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4:00pm Thursday 24th October 2013
Andrew Lawson, a world-famous Oxfordshire-based garden photographer, took the above picture of Coughton Court’s Rose Labyrinth. This garden, near Alcester in Warwickshire, was the first in Britain to be given an award of garden excellence by the World Federation of Rose Societies in 2006.
4:50pm Thursday 17th October 2013
4:50pm Thursday 10th October 2013
And so the turning year slides into autumn, that somewhat melancholy time of gold, yellow and brown falling leaves that flutter to the ground, at least that is until the stormy seasonal winds wrench them from the branches that have nurtured them as the miracle of photosynthesis has sustained the many plants that have evolved to capitalise on this remarkable process.
12:00am Thursday 10th October 2013
Indifferent to desperate hand wafts and wailing, the sight of irate adults karate chopping at thin air has become a reassuringly timeless image. Indeed, after the fly, the wasp is surely our most disliked insect.
12:00am Thursday 5th September 2013
I’ve always wanted to grow a medlar and a quince, but sadly I’ve never had the room. Medlars (Mespilus germanica) produce russet, rough-skinned fruit rather like large rose hips in form and these can be bletted, allowed to partially rot, before being eaten in the winter months.
10:50am Thursday 8th August 2013
For the last few weeks I have been pulling out handfuls of ‘nuisance’ plants that have popped up as seedlings. Too afraid to add them the compost heap, lest they perpetuate in years to come, I have filled up the green bin with pincushion scabious (the wilding blue Knautia arvensis and the maroon-red K.macedonica), mallows galore (mostly the blush-white Malva moschata) and countless meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense). These thugs have smothered my choice plants, many of which are now lost, and I only have myself to blame. For when it was horribly wet last summer I hid inside and didn’t get out there to deadhead. Consequently I now have a forest of unwanted seedlings. It’s made me appreciate my sterile plants: the ones that can’t set seed. Being sterile, they flower for much longer. Sometimes it’s due to being too petal-stuffed to let pollinators in, sometimes it’s not having proper reproductive organs and sometimes it’s incompatible pollen. The doubles generally have extra petals that replace stamens etc. These full flowers are highly prized by plant breeders, but less so by insect life and pollinators. Many double roses can’t sustain a bee.
11:10am Thursday 1st August 2013
One of the UK’s longest running wildlife projects, the Water Vole Recovery Project run by Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, is a real success story with new populations of this rare animal found along several of Oxfordshire’s rivers in recent years.
12:00am Thursday 1st August 2013
Life is just a bowl of cherries at the moment, because we are picking our own from the fruit cage and eating them for breakfast. Our crop, probably only five pounds I admit, has definitely been helped by the warm weather because cherries do best in warmer areas on fertile soil. We have good soil, but Spring Cottage is often cold and bleak so this may be a flash in the pan. My old village of Hook Norton though, once famous for its cherry fairs, was much warmer with a seam of ironstone under the ground that batted up the heat. It’s hard to imagine picking my own when I recall the huge black-cherry trees in the old cherry orchards of the Tamar Valley, where you needed an unwieldy double ladder before you could reach the fruit. These monster trees usually took ten years to fruit or more. However we are picking cherries after four and with our feet firmly on the ground, due to new rootstocks which have produced smaller trees that are also more resistant to the weather. In time, I hope to get a crop of over ten pounds. My cherry is ‘Stella’ and it’s grafted on to semi-vigorous Colt rootstock used commercially in parts of America and Italy, although developed at East Malling Research Station, in Kent, in 1977. Ming Yang, an experienced fruit grower and co-founder of Pomona Fruits, told me that trees on Colt rootstock generally reach 12ft in height (up to 4m). “They can be restricted and the technique is to slow the growth on the longer leaders by weighing them down.” Ming recommends tying a poly bag full of soil on the end of any long branches. “This slows the sap and produces fruit earlier,” he explained. “Colt rootstock also prevents runoff, when the young fruit aborts due to cool weather.” I can hardly wait to get out there and attack my branches!
12:00am Thursday 18th July 2013
12:00am Thursday 27th June 2013
There is nothing quite like a homegrown strawberry eaten with the warm sun on its skin, preferably picked from your own garden. Much of our strawberry breeding is carried out at Kent’s East Malling Research (EMR) centre, once government funded but now privately owned. East Malling gave us the classic raspberry ‘Autumn Bliss’ (in 1983) and countless fruit varieties with a ‘Malling’ prefix. It has also developed root stocks for cherries, pears and the M series for apples, used throughout the world. In recent years this research station has concentrated on soft fruit. Their strawberries, often given girl’s names like ‘Rosie’ (1999), ‘Lucy’ (2009 ) and ‘Fenella’ (2000), are well known. Adam Whitehouse, one of the plant breeding team says “our aim is to extend the season beyond June in the main British production areas Kent, Herefordshire, Staffordshire, Essex and Scotland”.
