Winter will return next week, but for now we bask in the after-glow of 3 dry WEEKS, and much new life bursting onto the scene.
The frogs have dodged, or diced with, death via the heron, otters, and last night Fiona in the car returning along our frog littered track, to complete their spawning in the ponds.
The bees have been manically active for brief periods around the crocus and snowdrops, and with huge relief 2 of our ewes have successfully and uneventfully produced 3 already chirpy lambs. Even better, 2 are ewe lambs, and Cilla and Carla are definitely ear marked as flock additions (hence the names chosen to identify them in years to come as class of 2013 progeny). You can see that at just 24 hours old, Carla is pretty, precocious and photogenic (think Bruni-Sarkozy).
But all is not entirely plain sailing. Cilla’s mother having at birth a teat on one side, of such magnitude that the poor lamb couldn’t quite work out what to do with it.
Lavinia, and Cilla engorged and at 24 minutes old.
The consequence very quickly was an udder heading towards bursting point or impending mastitis. The only solution seemed a spot of manual stripping out of the milk. Starting with a trickle massaged out with great difficulty, I fortunately soon developed my own knack of massaging the teat between thumb and forefingers, working the milk down from the udder. Eventually by holding the thumb pointing towards the udder, and adjacent to the teat, sustained gentle pressure produced regular and satisfying continuous 7 second pulses of sweet rich milk. After the first go, when it became obvious that this might have to continue for a few days, a jug was used and with my aim gradually improving, most of the milk ended up in the jug, and no longer on the rear of Fiona’s boots, who like a trooper, restrained the wonderfully docile ‘Lavinia’ whilst I worked the teat. Fortunately the combined smell of damp denim, lanolin and sweet milk is really quite pleasant.
By day four the good news is that the 300 ml per session is reducing, so we’re guessing that the bigger and stronger ‘Cilla’ is now managing to extract some milk from this side as well. But perhaps we should think of milky ewe’s tea, or making some Feta cheese?
Meanwhile, the turkeys sense that spring is in the air. The mating is brutal and tough on the female, with yet another novel vocalisation variant. The real treat has been seeing the 2 female Ronquière turkeys create depressions in the soil, through vigorous scrapings, scuffings and rockings.
Eventually another new call and pacing at the run’s wired corner preluded the laying of a prettily brown-on-cream speckled egg. Realising that this was very vulnerable we removed it to the fridge for temporary safe keeping.
Researching turkey rearing is frustrating. The assumption is that you will either acquire poults to rear on, or use an incubator to hatch the eggs. Since we have chosen heritage breeds, my inclination is to let them do what should come naturally. After reading about wild turkey egg laying, we constructed a primitive thicket of hazel sticks and shade netting with a loose mossy bed and were then delighted when the following day the hen sauntered in and laid a second egg. The first was returned from the fridge to the ‘nest’ and by day 4 a third had been laid and the hen was covering them pretty effectively with the moss when she left the nest.
Wild birds will lay a clutch of perhaps 12 to 14 before sitting on them, with incubation to hatching point then taking about 28 days. Whether either of our 2 hen turkeys will become broody and incubate the eggs, let alone then rear any poults successfully remains to be seen, but at least we’re a third of the way there. In the meantime, we’re already planning to disrupt the ever watchful eyes of magpies and carrion crows, which perch on the highest trees around, looking for evidence of future meals.
At some point in the dry but cold 3 week period I was pleased to find a few clusters of Scarlet elf cup/cap mushrooms, Sarcoscypha coccinea, mostly growing under leaf litter on dead twigs at the base of perimeter hedges.
Some think that the cup shape and vibrant colour is a means of concentrating any warmth or sunshine to aid spore development on the reverse, creamy side of the mushroom. I just love this unseasonal splash of colour – scarlet rarely makes the cut at any time in our garden, let alone in the depths of winter. Meanwhile, I must confess to reaching for the watering can (filled inside) to rehydrate my freeze dried mossy mushrooms, which were definitely looking the worse for wear.
I probably needn’t have bothered. Just one day of light drizzle today had them instantly reinvigorated. How resilient!
At last, I shall feature some more snowdrops. They have yet again lifted the spirits for so long now – cultivars like G. “Atkinsii” have been flowering for over 2 months, and are only just starting to look a little tired, though perked up a bit by today’s rain. Several weeks ago, I found a fascinating research article on their propagation, storage and cultivation. (Titled ” Snowdrops- Developing Cost Effective Production Methods through studies of Micropropagation, Agronomy and Bulb Storage.” by Selby, Staikidou, Hanks and Hughes.)
