There’s nothing like the prospect of visitors, combined with longer days and dry weather to kick off another garden project, just after we’d decided all our major works were completed. In this case, it was reassessing an area we’d worked on in a hurry last year, and deciding we could do better. Anyone who’s visited the garden will know we’re keen on recycling anything we can lay our hands on, and in this case it meant Dumpy Bags from a
neighbour, some old roof timbers, corrugated metal sheets and some farmer’s black silage bags which had been moved about several times already. The end result has potential as a cold frame, and is well sited, due south, to make the most of warm weather and sun. It’s also enabled us to lower the mound of topsoil from last year’s groundworks a bit more. I did most of the knocking together, but Fiona took over with the skillful bit of weaving with willow wands that had been recently cut
back. The end result is a big improvement, and my hope is that it should be a semi permanent feature. It will be interesting to see if the vertical willow wands actually root and grow, having been forced through a membrane of dumpy bag fabric, into very poor soil/rock, but normally these willow wands will root anywhere with us. Poor Fiona now has a very bruised hand from forcing the willow wands between the between the uprights, not to mention sore knees.
Finished 3 Dumpy Bags and willow cold frame uprights.
Whilst in constructing mode we also knocked up a few simple benches for getting our small range of plants in pots for sale up off the ground. All good dry weather jobs, but in the meantime the garden has been bursting into life, albeit 2 or 3 weeks behind folk living at lower altitude.
At last we have decent numbers of daffodils out, but daffodil blooming is something that has always puzzled me.
You buy the bulbs, dry with no roots, plant them in the autumn and nearly always get 100% flowering the first year, but then nearly always very few flowers the second year, no matter where you plant them, or which variety. In fact over the year we have tried a number of varieties which completely die out by year 3 or 4,
Narcissus ‘February Gold’….in the third week of Marchso I’ll list our bankers for March on the right. Every year we plant some more, but with new varieties, tend to wait until the third year before getting more bulbs of the same variety, if we like it and it survives.
(This year we’ve grown N.’Topolino’ for the first time, and we love it. Very short with quite dumpy blooms, but a lovely contrast of colours within the flower, and being an AGM and an ancient variety, we’re optimistic it will thrive up here. In addition bumblebees seem to visit it – in general daffodils rarely attract bees of any kind, in our garden). This approach has the added advantage that it spreads the cost, and planting, and also avoids the massed hiatus of blind bulbs in the second year.
Narcissus ‘Jetfire’ foreground, and N.obvallaris ‘Tenby daffodil’ to rear
But it does require patience, and brings the anticipation of an even better display year on year. However, wondering about what’s behind this poor second year’s flowering led to some fascinating discoveries and thoughts. The first was that the UK is the largest producer of daffodil bulbs in the world, but the most interesting work I was able to read about came from overseas. Over 90% of all flowering plants rely on a mutually beneficial interaction with non parasitic fungi at root level. The most common form of interaction which has the rather difficult name of arbuscular mycorrhiza, involves vesicles or arbuscles being formed within the plant root structure, by the ends of fungal hyphae (strands).
The fungus benefits by getting access to complex nutrients such as carbohydrates produced by the plant, whilst the plant gains by getting a much larger and finer extension to its root structure, comprising the fungal hyphae in soil, and in particular gains access to phosphorus and other trace minerals which otherwise would be tricky for the plant root to absorb. The other fascinating aspect of this really widespread association between roots and fungi, is that mapping out the extent to which different plant genera, or groups are reliant on it for healthy growth suggests that in the colonisation of the planet by plant life, it was a pivotal and early development, hundreds of millions of years ago, without which plants would have struggled to succeed on land. So most common bulbs, trees, shrubs, vegetables are all happily linked up, below ground, with invisible fungi beavering away to help them grow successfully. Indeed it’s been shown that many of these beneficial symbiotic fungi will be simultaneously linked up to numerous different plant species within an area, and nutrients may even move around this network between plants.
How exciting is that!
On considering this, I was struck by the Pandoran world James Cameron created in his blockbuster film ‘Avatar’, where a tree of life (Aywa) connects with all life forms, and allows them to flourish in harmony. Knowledge of this mycorrhizal interaction has really only taken off within the last 40 years or so, and one of the most interesting pieces of research was on the numbers of these microscopic vesicles, or arbuscles, on the roots of paperwhite narcissi. The researchers found much higher numbers during the flowering stage, than when the bulbs are just growing. Even more interestingly, that the roots of the grass growing in the vicinity of these narcissi had significantly more arbuscles and vesicles than those growing away from any bulbs. And where was this research carried out? At the University of Punjab – apparently Pakistan now has a significant industry in growing these flowers for the cut flower trade.
It is a sad fact that the UK now has very few academic mycologists, possibly around 10, so just as knowledge of this extraordinary life support network below the ground in our landscapes and gardens is opening up, we are poorly placed to undertake research into its mechanisms and physiology. This is an unbelievably brief glimpse into a complex subject which I find amazing. I’m sure I’ll return to it, but in the meantime googling arbuscular mycorrhiza and looking at the Wikipedia site will add to what I’ve placed here.
I’ve really digressed, but what I plan to do is dig up a portion of N. ‘Topolino’ which I’d planted into a Dumpy Bag last autumn, at intervals after the flowers and leaves have faded, to try to see when the roots die. I suspect that they won’t, but also whether moving them into a new site at different periods after flowering has any impact on second year flowering. Of course my suggestion is that the reason the bulbs flower very poorly in the second year, is that it takes a long time for a successful mycorrhizal network to be set up and link into the bulbs. How big are these fungal networks? Can bulbs with attached soil take viable fungus to a new site (i.e. Is moving bulbs in the green worthwhile?).How long does it take to for a viable network to get up and running with a recently planted bulb?
Yet again, no answers, just questions.
Finally loads happening over the last week in the garden, with the run of sunny warmer days.
First Anenome nemorosa flowers, Tulipa turkestanica.(poor do-er with us) and Tulipa tarda/daystemon (good do-er, and sets viable seed), Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer’ (more like Easter Cheer), and one of our favorites Rhododendron racemosum ‘Rock Rose’. Not only is this frost hardy, early flowering, and has pretty red stems and aromatic foliage, but it seems equally attractive to bumblebees, honeybees, and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies.
A rarity for one flower to attract all 3 of these insects. Also seen this week, the first Bee Fly,
and Grey Shoulder-knot moth (in fact only the second ever) which I found resting on a gatepost today.