Early Birds, Show Stoppers and Painting the Garden

Picture the scene. You’ll have to, since the camera was inside as I turned from filling the watering can and spotted a robin perched on the highest point of the rusty chair’s back. Fluffing herself up (and you’ll see why I confidently state the gender) she wiggled and shook coquettishly, backlit by the rising sun. Cue her beau, flying in from the safety of the Rosa glauca hedge, stage left. The briefest of pairings, balanced precariously – a blur of shaking wings and tail feathers, before he left the scene. S1020130 (2)This performance repeated itself 3 times in quick succession before I thought go and grab the camera. Needless to say, the pair had left this curiously open, romantic, though romance is surely not an avian concept, rendezvous when I returned, but it reminded me to photograph the immaculate mossy nest tucked into the trailing ferns, which cover the old wall in front of the house, and about 15 yards away from this chair. I’d spotted this nest about a week earlier – already with very young feathered chicks in.

So, peering into the shaded recess, on April 12th, I saw a black empty hole at the nest’s centre, and cursed myself for missing the boat, or chicks, and an early brood image. I snapped a couple of pics of the nest anyway with the camcorder held at arm’s length. Later the same day, as I drank a lunchtime tea in chilly sunshine at the terrace table, I spotted the robin again nipping into the nest opening.S1020067 (2)

Just cleaning up the nest, I guessed, ready for laying another clutch. I then figured that I could get some time lapse pictures of her, or him, flying in, so set things up on the tripod for a half an hour or so, and wandered off.S1020056 (2)

In the evening, looking at the footage, I realised that the shaded empty nest’s ‘black hole centre’ was in fact the now very dark foliage of two nearly mature youngsters, hunkered down and keeping still – bird beaks lowered, not expectantly gaping; and pressing bodies firmly into the mossy cup to evade the single huge dark predatory eye investigating their vulnerable refuge. They were clearly nearly large enough to leave the nest, and were surprisingly mobile exploring beneath the wall’s ferny cloak, and popping out in screen captures at various points amongst the greenery.S1020066 (2)

But how long from mating to viable egg laying? Was it even the same pair of robins I’d seen mating, and if so, there was clearly little hanging around for a breather after rearing one brood? Can robins hold back on egg production, once mating has occurred? With many birds there is an inevitable process of egg yolk enlargement in the ovary, before the egg moves down the oviduct and finally the albumin, membranes and eggshell are laid down, with remarkable rapidity. A hugely sophisticated coordinated assembly line, glimpsed by chance a few days later.SDIM6481 (2)

Within another 7 days, 3 pale cream, brown speckled eggs had been laid in the nest (April 19th), but since then although I’ve seen the robins entering the nest, no more have been laid, and as yet they haven’t begun sitting again. Is this because of the change in weather? Or had they been bothered by my fleeting intervention? Or the recent noise and activity of two young, visiting grandchildren?S1020136 (2)

They’ve certainly been using the nearby rusty cranes as ideal perches, for a quick flight into the nest, and presented one or 2 very special photographic moments.S1020166 (3)S1020162 (3)

After many aborted efforts, we managed to pay a visit to Cardiff Flower Show this year, and what a delight, falling as it does, towards the end of April. The excellent road system now takes you on dual carriageway from the M4 West, to within just a mile of the city centre’s swish new St. David’s shopping centre, and snazzy multi-storey car park, which in turn is a bare 5 minutes walk from Cardiff Castle and Bute Park – the show’s venue. On a Sunday, with just a couple of traffic lights and roundabouts, and you’re quickly parked up. No queues at all. Compare that with hours spent in traffic jams trying to reach Tatton, or Hampton Court on previous floral show forays, let alone Fiona’s trip into London for Chelsea one year!S1020116 (2)

Greeted at the entrance by an imposing giant, wicker BFG, since the show was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Welsh born Roald Dahl, the big advantage of the timing of this show is that, obviously, there are a whole range of nurseries displaying spring flowers and plants, as well as year-round perennials like Clematis. Since these are real favourites in our garden, we had a hugely enjoyable day.S1020096 (2)

Of particular interest to me was a glimpse of the display of daffodils by Ron and Adrian Scamp, of Quality Daffodils, from Falmouth in Cornwall. S1020087 (2)They’ve won an RHS gold medal for their displays every year since 2003, and I’ve used Ron as a source of several old cultivars in recent years – though Narcissus ‘Firebrand’ is going to be one to be added for 2016. It’s not difficult to see why he’s so successful at shows, though many of the modern colour variants weren’t to my taste.S1020098 (2)

