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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Scabious: Wild and Tame

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am very fond of garden plants that have not been messed around with too much. By that, I mean I generally prefer the simpler flowers. So-called ‘improvement’ is so often just another word for vulgar, blousy and big – although there are occasions when I have a need for both the blousy and vulgar!
Scabious are a delight regardless, whether they are growing in the hedgerow or the border.
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The secret valley is awash with scabious, as well as other wild flowers, at the moment. The dry weather seems to suit them for they are looking just perfect. They seem to be everywhere – they especially like roadside verges but also grow in odd pockets of wasteland on very poor soil. But it is not just the secret valley where they are found, for the whole of the Cotswolds seems to be a haze of powder blue. In fact, they grow pretty well throughout the British Isles although they are much more scarce in Scotland.
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I have found photography and blogging has improved my powers of observation for it is only recently that I noticed that the scabious has quite hairy stems. These feel quite soft to the touch, so it was with some surprise that I learnt that they are closely related to teasels, whose hairs have been modified into sharp, protective spines.
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However, it was only when looking at these pictures that I noticed how the flowers open from the outer edge and then work there way inwards. Obviously, my powers of observation have still some way to go!
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As garden plants, in my opinion, they are superb. Always tidy, never need staking and, with regular dead heading, flower continuously from mid June onwards. In the photos below, scabious is being grown in a cottage garden border (this is Scabiosa caucasica but still pretty!) amongst pale pink Icelandic poppies. The scabious is perennial and will grow again every year, the poppies are annuals. I just threw some poppy seed down amongst them and, as the poppies were mixed colours, removed any that turned out not to be pink. Simple!
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As an ingredient for containers they are unrivalled, too. Here, in huge one metre square pots, they form an underplanting with Salvia nemerosa and small flowered petunias beneath the (very) light shade of Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’. This scabious is an improved form of our wild flower – it is dwarfer than the type.
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The Five Spot Burnet moth flies in daylight and is everywhere at the moment. They especially seem to like feeding on the scabious, choosing these above the profusion of other wild flowers. They are very pretty and when the light catches them at the right angle, the black ground of their wings become irradescent, similar to the ‘black’ feathers of the magpie and farmyard cockeral.
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Going…..
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Going…….
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Gone!
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Like many plants, occasionally a ‘sport’ arises. Driving home today, I noticed just two white flowered scabious growing by the side of a country lane. Beautiful!


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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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Planting Plans: Looking for Inspiration

I am often asked where do you start with a design. This is a tricky question as I have had relatively little training in this area – I originally designed by trial and (lots of) error like most people who garden do. It is only in recent years that I have designed more formally for clients. Obviously, when working, my first concern is that the garden is suitable for the owners lifestyle, whether it should be formal or low maintenance or more complex. This post is about what I find the most exciting part – the plants.

Inspiration for planting is easy for me. I began by looking at nature and trying to emulate it, not always with a natural ‘wild’ look but more by texture and colour. Over the years, this has developed to include anything from furnishings to paint colour charts to pebbles on the beach….. The photo below show how sunsets (which are always full of amazing colour combinations) in the mountains inspired an herbaceous border.


Sometimes it seems as if flowers have inspired the sunsets! Here is the rose Rosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’ trying to outdo another mountain sunset. This rose starts with the most intense pink bud and, as the flower fades, turns to the softest apricot, ending up with this wonderful colour combination.


This old mossy wall was the starting point for a mini parterre – the ‘moss’ is made from the box (boxwood) framework, the ‘stones’ from variegated Iris and Cotton Lavender. The wall reminds me of our garden wall in the secret valley (Sunday 20th September 2009) but this one is in north Wales and is a hard, cool grey and silver granite unlike our soft, mellow Cotswold stone. This planting is tiny compared to the usual grand parterre designs and has been used to link two levels of a small garden.


I found this reproduction plate in a second hand shop. It became the inspiration for this blue and white border in an old walled garden. It would never have occurred to me to be so sparing with the red (or to put any red at all into a blue and white garden) but the plate told me otherwise. This planting is a combination of delphinium, tall aconitum and two salvias – the dark salvia nemerosa and the taller, whitish salvia sclarea var. turkestanica. The dots of red are just our native wild poppy which I use quite a lot in my gardens although care has to be taken not to let them run riot.

So let your imagination take you where it will. Sometimes the combinations don’t work but, more often than not, there will be some exciting discoveries to be made and a lot of fun will be had along the way. And make sure you tell me all about them……

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