Frost. Sun. Wind.
RAIN. The elemental forces which have played out over the beginning of May and shaped our outside work, and the garden’s feel. Never mind the gardeners’ state of mind.
Following on from the very dry April, a little light rain at the end of the month barely kept fields and garden plants going – a very rare state of affairs for West Wales at any time of the year. Although spared high temperatures, there was much sunshine, and often very strong and drying northerly or easterly winds.
So, little chance of doing much in the garden save the usual hand weeding which is always critical at this time of the year. Far too dry for any lifting, moving or even propagating, since hand watering is already irksome for the plants in pots, and for trying to keep a few stressed garden plants going. At least we’ve been spared the worst effects of frost damage, though Hydrangeas, particularly those of the H. aspera group, have lost many of their precocious first leaves, and will flower poorly, if at all.
With so much remedial hedge thinning over the winter, and fields at last dry enough to gain vehicle access without causing too much damage, log clearance has continued, and then a final couple of bonfires were needed to clear up the brash. Whilst I used the main Stihl chainsaw to log up serious trunks, Fiona worked to tidy up a pile of brash ready for a final bonfire before anticipated rain moved in yesterday afternoon, with the little Li-ion chainsaw.
We really should learn that physical tiredness makes for poor judgements. Fortunately, I’d just finished my chainsaw work and switched fields to join Fiona as she was about to light her fire.
Did this year’s constantly serenading cuckoo across the valley spot the danger and drop its consonants? If so, the wind whipped the dropped first consonant, Uh-Oh, Uh-Oh, Uh-Oh, away, and we missed the warning. And sensibly Babs, and her probably identical and daffodil named twins, Greenodd and Gwawr, shifted well upwind to the opposite end of the field.
The very dry wood quickly created a hot nucleus, but the winds which had been easterly, switched to southerly, and I voiced concerns about the risk of flames reaching holly foliage in the adjoining hyper-mature and un-laid hedgerow trees. Having gone way past our mid-morning tea break we decided to let the fire die down, and have a cuppa, before continuing. Fortunately, I hesitated on the steep slope for just long enough for me to catch sight of a wisp of smok,e from the very base of the hedge due North of the bonfire.
By the time I’d walked over to it, there were obvious flames shooting up, just about within reach through the squares of rusting pig netting. Shouting to Fiona to get some water from the greenhouse a good 50 yards away, I realised I had very little time to prevent a disaster taking hold.
Instantly, almost autonomically switching into crisis mode, my only option was to try to bat down the rapidly growing flames with my gloved hand. The fence was impossible to climb at this point. The double thickness fencing limiting access dramatically. The worst of the flame base, was out of sight and reach behind a now smouldering charred trunk. I was working blind, at the limit of my reach through the squares of rusty old pig netting, and unaware of the wrist branding which clearly occurred, or the smoke inhalation from the reducing bonfire behind me. As fast as I seemed to beat flames out at one point, they erupted elsewhere. This continued until Fiona returned with the first water she could grab in a half empty bucket, and watering can. Even this didn’t win the war, and a second dousing was needed before all flames ceased. And then, anxious minutes spent dousing down the bonfire’s perimeter, and hedge base, and waiting to scrape away the remnants of smoking debris, which gradually kept re-appearing for at least a quarter of an hour.
Afterwards, I reflected that I’ve only once before experienced such a brief moment of total panic, and the sense that I had one very brief chance to avert a catastrophe – for this surely would have been the case if the flames had taken hold – the hedge would have been engulfed, and possibly spread into the huge biomass of dessicated rush and gorse vegetation, further up the valley.
Decades earlier, swimming and bodyboard surfing off Llangranog with our eldest son, I became aware that we’d lost contact with the sandy bottom, and were suddenly being drawn out to sea. I made several attempts to push Wig on his board into shore, and then sensed my energy was nearly spent. With one last exhausted effort, I managed to force the board onto a breaking wave top and back into the safety zone, and then swim back myself.
Meanwhile, Fiona sat on the beach serenely reading a novel, whilst our youngest son, who’d spotted my frantic arm waving in an effort to alert someone, merely interpreted my panic driven gesturing as a friendly greeting, and very appropriately waved back!
We’ve never been so pleased to feel those first drops of rain half an hour later, or welcome the deluge and thunderstorms of Thursday evening. And for those reading this who exclaim with horror about such crass behaviour, I have no defence. Just the comment that such human errors of judgement litter the lives of most folk, I guess.