But a fantastic effort to stage this daffodil cornucopia and such a helpful chap. In particular I’ve booked a few of Ron’s latest unnamed N. poeticus seedling bulbs, second photo below (along with several others). Click here for his website, though be warned – you’re unlikely to be able to avoid buying some of the amazing range he offers, from the whole gamut of 13 types or divisions of daffodil flowers.S1020093 (2)S1020089 (2)

We were also wowed by a fabulous display of Japanese Primula sieboldii variants, from Penny’s primulas, though we suspect that the plants were brought on in polytunnels in time for the show, since our only form in the garden at present, is barely showing its leaves yet. But what a fabulous delicate and subtle early spring flower. Click here for her mail order website.S1020114 (2)

The show gardens were interesting, though obviously not on the scale of the larger flower shows, and I enjoyed seeing the woven bee hives, featured on the garden based on the ethos of the historical, local, physicians of Myddfai.S1020104 (2) Apparently the contemporary hives were sourced from Bulgaria, and one is lined both externally, and internally, with clay. The usual stalls selling any manner of gardening ornaments and sheds, as well as some outstanding artisan foodie stalls made for a brilliant day out in cool, but sunny conditions. I imagine it might well become a regular trip for us.S1020133 (2)

More unique was Fiona’s big adventure up to London with a friend to see the Royal Academy’s recent exhibition “Painting The Modern Garden”.  An exploration of impressionist painter-gardeners, and majoring on the work of Claude Monet, and his iconic garden at Giverny, it was clearly a must visit for us, as the self styled ‘Garden Impressionists’. Except that I’m not a great one for big exhibitions, preferring to study and read at my leisure, removed from the crowds. So, for me, the accompanying book which Fiona was kind enough to return with, is a delight, and one I can thoroughly recommend to anyone unable to have visited the actual exhibition. Many fabulous works of art are featured, and some by painters I was completely unfamiliar with. As well as much background history to the gardens, artists, and impressionists’ movement. The exhibition, although now closed, is currently being screened as a film event at cinemas internationally and in the UK, and will almost certainly be made available as a DVD in due course – one for my wish list. Click here for more.S1000002 (2)

There are several chapters including a particularly interesting one for me (Painting with Plants), taking the form of an interview between Monty Don and the current head gardener at Giverny, Englishman James Priest. The concept of painting with plants is one which I’ve become a bit obsessed with over the last few years, in trying to move our garden forwards. And at no time does it seem more like a slow-motion artistic endeavour, than during spring, when bulbs constitute your paint box or palette.SDIM6359 (2)

But unfortunately, whilst catalogues can be scoured, and bulbs sourced (apparently Monet was an inveterate catalogue reader, ever alert to the latest introductions), the issues of creating the desired visual feast can be stymied by variations in flowering times, heights and vigour, which are often difficult concepts to communicate via a written and even well photographed catalogue, where one bulb is not shown growing next to another.SDIM6387 (2) So probably nothing beats visiting other gardens in the locality, or better still, trial and error, as with one of our trial areas for older daffodil forms, above. But this all takes time, and I mean years, since one only has a single shot at it each spring, and a modest amount of money.SDIM6453 (2)

Monet was fortunate to spend 43 gardening years at Giverny, and latterly was sufficiently successful commercially, as an artist, to employ a team of gardeners. None of us can ever hope to attain the heights of his impressionistic plantings, but occasionally, when the conditions are favourable, I see little vignettes which make all the hard work involved in creating and tending a garden seem worthwhile.SDIM6393 (2) Nearly always the best of these in our garden are at this time of the year, and along with all the physical effort put into this place over the last month –SDIM6417 (2)– mainly in the fields, not the garden (more next time), such moments can be savoured, and built on in one’s mind eye, or revisited through not so subtle, photographic records.S1020011 (2)

The spring bulbs’ paint has nearly dried for this year, and another layer of embellishment, or blending, or blurring, can be planned for another subterranean splurge this autumn.SDIM6477 (2)S1020150 (2)

Actually this is not entirely true – my idea from last year of buying surplus bulbs (tulips and some daffodils), and planting them elsewhere to be moved to just the right place in the green, right now, shows definite promise for finessing planting schemes – these are more such trial, or temporary beds, below.SDIM6391 (2)SDIM6388 (2) Particularly useful if one is driven, as I seem to increasingly be, towards multi-layered, or intermingling planting mixes.SDIM6433 (2)

