End of Winter?

As predicted in my last post we have had snow.  Here in Malvern we have got off fairly lightly compared to some parts of the country and indeed this area.  Several friends who live in more rural settings have experienced drifts of snow over 6ft tall.  This demosntrates what has been so challenging about this phase of cold weather – the biting wind creating huge drifts in the strangest of places, blocking roads, closing airports and thwarting our rail network.

Whilst I spent yesterday turning up curtains I watched the antics of the birds.  They had been missing from the garden on Thursday and Friday probably due to the wind, bitter temperatures, and snow but with the weather improving a little yesterday, aside from the oppressive fog, the birds ventured out for food – much like my neighbours off to the supermarket.

My focus has been more on feeding the ground feeding birds which I think get overlooked a lot.  We have a bench which makes a good platform so several times a day I have been putting out a selection of bird food including the usual seed, dried mealworms, suet and apples.

The offering of apples were rewarded by a small flock of Fieldfares arriving in the garden much to my delight as we only see them when they pass through on their migration route.  They do have a weakness for apples so I was hoping they would appear. They seem to have sentries as we have had one of their number strutting around the place for the last two days guarding the food from all comers with his fanned tail, just like a turkey.

And just to make the gloomy day even better a small flock of Long Tailed Tits appeared on the bird feeders.  They are my all time favourite garden birds with their distinctive excitable song as they flit around the trees and shrubs looking for insects – like little puffballs.  I always worry about them and their small relatives when we have cold weather so it was a relief to see them.

Now on Sunday afternoon the temperature has reached the heady heights of 10C degrees, a bit of a difference to -4C a couple of nights ago and the thaw has started – it always makes me hum Little April Showers from Bambi. Heres hoping that we can now move on to Spring.

 

After the Snow

and we certainly had snow, about 20cm deep in less than 24 hours just over a week ago.  Whilst we have had heavy snow in the past, some four or five years ago, we haven’t had so much snow in such a short period of time.

And it was the best of snow; soft, fluffy, powdery.  So much of it weighing down branches, flattening the fragile grass stems, crystallising the Fatsia flower heads causing them to snap off.

It was so still, so quiet, nothing moved for hours not even a wind to waft the snow off the allium seed head.

Now on the shortest day of the year the snow has gone and I’m on leave and I finally have the opportunity to see the garden in the daylight and discover unexpected delights.  The first hellebore is flowering and a healthy clump of snowdrops are pushing their snouts upwards – possibly Mrs McNamara.

Removing broken stems and fallen leaves revealed so many fresh new bulb shoots – so much promise for the new year.

 

 

 

Patterns of the Palm House

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Last week, on a rare dry day, I made my very first visit to Kew Gardens in London.  It is almost ridiculous that I have never visited before but living where I do it involves at least 6 hours on trains so you can understand why I have talked myself out of a visit time and again.  However, as I wanted to meet up with some horticultural friends who live in London and who I hadn’t seen for just over a year it seemed a good venue for a Christmas get together.

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The main attraction was the Palm House, which was particularly apt as I was with a group who are very into exotics and knowledgeable on the subject. However,  I found myself distracted completely by the structure of the Palm House with most of my photographs looking up beyond the foliage to the roof.  The Palm House was built between 1844 and 1848 by the architect Decimus Burton and the iron maker Richard Turner.  It was the first large scale structural use of wrought iron.  Sadly the Temperate House, which is even larger, is closed for restoration and will probably be shut until 2018 but I might get around to another visit by then!

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I loved the spiral staircases which take you to the top of the Palm House and on to a walkway from where you can look down on to the foliage.

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You also get to see close up the detail of the building’s construction.

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I found the contrast of the lush tropical foliage with the hard and geometric structure fascinating, especially with the benefit of a beautiful blue sky in the background.

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Just like the structure of the building many of the plants housed here have strong architectural shapes, such as this Dioon spinulosum (I think!).

