The extraordinary sunny, dry and chilly, start to April, deserves a burst of photos. Only 14 mm of rain has fallen by the 24th.
The Rhododendrons are late – R. ‘Bruce Brechtbill’.The Amelanchiers have the fewest flowers for years.The Camellias are putting on their best display ever for us.The Magnolia stellata glows. And as always, I struggle to wonder why there are such variations in timing and performance of different flowering shrubs and trees, exposed to the same climatic conditions.
The late daffodils, based increasingly around more reliably flowering forms of Narcissus poeticus hybrids, fill the garden with masses of predominantly white flowers and scent to complement all the new foliage slowly beginning to emerge.The chopping back of the white honesty, Lunaria annua var. alba, around the start of the new year, deemed necessary, since no frost had killed the top growth for us, has rewarded us with more flowers, on shorter multi-stems, and less shading of bulb foliage from fewer leaves. Worth repeating next year.
And in the recently renamed multicultural magic terrace garden, the massed Tulipa ‘Flaming Purissima’ have a special luminosity, when viewed with bright back light highlighting the variably coloured petals. Yesterday they were peaking – petals having grown so much that you wonder how they will ever manage to return from their near horizontal gape at dusk, though they do. In this state, a flower level perspective in a chilly brisk breeze creates quite a different vista. I lay on the warmed stone slabs, and the wide waterlily-like, flopping flower globes, danced amongst the more static fading spires of the Muscari and base layer mossy Saxifrage, which is just beginning to flower.
Remember this in autumn – Julian, it’s worth slogging with a digging bar to experience magic moments like this!
Light relief indeed, and beneficial extension back stretching after some serious log shifting, as we’ve attempted to clear a couple of logged up, old, centrally rotted ash, from our steep meadow banks whilst the ground is firm, and the grass dry and short. And years too late, we’ve switched to splitting logs whilst green. It’s so much easier to do, and they dry out so much better. Our whole wood storage system is having to be rethought. And I’ve found filling big bags with just enough chipped brash, so that you can pull them from side to side, is a pretty good way in weather conditions like this to dry the contents sufficiently to stablilise them, and prevent heating up and degradation. A whole range of options await a valuable bonus resource like this, if they can reach a sufficiently dry state. 2 years ago, I was chopping up soft rushes in similar conditions. Few rushes now remain. Big tarpaulins were on hand for the 24th, when drizzle finally returned, to cover over the 30 or so bags.
But back to look at the tulips, and you’ll perhaps spot a problem with this type of massed planting (well at least one problem).The newly planted bulbs fresh from the enriched and well fertilised Dutch bulb fields, are like athletes on steroids. Uniform, big and blowsy, well, maybe not quite like athletes.Left in our impoverished shale and concrete, the following year several won’t return, I never know why, and those that do flower again are later, smaller, and indeed variable in stature. I do though much prefer this more random effect. But over say 5 years, even these hardier bulbs will gradually fade away in numbers, so how to top up without introducing more bruising, hyped up youngsters?
Pondering this for a while I’ve resolved to buy in more bulbs this year, and grow them in sunken plastic mushroom baskets in a big bag. As the foliage starts to brown off, I’ll then lift and split the multiplied and now smaller offspring from the parent bulb – since in part this is why the flowers are never as big in subsequent years – and plant the biggest in the green (or more accurately brown), in places on the terrace which are a bit thin with fading tulip foliage. The smaller bulbs will be replanted in a big bag to hopefully keep the process going in perpetuity.
Whether because we have a viable honey bee hive in the garden in April for the first time, or whether a single bee had an unusual appreciation of tulip pollen smell or consistency, I’ve never before seen a honeybee carefully sitting astride a tulip stamen, and stroking off the black pollen into fat balls on its hind legs, and then visiting more tulips. Normally the tulip visual feast for a weary gardener’s eyes, are an insect free zone.
Unlike the Skimmia japonica ‘Kew Green’. This is always reliably buzzing with a mass of honeybees, as the early Pieris flowers finish. If you grow just one male Pieris, this is the one I would recommend. The honeyed scent from the open flowers fills the air around the plant even on a chilly day. I do worry that well known gardening authors (the most recent being the otherwise excellent Mark Diacono), suggest plants for pollinators that very rarely get insect visits from the bees (bumble or honey), in our garden – the latest being Mark’s suggestion in the Saturday Telegraph of primroses and daffodils for spring pollinator appeal.
Do any other gardeners find these flowers buzzing with bees on a sunny day?
Eventually this year, with all our thousands of daffodil flowers, I managed a single photo of a solitary bee collecting pollen from Narcissus ‘Thalia’. With us, primroses (and cowslips) are usually the private domain of the pretty Dark-edged Bee fly, Bombylius major. Our bees give the primroses a wide berth. So presumably our other flower options are more highly regarded.Out in the fields, the top hay meadow is starting to come alive. Common Dog-violets, Viola riviniana, are blooming on the dry bank. The first Lady’s Smock flowers, Cardamine pratensis, are appearing.And our bank of cowslips, Primula veris, are in full bloom, to the delight of bumble bees and Bee flies. Grass is just beginning to grow, and my efforts with Yellow rattle, Rhinanthus minor, seed collection last year are clearly obvious, with vigorous new annual seedlings pushing through the mossy turf. But have I even overdone it? Having let the sheep graze the field into late February, the grass was pretty short to allow good rattle seed germination, but there are areas where the emerging shoots completely cover the ground. Anyone fascinated by traditional meadows would, I’m sure, love reading the book ” Meadowland” by John Lewis-Stempel. This is a fabulously written, and beautifully observed account of a year in the life of his Herefordshire traditional hay meadow, set on the very boundary of East Wales. No photos at all, but some lovely woodcut type illustrations.
