Discovering the Five Senses in Lockdown

It sometimes takes a crisis to make us re-evaluate what is of importance in our lives and the present one of Coronavirus/Corvid-19 surely has to be the greatest that we will collectively face. Now, several weeks into lockdown we have all been developing new patterns to our daily regime, one of which may well be taking more exercise. Never before have we placed so much value on fresh air and being able to walk freely whether it be in our parks, gardens or open countryside.

Marlow watermark

                           Riverside path, Higginson Park, Marlow (before social distancing).                                 The river is the River Thames in Buckinghamshire

Living where I do in the Cotswolds surrounded by fields and with woodlands and the river close by it is relatively easy for me to enjoy the open space. For others able to take advantage of their enforced free time, it may involve a longer walk and I have certainly noticed an increase in the numbers of walkers and cyclists here in the valley. I have also noticed that for many of them one aspect of their lives hasn’t changed: as they walk their eyes are glued to the screen of their mobiles and headphones are clamped to their ears, seemingly unaware of their surroundings. It has made me think all the more of our five senses and how we use (or should use) each one of them when out exercising.

Nr Fingest copyright

Cycling in the Chiltern Hills

SIGHT For those of us blessed with the gift of vision, perhaps sight is the most important sense we use and perhaps the one we most take for granted.  Without it, it is still possible to enjoy one’s surroundings for the other senses become heightened but I doubt if anyone would deny the pleasure of seeing the beauty that surrounds us on our daily walks. Even within cities there is much nature to be enjoyed although I admit that sometimes it has to be sought with more vigour and awareness.

Viola watermark

Look everywhere – self-sown violas peep out from overhead guttering!

At this time of year, more than any other season, there is much to see. Tight leaf buds unfurl into an explosion of vivid green foliage, iridescent wherever sunlight filters through; young ducklings tumbling into the park pond to take their first swim. But it isn’t just the natural world to be seen anew, there are other things too. Although it had been there for more than a hundred and forty years (and I’d walked past it very day for twenty) the date scratched into the stone on this wall had gone unnoticed.

Date stone watermark

Who scratched this date into the old stone wall and why?

HEARING Along with sight the second most important sense we use on our daily amble. Apart from the glory of birdsong there are other sounds that bombard us when out walking. The wind flurry that makes the catkins tremble and shed their pollen, the stronger breeze that make the twigs and branches clatter gently against one another. Then there’s the rustle in the undergrowth. Stop and wait silently and with patience you may be rewarded by the sight of a little field mouse going about its daily chores or a rabbit venturing out to feed.

Field Mouse watermark

patience was rewarded when this little field mouse ventured into the open

Altamont Gardens (8) watermark

… and also this rabbit

The sound of the river alters constantly. The smooth, barely audible glide of the water changes to a tinkling of soft musical sounds, its flow interrupted by a fallen branch. A few yards further downstream they rise to a crescendo as they crash and tumble over the old millrace before returning to silence as the flow stills in the calm of the millpond.

Radford Mill (1) watermark

The old millrace 

Radford Mill watermark

the calm of the millpond

TOUCH   In the present crisis we are sensibly being discouraged from touching things unnecessarily. Out on walks perhaps care may be advisable when opening gates or climbing stiles but, if you do, take a moment to think about what you feel. Heed the cold steel of the metal five-bar gate and the way it slowly warms beneath your hand; feel the rough timbers of a stile worn smooth from much use over the years. Of less concern health-wise – and all the more pleasurable for that – become aware of the softness of new horse chestnut leaves; later in the year they will become as harsh as sandpaper. Run your fingers across the twisted, grooved bark of the sweet chestnut tree and stroke the furry softness of the aptly named ‘Lamb’s Ears’, the favourite garden herbaceous plant Stachys byzantina.

