A fabulous week of warm sunny weather here, has straddled the passage from spring to summer, May to June. Quite different to the 43 mm of rain in 24 hours with which June 2015 began, or indeed the torrential rain and currently swollen river Seine in Paris, which threatens to be the third most serious flooding ever in the city, following on from lightning strikes on a picnic party in the Parc Monceau. We were indeed fortunate to have visited when we did, and not 3 weeks later.
Event records, whether with words, still, or video footage, do give a clarity of detail above the vague memories of a previous season or month. Last year, we had Common redstarts, Phoenicurus phoenicurus, nesting outside the Velux window – this year it’s just plain House sparrows, Passer domesticus. The garden was filled with mellifluous Garden warbler, Sylvia borin, song for much of last summer, this year we only glimpse snatches of the melody whilst circuiting the bottom meadows’ hedges.However, the cuckoo, Cuculus canorus, has again been a constant daily backdrop sound to our time outside, though we’re now well past its peak season, and if we’re lucky, we still catch a brief stanza first thing in the morning when we open the doors up and the intermittent summer couplets drift across the hazy valley.
I must also record that, after I reflected on the extreme disappointment of a revisit to Giverny in my last post, I can now record my shock at the discovery of the fate of Korean ‘artist’ AHAE, whose exhibition in Paris entitled ‘Through My Window‘, we visited 4 years ago. Click here for my thoughts about this stunning exhibition. Reflecting on the merits of recording events in a single place, over a protracted period, has helped me back to the keyboard on many occasions over the years, to trace the thread of life which runs through this rural scene. Or click here to find an incredibly detailed history of Yoo Byung-eun, aka AHAE, and the web of complexity and intrigue which enveloped his life and death.
Yoo Byung-eun – the ‘millionaire with no face’, artist, photographer, committed ecologist, inventor with nearly a thousand patents to his name – or the most wanted Korean criminal, with links to dodgy companies and a religious sect leader, whose seriously decomposed body was eventually found in a field after a nationwide man hunt associated with the Korean ferry, MV Sewol, disaster of 2014. I knew none of the above until a week ago.
I hope I can reassure readers that there aren’t so many secret skeletons lurking in my closet, but notwithstanding these two recent knocks to significant creative inspirations, this show goes on, in part because of the witnessed minutiae of rural life here, which constantly surprise and delight me.
At the peak of our late lambing season, I checked on the ewes last thing, on a night of warm stillness. The sheep were noisy – never a good sign, and as I swept the field with the powerful torch beam, from beside the in bloom Rhododendron loderi ‘King George’, I could see the main culprit was Marie, the next ewe due to lamb, bleating from beneath the zelkovas at the bottom of the field. Others answered, and then as I swung the beam North, a young fox headed towards me across the dewy grass. Cutting a slow path between 2 recumbent ewes with young lambs, he, or she, kept coming towards me, tapetally locked on the beam until about 10 yards away.
I stood still.
The fox stopped.
We held each other’s gaze, for what seemed a really long time – though probably he was transfixed by the very bright LED beam.
Perhaps no scent carried on a still night?
What was this strange, bright and very close, horizontal moon?
Then with no apparent concerns, the fox padded nonchalantly off down the hill, with occasional sniffing of the dampening grass, weaving gently in Marie’s general direction, before peeling away up the valley. The lambs escaped, though Marie later needed great assistance with a very stuck Flambard, (head out, 1 leg engaged, but the other flexed hard back at the shoulder and immovable), before Flycatcher slithered, unaided, into the world moments later onto the still dry zelkova leaves. Maybe a subtle clue of a sheltered spot, as good as any, for nocturnal deliveries. Still remarkable that within 15 minutes both lambs were up and suckling, albeit on wobbly wet legs. By the morning, they looked a little stronger.3 weeks later and you’d never have guessed their tricky arrival into this world, as they practised synchronized leaping.
