Don’t Get Mad, Get Even; Bilingual Profanity; Untangling and Releasing the White Dragon; Fish and Chips and Frogs.

It’s been one of those spells since the last blog, when the rain has held off, the days have lengthened, and the blog takes back seat to all the other tasks and events going on.

Lots of recent mornings have begun misty and still, with birdsong, before the sun burns through. Blue Tit leaving its singing perch in the Hawthorn. 6/03/12

One of the major outdoor jobs of late apart from kicking off the annual whitewashing of the stone buildings, has been reworking a few of our paths in the garden. Gardening on steep slopes certainly gives us more opportunities to accommodate lovely distant views, but makes working and walking trickier, both for us and our garden visitors. After a serious knee problem two years ago which left me incapacitated for a good 6 weeks, my GP’s advice on whether I should seek an orthopaedic surgeon’s opinion on surgery options was sensibly:

“Firstly avoid doctors, and secondly move to a property on the level”.

The first struck a chord with my natural scepticism about the value of the surgeon’s knife. For now the second point is just the hopefully distant, but long term, inevitability. But we’d also both fallen in this winter’s weather after slipping on grassy surfaces, so Fiona researched possible paving or path solutions. In the end she discovered a rubber based matting system designed for horses and stabling which was duly ordered and delivered by a pretty big lorry which just squeezed along our narrow track and up our hill. With internet research and shopping you never quite know until the product arrives how well it will suit, but it’s proved so successful for our needs that we immediately ordered another batch.

The first section of path laid in the new copse. Here the issue was lack of a sufficient slope meaning that the mossy path was too soft and vulnerable to wear. Photo taken the day after laying. Spot the join with the previous moss only path (Top right). 7/03/12

Easy to cut with a sharp knife, with non slip bobbles on the reverse side, the other huge advantage over the harder Envirogrid type block paving which we’d also used before, is that it conforms to irregular surfaces really well and gives a lovely non slip cushioned feel. The original plan had been to lay it on our grass paths and let the grass grow through and mow over. Given our success with moss paths in our new copse, and the huge amounts of loose, scarified moss courtesy of the blackbird’s efforts this winter, part of my job has been to brush this up, lay it over the paths in situ, and walk up and down, pausing to remove a larch cone every time you feel a knobbly bit underfoot. You can judge yourselves what it looks like just now.

Second mossy path early stage.2/03/12

I’m pretty optimistic that unless the climate here takes a sudden change in the very dry direction, it’ll be a long term fairly low maintenance cushioned path. In most areas where it’s been used, we’ll retain the option to lift the pieces to either re-level, or if necessary to treat weeds – though we’ve found with our other paths that once completely covered with a stable moss base very few weeds grow through. The modular narrow nature of the matting should also prevent the birds being able to scratch it all up quite as effectively as they do with the natural moss covering.

The paths’ mossy appearance should improve and intensify with time. You can’t afford to stand still for too long down here, or you’ll be engulfed – mossy HiTecs. Actually finding these in this condition has given me another long term idea…..Oh dear. 13/03/12

(In a similar don’t get mad, get even vein, I chose last Sunday at dusk to fill in the rapidly deepening rabbit burrow in the amphitheatre. Within 2 hours of darkness falling the tunnel was partially re-excavated. The culprit still eludes an actual sighting.)

The morning after filling in the rabbit hole – the battle continues.. 14/03/12

All of this work has meant that Fiona has had fun and some hard work cutting a contour path and steps round one area of the garden where the slope in 2 planes was a real issue. What proved to save the day was a turfing spade which we’d rescued and acquired when Fiona’s mother had moved last year from the long-term family home.

Many of these tools are well over 50 years old, yet have an elegance of ergonomic design and detailed quality of manufacture which makes them still a joy to use. Turfing spade second from left. 13/03/12

All the other implements above, similarly acquired, have proved invaluable for various jobs around the track and garden, so a big thank you to Diana – they’ve found a good home.

