Bonkers about Conkers!

Every little boy – and many a gown-up one as well – loves toplay conkers at this time of year.  Or at least, I assume they still do; it is possible that it may have been banned from the school playground under health and safety grounds.  When you think of it – not only did we frequently impale our hands with the meat skewer we had pinched from the kitchen drawer to pierce the conkers with, we quite often cut ourselves with our penknives as we trimmed the strings to the right length. And what about those shattered splinters flying through the air like vegetative shrapnel – no-one thought about wearing eye protection then.

However, the traditional sport of conkers isn’t threatened so much by legislation as by the recently imported leaf miner moth (Cameraria ohridella) which first appeared in southwest London in 2002.  With no predators it has spread at an alarming rate and now it is reckoned that nearly all trees in England and Wales are infected by it.  The moth’s presence can be detected by the brown-black blotches that cover the leaves, disrupting the trees ability to synthasise fully.  This in turn weakens it which has made them much more susceptible to disease, especially bleeding canker which is now threatening their very existence.   In some years, leaf damage is more severe and the leaves can drop very early indeed.  As a consequence, some trees are looking in very poor shape.
 
 
 


The secret valleyhas numerous mature Horse Chestnuts.  They are fine trees, up to 100ft or more tall and look especially splendid in spring, their white flower spikes contrasting with the freshness of their newly opened green leaves which, at that time of year, are still unblemished.  In the 400+ years since they were introduced to Britain from the Balkans, they have become an integral part of a child’s growing up.  We learnt how branches of the ‘sticky’ buds, the dormant leaf buds, becoming ever more shiny and sticky as the sap rises within the tree, can be cut and forced to open into leaf early in a jam jar of water.  On hot summer days we learnt, usually when lying beneath the trees in their cooling shade, how to make ‘fish bones’ by shredding the leaves with our fingers until just the skeletal veins of the leaves remained.  When we wanted to be nasty we knew that we could hurl the hard, green nutshells armed with their sharp spikes to embed in our enemy’s backs or scratch their legs if they were wearing shorts.  And, of course, we held conker competitions.

Horse Chestnuts in full bloom on a fine late spring day
 
Now with all the trials of pests and disease plus the dreadful summer weather, conkers are few and those that have matured barely half their normal size.  It has even been suggested that brussel sprout competitions may have to be held instead although I doubt if they will give the satisying dull thud of the real thing even if they were frozen first.  However, this years World Conker Championships have taken place this month as normal – it was first held in 1965 and, unlikely as it seems, attracts competitors from all around the world.  You can find out more by clicking on the link below.
Not all is gloom and doom for the Horse Chestnut for it is now thought that some bird species are beginning to learn about this new food source and research is being carried out by the University of Hull and others to monitor this suspected behaviour.  There is little that we, as gardeners or conservationists can do at this stage to assist other than to report any signs we see of birds feeding on the trees.  We just have to hope that the Horse Chestnut doesn’t disappear from our countryside in the same way that the Elm did in the 1970’s and 80’s.

The difference in size between the two trees is quite marked – as is the autumnal tints of the frost damage part of the smaller one 
 
In the secret valley, we also have a number of the smaller, red flowered Horse Chestnut, Aesculus x carneaca, and this does not seem to become infected to the same degree as the white flowered, Aesculus hippocastanum.  Although they do produce conkers unfortunately they are neither of a size or quality suitable for a serious round of conkers.  Horse Chestnuts, by the way, are poisonous to horses – they get their common name by the scars on the branches where the leaves once were: a perfect horseshoe complete with marks where the nails would be. 
 
When you get to know a place intimately – whether it’s a garden or a landscape – you notice things that the casual observer misses.  In the late spring of 2011, we had a biting frost that killed off not all but some of the new young growth of numerous trees – just where it touched.  Some trees remained unscathed, others  were totally destroyed and some just part.  This is what happened to one of a pair of Horse Chestnuts visible from our little stone cottage.  One tree has always been much more stunted than the other, although as their girths are the same, I assume they were planted at the same time.  They stand side by side but one, when the river bursts its banks is under water for a few days longer than the other.  Is it this that has caused it to be so much shorter or is it this rare burning of the leaves by frost?  It took months for the tree to recover, finally sending out new spring green leaves and flower buds at the end of July contrasting greatly with the remainder of the tree whose leaves had not been harmed.  Likewise, the older leaves turned their autumn colours and fell earlier than the newer ones.  This year the tree, which now looks quite poorly, has reversed with the damaged leaves turning golden – in the ten days since the photograph was taken, they have fallen while the remaining leaves are yet to get their autumn tints.