The research published in 2005 aimed to explore the groundwork necessary to develop a better commercial approach to multiplication on a large scale of this much loved, (and obsessively collected by some), bulb. What was particularly interesting, was that micro-propagation methodology had clearly been fine-tuned by the research team to achieve consistent and rapid bulking up with a number of cultivars. All the details of bulb sterilisation, surgical division, agar nutrients, light levels, incubation temperatures, etc. are recorded in the article. However, the actual growing on of bulbs planted ‘in the field’ to increase numbers was pretty fraught.
In the UK many of the vast range of snowdrop variants are currently grown by a small number of nurseries or enthusiasts either using twin scaling, or simple division of existing clumps, which is obviously a very slow process from new star variant to commonly available plant. The record bid on ebay last year by Thompson and Morgan (T&M), of about £725 for a single yellow ovaried G. woronowii hybrid ( G. “Elizabeth Harrison”) suggests to me that T&M have taken on board, and already trialled, the type of micro-propagation methodology outlined above with other cultivars, and are confident that they can soon (in a few years) have thousands of G. “Elizabeth Harrison” bulbs to offer for sale to the public. £725 will then no doubt seem like a bargain price for a unique and unusual appealing form.
Some aspects of the field scale trials of snowdrop bulb growing really caught my eye, as having more interest to the amateur galanthophile grower. The research explored a number of factors’ influence on flowering, bulb multiplication, and viability over the medium term (3 years). In particular fixing 50% shading with netting held over the bulbs, installing a limited height windbreak and a November application of a 2 inch deep straw mulch over the bulbs, all significantly helped flowering and bulb multiplication. But unless I missed something, none of these techniques enabled them to have more bulbs at the end of a three year trial than were planted initially! So frankly a bit of a failure, for anyone wanting to ramp up snowdrop multiplication. And even the best regime variations that were tried in the field plots where 60 bulbs were planted with various combinations of the above modifications to growing conditions (and some more variations I haven’t even mentioned) saw total numbers of bulbs in the plot declining by year 3.
They also trialled the use of a single mycorrhizal treatment of the bulbs or plot, and noted that to their surprise that it seemed to have no beneficial effect.
All of this interested me, since as I’ve commented before, I reckon West Wales is a great place for healthy, vigorous snowdrop growing, and that in big part this is because of our regular and high rainfall. But West Wales is also a great place for many fungi, for the same reasons of rainfall and benign climate, with less in the way of landscape chemical application than occurs in most of the UK. If you look at the biggest and most vigorous wild colonies of snowdrops, they’re often associated with hedgerows or trees, and so will inevitably be covered annually in a layer of leaf litter which will gradually rot down.
In these locations, the bulbs will also be growing right amongst the roots of deciduous woody perennial species, where almost inevitably a varied and diverse subterranean fungal network will exist. And this location ensures quite a lot of summer shade, and probably lower temperatures as well as a much drier summer rest for the bulbs. (Though frankly this is a bit of a relative statement, in recent summers down here).
These “native” Welsh snowdrop conditions are really very different conditions to the drier field trial site in a Lincolnshire field, even with some irrigation, and where artificial fertilisers were used on plots, and herbicides applied to paths between plots.
Within our own garden the snowdrops are now numerous enough after 18 years of lifting and dividing, and located in a sufficient variety of locations, for me to detect significant variability in vigour and flowering, even of the same clone of our most numerous Galanthus nivalis. Why?
What’s wrong with this central area with very poor snowdrop growth? Probably something going on below ground level – interestingly, both a Ceanothus, and later a prostrate rosemary bush, only survived for a few years at this location.
The G. nivalis cultivar above, originated from our Bristol garden, and before that, came from a parent source in Shropshire. I’m sure that the reasons for such growth variations are subtle and multi-factorial, but probably include planting aspect and level of shade, closeness to other shrub or tree roots, relative moisture levels throughout the year at bulb level, bulb temperatures throughout the year, as well as the amount of natural annual leaf litter mulch, which must rot down and yield a rich soup of micro-nutrients quite different to the contents of a bag of NPK fertiliser. And if these micro-nutrients aren’t directly absorbed by the snowdrop roots, then they probably will be through below-the-surface mycorrhizal links with the snowdrop roots.
But what about practical garden applications Julian, instead of all this science, I hear you shout into the computer?
