Here today, gone tomorrow

I love eating fruit and veg, which is why for the past few years I’ve tried to grow some of my favourites. I’ve had great success with courgettes and this year is no exception. In the last couple of years I’ve managed to produce scraggy looking mange tout plants, bearing very few pods. I gave them one last chance this year, in a different part of the garden. Success! I’ve picked  more than I had in the entire last few seasons and more flowers in evidence!

I like adding garlic to my cooking so I bought some properly prepared bulbs which I planted back in October, along with some shallots. Here are some of the fruits of my labours – they’ve had 10 months of tlc and this is the best some of them could do for me! However I am pretty proud of my garlic plaiting and I’ve used some of the shallots in a chicken casserole I cooked today – surely I must be entitled to call myself a domestic goddess.

I’m hoping my tomato crop will be better than last year – I’ve got lots of plants and many flowers that are now revealing tiny green fruits – so 🤞. Last year the crop was feeble and they ended up getting blight – there’s still time …

The mini apple trees I inherited from my Dad both look healthy – one has produced plenty of apples. I’ve had to pick some off to give the remainder the chance to grow to a decent size – that’s what the professionals advise anyway. Nature is supposed to do some of this for you, but it seems to have been caught napping in my garden. There were as many as 6 bunched together – apparently you should only leave a maximum of 2. I couldn’t bring myself to be that ruthless so I’ve compromised at 3 – I hope I didn’t pick off the wrong ones. The other apple tree has, if nothing else, been consistent in only producing one fruit, and that was stolen by a squirrel last night. I wouldn’t mind but it’s eyes were clearly bigger than it’s stomach – it’s left most of it!

The strawberries I’ve picked have been delicious – much nicer than the supermarket ones, but small quantities – 8 to date to be precise – but there are more flowers. I’m seriously thinking of giving up on raspberries and blackcurrants.  Blackcurrant Ben Sarek is frequently recommended for growing in pots. The label says “Both vigorous and high yielding, producing heavy crops of very large glossy black fruits”. It goes on to refer to the “heavily laden branches”. Well, once again Ben’s failed to perform for me in spectacular style – below is my entire crop – there’s no sign of any more flowers so, no hope! It’s a similar story where my patio raspberry bush Ruby Beauty is concerned. “Easy to grow producing an abundance of fruit with a traditional raspberry flavour” it says – well Ruby’s failed to impress – to date I’ve had 12 – admittedly they were delicious and thankfully tasted of raspberry. There are another 10 ripening – I’ve got net over them to stop the birds tucking  in before I do. What am I doing wrong? They were planted in John Innes No 3, pruned according to the instructions, mulched, watered and fed – they’re so ungrateful.

I had a modicum of success with broccoli last year- first time of trying. So far this year I’ve had lots of healthy looking leaves but no sign of anything resembling broccoli you could eat. I went away for 24 hours to see Tom Jones perform in Scarborough (he was amazing by the way – did you know he’s 82?). Anyway on my return I found devastation on a major scale. I’d had the broccoli plants netted but they were bursting out at the seams so I removed it. The plan was to install a netted frame around them – but I wasn’t quick enough. I painstakingly picked off all the plump caterpillars waddling round on what was left of the plants, and chucked them over the back fence – in the circumstances very charitable don’t you think? I figured either birds would eat them or they might hatch into moths or butterflies. There were also some unhatched eggs which I admit I squished with great glee – looking at what’s left of the plants I’m not hopeful.

A week ago everything in the garden was looking a bit limp on account of no rain and tropical temperatures – my 5 water butts were empty. I’ve bought a 6th which Grumbling Rose connected last weekend. Thanks to my keen powers of observation and grasp of physics I noticed he’d installed the feed pipe at an uphill angle. I gently pointed out there would be no hope of overflow from it’s neighbour. A few adjustments were made along with some muttering I couldn’t quite make out. Thankfully that evening there was a downpour of biblical proportions, so now they’re all full – just in time for the hosepipe ban that’ll probably be imposed after next week’s heatwave.

Maybe holidays and gardening don’t mix?

My goodness, I can’t believe it’s nearly 2 months since I’ve posted anything. I have been a tad busy though. I retired from paid employment in mid-June, but in the preceding couple of months I was heavily involved in the handover process. I’ve enjoyed a series of amazing retirement celebrations and gifts, which have left me feeling thoroughly spoilt. In among this I’ve been doing a University course on creative writing for non-fiction – don’t be expecting miracles though! I learned about different writing techniques and what to avoid – I realised I do all the wrong things, but will probably continue to do so! (excessive exclamation marks included). I submitted my assignment last week so 🤞.

