Winter’s Dawn; Last Plantings; Tasty Treats

Fortunately, a noisy wiper blade made me think twice about heading out for an evening talk last week, with the forecast heavy rain. Just as well, since with no warning hints from any of our weather forecasts, as I nipped outside at 9 pm, we already had over 2 inches of snow, with flakes still falling. Locally cars were stranded, journeys abandoned, and in the morning a very wintry scene had enveloped the hills around us.

The snow melted fast, but in spite of this, significant damage was caused to many trees and plants, by this earliest significant snowfall (November 14th) in our time here. A week later a delivery driver said that local roads had resembled “a war zone that night”, with many large tree limbs downed onto roads.

Here our lovely feathery Miscanthus were snapped off low, many Hydrangeas had broken stems, but more dramatically and sadly many juvenile oaks, which tend to cling onto their rich brown dessicated leaves for longer than their wiser parents, suffered badly, with torn and twisted branches hanging at half-mast. A large old hedge-based willow was completely felled.

The snow had fallen, wet and heavily, and simply built up with such a weight that the timber was incapable of supporting the still leafy canopy. There had been almost no wind.

Such damaged limbs present a practical management problem, since they’re often sufficiently high off the ground to make access with any normal saw, even from a stepladder, impossible. And a safety rule for me is to never, ever, use a chainsaw with my feet off terra firma. I’ve had enough close shaves over the years whilst using one with both feet firmly on the ground to chance anything so risky.

Thank goodness therefore, for one of Fiona’s Amazon “deals-of-the-day” from a few years back – an extending Draper tree pruner, with telescopic handle. I remember at the time, querying why on earth we needed something like this, but we’ve already found it invaluable for pruning back high branches from along our access track. The option of either the pruning saw blade, or quite powerful lopper will tackle most of this sort of unexpected damage.

Although whilst making this sort of task manageable, it is a little hard on the neck and shoulder muscles if one has to use it for prolonged periods held at maximum extension, with head craned skywards as was needed for this extensive tidy up. Click here for details if you don’t already have one of these and have any sort of garden to maintain – one day you’ll be delighted to have it sitting in a shed, and it’ll pay for itself after a single such episode.

Having snow lying on the ground prompted me to get round to sowing the collected seeds from both our own garden Acers, which have had a bumper year, as well as seeds collected from our trip to Hergest Croft back in September.

One of the delights of the gardening year here has just passed. All the other Acers in the garden had dropped their leaves, after a sharp frost, and yet the largest form of A. plamatum we have in the garden, has just turned its reliable golden yellow, in a wave from sunny West, to shaded East, and then gradually carpeting the ground beneath it in a wonderful patterned mulch. This arrived for about £2.50, I think, as a batch of pre-germinated seed, in loose peat in a mini-grip bag inside a tiny wedding cake sized box at my Bristol clinic about 20 years ago. I still remember my excitement on opening it, and the subsequent boxes which arrived at intervals over a couple of years before the business closed and the owners left for New Zealand. Some of the tiny seedlings which survived have not only now provided many of the maturing trees around the garden, but also got me hooked on the very patient delight of growing trees, and indeed other ornamental shrubs and plants, from seeds.

All this year’s seeds have been sitting in the bottom of the fridge since collection, and by now many of the Sorbus berries had softened a little, and so I’d spent a wet afternoon, crushing the berries between fingers and then swilling the debris in a bowl under running water to gradually wash away the fruit and skin which contain germination inhibitors, to leave the small seeds remaining. I haven’t yet found a quicker way of doing this.

A process not dissimilar it seemed to me to panning for gold, though I’ve never had a chance to do this.The seeds can then be sown into an open compost with added perlite. Usually, germination rates seem high for Sorbus, and they don’t seem to be as attractive to mice as Acers, or acorns, where in the past I’ve had the entire sown crop taken out overnight.

The final part of the process was scooping up generous handfuls of snow and topping each pot of sown seed with it. Not only does this water the seeds in, but it will give the seed an additional small cold shock. Many tree seeds need just such a vernalisation process to ensure good germination, and all those years ago, buying pre-germinated seed avoided me having to complete this vital prelude to the germination process.


I assumed that the mushroom season was now over for the year following a severe frost, a few days before the snow, on November 9th, which brought most of the fabulous autumnal leaf colour this year to an abrupt end.

This made me think it was time to graze off the remaining aftermath in the hay meadows, so our ewes were moved to the upper hay meadow a week ago. The following day, the snow had arrived. This delayed final grazing, is much later than in any previous year, but has allowed many flowering plant seedlings to establish well.

