All the Colours of the Rainbow

There are certain flowers that I have been aware of all my life.  I’m not sure if that proves that I was an extremely sensitive child or whether it is just because my parents and other relatives only ever talked about gardening.  I can still see pansies growing in the circular bed beneath the apple tree and shrub roses either side of the archway that led to the vegetable garden.  The strawberries grew along the right hand fence and the rhubarb in front of the chicken run and yet we moved from that house when I was just nine years old.  But there is one thing that bothers me: I can recall the Iris, dark blue, growing tall and strong but I can’t remember if they were in the front or back garden. It doesn’t really matter, of course, but it seems odd that I can’t picture them when I can clearly remember my father telling me enthusiastically that “they come in all the colours of the rainbow.”  Despite his passion for them he only ever grew the one colour (which is perhaps odder still) and it was only when I had a garden of my own that more and more colours started to creep in.

An idea that I had wanted to try out for some time, spurred on by this memory, was to plant a border devoted to iris of all colours – a rainbow border.  This requires space, not because the plants take up much room but because they have quite a short flowering time, perhaps just two or three weeks.  This makes such a border rather a luxury, especially in a small garden.
 

I garden for my living – a hobby turned into a career – and I have quite a number of clients with gardens, some of very many acres.  It is in one of these that the rainbow border has been planted.  Confidentiality prevents me from showing the completed border in its entirety so you will have to imagine wave after wave of varying shades of blues, whites, burnt ochres, burgundies, golds and purples.  The effect is breath-taking as is one other thing I’d forgotten from childhood: scent although not all colours are fragrant and those that are vary in strength and quality.  Spectacular they may be when in bloom but blink and they are gone for another twelve months.  Fortunately, herbaceous borders bursting into flower draw attention away from what has now become a dull part of the garden.
In my own garden, I’ve had to be more restrained, poking them into odd spaces where they can get enough sun, yet they still offer surprises.  This yellow variety, Butterscotch Kiss, is a good colour for it is not harsh; best of all its fragrance is overpowering, scenting the whole garden and wafting into rooms through open windows.

Although the Bearded Irises, Iris germanica, arefavourites, there is always room for smaller varieties. The tiniest are the early flowering Iris reticulata which tend to get lost in my borders so are grown in pots.  They flower in February and March.  The Dutch Irises are useful grown in the vegetable garden for cutting but also grow well in the flower garden, flowering about now.  Both types are grown from corms (similar in appearance to bulbs), planted in the autumn.  Iris unguicularis is a perennial, winter flowering iris, ideal for picking and often with a delicate perfume.  In the photo below, it is growing in a pot indoors and flowering on Christmas Day.  In the garden it wants to be placed at the foot of a wall and grown in poor, stony soil.
The bog Iris, Iris sibirica, grows well in wet soil but also adapts quite happily to the garden border providing it is kept well watered until established.  Its leaves are grass-like and the flowers much daintier than their Bearded cousins.
Compared to the standard Iris sibirica above, Flight of Butterflies is more compact and has flowers with emphasised blue and white veining
There are numerous types, too, for the pond and these grow standing in several inches of water. Our native Yellow Flag, Iris pseudoacorus, is robust and can be too dominant in smaller areas of water. It is a lovely sight when seen in the wild – we have plenty here in the secret valley growing along the edge of the river, their broad rush like leaves making the perfect resting place for dragonflies .

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My Favourite Tree

When I was a small child I was lucky enough to be sent to a school that had once been a large country house.  Its gardens had long been allowed to return to the wild and it was difficult to differentiate between them and the meadows that came with the property.  Lessons on warm summer days were often taken outdoors sitting not on chairs but on a bank of short mown grass.  This sounds – and was, of course – idyllic but rules were strict and we had to sit in rows as straight as the chairs in the classroom.  At playtime we could run about through the longer grass chasing butterflies and trying to catch grasshoppers in our school caps.

Even in those early days I hated being indoors during bad weather and found it hard to concentrate on lessons in the classroom for there always seemed to be something more interesting happening outside.  Our teacher must have felt the same for with the first sign of sunshine we would be back once more in the open air.  It is said that every child remembers the name of their first teacher and mine, Miss Vine, I recall with great affection and gratitude for it was she that first took me on a nature walk.  The walk – the earliest of all my schoolday memories – triggered off a lifelong love of and fascination with nature.