I’ve also been on holiday to St Maarten – it was wonderful. One thing that struck me was how few insects I saw – hardly any flies, bees, wasps or mosquitoes – I’m wondering why? Was it the time of year? I hope it’s not due to insecticides. Do you know? I’m usually a magnet for mossies, but not one bite! A week home and I’m sporting 6 bites courtesy of beasties in my own garden. This is despite dousing myself in 50% DEET and lashings of Avon Skin So Soft. I’ve identified the culprits as flower bugs. I know it wasn’t midges as they’re minute, whereas flower bugs are 3-4 mm long. I’ve seen them on my skin, but not quick enough – by that time they’ve already taken a chunk out of me. The bites are quickly surrounded by a bright red area of inflammation the size of a 10 pence piece. They soon develop a large blister in the centre, which over time starts to ooze, before drying out – very attractive (not). They itch like hell and leave dark red scars for weeks afterwards.

While I was away I was lucky enough to have two friends willing to share the watering of my multitude of garden pots. I’m so grateful. It dawned on me as I was watering the night before I left, it was a very big ask. I regard the treks up and down my garden steps with a full watering can in each hand good exercise, but I realise this isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. It set me thinking that if I’m to ask again, I need to make it easier for them, or even make it automatic. I eagerly unpacked  a cheap watering system I ordered online. I was faced with  2 reels of narrow tubing and a multitude of brackets and sprinklers. The destructions were in a choice of English or German, but I suspect translated from Chinese. The diagram annotations were in minus 5 font. Anyway with the aid of a magnifying glass and my superior powers of deduction, I got up and running after a bit of a setback, due to lack of understanding of hose attachments. Grumbling Rose contributed plenty of high volume advice, I felt at times verging on the sarcastic – “didn’t you learn at school which way to turn a tap on/off?” Mind you, I’m not so sure he had either, as at one point a wrench was required to unscrew one of the fittings he’d supposedly been undoing.

My other big thanks has to go to Rosie and Daisy who were press ganged into minding Lily for the week we were away. The issue for them wasn’t so much Lily’s tendency to refuse to move another inch while out on walks, decline to eat breakfast when trying to get her off to day care in the mornings, before going to work, or to do her final wee before bedtime. No, it was her snoring of epic proportions during the night. Rosie and Daisy had to resort to separate rooms and take it in shifts to have Lily as their bed partner. I’m doubtful we’ll be able to go away for more than a night without Lily again. Thanks to everyone for making it possible this year though.

A Growing Family

This week I’ve had absolute confirmation that our tenants, Mr & Mrs Blue-Tit are now parents. For some weeks I’ve seen one of them making frequent visits to the Tit Box. I’ve read up about their nesting habits and have gleaned that this will be the male – he feeds the female while she keeps the eggs cosy – I believe it’s known as ‘courtship feeding‘. I hope he brought her some treats and had read up what is and isn’t advisable to eat during pregnancy. When I was expecting Rosie I had no idea I shouldn’t be eating prawns, brie, pate and peanuts – luckily no ill effects for me or her (at least I don’t think so).

Poor Mrs B-T will most likely have laid between 8 and 10 eggs. Apparently she’ll have laid one each day and it’s pretty precise – this will have been at around 0600 – no “stretch & sweep” or inducing medications needed for her. Imagine how convenient it would be if we could time our children’s births this exactly – even an elective Caesarean wouldn’t give you this level of certainty. I hope it’s not been too painful for her as no gas & air or pethidine available here – I’ve not heard any wailing or swearing at Mr B-T – hopefully he hasn’t said anything ridiculous like ‘you’re nearly there‘ when you’re only 2cm dilated. You could say she has plenty of time to recover between deliveries, but of course as every day goes by she’ll have more and more hungry mouths in the same bed, demanding to be fed, while she continues to pop out their siblings. The eggs can exceed her body weight (combined, not one – that would be positively eye-watering). Imagine if our babies exceeded our body weight – in my case, even if I had sextuplets, that would mean each baby would weigh around a stone or, to be fair, maybe slightly more.

