A Host of Golden Daffodils

If you want to see, as Wordsworth did, a ‘host of golden daffodils…beside the lake, beneath the trees, fluttering and dancing in the breeze,’ in your own garden now is the time to plant them. What’s more, you don’t need a lake or rolling acres to have a spectacular show. The secret is to plant them in quantity and with a little thought on position.

Daffodils (2)    copyright

Daffodils (Narcissus) are incredibly easy to grow for every full sized bulb that you buy already has next spring’s flower formed within it. All you have to do is pop them in the ground as soon as possible after purchase and nature does the rest.Daffodils (2)   copyright

A general rule is to plant any bulb twice the depth of its height: so if your bulb is two inches high, your planting hole needs to be four inches deep. When they are tucked safely below ground at that level the bulbs aren’t so likely to get damaged when weeding. To get the ‘host’ look don’t plant singly or in tiny groups of twos and threes. Think big, think twenty-five, fifty or even a hundred or more. This may sound an expensive option but daffodils are readily available in bulk mail order and many garden centres offer a ‘cram as many as you can into a bag’ deal. It is worth remembering too that the bulbs will continue to increase in quantity and flower for many years making them incredibly good value for money.

Naturalised Daffodils   copyright

Because daffodils flower early in the year, before most other plants in the border have got going, it is not necessary to plant them at the front. If they are planted further back, later their dying leaves will become hidden by spring growth. You will find that when planted too far forward, they are both unsightly and a nuisance.

Narcissus 'Salome'

Narcissus ‘Salome’

One of the best ways of growing daffodils is to grow them in grass or under trees – just as Wordsworth saw them. The simplest way to do this is to simply throw the bulbs and plant them where they fall. Some will land very close together and some further apart which makes them look as if they have been growing there forever. Make the throw gentle, a cross between underarm cricket and bowls – you’re not trying to win the Ashes. In grass, the bulbs will be easier to spot if you mow the grass as short as possible beforehand.

Naturalised Daffodils (3)   copyright

Which varieties to select is only difficult because there is almost too much choice. For naturalising I tend to select three standard varieties that flower at slightly differing times, thereby extending the flowering period. In the borders I just choose those varieties that I fancy.

Narcissus 'Chanterelle'

Narcissus ‘Chanterelle’

Although daffodils are best planted during August and September, I usually find I’m too busy with other garden tasks then. I have found they can be planted right up to December without a problem providing wintry weather hasn’t closed in. If the thought of planting large quantities sounds rather daunting remember you can always plant year after year until you’ve achieved the aimed for look.

Nine thousand daffodils!

Nine thousand daffodils!

John Shortland is the author of Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That? a jargon-free and easy to read gardening manual, available from Amazon and good bookshops.  To take a peep inside click on the image below.

BOOK COVER FROM AMAZON

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A Year in Review 2013: The First Six Months

As I feared, once you reach a certain age, time flies by even quicker than before and that certainly has happened in 2013.  Where has the year gone?  The only consolation is that speaking with young people, they say the same thing.  Perhaps that is a rather sad reflection of modern living for I often found that the time didn’t go by quickly enough years ago!  Despite the year having gone by rapidly, it has been a great one with some excitement along the way.

January: it is rapidly becoming a tradition that each New Year’s Day some close friends and I go off exploring.  This usually includes a museum and food.  The year before it had been London with a visit to the National Portrait Gallery followed by afternoon tea at my favourite grocers, Fortnum & Mason.  This January it was to the city of Bath with its glorious abbey church where Edgar was crowned King of England in 973AD.  The church has the most exquisite vaulting – it is hard to believe that such fine tracery can be achieved by carving stone.  Bath, which is a World Heritage Site, is famous for its Roman Baths built about a thousand years earlier and which are open to visitors.  A great place to view them from are the Pump Rooms, the imaginary setting of Sheridan’s Georgian play, The Rivals.  It was here that we had our champagne tea.

February was a mixed month weather-wise in the secret valley and one post describes the rain lashing against the windows and the trees being thrown around by a winter gale.  Despite that the winter aconites were in full flower advertising the advance of spring and the wild birds were hanging onto the feeders for dear life.  Take away the aconites and we have a carbon copy day as I write this and, although there are no signs of spring yet, we are passing the shortest day which is always encouraging.

March was a strange month too with huge amounts of rain interspersed with wintry weather.  Even stranger was the affect it had upon the secret valley’s frog population.  I can only assume that it was because everything was so saturated that, instead of laying their spawn in the small lake that is visible from the cottage, they laid them instead upon the tops of nearby fence posts. They couldn’t possibly have survived there anyway but it was sad to see a few days later that they had turned black and ‘melted’ when a hard frost fell upon them.