Many lessons have been well learned and shared from this one. My now branded wrist, a constant physical reminder for when we next tackle a bonfire. Choose the site carefully. Always have watering cans with fine roses to hand. Always time a significant fire for just before rain is due. If the wind changes, stop feeding the fire immediately – indeed as in this case, if we’d had a huge pile going up in flames in the first place, rather than building it from a small base as we always do, things would have definitely ended differently.
Every year sees changes in our upper hay meadow.This year, one of the most obvious has been the expansion of range within the meadow of the pretty pink flowered perennial native Lousewort, Pedicularis sylvatica, which has now become really well established, from an initial small scattering of seed, collected from a friend’s local meadow, just 4 years ago. This hemi-parasite has been a really popular early season nectar flower with at least 3 different species of bumblebees visiting these flowers, which are borne over many weeks, from early April. With the first flowers of annual Yellow rattle, Rhinanthus minor, opening this year by May 9th, it dovetails very nicely, to give a much longer, reliable nectar supply for these tough native pollinators.
But how do these plants fit into the ecology of meadows?
I struggled to find much about studies on Lousewort interactions with roots, although I did discover that both the genus Pedicularis, of which there are several hundred species worldwide, many in China, and Rhinathus have recently been switched from the Scrophulariaceae and into the Orobanchaceae, or Broomrapes. Broomrapes generally are obligate parasites – lacking any chlorophyll, and so are entirely dependent upon penetrating other green plant root systems and obtaining their nutrition by stealing it from them.
In this aspect of basic physiology, Lousewort seems very like Yellow rattle, both being hemi-parasitic. They both contain chlorophyll, so can photosynthesise and manufacture carbohydrates in their own leaves, but can still penetrate other plants’ root systems to obtain certain nutrients from them. Much work has been done on Yellow rattle, since as many will know, it’s frequently recommended as an aid to restoration of wildflower meadows, by reducing the vigour of otherwise dominant grasses. Indeed this is why we first imported local seeds of yellow rattle onto our meadow about 5 years ago.
However, my first recent discovery was that it doesn’t parasitise just grasses, but a range of more than 50 different potential host plant species, all of which might be found in a typical meadow – though it’s not apparently capable of damaging any native orchid species.
It does this by developing its own root system on germination of the overwintered seed in spring, and this root system then develops special structures designed as transfer organs, called haustoria (single – haustorium), which connect the host and parasite root tissues. The haustorium surrounds the host root, crushes the outer layers, and then forms a penetration peg, to tap into the host’s xylem channels which distribute fluids and nutrients up through the host’s tissues. Once it has done this successfully, secondary xylem channels develop and the parasitic rattle root can then begin the process of sucking out fluids, and more particularly nutrients including carbon and nitrogen from the host. It does this by having higher transpiration rates, in turn because the stomata or pores on the leaves of the rattle are relatively insensitive to water loss. So the water potential of the parasite tissues is kept below that of the host, and creates an effective gradient which ensures materials flow in one direction – away from the host and into the Yellow rattle. A botanical leech, if you will.
But this clearly sophisticated process of attack doesn’t work equally well on all the plant species which Yellow rattle will attack.
Meadow swards, being the diverse communities that they are, allow a single small rattle plant to have simultaneous links into up to 7 different plants at the same time – and remember this is an annual plant which only has a few months to grow, flower, set seed and then die. Grasses and legumes like the trefoils, seem to be its most useful hosts whereas many other dicotyledenous flowering plants (or forbs) can be attacked, but have developed quite sophisticated defence mechanisms.
Quite recent work has shown that in some plants, like the Ribwort or Lanceolate plantain, Plantago lanceolata, this defence entails hypersensitive host cell death at the point of attempted penetration by the rattle’s haustoria. Essentially the plantain’s root cells are intentionally sacrificed and killed, by the plantain itself, at an early stage of interaction with the rattle’s attack, so that the rattle root can never form a viable peg penetration into the plantain’s xylem system, and so the attempted sap sucking attack fails, even before it’s begun. Though at what cost to the plantain? This year I’ve noticed a few plantains in our meadow which seem very aetiolated. Are these plants which have suffered so much root damage from this defence strategy that their own viability has been affected? Or is something else completely unrelated affecting them? I just don’t know.