We also visited the Alpine House and the Princess of Wales Conservatory, which I really enjoyed but is hard to photograph well unless you take plant close-ups which I didn’t as again I was distracted by the overall view.

All in all it was a lovely day out despite leaving home in the dark and a return journey completely in the dark.  Maybe a summer visit will allow a longer visit with the opportunity to explore the outside of the gardens more.  Maybe an overnight visit would be an even better idea, maybe to coincide with RHS Chelsea – I feel a plan forming!

 

 

Unseasonably spring-like

Helleborus (Rodney Davey Marbled Group) 'Anna's Red'

Weeding in the garden today, listening to a big fat bee buzzing around the Salvia ‘Phyllis Fancy’, and feeling the sun on my back you could be forgiven for thinking it was Spring.  This assumption was reinforced by the flowering of snowdrops, hellebores and primulas with even the Daphne putting in a show. However it is mid December with the shortest day just two days away.  This winter has been incredibly mild so much so that it is hard to believe we will be recovering from the over indulgences of Christmas in just 5 days.

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After weekend after weekend of rain it was with pure delight that I was out cutting back hellebore leaves first thing this morning, making the most of the blue skies in case they were going to be short-lived but I needn’t have worried as the fine weather lasted longer than my energy levels or my back muscles.

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I don’t ascribe to the ‘slow gardening’ approach at this time of year which advocates leaving all the tidying up until the spring.  I think it is fine if you have a garden that is grasses and late summer perennials but with a garden like mine that I like to look as good as possible all year and which is planted in the layer style it is important to keep on top of things.  I’m not talking about putting the garden to bed for the winter – what a waste of a quarter of the year and so many delights.  Instead I love to potter and tidy and consider.  With the amount of rain we have had this month I am glad I take this approach as lifting the sodden thick layers of sycamore leaves revealed the hellebore flower buds above which were struggling to push their way through just as some of the bulbs were, you can see how little light has got to them.

Galanthus elwesii 'Mrs Macnamara'
Galanthus elwesii ‘Mrs Macnamara’

Back on the 5th December I shared my surprise at discovering a snowdrop about to open.  Finally this weekend I have had the privilege of seeing the flowers fully open and this has helped me confirm that its identify is Galanthus elwesii ‘Mrs Macnamara’, a very elegant flower with long outer petals and a nice nodding head.

Galanthus elwesii 'Mrs Macnamara'
Galanthus elwesii ‘Mrs Macnamara’

The main borders have been tidied and cleared of leaves and decaying stems cut back. I still have the very back borders to do and I have a scheme around the compost bins that I am hoping I might get a chance to carry out before I return to work on the 4th January, which does seem a very long way away being next year!  Though no doubt having seen the forecast I will spend more time day dreaming over seed catalogues and making plans for gardens to visit this year.

 

‘England’s Greatest Snowdrop Garden’

Galanthus nivalis Sandersii Group
Galanthus nivalis Sandersii Group

When I tell people that I am going to look at snowdrops they often look at me quizzically -” surely a snowdrop is a snowdrop is a snowdrop” they say. “What’s the fuss, they are just pretty small white flowers?”  And so it may seem until you start to look beyond the blanket of the big garden retail chains and seek out the specialist nurseries and horticultural groups and then you start to notice, come the winter, that there is a small club within the club who are all obsessed with snowdrops.  They can be seen huddled around a single specimen in a pot discussing its virtues, or lack of, who bred it, its ancestry and you quickly realise that there is a whole hidden world out there – the world of the galanthophile.

I only started to understand the fascination a few years ago when I visited a galanthophile’s garden and saw the different varieties growing alongside each other. It dawns on you that this variety is much taller than that, or some have glaucous leaves, some strappy leaves, some double flowers, some with longer petals than others but the important thing, I think, is that you have to see them growing in a garden setting in clumps to be able to start to see the differences.