Sweet Chestnut 4 watermark

The deeply grooved bark of the Sweet Chestnut tree

Stachys byzantina  Lamb’s Ears

SMELL   The scent of spring is everywhere at the moment and to be delighted in. However, the sense of smell is also a powerful trigger of long-forgotten memories. In a few weeks’ time the sweet scent of drying hay in the meadows may recall childhood farm holidays but for now there is the unique smell of new-mown lawns. Both start off as freshly cut grass yet their scent is so surprisingly different. Likewise, compare the subtly differing fragrance of apple and cherry blossom, both in their full-blown glory right now.

Drying hay before baling

The smell of freshly-mown grass…

Without even leaving home, squeeze the leaves of the herbs on the kitchen sill and notice their variation in scent, their colours and textures too. Early morn in the woodland, especially after warm rain, the delicate perfume of bluebells quickly disappears as the sun becomes stronger. Half-close your eyes and glory in their colour, in the silence and in their perfume and leave all cares behind you – if only for a while.

discover the different textures & scents of herbs

The vivid greens & blues of an English beechwood in spring

In town, the scents are also there just waiting to be noticed. Rain falling on roads and pavements or scorched by hot sun both produce delightfully tarry smells, one mild, the other strong. In the formal beds of the local park flowering bulbs stand in regimental rows; each have a unique scent which rises in the air to mingle with the vanilla fragrance of wallflowers. The wallflowers, their dull green foliage barely noticeable throughout the winter, now shout out the arrival of spring through the colours of their flowers of brick red, orange and yellow.

Tulips & wallflowers – a favourite park bedding combination

TASTE   In shaded places where the soil stays moist you may be greeted – even before you arrive – by the pungent scent of wild garlic. A prolific carpeter of the woodland floor its leaves and flowers make a useful ingredient to spring salads. Wild garlic or Ramsons to give it it’s country name, is fickle where it will grow. In some places that would seem suitable, not a single plant can be found. A less common member of the onion family to be found in the wild are the chives of our gardens, they grow along road edges and field boundaries locally. It is thought that they were spread by the old drovers of centuries ago so that they could harvest them along the way to liven up a bland meal. There is no doubting its identification, disturb the tubular green leaves and the familiar scent is immediately released.

Ramsons grow in damp, shaded places

It is not only the onion family that can be nibbled en route. Richard Mabey in his book Food for Free, published many years before foraging became a ‘craze’, suggests nibbling on the half-open buds of hawthorn. Many a country child has done so over countless generations and perhaps that is how they got their old name of Bread and Cheese. To me, they only have a slightly nutty taste and texture.

Hawthorn leaf buds are not really worth eating!

As a boy, brought up close to the River Thames, the hollow stems of the common reed were a regular source of pleasure for the soft pithy centre could be drawn out by pulling the stems through clenched teeth. Close to my present home there is also a small reedbed. These tall reeds have something to offer every one of the other senses too: sight – the pleasure of watching petrol-blue damsel-flies sunbathing on the stems; hearing – as they sway and rustle with the slightest breeze; touch – the coarseness of the leaves, a contrast to their smooth stems; smell – those of the river as it seeps around the roots, a heady mix of wet mud and wet greenery.

Only the male of the Beautiful Demoiselle damsel-fly has petrol-blue wings & body

So, within the bounds and restraints of the Covid-19 advice when out on your daily exercise, remove the earphones, place the phone in your pocket and use, really use, every one of your senses. Not only will you notice more, you will wonder how you never managed to notice them before. Stay safe, stay alert and take this unique opportunity to discover a new world on your doorstep.

Finally, one word of warning. Only try tasting wild plants if you are confident they have been identified correctly. If you decide to forage, do so responsibly and only pick a few leaves at a time. Make sure that all plants for consumption are free of pesticides and other contaminants, especially those growing in or near water.

