It’s only mid January, and already I’m thinking about next year’s bulb order. Significant numbers of larger bulbs aren’t going to be on it, maybe just a few Narcissus ‘Rjinveld’s Early Sensation’ but certainly lots more of those smaller gems which can be planted without quite the same amount of effort.
But ideas need writing down now, before the scene moves on and one forgets thoughts made in this darker time of the year. I’ve mentioned before the late Frank Cabot’s comment, which was itself a quote from another American gardener, that much of garden progress is the result of patient editing. Standing back. Assessing. Putting in. Taking out. Standing back again, and so on. But where bulbs are concerned, you only get one shot at this annually, and rarely is there an easy option of removal. So exactly what gets planted is very important.
And this year, my main target for improvement in the garden scene for years to come is right now, at the turn of the year. Yesterday we had a query about whether there would be anything of interest for garden visitors who braved late February’s weather for our NGS open weekend. I’m sure there will be, but I guess for many this concern centres on the perception that proper gardening begins much later on.
Such thoughts were reinforced last week, when Fiona and I went to the National Botanic Garden of Wales, for the second in their excellent series of free talks in January by inspirational women in horticulture. Sarah Price, the Abergavenny based garden designer, had top billing and gave a wonderful illustrated lecture outlining her journey from first class fine art degree, into horticulture. Then, via a bid to design and build a small Chelsea Flower Show garden in the early noughties, (which met with RHS criticism, but wowed the media and public alike), came the bold decision to set up her own garden design studio. This has progressed in leaps and bounds, her naturalistic style of planting evolving steadily, and being heavily influenced by her earlier childhood spent amongst the landscape of the Brecon Beacons.
She followed up with larger Chelsea garden projects, eventually winning a coveted gold medal, and along the way showed us the exciting designs she created and executed for the main garden borders at the 2012 London Olympic park in collaboration with James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett. Do look at the You Tube below for how this prestigious project came into being.
You can also hear Sarah talking more briefly in the You tube below, for insights into how she designed her gold medal garden for M&G at Chelsea in 2018:
Several of the designs she illustrated in her talk never made it into construction, such is both the competition, and financial constraint imposed on this aspect of large-scale garden making. Yet all her designs showed huge flair, often multi-layered planting designs, and illustrated how important sympathetic soft landscaping can be in creating a more welcoming human perspective on the built environment. Yet as the talk progressed, with perhaps 200 different images – both photos, CAD illustrations and many of Sarah’s own hand drawn illustrations, which she uses extensively in the design process, I began to notice that there were no illustrations of any designed plantings outside the months of mid-May to November. Not a single one. Why, I wondered?
Perhaps the huge influence that creating gardens for Chelsea, in mid-May, and the current recent trend of “new perennial”/grass/prairie type garden designs, where impact peaks in late summer or autumn is a factor. One is then encouraged to leave dying plant material in place over winter, for magical frost effects, which now rarely seem to happen here until late in winter, if at all. There are hinted at wildlife benefits for this approach too, but at some point, dead material needs to be removed, and this is almost impossible if the areas are under-planted with early spring bulbs pushing through in our increasingly mild winters, by January. Perhaps ignoring significant winter or very early spring planting also seems to encourage the idea that most gardening interest is from late spring to November, in our Northern hemisphere. And that during the winter months, people have better things to do than get into their outside spaces looking for flowers and plants, often in cold or poor weather.
This lack of any mention about winter season, or early spring plant use, in many articles and references to contemporary large scale garden design projects, now seems the norm, though a little strange to me. If anything, perhaps because winters here are high rainfall, gloomy, and generally mild affairs, anything that gets me outside every day, looking, gently pottering, and seeing how the year is changing is frankly more important physically and mentally than the delights of the garden later in the year. For us, stretching plantings not just in a layered physical way, but also temporally, has been a great challenge over recent years.
This seems to require a very few key plants which can be repeated, will thrive and, even better, multiply naturally in local conditions. This means choosing not just particular plant species, but specific cultivars, since relative flowering times with spring bulbs is hugely important to try to maintain a flower flow. And almost impossible to gauge from nursery catalogues.
So, this year, having apparently worked out a strategy here for minimising Crocus predation by squirrels and rodents (distraction feeding using apple discards, peel and cores along with any squash seed from our kitchen, combined with judicious scent marking via my watering can, and very occasional ferric phosphate slug pellets), I shall be planting many more Crocus sieberi ‘Firefly’ (above) next year. Although this doesn’t seem to set seed, it’s so sturdy, long lasting and early flowering, that it’s a star plant as far as I’m concerned. More Scilla mischtschenkoana are also needed, and trying to spread around the gradually bulking up very early Galanthus – some bought named cultivars, but also those early forms of G. nivalis from my Welsh Historic Snowdrop Hunt, which are reliably “up” by Christmas or the first week of January, in most years.
