The Earliest Signs of Spring

As I write this the rain is lashing against the window panes and beating down upon the glass roof of the conservatory; unrelenting, its endless patter has been sounding since before dawn.  In the last hour the wind has risen and the silver birch, its downward hanging branches blowing first this direction and then the other, sheds its brittle twigs, nature’s way of pruning out the dead wood.
The silver birch silvered by frost

There is no way of casting yourself free from the weather on a day like this.  From every room of the house the rain calls, the views of the secret valley are as montone as the sky; all shape is blurred and merges into one, no defined hills, no defined trees, no defined river bed, even the clouds have been replaced by a heavy, all-oppressing  blanket of grey.  It is as if the life-force has been drained from the landscape.

Siskins are exotic looking winter visitors
A flash of colour reminds us that this is not the case.  The colder air travelling towards us from the north has driven before it birds desperate to find slightly better conditions.  Far too exotic looking with their bright yellow bodies and sooty black head and bib to be outside the tropics, siskins have arrived to feed on the nut feeders.  They prefer the tiny, black niger seeds but the goldfinches are having none of it; they want to keep those for themselves.  Flurries of feathers, a mix of yellows, golds and reds fall as they scrap – the delicate lttle goldfinch is obviously tougher than it looks.  From time to time, flocks of long-tailed tits descend too to take their place in the food queue; they usually prefer to feed high up in the trees, their search given way by the soft, contact calls they make to keep together.
Siskin vie with Goldfinch for the niger seeds
Long-tailed Tits only visit the feeders in bad weather
It is the birds that tell us that spring is really not so far away.  First it is the robins, their sweet, melodic song sounding as if it should come from a bird twice their size, perhaps a blackbird.  Then it is the turn of the giant sized birds, the raven and the red kite, not with song but with the aerial acrobatics of their courtship displays.  Buzzards follow too but they are more content to circle ever higher, mewing to one another, attraction enough it seems.  All three birds have been rarities for most of the twentieth century but the reintroduction of the red kite in the 1980’s helped protect the buzzards from persecution.  The ravens followed later, arriving in the secret valley with the dawn of the new century – now all three are seen daily.
The forked tail is the easiest way to recognise the red kite
Winter aconites are the first of the flowers to appear, their yellow button flowerheads opening on fine days to prove that they are closely related to  wild buttercups both in flower shape and colour.  Nothing will hold them back and if they become covered in snow or rimed in frost it is of little consequence to them: they are back as pert as ever once the thaw comes.  Snowdrops quickly follow, also uncaring of the weather although they do bow their heads as if allowing their shoulders to take the brunt of it.
Winter aconites flower early whatever the weather
Every tree and shrub show signs of life too.  The hazel, its catkins stubby, hard and green for many weeks begin to lengthen, to grow brighter and looser until they live up to their old and descriptive country name of lamb’s tails.  Knocked back and discoloured by frost they soon restore or are replaced by others threefold.  Others are less precocious and prefer to show the signs of spring more discreetly.  The hawthorn leaf buds show signs of swelling and take on a brighter hue; the blackthorn and cherry flower buds also are clearly visible promising snowstorms of white and pink petals in a month or two.
Buds start to swell slowly at first

In the flower borders, life is stirring.  The hellebores lift their heads in shades of mournful maroons and creamy whites; the daffodils show their buds too almost as soon as they push through the soil waiting to open once they have reached their full height.  The day lilies are the earliest of the herbaceous plants to send out their leaves, their bright lime green shoots creating an attractive foil to the showier spring bulbs weeks before they send out spray after spray of exotic looking flowers.  Spring is just around the corner…

Hellebores flower early in the year

The day lilies won’t flower for some months but their leaves are amongst the first to show

In the meantime, the rain has turned to snow.  The countryside is turning white and still the wind howls.  Another day of winter to be crossed off the calender before we can relax and say “Spring has come”.

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Still Falls The Rain

The title of this post is taken from the poem by Edith Sitwell, that most eccentric of twentieth century English poets.  I am using it for its literal sense, for the rain just won’t stop falling, whereas Sitwell wrote Still Falls The Rain as her response to the London Blitz in the 1940’s.