11:58am Wednesday 12th June 2013
The Hampton Court Palace Flower Show held between July 9 and 14 (rhs.org.uk/ 0844 338 7506) is the best place to look at new roses, because there is a dedicated rose marquee full of growers and breeders. The star of the show is always The Rose of the Year 2. This year a Harkness floribunda rose called ‘Lady Marmalade’ will be named for 2014. As you would expect it has clusters of five to seven soft-orange flowers in a cabbage rose shape, each containing roughly 50 petals. It’s very sweetly scented and healthy and will fit into herbaceous borders extremely well especially when flattered by blue flowers such as Viola cornuta ‘Belmont Blue’ and Geranium pratense ‘Mrs Kendall Clarke’.
11:56am Wednesday 12th June 2013
Heyford Meadow, tucked away behind modern houses on the edge of Sandford-on-Thames, has just been awarded a top environmental accolade from the Canal & River Trust. But only a few years ago this was a rubbish dump full of old boats, engines and scrap metal; not a wild flower in sight. I’ve come to know Heyford Meadow well in the last few years, starting with a close encounter with some of that heavy metal. I was hauling stuff out of one of the ditches when I hit a large object, and to my surprise pulled out a milk churn, and then another! The volunteers from BBOWT and the Four Pillars Thames Hotel, with a local contractor to help with the really heavy stuff, hauled out around 250 tons of metal and scrap including boats, engines and lots of milk churns. All these items had belonged to Mr Tait, who ran a business selling milk in vending machines from this site. He left the land to the Oxford Preservation Trust, which decided to restore the derelict site into a beautiful place filled with wild flowers and butterflies – a place for local people to enjoy a walk to the River Thames and see lots of wildlife. With the help of BBOWT, Pond Conservation, The Four Pillars Thames Hotel and The Trust for Oxfordshire’s Environment (TOE), the site has undergone an extraordinary makeover. Heyford Meadow is a wonderful example of how organisations in Oxford work together to achieve great things. This was recognised at the recent Canal & River Trust Renaissance Award when the Oxford Preservation Trust (OPT) received the Natural Environment award for the restoration of Heyford Meadow. The Wildlife Trust worked with OPT to create a wildlife restoration plan that includes three new ponds and a wildlife scrape, created with help from the Pond Conservation’s Million Ponds Project. These have extended habitats for water voles, frogs, toads and newts, and water-loving insects. Recent surveys conducted by Oxford Brookes University students showed healthy populations of toads and other pond life. Grass snakes are regularly seen on site and lay their eggs in the piles of hay cut last summer. Hay meadows like these, and the adjacent Iffley Meadows nature reserve, would have traditionally been cut each July, and then animals brought in to graze on the new growth before the winter. As far as possible we are carrying out these traditional management techniques to encourage the growth of meadow wild flower species such as great burnet and meadow sweet. Both of these have been recorded in surveys, and the meadow is showing signs of good health. Cutting the meadow for hay is carried out with help from staff at The Four Pillars Thames Hotel and other volunteers. This summer they will have the chance to learn how to scythe, a traditional way of cutting grass to make hay. The recent Natural Environment award from the Canal & River Trust is a fitting tribute to the many hours of work put in by many volunteers over the last few years, and together we will continue to improve Heyford Meadow to attract more wildlife to the site. This spring BBOWT staff and volunteers carried out bird ringing surveys to monitor breeding birds on the site. So far 36 species have been recorded including cuckoo, whitethroat and warblers. A lady, who in the 1940s used to play in Heyford Meadow as a child, recently wrote to the Oxford Preservation Trust describing a meadow rich with flowers such as the iconic snake’s-head fritillary, orchids and ragged robin. Although we’re only a few years into the restoration she would recognise the same beautiful place today.
3:15pm Wednesday 5th June 2013
When I first visited Meadow Farm, close to the village of Blackthorn near Bicester, I really didn’t know what to expect because the impenetrable roadside hedges concealed the site from inquisitive eyes.