At the same time as this project has progressed, the remaining 4 Norway Spruce to the front of the house were professionally taken down 10 days ago by Meirion and Llyn. Another masterclass in efficient competent tree work completed in about 2 hours. The 2 largest being pulled into the field, the remaining 2 being taken down piecemeal, with almost no collateral damage, in spite of one growing within 2 feet of a 30 year old Oak.

Tree number one starts to fall. The raised hand indicates that Llyn, stage right, needs to pull with the tracked vehicle using a rope previously tied to the top of this Norway Spruce. Going, going…

… gone. Bear in mind that Meirion is strapped to the trunk he’s just felled, amongst ivy and a vicious rambling Rose ‘Kiftsgate’, about 20 feet off the ground. 13/03/12

Within 2 days, the blackbird was checking out the 20 foot high ivy and rose clad trunk as a suitable song post. On a practical level, we’d wanted the tree leaving at this height so that the rose retained part of its current support structure as well as leaving some flowering ivy for its wildlife benefits (berries and late season nectar). What we should have realised was that the severed mature ivy trunks would quickly begin to peel back as a result of a strong wind from the top of the trunk, necessitating some hairy remedial work from both of us a few days later up a ladder trying to secure the stems to the trunk. This could have been quickly achieved by getting Meirion to rope a retaining loop round the top of the trunk and all the ivy stems once the tree was down. 5/03/12

The only slight issue arose as Meirion left the thinnest trunk near ground level and swung across to work on the final tree, leaving Llyn on the ground to fire up the second saw to finish off the work on the thin trunk.

Meirion working his way down the smaller third Spruce.3/03/12

A few silhouettes of no hands tree work from a real expert, with the chainsaw  dangling  between his legs, about 40 feet off the ground…3/03/12

Meirion at work. Do you think that you could to do this for a living? I know I couldn’t. 3/03/12

Having already asked them to leave the trunks at about 7 feet height so that I could add to our crop of Waxcap mushrooms, there was clear agitation, then consternation, in Meirion’s Welsh as he struggled above the sound of 2 chainsaws and helmets to communicate to Llyn NOT to make the cut at the point he was aiming for. As Llyn moved in at a much lower than requested level, the voice grew louder and louder before a final switch to Saesneg meant that even standing a safe 30 yards away, the sound of “F*****G MUSHROOM!” could be clearly heard. No matter, it is now suitably formed, albeit at a lower height. Also interestingly, the much larger tree had the hint of central rot at its core when stopped at 7 feet. I was still hopeful that I could do something with it, but the trunk hollowed out progressively closer to the ground, as can be seen below. A huge tree, close to the house with barely an inch or two of sound peripheral wood holding the column aloft. Probably a future disaster has been averted.

The slightly shorter than expected new waxcap, and rotten central trunk. 7/03/12

A lot of tidying up work, and bonfires later, left us with the decision of what to do with the larger hollow stump. In the end I had what might be an intriguing solution. Removing all the soft sodden heartwood left a huge potential planting cavity, within a natural form and just a couple of feet from the base of the small Oak now revealed to have a still quite open canopy.

The trunk cavity cleared for planting 7/03/12

Being keen on homegrown cultivars of any plants, 2 years ago I’d saved a self-sown rose seedling which seemed to have the purplish stem and leaf tints of Rosa glauca (which we grow as a hedge), but more the form of R. “Paul’s Himalayan Musk”, which we also grow very successfully though a mature Hawthorn tree. I’d already moved the seedling rose at the end of its first year into a double depth tyre, to see how it developed beyond the seedling stage. Last year I’d added 2 vertical circles of pig netting as the rose seedling grew and grew, in the end training some of the stems 3 or 4 times round the circumference of the netting.

