Going Naked

We’ve gone naked here in the secret valley.  Not literally, it’s far too close to winter for that sort of jolly jape.  While we are busy putting on additional clothes, our lovely old willows that line the little winding river have been stripped of their top growth.
 
Gone are their branches and along with them so have the other plants that find a home in their mossy nooks and crannies.  It is pollarding time and the lovely view that I have been used to seeing every day since I moved here twelve years ago has changed dramatically.  Fortunately, all will return in abundance in due course.

Pollarded willows in the secret valley
 

Change, of course can be a good thing and it is interesting how spacious and full of light the valley now seems.  It is also a good thing for the trees for without this drastic treatment they sometimes topple in storms.  Pollarding actually prolongs the life of those tree species that can cope with such treatment. As a child I played in a woodland known as Burnham Beeches and there, some of the pollards are over five hundred years old.  These old pollards support a huge variety of wildlife that has adapted over the centuries to the practice.

Ancient ash pollard – sad to think that it will probably now die because of the newly imported disease, Chalara

Now a rare sight – White Park cattle
 

Pollarding has been carried out since man’s earliest farming days and can really be considered as just another form of pruning.  By cutting the branches above the reach of grazing animals, they can regrow without being damaged.    In the past, cattle were allowed to roam in these ‘wood-pastures’ and in Burnham Beeches the practice has been reinstated after a gap of about two hundred years.  The White Park cattle above are kept at Adam Henson’s, Cotswold Farm Park.  Now endangered, this native breed is being used to graze freely in the Beeches which keeps the forest floor clear and improves diversity. 

The timber from pollarding was used in a number of different ways.  Most commonly, it provided firewood, with the trees cut every fifteen years, which is the case with our willows.  Sometimes the pollards were cut more regularly to provide fodder for livestock.

It is surprising to see just how quickly new growth restarts.  Without branches and leaves to support, the energy rising through the tree from its root system forces it to renew itself.  The willows below are a little further up the valley and were pollarded in the early spring of this year.  As can be seen they already have grown six feet or more.

Just six months of new growth
 

Pollarding of trees isn’t just practised in the depths of the country.  It is frequently carried out in our towns and cities as street trees are kept within bounds.  In the garden it is a good way to create interest – even a smallish garden can create a lime walk to give all year round appeal.  The coloured stem willows are especially good for this purpose too as they quickly become dull and too large when left unchecked.

It will take time to become used to seeing the ‘new look’ secret valley, now so very different from the image that has become the trademark of this blog.  In the past, cutting the trees would have given a team of men work for the whole winter. Now one man with a machine achieves it in five days.  It may not be such a romantic notion but watching the tractor driver manipulate the claws of the cutter at every conceivable angle demonstrated that the old techniques have been replaced with skills every bit as impressive.

If you fancy trying your hand at pollarding you have a few months left to build up your courage!  In the UK and those places with a similar climate it should be completed by mid-February.

More reading: click on the links below
Conservation of ancient pollards
Chalara in ash trees
White Park cattle and other endangered farm breeds
Adam Henson’s Cotswold Farm Park

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Sun, Drought, Frost: at last, Rain…..

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It has been difficult to remember, sometimes, that it is still only spring time. After the unusually early, bitter and snowy winter weather we experienced, 2011 came in cold but dry. It remained so until the end of March when, wham!, summer arrived.
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With temperatures soaring into the mid 80’s, many plants struggled to open their buds (and the ash trees still haven’t done so properly). I had planned to write about this battle but became – as you may well know – rather obsessed with puppies ….
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However, many plants did rather better than normal. Tulips, especially the fragile doubles, were better than ever with no rain to spoil their petals, as have been the paeonies. Perfume has wafted about the garden in the warm evening air – can there be anything more lovely on both eyes and nose than this paeony and wisteria combination?
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The trees, later than has been usual for many years, finally started to come into leaf. Now the countryside is awash with May, cherry and Horse Chestnut blossom. It is all quite stunning. Or was.
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Out of nowhere, on Monday night, we had frost. The first for over five weeks, this was no slight touch of cold but one that turned the secret valley into a white valley of death. Well, I admit, that is rather an exaggeration but, I imagine it is due to the very hot temperatures immediately before, some plants – and especially the trees – have been decimated. One moment their new leaves hurt the eyes with their iradescent green, the next they are brown and shrivelled. Some, depending on how the cold air lay, have come through unscathed whilst their neighbour has been hit badly. Will they recover? I expect so but, possibly, too late to help the insects and birds that rely on the food source at this very moment. Time will tell.
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Just when our feelings were at their most depressed, the weather gave us another surprise. Rain. The first for many weeks, we have been desperate for it. The ground has been cracking, the river getting low, plants wilting and, worst of all, the farm crops not growing. In places, the young corn has started to go yellow. And when we least expected to get any, we awoke to the sound of rain on the windows. Our only neighbour, the farmer whose corn was suffering, and I were standing in the field below our homes, getting soaked and almost hugging each other with joy. It gave me just the slightest awareness of how people in countries that really suffer from prolonged droughts must feel. And it also made me aware of this rather primitive reaction of wanting to literally dance in the rain when it first arrives.
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. The old mortar in the garden is beginning to fill once again!
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The paeonies have been ‘knocked for six’ but, who cares? Apparantly, we have only had 1.5mm of rain during March and April compared with the 40-50mm in an average year. Let it rain for days now to restore the balance. But – as a gardener speaking – please only at night and only fall gently……
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At Last! Signs of Spring!

