There are no words. Or are there?
Like many, I guess, I’m struggling with writing anything of relevance or insight, with the background of the horrors of the ongoing war in Ukraine. Rebecca Stott wrote and spoke a wonderful piece on “A Point of View”, with the above title, from an interesting personal and garden linked perspective.
England’s poet laureate, Simon Armitage, has penned “Resistance”
No doubt written in his shed overlooking his garden in the Pennines, the poem, with its anchoring, repeated “It’s war again” stanza, is well worth reading. Or you can hear him reading it here.
How can one fathom the curiously irrational organisation and behaviour of our world and our species, where, uniquely, a single dominant (and usually male) can instigate such carnage of fellow beings and their living spaces? I tried some quick searches for similar behaviour amongst any other living organisms, and discovered, unsurprisingly, that there are a few species existing with normal behavioural traits of individual dominance. As well as the inevitable flip side to this, of the coping strategies adopted by the often multiple subordinates, which endeavour by their submissive behaviours to make their lives bearable and mainly free of more serious and damaging actual physical interactions. However there really are no other species with such crass stupidity, or indeed evil, destructive intent as the extreme, outlying, autocratic dominant male Homo sapiens.
As a means of trying to understand how Putin got to where he is now, the Radio 4 programme of this title was helpful for me at joining up some of the dots. I can’t help feeling that if Putin, and indeed all who seek to govern, had spent a short while working in a garden in their youth, or at least before attaining real power, instead of street fighting or learning judo, it might have given them a different slant on how they view the world. For sure there’s conflict all around us here in the garden and landscape, but natural systems tend to have their own effective checks and balances, and for much of the time there is an exquisitely balanced sense of resilience and harmony, when all is working well.
A final very contemplative piece on how we might respond in our own lives to the ongoing trauma is this short exploration by the wonderful Malcom Guite, who in this recent post Covid lockdown chat from his study, discusses how C. S. Lewis approached a similar moment in December of 1939.
For isn’t this one of the things we long for in life? And indeed in our gardens? Even though to achieve it, there’s a fair degree of control and conflict. And even death and destruction. (Think of all that obsessive weeding, Julian). Producing such a short video is surprisingly time consuming, and was rushed out so that the footage isn’t too out of date, so I hope that the imperfections don’t detract from the sense of harmony which often pervades the environment here, and which many of our visitors have experienced so far this year. I hope that it provides a short oasis of light, peace and harmony from this remote interface of the human, cultural and natural worlds.
I’m indebted to the wonderful, and recently discovered by me, Musopen site for the option to find and include the backing music – Franz Liszt’s “Transcendental Etudes, S. 139 – 11. Harmonies du Soir”, played beautifully here by the Greek pianist Andreas Xenopoulos. Thanks to him for recording this and making it available for free use in a video like this. Whilst Liszt was inspired by scenes in the evening, the harmonies, and rhythm seemed a good place to start for a piece which accompanies stills and video clips from a single day, March 5th 2022, in our garden and landscape.
In part stimulated by our first flowers of a form of E. dens canis, which we acquired last year, and in part because we just watched a fantastic presentation about this genus by Ian Young, from Scotland, which is available on the Garden Masterclass website, here. You have to pay to watch it, though you get a reduction if you are a member of GMC, but it’s well worth it. If you need convincing, then there’s also an extraordinary, 278 page e-book which Young has also produced and is free to download, click here. My guess is that his opening image from this book, taken by him in his own garden, may inspire you as it has us, to try to grow a few more.
Scroll through some of his early photos of the Erythronium bulbs, and you’ll see why their common name is dog’s tooth violet, for indeed this is what the fragile, elongated white bulbs look like. Although he explains that botanically, they’re most closely related to certain tulip species. There’s far too much information in this for me to try to precis here, but suffice to say that since many Erythroniums are woodland origin bulbs which happen to flower just as snowdrops are finishing, we see them as potentially wonderful follow on, and complementary, flowers for several areas in the garden.
In the same area of the garden, I’d planted a few of the lilac/mauve double primrose plants which came, thanks to Avril, from the deeply shaded, untended woodland behind Dave and Avril’s heating oil tank at Garthmoel. I’d ripped them apart on arrival into tiny scraps with a few roots, potted them on and planted them out in the autumn. Now, 18 months after their arrival, they’re a delight, flowering for ages since early January, and associating well with snowdrops and indeed the Erythroniums. I’d tried to track down a name of the cultivar, but failed, so was delighted to read this week in Country Life, that they have a very ancient history, and a name. Primula vulgaris ‘Lilacina plena’, Otherwise known as Quaker’s Bonnet or Lady’s Delight. Apparently, it was first mentioned in the Botanical magazine of 1794, where this was written ‘the double lilac, here figured a plant much admired.’