3:49pm Wednesday 29th May 2013
The pink has been a quintessential cottage garden plant for centuries, grown for its clove fragrance and pretty flowers. It was known as the pink due to the ragged edges on the petals and we still use ‘pinking’ shears for cutting pinked edges today. The word pink didn’t refer to a colour until the 17th century however, and the original shade was yellow-green. In gardeners’ eyes the term pink and carnation have always been confused. However carnations have always been grander than pinks, with thicker, foliage which tends to curl up at the tips and fuller, bigger flowers. They are not as hardy though as pinks, which are typified by their needle-like leaves and simpler flowers. Dianthus translates as flower of Jove or Zeus and Carnation is said to be a derivation of coronation as these flowers were often used in flower garlands. They became a florist’s flower exhibited for cash prizes, in the days when florist meant flower breeder and not seller.
3:47pm Wednesday 29th May 2013
As a child, many exciting summer days started before the sparrows were out of bed! My brother and I were thrilled to watch the sun rise through the trees as Grandma drove us to a favourite picnic spot in the woods where we’d enjoy breakfast, cooked on her camping stove, completely immersed in a symphony of birdsong. Magical! There are many wonderful wild places to visit in Oxfordshire, where children can explore, play, and learn about nature and wildlife. One of my favourites is Letcombe Valley Nature Reserve: nestling in the pretty village of Letcombe Regis, and set against the backdrop of rolling chalk downland in the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I recently visited the reserve on a sunny morning when everything around me was fresh and vibrant, a wonderful experience for all the senses. Many different shades of green in the meadows, trees and hedges contrasted with splashes of blue and white from the bluebells, violets and garlic mustard. The heady scent of freshly-crushed herbs and grasses filled the air as I walked along the paths and then stopped to listen as robins vocally competed with wrens. How could such small birds make such a huge sound? No matter how many times I go to Letcombe Valley there’s always a new wildlife experience. As I stood, taking in the beauty of the woodland coming into leaf, a flash of white caught my attention; and I spotted a tree creeper hopping in spirals around a tree. The little tawny brown bird was so close, I could hear the scratchy sound of its beak tapping and probing the bark for tasty spiders and insects. The best part of the reserve, for me, is Letcombe Brook, a classic chalk stream that comes straight off the Downs. Further along the woodland path I heard the characteristic plop as a water vole dropped into the brook; I don’t need to see it to know it’s there. The best way to see wildlife is to let it come to you. ‘Kevin’ the resident kingfisher often obliges if you sit quietly on a log seat beside the brook, listening to the sound of water gently trickling over stones and watching the trout chasing the newly-emerged mayflies through the riffling water. Nature reserves such as Letcombe Valley offer not only a haven to wildlife but provide a wonderful natural ‘sensory playground’ for everyone. There’s a pushchair-friendly surfaced path to the centre of the reserve where coots and moorhens will be dabbling around on the lake. This is a great spot for a picnic with the kids. A walk along the brook through the trees is an easy amble for little legs, although the steps at the end of the path may seem a bit like mountains, but an exciting climb nonetheless. Letcombe Valley is a nature reserve open all year for everyone in the community to enjoy exploring and discovering a new wildlife experience every time they visit. The variety of habitats, such as damp wooded banks close to the brook and sunny open areas with well-drained chalk soil, enables many different wild flowers and insects such as bees and butterflies to thrive here. Recent visitors will have noticed a new fenced enclosure for sheep to graze the chalk grassland. This is a traditional way of managing this rare type of habitat, to reduce nettles and scrub and encourage smaller delicate wild flowers. This summer come along and see more harebells and small-leaved thyme nestling among the grasses.
1:17pm Wednesday 22nd May 2013
I don’t need Friends of the Earth, whose efforts at protecting bees I commend to all, to tell me that bees are in decline. A video taken in my old garden at Hook Norton in 1996 is proof enough. Some 12 years after it was taken I watched for the first time in disbelief. Above the flowers there was a constant flow of movement as bees, hoverflies and other invertebrates moved through the garden like a spinning thread. I’m afraid I rarely see that 17 years on, despite the fact my garden at Spring Cottage is full of bee-friendly flowers. It is very depressing. I’ve been into bee watching since the early 1980s, when I tracked red-tailed bumble bees in Northamptonshire, to help bee research. I remember being unsure whether they were red-tails (Bombus lapidarius) or not because the bees were so small. Eventually I had to send one off to Cambridge University for confirmation. I learnt not to go on size, but markings. A red tail has a black body and a red tail, but when a colony is young the first bees out are very small. I got very excited when I had a nest under my study window recently, although most nests are only used for one year. Every year the lawn is covered with little grey pyramids of soil, set round neat holes and these are made by hundreds of Ashy mining bees (Andrena cineraria) active in late Spring. I find I cannot weed out the blue muscari bulbs which pop up announced as much as I would like to, because these mining bees forage on them all the time. We have the Tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva) in another area, although there are far fewer. Bee flies predate the mining bees by dropping their eggs from the air in Dambuster style. We think we also have the predatory Cuckoo bee Nomada lathburiana, though at first we thought it was digger wasp. The bee flies flock to the primroses with their permanently straight proboscis jutting out. We allow everything free rein, all part of being green for you can’t discriminate between predator and pest, or divide saint from sinner. Eventually they balance themselves out. The chief causes of decline are loss of habitat, particularly our flower-rich meadows. Many were ploughed up in the Second World War, but it’s still happening today. Too many fields offer a monoculture useless for wildlife. Pesticides and herbicides have reduced wild flowers on the verges and headlands and verge mowing and car exhausts have both added too much nitrogen, encouraging coarser plants.