I still have no ideas what the flowers will look like, but this seemed the perfect chance to give my own White Dragon (since this is what I’ve nicknamed it) its challenge – to grow and compete with the developing Oak. The only problem was to remove the rose’s intertwined stems from the pig netting. In the end I completed this task without a single snapped stem – a hugely impressive endorsement of the pliability of its stems. With some of them measuring, I guess, nearly 15 feet (about a year’s growth), I was able to reach the oak and achieve a couple of circuits of the trunk, tying them in with Flexi-tie (I only discovered this product last year, and it’s really useful in a situation like this where strength and durability is needed). I await with great interest this summer, when hopefully it might bloom for the first time. If it turns into a disaster then the White Dragon will sadly have to be slain!

The Gelli rose’s planting position in the filled in stump cavity. The tallest rose stem almost reaches the fork in the oak’s trunk at the very top of the photo. 8/03/12

A late evening return from the opening of this year’s gorgeous exhibition of Welsh and American Quilts in Lampeter (click here for details), had me eating a fish and chip supper on my lap as we drove home in the dark (Fiona is still dieting, so opted to drive!). Unusually for me I’d picked up a small plastic fork to use with the meal, and had finished the food by the time we started up our track. Although we’re now into March it was a misty, damp evening and quite soon the headlamps picked up the unmistakable wedge silhouettes of crouched frogs, on either side of the tracks. Careful dodging steering worked initially and then there was nothing for it. I had to leave the car, and walk ahead for a few hundred yards, chip fork in hand to carefully flick the frogs out of harm’s way. Eventually we reached a section where numbers petered out. Perhaps the frog fork will stay in the car for future use?

Finally after delivering the MK6 version of our “Botany Of Desire” talk/film on the appeal of different garden flower types to our native insects (to a large and appreciative audience of gardeners from West Wales on Saturday), this Monday suddenly turned into a manic one just after lunchtime. The morning mist had dissipated, there was little wind and the temperatures rose into high double figures. Suddenly the Hellebores and Pulmonaria to the West of our barn were buzzing.

The honeybees visit the garden for the first time on manic Monday. 13/03/12

Hellebores and Bumblebee on manic Monday afternoon 13/03/12

Honeybees, for the first time this year, and so many bumblebees that they were impossible to count (I guess over 40) – four or five at a time on a single clump of Pulmonaria. In addition they were visiting flowers which I’ve never seen them on before, such as primrose. I wonder if the nectar production, release or aroma which will almost certainly rise with higher temperatures, only begins to flow with some of these flowers above a certain temperature? And since the first bumblebees only emerged on February 24th, I must assume that all these bumblebees were different overwintered queens each in the process of establishing their own new colonies. Because firstly the nest and honeypot of nectar has to be made by the queen bee, then eggs laid and the larvae to hatch from these eggs, undergo several moults, pupate, and then emerge as additional worker bumblebees which will help in the colony management. I reckon from what I’ve been able to glean that at least 5 to 6 weeks are required for all of this to happen.

Anyway, this bee blitz lasted for under a couple of hours, and made me wonder whether the Royal Horticultural Society strategy of apparently allowing just 5 observational periods PER YEAR, in their Bug Friendly Plant Project, is really adequate to make informed judgements about which flowers and plants are most friendly to our native insects. On the same Monday a glance through a mailshot gardening catalogue alerted me to “Beepol”….and the chance to “Discover the Value of Bees”. But a more in-depth discussion of this will have to wait until next week.


The new view to the North minus the Norway Spruce. Do we miss them? No. 5/03/12

Narcissus ‘Topolino’ and ‘Jetfire’. Magic terrace garden 13/03/12

Where do you spend the night if you don’t have a nest built yet? Inside a flower seems a good choice. Dew covered queen wasp inside Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer’ flower. 13/03/12

The Gelli Shard. A dew covered and hence visible temporary construction. ( OK I did rotate it through 90 degrees, but it’s still pretty impressive) 13/03/12

The first emerged, flying and pristine Peacock butterfly of the year, gaining some nourishment from the flower of Narcissus ‘Topolino’ 13/03/12