Christmas 2011

Many thanks to all of you that have read and followed my blog during 2011.  Despite the dire weather predictions, the secret valley is having the mildest Christmas for years.  Instead of extreme cold and deep snow as forecast some weeks ago, the sun has been shining and the temperature has risen to +13C.  I’ve had to rely on a snowy photograph from last winter!

Wishing you all a very happy and peaceful Christmas
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Gardening With Weeds

Much has been written about creating wild flower meadows in recent years. Many gardening magazines infer that somehow you must be lacking in something if you don’t rush out there and then and rip up your precious lawn to create the daisy and orchid studded turf depicted in medieval tapestries. There is much to be said for doing this (and I’ve done a few in my time too). However, the reason why most of us don’t do it is purely down to lack of space and time, and also most of us still like to see a reasonably weed free patch of green grass at the centre of our gardens. Now don’t get me wrong, anything that reduces the amount of chemicals used and encourages wildlife has got to be a good thing and our gardens, collectively, could – and should – make one vast nature reserve.

But why restrict yourself to wild flowers in grass? Very few articles suggest using them in herbaceous borders, or amongst shrubs, but I have been planting them like this for some years now and the results can be terrific. This flower border in the photo was taken 14 months after planting and looks very much like a traditional, English flower border. But there are some differences and those are the wild flowers intermingling with the more usual garden plants.

Purple Loosetrife, Lythrum salicifolium, grows wild in boggy places and by stream edges so seems an unlikely candidate for the border. I have found it to be a great choice which copes well with ordinary soil conditions. In the hot, dry summer we have had this year they have only grown to about half their normal height of 3-4ft but their cerise colour and longevity have still made them a worthy addition. In the photograph above they are the bright pink ‘blob’ in the centre, growing separately to the surrounding plants.

Here they are being grown as a companion to a bright pink ground cover rose, a combination that I’m not so keen on (even though I did plant them myself). They are a bit too strident and close in colour for my taste but others have stopped and admired them so there they remain.

I have also experimented growing them in containers where, of course, you can easily give them the moister conditions they would naturally prefer. Here, their colour makes them quite an exotic addition to the matching colour petunias, the purple leafed coleus and tropical looking (but hardy) palm.

Another reason for growing wild flowers is that, of course, they are great attractants of the local insects. A clump of the herbaceous St John’s Wort, this one is Perfoliate St John’s Wort, Hypericum perfoliatum, always are covered, when in flower, with bees and other beneficial, pollinating insects. The flowers are miniature versions of the shrubby Hypericum ‘Hidcote’ and all the better for being small. In the wild, they grow (as many wild flowers do) quite happily amongst grass and other plants. In the garden, I find they combine well with Wormwood, the tall, shrubby Artemisia.


The pale blue flowers of the Field Scabious, Knautia arvensis, continue for months on end and combine well with most other colours. Growing them in the garden gives you the opportunity to notice them in detail. In the wild, it is less likely that you would see how the outer petals of the flower uncurl before the inner ones. Grow them with exotic looking Icelandic poppies or, like here, with tall, purple, Salvia.

Wild flowers often are generous with their flowering, not only in the quantity of blooms and their exuberance. Sometimes, they offer a ‘sport’. The most common variant from the norm is white and this pure white version of scabious was a delightful bonus. I like the way the buds start off a creamy colour.

Recently, I have tried growing Lady’d Bedstraw, Galium verum. It is working quite well and the rather acid yellow looks good with lavender. In fact, this flower is all the better for propping itself up against its neighbours as it is a bit inclined (in an unlady-like way) to sprawl, otherwise.

One word of caution about introducing wild flowers into the garden: sometimes, they like garden conditions just too much. If in doubt, plant a small number of plants in an area where you can control them should they take off. I didn’t do this with one of my childhood favourites, Toadflax. It took me three years of painful weeding to extract the final pieces from more delicate plants. I have gone back to admiring it where it belongs – along roadside verges and on waste ground.