A recent snippet in one of the publications we receive caught my eye. “Recompose”, a fledgling start up in Washington state, U.S.A. which has developed an alternative solution to burial or cremation of our bodies. Using hexagonal cellular pods, the intact body is mixed with wood chips, alfalfa and straw and the pod is aerated to encourage the action of thermophilic bacteria. Apparently within 30 days the entire body, bones and all has been transformed into a significant quantity of quality soil, which can be returned in part or completely to the deceased’s family. In the process of body degradation, or indeed recomposition, “Recompose” estimate that there will be saving of about 1 metric ton of carbon over more conventional body cremation.
If this sounds a little crazy, then click here for the company’s website, or here for an interview with the founder, the perhaps appropriately named Katrina Spade. As someone who has written quite a bit about the potential for a well-insulated compost heap to degrade almost any organic material, at high temperature, the concept seems plausible. Perhaps it might even contribute in the future to speedier replenishment of top soil, which in many parts of the world where intensive agriculture is practised, is being lost at a frightening rate, and threatening the very viability of food production within decades. Click here for an in-depth recent report from the UN on this subject. “The Global Land Outlook”.
I’m naturally drawn towards this sort of lateral thinking, and shall watch how the concept develops across the pond. Meanwhile, in my own tweaking of the recycling concept, and inspired by Terry Walton’s visit last November, I’ve been collecting sheep droppings from our upper hay meadow. Clearly, I don’t have anything better to do with my time, but on a frosty morning, when many other jobs can’t be carried out, it takes about half an hour to collect a large tub full. Not only does this reduce contamination in the field, but it’s also yet another way of removing potential fertility from the meadow, which should aid the development of a more diverse flora in the medium term.
The collected pellets are mainly being incorporated into my compost reactor, along with saved chopped leaves, and collected pee, and are proving ideal at keeping the temperature up within the compost, as we head into the colder part of winter, and so helping to keep the greenhouse frost free. The other material I’m using this winter is the wool based packaging material from Puffin packaging, click here, which now arrives with us on quite a regular basis. This will not only add extra nitrogen and nutrients to the end compost, but again will aid temperature generation. For those curious readers interested in just what’s arriving up here in the Welsh hills carefully cosseted in cosy wool, then click here. Having briefly run our own home prepared, high quality refrigerated and delivered food business in the Bristol area (years ago, alongside our veterinary practice, just to stop Fiona becoming bored), my attention was caught by a small ad for this company, and we’re now serious fans.
Writing about this is also an attempt to return to the issue of the amazingly efficient circular nature of many natural ecosytems, and how far removed from this concept many human activities have become.
Think: Light, grass, hay, sheep, droppings, compost, light, vegetables, pee, leaves, compost, light, vegetables, pee, leaves, wood, ash, light, grass, sheep, meat, pee.
With huge concerns about the viability of upland sheep farming under the onslaught of both vegansim and the potential loss of markets in any post brexit world, it’s worth remembering how crucial grazing herbivores have historically been in creating and maintaining healthy soils over millenia, even if more intensive systems of grazing management have lost sight of how this all works.
So, recomposition is an interesting concept to play around with.
A chance find on a painted post in the big bag growing area, which turned out to be the external wooden casing for a Puss moth, Cerura vinula, pupa, triggered, along with other events in the last week, some musing. Many thanks to Dave and iSpot for confirmation of the ID, and do click on the link at the end of this piece for images of the bizarre larval forms of this amazingly patterned moth, which I’ve found on a few occasions at Gelli Uchaf, over the years.
Without love; letters, language, languish.
Mere restless sluggish writhing, deep in naked, cold, pressed flesh.
There is no light, no warmth, inside this tiered green gridded city,
Beneath the upturned empty woven bag,
Big. Amongst the wriggling masses, mouths filled with rotting discards,
Stench of filthy faecal sludge.
Sudden light. Air, fresh.
A peeping tom’s exposure infiltrates this seething
Den of primitive iniquity. Cherished workers prey
To tame, fine legged, sharp toed, breasted poacher.
Life recomposed. Cropped, with speed and style.
Without love; letters, language, languish.
Track this single life. Seven times you pause, predestined. Strip. Shed. Morph,
Now unrecognisable in curious fashion.
Your horny, red nippled claspers a simple ruse, to threats too close. Nothing
Must punctuate the ceaseless chomping, for what else is existence?
Then just what trigger hints “it’s time“?
Forsaking sustenance, a lair is sought above the sodden grazing ground.
As if disgraced by final instarred form –
The red rimmed face, the blank black eyes, the saddled back,
Ridiculously spotted, pink-tipped whippy tails and gaudy green inspire
A final furious, rasping fit that rips the solid painted fibres,
With those shearing metalled jaws. Must hide,
From nature’s ghastly fashion genes. Ashamed.
The papier mâché’d limpet, all pasted pulp and silk, exquisitely constructed
From such a curious blend, hides hidden inner change and form;
The stiffening skin. The browning case. Hinted novel patterns pressed.