Immediately after giving birth, Marie’s vocalisations had changed, from noisy concern, and pain, to the deeper, satisfied, and quieter grumbling chunter, as maternal instinct kicked in and the warm, residual wetness of the womb, was licked off steaming white wool and ginger kemp, to welcome the newborns into the harsh reality of a colder, and for now, drier place.
The hot dry weather has meant that I’m up to speed on the annual path and yard weed control. Salt and liquid washing detergent, are now my most effective and preferred option (750 grams salt and 1 dessert spoon of washing detergent, into a watering can of hot water for any interested), and whilst applying this carefully down one of the terrace’s crushed slate paths, an aberrant pattern and colour caught my eye. A small, novel, caterpillar basking on the edge of a London pride leaf, Saxifraga × urbium, turned out to be that of the Narrow-bordered five-spot burnet moth, Zygaena lonicerae, (I think), and if you look closely, you can spot the Bird’s-foot trefoil, Lotus corniculatus, leaf close by, which is the moth’s larval food plant. Soon to pupate, the emerged adults should, with luck, be on the wing for the last garden open day we plan to hold this year, on Saturday July 2nd, as part of the National Meadows Day events for 2016. See the visiting the garden page for further details, if you’d like to come.
The same curving, blue grey path guided a different, unscheduled group of garden visitors last week. About to leave the front door for an evening stock check, I saw 4 Canada geese, Branta canadensis, heads bobbing in single file, from right to left. As they moved past the table, the bodies appeared from behind the terrace’s floral screen, together with 6 accompanying goslings.
Systematically exploring all parts of the garden, it took us about 45 minutes to gently herd them out of the garden, and back down the track, towards the neighbouring fields and ponds they’d wandered up from.
Just before bedtime this week we heard an intermittent high pitched piping sound from somewhere in the kitchen. Was it a bird? Or a bat? In this lovely weather we leave the doors open all day, so something could have flown in, but try as we might, we couldn’t pinpoint the culprit. So closed the internal kitchen doors, overnight.
With so many novelties we were at least prepared for one of two phone calls which came early on Bank Holiday Monday. It was from Claire Takacs who is an Australian garden and landscape photographer of international renown. Her name rang a vague bell, and then I remembered why. Scroll down through her list of stunning awarded images, click here, in the International Garden Photographer of the Year competition, and you’ll see that she won this prestigious global competition, in its inaugural year, 2008, with a beautiful scene taken of snow falling in a Japananese garden, which I remember vividly from when it was first published. And you’ll also see that she manages to take stunning photos from all round the world, so what a thrill to have her visit Gelli Uchaf, for some Welsh garden images. Many thanks to Noel Kingsbury, who helped to organise this visit at very short notice.
We’d all been scanning the weather forecasts, and Claire brought forward her initial, later date, since the forecasts for that had changed, to look less promising. So, a final bit of morning garden titivating was in order, before Claire arrived at tea time. I quickly showed her round the garden, Fiona made a cup of tea, I hoiked out the step ladders and then she was off.It perhaps should come as no surprise that one doesn’t produce a portfolio of such outstanding work without a considerable amount of flair, but also, huge dedication and determination. Claire finally paused for supper at about 9 pm, having needed a 3 hour drive to reach us, by which time the light, which had been glorious all day, was fading.
Setting her alarm for 4.30 am, I fortunately remembered to leave our midge repellant spray out for her, before bedtime, and when I surfaced at 6.30 am, she was so engrossed that she didn’t pause even for a cup of coffee, before 7.45 am. By 9.15 am, when many might be thinking about starting the day, she’d finished. I’m sure that she’ll have some wonderful pictures, since the garden was looking as lovely as it ever has, and thanks to her determination in getting to us at short notice, the light was near perfect too. Apparently Australian light is too harsh for much of the year, which is why she loves travelling the world, looking at such a diverse range of gardens and landscapes.