A meandering walk down through the field showed yet more Meadow waxcaps, Hygrocybe pratensis, had emerged, some of which were clearly part of an expanding ring formation.Further down the field I came across an extensive colony of a small red waxcap species, probably Hygrocybe coccinea, covering an area with very shallow soil on a South facing slope.There must be well over a hundred of these small waxcaps, in this area of roughly 15 X 3 metres, which hasn’t produced any other mushrooms through the season.

There seems little information on relative fruiting times of different species, but we’ve now had one or more species fruiting in this field for nearly 5 months from early July. I’m sure it’s been an exceptional year, but it would be interesting to be able to record accurately in future years exactly where the different colonies are growing. These have added another huge dimension of interest to our wildflower meadows, which we had no awareness of, when we began the restoration process about 6 years ago.

I’m spending quite a lot of time currently working on a new slide illustrated talk, which gets its first outing at the Farmyard Nurseries Winter Gardening weekend next February in Llandysul, when I’m going to try to draw on some of the features of wildflower hay meadow ecosystems and how they can inform and influence how gardeners can plan more sustainable and biodiverse plant based communities.

Fungi will certainly get a mention, and I was interested to find a recent research review by a global team of fungi experts, including the locally based waxcap expert Gareth Griffiths, from Aberystwyth University. Click here for the paper, titled “Isotopic evidence of biotrophy and unusual nitrogen nutrition in soil‐dwelling Hygrophoraceae”. (Waxcaps – sic)

The research centres around analysis of waxcap tissues from several different continents, and also from the different woodland ecosystems which is mainly where they are found in other parts of the world. (Subtropical laurel forest in the Canary Islands, broad leaf forest habitats in New Zealand, primary lowland moist evergreen forest in Amazonian Ecuador, primary lowland rainforest in Gabon, coniferous forest/swamp in Massachusetts, U. S. A.). All the waxcaps show high levels of the more unusual (heavy) 15 Nitrogen isotope, in marked contrast to the much lower 15 Nitrogen found in plant tissues and other mushroom producing fungi. The scientists suspect that this may mean that waxcaps are processing animal protein, which normally has higher 15 Nitrogen in its make-up, and probably invertebrates, (especially worms and Diptera (fly) larvae), since these make up over 70% of the typical animal biomass in undisturbed grassland soils.

What still fascinates me about these fungi which are globally very rare in grassland habitats, now, (apart from selected sites in Wales!) is that they’re still so poorly understood, and almost completely unknown in our gardens. Mainly because of cultivation and fertiliser applications, both of which will destroy the mycelial networks. Yet here they are, thriving and constituting literally tons per acre of unseen, underground biomass, with all of the stored carbon in their fungal mycelia, in a moss ridden, nutrient poor, upland hillside field.

Another observation after just a week of aftermath grazing by the ewes, who have also managed to raid the hay barn early for supplementation, is how they have selectively attacked the basal rosettes of the Lanceolate (Ribwort) plantain, Plantago lanceolata. One of the advantages of a spot of dung collection for the veg garden, above, being one criss-crosses the field and tends to notice such minor changes.

With plenty of grass still available in this field, and young leaves of sorrel and dandelions as well, it’s clearly just the plantain which has been attacked with such gusto. Remember as well, that sheep can manage to achieve this with just a lower set of incisors working against their upper fleshy gum pad. They really must want to eat every last bit.

There’s currently little of this plantain growing in our other fields, so is it the taste that’s appealing to them? Or its increased palatability, or mineral content – it’s known that plantain has much higher calcium, magnesium, copper and sodium levels than most grasses?

Or is it the levels of the sugary sorbitol and mannitol in the leaves which makes them tastier?

Or are they self-medicating to access the anti-inflammatory effects of the plant? Which I’ve written about before in a post, click here, where I highlighted Austrian research into this plantain’s pharmacological activities.

Or its antimicrobial properties?

Or even the gel like mucilage in the leaves and seeds? Nearly all the remaining seed heads have also already been nipped off their stems, above. If you want to find out what the new word for this post of myxospermy means, click here for some detailed research on the specific slime like adhesive properties of P. lanceolata seeds.

Looking across the field, certain plantain plants seem to have been preferentially attacked, and this may relate to the considerable variability within this plant species. All of the plantain in this field is the result of introduced seeds from a number of different sites, so it’s not surprising perhaps that there’s some variability. Is this behaviour though perhaps an example of our sheep now perceiving this increasingly diverse sward as a cae ysbyty (Welsh), or hospital field? One in which they’re capable of self-selecting herbage for its specific medicinal effects? Click here for a little more on this ancient Welsh concept.

