Every year the Canada geese fly into the valley sometime during February or March to breed. I guess that the 5 or 6 ponds in the immediate surroundings of the village are a sufficiently good draw. This last week I spotted a new variation to the standard practice of one of the pair of birds always keeping a look out whilst the second bird feeds – quite a good survival strategy in an area with a high fox population. As the mist started to clear on a still, bright morning and I drew back the bedroom curtains I noticed large ripples on our pond. Grabbing the camera I was able to film one of the pair complete a lengthy and comprehensive grooming routine involving head and neck dunking in the water, followed by neck contortions to reach every last feather (that long neck is really handy for this!), tail waggling, all of the above generating ripples on the still water surface whilst the guard bird kept a static silent vigil. Finally, with a last flourish, and lifting its considerable weight out of the water, 5 or 6 complete wing shakes to shed the last remaining water drops. Being camcorder screen captures, the straight images are a bit poor, but I really like the painterly effect of the tweaked image below:
Over the last 10 days, we’ve had a few night time frosts, which are always a bit of a shock to the plants which have been conned by the warm, sunny March weather into thinking that winter has passed. After a particularly clear night, when the temperature had dropped to minus 4 Degrees C, the tulips on the terrace looked particularly sad, yet also visually interesting in their novel freeze induced, limp petalled flopping. I’d feared that this would end their display for the year, but these Tulipa fosteriana cultivars are clearly toughies – firstly reliably returning to bloom after staying in the ground in our wet climate for a number of years (in another part of the garden), and secondly within 24 hours of exposure to this hard frost, having recovered their normal erect and graceful poise.
The same plunge in temperatures required precautionary homemade candles to be lit in the greenhouse again overnight to protect seedling tomatoes and salads. I’d done this on a couple of nights and it wasn’t until a few days later that I spotted the spider’s webs. And then the vertical strings of wool and hemp which I’d used for training tomatoes and cucumbers up to towards the roof. They were all clearly outlined perfectly by microscopic soot particles, being highlighted in just the way that dew would normally make them visible in the garden, but here creating a black negative image. Having read a feature on Dolce and Gabbana’s fashion success and their penchant for lace and gothic effects on Saturday, one particular little section of web caught my eye. And interestingly if you look carefully you can spot a normal translucent orb web (and the master weaver) presumably constructed after the candle soot induced etching had taken place, in the background of the photo.
However, what a shock that such a small candle (made of paraffin wax in a 125 gm tomato puree tin) can, whilst burning over just a few hours, produce such a huge amount of fine particulate matter, invisible to my naked eye until perfectly coating these silken structures. Apparently, the soot particle size is tiny, right down there with fungal mould spores, or very small pollen grains, at around 2-5 micrometres diameter. For comparison a human hair is about 50 micrometres wide. The plants seem fine, but I’m guessing that any greenhouse inhabiting insects had a severe bout of respiratory dysfunction, with clogged breathing tubes, until the largely invisible fug had dissipated after I opened the greenhouse door in the morning.
Cause for much thought and research as a wood burning stove fan. Some interesting further information can be found by clicking here. It seems that burning a candle, particularly a paraffin wax one, and operating even an efficient modern wood burning stove are right up there with cigarette smoking or breathing in diesel engine generated particulate matter as being sure fire ways of wrecking the delicate terminal passages of a human respiratory system, since the soup of toxic compounds released in combustion and the very fine particulate soot largely evades capture and elimination higher up our respiratory tract.
Ah well. Another thing that’s going to get you in the end. It’s interesting to reflect that it was almost exactly a year ago that my breathing suffered in London’s atmosphere and I wrote about particulate pollution issues in a post entitled Queues, Kew and Squills (April 011). Perhaps the local air isn’t always as pristine as we imagined?
Lots more daffodils are now in bloom, several that are new to us and have been grown in dumpy bags this year. Many are delightful, and we hope that they can be moved into the garden and be just as successful there in future years.
Just this week I received the last of my snowdrop acquisitions for the year from a highly regarded Chelsea Gold Medal winning nursery in Suffolk. They opt to send them out now, as the bulbs are beginning to wind down and approach dormancy, although still in leaf and thus still ‘in the green’, which is fine. But the striking thing about the bulbs and leaves was how small they were, by comparison with the bulbs and foliage seen locally. Perhaps another pointer that we’re really fortunate to be gardening in a part of the UK which in spite of its recent dry spell is still essentially in a position where lack of water is never a real limiting factor as far as plant growth is concerned. One variety in particular, which duplicated a bulb cultivar already sourced nearby was, I guess, a third of the leaf bulk and bulb size of the local specimen. Since the cultivar is called Galanthus ‘Colossus’, it seemed particularly disappointing! The original was more daffodil than snowdrop in dimensions. So perhaps for snowdrops, as I’ve commented before, west is best?
For those interested, I can report that my ‘Trym’ snowdrop leaf cutting ‘died’ a few weeks ago. But fortunately before I’d confined it to the compost heap, Fiona spotted that whereas the previous 2 cuttings had rotted at the leaf base, this one had browned and died back from the leaf tip. So just in case there are a few viable ‘Trym’ cells that have formed a precursor root plate, I’ve plunged the pot in the garden, and await next year’s growing season with interest.
Now an update on some of my winter seed sowing successes.
Firstly, the assorted tree and shrub seed collected last autumn, and carefully stratified by me in foil wrapped parcels in the family fridge. As you can see below, I’ve now got really good germination from some varieties, very few from others and, as yet, none from quite a few of the remainders. But I shall keep all the pots for at least another 12 months if I can, since germination of many species is erratic and prolonged. In the meantime, once the danger of frosts has passed, I’ve some serious pricking out to do.
The second really pleasing result has come with my saved Meconopsis seed, both M. grandis and M. betonicifolia alba. I’d grown M. grandis from bought and home saved seed before, and on each occasion had followed the seed company’s advice of sowing on the surface and keeping covered with a plastic bag until the seed had germinated. Since I’d used a home based compost of soil and leaf mould, on each previous occasion I had at least 2 crops of weed seedlings to pull out before I spotted the different and distinctive first leaves of the Meconopsis. This year, having forgotten to sow the seeds in the autumn, I waited until we’d had a significant snowfall at the end of January, then scattered the seed thinly onto the top of pots of homemade compost (roughly – soil/leaf mould/coarse builder’s vermiculite 45/45/10), and straight away scooped up snow and packed a 3 inch layer down onto the compost and seed. Since the weather was then cold for a couple of weeks, the seeds would have had a reliable chill. (Originating from the Himalayas, I reckoned this was a fair insult to inflict upon them).
The pots were then placed on a gravel bed in the shade on the North side of our latest woven willow protected Dumpy Bags, without any plastic covering. At the same time I sowed a new Meconopsis grandis form ‘Hensols Violet’, sourced from the UK’s largest commercial retail seed company. The germination results are shown above, and are interesting on 2 counts. Firstly my home seed has germinated really well, and in contrast to previous years’ efforts, has all germinated in advance of any weed seedlings. Secondly, the commercially acquired seed which was, as on previous occasions, much smaller and though hermetically sealed, unlike mine, perhaps not as fresh, has to date failed to produce a single seedling. So, another example of why it’s really worthwhile growing your own strains of seed from some of the more unusual plants which we might choose to grow. I perhaps should add that the flowers were also hand pollinated by me, since the alluring large blue (and white) poppy flowers really don’t seem to be appreciated by our Welsh insects.