Lily of the Valley; Swallows; Links and the Evolution of our Terrace Garden

After what was perhaps the biggest global internet media event ever, the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, I had to start with a brief mention of Lily of the Valley.

A great choice for the wedding bouquet, signifying the return of happiness

We inherited ours when we moved into a house in Bristol in 1987, where in a neglected garden it dominated an area. We tried to remove it all, but it survived our best efforts, and 7 years later, after purchasing our current then derelict home, we realised that it’s thug like properties might be more welcome and suitable there. In due course, and not having learned from our first encounter with its vigorous nature, we planted it in our fledgling terrace garden, where it thrived, and about 5 years ago we had to attack it again. This time moving it in crude spade size chunks, planted in the style of pinch grafts, multiple small patches in an area, with the hope that eventually they will completely cover it, which this year they have managed to do. And here underneath the big oak, it at last looks great in an area which wouldn’t support much else due to summer dryness and shade.

Lily of the valley, Dicentra spectabilis alba, Pieris, Meconopsis grandis and Purple bugle 01/05/11

But you don’t have it in a garden for its looks. Its flowers, though pretty and virginal white, (in folklore they supposedly sprung from Eve’s tears on being banished from Eden, which conjures an appropriate image) don’t last very long.

A sense of anticipation builds…02/04/11

No, you have it so that every year as the pink tipped, then pale green shoots thrust through the soil, you can anticipate the perfume sensation that will arrive in the garden with the flowers. However I then usually forget about waiting for the flowers to open as so much else is happening in the garden to distract me. Eventually about 10 days ago, I walked into the copse and WOW! It tops the list of sublime scents in the garden, along with some Viburnum flowers and Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postil’.

This year, especially with the fantastic sunshine we’ve enjoyed, it seems the best ever. But I was intrigued to see if the flowers at the wedding were of Welsh origin, since our garden is usually 3 weeks behind most areas of the UK. Apparently not. Although Kate’s wedding ring was forged from a nugget of Welsh gold given to William by the Queen, the flowers were in fact ordered from a Cornish grower, with the particular request for 600 flower stems of 6 to 8 inches, so whether the plants had to be ‘held back’ in some way to be at their peak for the big day, I don’t know.

The other reason you might find a place for them in the garden is that it’s rumoured to protect the garden from evil spirits. This is one tradition that’s still respected down here, where holly trees in hedges are often left un-flailed to prevent evil spirits or the devil entering the fields. Having enjoyed it’s star turn in the garden the leaves can become a mess after flowering, and I’m just seeing if mossy saxifrage will co-exist with this clump to add a bit of interest when the leaves die down.

Will mossy saxifrage compete long-term with lily of the valley, and add interest later in the year?

The full complement of swallows has now returned to Gelli, 4 pairs once again. When we moved here there were probably more than this, and gradually as we have restored the buildings, they have had fewer nesting options. But we have always left our large barn open for them to use. And every year, at this time of the year, if you leave house windows or doors open all day, one often flies in looking for an alternative nesting site. I mentioned this to a friend who told me that he has similar experiences, and that out of preference they will split one pair to a building, for extra privacy. And why not? But having them all in one place means that the swallow chatter inside the single barn can often be extraordinary. I’d always assumed it to be good-natured banter, but perhaps it isn’t. Whatever it means it does bring real joy to the summer months here.

Yesterday we had a swallow enter our living room in this way; it wouldn’t pose for a photo, but no matter. Today as I started writing this, a pair rested just outside the Velux roof light on the cable bringing the newish satellite feed for the internet into the house, and began gossiping.

Swallows, and just now a Redstart, enjoy the new perch of the satellite catenary cable

When we had the satellite installed in the depths of the very hard winter, we had big issues with siting, and fixing, and went for an off-building install. At the time Aled the installer said that we needed a catenary to the building. I knew I’d come across this unfamiliar word a few weeks before but couldn’t recall where. As is often the case, the brain whirred in the background, and as our fingers froze as we mixed concrete for the satellite pole base, I recalled that it was the term used to describe the shape that a rope will make if suspended between 2 fixed points. More specifically the context was in the shape of honeycombs made by honeybees in natural, or top bar hives, which they apparently manage to achieve by forming a bee chain linking up between the 2 fixing points, before beginning the construction process.