It has not been an easy gardening year.  We were bracing ourselves for the coldest and snowiest winter ever, for after two years of freezing temperatures and snow at greater depths than for a decade or more, we were warned of worse to come ….. it didn’t.  Instead we had a relatively mild time of it but with virtually no rain whatsoever.  Then came March:  temperatures in the 70’s and day after day of unbroken sunshine and the garden couldn’t work out what to do next.  Some plants flowered earlier than normal whereas others refused to break out of their winter dormancy.  And still no rain; the little river that winds its way through the header of this blog and the secret valley ran lower than midsummer and by the old sheepwash it was almost possible to walk across it in hiking boots.

Then came April and the day water shortages and a hosepipe ban were announced.  All the hose reels were wound up to be stored away and we worried about how we were to keep the parched ground alive.

We did not need to worry for, reminiscent of the day in the 1980’s when Michael Fish, the weather forecaster said “What hurricane?  We don’t have them in this country….” (the next morning half of England’s trees had been flattened), the rain started to fall.  And it hasn’t stopped falling.  We have the occasional sunny interlude when you could almost think it is spring but, for the most part, the skies remain leaden and heavy.  Day after depressing day it is dark and gloomy with a cold northerly wind blowing and the rain lashes against the window panes.

The ground, so hard from months of drought, could not absorb the deluge and the water, so desperately needed, runs down the lanes and over the fields and banks into the river.  Our pretty little tinkling stream has become a torrent and the sheepwash island, coloured golden with  its Kingcups in full bloom, has disappeared from view completely.  Opposite the sheepwash on the other side of the lane, the water is running off the hill and new springs have appeared where they haven’t been seen in years.

The secret valley is flooding and looks more like how it should have appeared in winter.  The sheep and their lambs have been moved to safer pastures and the pastoral scene of a few weeks ago has all but gone.  Gales have accompanied the worst of the downpours creating their own havoc and the old willow pollards, heavy with top growth are splitting and falling.  The damage, although it looks devestating, will not affect them too much for they will regrow once the broken timber has been cleared, for this is nature’s own way of pollarding them.

In the meantime,  we watch the flood water rise all around us.  Our little stone cottage, built in the 1850’s, sits safe, high above the river, which snakes around two sides of the building.

As for gardening, weeds continue to grow for they have adapted to the extremes of the English climate over millenia.  The nurtured plants of the flower border struggle and produce some oddities.  The tulips that usually look bedraggled after just one shower, have remained resilient and daffodils that have normally finished weeks ago are still in bloom, thanks to the cool conditions.  The wet weather has also benefitted the cowslips and the bluebells and they seem even more intense in colour if, in the case of bluebells, that is possible. A quick look around the secret valley at the trees also shows contradiction:  some are in full leaf and others – almost 50% of them – are still to show their leaves so have a wintry look about them.

Tulip ‘Peppermint Stick’

It has been a dry and sunny day today and tomorrow is also supposed to be quite pleasant.  The forecast is for more rain to come and the cool conditions to continue at least until the beginning of June.  And when I wake up on Monday and hear the rain hitting the bedroom windows, as forecast, my first awareness will be to hear in my mind the haunting voice of Edith Sitwell saying “Still falls the rain, still falls the rain ……”

To listen to Edith Sitwell reciting Still Falls The Rain click on the link below:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6_2x948EEw

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Shh! Don’t Tell The Weather Man!

I hardly dare mention it but I think Spring is finally coming to the Cotswolds. After I wrote about it back in February, the man from the Met Office sent us cold again. Hard frosts put spring on hold. To be fair, as I also wrote, the Cotswolds may be one of the most beautiful places to live in the south of England but the hills are also one of the coldest. Our spring is always two or three weeks later than places even as close as Oxford or Gloucester.
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Early spring sunshine comes to the ancient Cotswold town of Burford
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The past few weeks have been unusually dry which has meant that tidying up the garden – or, in my case, gardens: my own as well as clients – has progressed rather well. A nice drop of warm rain now would work a treat and not interfere with time schedules. At last, in the secret valley, leaves are unfurling properly, daffodils are blooming and the lone primrose has been joined by many more as well as purple and white violets.
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Wherever I have lived, there has always been one hawthorn that opens its leaves days before the rest, even when planted as a hedgerow. I’ve often wondered if this is a genetic thing which means, I presume, that it could be cloned to have a whole group of early leafing ones. Or is it a combination of warmth and soil conditions in that particular spot? When I retire and have more time (a contradiction as the two never happen according to friends who are trying it) I will take cuttings and carry out a controlled experiment. It will give me the opportunity to blog about it if I am still able to sit in front of a computer!