10:06am Wednesday 1st May 2013
T his spring has been a cool affair and I have needed distractions. One of the best has been a new book, The Gardens of Marrakesh by Angelica Gray, published by Frances Lincoln (see below). Gardens in this dusty city, where the sun always seem to shine, provide escape from the heat and bustle. In the old city, or Medina, every riad has a private courtyard with tiled fountains and shady trees and only the heart of the garden is exposed to searing heat. In the modern city there are stylish gardens often inspired by the French who made a great impact on the city. The chic Majorelle Garden, once owned by Yves Saint Laurent, is a place of pilgrimage with its palms, cacti and blue and yellow paintwork. It should be on everybody’s wish-list. However when I was in Marrakesh I preferred the pleasure gardens on the outskirts of the city, with their huge pools of flat water piped in from the snow-capped Atlas Mountains which seemed tantalisingly close. There city dwellers of every age picnicked under the trees, or danced and sang often in the cool of the evening. Of these The Agdal (pictured by me and the first garden to be featured in Angela Gray’s book) was the most uplifting. You strolled out of the city along dusty lanes as straight as any Roman road, past the Royal Palace before reaching cool greenery and fresh water alive with jumping fish. The day I went there was a national holiday and a troupe of Berber drummers and dancers held a big crowd. You could here the thump echoing all round the ground, like a vivacious heartbeat. The Agdal and its prettier sister garden the Menara, are still owned by the King and free to all. City dwellers trundle up on scooters to eat their lunch, or walk with purpose. These two ancient gardens were founded by Sultan Abd el Moumen circa 1156/ 1157 who had recently captured the city. At 900 years of age they have a run-down charm which suits the relaxed air of a pleasure garden. A cool pavilion provides stunning vistas of the city and its mountainous setting. Angela Gray tells us that in order to demonstrate his power and secure a good water supply and food he planted up 500 hectares with fruit and perfumed flowers. It’s hard to describe the effervescent effect of this huge oasis unless you experience the arid city of Marrakesh day in day out. The earth walls and fortifications, although practical, add structure and the chequerboard arrangement of irrigated plots include oranges, lemons, walnuts, pomegranates, figs and olives. Fragrant myrtle, honeysuckle and jasmine clothe the trellises. The Agdal was rightly listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1985.
12:00am Thursday 25th April 2013
10:41am Wednesday 24th April 2013
The snake’s head fritillary bears a sinister name for a bloom that is arguably Britain’s most beautiful wildflower. At first glance, the fritillary appears impossibly glamorous — amassed in purple ranks bowing delicately in the breeze. The flower brings a sense of lurid exoticism to the normally sedate meadows of rural England. A closer look at that coyly bowed flowerhead, perched atop a sinuous, snakey stem, reveals an exquisite patchwork of maroon and lilac chequers — this is a plant seemingly more at home clinging to the side of a moss-laden teak in a tropical rainforest.
3:51pm Wednesday 10th April 2013
Over a bleak Easter, too cold to garden, I listened to Radio 4’s In Pursuit of Spring presented by naturalist Matthew Oates. It followed Edward Thomas, poet and naturalist, on his Easter journey by bicycle from Clapham in South London to the Quantocks in Somerset exactly one hundred years ago. As Thomas travelled westwards to Somerset he left the bustle of a cold, wintry London and was greeted by a spring-like tranquil Somerset. Crossing Salisbury Plain, in indifferent weather, he heard larks, chiffchaffs and thrushes galore. He recorded his journey in his spiritual book, In Pursuit of Spring. A centenary edition is now available. Thomas, who was to die on the Western Front in 1917 aged 39 years, deplored the traffic, although I believe he only encountered three dust-producing cars on his entire journey. Needless to say he didn’t like them at all. His poetic observations about the natural world are second to none and he could see a decline even then. What would he make of it now? Listening to Matthew Oates’ three-part programme brought spring a little nearer, but it exploded a couple of days later when I visited an Alpine Garden Society show. The benches groaned with primulas, saxifragas, crocus, cyclamen and small bulbs all grown in pristine pots under glass. Alpines, which are seen as old-fashioned by many gardeners now, deserve a wider audience because they can defy a cold spring if grown under glass. Seeing immaculate (and easily grown crocuses) looking so lovely made me wish I had potted up a few in autumn to make up for the weather-beaten display in my own bulb lawn. Oh for a crystal ball!