April is the month of the Chipping Norton Literary Festival.  I have been on the committee since its inception and it has been gratifying to find that it has rapidly established a good reputation with authors, publishers and festival goers. One of the star attractions for 2013 was Sir Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame.  Because it is a small festival in a small, country town the atmosphere is very relaxed and it is possible to meet the authors for book signings or just a chat as they stroll about ‘Chippy’.  This coming year the festival takes place from 24-27 April and tickets go on sale next month – check out the website for more details.

April also saw the launch of my new website www.johnshortlandwriter.com and also the start of my tweeting.  Come and join me @johnshortlandwr

May:  As I am always saying the secret valley is a magical place to live and one of the things that makes it so special is its history. Not the history of history books but the type that goes unrecorded other than by the clues it leaves behind in the landscape.  Here we have a patch of rough ground left uncultivated that is the invisible site of a Bronze Age settlement. Later, almost to within living memory, the lane was a drover’s route and, in places, the road has been abandoned to become a green track full of wild flowers and butterflies.  We still refer to one place as the ‘white gate’ even though it was removed a hundred years ago or more.  It feels special to know that the valley has been lived in and loved for over three thousand years.

It was also a very exciting time as my gardening book was published accompanied by radio and other interviews. The launch party took place a couple of months later.

June is a colourful time of year in gardens and one thing I’ve always wanted to create is an Iris border.  This is an extravagance of space that few can afford for they are only in flower for a relatively short time.  However, one of my clients liked the idea so the ‘rainbow’ border was created.  Interest is extended by daffodils and alliums for earlier colour and Japanese anemones, with large flowered clematis behind, for later on.

To read any of the posts referred to above just click on the links, coloured green.

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Behind the Scenes at ChipLitFest

It hardly seems possible that a week has passed since the Chipping Norton Literary Festival (or ChipLitFest as it is affectionately called) took place.  For four days the small, market town situated on the edge of the Cotswolds hosted eighty of the best authors to be found anywhere – a remarkable feat for a festival still in its infancy.

A quiet back street in the centre of Chipping Norton

For the eleven of us on the committee the past year has been an endless round of meetings, venues to be visited, volunteers to be found and co-ordinated, emails to be sent, publishers and agents to be contacted and authors to be booked.  Fortunately, our meetings have always been enjoyable and any stress negated by copious amounts of food, wine  and strong coffee.  These are an absolute necessity for none of the committee receive any payment whatsoever so meetings have to be fitted around busy work schedules in the evenings.  Perhaps if we had ever worked out how much the meetings cost the individuals hosting them there would have been a mass resignation.

The information point in the market place

The first two days of the festival are focused on children with authors visiting all of the local schools, speaking and reading and encouraging them to become better readers and writers.  The story writing competition was well supported; the winning entries can be read by clicking here.

Mountaineer Nick Bullock and explorer Jason Lewis discuss their exploits with Sue Cook

The authors and patrons were guests of honour at a reception held in the town centre on Friday evening and gave them the chance to network and to meet the committee and sponsors in a relaxed and informal way.  My role in the festival has been  Author Liaison so I was especially keen to speak with as many of them as possible – it was good  to be finally able to meet face to face after many weeks of messages and telephone conversations.  The following evening myself and Merilyn Davies, the children’s programme co-ordinator, hosted a dinner for the authors and, as many events had taken place by then, we were all realising just how successful the festival was becoming.

At the reception our designated charity Storybook Dads gave a short explanation of their amazing work inside some of the UK’s toughest jails.  Their film was uplifting and heart-breaking all at the same time and it was wonderful that the festival was able to present a cheque to them for five hundred pounds.  They are now out in Afghanistan too, helping servicemen keep in touch with their children.  A short video montage of their work can be seen here.

Sharon Berry, founder of Storybook Dads, talks to author Clive Aslet about their work

It wasn’t just the committee that welcomed our guests for the whole town has taken the festival to its heart: the local window cleaners had put up yards of bunting, shops and cafes were offering special promotions and the farmer’s market was held over two days instead of the usual one day. Festival goers were appreciative of this and with warm, spring sunshine finally making an appearance the atmosphere was electric.

One of the drawbacks of being involved in putting on an event – and I wouldn’t have changed places for a second – is that there is little time for us to actually see any of the talks or workshops.  However, I did manage to sneak into a few places to take a quick photograph or two.

Julian Fellowes meeting festival goers and signing books after his Downton Abbey talk


Both the local and the national press came to town too.  David Freeman, past presenter of Sky television’s The Book Show, was busy interviewing and filming authors.  I, too, was interviewed by him about my forthcoming book Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That? published next month.