Sir Henry Elwes at Colesbourne Gardens
Sir Henry Elwes at Colesbourne Gardens

Today I was fortunate enough to have a tour of Colesbourne Gardens in Gloucestershire, the home of Sir Henry and Lady Elwes. Colebourne has been described in Country Life as ‘England’s greatest snowdrop garden’.  Why is this so when you only have to look in any Sunday supplement or gardening magazine at this time of year to see lists of ‘snowdrop gardens’? Well, apparently it is one of very few, if any, open to the public where you can not only see drifts of the species snowdrops but also sizeable clumps of the more choice varieties planted in a garden setting.  Most snowdrop gardens have the drifts of naturalised snowdrops and some of the specialist gardens have pots of choice snowdrops on display but rarely are the two combined and few take the risk of labelling all their snowdrops including the rare varieties, for fear of theft.

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Sir Henry and Lady Elwes’s attitude is that the garden is a private personal garden which they like to share with the public at this time of year.  Sir Henry’s great-grandfather, Henry James Elwes, was a renowned plant collector and collected the original Galanthus elwesii in Turkey in 1874.  He was a leading light in the galanthophile world of his time and just as now there was much sharing and swapping of plants leading to significant collections being established including at Colesbourne.  Sadly, after his death, his plant collections did not fare too well and were either dispersed or disappeared.  Since inheriting the property Sir Henry and Lady Elwes have worked hard to re-establish the snowdrop collection with the garden opening for the first time in 1997. Establishing such a display is not for the faint hearted or work shy.  Few snowdrops produce seed, so to create the stunning drifts you see you need to lift and divide and replant the clumps on an annual basis.

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In 2003 the couple embarked on a major restoration project with the assistance of the then Garden Manager, Dr John Grimshaw, to restore the gardens and to celebrate the work of their illustrious ancestor.  The work has led to the snowdrop collections being enlarged and added to on a yearly basis with some 5000-6000 bulbs planted up each year for sale.  The Elwes, along with their current Head Gardener, Chris Horsfall, believe in selling the plants growing in pots so you know you will not only get a plant from a reputable source but one that is growing well.  But it isn’t all about the snowdrops, the couple believe strongly in supporting local charities, and over the last 10 years £70,000 has been  raised from catering for visitors and donated to charity.

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At Colesbourne the snowdrops are planted out in the woodland but as you get nearer the house the plantings start to become more formal with a Woodland and Spring garden and then a much more formal garden by the house where the choicest snowdrops live.  I particularly liked the way that the snowdrops in the garden settings were planted amongst plants with good foliage which set off the snowdrops such as cyclamen, corydalis, heuchera, ferns and epimediums.  It showed you that a winter garden really doesn’t have to look dull at all and with a little clever planning the border does not have to be an exclusively winter one if you remember to plant the snowdrops where they won’t be disturbed such as in the shadow of deciduous ferns, bergenias and stacys.

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Having established a reputation for Colesbourne as one of the must see snowdrop gardens, Sir Henry is now working towards achieving a similar reputation for the garden’s arboretum.  His great-grandfather collected many choice trees during his travels and these, along with the snowdrops, still remained when the couple inherited the property.  The style of the arboretum is more naturalistic than say Westonbirt, it is more of a landscape and plantsman’s garden and given the pedigree of some of its specimens it is hardly surprising to discover there are 8 champion trees.  This year, from May, the garden will be opening for arboretum tours.

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Colesbourne Gardens is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays from 1pm from the 31st January 2015 to 1st March 2015 – details of how to find the garden can be found on their web-site along with details of the study days they are also running.

 

My Garden This Weekend – 18th January 2015

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As you can see the garden has had a dose of winter this weekend albeit short-lived with the majority of the snow having melted by Saturday lunchtime. I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed that it was too cold to do anything outside as all I wanted to do yesterday was hide inside.  I have been overcome with a tidal wave of grief which has crept up on me unexpectedly during the week, just like when you don’t notice the tide coming further up the beach.  It left me feeling emotional and close to tears for 48 hours not an ideal state of mind when you have to go to work.  It took  a while to identify it for what it was, going through all the usual others things, dismissing PMT, depression, concern about changes at work etc.  No it was grief, cold and hard and something you just have to accept and wait for it to pass.

