Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Those pesky varmints ...

Winter's chill is just a fading memory, the slow start to Spring is behind us now, so we can begin to look forward to summer without a care in the world . That's what I thought. Until today.

Yesterday plants were putting on new lush, tender growth and making up for a sulky start to the season. New foliage was just perfect, growing strongly and making up for lost time. I was gazing fondly at all this perfection around me...

Then ...


As of one, all the pesky varmints came out of hibernation or hatched or were spawned from Hades, and I swear they did it in unison! Slugs, snails and the dreaded Lily Beetle have all made it their duty to decimate my lovely new foliage.

My pride and joy, the Fritillaria has literally been ruined overnight. The culprit is the bright red Lily Beetle, which I keep an eagle out for at all times. You can't miss it. It's bright red! It wasn't there yesterday, I swear, but I counted six in one place today. I don't like to use chemicals in my garden and prefer the age old tradition of squishing culprits underfoot or with my fingers. These Lily Beetles have such a hard carapace that they are very difficult to squish. They also show great cunning, as they immediately flip onto their backs when you try to catch them,so that they blend in with the soil. They can make themselves as invisible as Harry Potter.

Check them out in their unadulterated state on my post 'I'm feeling plant envy ...'  only a couple of days ago.

I hadn't seen a single Lily Beetle in my garden until 2 years ago, when only a week after being warned about them by a friend, they arrived en masse and made themselves right at home.

This is a leaf from my Angelica. It is about a metre high already and was looking very statuesque, but it has been badly nibbled by a snail or a slug. We do try to be organic, and try to keep pests down by natural methods (squishing). Slug pellets do not really fit in with our ethos in the  garden, and also, can be harmful if eaten by Fantail Doves who know no better, or dogs, who just hoover up anything which is not attached. We will be trying traditional methods to keep the snugs (collective noun for snails and slugs!) at bay. The beer trap, the egg shell barrier, grit , the greasy band, squishing fingers ... all will be employed.

The emerging leaves of this Ligularia have been spoiled before they have even unfurled completely.

There are four large Gunneras in the garden and every leaf is pristine ! Go on varmints, I dare you, take a chunk out of that bad boy !

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Waiting in the wings ...

In a previous post , 'Theatre, darling, but not as we know it ...', I took my first tentative steps into the mysterious world of the Auricula when I stumbled across a stall run by the ' Northern Section of the Auricula & Primula Society', on a jolly in a Gateshead Festival.

Auriculas are a flower I have always wanted to grow but never ever have ... until now. From the stall I bought 9 little Auriculas, 3 each of 'Red Gauntlet', 'Avril Hunter' and 'Lilac Domino'  and brought them home, with no expectation that they would flower until next year.

I was told that Auriculas prefer plastic pots to terracotta ones,  as they are slower to dry out, so I did as I was told, but for aesthetic purposes, put the plastic pots inside some very old, handmade clay pots. I was lucky enough to buy these pots from a local stately dwelling, which was having a clear out, for about 10p each, or some equally silly amount !

I put the pots on the windowsill in the greenhouse and while I didn't forget about them, I certainly didn't examine them daily, in that manic way that we gardeners have when we are expectant ! I expected nothing, as I was told that they would not flower until next year .... but look ...

Sometimes I wish I was not such a parsimonious gardener ! I am so MEAN with labels and I never learn. I know, through very bitter experience that I should label every pot, but I have this thing about not wasting labels, so if there are two plants the same, I will only label one, thinking I will remember its twin. In reality, as plants play musical chairs around the greenhouse, I seldom remember what unlabelled plants are. You are probably way ahead of me on this one. Did I label each one of my 9 special new Auriculas ? What do you think ...  The upshot is that, embarrassingly, I have to admit I don't know the name of the one which is in bud. My money is on 'Lilac Domino' with 'Averil Hunter' coming a close second, and I'm pretty sure that 'Red Gauntlet' is a rank outsider.

Anyway, the flower looks as if it is going to be very dark, and certainly very beautiful, when it opens. I will be camping alongside it, camera poised, to record the event!

For the full backstory , you might like to visit 'Theatre, darling, but not as we know it...'

Saturday, 27 April 2013

No more sulking ...

It's not only people who can sulk,  plants can sulk like moody adolescents ! This year mine seemed to sulk more than most.

It was all due to the weather, I blame it all on the weather. The cold early Spring weather, coupled with low light levels, meant that seeds were slow to germinate and even slower to 'get away'. Even those in the propagator didn't perform at their usual rate. Germination was slow in there, and the percentage of germinated seeds was a lot lower than normal.