 

 

How To Grow Tomatoes With Little Effort

It may seem odd writing about growing tomatoes at the time you should be harvesting them but it is often the case that when you see a plant growing somewhere that is the time you wish you knew how to grow them.  As regular readers of my garden articles will know, although I love gardening I also like to achieve great results with the minimum of effort and tomatoes are not an exception!  Effortless gardening doesn’t mean bad horticultural practice for you can hardly expect great results from shoddy workmanship wherever your interest lies.  All the photographs below demonstrate that it is possible to have superb tomatoes without devoting every spare moment to growing them.

Tomato 'Moneymaker' watermark

Perfect tomatoes can be grown quite easily using my method

As is often the case, I discovered this easy way to grow tomatoes out of necessity: a client wanted them but they only visited their country house irregularly and I could only devote one day a week to maintaining their grounds.  That left about fifteen minutes a week for the tomatoes.   This method, by the way, only works for plants grown in containers.  Although they were grown in a greenhouse there is no reason why the same method could not be used for growing in pots outdoors although they are more at the mercy of the usually variable British summer weather (not variable this year, 2018!).

Tomato 'Golden Sweet' watermark

Tomato ‘Golden Sweet’

All garden plants, whether grown in containers or in the garden border require good growing conditions and this starts with getting the soil or potting compost right.  Tomatoes are greedy feeders and books and articles always advise feeding the plants on a regular basis as soon as the first flowers show signs of turning into fruit.  That is far too time consuming for my fifteen-minute rule!  Instead, use a quality compost.  I used Carr’s potting compost which is made from composted farmyard manure; although not the cheapest it is well worth paying the extra cost for the results that are obtained.  There are, of course, other manufacturers that do something similar which, I daresay, will achieve similar results.  To this compost I mix in several handfuls of horticultural grit and double the recommended amount of water-retaining granules – these swell upon contact with water, and release it gradually thereby reducing the necessity for regular watering.

Tomato 'Cherrola' F1 watermark

Tomato ‘Cherrola’

Tomatoes are easy to grow from seed, sowing in gentle heat in February and there is a huge choice of variety.  For ease and speed, I purchased young plants from a garden centre once I had no concern of late frosts killing them.  The pots were filled to within a couple of inches of the brim with the compost mix which I had pre-moistened.  As a guide, the compost should feel damp but you shouldn’t be able to squeeze water out of it.  Plant three tomatoes in a 20/25 litre plant pot placing a sturdy cane by each plant.  Stand the pot on a watering saucer or tray and water well.  Gardening rules state that tomatoes don’t like standing in water but I found that by using the saucers I could leave them with a good supply to last them the week.  By the time of my next visit, the compost and tray were dry but the plants unaffected by either the standing water or the drought.

Tomato 'Tigerella' watermark

‘Tigerella’, an heirloom variety of tomato with striped fruits

Tomatoes grow in two different ways depending upon the variety – bush or cordon.  With bush tomatoes you just leave them to grow as they will; with cordons it is recommended that you remove side shoots and tie the plant upright onto the cane.  Although the latter method sounds time consuming and fiddly it is a simple and quick task once it’s been mastered.  The secret is to remove any shoots that grow out of the union of the leaf stalk with the main stem – if done early enough they snap off with the fingers.  If you leave them they will need to be cut out with a knife or scissors.  Although it is possible to leave them in situ I find that the plants become very congested and difficult to manage which, in the longer term, means they are more time consuming to deal with.

Tomato 'Sungold' watermark

Tomato ‘Sungold’ – note how the plant has been ‘stopped’ when it had grown as tall as I wanted it to be.

And that’s it!  Just tie the plants to the cane as they grow and give them a really thorough watering once a week from the top of the compost until the saucer begins to overflow.  There’s no time-consuming feeding for the compost will provide all the necessary nutrients. And because the plants are growing strongly and healthily you are far less likely to be bothered by pests or diseases.  All the tomatoes in the photographs received no chemicals or other additives; all we had to do was to eat them.  If you’ve never tasted a home-grown tomato eaten the moment it is plucked from the vine then you’re in for a real treat!

Tomato Big Boy 1979 watermark

A photograph from 1979!  Tomato ‘Big Boy’, a beefsteak variety living up to it’s name!