In Ox-eye daisies, Leucanthemum vulgare, the plant’s defense is different and involves sealing off the attacking peg of the rattle’s haustorium with lignin, to completely prevent penetration of its xylem. A wooden wall, hastily built within the daisies’ root tissues, to repel invaders. No time to bluster, or tweet, or raise funds. Just detect the threat, and respond.
All of this suggests one would expect variation within a meadow of the impact of Yellow rattle, in part depending on the actual range of plant species present in different areas of sward. Some more recent work has also looked at the impact of genetic variation within populations of Yellow rattle itself, to try to explain the quantified difference in impact of Yellow rattle on some meadows where it’s been introduced. In one study, grass biomass suppression, induced by adding rattle seeds, ranged from a small 8% to a whopping 84%, whilst at the same time, the abundance of forbs increased by anything between a miserly 5% to an impressive 57%.
The concept of the impact of community genetics is a new one to me, but makes empirical sense, having observed the variability in spread of Yellow rattle in our own, and other meadows. In our case our source seed was from a local meadow in which rattle seemed to be quite a dominant force, and I’ve probably layered on an anthropogenic genetic shift by consciously hand harvesting and scattering saved seed from just the earliest flowering, and therefore seeding, plants in the meadow. For the first 2 years, until the plant became so widely distributed that hand scattering was unnecessary. This was motivated by our need to cut the meadow in stages, sometimes quite early in the season, since we currently do mainly manual hay making, so it’s impossible to clear the field in one session. We have to pace ourselves.
And this is just considering the impact of rattle genetic variation. A lab study involving parasitism of 4 different strains of barley showed big variations in how much the same strain of Yellow rattle impacted on the different barley strains’ productivity, and indeed how the different parasitised barleys created bigger, or smaller, and therefore more fecund in terms of seed production, Yellow rattle plants.
Over just a few years, our meadow has now morphed to a majority of Sweet vernal-grass flowers, Anthoxanthum odoratum, at this time of the year. Does it have greater resistance to Yellow rattle? Or just thrive better, since it’s quicker off the mark in spring? We don’t know and we’re not complaining, since it’s this plant more than any other, that gives meadow hay its fantastic scent.
Add in the impacts from mycorrhizal and other fungi which are also key beneath-ground components of a meadow, linking up plant roots and involved in mineral and nutrient exchanges, and one begins to understand that never mind how complex a diverse hay meadow might seem visually above ground, what’s going on below the surface is truly mind boggling in its complexity. If I took one message away from this brief foray into what is clearly now a hot area of research, it is that genetic diversity within plant populations in a meadow is a very good thing for long term species viability. Given the now extremely diminished and fragmented distribution of such wildflower hay meadow communities, perhaps there are great benefits in the intentional local exchange of seed material between meadow owners, to help maintain such species genetic diversity, and consequent species resilience. In the past, the natural wandering of sheep, with their seed carrying fleeces, as well as other animal movements, would have ensured such seed spreading was a constant, low frequency process, and plant populations made up from those individuals best suited to local growing conditions, would have slowly evolved.
One final point. A recent review article by Ken Thompson, referenced a pan European study highlighting just how variable germination rates for seeds like Yellow rattle were, when obtained across Europe from commercial suppliers. Apparently 3 out of 17 samples of rattle contained no viable seeds! In addition, many samples were contaminated with other species, which highlights the advantages of hand collected and locally sourced seeds, when it comes to adding species, or extending genetic diversity, in our native hay meadows.
Very early on in our ownership of Gelli Uchaf, one of our veterinary nurses very kindly gave us a Christmas present of a Clematis montana var. rubens, possibly ‘Elizabeth’ but we kept no records then. At this stage we had no garden at all to speak of, but figured it needed space to grow and a suitable plant to clamber up into, so placed it at the base of a well-developed Elder tree, next to a huge Norwegian Spruce. In spite of such challenging root conditions, it’s still thrived, outgrown the Elder which partially collapsed this winter, and made it into a neighbouring mature hazel, as well as the now truncated ivy-covered Spruce trunk which a Rosa ‘Kiftsgate’ shares with it.