David Freeman being filmed during an author interview

The festival ended on Sunday evening and we all returned home utterly exhausted.  This state of affairs didn’t last long for within twenty-four hours emails from the committee were pouring into the inbox discussing how well it went and how we could make 2014’s even better.  Even more gratifying were the huge number from the authors, volunteers and public saying how much they had enjoyed it and asking for the dates of the next one.  So here it is:

Chipping Norton Literary Festival 2014 – April 24-27

If you want to take part or visit follow the information on the links to the websites: ChipLitFest, Facebook or Twitter

The actress, Lalla Ward, caught having a quiet moment at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival

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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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My Favourite Tree

When I was a small child I was lucky enough to be sent to a school that had once been a large country house.  Its gardens had long been allowed to return to the wild and it was difficult to differentiate between them and the meadows that came with the property.  Lessons on warm summer days were often taken outdoors sitting not on chairs but on a bank of short mown grass.  This sounds – and was, of course – idyllic but rules were strict and we had to sit in rows as straight as the chairs in the classroom.  At playtime we could run about through the longer grass chasing butterflies and trying to catch grasshoppers in our school caps.

Even in those early days I hated being indoors during bad weather and found it hard to concentrate on lessons in the classroom for there always seemed to be something more interesting happening outside.  Our teacher must have felt the same for with the first sign of sunshine we would be back once more in the open air.  It is said that every child remembers the name of their first teacher and mine, Miss Vine, I recall with great affection and gratitude for it was she that first took me on a nature walk.  The walk – the earliest of all my schoolday memories – triggered off a lifelong love of and fascination with nature.

We were led one late winter’s day wrapped up in our gaberdine raincoats, belts tightly buckled at the waist, crocodile fashion in pairs through the meadows further than we had been before.  How exciting to be exploring somewhere new!  When we came to an old wooden gate we passed through onto a wide, open path lined with trees, their trunks as straight as soldiers and towering high above us.  The path instead of being muddy was soft and springy, our feet cushioned by years of fallen needles.  Miss Vine had brought us to a larch wood; an inspired introduction to trees for everything about them is childlike in scale apart from their height which she said led to a magic world way, way above.

We never were told how we might reach the magic world but she pointed out the gifts that were dropped from it so that we might learn all about the birds and animals that lived there.  She picked up a fallen piece of branch with its tiny cones attached, perfect child-sized miniatures of the larger Spruce fircones, and gave it to us to look at and then we all found our own and carried our ‘gift’ back to the classroom to draw it in painting class.

As the months went by we visited the trees often, watching how the hard, knobbly, dead-looking branches opened into soft tufts of the brightest green.  We marvelled at how the cones formed starting off green and pink before turning chestnut and then brown.  And in the autumn we watched as the needles – and it puzzled us that needles could be soft – turned glorious shades of yellow and orange before falling to the ground.
 
During those visits we learnt about different types of trees, about the wild flowers and birds, the animals and other wildlife.  It was only many years later that I realised that Miss Vine had taught us that there really was a magic world – the one that we live in and take for granted every day of our lives.

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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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The Roman Mosaics of Cirencester

The making of mosaic patterns is often associated with the Romans although the earliest known examples pre-date them to 3000BC.  Associated with many cultures, mosaic artists still flourish today, an unbroken tradition of five thousand years.

The Hunting Dogs mosaic: head of Oceanus  2nd century AD

In Britain, one of the finest collections of early mosaics can be found in the Cotswold town of Cirencester, situated 93 miles west of London.  With a population of 18000, it is one of the larger hubs in the Cotswolds yet has maintained a lot of its old charm for there are still many independent shops as well as the usual High Street chain stores.

History oozes from the very fabric of Cirencester: home to the the oldest agricultural college (Royal Agricultural College) in the English speaking world, founded in 1845; it is also home to the oldest polo club in England (Cirencester Park Polo Club) which was founded in 1894.  The charter for the market, still held twice weekly, was first mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086.

The Hunting Dogs mosaic:  Sea Leopard   3rd century AD

However, when the words Cirencester and history are linked together it is the Romans that predominate for their town, Corinium – now modern day Cirencester – was the second most important city in Britain.  Corinium lay at the centre of their great road network where Akeman Street,  Ermine Street and the Fosse Way all meet, still busy roads today.  There are still the remains of a number of  their villas in the region that are possible to explore.

The great Roman ampitheatre here was also the second largest in the country with tiered wooden seating for eight thousand spectators.  Today, all that remains are a series of banks and ditches, still impressive and well worth visiting.

The Seasons mosaic:  2nd century AD   Actaeon being attacked by his own hunting dogs

If there is not a huge amount to see of the original splendour of the ampitheatre, you will not be disappointed by a trip to the town’s Corinium Museum which has recently been extended and refurbished making it one of the best museums in the country.  The museum holds over one and a half million artefacts but the most impressive of all of their exhibits have to be the Roman mosaics.

