Spring Is Around The Corner!

The first signs of spring are always welcome and especially so after the winter that we have had this time. Frosts arrived early in the season, followed by snow that lay both deep and long, which is unusual for the south of England.
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Winter in the secret valley: sheep wait patiently for food by our little winding river
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The Cotswolds are known, however, for their colder and longer winters compared to the rest of the region. Here, about as far inland as you can be on a small island, we have little benefit from the warming effect of the sea and we are also hill country. Elsewhere may be showing signs of spring but in the secret valley these are still hard to find – an elder twig just breaking into leaf is the only green that I can find so far.

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The aconite wood, ‘though, is a sight to behold and has been flowering for a couple of weeks now. How many plants can there be? Surely, tens of thousands. When and why were they planted here, for they are not native to this country. An old country chap told me it used to be called Summer House Woods but there is no sign of a building here and the ‘big’ house that owns the land is some distance away.

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This snowdrop wood was planted by nuns over a hundred and fifty years ago and is attached to my ‘reincarnation’ house. Snowdrop woods, unlike aconite ones, are not uncommon but never fail to impress. Even a small group in a garden are eagerly awaited and we have plenty here where they spill out beyond the garden boundary and peep out from amongst the hedgerow that borders the lane.

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The Cornus mas is also flowering now. It grows in our garden against the house wall, facing east. Despite this, it perfoms regularly and is easy to keep pruned to shape. This one, is the variegated leaf variety which is quite slow growing compared to the standard type and so is ideal as a wall shrub. In late summer it carries edible scarlet berries, hence its common name of Cornelian Cherry.

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Also in the garden, I found a single, wild primrose, sheltered by the old garden roller, in flower. Later, the garden, and especially the lawn, will be covered with their flowers. Daffodils, although beginning to flower elsewhere will be a few more weeks before they do up here. But even in the Cotwolds they are showing colour in the warmth of our towns – which makes shopping just a little bit more enjoyable.

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When in town, I was surprised to find that oldest of symbols of spring – the green man. He was standing tall and lofty down a back street unnoticed and forgotten. Closer examination revealed that he was an old column and ball, the remaining one of a pair of stone entrance pillars from some long demolished house. Now covered in ivy, I wondered why it had been left and what was its history.
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Further afield still, I came across a small pond in a field. The croaking of hundreds of frogs drew my attention to it and in the photo below there are over forty heads poking out above the water. As I approached, sensing danger, they fought one another to get below the surface, making the water look as if it was a boiling cauldron. A few days later, when I returned, all was quiet and the surface of the water completely covered in frogspawn. Like the daffodils, it will be some weeks before our secret valley frogs start marching across the lane and entering the house in their quest to reach the lake below our garden.

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Thoughts of Summer Borders

With all the cold weather we have been having lately, the planning of new summer borders brings new enthusiasm to be out in the garden. On a long, dark night, what can be more pleasant than to sit in front of a blank sheet of paper, sketching and drawing, whilst thinking of balmy, warm days not so very far off? And you don’t need to be a great artist. I know, for I am the only member of my family that cannot paint or sketch well, yet I am the only one to make a living from design. I like to think that I paint with flowers instead.

I am often confronted with an area of garden which has been cleared by a client of vegetation for them only to be daunted by the expanse of ‘scorched earth’ that they are left with. The one below, turned out to be one of the biggest challenges to date with the request that the area had the appearance of one large flower border from the house, yet without too much height. The other specification was for there to be a driveway for cars incorporated into it and for it to look traditional – not one of the newer ‘prairie’ styles, the fashion for which has swept Europe in recent years. To make matters worse, in clearing the garden, the contractor had also removed most of the topsoil.

To make the garden more manageable I divided the area up into sections. In the photo below is a new stone path splitting the levels and, to the left, part of the driveway coming in, in an arc. Altogether there were three raised beds, a long border plus the ‘in and out’ driveway and new path running through the whole scheme. Also in the photo is part of the mountain of topsoil that had to be brought in and there is still some turf to be removed.

Hundreds of pots filled with herbaceous plants stretching into the distance were a daunting sight when it came to planting time. These are just some of them carefully positioned according to the plan. Although not very clear on the photo, I also placed some medium sized rocks and several clumps of dogwoods. These were chosen, not just for their coloured stems providing winter interest, but also because their pruning requirements meant they would stay relatively small in height.

The reward for all the hard work is the finished result – although of course, being gardeners, we never have finshed results for we are always pruning and tweaking and fine tuning, never quite satisfied. From the house the borders do look like one and give colour throughout the year, although summer is their glory time. They are remarkable low maintenance too requiring a thorough weed and tidy in spring and again in autumn, for the close planting precludes much weed growth in the summer months. This is the garden in its second summer of blooming.

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Willows

The pollarded willows that line the banks of our river are ancient. Pollarding is the removal of all the top growth of the tree, the timber in the past being used in many ways but, most famously in the manufacture of cricket bats, but now used mainly for firewood. Severe as this pruning is, it prolongs the life of the trees.

Their true age is difficult to determine as they have the strange habit of their outer trunk splitting. This then rots away leaving a relatively young looking trunk to start the process again. I have seen mulberry trees behave in the same way.
In the garden, pollarding (and coppicing, which is the same type of pruning but at ground level) can be used to advantage. The new growth of the coloured bark willows (Salix) and dogwoods (Cornus) are considerably brighter than the older wood and make a good backdrop to the winter garden.
In England, the pruning is carried out in late February, just before the new growth of Spring starts.
The flowering tree in the photo is, yes honestly, another of our pollarded willows. A wild rose – probably from a seed dropped by a bird – has established itself in the crown. It looks spectacular when in full bloom and confuses everyone that finds it!

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