In New Zealand, 2 specific named cultivars of P. lanceolata, ‘Grasslands Lancelot’, and ‘Ceres Tonic’ have even been used as additions to permanent pasture seed mixes for reseeding. Click here for more. I’ve not been able to find any such named cultivars currently available in the UK. Perhaps I should mark our savaged plantain’s rosettes in some way and collect seed specifically from these next year to spread into our other meadows?

So even at the gloomiest time of the year, when we’re regularly bombarded with how intensively grain-fed pork and chicken, and not pasture-fed livestock; or indeed veganism, is one of the key solutions to both climate change and world food production, our little upland meadow is surprising me with evidence of its complex webs of life, which in this world of exploding knowledge, is hardly understood at all.

Click here for an interesting “On Your Farm” BBC Radio Four discussion from this week, titled “Carbon Counting”, involving a rational Cumbrian mixed livestock farmer Will Case, who seems very informed on many of the issues and the science, and a non-welly owning professor, Mike Berner’s-Lee, the author of “There’s No Planet B“, who’s keen on rewilding and reduced ruminant numbers in our landscape. My impression is that he hasn’t actually visited many British farms before.

And listen too for the any mention of the hugely significant potential for fungal carbon sequestration in permanent pasture. Did I miss it?


Meanwhile on the mossy croquet lawn, even more Earthtongue fungal bodies have emerged. A veritable chorus of tongues, of what may be two distinct species, one drier, flatter and more tongue like, the other quite wet and slippery with a narrower and sometimes split form as shown in close up below.

To give an idea of where the earthtongues are now growing, they’re mainly in the furthest part of the lawn when viewed as below from the Northeast, in an image from late October. I’ve also unearthed a photo from probably 23 years ago taken from the same point, which gives a glimpse of how this croquet lawn part of the garden has progressed, from when we started work all that time ago.


The last of the bulbs have just been planted, and this year in yet another effort to limit rodent predation of recently planted Crocus corms, 2 different and novel strategies have been tried. A few years back a garden visitor commented on how different Crocus forms seemed to be more appealing to rodents.

C. tommasinianus, above, which seeds brilliantly here, remains relatively unscathed, but forms of C. chrysanthus are much more likely to be taken, particularly in the first year after planting, when rodents will excavate the corms out following the tracks of the compost/leaf mould back fill, which we use to plug the narrow planting holes.

Strategy one is planting all the C. chrysanthus ‘Blue Pearl’ in small packets of 3 or so corms, enclosed in narrow mesh chicken wire, which can be fairly easily slid into the ground at an angle using a small planting trowel. The cormlets produced annually will no doubt gradually migrate out of the protective mesh, but this may give a year or two when numbers can build up, and perhaps allow seeds to be produced as well – assuming this is a fertile clone.

Strategy two has been used in our very stony magic terrace where I wanted to introduce 1500 C. sieberi ‘Firefly’, above, to add both the colour variation, and more importantly, their even earlier flowers, which should complement the already numerous, though later, C. tommasinianus. The ‘Firefly’ should begin flowering in early January, but it wasn’t viable to push a trowel into this stony ground multiple times, so instead, I’ve used our normal digging bar method and back filling, but put the Crocus corms into the holes first, and then added a Narcissus bulb on top – either N. ‘Thalia’, N. ‘Actaea’ or N. poeticus var. recurvus.

Only time will tell if this is a disastrous strategy for the Crocus, or not. I hope that the earlier flowering Crocus will push its flowers and leaves round the side of the toxic Narcissus bulb, and still thrive, yet be protected by the larger bulb against being dug out by any pesky rodents.


In spite of a generally wet and grey November, we’ve still had moments with lovely special light and enough brief dry spells to get most of the annual crop of leaves collected and chopped. Most have been added to my greenhouse composter, though again as a trial, some beds and areas have had a mulch of twice chopped leaves added direct.

The annual wood ash and seaweed dressing is on as well, in time to be broken down when most bulbs and corms will have root systems active and ready to absorb any micro nutrients.It never fails to surprise me how variable the start of the snowdrop flowering season is. This year, it looks like the earliest forms are nearly 4 weeks later into flower than in 2018. Galanthus reginae-olgae ‘Cambridge’ has always been the first off the mark, but this year it was beaten by G. reginae-olgae ‘Tilebarn Jamie’ (above on November 10th). Don’t rush out and buy one though – I planted a single bulb in 2013, and this year is the first time it’s produced a flower! This species of snowdrop which always flowers in autumn, is clearly only just about hanging on in our wet conditions, hailing from just a very few, small, Greek islands. I frankly wouldn’t bother, but even seeing one snowdrop in this gloomiest of months lifts the spirits with anticipation of what’s just around the corner.