3:44pm Wednesday 3rd April 2013
3:40pm Wednesday 3rd April 2013
On grey, damp, wintry days the little wildlife that’s around in the woods keeps a low profile. But the scuffle and thump of a muntjac deer breaking cover, head down, trotting like a dog into the nearest undergrowth, or a family of roe deer standing silently watching me, can lift the spirits like nothing else.
12:00am Thursday 28th March 2013
A few years ago RHS Wisley held a trial of hardy annuals and you could hear the buzz of the bees long before you got to the plants. Hoverflies, flies and wasps were also plundering the flowers for nectar and pollen, ignoring the other plots close by. It was quite a sight and it can easily be recreated in your own garden with the aid of a few packets of seeds. Once you’ve bought those it’s possible to save your own seeds from year to year. Most are so bountiful you’ll be able to share some with your friends.
1:05pm Wednesday 6th March 2013
Cutting sweet peas for the house is one of my favourite things and they are easy to grow, even for children. This year Mr Fothergill’s has chosen 2013 as the Year of the Sweet Pea. It will be holding a special competition at Capel Manor College, Enfield, on Saturday, July 6, one for ordinary gardeners and the other for children. Entrants can either turn up at the college on the morning with 10 mixed blooms, or post eight mixed blooms to arrive at the college by Friday, July 5. Mr Fothergill’s suggests using a two-litre plastic soft drinks bottle as a container if posting and there are instructions on their website (www.mr-fothergills.co.uk).
3:10pm Wednesday 27th February 2013
As many of you may know I live with a botanist, who regularly drags me out to see some rare specimen of the British flora or other. I have at various times been completely underwhelmed by the Cotswold Pennycress (Thlaspi perfoliatum) and the Tunbridge Filmy Fern (Hymenophyllum tunbrigense). They may be really rare and endangered (almost under lock and key) but they don’t exactly make an impact on the eye if you’re a gardener. The truth is Britain does not have spectacular or wide-ranging flora: it contains only 2,000 or so species, about 8,000 fewer than Europe. Our paucity is due to regularly occurring periods of species-reducing glaciation that effectively kill almost everything. It seems unfair our country, whose climate allows us to grow so much, provides us with so little of our own of true garden value. Even plants once thought native, like the common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) have now been proved to be introduced about two thousand years ago. This may help explain why Britain and Ireland have produced so many famous plant-hunters and herbarium collectors who’ve traipsed through America, Europe, South Africa and Asia. Some areas, such as South Africa’s Cape, are very rich in flora and I would hate to imagine my garden without a crocosmia, agapanthus or kniphofias, three of the my favorite genera from The Cape. The richest country of all is China, boasting 3,1000 species. Sichuan, in the south-west of China, is extremely blessed and the name is short for four circuits of rivers and gorges. These steep gorges are home to peonies, rhododendrons, buddleja and magnolias to name but a few. Many of these were introduced into Britain by Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson in the early years of the 20th century. However Wilson was able to locate many of these because Augustine Henry (1857–1930), an Irish-born customs officer working in central and western China, had described them and logged their positions. Henry’s official brief was to collect information about medicinal plants, but he was interested in flora full stop and collected 158,000 specimens for Kew. He was encouraged by Joseph Hooker (1817–1911) who was compiling a new flora of China. I will probably never get the opportunity to trek through those tree-lined gorges myself, although I long to see them before they are destroyed by man. Luckily I will be able to experience them vicariously at the Exeter Hall, in Kidlington, just outside Oxford on March 13 when Seamus O’Brien, curator of Kilmacurragh Arboretum, Co. Wicklow will talk — for the princely sum of £3. O'Brien travelled in Augustine Henry’s footsteps and wrote a superb book In the Footsteps of Augustine Henry, published in 2011 by Garden Art Press (£40). O’Brien’s first trip to Hubei in 2002 had a special poignancy. A new dam was about to flood one of the gorges, so he did some last-minute collecting for the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Glasnevin in Dublin and Kilmacurragh. Four weeks later the water had started to cover the lower slopes, obliterating the lower lying flora. It seems plant hunting can be just as important now as it was in Henry’s day.