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I have been getting on with life over recent months, being busy, since Dad died and although I think about him a lot I have felt I was doing OK.  But grief has a habit of creeping up on you and engulfing you when you least expect it.  I suppose I am lucky in that I learnt to recognise and accept it for what it is about a year after my sister died thanks to a wonderful counsellor.  This time it was a book that bought everything to a head.  A beautifully written book, if the first chapter or two is to go by, H for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.  The book is about the author training a Goshawk but it is also about her coming to terms with the loss of her father.  Needless to say it starts with her reacting to the news her Dad had died and I suppose it struck at something deep down because I kept obsessing about one paragraph, where they are looking for the father’s car.  I can’t even talk about the story without crying but then again I don’t think that is a bad thing because I believe it is better to let these things happen rather than fight them. We do more damage to ourselves with the British stiff upper lip approach.

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So the only gardening I did this weekend was to move things around in the greenhouse.  Rejigging the pots of bulbs so that those emerging have the best light and the late summer bulbs, such as nerines, are moved under the staging to rest for a while.

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Sunday has been a better day.  Having recognised the grief for what it was, had a good cry, I woke up feeling like my old self again and ready to battle on.  I have been decorating the hall, landing and stairs, which means endless gloss work which I can doing in stages.  So after tackling some of the bannisters Mum and I went out for a jaunt to Ashwood Nurseries which is just over an hour from here.  My boss had given me some garden vouchers for Christmas and I had earmarked them for some more hellebores and some spring flowering shrubs.  A lot of research has been done in recent evenings and a mental wish list drawn up.

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The choice at Ashwoods is extensive and always so well displayed.  I realised I have only visited at this time of year, the last time for a hellebore talk, so I must try to visit again through the year but if this is the quality of the display in early January I can only imagine how wonderful it will be in a few months.

I came home with 3 hellebores – Anna’s Red, Neon Star and Walbertons Rosemary which has been bred to look upwards, 3 heptica nobilis, a clivia and two dwarf rhododendrons that are part of my new planting plan for the border you can see in the second photograph.

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We had a nice lunch, a laugh, talked about Dad, grief, glosswork (Mum is decorating too) and strangely bought a resin tortoise (a gift for my Aunt!).  We are going back in March for my birthday so Mum can treat me to something, probably for the border above.

As for the book …. it is safely back on the shelf waiting for such time as I feel more emotional able to read it.

 

Foliage Follow-Up – January 2015

Rosmarinus officinalis 'Prostratus'
Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’

Despite the wintery showers this last week there is still plenty of foliage in the garden.  I do like evergreen foliage. I know that there are many winter shrubs which have flowers before the leaves but I like to see some green outside on a grey day.  One of the stalwarts of my garden is the prostrate rosemary which grows over the patio wall.  It has been there some 6 or 7 years maybe even longer and has come through at least two very cold winters.  I tend to take it for granted but at this time of yet it is a star not just for me but for the bees that feed on its nectar.

Choisya ternata Sundance
Choisya ternata Sundance

Choisya is another plant which really earns it keep in the winter.  I know there are some that don’t like the yellowish foliage but I find it welcome.

Melianthus major
Melianthus major

And it wouldn’t be a foliage follow up post without featuring my favourite Melianthus major which just glows in the winter sun.

Watsonia pallida
Watsonia pallida

Close to the Melianthus is a collection of Watsonia pallida which is looking particularly good in the sun at the moment.  I do like the strappy leaves they provide a nice contrast throughout the year to other foliage such as Geranium palmatum below

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The Acanthus mollis foliage is still looking good although you will see that some of the leaves are spattered and this is mud which has been splattered up in the heavy rain we have recently had.  I do like the glossy leaves which is lucky as it is an impossible plant to remove from the garden!