And one final plea: please grow and enjoy our native, wild flowers but do source them from a reputable nursery. Apart from being illegal to dig or uproot a plant in the wild, as gardeners we are supposed to conserve plants ……

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Fields of Red

Everyone seems to love poppies. It doesn’t matter if they are the delicate crepes of the Icelandic or big and blousy Oriental poppies – even ‘though the latter so often lie sprawling across the ground, flattened by the weather or their own weight. But most loved of all are the wild scarlet poppies that create a violent red gash across acres of wheatfields.

Despite being forever linked with the trauma and sadness of the Great War, poppies refuse to lower our spirits. Perhaps they even comforted and uplifted the tortured bodies and minds of the survivors of the battlefields. The famous lines from In Flanders Field have immortalised poppies in poetry but thirty years earlier that great (but now almost unknown) British naturalist, Richard Jefferies, was eulogising “proud poppies, lords of the July fields….no abundance of them can ever make them commonplace….”. How right he was.

Even the odd, single flower, struggling in a bit of dirt at the side of some waste ground, brings joy and admiration but it is, en masse, when the sight of thousands of them in flower in a cornfield stops you in your tracks and, for a moment, loses you in a heady delirium of colour.

When the steep, wild flower filled grass banks that make the ‘walls’ of the secret valley have given way to the flatter, arable lands and the lush water meadows and meandering river lie far below, the fields become larger and hidden by high hedgerows. The character of the secret valley is much changed up here: those unfamiliar with it would not know of its existance it is so concealed. The old field names reflect this – lower down the names end with the words ‘banks’, ‘close’, ‘grounds’, ‘meadows’, now they all end with the word ‘downs’ and you could be forgiven thinking that you were on vast rolling downland, for the eye leaps over the valley to more cornfields beyond. And, a few days ago, I climbed the old, timber stile that pierces the hedgerow to walk in the field known as’17 Acre Downs’ to be greeted by the lords of the July fields.

However it was not the sight of crimson stretching as far as the woodland in the distance that stopped me in my tracks for there, at my feet, was a single, pure white poppy. Just one amongst tens of thousands of scarlet.

Walking further I was stopped once again, this time by some pale pink blooms, not many, just about twenty. The sight was enchanting and magical. Why here? Why so few?

Once you look closely at a poppy in flower you realise just how spectacular it is. En masse, your mind is blown by the quantity and you stop seeing them as individuals. Now, with my senses heightened I realised that a field of red poppies are made up of numerous variations even though pink and white are very rare finds. The photographs below show just a few of these: crimped, streaky, waxy, single petalled, multi petalled, plain buttoned, black cross buttoned, the variations seemed endless.

It isn’t just the flower that deserves this close inspection. For the seedhead is also quite lovely. Its capsule, before ripened, the palest green with a black and cream striped lid, a black collar, encircles its tall, upright stem, covered with soft bristles. Once ripe it takes on the same golden hue of the corn crop it has invaded. Will these poppies breed true and will there be pink or white ones next year? Who knows, for the next day the field had been mown and, if not for the photographic record, could have been dismissed as a pure figment of imagination.

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A Walk Along the River Otter: Part 2

The lower reaches of the river Otter turn from fresh water to brackish as the river joins the sea. At low tide, mud and salt flats are exposed creating a safe habitat for the hundreds of seabirds and waders that feed, breed or rest on migration there. This area, including its wildlife, I have written about earlier – it can be found by clicking here.

This post describes a walk a little further upstream where the river flows through fertile fields of wheat and where cattle and sheep graze in lush riverside meadows.