2:08pm Wednesday 20th February 2013
Whenever spring seems a little slow buying a bunch or two of daffodils will make it seem that bit closer. Many of these bunches are grown in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly where temperatures are much warmer due to the Gulf Stream. On Tresco they can raise some varieties for early December picking and they use polythene sheeting to either advance or retard the flowers, cleverly applying it at different times of the year. In the Tamar Valley in Cornwall, once the main growing area, the blooms are roughly a month later. Lincolnshire raises daffodils under glass and in the fields, mostly later again. However, in my own garden I am lucky to get a daffodil before mid-March, although the buds will be lying just under the ground from Christmas onwards waiting for warmth. Narcissus varieties are mostly bred by amateur hobbyists for the show bench. They are subdivided into 13 divisions for judging purposes, varying from the conventional bold trumpets to the swept-back cyclamineus types. The stems tend to be long and the large blooms are usually eye-catching affairs capable of scoring lots of points. Many of these showy varieties do not make great garden plants: they are easily toppled by windy weather and rain when grown outdoors. As a result most gardeners prefer the smaller-flowered miniature varieties which are up to a foot in height. These can withstand rough weather and their scale matches small spring-flowering bulbs such as scilla and muscari. Some of our most famous miniatures occurred by accident when one cut-flower grower began to experiment and hybridise the standard varieties with small, early Spanish species. His name was Alec Gray and his initial aim was to produce earlier varieties for the vase because these made the most money. However, his seedlings proved to be short varieties which were no good for cutting. It didn’t matter because Gray began to adore his miniatures far more than his taller cutflower varieties. In 1956 he launched what has become the world’s best-seller, the twin-headed yellow ‘Tête à Tête’, having bred it in 1949.
2:05pm Wednesday 20th February 2013
Cats and dogs are being accused of contributing to a devastating wildlife decline. Recent research from America, revealing that cats kill up to 3.7 billion birds and 20 billion mammals each year, has raised questions about the impact of the UK’s nine million cats on our wildlife.
3:55pm Wednesday 13th February 2013
I t’s Valentine’s Day and spring is upon us, or almost! My chickens have perked up; their combs have turned a vivid red and Cocky the Cockerel is busy chasing his four concubines round the coop. They keep retreating to the apex of the chicken house, much to his chagrin. Eggs are back on the menu again and, when I used to have a garden pond, frog spawn would always appear close to the date, as if by magic. Red is the colour assigned to lovers on this auspicious day. It’s also an important colour in the garden: it seems to put the entire spectrum into clear context.
3:45pm Wednesday 30th January 2013
As I write there isn’t much gardening going on at Spring Cottage. The white stuff has taken over and this lot is the sticky ‘bring-the-fruit-cage-roof-down’ variety, whereas last week we had the fine form which you couldn’t even make a snowball with. And, believe me, I tried. I’m contenting myself with watching the birds instead because we — that’s the royal ‘we’ — put out fat balls, black sunflower seeds and peanuts on three stations giving us a view from each window.
3:43pm Wednesday 30th January 2013
2:40pm Friday 18th January 2013
11:18am Thursday 17th January 2013
The national papers would have us believe that the entire nation is thoroughly depressed, overdrawn at the bank and in need of a detox in January. Well, all I can say is poppycock! We gardeners are not depressed. We stand at the beginning of a new gardening year full of promise, following what was a gardening disaster in 2012. Anticipation and enthusiasm bubble up in my soul and, speaking to fellow gardeners in the last few days, it seems they feel the same as I do. I have already spent three whole days in my garden in the last week and I am ebullient because the sleeping beauty is already waking up. Everyone should aim to have a garden that starts early in the year and then carries on until late. One of the best ways to do this is to visit a good nursery or a good garden centre every month and acquire some plants on every visit. This should ensure a ready supply of interesting plants throughout the year. This month there will already be potfuls of bulbs and these will include crocus, narcissi, small iris, scillas, muscari and snowdrops. These could be put into a winter container or, if the ground isn’t frozen, they can be carefully planted in the border.
4:12pm Wednesday 9th January 2013
It was suggested in last month’s RHS magazine The Garden that gardeners should abandon growing potatoes following the disastrous weather of 2012. Please don’t. Potatoes are one of the most accommodating vegetables, even for beginners, and I have been growing my entire crop successfully for decades. Admittedly last year, and I can’t tell you how pleasing it is to relegate this soggy non-event to history, I failed. However one bad year among three or four decades isn’t bad going.