Almost hidden from view, our old stone cottage stands well above the little winding river

 In 2011, we had a very late frost blackening both the leaves and flowers – it took months for the tree to recover

 

The secret valleywill be a much poorer place if all the Horse Chestnuts succumb to disease and have to be felled.  Let us hope that future generations can play beneath them as we have done.

Sources:
British conkers getting smaller
World Conker Championships
Conker Tree Science Project

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Pruning Mahonia

One of the biggest concerns for many people, even experienced gardeners is how and when to prune.  The quicker growing the plant (Wisteria is a good example), or the more spiny it is, the less likely it is to be given the chop – the first is intimidating by size, the latter by pain.

A close relative of that most vicious of shrubs, the Berberis, is Mahonia and the garden cultivars,  Charity and Winter Sun, brighten up many a dark corner with their spikes of yellow, lily-of-the-valley scented flowers on a cold winter’s day.  There they grow untroubled by pest or disease becoming ever taller, lankier and ending up just plain, downright ugly.  All of this can be prevented by pruning with the additional bonus of having flower spikes at nose height.

The Mahonia in the photo below has not been left to grow tall but been given a regular clipping with shears to form a ball shaped shrub: this often happens to plants that have to be kept under control resulting in a garden full of ‘blobby’ shapes.  For a Mahonia that, by nature, wants to be upright, this is an especially hideous way to end up.  The shrub to the fore is Sarcococca, the Winter Box, also clipped to a ball shape, a style that does suit that particular plant although, in my opinion, it is more attractive when allowed to grow naturally.

By April, the elongated flowerheads (raceme) will have faded to be replaced by bluish berries.  This is the sign that pruning time has arrived.  Mahonias are very tough, coping with temperatures as low as -20 degrees Centigrade and I have pruned them in frosty weather without loss.  It is always best, however, to do any pruning task when the weather is more clement.
The difficulty with seeing inside a shrub that is growing as densely as this particular Mahonia is easily resolved by simply cutting off a few of the top clusters of leaves anywhere.  Once you can see what you are doing life is much more straightforward and those first random pruning cuts can be rectified later.  In the photo below a branch has been revealed to show how the leaves join the main stem.  The newer growth at the top is a much paler green than the darker, older wood but both have leaves growing from it.
The pruning cut can be made anywhere between the leaves – I tend to be quite drastic and only leave one or two leaves in place.  It can be seen that I have cut this stem hard back into the older, darker wood – new growth will shoot from this point giving flowers again by the following winter.
Gradually, the shrub opens up to expose many branches of varying ages.  The older they are the more gnarled and twisted they have become.  Once these are readily visible it is possible to cut some of the oldest growth much harder still: this thins out the plant allowing more light and air to reach its centre.

Although no growth is visible below the cut, dormant buds will break and create new branches.  Again, these will flower the following winter but, of course, at a much lower height than before.
The end result is a shrub that has had much of its centre removed or lowered.  In this particular example, I have left more of the outer growth in place as this gives a more attractive appearance through the summer.  Next Spring this outer growth will be pruned more severely exposing the newer growth inside which can be pruned much more lightly.  By the Spring of 2014 this  mahonia will have been transormed back to its natural shape, a mass of healthy stems, leaves and flowers.

It was only when I returned to the bonfire that I appreciated the beautiful pale jade tones of the underleaf, not normally noticeable.  Another feature of Mahonia is the bright yellow colour of the cut stem – one that it shares with its Berberis cousins and, like them, the root system is also coloured yellow, a useful way of identifying what root system belongs to it when digging in a crowded shrubbery.

 Click on any of the photographs to enlarge them

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Flowers at Christmas

I know that it isn’t technically Christmas yet for we still have a week to go.  Despite the last few days being cold and frosty – and very beautiful with bright sunshine and blue skies, I have been surprised at just how many flowers are still blooming away when it is almost the end of the year.
A combination of unseasonably mild weather for most of the time and, of equal importance, very little rain to knock the blooms about has resulted in all sorts of odd floral combinations.  Of course, I realised as soon as I started to write this post that I hadn’t bothered to carry my camera around with me so most of the flower photos have been taken at some other time.
Cowslips and primroses:  It’s not especially to see the occasional primrose in flower in the garden but I don’t ever remember seeing cowslips flowering in December in the wild before.  It will be a good few months before we see carpets of them like these but seeing the odd two or three reminds me that spring is not so very far away.  In the newspapers there have been reports of daffodils in flower too.