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I wonder if I could get a whole hedge of early flowering hawthorn? It will be another six weeks or more before they will be in bloom in the secret valley.
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The snowdrops and aconites have now finished flowering. The little ruff of green leaves are all that is left of the latter. They look so similar to the taller herbaceous aconites or Monkhoods whose green ruffs are also poking through the ground now. They are all part of the buttercup family so are related but so unalike one another at their flowering time. I love the tall purple spires of the Monkshoods in mid to late summer: not as delicate as delphiniums, another favourite, but at least slugs don’t eat them and they don’t need staking, a real plus.

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Forsythia is in full bloom. These I enjoy in other gardens but never plant them in my own unless the garden is huge and they can be planted a long way off. They show up from quite a distance and when seen too close, are too strident for my taste. The non flowering shrub later in the summer is a coarse affair too, dull and not warranting the space unless livened up by a clematis or other climbing plant. In the photo below it is grown as a wall shrub and it works well in disguising this unattractive garage. Despite being cut hard back to the wall each year in early summer it is always smothered in bloom by March.

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The same applies to the common flowering currant. The standard pink is a wishy-washy thing and the deeper coloured, named varieties such as King Edward VIII, is as strong in colour as the forsythia – a plant to be enjoyed in other gardens. For those of you that thought the currants were always pink (although there are white flowered versions) and smelt of cat’s pee – and I include myself in this category for many years – there are three others that are well worth making space for.
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Ribes odoratum, has pale yellow flowers and is beautifully scented. It is a bit of an untidy shrub in my experience, suckering freely but not a nuisance. It grows in happy neglect in a hedgerow – an ideal spot for it to do its own thing – and is really only noticed by the spicy fragrance as you wander past.
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Ribes lauriflolium is a new plant to me. Unlike the others which all originate from the States, this currant is found in the wild in China. Looking at descriptions on the internet I wonder if they are correct or if there is a lot of variation in the stock, which is possible. I bought mine described as white, evergreen and not too hardy. It has survived -16C this winter, has been deciduous (perhaps it keeps its leaves in milder winters, I rather hope not) and is white flowered. Others are described as yellow and growing to only 1 ft – mine is already 3ft but that may be because it is tucked behind our dry stone wall. The one thing they all agree on and I can confirm is the exquisite scent of lilies of the valley. Do try to grow one if you can find it.

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I have since discovered that this isn’t a ribes at all! See my next post to reveal all!!
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My final choice of flowering currant is another favourite, Ribes speciosum. It is reminiscent in bloom of fuchsia and, like them, are pollinated in their native environment by humming birds. Hailing from California, in UK gardens it requires shelter and grows best against a warm wall where it can be trained on wires or left free growing. This photo was taken in the botanical gardens in Dublin on a glorious spring day.
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Warmth, blue sky and sunshine. The clocks go forward an hour this weekend giving us more evening daylight. I’m almost feeling optimistic about the days to come – something a gardener should never be!
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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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Finally, We Have Daffodils!

Despite a return to cold, blustery weather and barely a decent spring day so far this year, the daffodils (narcissus) have at last started to bloom.

I suppose it is because of the long winter weeks of relative stillness in the garden that we eagerly await the first signs of new life: the first grey green tip of the daffodil’s leaves pushing through the soil, the lengthening of the flower stalk, the swelling of the bud and the first hint of colour and, then, the pleasure of seeing the open trumpet in all its glory. And how apt that daffodils are one of the few flowers that have trumpets, for the sight of them, whether just a few or en masse, herald the start of the floral year with a fanfare of pleasure as great as any orchestral masterpiece.

Narcissus ‘Carlton’
Last autumn saw the planting of 8000 daffodils along the edge of a field that led to one of our client’s houses. The hard labour was well worthwhile both in physical effort and the time we have had to wait to see the result. When I plant like this, I mix the varieties to extend the flowering period – generally Carlton, St Keverne, Counsellor and, if I want a few white included, Ice Follies.