According to my research Mrs B-T will have started sitting on her eggs when she knows there’s only one more to go – how does she know that? It’s not like she has a photo of her scan to refer to? This phase lasts around 13–15 days – heaven – she can put her feet up while Mr B-T delivers tasty morsels. I do know we’ve passed the hatching stage now as I can hear lots of high pitched chirping coming from the nest box and Mr & Mrs B-T are spending what seems like all day flying back and forth carrying tiny portions of food. They swoop at some considerable speed, straight into the box through a hole that is only a few centimetres in diameter. Goodness knows what it must be like for the babies – it must be akin to a jumbo jet landing inside your house! Mummy & Daddy must be exhausted – much the same as we are when we’re new parents – although duties don’t tend to be quite so equally shared for us humans – Grumbling Rose was pretty good, but not keen on the night shift.

I’ve no idea where we are up to time-wise and I’m getting increasingly anxious about the fledging stage which is due to be around 3 weeks after hatching. The Tit Box is high up on our house wall, above our flagged terrace, so not a soft landing for the babies. I was wondering if I should cover the area beneath with our garden chair covers to act as a crash mat – what do you think? I really hope I get to see them fly the nest and that they all live to tell the tale. I’m determined to install TV in the Tit Box in time for next year’s breeding season – hopefully that will be an added incentive for our tenants to return and if they do, we’ll be able to spy on them.

Survival of the Fittest

I’ve done it again – both my plastic greenhouses and the conservatory are full of seedlings. The likes of Monty, Carol and Alan use words like “cathartic“, “therapeutic” and “relaxing” when showing us how to prick out our seedlings. They use various instruments to help with this task – Carol favours a chop stick. This week I decided to prick out my Laurentia seedlings. These are grown from minute seeds so it’s not possible to give each one its own little starter home. They have to be sprinkled as thinly as possible on the surface of compost in a seed tray. This results in a mass of tiny seedlings popping up very close together.

Our TV gardening experts are full of advice when it comes to handling seedlings – “disturb the roots as little as possible“, “don’t hold them by their delicate stems” and “only hold them by their leaves“. Funny, I’ve never seen them prick out any seedlings as small as Laurentia. Not to be deterred I began to attempt to separate the seedlings with an old orchid support. I realised very quickly there was no way I wasn’t going to disturb the roots – they were all intertwined with no substance to them – like gossamer.

I quickly lost patience – this was winding me up rather than helping me unwind. As I tugged them apart there seemed to be more roots left in the discarded compost than attached to the stems! There were some casualties but I ended up with over 30 seedlings, and despite enduring ill-treatment they’re looking remarkably happy in their new homes. These are not their forever homes of course – in a few weeks’ time, when Jack Frost has run out of energy, I’ll be able to plant them outside in my patio pots.

Welcome and unwelcome visitors

Victoria and Albert have some unwelcome visitors – they heard something run up their outside wall during the night – rats have got into their loft 🙀 Apparently they are particularly drawn to warm, cosy lofts during cold weather – they’re very intelligent creatures, so that shouldn’t be a surprise really. A few days after the discovery, I accompanied Lily into the garden first thing and noticed she was sniffing at something. From what I could get into focus, with no specs to hand, I suspected it may be a dead bird, but venturing closer I discovered it was a rat. It had found its way to the middle of my lawn and that was where it had departed this life. Where was Grumbling Rose when I needed him – no use to me on a ski slope in Bulgaria. I gave myself a strict talking to – ‘don’t be so pathetic, you’re a grown woman, this is a dead rat, it can’t do anything to scare you etc etc’. I fetched a garden spade from the garage and still sporting my fluffy pink dressing gown, I scooped the little body up (on the spade, not in my arms) and attempted to catapult it over the back fence into the undergrowth of the woods beyond. Unfortunately my lob was what can only be described as pathetic, meaning the deceased landed only a few inches the other side of the fence. I tried to find something long enough so I could lean over to pick it up again and improve on my performance, but it was too much of a drop – so there it has stayed. I haven’t dared to investigate what stage of decomposition it has now reached, but Lily is still drawn like a magnet to that corner of the garden and has to be bribed to come away – luckily I can’t smell a rat.