Internal torment as, alone, the flesh dissolves. Metamorphosing magic.
And solitary. So solitary.
Swirled ebony and ermine, shot through impossibly, with orange veins,
Those gossamered wings, first limp and crinkled wait,
Then bursting from its tomb and self made coffin,
The flying feline hangs loose, till pumped with fluid this Puss is free.
Redeemed. Resurrected. Angelic flotsam up amongst the clouds.
Ecdysis long forgotten. Released.
Without love; letters, language, languish.
The raucous rooks gather, dawn’s embarrassed flush lifts sleeping shadows.
Wires uncrossed, but parallel. Feathered flock, so closely cabled.
Dispersing, fast, then scattering this century. Strong,
With regimented order soon restored.
Communications craft collective flight.
Exploded. Ricocheted cacophonied chorus,
But no melody ebbs West.
Without love; letters, language, languish.
What is this brief, shared life? Nocturnal voids but temporary
Escapes. The long awaited tender touching toe, this wordless clue;
A kiss, though not this morning the very necessary warm embrace to start the day,
Before the drifting formless chemicals shift. Disperse. An early rise.
The old logo’d paper found, and branded biro from the night before,
A Glorious Morning this, to break the spell of last night’s shackling chain.
Wrapped well, to shield the chill, ignoring rattling slated
Without love; letters, language, languish.
So how’s our story told?
Does joy unfold? Slowly: Drifting in on strengthening breeze,
Whilst fast behind, the slanting flakes soon dim the view, awhile,
Then dissipate, where golden highlights flood the scene.
Or, conflicts blossom, devoid of warmth, or hope, or pleasure.
Desperately dreaming. Beyond the borders mapped below this eryied chair.
Emotional vernal change.
Click here for more on the Puss moth.
I’ve been very surprised to find how many times the honey bees have been out and about already this month. I’ve yet to find any returning to the hive with obvious pollen loads, but they are flying purposefully now, given half a chance, so whether they’re just scouting potential flower sources, or actually collecting nectar, I don’t know.
It’s wonderful in mid-January to have the sometimes very loud sound of buzzing bees, as a background noise on often still, cold mornings – just 5.5 degrees C the other morning outside our back door at 10.20 when the bees emerged. Some even seem determined to inspect us more closely. One inquisitive lass landed on my garish yellow and orange woven fabric and rubberised glove and then began exploring. I actually felt the bee’s tongue probing through the fabric and touch my skin, before presumably working out that the yellow coloured object wasn’t an early nectar source.
There are plenty of flowers now “open” in the garden with bee appeal (Hellebores, Pulmonaria, Scilla, Snowdrops, Cyclamen coum), but apart from a single observation of a bee visiting an open snowdrop flower in early January, as yet, no more confirmed intimate contacts between flowers and insects.
So, choosing one of those fleeting moments when the bees opted to fly, the sun shone, and the northerly wind hadn’t picked up strength, I did what I often do at this time of the year: picked up my small paintbrush and, for half an hour or so, visited the massed Cyclamen coum in David and Valentine’s bed.
On the sunny bank that bears those lover’s names,
You don’t care what the weather throws.
Your crazy coloured skirts, so shocking in winter’s sombre days
But no tender tongues are here to touch your inner sweetness.
The bees fly by. Are theirs’ too short? Or does your nectar’s
No matter, here you mass, five thousand tethered shuttlecocks,
Hanging on, expectant. Patient, ’til the pollen’s turned so ripe
The merest touch sends showers, orgasmically, earthwards. Wasted, palest primrose
Dust, to join the rotting leaves beneath those lily pads,
The fireflies try, but though they aim and rise, erect and true,
With glowing egg yolk bulbs, the lilac tips aren’t interested in
Exploration. Ignore your charms and, waiting inner warmth themselves,
Stand silent and aloof. So third in line, the patient gardener, Croc’d and
Bent, approaches, moving slowly. Tenderly twists your slender waists
His sight’s all blurred, his pace is slow, yet works the throng until
The job’s complete. You’ll wait awhile before your swelling naked
Womb, complete with eggs now punctured, fused, retreats. And coils.
And hides. Such union triggers skirts to drop, and fading, linger.
The annual match complete, beneath the mossy ground,
They’re nurtured, months on end, before they’re split, and spilt, and
Roll. Or, enticingly, your oily elaiosomes, a stuck-on afterthought,
Or clever trick, lure small and willing helpers, their myrmechocory
A cunning tongue-tied plan.
More devious still and symbiotic: taken home the fat is stripped
And fed; the seed discarded in amongst the finest frass and tiny corpses,
Within a year, your oddly dainty, single circled leaf
Belies your monocotyledoned clan, and slender stemmed,
Pearlescent grained, you join the multi-generational crowd,
You slowly charm this private, mossy hill. No alien terror,
But beautiful, and culturally benign, these wintry Celtic daughters shine.
This tumbling Eastern sowbread horde glow bright,