Combination of varieties to extend the flowering period

Narcissus ‘Ice Follies’

I can be incredibly opinionated, as many of you will know, where plants are concerned. I tend to prefer simple, unimproved varieties – fancy colours and doubles, or those described as having the largest flowers ever seen, can be left for others to grow. I can see no reason why, for example, a bloom “as big as your face” (as I saw one begonia described) is considered desirable. I am not keen on double daffodils as they nearly always seem to be top heavy. The slightest puff of wind or shower of snow and the heads sit face down on the ground where they remain to be eaten by slugs. Ice King is a variety I plant – although hardly to be described as a favourite – as it stands fairly well. In the photo one bloom has collapsed which rather proves a point.

Narcissus ‘Ice King’

Salome, is a bi coloured variety, the trumpet changing from a rich yellow to a peachy shade as it fades. I can never decide if I really like it or not. Here, in the photo below, it gives a warm glow to the border. However, what can be more charming the pure simplicity of Segovia? Its delicate yellow cup and pure white, evenly spaced petals (or perianth, if we want to be horticulturally correct) give it the look of a plant that has quiet superiority.

Narcissus ‘Salome’

Narcissus ‘Segovia’


Whatever your personal preference, daffodils are a joy and amazing value for money. With individual bulbs just costing pence each and increasing year by year if left to naturalise, it is always remarkable that after a few short weeks, we cannot wait to see them gone, being tired of their gently decaying leaves which interfere with our border work or mowing regimes.
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When grown in grass, we mow the top growth off six weeks after flowering for, by then, nourishment has returned to the bulb and next years flowering is assured. Just to be doubly certain, we feed the grass grown bulbs with Autumn lawn food (minus the weedkiller, of course) immediately after flowering. And being the fickle species man is, six months later we will be back eagerly scouring the ground for the first signs of the daffodils and the forthcoming warmer weather once more.

Narcissus ‘Burma’

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Snowdrops and Aconites

The winter may have been one of the snowiest and coldest for a long time but it hasn’t made the slightest difference to the displays of snowdrops and aconites which are now at their best.

There has been a great upsurge of interest in the different varieties of snowdrops in recent times. To those of you who just thought there were singles or doubles, it may come as a surprise to learn that there are more than 500 named cultivars derived from the 19 or so species found in the wild. All are variations on a theme, basically white petals with green (or occasionally yellow) markings. The Royal Horticultural Society Plant Finder lists 251 as being available in the UK and prices for the more unusual ones start from a few pounds per bulb to large sums of money for the very rare. Personally I am quite happy with the simple purity of the common single type and am also aware of the difference, namely the ‘frilly petticoat’, of the common double one.
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Now people get very excited by upturning the flowerhead so they can see a slightly larger speck of green on the bloom or scrabbling about on their knees in search of the single rarity that lurks amongst the ordinary – and good luck to them. Call me boring or unimaginative if you want but just give me bog standard Galanthus nivalis any day – preferably in their thousands. This really is a case where more is best as the carpets of snowdrops that flower in the garden of the house that was built for me two hundred years ago proves. (Readers of this blog may remember the post describing this house, along with the possibility that I have been reborn and finally reunited with it – most of the time I say this tongue-in-cheek, occasionally I half believe it). According to tradition the nuns that took over the property upon ‘my’ death planted them and now they have spread to cover many acres. Is there any better way for ‘me’ to be remembered?


Well, yes, there could be. My death next time round should be marked with the Winter Aconite, Eranthis hyemalis. There is something very cheering and positive about their bright yellow, perhaps it is because we crave some strong colour after a long winter. It is the same shade as the yellow daffodils and also of forsythia. By the time these have finished, weeks later, we are fed up with it and find it all rather garish. But in January we start to notice the little ruffs of green leaves pushing through the ground and, quite suddenly, the flower is opening its blooms. I hadn’t noticed before just how similar the individual flowers are to a buttercup when fully open. Not surprising really, as they all belong to the same family, Ranunculaceae. The aconite, I assume, is so-named beacause of the similarity of the leaf with the tall herbaceous aconites, Aconitum.

Neither snowdrops or aconites are native to the British Isles although both naturalise well and, given time, will occupy large areas. Conditions in this country must favour the snowdrop for snowdrop woods, whilst not common, are found with relative ease and are nearly always associated with a large country house. A much greater rarity is the aconite wood and I know of only one and heard of only one other. To visit it is an extraordinary experience for it is difficult to walk through the tens of thousands of plants that carpet the ground. This wood is also attached to a country estate but rarely visited and away from public paths. Perhaps that is why it has survived.