I only discovered recently that C. montanas are native to the mountains of Asia, as indeed, many of our most successful plants seem to be, and we’ve gradually added more around the garden, since without the option of growing many tulips, our spring bulb display starts to tail off in May, and to have so many Clematis flowers appearing, at a height, lifts the visual interest into the garden’s surrounding trees. Like all our Clematis, we have to be vigilant in the first couple of years since some less vigorous ones can be completely destroyed by slugs in a couple of days – protection with a cut out plastic bottle ringing the base, and a few ferric phosphate slug pellets within this for the first two years, usually allows the plant to establish well. Occasional watering of recently installed plants, in our rare extended dry periods, also gets them away.
Some early encouragement up into the base of the trees, or even along the walls, is often necessary and then once they’re up and away, they surely give one of the best rates of return of any plants in the garden, with no pruning needed if they have the space to spread and expand.
(C.m. ‘Broughton Star’).
As with all plant groups, adding a few different cultivars extends the range of flowering times, and types, even if the theme is similar, and for us with slated roofs, wall tops and paths, the mix of the bronze early foliage of most C. rubens forms, and pink flowers seems to complement the setting. And looks good under sunny or grey skies. (C.m. ‘Tetra Rose’).
As a complete novice, they also seem to root as well as any other Clematis I’ve tried. I’ve taken long double node cuttings from semi-ripe new season shoots in a damp spell in mid-summer, cut them just below the base node, and also half split the stem longitudinally between the nodes, dusted on a bit of rooting powder and plonked them in to a tall 2 litre pot with a mix of roughly equal parts of soil, compost and perlite. Most of the leaves from around the top node get cut back to reduce transpiration losses early on, and they’re left in the shade, again protected from slugs, and a high percentage seem to have rooted by the following spring.
(C. m. ‘Warwickshire Rose’). For more information on the huge range of Clematis cultivars try clicking here, for an amazing on line database of Clematis varieties. Or here for information from the excellent International Clematis Society.
Finally, after a rare(?) moan last time, I must report on an extremely favourable media encounter, which culminates in the June 2017 issue of Gardens Illustrated (GI) magazine due for release on May 25th, when there will be a lovely feature on our garden. Using photos taken last May by Claire Takacs, the article is written by Noel Kingsbury, and we’re really chuffed with it. Not just because it’s aesthetically pleasing, and the writing captures a little of what makes us as gardeners, and the garden itself, “tick”; but also because the whole process has been incredibly enjoyable, efficient and careful. Several visits to the garden were made by Noel – not just a phone interview – and numerous contacts from the publishing team at various stages to double check that we were happy with everything. And GI have even sent us a very high resolution jpeg of the article so that we can put it into a photo-book with some more of Claire’s fabulous photos which didn’t make it into the article, and which again she has very kindly supplied to us for personal use. So many thanks to all involved for making it a such very positive journalistic experience, and letting Gelli Uchaf shine briefly briefly on a bigger stage.
By a wonderful coincidence – or maybe very appropriate scheduling by GI – the magazine will also apparently include a feature on the garden of James Hitchmough, a landscape architect who has very recently published a beautiful book “Sowing Beauty – Designing Flowering Meadows from Seed”. Click here for more.
Given my interest in our own meadows, and my involvement with Carmarthenshire Meadows Group (click here), a copy has already arrived here, and it’s a fabulous unique summary of his many years of researching such environments in nature, across the globe, and then finessing and trialling species lists, seeding rates and techniques to create aesthetically pleasing, co-existing plant communities. Which really work, and are easier to maintain than many conventional perennial planting concepts. Often combining, as many gardeners do, species from different continents which have been carefully chosen and shown to happily thrive together.
I might write more about this some other time, when I’ve had a chance to read and digest more information, but a couple of points raised in a Q and A with James in another gardening magazine last month, struck me. Firstly, that one of his favourite natural meadow scenes from around the world was of a 3,000 metre elevation meadow in China, grazed by yaks, where the predominant flowers were Corydalis, Primulas and…Lousewort! There is indeed a photo of this meadow in the book and it’s an outstandingly beautiful natural vista. Secondly, that he could never get bored with looking at just a square metre of this sort of densely packed, species rich planting, which constantly shifted in appearance as individual plants move, over time, in the mix – very much like our own multicultural magic terrace garden, which is now a nearly grass free zone, but with changing flower interest throughout the year, and shifting patterns of plant growth developing from natural seed drop, and plant movements.
Thank goodness it wasn’t trumped by media coverage of a West Wales firestorm.