Dryopteris erythrosora
Dryopteris erythrosora

Many of the ferns are looking good with their wintergreen foliage.  I particularly like the Dryopteris erythrosora (Autumn Fern) as the leaves are yellowish and come the summer they will take on a more orangeish hue.  Like some of the other foliage on this post this plant seems to catch the winter sun very well.

Euphorbia pasteurii ‘Phrampton  Patty’
Euphorbia pasteurii ‘Phrampton Patty’

Finally a sun kissed Euphorbia pasteurii ‘Phrampton  Patty’ which is thriving having been planted a year ago.

So those our my foliage highlights this month.  For more foliage posts visit Pam over at Digging

Seeking the Spirit of Christmas

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I have found myself pondering the meaning of Christmas over the last week or so.  Now I know that sounds very deep but from an agnostic’s point of view it is quite a key question.

We are a somewhat small and depleted family having lost Dad a few months ago.  There is me, my two adult sons and Mum.  Of course there is also my brother-in-law and niece but since my sister died five years ago his focus, understandably, has been more to his own family, and I find myself thinking of them as an extension to our family rather than the core family if you understand my meaning.

When my sons were small the whole focus of Christmas was around them.  The excitement that built up from shopping trips, visits to Santa’s grotto, school activities until by Christmas Eve they were fit to explode and indeed they did around 4pm on Christmas Day when it all got too much and they burst into tears.  As they got older the focus moved to my niece some 11 years their junior and then we had the trauma of Christmas without her mother.  We found a way of moving forward going through the motions including trips to the pantomime.

This year, as I have said, there will be 4 of us around the Christmas table.  There is no pantomime trip for a range of reasons and it has started to feel that I was going through the motions following a prescribed routine which was fuelled by the media and commerce. It felt as though Christmas was really just a glorified roast dinner with some gifts, that none of us really need, thrown in. This is why over the recent weeks the sense that I needed to provide Christmas and some magic, whatever that maybe, has grown and grown.  It lead me to wonder what Christmas was actually about.  We don’t go to church so once you take out the whole religious meaning of Christmas it seems you are left with the commercial aspect which doesn’t sit well with me at all.

I have said I am an agnostic; despite being christened and confirmed I struggle to embrace organised Christianity.  However, I do believe there is something out there – I have no idea what – and over recent years I have felt myself more empathetic to the old religions, the circle of life, mother nature, call it what you will. I find myself more attuned to the changing seasons, lengthening of days, cycles of the moon than I ever will be to the teachings of Christ or any other religious deity.  I believe more and more in respecting our surroundings and working with nature.

So as I pondered on how to make Christmas special for my small family, how to bring some magic into the house, how to move away from the commercialisation of it all (prompted by my son on a recent visit to a well-known supermarket saying ‘You can buy Christmas here’). I found myself thinking about why we decorate our homes with greenery, why we have Christmas trees, why we feast and why Christmas is when it is?  It doesn’t take much effort to discover that the timing of Christmas coincides, almost, with the winter solstice and the old religion celebrations.  When Christianity was being devised (I’m sorry I don’t mean to offend I can’t think of another word) the key celebrations were timed to coincide with existing pagan festivals in order to ‘sell’ the new religion to the masses.  In so doing many of the traditions associate with the pagan festivals were subsumed into the new celebrations which is why when you start to think about things like mistletoe and the obsession with holly and ivy and how they relate to Christianity it makes little sense – the same applies to some of the Easter customs. The bringing in of greenery into the house was partly to ward of evil spirits, it was for decorative reasons, and  in some cultures evergreen were brought in and decorated to represent gods or goddesses.  Mistletoe was considered by the druids to be extremely sacred. It was cut on the sixth night after the winter solstice and distributed to the people to hang over their doors to ward off evils spirits. As for our modern obsession with gift giving this may have developed from the  Roman celebration of Saturnalia, an ancient festival which took place in late December.