As I am discovering, to quote the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh,
“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience”.
And on this theme of meadows, I shall mention for the first time a hopefully exciting initiative to create a Carmarthenshire Meadows Group, (CMG). An inaugural meeting took place a few weeks ago at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, and there were sufficient interested landowners present, who lament the loss of such wonderful environments. Less than 2% of such permanent grass meadow land use remains in the UK, compared with 50 years ago, and there are currently no records of where such plots exist in this county. It’s hoped that a group will be created to help raise awareness of their benefits to man, beasts and wider diversity, and share knowledge of how best to preserve or restore the few examples that are left. I’ll update when more news is available.
We’re still trying to assess optimum sheep numbers to help us manage our meadows in a sympathetic way, and one new task recently was taking the plunge to do a bit of horn modification for our Tor Ddu ram, ‘Doublet’. I shan’t show any images of the actual process since it was an all-hands-on-deck process, so just some after the event shots, to show he seemed to bear us no grudges. But imagine the scene. A thick wet towel and leather gauntlet covering his left ear and eye, where the horn tip was slowly growing inwards, to impale his eyeball. A gloved up Fiona, and our much used old 1400 Watt Black and Decker electric paint stripper, being played onto a small section of the horn. We’d been warned by a couple of local old hands, who’d performed this task on their own rams, that the trick was to heat the horn until the surface just started to bubble.
And then with gloved hands, or a pipe wrench, to heave.
I chose the former, and by trial and error, after a few attempts, and a huge amount of force, (and wondering whether one could even pull a sheep’s horn off the skull), I’d managed to deviate the horn angle sufficiently, to hopefully avoid any facial damage caused by its continual growth. We shall see.
There are few records of this online, but it’s obviously an occasionally performed procedure by serious local sheep farmers. There is the issue of whether one should be doing this to a breeding ram. Will it not pass on genes for similar problems to its progeny? As a breed, Tor ddu’s have been developed quite recently from a presumably fairly small initial gene pool. It does seem to me that if one keeps your own ram lamb when possible, you do at least know its’ entire history – single/twin; from a placid or flighty ewe; (serious or minor horn deviations), rather than the unknown issues which might be acquired with a bought in animal.
I have to say that Doublet was impeccably behaved throughout the horn bending, as indeed was Fiona, who held the head firmly, and warned me when her gloved hands were feeling the heat. And told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to pause for a bit.
Finally, just before the predicted rain materialised at last, I began selective weed wiping of soft rush in our wet valley bottom meadows.
I was encouraged to hear from a professional manager of small meadows and wilder terrain at the CMG meeting, that there are conditions when she has to resort to chemical use to manage certain weeds. Our own experience is that without a selective weed killer, our fields would still be shoulder high soft rush, Juncus effusus, mono-culture. So using a small window wiper, with terry nappy wrapped around for extra absorbency, I set to work, with two sessions of tedium ahead of me.The key is selective wiping, not spraying, which would take out all the interesting wild flowers which are beginning to r- emerge. So after about 4 hours’ worth of slow walking of the ditches, through about 7 acres, and then the upper pond field, I had all the emerging new soft rush growth covered. The regrowth in the fields themselves needs a little more growth before wiping – ideally 4 to 5 inches above grass level. This whole selective, though time consuming, process uses minimal chemical.
And is this ludditic effort worth it? Absolutely, when the slash of a close range Goldcrest’s, Regulus regulus, punk hair do, grabs your attention from the lower branches of a grown from seed Dawn Redwood.
And then you find a new flowering plant colonising the basal peat of those simple ditches that we dug out last autumn, and I wrote about in ‘As Dull as Ditch Water’ (Click here for details).
I later identified it as Round-leaved Crowfoot, Ranunculus omiophyllus. I’m guessing that seeds had lain dormant in the peat for decades, waiting for exposure to air and light to burst into action. I’m sure many more new discoveries await us in the years ahead in this meadow.After being lulled by the backdrop low trilling of a grasshopper warbler, unseen nearby, I spotted a little brown flash from the side of a South facing ditch bank, topped with emerging bluebells and on closer inspection, at ankle level, discover a small nest complete with a clutch of 4 tiny buff cream, flecked eggs. Possibly a warbler’s nest? Or Chiff Chaff? I’m afraid my bird identification skills are very limited. But how’s this for camouflage? Concentrate on the small vertical fern leaf centre bottom.
We had to ask Dave to confirm that a nest Fiona inadvertently exposed when clearing a rampant honeysuckle from the wire netting support for a rose, was occupied by a song thrush, which apparently are much rarer in these parts than their mistle thrush cousins. At the time of first discovery it contained 3 of the most gorgeous blue turquoise eggs with black flecks. Fiona added some temporary additional greenery to one side, and the eggs hatched a few days later, but when I checked this morning, the ever present magpies, jays or carrion crows must have raided – the hen had left, and the nest was bare, revealing the superbly smooth mud lined bowl.
And of added interest, though perhaps not the best choice of adornment if one were wanting to conceal a nest, were these bright pink seeds, worked into the mossy external wall. Crocosmia perhaps? Or Euonymus? Any other ideas? And why include them? Are thrushes colour blind?
And finally, the last week has seen two more key spring marker events. On the 22nd, the first male Orange-tip butterfly, Anthocharis cardamines, was spotted in the garden, pausing on its favourite Aubrieta, for a fuel stop.Then last night, the 26th, the much anticipated first Cuckoo of 2015, was heard in the valley.
What chance of an election campaign grabbing my attention?