A Winter’s Tale – Into the West and the Intricately Dead (Welsh) Snow Drop; Resupination; and Heating a Greenhouse with Compost (Part 10 Update).

S1130021 (2)Follow me on a circuitous journey. A winter’s tale for this, thus far, mainly non-wintry season.

Saturday January 11th dawned bright and crisp as a winter’s day should be.SDIM4883 (2)

The sun rose, the forecast was for skies of winter blue.SDIM4892 (2)A heavy frost on the largely mossy croquet lawn, meant that the early ash pan emptying onto the long border left a strangely angled, foot-printed path, pressed into the frozen moss sponge.SDIM4994 (2)So desperate for a break from inside work and relentless rain, we downed tools and did what all sane folk would do.

Headed West.

For the coast.

At this point I shall preface with some images from our previous trip on a similarly lovely day in early October, since it missed the cut for blog inclusion at the time, and seems to complement our recent trip.SDIM3863 (2)On that occasion we’d made for Poppit Sands, and after picking up stone ground flour from the gorgeous water mill at St. Dogmaels for my bread making, we reached the sands at nearly low tide. This allowed a good mile’s walk across patterned fine sand, formed at the mouth of the Teifi estuary. Click here for photographer Michael Jackson’s inspiration and award winning photos taken over many years of visiting and photographing these ever changing sand forms.

Retracing our steps, we picked up fish and chips in St. Dogmaels, and then took the minor road towards Moylegrove, looking for a suitable spot to eat our supper as the sun fell lower.SDIM3889 (2) This section of the coast is spectacular at any time. But sitting atop an actually dry, grass topped drystone wall, in early October beside a spectacularly located burial ground overlooking these scenes as the sun sank beyond the Preseli mountains, was magical. The lyrics familiar to any hobbit fans, from Annie Lennox’s Oscar winning song ‘Into the West’, from the film ‘The Return of The King’, drifted into mind:SDIM3870 (2)
And all will turn
To silver glass
A light on the water
All souls pass

Into the West.SDIM3878 (2)Click here for a You Tube of the song, if you need reminding of how beautiful it is.SDIM3886 (2)

But on this early January Saturday, we headed a little further South to the picturesque village of Newport, Pembrokeshire. After a fantastic simple lunch at the tiny Lou Lou cafe, we crossed the estuary to reach the sands of Parrog Beach. Part of our motivation for heading here was to see if there was any interesting debris left from vicious storms, high spring tides, and torrential rain which had lashed the Welsh coast 2 days earlier. For overseas readers’ information, the conditions were so severe that widespread alerts were issued in all media to stay away from the coastline, so dangerous were the seas and waves. Click here for a selection of images of just how bad it was, not just in Wales, but also the South of England.

There was indeed still evidence of the storm’s force – much washed-up seaweed, shells and behind the gentle beach, the whole of the vertical 10 foot high bank of marram grass and sand dune limiting the sea’s inland progress, looked freshly clogged with thrown up grey sandy debris from the beach.SDIM4931 (2) We weren’t though alone in our beach combing.SDIM4904 (2)A solitary small bird accompanied us for part of our walk, darting in bursts through the shallow waves spilling up the beach.SDIM4922 (2) Later identified as a Sanderling, (I think), I found a pleasing poem from the C19th of that title, although the poet seems to interchange Sanderling and Sandpiper in his verse.


BY the beach border, where the breeze 
Comes freighted from the briny seas, 
By sandy bar and weedy rock, 
I frequent meet thy roving flock; 
Now hovering o’er the bending sedge, 
Now gather’d at the ocean edge; 
Probing the sands for shrimps and shells, 
Or worms marine in hidden cells, 
A restless and inconstant band, 
Forever flitting o’er the sand. 

Sandpiper!—haunting every shore 
Where’er the waves of ocean roar; 
Old voyagers that roam the deep
Tell that your dusky pinions sweep
O’er the remotest islands set
In ocean’s emerald coronet. 
Far where Siberian coasts extend, 
Far where Australian borders trend, 
Far up the icy Labrador, 
Far where the Mexic billows pour, 
Are seen thy pinions, roving bird ! 
Thy melancholy note is heard. 

Exert From The Little Sanderling, by Isaac Macclellan – “Poems of the Rod and Gun”. 