The river – which like our river in the secret valley – is really little more than a stream (or ‘brook’ as we say where I originate from – English dialect is another fascinating subject that I might write about one day!). One moment fast flowing, the next slow, but always crystal clear, the view is one of steep banks and stony bottom. It is here, in the shallower water, that the trout – huge in comparison with our tiny ones at home – sway in the current, waiting for food to be swept down towards them and their ever open mouths. At one place where the river runs across a steeply shelved weir, a salmon run has been built: a series of steps for the salmon to leap to reach the upper levels of the river for spawning after their long migration. Whether they still do, I do not know, for salmon stocks in England are dwindling fast.

Wood and water, just nothing but water and wood, for the crowds of visitors that explore the river close to the beach and form long queues at the ice cream stalls have all been left far behind. Now the sights, sounds and smells are only those of nature on this glorious late summer’s day. The trees are only just beginning to show a hint of the autumn to come but, somehow, their berries have already stamped their mark on the autumn landscape, glowing in and reflecting the sun’s warmth.
Along the river bank, swamping much of the native flora, the Himalayan Balsam is giving a final explosion of colour before the first frosts destroy them for another year. And explosion is the correct description of their bursting seed heads which throw the seed far and wide as they split open. Found in many damp places throughout the country, for its seeds are also dispersed by the movement of the water, the Himalyan Balsam is an unwelcome immigrant to Britain which is virtually impossible to control. A member of the Impatien family, its seedheads are similar to those of our familiar garden Busy Lizzie.



Along the final stretch of our walk, the river is backed by the same red sandstone cliffs that can be seen by the coast. How many millenia did it take for this gentle stream to cut its way through to its present level? My photography skills – or perhaps my patience – did not allow me to get shots of the kingfishers that darted up and down as a flash of azure along this reach of the river. High up in the rock face, their nesting holes (or were they the breeding sites of the sand martins that had already begun their long flight south to winter in Africa?) were more easily photographed.



The ten mile walk to the source of the Otter will have to wait for another visit to the West Country. Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention, otters can be found – but rarely seen – along the whole length of the river.



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Cotswold Cowslips

I never did get to see the fritillary fields of Oxford and the Upper Thames. Perhaps next year. If fritillaries are the flowers of the lowlands (albeit rare) then it has to be the cowslip that can lay claim to the title for the hills of the Cotswolds. These little, short stemmed wild primulas (Primula veris) have a simple beauty – they look good growing in the garden but even better in the fields and hedgerows where they belong.

Cowlsips grow in plenty in the secret valley and I have noticed this year that they abound along the old drovers road, as do bluebells – don’t they look good growing in combination? Is this because these green lanes are never sprayed with chemicals and the thick hedgerows that line them prevent any spray drift from reaching? The field below is at the top of the secret valley and is a haven for wild flowers – soon there will be orchids showing. The farmer likes to see them so has never tried to ‘improve’ the ground in the agricultural sense and, as a consequence, the field is also full of birds and bees and butterflies.

However, to see the truly stunning cowslip meadows, you have to travel out of the secret valley. Just a few miles up the road is this field where the cowslips grow in the tens of thousands, so dense that it is impossible to walk without trampling several plants at once. Few people see them as they are ‘off the beaten track’ which is a pity in some respects, for they should be enjoyed and marvelled over.

The scent of cowslips is subtle but, when growing in these huge numbers, it wafts over in waves on gentle, warm breezes, a heady mix of hay and honey. This gives cowslip wine, a traditional drink, its characteristic taste and potency. Made from many hundreds of flower heads it is now rarely made as, fortunately, most people now understand the importance of preserving our native flora and fauna. This has benefitted the cowslips, which were once quite an uncommon sight, as they are left to multiply with these spectacular results.

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Into the Secret Valley

One of the joys of going away is the pleasure of returning home. The main road that cuts across our bit of the Cotswolds follows the ridge of the hill, which gives the appearance of being plateau like. There are few hints that just a little way off to the side is the secret valley and the little lane leading to it gives few hints either.

