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!
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.
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.
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?
Galanthus elwesii ‘Peter Gatehouse’
Galanthus elwesii ‘Marjorie Brown’
The clump of Galanthus elwesii ‘Mrs 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.
Viburnum x bodnantense Dawn
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.
Seed head of Clematis orientalis ‘Bill Mackenzie’
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!
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!