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But as we walked the shore’s margin intently, heads down, something strange caught my eye, turning gently as the spent waves moved it up and down over the sand. Beneath just an inch of bubble topped wave I wasn’t sure what it was, until I plucked it from the sea.SDIM4909 (2)But then it became clear. A small bulb, with shoots perhaps an inch and a half long, and a cluster of tangled roots growing from the base plate of this thumb nail sized, whitish pearl.

Was it a snowdrop? A genuine Welsh snowdrop? Was it still alive? Where had it come from?

Well nearly 3 weeks on, after a good rinsing and soaking in spring water at home it is definitely still in the land of the living.SDIM5103 (2)The emerging leaves have developed with a kink, and I suspect that no flower will emerge to confirm whether it’s a snowdrop (at least not this year). It could even be a small Narcissus. I shall report in due course when we have confirmation.

We crossed a deep cut stream on the Northern side of the beach, reached via the coastal path, snaking between wind hewn blackthorn.SDIM4956 (2)It seems highly likely that the bulb was dislodged from a bank side growing place in the hinterland hills and then hurried downstream by the deluge driven spate.SDIM4947 (2)

‘Into The West’.

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This was going to be the end of this little story, apart from recording that after following the great suggestion from Carolyn in a comment on my last post, I did indeed post a question on the Scottish Rock Garden Club galanthophile forum.

“Did anyone know of any genuine Welsh origin snowdrops?”

You can click here for the link. It seems that apart from a couple of cultivars ‘Megan’ and ‘Corrin’ bred by Bob and Rannveig Wallis of ‘Buried Treasure’ near Carmarthen, (but derived from seed from their G. ‘Trym’, which in turn originated in a garden near Bristol) and named for their daughter and grand-daughter, there aren’t currently any available snowdrop cultivars with a definite Welsh provenance.SDIM7734 (2)This seems strange since the Welsh language, itself a very ancient language, apparently has 5 different words for ‘snowdrop’, implying a historical cultural awareness and affection for this ‘little white lily’ (Lili Wen Fach), Eirlys, Blodyn yr Eira, Cloch maban as captured in the old Welsh folk rhyme:

O Lili wen fach, o ble daethost di,

A’r gwynt mor arw ac mor oer ei gri?

Sut y mentraist di allan drwy’r eira i gyd?

Nid oes flodyn bach arall i’w weld yn y byd!

Ond mae gennyt fantell dros dy wisg wen,

Ar ffordd fwyaf dengar o blygu dy ben.

Nid oes eira na gwynt, nid oes dewin na gwrach,

All fentro gwneud niwed ir lili wen fach.

Which translates roughly as:

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Oh Little White Lily, from where did you come?

With the wind so wild and with such a cold cry

However did you manage to climb out through all that snow?

There is no other little flower to be seen anywhere.

But you still have a cape over your white robe,

At the most charming of bending your head.

There is no snow or wind, no wizard or witch,

All risk making damage to the snowdrop.


I’m grateful for two links which illustrate a problem for a non Welsh speaker in trying to research such issues. Verse 1 and the translation above, which reads well in English, is from a blog by Rhodri Brady. Click here for the link.SDIM8194 (2)

I’d been hoping to find a You Tube of the poem being read in Welsh, to capture the rhyme and mood of all those unfamiliar consonant filled words, but could only find a rendition recorded in a moving car, filmed from the front seat, which I passed up.

Surely there must be some recordings from the Urdd Eisteddfod? This is a huge budget, annual Welsh language youth culture event for Wales, held at a different venue, in a different county, each year in multiple marquees, when the performing arts including singing and poetry recital in Welsh are showcased in, I believe, a competitive format. (Click here for more).