Quite when the images ever get published is entirely outside her control. Noel will write some words, and hopefully a magazine might feature it sometime, but Claire has been generous enough to say that once she has processed and whittled the images down to a manageable portfolio, she’ll send us a link to them on Dropbox. Understandably, I sadly can’t share these on line, but Claire has very kindly said that we can get them printed up, if we wish. What a fabulous record of a special moment in time – before the phone call, I’d sat outside with a morning cuppa to read the paper, but become so enchanted by the light, sights and sounds, that I’d grabbed my camera and wandered round the garden. E.A. Bowles was once quoted as saying that were he to be granted 3 wishes, one wish would be to stop the clock on a warm, sunny day in the last week of May, in a British garden.
I’m inclined to agree.
Before she left Carmarthenshire, I was able to show Claire some of the wonderful meadows at Cwmdu, and hope to be able to persuade her back to photograph these sometime, since the light and meadows were still not at their peak of floral splendour.
Many thanks indeed to her for coming to visit our little hillside garden on such a special day. As is often the case, such events trigger a line of thought – one question that Claire ran past us before she started work was
“What are your favourite dozen plants?”
We started writing down those which we both felt were key elements in how the garden looked right now – and found we had far too many. So eventually we whittled them down to the requisite dozen. But even just a week before, or a week later, and the list would have been different, such is the speed of change in the garden at this time of the year.
However, I then thought that such a record, since I rarely include many plant names in my blogs, might be a useful guide to how we’ve worked towards creating interest in the garden throughout the year. So I’m starting with this first dozen below, and will set up a separate page on the blog to record these, as the Gelli Uchaf Plant Palette, click here, and include a little background detail, explaining why we like each of them.
1: Aquilegia vulgaris. The sort of plant we love, since almost none of those currently in the garden have been planted, they’ve just grown from seed we’ve saved and scattered. For a good six weeks they light up the garden with colour – historically we’ve favoured dark blue or purple forms, but as with much of our planting, I’m becoming less of a control freak, and pinks and even the odd red now creep in. It’s a brilliant, favoured nectar source for many bumblebee species as well, though honeybees only rarely visit the flowers. It also associates so well with other cottage garden type flowers, and slugs and rabbits don’t touch it either. A short lived perennial, you do need to leave some seed to fall, or it will die out eventually. Is it a thug? We don’t think so.
2: Clematis montana ‘Broughton Star’. One of the first Clematis we planted at Gelli, we love both the purple green foliage and its masses of red pink, semi-double flowers. For just over a month it’s a star performer in our terrace garden, and I’ve even managed to propagate this cultivar from cuttings, so have a few plants around the property. BUT, it’s the classical example of an appealing-to-humans, hybrid, whilst being an almost insect free zone. In one location, we have it scrambling over a wall, and largely hiding a Cotoneaster horizontalis. When this blooms, briefly, the wasps, bumbles and honeybees descend in hordes onto the Cotoneaster’s tiny and insignificant flowers, hidden amongst the splendid Clematis, and the terrace hums.
3: The Welsh poppy, Meconopsis cambrica . Similar to Aquilegia, a vigorous seeding native, short lived, perennial with big insect appeal. Lovely yellow, and occasionally orange, papery flowers. If you can be bothered to dead head them, it extends the season, but you usually get at least 8 weeks of flowers from it anyway. Scatter the seed anywhere, and see where it pops up. You have little control over where it appears, but if sown in profusion amongst other plants it never dominates. A brilliant lesson learned for relaxed gardeners – I used to rip up all the orange forms. I never won the battle, and now relish the informality of where they appear. They also look particularly lovely flowering amongst Bowles’ golden sedge, Carex elata ‘Aurea’, which narrowly missed this rather arbitrary cut, for this time of the year.
4: Sea Campion, Silene uniflora. Another native plant which we love. A very long lived perennial, which usually flowers continuously from late April, through to September or even October. Grey green foliage, we always grow it from scattered seed, which survives in the poorest conditions, in at least sunshine for part of the day. For example amongst the cobbles along our front path. A coastal native it’s a brilliant nectar source for many moths, bumblebees and other insects, and the foliage survives through all but the harshest winter months. Scatter some of this along the fringes of all those paved urban front gardens and it would work wonders for our native insects.