Try finding it for sale, though and the options are limited. The issue, in common with all double primroses, is that they don’t set seed and need to be spilt every 3 to 4 years to avoid them becoming woody and gradually fading away. However, my guess is that this division hadn’t happened for many years at Garthmoel, so the conditions where they’re planted is obviously very important to survival too – deep shade, and a moist woodsy soil. The few plants I’d tried in the terrace garden in full sun were looking very miserable, so after reading all about their fussy preferences, they’ve been lifted and relocated close to their siblings.
So rather like the Erythroniums, they’re a suitable plant to bulk up for our woodland areas here. Although I’m not a real fan of double flowers, or even this colour, at this time of the year they are real gems. A couple of years ago I’d splashed out on some primrose seed from the renowned Barnhaven Primula web site, followed their instructions, and ended up with just a half dozen viable plants. This year they’re flowering for the first time, and two are lovely.
Perhaps over time I can bulk this up as a complementary plant to interweave with Dave and Avril’s Quaker’s Bonnets as reminders of many happy years of friendship.
Late winter and early spring is always Wagtail time here, when the Pied Wagtails, Motacilla alba, return to our chimney stacks and ridge tiles, strutting their stuff, bobbing and weaving and building their nests beneath the eaves. They’re such a delight to watch, although their song is inconsequential.
They’re apparently seriously territorial birds, particularly in early spring and this individual has discovered his (and I’m assuming it’s a male asserting his authority) reflection in the wing mirrors and front door windows of both sides of our car, parked behind the house. At first I thought it was simply using the mirrors as a perch, allowing easy access to a nest being built close to the back door. But I’m now certain there is no nest.
I tried covering the wing mirrors with red plastic bags, but even that didn’t seem to deter him – he still had the reflection in the window glass to excite him. We’re hoping that his seasonal hormone rush will subside soon, and allow our car’s paintwork a bit of respite from the faecal lime dropping assault.
It’s now about 12 weeks since we removed all our sheep from the upper hay meadow, and the field is slowly changing from the olive-green moss of winter to a more varied palette of greens, and a texture of developing leaf forms, which are evident if you bend over and look carefully. No longer just a monoculture of grass leaf blades.
In addition, given the short length of the herbage, it’s currently easy to spot the peppering of the turf, with hundreds of closely spaced and quite wide puncture holes. The many probing beaks responsible are almost certainly not those of the immigrant woodcock, which have now fled Eastwards, but rather the small flocks of starlings which visit the meadow in late winter. This year has been unique in having very few large flocks flying in the valley at dawn and dusk, but smaller flocks of around 60 or 70 have still spent time in the meadow.
Starling feeding strategy is very well discussed in a Phd thesis by Caroline Rhymer and the critical role of soil moisture and compaction considered by her, in how it impacts on the bird’s ability to source its preferred diet of invertebrate larvae (cranefly grubs, worms etc.) Starlings are fairly unique in their communal flock feeding behaviour where the flock rolls across a pasture with individual birds peeling off from the back of the flock, and flying forwards to move the whole mass quickly across a field, whilst individual birds stab and probe to the depth of their beak – roughly 25 mm. If they locate a suitable prey, they can enlarge the hole by gaping their beak open with a few repeated movements and then remove the invertebrate from the ground. Clearly if the ground is too dry and hard, or indeed waterlogged, then little food is available to them from beneath the turf. But the effect from the point of view of the pasture is that it gets a brilliant form of natural aeration, equivalent to what a serious gardener might do with a lawn spiker, which must contribute to better water absorption and drainage.
As with moles in a field, finding such soil peppering marks is probably a good indication of the diversity of life beneath the vegetation of a field, and I noticed that the even shorter cropped mown path, above, which gets regularly walked on and is more compacted, has no evidence of such probe holes.
The other sign of turf puncturing which is even more exciting are the seedling leaves of all the bulbs now beginning to appear in areas of the meadow. The most obvious ones are the daffodils, which are illustrated in the image above. It might take many years for any flowers to appear, but saving and scattering seed is clearly a very cheap, and minimal labour method of establishing such plants within a large area like this, should one wish to. I still have hopes that in years to come the meadow will be bulb studded at a time of year when even the first dandelion flowers are yet to emerge.