But I failed miserably to find any version of ‘Lili wen fach’. Is there a recording I’m missing? Does Google not work so well in Welsh?SDIM8524 (2)But I did find a link from a school in Cardiff, which gives a second verse to the original single verse poem which I found on Rhodri’s blog. I think that this Cardiff school version was for the purpose of competing in the, ( or another school based?), Eisteddfod yr Urdd. But there’s no translation into English of the poem, so I had to resort to a Google translation which clearly trashed the true meaning of this second verse, if you refer to the poor English phraseology above.S1130052 (2)

‘A Winter’s tale’ finally changed my blog post title, when I discovered last night that this is the title of a poem by Dylan Thomas. Regular readers will know that having now moved into 2014, we’re in the centenary year of the birth of probably the most internationally famous Welsh poet. Thank goodness that there are recordings of Dylan Thomas reading many of his works. I was riveted as I listened to the power of his spell-weaving words and delivery in capturing the landscape, harshness and emotions of a Carmarthenshire winter from the mid C20th – not this sorry, sodden contemporary one.S1130002 (2)

He said elsewhere that:

“Words are the most important things to me. There they were, seemingly lifeless, made only of black and white, but out of them came love and terror and pity and pain. Out of them came the grunts and hiccups and heehaws of the common fun of the earth.”

A reviewer, (Christopher White), of the original recording of this “A Winter’s Tale” poem wrote that:.

“Here Thomas, the author, puts the English language through its paces, creating word images that bring us to the cold countryside, ably abetted by Thomas, the performer, whose deep and sonorous reading might bring to mind the likes of Sirs Guinness and Olivier at their best.”S1130044 (2a)

Do please follow this link, click below, for a real treat of auditory and emotional experience.

And if you do click, as I hope you will, then listen out for a jolting synchronicity of words for this piece, hidden amongst many memorable phrases, in the middle of the poem.SDIM5005 (2)

“Time sings through the intricately dead snow drop. Listen.”
 (The droplets on G. Mrs. Macnamara above, are of ice, not water.)
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(On checking the text, I don’t however think he’s referring to the snowdrop flower. But how interesting that this Carmarthenshire lad wrote and spoke all his poetry and prose in English and gained such international recognition).  
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In a fascinating and insightful discussion between the merits of the Welsh and English languages as a medium for poetry, between a contemporary Welsh poet Menna Elfyn, and a Galician poet Mario do Cebreiro, I was struck by Menna’s comments that she felt that Welsh, the older language, had a quality of sound that was akin to music whereas, to her ear, English was a more “intellectual and physical language”.
Perhaps Dylan Thomas was drawing on this rich Welsh heritage in creating something musical, sonorous and emotional from the English he chose to write in?SDIM4899 (2)For completeness I shall include a link, click here, to the official D M Thomas centenary website. Others can assess its’ clarity and promotional merits.SDIM4961 (2)
In my previous post I wrote of a new word to me – superhydrophobicity.
Last night I found the very same word being used in the latest  RHS ‘The Garden’ magazine (February 2014) in the context of a new water repelling fabric design based on the structures of the micro surfaces of nasturtium leaves. Click here for a brilliant brief Nature video link, which includes several clips of water droplets splitting and bouncing off superhydrophobic surfaces, including this new material (developed at Massachussetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, USA by Kripa Varanasi and his team), as well as water falling from leaves and butterfly wings.
In this post I’m going to discuss another newish word to me ‘resupination’.
This is the process I mentioned previously whereby an orchid flower bud rotates before opening.SDIM4969 (2)
I thought I’d include a sequence of photos which illustrate just how this happens, having made a sequence of black felt tip marks along the base of a couple of adjacent flower stems. SDIM4989 (2)This process is initiated by hormones (auxins) produced by the reproductive parts of the flower. Click here for a succinct review of resupination by one of the key researchers in this field, Joseph Arditti. Here you’ll discover that some species rotate the buds clockwise, some anticlockwise, and some alternate the direction of bud rotation as you move up a stem. How do they do that? And why?SDIM5008 (2)
Charles Darwin who’d observed this phenomenon reckoned that this rotation was to make the often well marked and spotted lip of the orchid flower available as a landing pad for pollinating insects. Arditti isn’t so sure.
Perhaps it gives more space for tightly clustered buds to open?  Perhaps it positions flowers in a way to maximise light exposure to the markings and nectar guides in the flowers?SDIM5020 (2) Perhaps by maximising sunlight exposure, the flower temperatures and subsequent release of volatile scents is increased? Resupination is considered a diagnostic feature of orchid flowers, and although found in a few other flowers – some Lobelia for example, it’s an interesting developmental adaptation.SDIM5040 (2)
Of course most of the Cymbidium cultivars now grown around the world are ‘man-made’ hybrids where this subtlety of development is academic – the pollinator’s brush could work just as well with the flower upside down.SDIM5076 (2)SDIM5082 (2)(The fully open flowers of Cymbidium Latigo ‘Cooksbridge Sunset’, brightening up the kitchen scene).
Finally, a brief update on how the compost heated greenhouse has performed so far this winter – there are several previous posts for any who’ve missed the idea and set up.SDIM5116 (2)
Clearly this winter hasn’t proved very challenging in terms of low temperatures yet, but I can report that my modifications from last year, whereby the compost heap is regularly (roughly once a week), forked over and aerated and then perhaps every other week, about a fifth of the spent material is removed, whilst topping up at one side with fresh material, is keeping all the orchids happy, including some very young pre bulb sized small specimens (and they need a minimum of about 5 degrees C).
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Inside the inner zone, I’ve connected a 10 metre section of aluminium fan ducting with occasional small piercings, to the pipe blowing hot moist air from the compost heap into the inner zone. This ducting snakes around, between the pots as shown above. This reduces any colder spots within the greenhouse inner zone, but does make temperature readings less easy to take. So no more graphs I’m afraid. And taking pictures of what things look like in the inner zone is tricky.S1130036 (2)
Within seconds of taking a camera lens inside, you can see how quickly it steams up – this also confirms how well the heat and humidity is being maintained in there.  (Addendum: – There are a lot of posts now about how this idea has developed and its implementation. If you want to find the other posts quickly, then click here).
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Finally, several more early spring flowers have just started to emerge over the last few days. This is weeks later than in recent, and much colder, winters. So perhaps a decent cold snap, or else higher light levels play some role in triggering flower emergence rather than simply day length, or temperatures above a certain level?SDIM5093 (2)SDIM5097 (2)SDIM5091 (2)Our first Iris reticulata, Crocus sieberi ‘Firefly‘, Winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis, and Scilla mischtschenkoana.
Meanwhile the Cyclamen coum continue to push up more flowers to delight. En masse. SDIM5090 (2)