On Tulips

The story of the craze for tulips in the 17th century, Tulipomania, is well documented and oft repeated.  Suffice to say, that favoured, single tulip bulbs were selling for thousands of pounds/dollars before the tulip ‘bubble’ crashed.  Today, we are fortunate in having many hundreds of varieties in an unimaginable range of colours and forms to choose from and at remarkably low prices.Hidcote - tulips in the Old Garden copyright

Over the years, my work has taken me to gardens of all sizes and styles, from formal parterres attached to country estate houses to ‘pocket handkerchiefs’, to planting thousands in grassland to planting a score or less in pots.  It has given me the opportunity to experiment with colour as well as variety.  Below are some of my favourites.

Hidcote (11) copyright

The formal parterres of this Victorian Italianate garden (by Charles Barry, designer of the Houses of Parliament) required very restrained planting both in colour and quantity.  Here, I used the variety ‘Spring Green’, which stands well even in harsh weather conditions. After flowering, the bulbs were lifted and dried off to be replanted again later in the year.  It is always desirable to do this as it helps to prevent disease and deterioration of the bulbs.  In practice, it is often easier just to leave them and add a few additional bulbs each autumn to bulk up the numbers, especially when time is short.Kiddington Hall 2001 copyright

Also in a large estate garden but at the opposite end of the style and colour spectrum, three thousand red (‘Bing Crosby’) and white (‘Diana’) tulips were planted on a meadow bank.  Tulips when planted in grassland deteriorate very rapidly – to maintain this display new bulbs were added each year.  However, they do look very beautiful when grown this way – try the almost black tulip ‘Queen of Night’ with blue Camassia bulbs for a magical combination.Tulips bing crosby & diana in grass copyright

Even when planting smaller beds, cramming in as many bulbs as is possible between other plants makes for a beautiful display.  This stunning border was only one metre wide and four in length but there was still room to have plenty of early colour from ‘Purple Prince’ and the lighter ‘Candy Prince’.Tulips Purple Prince & Candy Prince copyright

For formal displays a bed of tulips takes a lot of beating.  They can be single coloured as in this image of pink tulips under-planted with yellow wallflowers (seen at Glasnevin Botanic Gardens in Dublin, Ireland) or mixed colours and planted so densely that no other plants were necessary or desirable (seen at Lismore Castle, Ireland).Tulips - pink copyrightTulips Lismore Castle copyright

For those of us with limited space and budgets, tulips grown in pots are ideal for we can still cram the bulbs in to give a magnificent display.  The images below show how the first layer of bulbs are placed before a second layer is planted above them.  Avoid planting directly over the first bulbs by leaving their tips showing – this will give the bulbs space to develop with much better results.  Top up the plants with potting compost and nature will do the rest; it couldn’t be simpler!  I like to use the more ‘exotic’ looking varieties in pots as the blooms, by being lifted closer to the eye, give more opportunity to admire their spectacular detail.Planting tulips copyrightPlanting tulips in pots copyright

Perhaps the easiest of all tulips to grow are the wild species* and their varieties.  Their delicacy of size belies their toughness.  If they like you, they will increase in number year after year.

 

Tulipa 'Peppermint Stick' copyright

Tulipa ‘Peppermint Stick’

 

 

Tulipa acuminata copyright

Tulipa acuminata

All tulips benefit from being planted as late in the year as possible, November is ideal but even if later they will still flower.  The pot grown ‘Green Eyes’ were planted mid-January this year and have just finished flowering.  They will be planted in the garden in due course to flower again next spring.

Tulip 'Green Eyes' copyright

Tulip ‘Green Eyes’

 

In England, tulips are flowering at their best right now: take the opportunity to visit open gardens to see which ones you like best.  Make notes of their names so that you can order the bulbs when the catalogues drop through the letter box mid-July.

*always ensure that any bulb is purchased from a reputable source and have not been gathered from the wild.