We were led one late winter’s day wrapped up in our gaberdine raincoats, belts tightly buckled at the waist, crocodile fashion in pairs through the meadows further than we had been before.  How exciting to be exploring somewhere new!  When we came to an old wooden gate we passed through onto a wide, open path lined with trees, their trunks as straight as soldiers and towering high above us.  The path instead of being muddy was soft and springy, our feet cushioned by years of fallen needles.  Miss Vine had brought us to a larch wood; an inspired introduction to trees for everything about them is childlike in scale apart from their height which she said led to a magic world way, way above.

We never were told how we might reach the magic world but she pointed out the gifts that were dropped from it so that we might learn all about the birds and animals that lived there.  She picked up a fallen piece of branch with its tiny cones attached, perfect child-sized miniatures of the larger Spruce fircones, and gave it to us to look at and then we all found our own and carried our ‘gift’ back to the classroom to draw it in painting class.

As the months went by we visited the trees often, watching how the hard, knobbly, dead-looking branches opened into soft tufts of the brightest green.  We marvelled at how the cones formed starting off green and pink before turning chestnut and then brown.  And in the autumn we watched as the needles – and it puzzled us that needles could be soft – turned glorious shades of yellow and orange before falling to the ground.
 
During those visits we learnt about different types of trees, about the wild flowers and birds, the animals and other wildlife.  It was only many years later that I realised that Miss Vine had taught us that there really was a magic world – the one that we live in and take for granted every day of our lives.

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Mothers Always Know Best (Sometimes)

From early childhood my parents taught my sister and I the skills to be self-sufficent. From my father we were both taught how to grow and harvest things from the garden which ultimately led to me earning my living from gardening. My sister became a skilled plantswoman and, although she has never earnt money from it, now opens her garden to the public each year raising many hundreds of pounds for charity.

My mother was much more interested in being indoors running the home. She was always at her happiest when unexpected visitors arrived and were persuaded to stay for dinner. Somehow, from the depths of her larder (which was always bulging) she would rustle up enough food to feed the proverbial army. Just before she died two years ago, I asked her why she had been so ‘progressive’ teaching me, a boy in the 1950’s, to sew buttons and name tapes, amongst other things, on clothing. She looked somewhat surprised and puzzled at the question and, to my disillusionment, told me it was because she had hated doing them herself. Mothers!

That was not the case when it came to cooking and the three of us loved to bake and baste together so, that by the time I reached my teens, I was able to cook a complete meal from start to finish. At one of my mother’s dinner parties I remembered an amazing stack of ultra thin shortbreads, with layers of clotted cream and rasberries between each one. A final decoration of raspberries and icing sugar on top left an unshakeable image of culinary delight in my mind and one that I had intended to recreate for years.

More disappointment when Mother told me that I’d imagined it, that she’d never made anything like it and it would be impossible to create wafer like, plate sized shortbreads – if only because it would be impossible to lift or cut them without them breaking. I was determined to prove her wrong and, every so often, she would give me that look that mothers do when I told her of my latest failed attempt.

The photographs illustrate the procedure for my ‘wafer stack’


Finally, yesterday, I achieved success, albeit they were much smaller than planned. Now they are individual sized portions but perhaps better for that.

Here is the recipe, which couldn’t be simpler:

4oz butter

2oz icing sugar

6 oz plain flour

pinch of salt

*Put all ingredients into a food processor and whizz until the mix forms a soft ball

*If you just want to make ‘ordinary’ shortbread then press into a flat tin or on a baking sheet with the back of a fork

*Bake for 15 minutes at 180C until firm and only just beginning to colour

*Remove from oven and immediately cut into pieces but don’t remove from baking sheet until completely cool

If you want to try my stack the process is a bit different and a little more time consuming:

*Make as before but instead of pressing down the mixture, roll out as thinly as possible. This won’t be thin enough!

*Cut out rounds – I used a jam jar as I found that if the circles were anything larger they were impossible to lift without them breaking up (Mother did know best!)

*Place on a baking sheet and don’t worry if the rounds are now an odd shape. Flatten with fingers into a round shape making as thin as possible I made 24 altogether from the quantities of ingredients above

*Bake for 5 minutes only at 180C, leave to cool on sheet before lifting

For the filling, use any fruit you fancy. Here, I have used blueberries and strawberries.
Cut up into pieces and mix with a thick cream – I used sour cream (smetena). Decorate with a ‘clean’ piece of fruit

Good luck and let me know if you manage to make them plate size. Somehow, I feel that you won’t and in this case, Mother does know best! I like to think she has been watching my final attempt with an amused smile and rather cross that she is unable to try the end result…..

PS I promise that the next post will be the latest news on the puppies!

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