In addition, as I write this on November 24th, we still have the last few Cyclamen hederifolium flowers hanging on whilst I eagerly await the very first C. coum blooms. In many years the first of these emerge towards the middle of October. Quite what combination of light or temperature is the actual trigger for flower emergence is an annual mystery I’ve been unable to work out.


23 thoughts on “Winter’s Dawn; Last Plantings; Tasty Treats

  1. Julian, Your garden continues to warm my heart and mind, long after I was there in 2010! I am fascinated by fungi, and following your garden makes me realize I need to read more about waxcaps and grasstongues! My dad used to pick ‘shaggy manes” and other edible mushrooms when we went on family trips in the 1950’s. His French mother and grandmother always liked plantain leaves in salad, too! Thanks so much for sharing Gelli Uchaf with the world, via your blog! Suzette in central Oregon, where snow is expected any day!

    • Hello Suzette, and lovely to hear from you – we both remember Jenny and your visit here in our first year of garden opening – what a long time ago that seems now!
      I do seem to have written about fungi a lot this year, but I really am struck by how as one of the distinct kingdoms of life forms on our planet, we still know so little about them, yet they seem to play such pivotal roles in the carbon and other cycles. The latest paper I mentioned intrigued me, because of the woodland locations around the world in which waxcaps seem to thrive, yet here, they’re mainly in ancient poor grasslands – and as for the heavy nitrogen concentrations, that places them as peak meat “eaters” in the fungal world – so does the fact we have so many also imply we have a huge worm/invertebrate population beneath our turf as well? Who knows.
      Fascinating about your family history of wild mushroom and plantain collection. For some reason the Brits seem to have very poor knowledge of this – apparently England is the only country in Europe which doesn’t have an established folk museum to collate ancient records of such food and plant usage.
      But hey ho, we’re leaders in gaming and internet shopping….
      Anyway I hope the winter isn’t too severe for you in these days of unpredictable weather extremes and that 2020 is a great year – BTW after closing this year, Jen Jones Welsh Quilt Centre is mounting a (?) final exhibition in 2020, showcasing some of the best quilts from all the previous years’ shows, plus a friend has just passed a link that the National Geographic Traveller has just highlighted the 3 new Wales Ways as top destinations for an adventure holiday in 2020!

      best wishes
      Julian and Fiona

  2. Lots of beautiful photos as always. I particularly like the first one with the snow falling in apparent streaks – it could almost me a special (digital) effect! We only saw the evidence of the snow on cars coming into town from the west.

  3. Brilliant photos as usual and lots of interesting things to read about. I love the ‘before’ and after photos..all that hard work and effort to change a collapsing dutch barn into a croquet lawn surrounded by glorious shrubs and borders…it’s amazing. Good to see your first snowdrop and to read about your new slide presentation. Good to know too that you’ll be visiting Llangadog Gardening Group with your snowdrop presentation in early 2020..I’ll be there! Best wishes

    • Thanks Marianne, gosh word travels fast in the gardening club world – just hope we can get out to do these talks – always an issue at that time of the year, and this year we’ve got a few booked, so hope I avoid lurgies as well!
      I hadn’t looked at our photo album from the early years for ages, so when I spotted the view of the old Dutch barn, thought it was worth including – our older (then teen) son dismantled it shortly after this photo was taken with a friend from school – with us neglectfully not supervising him – and he nearly got decapitated when a sheet of corrugated iron came away unexpectedly and just missed his neck…. best wishes

      • Indeed they would have been… along with lots of other things we did along the way. Fortunately we escaped with no real incidents though Fiona bears a scar on her upper lip, where as we were laying the large terrace slabs, I think, one end of one dropped on a bit of 4X2 lying on the ground, which flipped up and smacked her in the face. Since I could see daylight through the hole, in spite of the blood, and the wound was well over an inch long, it meant a trip to casualty. We always tell our guests to take care, since it’s a long way to casualty!
        best wishes

      • My word you do have exciting and scary things happen! I was at a talk last night on Welsh Holly. They showed a photo of your garden with the lovely trimmed holly bushes that you’d bought from them!

