flourishes in the shady bed behind the pond but the old, wonderfully perfumed, shrub roses at the bottom of the garden are coming to an end. The rich deep red blossoms of ‘Charles de Mills’ are still my favourite.
The garden is full of baby birds- blue tits and great tits must have had second broods and the apple trees are alive with acrobatic infants. A constant cheeping is coming from what must be a blackbird nest in the hedge. However the real thrill is the spotted flycatcher nest in a open-faced box we put up on the wall of the house years ago. I think it is the first time it has been used. The flycatchers are an absolute joy to watch swooping down to catch insects and returning to their elevated lookout perches. We have not had any in the garden for years so this is a real treat.
Shape and perfume
The lilies in their pots on the patio are coming to an end but the white tobacco plants I grew from seed provide evening perfume as well as food for moths. The seed heads of the various alliums provide great structure but I am determined to remove many of them before they actually seed into the flowerbeds- you can have too much of a good thing. The garden is full of summer colour- I really must spend more time just sitting and enjoying it.
The garden is welcoming and colourful with spring flowers of all sorts including self-seeded dog violets (Viola riviniana) and primroses (Primula vulgaris), Ipheion uniflorum, both blue and a purple form (‘Froyle Mill’), Anemone blanda– my Mum’s blue variety and a very large-flowered white form (‘White Spendour’ ), Muscari armeniacum including the very pale ‘Valerie Finnis’ and pale blue Puschkinia scilloides var. libanotica (I can never remember this mouthful of a name). The lovely dog’s-tooth violet (Erythronium ‘Pagoda’) is also just opening.
Anemone blanda ‘White Spendour’
Ipheion uniflorum ‘Froyle Mill’
A tiny clump of 6 x Scilla siberica are slowly spreading under the apple tree. Chicken wire protects the sky-blue flowers from marauding wood pigeons or the lone pheasant that frequents the garden. My mum’s Chionodoxa luciliae spread without any help from me adding a cheery splash of blue in unexpected places.
The lime green flowers of the dramatic tall Euphorbia characias ssp. wulfenii really stand out at this time of year. I have a self-seeded euphorbia which I suspect is Euphorbia characias with characteristic black nectar glands.
Euphorbia characias ssp. wulfenii
I am disappointed by the lack of flowers on my Mum’s Iris unguicularis (stylosa) in the bed by the back wall of the cottage. It did so well last year. I am not sure what has gone wrong as I paid it special attention, removing the old dead leaves and generally tidying up. This seems to have been a mistake so my attempts at care will not be repeated. Or perhaps it was just the exceptionally dry summer? Anyway I am going to ignore the clump this year and let nature take its course. A smaller clump in a more exposed, and therefore slightly less dry, site has managed to produce a few of the very welcome pale blue scented flowers.
The intriguing deep purple and green flowers of the Widow Iris, Hermodactylus tuberosus, are evident in the bed alongside the drive. My attempts to spread the seed seem to be working and more are appearing, albeit slowly.
Most narcissi have done well, but I have particularly enjoyed the remarkably large-flowered hoop petticoat daffodil, Narcissus bulbacodium ‘Oxford Gold’ from Avon bulbs, which I have grown in a pot for the first time, and the expanding clump of delicate Narcissus fernandesii var. cordubensis under the maturing silver birch, Betula utilis var. jacquemontii, which is finally developing the silvery bark for which it is renowned. The clump of the dwarf Narcissus nanus ‘Midget’ on my rock bed continues to enlarge and the tiny Narcissus ‘More and More’ has just opened. There are plenty of other larger narcissi, many naturalised beneath the apple trees in our strip of “meadow” alongside the drive, but some of these clumps produce more leaves than flowers. I must sort these out.
Narcissus bulbacodium ‘Oxford Gold’
Narcissus ‘More and More’
Narcissus fernandesii var. cordubensis
Narcissus nanus ‘Midget’
Newts and fritillaries
The new pond is full of newts, mostly great-crested I think, returning for the mating season before they disappear into the garden again. I counted at least 30 the other night.
To my delight, the snakes-head fritillaries, Fritillaria meleagris, have coped with the upheaval of redoing the pond. Despite being dug up and replanted into new soil they are flowering happily. My few Crown Imperials-Fritillaria imperialis ‘Lutea’ and Fritillaria imperialis ‘William Rex’ are also doing exceptionally well- the best year ever. The hot summer obviously suited them and the slugs and snails have not done their worst……. yet.
Colour and Scent
It has been a fantastic year for my Dad’s two camellias – Camellia japonica ‘Sylvia’ (crimson) and Camellia × williamsii ‘Donation’ (pink) – in their tubs of loam for acid-loving plants. They have been in flower for weeks. The Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’, has been equally good but with the added benefit of scent which has richly perfumed the area around the front door, especially in the evenings.
Apart from pruning, weeding, mulching, feeding and even watering, I am planning what to purchase when we go to the Great Malvern Show. I would like to acquire more primulae and irises for the refurbished marsh bed to replace all those that were lost when the dreaded Houttuynia strangled everything. I have also, after some delicate negotiations with Mr B, managed to extend the hot bed in the bottom garden ever so slightly so there is room for some Mediterranean drought-tolerant plants which will do so much better than his lawn. Watch this space!