So the unplanned and delightful consequence of us joining the slightly faster broadband age, is that by lifting open the Velux, we can be serenaded from perhaps 8 feet away, as we work at the computer keyboard. I should also mention that it was the prospect of losing these delightful summer visitors from the area, which was the main motivation for me filming, producing and editing “Epiphany In Translation”, which records life here in the year 2010, and which includes both much swallow chatter, and also the poem which my brother, Mark, wrote for us after holidaying here in 1995. The film premieres in 10 days’ time at the Swansea Bay Film Festival, which is another reason time is a bit short at present. (More details on our talks and films webpage.)

        Excerpts from the poem “In Translation” by Mark Wormald  1995

                                                                           ….   Swallows flew

            sorties through the blue, dodged and dipped through the gap

            in the byre door at my back with flies to eat,

            Tales to tell. I heard. And we were off the map.

             As gods, ghosts and the lost are …

      … The Swallows

          wrote what they’d heard across the wires

          and called it jazz, tried it, flew some.

          Autumn that night. Floods, fish, home fires.

Finally since it is probably at one of its best times of the year now, I’m going to say a bit about our terrace garden. This was one of the first areas of garden we started work on perhaps 13 years ago, and we still haven’t got it right!

It demonstrates our unplanned evolutionary snail’s pace approach to gardening here. The basic idea was inspired by a visit to see Beth Chatto’s wonderful gravel garden in Essex the previous year. Of course there is very little rainfall there, but the idea of low maintenance appealed to me. I didn’t want to spend ages cutting grass, and figured that gravel and rubble from the ongoing building works would give us a more free draining and poor quality growing medium for certain groups of plants which would struggle elsewhere with our usual 70 plus inches of rain. Equally it saved having to work out what else to do with 12 inches of smashed up concrete from the old milking parlour, and the shale that came from beneath it. The pictures below give an idea of what it looks like right now.

Green-veined white butterfly on terrace garden 28/04/11

Terrace garden 27/04/11

Terrace garden 28/04/11

Terrace garden 01/05/11

Terrace garden 01/05/11

View into the terrace garden through the Rosa glauca, Carpinus turczanowiiczii and native holly hedge 01/05/11

Saxifrage and bugle 29/04/11

However, low maintenance it isn’t, although as plants have spread and given the area more complete groundcover the weeding is much less of an issue year on year. The key times seem to be late autumn, and very early spring and if you get out all the grass and other weeds then when you can see them, it’s much less onerous later on in the year. The challenge has been to create year round interest, and recent successful additions have been Asters to extend flowering into the autumn, and dot planting with Narcissi to add a bit more flower early on. But with a big area it’s difficult to afford to do it all in one go both financially and physically when each bulb, be it crocus or narcissus, is planted by working a digging bar down through the rubble.

The 3 chimney pots added to give height interest to the designs have had 3 attempts to get them to work successfully, the latest being Stipa tenuissima, which looked lovely in the summer, but succumbed to this last winter’s freeze. Back to the drawing board! But what started off as distinct patchwork type block plantings has evolved or morphed into a much more naturalistic effect, which is very restful, whilst being a haven for bees, flies and butterflies for a lot of the year. The hedges which have also now matured help with wind protection from most directions. I’ll return to the area later in the year, but it does show what you can achieve with time even on an extremely poor base. Again I should add that no extra nutrients get added apart from the occasional light dusting with wood ash from the stoves.

For now the big issue is – when will it rain? The garden is desperate and the last few days of strong drying winds are exacerbating the issue. Interestingly though, of all the areas in the garden it is this free draining terrace which has coped with the drought best, so perhaps the Beth Chatto concept is valid even in the normally wet Carmarthenshire hills.

A great nectar flower for bumblebees right now – Geranium macrorrhizum