  4. Despite your grey weather your garden has still so much colour. I am impressed that the weather has not delayed the autumn work of planting and leaf mulching. I have not been as assiduous this year. I love the Farquharson photo of your sheep in the snow. I have not read anything of the effect of funghi on carbon sequestration but the possibilities are enormous given that we do not know the extent of the underground mycelia. I will be checking out our plantain over here. I have only noticed two types but I have not looked closely. The bees love the flowers which seem so insignificant to me. Amelia

    • Thanks Amelia. Pretty much all the colour has gone now, and I’m desperate for some Cyclamen coum to open – it’s been so grey again this November.
      I think I’ve written before that Gareth Griffiths reckons that for every KG of above ground mushroom, they’re about 100 KG of mycelia mass in the soil.
      I never read or hear fungi discussed either, but given the dire climate data which has come out this week, I think it’s bizarre that this is such a poorly discussed or researched area of information. But then where’s the commercial slant I suppose?
      Likewise with the plantain – it’s fascinating that there’s so much detail in the New Zealand paper I mentioned, but nothing like as much over here.
      I’ve noticed too that the bees seem to enjoy the flowers as a pollen source.
      Best wishes

    • Hello Philip,
      No indeed…as is often the case, our weather hardly features on a wider scale. Another chap just today said that one or two sections of local road were indeed very badly affected with multiple branches and telegraph poles downed…
      At last today a bit of sunshine here!
      Best wishes

  5. Of all the horticultural commodities I have grown, all were grown vegetatively. I only grow things from seed for my own garden or landscapes. I prefer to do so for plants that pollinate each other better if not genetically identical. For example, even though blue elderberry is self pollinating, I think that pollination is better with a pollinator. Regardless, I grew my elderberries from seed. The mountain ash were likewise grown (wild) from seed. If I get a cultivar of saskatoon, I might grow some from seed just in case they help pollinate. I think it is funny that aronia prefers a pollinator, but only one cultivar is available in the nurseries.

    • Hello Tony,
      An interesting point – I’m sure that for commercial/sales then vegetative propagation is the best way for getting a known result. I just love the idea that occasionally you might get a real corker from seed, or at least over time are likely to get cultivars which are more adapted to your own particular environment. Or just spread the season of flowering/leaf colour change/whatever.
      Re pollination, I’ve just finished reading Thomas Seeley’s (of Cornell Uni) latest book on the lives of wild colonies of honeybees – absolutely brilliant and great to see that in the U.S.A. you have several guys /research departments who are actually studying bees in real detail. A great read ( if you haven’t already come across it,) if you’re interested in pollination/bee ecology. And just in time for Christmas…
      Best wishes

      • Thank you for the recommendation; but I actually do not read much. Pollinators are such a fad here, but sadly, not much regard is given to how the fad affects the ecosystem. So many people enjoy attracting pollinators to their gardens, without considering the many native plant species in the wild who rely on the same pollinators who are now neglecting them. I used to live near Monarch Grove, which was famous for the swarming monarch butterflies who congregated in the blue and red gum eucalyptus groves. It was spectacular; but all those butterflies in the eucalyptus were not out pollinating the native flora that had always relied on them.

      • Thanks Tony – it’s the first book I’ve read in months too – but I finished it in 24 hours, I found it so fascinating. Pollinators get much better press over here too in recent years, though much of what I read/hear seems poorly thought out. I guess the big question is why aren’t there enough pollinators out there anyway to pollinate all the natives : agricultural practices and environmental degradation and yes climate change are probably all factors.
        In this regard a book like Seeleys which focuses on research/observations over decade on honeybees in wild environments, as well as more conventional ones is so enlightening, and his final albeit brief pointer for changes to conventional beekeeping practices is a worthwhile practical slant.
        My fear that having honeybees here would impact significantly on our local bumbles and solitary bees seems misplaced anyway from this year’s observations – their food preferences are largely different. But point taken about the Monarchs and the eucalyptus…. a bit like the trucking of bees for the Californian almond blossom… what impact does that have on all the native Californian bees?
        Anyway a huge topic! And as always thanks for your comments,
        best wishes

      • The native bees were never very common anyway. It is difficult to say if they are less common now than they were originally, because there is not much information documented about them prior to the arrival of honeybees in San Jose back so long ago. Supposedly, they still do well with native flora, even though much of the native flora has been displaced. There are more monarch butterflies here than there ever was, but fewer poppies. Poppies are downright scarce in many places. In most situations, it is most likely because they are displaced by exotics. Around urban areas, it is supposedly because the monarch butterflies are ignoring them. The exotic butterflies that were more common when I was a kid are not significantly less common.

      • There is just so much exotic vegetation crowding them out. Much was imported for forage. Some was cover crops. California poppy used to be so much more colorful near here. It was crowded out in rainier climates and chaparral climates first. That is where the competing vegetation really proliferated. It seems to be just as colorful in the deserts as it had always been, but it never was quite as colorful there as it was here. The superblooms really were spectacular, but were not quite as colorful as the ‘normal’ bloom south of the Santa Clara Valley decades ago.

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