These N. ‘Merlin’ daffodils, planted a dozen to a big pot in home made loosely filled compost, could be knocked out with little root disturbance, and seem to have suffered much less than moving snowdrops in the green, where the bulbs are wrenched from firm soil.S1000004 (2)

I should record in this strange, cold, and often windy month which has been the worst I can recall for early season pollinators, that the cuckoo arrived significantly early on April 12th, followed unusually late, by 3 swallows a week later.S1020124

A Damselfly rashly emerged in mid April, as did a tail less lizard.SDIM6468 (2) And quickly realised, that hibernation was perhaps a safer option for now, as the snow returned in the last week of the month, for some of the most gorgeous impressionistic and suitably fleeting spring scenes.S1000015 (2)S1000025 (3)S1000004

17 thoughts on “Early Birds, Show Stoppers and Painting the Garden

  1. We also went to Cardiff and thoroughly enjoyed it, particularly Primula sieboldii I don’t find them easy to grow they survive but not thrive I shall be interested to see where you have planted yours when we visit in May.
    Fantastic photography of Robins.

    • Thanks Liz,
      I’m still mulling over where to plant them – in a way I think we should have been warned not to put them outside straight away, since the foliage is clearly very tender still, but the display was stunning , wasn’t it?
      I can see they’ll need to add more seating next year at the show…this was our only criticism – nowhere to sit to eat lunch.. but otherwise a brilliant day out,
      see you in May? with Llechryd GC?
      Best wishes

  2. Julian, It is like having a chance to return to Wales, reading your garden blog ! I love seeing your spring, and oh, the tulips!! I cannot have tulips here in central Oregon, they are like candy to our white tailed deer, who roam at will throughout the town. I do have a good variety of daffodils, though, and for me, that IS spring! I will write down the book to check out at a later date, as I watch our robins outside the house. Our robins are thrushes, and large, yours are much cuter… and I never forget that a robin showed Mary Lennox the door of the secret garden! Best wishes, Suzette

    • Hello Suzette,
      Lovely to hear from you. I love spring…and I suspect might never see snow on tulips again, so I took loads of pics! What a shame you can’t grow them…but then again daffodils are so lovely and much more reliable for us too, which is why we keep planting more!! I had no idea American robins were bigger…and I must ask Fiona about the secret garden door…
      Fiona is in at the quilt centre tomorrow, with their new exhibition – I’m sure you’d both love it …if you have a look at their website, I think they have some pics shown. Enjoy your Oregon spring…
      Best wishes

  3. Another wonderful post with great photographs of your wonderful garden. I missed the London exhibition due to family being here on holiday but I can always come and visit you and see a ‘real’ impressionist garden! With reference to your correspondent Suzette’s comment about the Secret Garden- it is one of my favourite books and although a children’s book it is really well worth a read! Thank you for sharing the delights of your garden.

    • Thanks for the very kind comment, Marianne. I think the DVD of the exhibition will be well worth looking out for…Fiona loved the real thing, but I have to say that West Wales gardens are lovely right now, and some days like when the snow fell on the tulips, I thought that you can’t beat actually being there, in the moment – similarly we were at Aberglasney later on Wednesday, and loved it…particularly those 2 enormous white flowering cherries.
      I’ve just revisited some favourite Oscar Wilde stories with some of the grandchildren ( which I have very fond memorie sof from my childhood)…but I never read The Secret Garden… I clearly need to!
      Enjoy your bank holiday,
      Best wishes

      • Thank you for your reply Julian. The cherry trees are beautiful and I’ve never seen them so floriferous. We’ve been to Dinefwr today and the woods are BLUE! The bluebells are a few days away from peak viewing but stunning all the same- aren’t we fortunate to live in such a lovely area. Oscar Wilde stories – another favourite of mine- you can’t beat the old ones!! Bank Holiday may see me planting some plants- I haven’t started yet! Happy Holiday.

  4. Beautiful post! Daffodils and tulips are my spring favorites. I loved the story about the chicks in the nest. They do look big, and hide themselves well. European robin is a brave and curious bird. Their American cousins are rather shy. Thank you for sharing your amazing photographs!

  5. I so much admire the way that you manage to combine a gardener’s practicality with your impressionistic/painterly visions! The holding area for spare bulbs is an excellent one that I may borrow from you (or take!) I wonder if Ron Scamp does idents? I have two daffodils which I brought from an old walled garden behind us in Buckinghamshire. I treasure them for their grace, but don’t know their names (one is rather like ‘Firebrand’). Unfortunately too late for this year – but thanks so much for putting the idea in my head! Such a wonderful garden you have (the cranes and the tulips!). Thanks for sharing.