To call it an avenue would be rather pretentious, but the roadside plantings of beech and cherry create the first thought that you may be going somewhere rather special. And as you begin to pass beneath their canopy, the hills start to rise on either side. These are rarely, if ever, treated with any chemicals and wild flowers, including orchids, abound.

But there is still no hint of our little, winding river. Then, as the avenue ends and on a sharp bend there it is! The first glimpse is of the old sheepwash, where the river was widened and deepened although still almost jumpable, for everything about the secret valley is miniature: the hills, the river, the road. Beyond the sheepwash come the meanders – the photo of these snake like bends are in the blog’s header title.

Our little stone cottage lies further along the road – and this is now the original old drove road, for the one that we have travelled so far has probably only been in place since about the late 1700’s. More of the drover’s in another post. Below is the view from the house looking back towards the meanders – we may only have just one other house nearby but there are dozens of sheep for neighbours!
Just below the cottage, the river passes beneath the lane and snakes its way around us, travelling through lush meadows. Watercress and meadowsweet grow along the water’s edge and little rickety, make-do bridges made from old telegraph poles criss-cross from one bank to another. Ancient, gnarled willow trees line the banks, more about these can be found in an earlier post: Willows
And tucked away beyond the bridges are the remains of the old mill workings. The culvert is barely noticeable until the river levels rise and the water diverts towards the mill. We’ll travel there another day.

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I Know a Bank Where The Wild Thyme Grows…..

Was William Shakespeare sitting in our secret valley when he wrote these words? I doubt it, although we are less than 30 miles from his birthplace at Stradford-upon-Avon. But on the slopes above our little winding river (it’s the photo of the title header) the thyme flowers year after year.

Wild flower meadows are quite easy to create whether on the big scale or in the garden. Of course, the species rich meadows of the Chilterns and Cotswolds have evolved over centuries and have a wealth of insect and plant life to show for it. In the garden you just have to be a little more realistic and be grateful for every bug and butterfly that comes along and colonises it. Hopefully wild orchids, like the Pyramidal orchids below, will arrive too.
The golden rule of all meadows is to reduce fertility. As soon as fertility rises, usually through feeding, the grass sward thickens and out competes the flowers. The photo below is of ‘our’ bank and shows, as a golden haze, the unimproved grassland – thin, tall and sparse and too steep for the tractors to get onto and spray. The brighter green grass above and below is where the tractors can reach, the grass has been fed and, consequently, there are few wild flowers.

Late summer wild flower meadows require a different maintenance regime to those which have an abundance of spring flowers and, as it is that time of year, I shall concentrate on the former. Now is the time to cut the ‘hay’ whether on the bigger scale such as in this orchard or, by hand, in the garden. It is important to get the timing right – you need to leave it late enough for the seeds to fall from their heads to increase more. Leave it too late and bad weather knocks the grass and plants flat to the ground when it becomes a devil of a job to cut. The difference is a task that is a joy to do or one that is totally hateful!

Once cut, I then mow the meadow regularly as a normal lawn, even topping it once or twice in the winter if the weather is mild enough. In spring I continue to mow quite regularly, gradually increasing the cutting height until I stop totally about early May. This way, it does not become too unruly later on in the year.

The golden rule is to pick up and remove all clippings – leave lying on the surface and the fertility of the soil will begin to increase again.

Hardheads, the local name I learnt for Knapweed in my Chiltern Hills childhood, is a favourite flower of mine. Although normally purply-mauve (above), I found this bi-coloured one and some pure white flowered ones growing in an old meadow – rarities, indeed. I live in hope that they might appear one day in the secret valley!

Neglect does not create a meadow. If you don’t work at it all you will end up with is a sheet of docks, nettles and thistles as has happened in this garden here – not a pretty sight!

And finally – don’t collect plants from the wild: they have enough problems with survival without you adding to them! Collecting seed is probably ok (check any bye-laws first and get permission from the landowner) or buy seed or plants from specialist nurseries or garden centres.

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