Whilst we await our first lambs, within the next week or so, it’s also a time of the year to keep a check on our bee hives. One point of interest has been observing how my Swedish butter churn hive has been much more active than any of the others, both earlier in the day, and earlier in the year. I’m beginning to think that the peculiar high entrance to the hive box is a critical factor. This was created in a hurry after the conventional lower one was blocked early on, after the small bedraggled fourth swarm cluster was installed last June, and clearly created large amounts of entrance clogging debris from cleaning up the old comb. I’d realised within 24 hours of installing the bees that none were exiting the hive. So a new box and lid were fashioned from cork boards, the thin roof covering the internal frame bars was odged back half an inch, allowing the bees to exit thie hive at this point, and then find their way out through the gaps in the external cork outer layer. I feard that the colony would not make it through the winter with such a potentially drafty home, allowing any hot air to leak out. But this clearly hasn’t happened – at least not in this past generally mild winter.
The couple of images here illustrate how much warmer the dark front of the hive is than ambient temperature, below, and my guess is that because of the overhanging insulated roof sheet, warm, and possibly even scent laden air, is more easily detected by the bees at their apex entrance, than when the bees are clustered towards the top of a more conventional hive, with its only entrance at the base.
A bit of research suggests that some bee keepers are indeed convinced of the possible benefits of additional, or even exclusive top entrance holes to hives, so my plan is to add holes to the honey supers which I shall shortly be putting onto our single most conventional, insulated National hive, which seems to have come through the winter in good shape, in spite of the current colony forming from a virgin queen and the dregs of the colony left behind after the 4 swarms which emerged from it last spring.
2 other colonies look to be functioning well, but my suspicion is that a third, which I filmed entering my box as a wild swarm 2 years ago, may be failing, after fighting behaviour was noticed over a month ago, and there’s no evidence of pollen being taken in yet, in spite of significant bee activity on sunny days. Pollen collection by returning workers is always a great indication that the queen bee is laying again after a winter pause, and the colony has young larval bees to nurture.
2 days ago, I finally got round to inspecting my original German butter churn based hive, above, which was the result of my very first swarm 3 years ago, when I captured it with some drama – as below.
The colony began to fail last May, and I was certain the hive was robbed out later in the year.
But this was the first time for me to observe just how impressive a job bees can make of constructing their own system of comb, left to their own devices. The images show how extensive and fluid the comb design is, without the rigid constraints of any artificial frames, and also how it’s braced and secured both to the roof and sides of the butter churn.
My plan is to now rework this “hive” with some external cork board insulation, give it a new top and base, and probably new small top and, maybe, bottom openings and re-locate it off the ground in a suitable tree, closer to the garden, with no plans to ever harvest any honey from this particular colony. I’ll post an update when this is complete. My hope is that it might then attract a swarm into it later this year. Fingers crossed.
At last, we have enjoyed a few consecutive days of wonderful spring sunshine, even if the winds are a little chilly and strong. Our garden visitors are now reducing in frequency after our busiest ever period, and we’ve had a wonderful time with so many interesting people seeking us out. Thank you to them all for coming.
However, this seems the appropriate time and post to record that after 12 years of opening for the NGS we have recently, apparently, notched up our first formal complaint to the NGS head office, and this from someone who never properly looked round the garden, but just came on an insisted upon recce in advance of a group booking, also arranged in advance of our official opening on February 1st. I don’t even know the precise nature of the complaint, since this wasn’t passed on to me, though I can guess, and wasn’t even that surprised to hear that feathers had been ruffled. I suppose one can’t please all the people all the time, and I acknowledge that I’m definitely becoming grumpier as I get older. If they’d got as far as our greenhouse on their brief visit, they’d have noticed the clue on the door…
However, rather as with the incredibly difficult decision for world statesmen of how to interact with someone who likes to flex their muscles geopolitically, one feels that at as a private gardener prepared to share their time and space for charity with complete strangers, a line has to be held as to what is reasonable, and what isn’t.
Should one kowtow to all requests? (The word “kowtow” came into English in the early 19th century to describe the typical low Chinese bow of respectful greeting, but its meaning soon shifted to describe any abject submission or grovelling).
My answer to both of these points is an emphatic no. On some matters we’re not prepared to budge from how we prefer to do things. We’ve had years of working out and experimenting how we’re able to open for visitors over a long season, and try very hard to tell the garden’s story on the website, and also to create an enjoyable experience for all who make it here, but as with everything in life, there’s always scope for improvement, and learning from novel experiences. Our website advice and information for potential visitors has been tweaked, yet again, in the light of this recent episode.
Finally, I’ve reflected on my occasionally mentioned favourite garden themed story, by Oscar Wilde, and note that at some point soon, this selfish mortal will inevitably age, fade and fail; the petals will fall; and the opportunity to explore this special, magical, secret garden will have passed.