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 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.