I sowed some Ricinus Communis and they languished in the propagator for weeks before deigning to show green,and only about 40% bothered at all. How's that for sulking! I haven't checked it out, but I have a feeling that the seed just rotted in the cold, damp compost.

All the others, to be fair, did eventually throw off their bad moods and make an appearance, but once they arrived they stayed small for a VERY long time.

This season I have sown various seeds  -  Delphinium 'Pacific Giant', Cosmos 'Cosmonaut', Dahlia 'Bishop's Children', Tomatoes ('Tigerella', 'Sweet Baby' and 'Harbinger'), Chillis, Peppers, Aubergines, Butternut Squash, Runner Beans, countless Sweet Peas and Courgettes.  I started in early February with the Chillies, Aubergines and Peppers as they need a long growing season to mature and bear fruit. The squash, beans and courgettes I sowed only about ten days ago and they are all romping away in very good humour.

Here are some 'before' and 'after' photos, to compare growth rates. The 'after' photos show the effect that warmer weather and higher light levels have had on growth, as most of these young plants are now nearly where I would expect them to be. All the seeds , except squash, beans and courgettes, were started in the propagator, and kept in the conservatory with heat on cold nights. The temperature did not dip below about 7 degrees.

Now, that's more like it ! They need repotting now, as the roots are starting to come out of the bottom of the pot, and they are crowding each other out.

Again, they are asking to be potted on so they can steam ahead. Because they are crowded they are a trifle leggy, but when I pot them on I will just set them much deeper in the pot, to diminish any bare stem.

These poor little tomatoes, I have never known such erratic germination. They nearly all came in the end, and, as usual, I have got enough tomato plants to start a shop !

Hmmm, not very proud of these ! They are still little tiddlers compared to other years ! I know they will catch up, but I hope they are not late to fruit because of this slow start.

By comparison, these Courgettes were planted only about ten days ago so they have not been affected by the cold, and have had a good start. They have not had their growth slowed down and are healthy and strong.

Likewise the Butternut Squash. Full steam ahead !

But the Zinnias are still sulking ...

Friday, 26 April 2013

I'm feeling Plant Envy ...

I'm finding Blogging very addictive. So addictive, in fact, that this morning, when the sun was shining and the birds were singing and the weeds were growing, I was not where I should have been. No, I was inside, on the laptop Blog hopping and country hopping.

 I must admit to a pang of envy, as I visited wonderful blogs in far away places, far away from the icy winds and heavy grey clouds we so often have in England. The flowers in the photos on these blogs were truly stunning, exotic blooms, and I wished, for a second, that I gardened there and not here, in cold old England. There, I've admitted it now!

Then I took my camera and went out into the garden with my camera and looked - really LOOKED at what is in flower now, in the garden. I realised that the flowers here are every bit as beautiful as flowers anywhere in the world ! We also are lucky enough to be able to grow a vast variety of flowers from different parts of the world, due to our climate.

This lovely Aquilegia is a bit of a cheat, on my part, as they are not yet in bloom in the garden. This one is still in the pot I bought it in from the nursery, and is further on because it has had some protection. Although I have Aquilegias, and their self-seeded offspring all over the garden, the colours are becoming a little washed out. I loved this strong colour, with its dark buds, so thought I would add it to the gang ! I will save the seed from it and grow more next year.

This lovely Bergenia is years and years old. It flowers reliably every year with no reward except a forkful of horse manure .

The Fritillaria must be one of the most unusually patterned flowers there is ! Truly fascinating. The white one intrigues me, as I am unsure whether it will remain this colour, or change as it ages. Maybe someone with more experience of growing them can advise me ?

A couple of days ago I was delighted to see the first white flash, from the kitchen window, indicating that these blooms were open. This is Magnolia Stellata, the less showy cousin of the popular magnolia Soulangeana. I must admit that I prefer these more delicate, star-like flowers. The tree is still young, and this is the most prolific it has been to date. You can see the hairy flower buds, to the right of the flowers, and they appear, tantalisingly, in the midst of winter, with the promise of Spring to follow.

Yes, even  the humble Aubretia looks exotic in close up! The stalwart of the sixties rockery is still to be found in most gardens, slipping over a wall, or edging a bed. This is a larger flowered variety than the usual. I give mine a severe haircut once it finishes flowering to keep it from becoming leggy.