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Sold as ‘in the green’, both snowdrops and aconites establish in the garden best when transplanted now, that is with their leaves and flowers still lush. A grower recently told me that snowdrops naturalise more quickly when aconites are grown amongst them, perhaps because the yellow flowers attract more pollinators. However, snowdrops in grass benefit from an annual feed whilst aconites detest it. A case of ‘you pays your money and you takes your choice’, perhaps?

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Old Twelfth Night – it’s Wassail Time

One of my great pleasures is to hear traditional songs being sung and I know quite a number by heart. A favourite is the old Wassail song sung on Wassail Day. The Cotswolds proved to be one of the last places where these old songs were commonly sung and they were written down for posterity by Cecil Sharp in the early 1900’s.

Here we go a-wassailing, all through the leaves so green, here we go a-wassailing, so early to be seen…”, goes the song and tomorrow, is Wassail Day.

Purists hold wassail on Old Twelfth Night, the 17th January (as against the ‘new’ date of the 6th), which is the date prior to 1752 when the calendar was changed and days ‘lost’. So wassailing will take place as night falls in orchards throughout England. However, with the dwindling number of orchards, the ceremony takes place less and less. The photo below is of a newly planted orchard at daffodil time.

I have never been to a wassail in the Cotswolds but, years ago, when I spent much of my early adult time on Exmoor, I wassailed the orchard attached to a local pub. As darkness fell, we carried flaming torches amongst the trees, drank to their health and placed pieces of toast (photo below) dipped in cider amongst the branches. And we sang the wassail song and many other old songs too. And just as we began to relax, and the cider take hold of us, guns were fired through the branches to scare off bad demons, bringing us back to our senses. That orchard has since been built upon and the tradition there lost.

The blackened faces of morris men, that attend some wassails, are also there to frighten evil spirits, for this has it’s roots in pagan times and has nothing whatsoever to do with race, as is now sometimes thought. PC means that many morris men no longer do this. The ceremony shown on the video below has both morris men and a wassail queen. I don’t recall seeing the morris when I took part, or a young virgin for that matter, but perhaps that is due to too much cider and too many years passing. There is no wassail singing on the video and only a glimpse of morris dancing – the latter I hope to write about, with other local customs, in the future.


If the wassail works there really will be “…apples down in capfuls, buckets, bushels, bags and all…” and, if not, a lot of fun will have been had regardless. And in the final words of the old song, readers, may I “…wish you, send you a healthy new year…”

It’s daffodil time!

One of the first signs of Autumn isn’t the changing colour of the leaves but the arrival of spring bulbs in the garden centres and the dull thud of the catalogues landing on the doormat.

Daffodils, or Narcissus if we want to be technical, are one of the first of the bulbs to be planted for they start to send out their roots early in the season as we discover when we dig them up by mistake when weeding. Like all bulbs, they need to be planted in generous quantities to look their best. The photo above shows several hundred lining the old lime avenue of the house I described in an earlier blog ( 21st August 2009: The House my Parents Built 200 Years Ago). This is a mix of similar looking daffodils, which open at slightly different times, chosen to extend the flowering period.

I am not keen on double varieties – they tend to be top heavy and spend most of their time prostrate. However, I find the Orchid flowering types don’t do this and are quite fascinating to look at. The one above is Dolly Mollinger, the one below Chanterelle.

Bicolours can also be tricky to my biased eye. I don’t like Scarlet O’Hara (below top), so vulgar in the border! But Jetfire, which is a similar colour combination works well in this wilder setting and is beautifully enhanced by the white bark of the Jacqmontii birch tree (below bottom).

Scent is all important in any flower and in narcissus it is especially welcome after the bleak winter months. Few scented winter flowers have the freshness of the smell of a vase full of Cheerfulness – a stonger coloured version is Laurens Koster.


But perhaps the best daffodils of all are the ‘bog standard’ yellow ones. That’s what spring is all about. (Although to be honest, I don’t totally agree with that statement – my favourites are the miniatures but I don’t have any photographs! I will have to take some next March and persuade you all then……)