Forsythia:  Another spring bloomer and again just the odd flower rather than branches being smothered in flower.  Perhaps not so surprising, as flower arrangers would know – the tight buds that cluster along the bare stems will burst into flower early when brought into the warmth of a house in a similar way to the ‘sticky buds’ of the horse chestnut bursting into leaf indoors.  Here, forsythia has been trained as a tightly clipped shrub to screen an ugly garage wall, the warmth and protection of which also makes the flowers open a week or two before normal.

Ferns:  Some of the shabbier looking ferns had been cut dowm to ground level as part of the autumn tidy.  I hadn’t expected them to burst back into growth …..

Violets:  There have been a lot of violets out, both in the garden and in the hedgebanks of the secret valley.  Is it just coincidence that these out-of-season blooms have all been mauve with not a white flowered one in sight?

Daisy:  There have even been odd wild daisies flowering in the lawn (we have mowed twice this month too).  The Erigeron daisy that you see growing in profusion amongst the ruins of ancient Rome has been flowering in our garden as if it was still midsummer; it is smothered in blooms.

Geraniums:  The hardy herbaceous sort.  Like the ferns, they had been given the chop some time ago but are coming back into leaf and flower.  Some of the hardy salvias are doing the same thing.

Mallows:  I have seen hollyhocks still in flower on my travels around the Cotswolds.  They are majestic when they are grown well but my favourite of all is the musk-mallow, Malva moschata, which is a wild flower that is often brought into gardensl.  I grow both the pink and the white versions and they self sow happily in the borders without ever becoming a nuisance.  It wouldn’t matter, you couldn’t have too many!

Roses:  There are nearly always roses out on Christmas Day and we always exclaim how extraordinary a sight it is.  They are poor, wet, bedraggled specimens carefully left in place by even the hardest pruners as a reminder of warm summer days.  For the most part that is the case this year too.  What we don’t expect to find are bushes smothered in beautiful blooms still wafting scent but this is the case in one rose garden I attend.  I am uncertain as to the variety but there are three of these amongst forty other bushes – all shrub roses.  They really are a joy to see.

I can’t believe that this state of affairs will last much longer.  Surely the frost and rain, or even snow, will get them soon.  I plan to wait until New Year’s Day and go walking armed with camera, pen and paper and list all that I see.  I have intended to do this every year for as long as I can remember but if I manage it this time, I will report back.  And, as this will almost certainly be the first of 2012’s resolutions to be broken, perhaps you would do the same and send me the list.

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What A Difference A Year Makes

The British are always going on about the weather and I’m no exception.  My very first words upon waking are “What is the weather doing?” and my final words before sleeping are “What will the weather be doing?”.  I make no apologies for this: it’s part of our make-up as a nation.  It’s because, I was once told, that whereas other countries have seasons, Britain just has weather.  It’s not quite that simple, we do have seasons – Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter – just like any other temperate country, it’s just that in the UK they get a bit muddled up.

I write this, snug in front of the woodburner – not that much heat is getting past She-dog who thinks this has been lit solely for her pleasure and comfort – listening to a gale rattling the window panes and whistling around the eaves.  The rain is lashing down and there is absolutely no need for me to ask what the weather is doing this evening.  However, I have been told that I have said “Listen to the weather” several times. I could have said how remarkable it is that only yesterday I had my lunch sitting in the garden.  Yes, really.

I should admit that I am a hardy sole as I work outdoors all year and so am less affected by cold than most and I also should admit that I was wearing a coat and gloves and sitting in a sheltered, sunny spot. Regardless of those finer details, yesterday I commented how last year to the day we were up to our necks in snow in the worst wintry weather the Secret Valley had had for years.  And, even more remarkably, the snow came when you would expect it  –  in midwinter but (and there’s always a ‘but’ where British weather is concerned) in the Cotswolds we rarely get snow before January …..   But it was still rather remarkable to be sitting there, surely and remark worthy?

What is even more remarkable is that all of this week I have been planting out herbaceous plants and laying turf; late even by our odd climate standards.  We have had frosts: there were three quite hard ones in October, then none until the last week of November and then a couple more last week and none since.  In between, we had two weeks of warmish air and thick fog which was enough to make even me depressed. 