9:39am Tuesday 8th January 2013
10:28am Thursday 20th December 2012
These days we tend to think of botanical art as merely pretty paintings. However before the age of the camera, this was the only way to record seed, flower, leaf and root. This work, often funded by the very wealthy, was often completed on long expeditions so the artist needed a robust constitution, as well as an eye for fine detail. A new book called The Golden Age of Botanical Art (published jointly by Kew and Andre Deutsch, £25) gives a fascinating insight into the process. Eighteen chapters follow the historical rise of the illustrator from the age of the ancient herbals to present day, visiting country after country on the way. Written by Martyn Rix, botanist and editor of Curtis’ Botanical Magazine, it’s full of fascinating detail. But if you didn’t read a word of this book, it would still be enjoyable due to the lavish illustrations. Victoria amazonica, the waterlily first persuaded into flower by Joseph Paxton (1803-1865 ), the head gardener at Chatsworth, spans a double page for instance. It’s just one of many jaw-dropping illustrations that make you drool.
10:26am Thursday 20th December 2012
WHO killed cock robin? Well the answer is quite possibly cock robin for this rather confiding bird so well known for keeping us close company when we are busy in the garden is a somewhat pugnacious little character and very territorial. A fight between trespassing rivals will sometimes result in the death of one of them, but the main cause of loss of life is the daily grind of searching and finding sufficient food particularly during the winter months when coupled with the wet and cold many succumb to difficult weather conditions. Cats also kill many robins, as well as other garden bird species. The robin can occasionally be heard singing at night, especially if street lighting is close by, and is sometimes a cause of mistaken identity often by people wrongly assuming that the nightingale is the only night time singer.
10:23am Thursday 20th December 2012
Getting away from it all can unclutter the brain and boost creativity, a study suggests. Scientists found that young volunteers increased their creative performance by 50 per cent after a four-day hiking trip. The results support earlier studies suggesting that escaping to nature can improve mental abilities.
11:30am Thursday 13th December 2012
I am squinting into the winter sun and I know I should not complain after what I think has been the dullest year ever. As I look across the study, dust particles catch the light and glint. Then time spins backwards to the day when I asked my father, nose buried in book, what dust was. The male eyesight doesn’t seem to register dust, but he carefully acquiesced and explained that dust was present at all times on every day of the year, just like the stars in the firmament. I wasn’t convinced of either. Years later, as a young mother with two girls under 18 months, I donned sunglasses every time I sat down inside at this time of year. Only then could I blank out the reality and rest without guilt, unaffected by the dancing particles I felt had escaped my attention. Then I was able to bury my own nose in a book. Blame that low winter sun glinting through the windows in the run-up to the shortest day, which falls on December 21 this year. It may cause housewives to groan, but outside that same low winter works a different magic. This is the season when trees shine: when their bark turns into a tapestry, or gets imprinted with dots and dashes like visual Morse code. Above, their overhead canopies display fine tracery that shines against winter skies. The birches are especially good now and many have dark, twiggy growth set above paler trunks. Everyone knows and admires the Himalayan birches with their pearly white trunks. These are normally listed under Betula utilis var. jacquemontii. It’s best to buy a named form from a good nursery. My very favourite is Grayswood Ghost, but Doorenbos, Jermyns and Silver Shadow are AGM winners too. They can all be bought from The Bluebell Nursery and Arboretum, near Ashby de la Zouch. (01530 413700/ www.bluebellnursery.com).
11:28am Thursday 13th December 2012
Last weekend I was privileged to witness one of nature’s most awe-inspiring spectacles: flocks of starlings as they come together at sunset to roost in Otmoor’s reedbeds are a truly mesmerising sight.
2:07pm Thursday 29th November 2012
With all the attention on Ash Die Back, a piece of significant news has come and gone unnoticed despite the best efforts of Friends of the Earth and The Wildlife Trusts. It concerns the ban on further peat extraction at Chat Moss, a vast area stretching more than 30 miles from Salford to Liverpool. Extractors had already removed more than 60 per cent of the peat over the past century, so Salford City Council bravely refused permission for further extraction in June 2011. A public inquiry followed, but thankfully it upheld Salford City Council’s original decision in this important test case. These peat bogs take thousands of years to form. They lock up carbon, helping to prevent global warming, and they reduce the risk of local flooding. They also support a unique range of wild flora and fauna including the round-leaved sundew, the curlew, the Large heath butterfly, the White-faced dragonfly or darter, the Downy emerald dragonfly and the Bog bush-cricket and a large number of moths. These creatures are now rare as only one per cent of England’s lowland raised bog habitat still remains. Peat is an emotive issue among British growers who have to compete with Dutch and German suppliers who are free to use peat. The airy nature of peat allows plants to grow quickly, if watering is constant. However, most of my plant losses occur when the ball of peat round my plant’s roots dries out in hot summers. As a gardener I avoid peat if I can. I look for plants grown in loamy compost or knock off the peaty stuff.