If I had to choose one plant to take to a desert island it would probably be this one. To me it has everything - year round colour and form, fantastic foliage, interesting flowers,and a mad contrast between the two! It is hardy, easy and reliable. Who could ask for more ?

This little primrose has such delicately coloured flowers, and such a good flowering season.

These naughty Honesty plants self seed all over the place, and I am loathe to pull them out. By early Autumn, the 'silver pennies' of the seed cases give additional interest to forgotten nooks and crannies. 

The first of my tulips - elegant, sophisticated, understated, fabulous ...

I wish we had smell-o-vision ! These Hyacinths smell wonderful ! I have a growing clump of pink hyacinths, which started life as an indoor display of 2 bulbs in a bowl. When they had finished flowering, I planted them outside, and they must like it, because there are more every year.

Well, my plant-envy has all gone now, and I am happy once again with the great diversity we can grow in our climate. Still a wee bit envious of all that sun though ...

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Plan 'A' ... Operation Wildflower ...

Last year we had a wildflower 'meadow' in the 'orchard', which sounds much more impressive than it really is ! In reality we had a strip of wild flowers at the edge of the grass, in an area of the garden which is home to  a few  little fruit trees which are not even as big as me! Anyway, we were quite pleased with it ... until strong winds flattened it, from which it never fully recovered.

We chose an Annual mix ('Standard Annual Mix') from 'Pictorial Meadows', which changed colour throughout the season, from pastel pinks and blues, through to strong reds and russets. It did what it said on the tin ! The photo above was taken during the change of colours, so you can still see the pastels, but the stronger colours are coming through, with the red of the Field Poppy. It contained, amongst others, Shirley Poppy, Californian Poppy, Cornflower, Coreopsis, Larkspur, Toadflax and Linaria. We were late to sow, because we ordered the seed late and had to wait, due to high demand, but everything grew well and caught up and it flowered until the first frosts.

I tried a mini experiment one day, when it was in full flower, and shut my eyes and just listened to the sounds coming from it. It was alive with the buzzing and humming of a huge number of bees and other insects. When I turned to the grass and repeated the experiment there was little to listen to. The wild flowers were responsible for encouraging a huge number of bees, butterflies and more into the garden.

We have plans ! Plan A was to grow the annuals the first year (check); leave the seeds to ripen and disperse where they grew (check); leave the area fallow through the winter (check) then to sow perennial wildflower seed this Spring (hmmm !).

There have been one... no ... two, big hold ups !

Two huge piles of prunings, branches, xmas tree, accumulated garden rubbish were standing in our way.

So, it all had to go !

It was a fantastic bonfire, if a little scary as it was so fierce !

This is what it looks like now, but with a little work, it will soon be ready to sow .

The ground is warming up nicely now, but what to choose !  Last year we bought from 'Pictorial Meadow' and were very pleased with the results, but when I went online to order their Perennial mix I was horrified to find that they have run out until AUTUMN ! Eek ! I will have to scout around to find an alternative. I liked their choice of short-lived perennials in the 'Pictorial Meadows' mix, which included White Chamomile, Red Scabious, Evening Primrose, Purple Mullein (Verbascum Phoeniceum), Gypsophila and Silene Armeria. I will look for its equivalent - any suggestions welcome !

My theory for 'Plan A' is that the slow growth of the perennials sown this year will be bulked up by the self seeded annuals from last year. So, it should be ok ...

If it all goes pear-shaped we may need Plan B -  which is more lovely Annuals sown again this year, or a fire pit for more lovely bonfires !

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Standing room only ...

There has hardly been room for me to squeeze into my greenhouse lately, as tender plants sheltering from the extremes of winter, jostled against trays of growing seedlings.

For the past month it has been standing room only as seeds have germinated, grown, and needed pricking out, taking up more and more space. Because it has been so cold I have not even been able to decant my young hardy plants outside, so they have kept their place in the warm . All the large tender Exotics have still needed the protection of the greenhouse too.

I couldn't even get to my chair, nevermind sit in it !

Here are some of the tender boys who have needed the protection over the winter - tree ferns, palms, variegated phormiums and a very sad Stags Horn fern. I fear I may lose the Stags Horn fern, which would be a great shame as I absolutely love it. 

But ... look at them all now , released into the great outdoors ! Free at last! 

Although the weather is a lot warmer,  night time temperatures can still be low, with a danger of frost, but they should be able to cope with it. We have just kept the tree ferns inside as we don't want to put them at risk.