The spirits, even on those damp, grey days, were uplifted by the huge array of flowers that have reappeared.  There are always a few late roses hanging on determinedly until Christmas Day, looking bedraggled and ragged but not this time.  Some of them have given up but others have almost as many blooms as midsummer.  There are pots of herbaceous Salvia nemerosa ‘Mainacht’ that have regrown after their end-of-season haircut and are in full bloom once again.  Primroses and cowslips are showing colour.  Today I counted over twenty different summer flowering plants still going strong.  That’s a bit of an exaggeration, I really mean showing the odd flower or two.  All the plants have become muddled so we have Winter Jasmine as you would expect but not alongside spring flowering Forsythia.  And we have evergreen, flowering shrubs such as Viburnum and Sarcococca as we should have at this time of year – but not alongside the newly unfurling purple leaves of Cotinus cogyggria.  Where, or more to the point, when will it all end?  Possibly quite soon.

It isn’t just the garden that is confused.  On the farm the cattle are still out grazing the fields.  They should be inside by now but with plenty of grass still available in the fields they can be out for a little longer. 

While I am here writing about a bit of wind and rain, the north of England and Scotland, in particular, are bearing the brunt of 100mph gales and heavy snow.  Perhaps we are quite fortunate, after all.  The rain here is only supposed to last a few hours and tomorrow is forecast unbroken sunshine once more.  Which reminds me, I  really must start talking about the lack of rain we have had in recent months.  The little winding river is running lower than it ever has and can be easily walked across in places in just walking boots where the water flows over gravel .  It should look, at this time of year, like the photograph I use on the header to this blog.  Instead it looks like midsummer again with the water, where it flows deeper, still choked with watercress.  Oh well!  I suppose I should be grateful that I am still able to go out and pick it in December – I can make a store of some delicious hot soup to drink when the weather realises it is winter.

All the photographs, except for She-dog in the snow, were taken over the past week or two.  When the frost has been hard the Secret Valley has looked at its best.

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Summer, Autumn, Summer, Autumn

It is said that the English, compared to those from other countries, always talk of the weather and, I have to admit that it is true. I have also heard it said that, whereas other countries have ‘climate’, we just have ‘weather’. And it is weather that has shaped the nation’s psyche, especially those of us that earn our living standing outside in it.

It has been an odd year. The hardest and earliest winter for years gave way to a lovely spring, March and April being mild and sunny. We were then hit by the hardest May frost that anyone could remember and here, in the secret valley, many of the trees had their newly formed leaves and flower buds blackened. The horse chestnuts and oaks seemed hardest hit, although oddly enough, not all of them and not even all of the leaves or flowers on the same tree. Those damaged leaves fell and bare braches remained until July when, suddenly, they sprouted fresh leaves with the same verdent intensity as you would find two or three months earlier.

One moment bright green growth, the next ……..

…….. dead from frost

A similar thing with the weather has happened again over the last couple of weeks. Late summer proved to be rather disappointing with few really warm days and none where you could sit and relax in an evening with friends, wining and dining under the stars. Autumn seemed to be arriving early. Then, just as October arrived and our thoughts turned to log fires and bowls of soup for supper, summer returned with a vengeance. The temperature soared to 30C, breaking all records, the wind dropped and, for a week, we sweltered under cloudless skies and relentless sunshine. As the leaves on the trees began to crisp and garden pots started to die (I refused to start watering them again at this time of year), out came the garden furniture once again.

But what has happened now? Three days ago, we returned to chill, and with a drop of nearly twenty degrees it suddenly feels more like November. Some leaves have begun to turn colour but others have fallen, too exhausted to give us their fleeting pleasure of golds and yellows. Snow is forecast up north in Scotland and every day the news is full of gloomy stories of an even harsher winter than the last one.

One place that always gives good autumn colour is the Chiltern Hills that rise so dramatically from the Oxford plain. It is a special place for me as I was born and lived most of my life there, a country so different from the Cotswolds where I have been the past ten years. Now I live in watery valleys with far reaching views and open skies. The Chilterns, although no more than fifty miles away, is the opposite – dry, chalky and steep, a secretive place where the clouds and views are hidden by beech woodlands. It is the beech which give the best of autumn colours.

When the M40 motorway ripped a great chunk out of the chalk ridge, no-one anticipated it would alter the climate somewhat. But it is here, where the beech hang precariously to the edge (and sometimes topple over it) that the earliest signs of colour start. And even less did we think that one day Red Kites, one of Britain’s rarest birds of prey, would become so numerous soaring above it and feeding on the road kill that the motorway ineveitably produced. If the view of the chalk cut looks familiar it is because it was used in the opening shots of The Vicar of Dibley, the much loved comedy series on television that was filmed in the nearby village of Turville.

So, we Brits have suddenly become wrapped up and stand huddled together talking about being too hot and too cold and will there be snow. Who knows? One thing, however, is certain: if there is snow down here in the south, it will be the chalk cut on the M40 that will get it first and it will also be the first motorway to be blocked by traffic trying to climb to the top of the ridge.