2:05pm Thursday 29th November 2012
Ancient woodlands are a vital part of the country’s ecosystems; trees at all stages of their lives contribute to the essential life-giving diversity of nature. Hundreds of different wildlife species thrive in woodlands, many of them making their homes in healthy trees.
2:24pm Wednesday 21st November 2012
The gardening world is alive with talk of ash dieback, an aggressive wind-dispersed fungal disease called Chalara fraxinia. It came to light after a consignment of ash trees was sent from a nursery in the Netherlands to a nursery in Buckinghamshire. In the last six weeks 100,000 young ash trees have been destroyed and the British nursery trade is after compensation. Since then the disease has been found in the wild, both in England and Scotland, and sites include East Anglia, a car park in Leicester and Forestry Commission woodland at Knockmountain, near Kilmacolm in Inverclyde.
2:22pm Wednesday 21st November 2012
Since bird watching became a recognised activity, the past 120 years or so have seen a steady stream of the nation’s top naturalists make their way to Oxford. Being a university town has obviously attracted many of these luminaries, firstly to study and then often to teach the next wave of naturalists and ornithologists. Bernard Tucker, the Reverend Francis Jourdain, W B Alexander, Max Nicholson and Bruce Campbell are just a selection from the past. The list contains many more as the university continues to produce mighty talent to this day. However, surprisingly, it is a rather academically woeful scholar whose name is connected to a lasting establishment for Oxford to continue producing such scholars in the field, the Edward Grey Institute. Sir Edward Grey, a Liberal peer for more than 30 years and Britain’s longest serving Foreign Secretary (1905-1916) was actually rusticated in 1884, but returned to Oxford and obtained a poor degree in jurisprudence, ironically becoming Chancellor of the University some 40 years later. To escape the rigours of both Parliament and London, Grey and his wife kept a small cottage at Itchen Abbas, in Hampshire, where, on the River Itchen, he pursued his other great love, fly fishing.
1:48pm Thursday 8th November 2012
1:38pm Thursday 8th November 2012
12:44pm Wednesday 24th October 2012
The pungent scent of a woody bonfire drifts across a Chilterns valley and spirals of pale grey smoke curl up from the chimneys of a charcoal kiln. It’s autumn and the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust is looking after woodland at Warburg Nature Reserve in a truly sustainable way. “I enjoy this time of year because it’s when we’re making a difference to the health of our woodlands,” says Giles Alder, the reserve warden at Warburg, where the charcoal kiln is burning. “Coppicing the trees, stacking the logs and preparing the thinner branches to be used as fencing is physically hard work, but there’s plenty of time to listen to the birds, and admire fungi bursting through the soil.”
12:35pm Wednesday 24th October 2012
Ornamental Grasses — An Essential Guide by Cliff Plowes, published by Crowood @ £16.99 Written by a specialist grower who owns Oaktree Nursery in Yorkshire (01757 618 409/www. oaktree nursery.com), this approachable book contains a directory that will help you to select tall grasses, those for shade, those for damp areas, low-growing grasses etc.
12:33pm Wednesday 24th October 2012
It’s 25 years since Michael Fish’s famous weather forecast went horribly wrong on the evening before The Great Storm of 1987. He chuckled about a woman who had telephoned earlier to say there was hurricane on the way. I remember October 16 well. My mother, who lived in West London, telephoned before 7am to tell me not to send the children to school. She had woken in the early hours to the sound of crashing timber and every tree lining her suburban road was either down, or badly damaged. At nearby Kew Gardens, the wind had taken out 700 trees. One of them, the Chinese Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), had come crashing down on the newly-restored King William Temple. The fact that the trees were still in leaf allowed them to fall like open sails on a schooner. If the Great Storm had come two weeks later and blown through bare branches many of the trees would have spared. The Great Storm caused consternation at the time, but good things come out of tragedy and that includes hurricanes. I, for instance, was asked to write a story for The Telegraph about the resurgence of a rare Magnolia sargentiana var. robusta growing at High Beeches in West Sussex. It was been propped up after the Great Storm and went on to produce thousands of flowers ten years later, kick-starting my career as a Telegraph writer. Tony Russell, a well-known authority on trees, thinks the Great Storm did us a favour in other ways. It taught us that trees were being planted far too close together in gardens and arboreta. This resulted in poor root systems and tall spindly growth. Both made their centre of gravity unnaturally high, making them unstable in winter winds particularly when the ground was saturated, as in October 1987.