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11:30am Thursday 24th April 2014
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12:01pm Thursday 17th April 2014
11:58am Thursday 17th April 2014
4:50pm Thursday 10th April 2014
11:41am Thursday 10th April 2014
11:37am Thursday 10th April 2014
10:35am Thursday 3rd April 2014
10:30am Thursday 3rd April 2014
11:41am Thursday 27th March 2014
10:47am Thursday 20th March 2014
10:40am Thursday 20th March 2014
11:13am Thursday 13th March 2014
11:02am Thursday 13th March 2014
10:36am Thursday 6th March 2014
10:27am Thursday 6th March 2014
11:00am Thursday 27th February 2014
11:00am Thursday 27th February 2014
10:46am Thursday 20th February 2014
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10:47am Thursday 6th February 2014
11:17am Thursday 23rd January 2014
11:15am Thursday 23rd January 2014
10:22am Thursday 16th January 2014
10:18am Thursday 16th January 2014
11:23am Thursday 9th January 2014
11:07am Thursday 2nd January 2014
11:01am Thursday 2nd January 2014
3:14pm Thursday 19th December 2013
3:11pm Thursday 19th December 2013
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