9 thoughts on “A Winter’s Tale – Into the West and the Intricately Dead (Welsh) Snow Drop; Resupination; and Heating a Greenhouse with Compost (Part 10 Update).

  1. Truly a lovely post and so encouraging to those of us trapped in one of the hardest winters in recent years!

    • Hello again Larry,
      I’ve just visited your beautiful blog, but have struggled with blogger to leave a comment there, so I’ll copy it here to you!-
      Greetings from sodden West Wales. What a beautiful garden, and stunning Tiffany work you produce. It’s been a delight looking around some of your posts tonight, and appreciating your love of colour, and skill in photography. Best wishes for an early real spring, since I guess you’re under snow right now?

  2. A beautiful account and such beautiful pictures. I am surprised at how far ahead your flowers are. My Cyclamen haven’t flowered yet and the Helebore are just starting. No sign of the Iris reticulata I planted last year.

    • Hello A,
      Glad that you liked the post. And isn’t it interesting just when the same flowers emerge in different parts of the country/world. Actually we’ve had Iris reticulata out in the first week of the year, but in snow, before. I wonder how high up you are? Or close to the coast? Although we’re 800 feet up, we are only an hour from the Atlantic, and this definitely moderates our climate. But the other point I’d realised by the time I planted up this bit of the garden, is that all these early bulbs are on quite a steep slope facing directly South, and although below deciduous trees, of course no leaves at this time of the year. And as a result I’ve discovered that the temps. at ground level are usually much higher than you’d expect – particularly when the sun shines – which sadly hasn’t happened much this year yet. I did an early post on this which you might not have seen, but find interesting – https://thegardenimpressionists.wordpress.com/2011/03/08/tropical-temperatures-in-wales/
      Best wishes

  3. Lovely snaps, but what I’m most impressed with is the evolution of your compost greenhouse heating system. To get a sense of scale, can you give an indication of the compost volume verses the size of your greenhouse please? Don’t you struggle to find composting material to add to the compost in the winter season?

    • Hello Jason,
      Thanks for the kind comment.