Where does this leave me and my quest for the spirit of Christmas?  Well I have decided, that I wanted to refer to the winter solstice and nature more, and to start some new family traditions.  So I have left the artificial tree in the loft and instead we had the fun of going to choose a real Christmas tree, the annoyance of trying to get it to stand up straight and we will no doubt spend a considerable amount of time over the Christmas period hovering up the needles but it feels special.  I have kept the decorations simple and traditional – no gaudy tinsel.  Finally, I have used the branches cut off the bottom of the tree to make a wreath for the front door to which I have added foliage collected from around the garden which for me is a celebration of mid-winter and marks the turning of the year and days getting longer – as a gardener something I look forward to more than Christmas.  Just these simple things have brought Christmas to life in our house far more than in previous years.  I think the ‘effort’ of having made/created these things myself rather than buying them ready-made off a shelf means more; my sons have certainly commented on it.

This year it will be a quiet Christmas, with a nice meal, some gifts and spending time together. We will miss Dad and my sister and remember past Christmases and tell stories.  It will be a time for reflection but also for looking ahead to the future and I think that is what Christmas is, for me,  really all about – being with loved ones and sharing good times and in a way tapping into the American tradition of Thanksgiving, remembering how lucky we are in whatever way.

 

 

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Twinkle

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A different take on the Weekly Photo Challenge theme of Twinkle.  Late afternoon sunshine twinkling on the twinkling spent flowers of Abelia.

 

 

My Garden This Weekend – 9th February 2014

Galanthus nivalis f. pleniflorus 'Flore Pleno'
Galanthus nivalis f. pleniflorus ‘Flore Pleno’

There has been a preponderance of pondering going on over recent weeks and not much activity in the garden due primarily to the interminable wet weather which we won’t dwell on as everyone is weary of it now.  Even I, the inveterate optimistic, find my patience wearying out. Saturday was a complete waste of time garden wise – wind and rain, however Sunday saw a rare blue sky and the sun attempting to shine through; so a chance to spend some time outside.

Iris histriodies 'Lady Beatrix Stanley'
Iris histriodies ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’
Bulbicodium vernum
Bulbicodium vernum

The patio staging is beginning to have some floral gems showing.  All the pots have shoots showing but I am particularly thrilled by the Bulbicodium vernum.  I have never grown this before and bought it on a whim when ordering other miniature narcissus bulbs.  I am completely entranced by the plant: the deep maroon of the shoots and the almost silk like petals.  I hope that when it opens fully it will continue to be marvellous.

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The outstanding stars of the garden at the moment are the Hellebores which are just opening their flowers.  I am thrilled that the two I bought from Ashwood Nurseries last year have not only reappeared but are flowering profusely especially as I lost the Hamamelis I bought at the same time. There are some other hellebores which grow on the top of the wall along the patio and the lighter coloured flowers are opening whilst the dark purples are still tight buds.  I am thinking that I should add some more hellebores to this border possibly following the line of the path and maybe interplanted with some small ferns.  I have yet to really come up with a plan for the whole border so this might be a good starting point.

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As you can see in these photographs there are snowdrops opening and around the hellebores it is Galanthus nivalis f.pleniflorus ‘Flore Pleno’. My friend Victoria gave me several pots of these from her new garden last year and I am really pleased that they are flowering since they were neglected for a while on the patio.

I spent an hour or so today in the sun picking up twigs and branches that had been blown down.  It never ceases to surprise me how many branches and twigs can come off two trees and there still be an extensive canopy overhead. I then finished off cutting back the grasses including giving the Stipa gigantea a real haircut which I may or may not regret later in the year.  Sadly the sun disappeared and a cold wind appeared forcing me into the garage and to pot up some Jasione laevis which I grew from seed in 2012, hopefully this year they will flower.

Crocus sieberi tricolor
Crocus sieberi tricolor

As I have said before one of the things I like about Spring, which surely is only around the corner, is that you  really focus on the individual flowers unlike Summer when you tend to notice the overall impact rather than the individuals.

Hopefully soon we will all be able to start really enjoying our gardens.