    • Hello Cathy,
      Do try the spare bulbs idea… even with really good photos, it’s impossible to add in extra bulbs into mixed plantings, unless you do it in the green…or at least, I can’t manage it! But I think loose planting in open compost probably helps with the subsequent replanting in the spring.
      I would try Ron Scamp with photos – I didn’t mention that I’d taken along pics of 2 old varieties I’d recently found in a nearby old garden to the show and he had a go at identifying them, and has previously identified ” Merlin” – now a firm favourite of ours, from a pic I sent him. A promise of a bulb purchase in due course might help as well …I know he’s really busy at present processing orders from spring shows, but has always been very helpful with my queries. I’m guessing he would send bulbs to France?
      Best wishes

      • What excellent ideas you’ve given me Julian (on top of relishing your blog as well!) I’m moving quite a few bulbs into a cut flower area this year and next spring I will try to sort out the ident with Ron Scamp (an order will, as you diplomatically suggest, help a great deal!). Also the ‘in the green’ moving. Perfect!

  6. Hi Julian, wonderful post as always, loved the sneaky peeks into your Robins nest, we have Robins nesting in our potting shed, so looked up how long it would be from eggs laying – one per day usually in the morning, 13 days to hatch then 14 days to fledging according to the RSPB,
    I’m looking forward to reclaiming my shed, but in the meantime we are just watching the adults flying in with food in their beaks.
    The Cardiff show looks good, I’ve not had the chance to visit before and looks a lot more civilised to visit than the London shows, like you I struggle with the crowds, Fiona’s gift is perfect for you, was there a TV programme on Monty Don and James Priest, this sounds familiar.
    Your garden looks so beautiful too with April snow – we have seen swallows, but no yet heard a cuckoo here. Hope May brings some warm sunshine for you.

    • Hello Julie,
      Thanks for the comment, and in particular the robin information. I think the second clutch of eggs has been abandoned, and I haven’t seen them flying in, of late. Mind you we now have 2 magpie nests around the garden, so any small birds will struggle now I guess, with escaping their eagle eyes. Good luck with your robins – they are such wonderful birds to have around…so ‘tame’ with us when working….but as soon as they spot a threatening camera lens…they’re off!
      As you gathered, I really enjoyed the Cardiff event – helped of course by the weather, but being able to get in and out so easily is such a boon – I hope it can manage to stay so enjoyable as it grows …apparently visitor numbers have grown every year, and were a new record in 2016 at 26,000 – small beer compared with the mega shows, which is probably why it’s still enjoyable!
      Not having TV , I don’t know about the MD/JP programme …we’re currently wondering whether we make a return visit to Giverny, about 10 years after our initial hugely influential trip on a hot early May day. Would we be disappointed , or thrilled?? Apparently visitor numbers there have increased every year, and it was pretty busy last time.
      The garden has looked lovely this spring – the snow was a wonderful temporary bonus …but at last I see there should be some proper warm sunshine this weekend – I noticed yesterday that we’ve lost most of our crab apple blossom with a late frost – the first time this has happened since the tree was planted…
      Best wishes and have a good week,

  7. Seeing your photographs I feel you have already arrived at you aim to create an Impressionist garden. In addition, you are taking hard and truthful photographs. I am sure painters would exercise their right to alter artistically wherever they felt the need. I was very interested in the camouflage of the robins. It is impossible to hide two young birds in a nest (?). I love to see the impossible become possible! Amelia

    • Thanks Amelia,
      Just back from a week in France..hence the delay. A very kind comment, but not sure about the truthful photos… one is inevitably selective – there haven’t been any pics of my weedy veg area yet!!
      But an interesting point about artistic licence, which I’ll illustrate with pics in my next post. A return visit to Giverny was a disaster/nightmare/ enlightening/wonderful….depending on whether just cropped photos, or the description of the visitor experiences are included ….
      I was amazed by the camouflage in the nest too. If you fancy another amazing image, follow this link sent to me last week by a friend ( Colin) to a remotely taken video of his, taken under his bridge of a nest box and preening dipper, and its amazing evasive action…
      That’s the impossible being caught on camera…
      Best wishes
      [video src="https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/11198667/cap_160506_200548.mp4" /]

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