At last they have space and air around them and they can benefit from the spring sunshine.

So, now I have my greenhouse back, and I have room to sit and ruminate ! I have room to pot on my young plants, and I can start to plant in the open beds. I can sit and drink a cup of tea or even a glass of wine, on a nice sunny evening!

I can get to everything again, and use my potting bench without falling over things.

There is even room for The Dark Destroyer to ply his trade !

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Hello to old friends...

I spend a lot of time in Spring walking around the garden talking to, no, not myself, but to old friends who are returning. Those emerging plants which WERE NOT THERE last time I walked down the garden and are suddenly unmissable ! They seem to appear to thrust through the soil overnight. It is such an exciting time of year, filled with surprises for me, as I tend to forget where these star players are in the garden, until they turn up again.

This year they seem glossier, more vigorous and stronger than ever.

This Hosta has shoots which look like talons at this stage. They are at an ideal stage to split -  and just before the stage where I need to put a campbed next to them and go on 24/7 slug-watch !

The lovely glossy young leaves of a Ligularia, which I think is Dentata. It is, like the Hostas, prized by slugs and snails alike ! I have had lovely plants decimated overnight, some years.

This looks much more exotic than it really is... it is a lupin which for some reason (maybe the cold weather) is much darker leaved than usual. Note photo-bombing by naughty dandelion !

Here are the fresh new leaves of Berberis  Thunbergii Atropurpurea, which are part of a newish hedge, replacing a hebe hedge which was lost in the 'Great Freeze of 2010'. The leaves are at their best when they are new as they tend to fade a bit throughout the season.

More red leaves ! This is a new Climbing Rose 'Antique', planted in the Autumn, and clearly happy and healthy. I can't wait to see the big soft pink flowers when it finally blooms.

At last - a green one ! This is one of my blackcurrant bushes which is bursting into life in the veg garden.

There are lots of new ones every day, and it is a lovely time to evaluate the garden, when you can still see the 'bare bones' of the garden (the unchanging elements) and the beginnings of the 'flesh' (the planting that fills out the skeleton). The clarity you find at this time of year becomes less obvious as the season progresses and the plants lose their early definition.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Expect the unexpected ...

Birds in the garden are expected and encouraged. We put out a variety of food throughout the year to encourage different varieties - Niger seed for Goldfinches, fatballs for Blue Tits and so on ...

Here are some birds we were very surprised to see, as they were most unexpected !

Last summer I found this Sparrowhawk in our conservatory, nursing an injured wing and, I think, mild concussion ! Our garden forms part of its hunting territory and, sadly, it considers my fantail doves to be a great delicacy. I think it dived down on a dove and somehow flew through the open doors and collided with a window. When I found it, it was very stunned and holding its wing at such an odd angle I feared it may be broken. I was so keen to help to back to freedom that I threw a tea towel over its head so that I could approach it, then lifted it up and perched it on my fist. It was only when I uncovered its head and looked into those piercing golden eyes that I realised I may have taken a bit of a risk ! A look at the talons gripping onto my hand didn't make me feel any better ! However, I took it to the open door and it took a deep breath, and then took off without a backward glance, full strength recovered. It was fantastic to get so close to it and I was relieved all fingers were intact after the encounter !

You can see the odd angle of the Sparrowhawk's wing here, it was lucky to escape a more permanent injury.

Our other unusual visitors also appeared last summer ...

If you look closely you can see six little chicks which had just hatched. They are extremely well camouflaged ! I found the nest and the egg shells amongst the geraniums, so they must have been there for quite a while without me noticing. I was looking forward to watching the chicks grow, but when I checked it out online, I found out that as soon as they are hatched the mother leads them away from the nest and they never return. I watched them walk down the garden, all in a long line behind their mum, until they disappeared into the orchard next door.

We now have up to half a dozen pheasants roosting most nights under the Box, and I don't know if they are the grown up babies or not, but I like to think they are.

Finally, here is a baby that only its mother could love ! 

My Fantail doves regularly lay eggs and sometimes I substitute plastic eggs for the real thing, to keep numbers down, and sometimes I leave the eggs to hatch. This little one was a total surprise as the parents had built a so-called nest (a few sticks !) low down in the wood pile, and the first I knew about it was when I heard this one begging its parents for food. I have to admit it is low on  cuteness, particularly compared to the fluffy Pheasant chicks. However, in about two weeks those feathers had grown and he was beautiful !

All Gardening Sites