The secret valley is at last bursting into life, albeit rather late. Or perhaps, this is how the season should be as we have had such mild winters the past few years. Whichever, the last few days have been warm and sunny, although the wind has been on the keen side at times. The result is greenery beginning to appear in the hedgerows and on the trees and what a welcome sight it is. Today I decided to walk along the ‘old’ road, a drover’s route that was the original way to enter the secret valley before the present road was created, probably in the late 18th century. This route is now a wide grassy path – a subject of a post to come shortly.
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The photo above shows how advanced the Spindle bushes are compared to some of the other hedgerow shrubs. The hawthorn beyond it is still quite dormant yet, some years, they can start to leaf up during February. Hawthorn seems especially prone to variation as some of them elsewhere in the secret valley are quite green with new leaves.
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The Wayfaring Tree, Viburnum lantana, below (which never reaches tree like proportions) also looks lifeless from a distance. However, that is because its leaves and flower buds are greyish when first opening, being covered in felt like hairs , botanically referred to as tomentosum. The photograph beneath the Wayfarer is not of the same plant but the opening buds of the Whitebeam, Sorbus aria. They are not related: Viburnums belong to the honeysuckle family and Sorbus to roses. The Whitebeam makes a fine tree and although it is native, it is often planted in gardens.

It will be sometime before the Ash trees open their leaves but their black nobbly buds, that look so hard and devoid of life, quite suddenly have burst into little pom-pom flowers. All they need now is a group of cheerleaders to use them in their routine: it would certainly aid pollination!
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Why should this group of Cherry Plum be in full flower when other trees are not in leaf? I have no idea but am just grateful to be able to enjoy some of the first blossoms of the year. I’ve had to wait a long time to see this, this year.

The wild flowers also show both signs of the winter and also spring life. Cow Parsley or ‘Keck’, as it is known locally around here, is sending up its young leaves which clearly show the reason for the ‘parsley’ in its name. Where ‘Keck’ originates from, I have no idea, for I have not come across that name when I lived in the Chiltern Hills just 50 miles away. Local plant names can be very confusing and make an interesting study in itself. Despite its lushness, Cow Parsley is poisonous. Later, in the summer, it will send up tall spikes of flat, white flowerheads made up of dozens of tiny stars. These dessicate to remain standing through the winter and, surprisingly, there are still a few that have survived the snow. They have a special beauty when the sun catches their metallic, bronzed skeletons.

Cowslips, Bluebells and the Hedge Mustard (which in the Chilterns, we called Jack-by-the-hedge) are all showing signs of things to come. The cowslips show their flower buds and, normally, bluebells would be doing so too. In the bottom photograph, the Jack-by-the-hedge has leaves reminiscent of the garden plant, Honesty. These leaves have quite a mild garlic smell when crushed and make a good addition to spring salads when they are young and tender. The little spikes of six to eight small leaves in whorls are the dreaded Goosegrass (or Cleavers, depending where you live). Before long, these will have scrambled five or more feet over every plant in the hedgerow and the garden, their leaves and bobbly, pinhead seeds sticking to every bit of clothing – the gardener’s curse.


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Three Very Special Cotswold Reasons….

If you could only choose three things to demonstrate why you love a place, what would they be? This is the tricky question that is being asked by The Guardian in conjunction with enjoyEngland, the English tourist authority ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/enjoy-england ). Well, here are mine:

1. Space and Peace. I know this is technically two reasons but they are so interlinked that, in my mind, they only count as one. Besides, that way I can cram in an extra reason without appearing to cheat too much. The flat topped, rolling limestone hills that make up the Cotswolds offer far reaching views to the vales beyond. They free the mind and let the spirit wander – a rare occurrance in the busy world we all inhabit. This view looks north over glorious country to the Vale of Evesham and just invites you to start walking towards a distant goal.

The King’s Men stone circle forms part of the Rollright Stones and have been a meeting place since they were set here 4,500 years ago. In early morning light they appear mysterious and brooding but when the sun strikes them their colours and markings are awe inspiring. Rest here a while, at a time when you can be alone, for the feeling of peace is palpable.

And give back to the soil an offering, (when we have taken so much away), as others have done from the beginnings of time and continue to do so. Single flowers placed at the centre of the circle have a calm simplicity…

2. Nature. It is impossible not to be aware of nature in the Cotswolds, whether it is the magnificence of old trees, the deer crossing roads in front of you or the cloud formations of our large skyscapes. This ancient ash tree has watched centuries of agricultural change take place and, despite modern farming practice, still stands proud in a hedgerow dividing wheatfields.

Deer are common throughout the Cotswolds. Roe and the introduced Muntjac are frequently seen but perhaps the prettiest, when in their spotted summer coats, are the Fallow.
There are some exotic surprises too! A macaw outside a garage in Charlbury and
alpaca seem to be everywhere
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3. History. The Cotswolds are steeped in history and it is the history of wealth and the power it brings. Sheep – or more accurately, their wool – were the originators of this wealth and the region still has a higher population of sheep to humans. But how to illustrate this when there is so much scope to choose from? Bliss Mill, in Chipping Norton, is now converted to luxury apartments but, for most of its time, produced some of the finest tweeds in Britain.
The churches of the Cotswolds were also a by-product of wool – the wealth it created is often shown by their huge size in proportion to the numbers of the local population. The photos below were also taken in Chipping Norton.

So, come and visit the Cotswolds and decide for yourself. And, in the meantime, select three things that make your special place, special.

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