5: London Pride, Saxifraga x urbium A common plant, but brilliant ground cover. Bulbs can grow through it, and it co-exists well with Purple bugle, Ajuga reptans ‘ Burgundy Glow’, which is another favourite, but reaching the end of its period of flower in early June. Today, in sultry weather, the tiny Saxifrage flowers were covered with honey bees, red faced from the Saxifrage’s pollen. It does just as well in dry shade, as full sun, with us here.
6: Oxalis oregana f. smalliana. Another wonderful ground cover for a shady spot. A native of North American redwood forests, it spreads fairly slowly with us beneath mature larch trees, and coexists with our native wood sorrel, Oxalis acetosella. But as you can see, the leaves and flowers are at least twice the size of that, and it seems capable of growing right up to the base of tree or shrub bases, giving larger, pink flowers over about 2 months, and attractive leaves throughout the season. Cyclamen hederifolium looks good with it, and the purple leaves and flowers of Labradorean violets, Viola labradorica.
7: Acer linearilobium. We grow a few Acers, and late May is one of their best seasons as the new leaves emerge. Many have been grown from seed, but this bought in, medium sized species, is one with a lovely new leaf colour and shape.
8: Dame’s Violet/Sweet Rocket, Hespera matronalis. A short lived perennial or biennial, which we grow in its white form. It fulfils the role of white honesty, Lunaria annua var. alba, earlier in the year, by adding white flowers amongst more highly coloured plants and the diverse greens of late spring foliage. In addition it has a wonderful scent and if grown in sunny spots is a great nectar source for many insects. But if performs just as well in part shade. Unfortunately it doesn’t seed as prolifically as honesty, and seedlings are a bit prone to slug damage, so it may be best to sow in pots or a nursery bed and plant out as small plants.
9: Azalea mollis ‘Persil’. Late May and early June is the 3 week season for deciduous scented Azaleas here. This is a white, with yellow throated, form of the medium sized shrub, which flowers reliably and has a good scent. Always enjoyed when in flower.
10: Primula japonica. We grew all these Primula from collected seed and think it’s a form of P. japonica. It’s a stunning magenta colou,r and flowers before any of our other Primulas, reaching its peak at the end of May. Produces masses of seed, but individual plants are fairly short lived, and it seems to move away from areas where it has been growing thickly after just a few years. It also has minimal insect appeal, but is still a firm and reliable favourite, and a plant which glows whatever the weather.
11: Pyrenean valerian, Valeriana pyrenaica . Quite a recent addition to the garden it has a valuable role in giving colour, height and scent over a 3 to 4 week period, and associates well with Aquilegia. It’s visited by honeybees and some bumbles, and is slug resistant. The only caveats are that it seeds prolifically, which can be blown about like dandelion seed and so it’s probably best to dead head many of the plants after flowering. It also becomes quite a wide based plant, so has potential to shade out smaller early spring bulbs. But in damp part shade it’s a great plant for us when used in drifts, and any unwanted seedling plants are easy to pull up, or move around.
12: Saxifraga fortunei rubrifolia. One of our favourite plants throughout the year. Many visitors think that it’s a Heuchera when seen at this time of the year. The foliage looks attractive, with olive green upper leaf surfaces with pinky purple undersides. It’s very effective ground cover, emerging late enough to give very early spring bulbs a chance if planted amongst it. It survives in quite deep shade, or full sun, provided it doesn’t get really dry (rarely a problem here). So we enjoy it for most of the year, and then its star turn occurs in September and October or even into November, when it explodes into flower spikes with thousands of tiny white Saxifrage type flowers. And it’s easy to propagate by pulling apart larger plants in the autumn, and replanting the smaller pieces.