The Seasons mosaic: 2nd century AD

The Seasons  is one of the most impressive mosaics in Britain, discovered in Cirencester in 1849, with pictures of goddesses depicting spring, summer and autumn.  Winter is missing.  In the museum the floor has been laid in an area reproducing a room in a Roman villa.

Detail from the Hare mosaic, 4th century AD

The hare is frequently used in Celtic art and fables but was rarely used by the Romans, making this central motif of the mosaic floor unique.  If you click on the photo above to enlarge it, you will see that there have been shards of green glass laid into the hare’s back.

Detail from the Hare mosaic, 4th century AD

The Hare mosaic, 4th century AD

The museum does not just hold Roman aretfacts, it also covers finds from pre-history as well as more recent times such as Saxon brooches and a large hoard of coins dating back to the English civil war, subjects of a later post.  The Cirencester Museum is really worth making the effort to visit – you can find out more details by visiting their website, here.

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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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Writing Words of Silence

I have exchanged a couple of comments recently with ExmoorJane after one of her posts got me thinking.  I spend a lot of my time thinking, it goes with the day job.  Now these thoughts are not usually high powered for I don’t spend my working hours in a dynamic office environment; I spend them – often on my own – in the real, green environment.  And that’s the problem: there are so many things to distract me.  A few days ago it was the fault of the jackdaws – they suddenly had realised that spring is around the corner and were in full display flight, tumbling and diving and generally making an awful lot of noise.  So I spent far too long wondering why I hadn’t noticed their courtship before.

Yesterday it was the fault of the snowdrops and the winter flowering aconites.  They are to blame because they are in full flower a few weeks earlier due to the unseasonably mild winter we have had so far.  Some years ago I organised a visit to some gardens renowned for their display of snowdrops and we had to search hard to find one in flower – that was the 10th February.  Nature, like some people, can  be fickle.  The photo below shows a different garden’s snowdrops: it is the garden of what I call the ‘reincarnation’ house.  They are at their best now.

The aconites were more fully to blame. Seeing the hundred or so yellow blooms staring up at me from the foot of our garden hedge made me decide to take a walk as, not far from our little cottage, further down the secret valley lies a very special woodland.  At this time of year it is a yellow carpet of flowering aconites, an extremely rare sight for they are not native to this country.  No-one knows by whom or when they were planted for there is no sign of there ever being a house nearby; they are of no value as a commercial crop unlike snowdrops that were sent to London in bunches for selling once the age of steam made it possible to transport them quickly.

But all this pondering can most squarely be laid at Jane’s doorstep.  In her post on writing she mentioned that she sometimes writes just for the sheer pleasure of seeing words and thoughts on paper.  Then, satisfied, she destroys the work for there is no need or desire to share it.  I thought only people that were mad – or, at least, people that were a bit dotty – did that.*  And, insecure person that I suppose this shows me to be, I thought I  was the only one that ever fitted this description and did such a bizarre thing.  This is why I started writing a blog: I came to the conclusion it would be quite nice to keep my work somewhere secret so that I could look at it from time to time.  I decided Blogger would be quite a good place to store it, along with a few favourite photos.  I knew, of course, that the world in theory could see it but why would anyone want to stop and read something that I had written?  It never occurred to me that some of you might do so and some even come back regularly for more.  So on my way back from the aconites I was visualising Jane and myself scribbling away and ceremoniously (for it always seemed to be part of the ritual) tearing up the sheets of paper with our precious words on them.

I had walked along our little winding river to reach the wood but struck off over the hill for the return home.  This route always fascinates me because, from the top, the valley is totally invisible tucked away deep within the folds of the landscape.  One moment the ground almost appears flat and then, suddenly you are looking down into the secret valley.  The slopes are steep and grazed only by sheep, wild deer and rabbits and are, later in the year, awash with wild flowers of all kinds, including rare wild thyme, the subject of one of my earliest posts.  I sat myself down to admire the view, for I never tire of it despite seeing it every day, and pondered on what gives a person the desire to write, to play around with words, arranging them and rearranging them for hours on end.

And then this thought came:  what do you do when words just aren’t adequate to describe the sights or the emotions?  How do you describe the indescribable?  Take a photograph – after all, a photo is supposed to say a thousand words.  But what if a thousand words still aren’t enough?  What if ten thousand words still aren’t enough?  Besides, an image only allows the viewer to create their own words, it can never convey those that the writer might be thinking.  How do you describe the intangible?  So I sat on the bank, looking across the secret valley, muffled up against the chill east wind and came to this simple conclusion – the only way out of this conundrum of how to express these silent words is to write a post about it.

* Well, I thought she did but I can’t see it now.  Perhaps I am dotty, after all :-{

PS Don’t forget you can find me on Facebook now and get regular updates from the secret valley

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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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