      1: Re the greenhouse compost heating system, the well insulated compost ‘bed’ which heats the greenhouse is just under the total greenhouse width …so about 6 to 7 feet. It’s less than a metre high, and just over a metre wide. The spiral reactor pipe sits to the greenhouse gable end side of this. I’m guessing that you’ve checked out my earlier posts on this which give pics, and construct details (from about November 2012 onwards, I think). After I’d designed it I read a research piece which said that a pile should have a footprint of about 15% of the area to be heated – mine is over this, but then there’s no mention of volumes of air to be heated in this paper…

      2: Re material to fuel it, after 2 seasons I’m convinced that you do need to stockpile stuff – This year, I’ve had a couple of Big Bags from builder’s merchants which I’ve filled with chopped leaves and kept covered, and was topping them up, as leaves came off in the autumn. These are collected in the garden with our Li-ion lawnmower, and then run over again to produce nice small bits.It maybe takes an hour and a half to fill a bag with chopped leaves in autumn – this will give at least 2 to 3 top ups of my heap. The issue this year has been that we’ve had no weather from mid December to allow me to continue to do this, its too wet!! In addition green kitchen waste goes in. This generates nearly all the bulk matter.

      3: On one occasion this year, because I couldn’t process hacked back herbaceous debris because of the wet, I added it to the bed in un-mashed form. Not worth doing…it decays dramatically slower, and the end compost is of poorer quality, so again I reckon you need to plan a healthy stockpile system of processed material, as you move through the autumn.

      4: But to keep the heat up, you do need a nitrogen source – particularly over the cold weather when no grass clippings, which would be another option, run out. In addition to regular pee doses, I’ve discovered that our fairly small scale poultry set up provides enough extra nitrogen oomph to keep the whole thing working well. Any animal manure would work, I guess. Empirically I use about 1 part poultry manure to 5-6 parts chopped leaves. And again if its stockpiled in a dry place through the year, ( and builder’s bags are great for this if you can find a space for them) any manure could easily provide ‘fuel’ for the winter months.

      5:I now reckon that regular removal and addition is a key to keep the whole thing working longer term, say from October to March, which is what I shall manage this year. This does require a bit of regular physical effort, but the resulting ‘compost’ is really high quality, so is an added bonus to the heat being used.

      6: The other thing I’d worked out, but haven’t had to resort to this year, is that in very cold weather it might be worthwhile kick starting the additional material by mixing and wetting a couple of days before adding to the pile.( I use old plastic tubs – about 30 litres for manhandling the raw materials).

      7: Also I’m pretty certain that adding an extra layer of insulation underneath the black celotex covered bed top ( using ordinary sheet plastic, and some old sheets of twin wall polycarbonate), enables you to work on half the heap – removing or aerating it, whilst the other half stays covered, and so retaining heat. So now I stagger the process…. aerate and remove from one side of the heap on one day; and then move and aerate and top up the other half of the heap the following day/ weekend /whatever.

      8: BTW I forgot to say that the greenhouse is 14 feet by 8 feet, but the heated ‘inner zone’ is about 10 feet by 6 feet by 4 feet high.
      I hope that all this helps …. I’m so sold on the idea, that if I had more time, I’d already be working on something to try to heat the house …only I’d use a water filled pipe system for this,

      Best wishes

  4. Thank you for the extraordinary and touching essay. The pace with prose and photo is interesting, as if in three movements. The first, akin to Basho’s record of his Journeys to the Deep North. And approaching a soggy Winter’s end on the Northwest Pacific Coast, you have the encouragement of every plant in the Healing Garden to seize a semi-sunny day. Beautifully done.

    Next movement into the realm of etymology. In whatever language, where there are those who see the world emerge from the invisible to the visible, there are images. Where there are images, there are words. Where there are words, there are stories. We are in complete agreement. Where there are so many words for the image of the object, the object surely existed and for some reason does not any longer. Ethnobotany, botanical archeaology and genetic analysis can support your hypothesis. In the Healing Garden we find your thesis more than credible. It is likely there were snowdrops and the question is, like the Easter Islanders, where did they go and when?

    In the last movement, perhaps combining stunning photo and prose description of a long awaited sunny jaunt, with an etymological excursion, and a tour of Romanesque ductwork is to prove the identity of your muse(s). I nominate Francis Bacon, Dylan Thomas and Ben Franklin. We presume codgers serve for muses as well. Thank you for the tour de force. — The Healing Garden gardener

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