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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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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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A New Year

The snow has all but gone from the secret valley, thanks to a sudden thaw, after the temperature rose from -15 centigrade to +6 centigrade. Some still clings to the gullies at the sides of the fields and on the colder banks of the hillside but elsewhere, in its place, is the battered appearance of a landscape after attack.
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Last night, New Year’s Eve, was seen out at our neighbours and good friends 3/4 mile up the road, at the farmhouse that is the centre of our farming life here. Although a cold night it was good to be able to walk there effortlessly (after ploughing our way through snow for several weeks or sliding around in the car). As the chimes of Big Ben in London struck twelve o’clock we all sang ‘Auld Langs Syne’ to the traditional sound of a lone piper – in this case lone because there was only one Scotsman present and he could play the bagpipes. And a couple of hours later I stepped out into the cold, still air to walk back down the hill to home.
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The secret valley at night – and some nights especially so – is a silent and dark place. Never menacing, it is a good time to reflect on times passed and to breathe in the air which seems to take on a different quality to daytime. Walking down the lane, with bands of snow periodically reminding me to watch my feet, I was aware that there were others on the move too. An alarmed rabbit shot across the road in front of me, diving into the hedge, it’s path being highlighted not by moonlight, for there was none, but by the sounds of leaves rustling and twigs breaking beneath it. The fox was far more discreet, the only witness to its passing, its distinctive musky scent.
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Our little river, now thawed out from the frozen state that it had been in gurgled and splashed its way into the distance. It had seemed odd not to be able to hear it when it had its lid of ice and snow for even in the hardest winters past it had not been known to freeze over.
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However, a touch of frost had given a magical dusting to the plants and fruits that had survived the onslaught of our early winter, for snow is rare at this time of year. January and February can be snowy and often we have none at all so who knows what the start of 2011 will bring?
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Approaching home, the reassuring smell of wood smoke drifted from the chimneys towards me. Warmth at last! And, as always, She-dog, our best companion, was there to greet us but not before raising a bleary eye from her bed, as if to say “what are you doing out at this time of day and at your age?”.
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And so to bed tired but with a warm, contented feeling both inside and outside. To live in the secret valley, isolated but surrounded by beauty and good friends, is such a privelege. Who knows what 2011 may bring but if the first days sunrise is to go by, it should be a good one!

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Happy New Year to you all…..
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First Signs of Autumn

To quote from the Keats poem ‘To Autumn’, is rather cliched I know but it really is becoming the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” here in the secret valley. I have to admit until I decided upon the theme for this post that, although I had heard this line so many times before, I’d never read the poem. I suspect a large number of people would admit the same so I have included it here, in full, at the end.
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Almost imperceptably, the leaves have started to turn colour although they are still more green than yellow, orange or red. The most noticeable sign of the new season has been the berries and other fruits. Despite the heavy, late spring frosts we had, it seems to be a bumper crop this year although I have heard that commercial crops of apples are down by 30%.
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The river a few hundred yards downstream from our little stone cottage broadens to become a small lake, created 100 years ago to attract duck and fish for the pot. Invisible throughout the summer months because of the leafy shrubs that shield it, it gradually comes into view as the foliage withers and falls and the water levels rise with the winter rain. Then it gives us what one of our friends describes as “the best view from any bath(wash)room in England” – and it is! What can be more decadent than lying in the bath with a glass of wine in hand, watching the wild geese and swans flying in from who knows where, for we rarely see them during the summer months?
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And it is the river and lake that tends to give us the mists on cool mornings. There is such a subtle difference between these mists and the fogs that are much more widespread across the country. We can recognise the difference instantly but how do we describe it in meaningful words? Perhaps mists drift to rise and fall as strands of it are caught on the slightest breeze, an uplifting experience for the soul, whereas fogs sit heavily both on the ground and on our spirits?
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A few days ago, on such a misty morning, it was cool enough for a heavy dew to form transforming the scenery with its silver frosting. Cobwebs hung from every available perch: strands of wire, branches and twigs, even the dying flower stems of the wild plants were draped with them. The scene was of silence and stillness, no bird sang and even the brook seemed to gurgle and babble more quietly than normal, as if reluctant to wake the slumbering countryside.
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As if to confirm the silence and emptiness of the landscape, even the new seasons swan, that I had admired on the lake the day before, had gone. Heavily in moult, all there was to confirm its arrival were white feathers slowly drifting on the surface saying “Hush! Be still. All is calm”.
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To Autumn
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Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernal; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease.
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
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Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
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Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too –
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
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