Well, I think that I shall now apply a November shredded leaf mould mulch, possibly with a spring top up, for any of our more recently acquired ‘special’ snowdrops which are growing in less favourable conditions, particularly when planted in more direct sunshine.
Those in favoured locations get this anyway, and naturally, from tree leaf fall, so I shan’t bother here..
This time last year, I’d lifted, split and moved huge numbers in the green, in drizzly warmish February days. This year, I shall have to wait until the foliage has begun to die down, since soil moisture levels are now too low for bulbs to settle in the green. All of the bulbs in the above field trials, were planted dry in September, and I’ve always found the problem with doing this is that you’ve no idea where any existing spring bulbs are – unless you have really well taken photos to refer to, as you actually plant the new bulbs out.
My main piece of advice however, is to plant these bulbs in the most favoured places – right beneath woody deciduous shrubs, and try to avoid planting in full sun (when judged by summer, not spring levels of shade).
As an update to my own snowdrop ‘experiments’ from last year, I can report that my G. Trym leaf cutting which hung on for a couple of months did not return this year. (click here for details). Also that my sections of snowdrop stem with roots attached which had grown up through very deep soil to reach the surface again, didn’t survive apart from the sections which came from closest to the main bulb, which have grown, but not of course flowered yet. (Click here for pictures from last year).
However, I wanted to finish with the suggestion that all gardeners should plant more of these alluring bulbs, and keep splitting the clumps every 4 years or so. And maybe add in one of the cheaper and reliable, though slightly more expensive than G.nivalis, cultivars like G. Atkinsii. In my experience using a vigorous variety like this or G.nivalis, after year one, (as with the field trials above), you’ll have fewer flowers than the number of bulbs planted. By year 2 more than the original number. By year 3, 3 times as many, and by year 4 you’ll be thinking you really need to lift and split them again, since the clumps are looking crowded.
Top image planted up 4 years ago, second image planted last year.
And before you know it (well admittedly it does take a decade or so, but then we gardeners are patient folk, aren’t we?), you’ll have created a vista of beauty which will outlast your time in the garden and greet the subsequent caretakers, on a late winter’s afternoon.
To celebrate our current symphony of snowdrops, I thought I’d illustrate some of the subtle variations of this basically similar flower which fire the real galanthophile’s enthusiasm – but beware, you might get hooked :
Flowering Time. From early December to late March (G. ‘Three Ships’, and G. ‘Washfield Wareham’, only just beginning to show above ground on March 7th – lower snowdrops).
Flowering Height. From short and stubby to tall and erect (G. ‘Imbolc’, and G. ‘Icicle’ to and G. ‘Benhall Beauty’).
Leaf Colour and Form. From straight narrow blue green, to broad grey green to mid green with pleated margin (G.’nivalis’, G.’Cedric’s Prolific’, G.’Comet’ and G. ‘Wendy’s Gold’).
Single or Double Flowers. (G. ‘Nothing Special’ and G. ‘Lady Elphinstone’ and G. ‘Hill Poe’).
Flower Shape. Narrow or broad (G .’Wasp’ and G. ‘Byfield’s Special’).
Pedicel (Flower stem) length. Long or short (G. ‘Scharlockii’, G. ‘Magnet’ or G. ‘Robin Hood’)
Ovary shape and colour. (Golden, tubby or elongated G. ‘Wendy’s Gold’, G. ‘Tubby Merlin’, G.nivalis of Shropshire origin)
Outer petal (tepal) markings. Generally green stripes or blotches (G. ‘Viridapice’, G. ‘Cowhouse Green’ and G. ‘Kildare’).
Inner petal (tepal) markings. A huge variety. (G. ‘Angelique’ and G. ‘Atkinsii’)
And finally, can anyone identify the semi-double snowdrop below, with four outer petals, a conical ovary with a fissured groove and very distinctive slight green markings? It’s in flower now, and I have no idea what it is, but it’s rather nice (Is it G. nivalis Flore Pleno? I can’t remember buying any of these in the past, since they always looked a little untidy to me, and this one certainly doesn’t).
But really it’s the en masse effect that blends such subtleties into a harmonious whole, the hundred plus musicians together creating the rich symphonic sound, that grabs our attention. (Added later-.apparently there are no strictly defined numbers of players for a symphony orchestra, varying between eighty and over a hundred. Click here for more details, but I shall take this upper limit as a sign that no new bought in cultivars are required for our own snowdrop symphony, save any which develop naturally from home grown seed. Now that’ll save me a lot of money in future, if I manage to stick to it).