On a more pleasant note, I have some welcome visitors to the garden, in the form of blue tits checking out our Tit Box. One keeps landing on the opening, its head rapidly swivelling 360o (how do they do that?) – presumably checking there are no competitors or predators nearby. Eventually it disappears inside for a quick tour before emerging and flying off. Apparently in late Feb and March they shop around for the most desirable location they can find to raise their brood. Victoria’s got a couple of nest boxes so I’m hoping they don’t opt for one of those instead of mine. Of course there are a lot of blue tits around, so I can’t be sure the pair I observe periodically during the day are always the same couple – there could be many prospective tenants – I hope so – as long as there’s no fighting. I will only know for sure that we are the chosen ones if nest building commences – this could be any time in the next 3 months – I hope mine can’t wait and get on with it quickly. Hopefully in not too long I will see evidence of moss and other snugly materials being taken into the box by her. I say ‘her’ because the female is the one to build the nest – her mate just hangs around nearby, probably getting in the way, making sure no other tit gets an opportunity to mate with her. Studies have revealed that there is a high incidence of at least one chick in a blue tit nest not being the child of the male that ends up rearing them – presumably he never finds out – although there could be a blue tit equivalent of the Mallen Streak?

I don’t spend all day spying on the Tit Box – I have been doing some gardening too. I’ve been using some of last year’s compost from my numerous garden pots to mulch the borders and I’ve been planting more seeds. The first set of temporary shelving has found its way into the conservatory and the other will need to follow very soon.

The dahlia tubers I stored in the dark in the garage in the autumn were all furry when I unwrapped them, so I had to bin them. I’ve bought some replacements though. I spied a packet of the ‘Cafe au Lait’ variety when Victoria and I were on one of our many garden centre visits recently. I was smitten and hope mine will end up looking as magnificent as the one in the photo below. I’ve planted them in pots in accordance with an article in Amateur Gardening which says if you start them off like this indoors now, when they sprout you can take cuttings from them and get even more plants for free – I’m not quite sure how you take the cuttings so I’ll need to do some Googling. My Choisya cuttings still look green after over a month so I’m keeping everything crossed they are rooting – I still haven’t bought any new rooting powder …

Preparing for the year ahead – and beyond!

Rosy and Daisy are getting married next year – very exciting! Preparing for a wedding today seems very different to when Grumbling Rose and I got married over 40 years ago. My Mum & Dad did most of the organising – well, my Mum did the organising and my Dad paid up! I went to my first wedding fair with Rosy last weekend – I don’t recall there being such things back in the 80s. There were all the stands you’d expect – venues, photographers, rings, cakes, table decorations, stationery, cars and wedding attire. Entertainment was also high on the agenda – singers, musicians, comedy acts, photo booths and selfie mirrors, to name but a few. What I hadn’t bargained for were stands touting tooth whitening and straightening, botox and fillers – mind you, maybe I should look into this. For some reason every exhibitor immediately assumed Rosy was the bride to be? The one thing I would have expected, that wasn’t in evidence, was flowers – a bride needs a beautiful bouquet don’t you think? This is a slightly fuzzy and faded photo of the one I carried, mainly made up of fragrant roses and stephanotis.

When I arrived home from the wedding fair I discovered a casualty on my driveway. The strong winds we’ve been having had ripped the trunk of my very old Choisya from its roots – its other name is Mexican orange blossom, which is much easier to say! I’m really sad – it usually flowered both Spring and Autumn and I enjoyed the beautiful fragrance each time I got in and out of my car. Having read that they root very easily, I hastily took some cuttings, in the hope that I can grow sons and daughters of Choisya. However I don’t hold out too much hope because the Problem Page in the latest edition of Amateur Gardening, delivered the crushing news that you should replace your rooting powder every season – mine has seen at least 10!

This week I’ve been in a tidying mood – well when I say that, on my list was a choice – tidying gardening stuff or clearing out wardrobe – the gardening stuff won – the wardrobe is too daunting. I have 2 boxes in the garage in which I keep my small gardening tools, gloves, bottles of plant feed, rooting powder (might replace), slug deterrent (I don’t kill them, just make things taste horrid for them) etc etc. Having turfed everything out I had to give the boxes a brush and a shake – I found all sorts in the bottom – dead spiders, dried out leaves, soil and for some reason a nappy pin? Anyway the contents now look really orderly – that won’t last long! Next I tackled my old bread bin which serves as storage for seed packets. This task started to look as overwhelming as I imagine the wardrobe will be. I counted no less than 84 packets! They were nearly all “free” with either Garden News or Amateur Gardening which Victoria and I share. I pulled myself together and decided to group the packets into some semblance of order, based on the months when they could be sown and whether that would be in or outdoors.

I’d promised myself (and Grumbling Rose, who is handily away ski-ing for another week) I wasn’t going to start sowing seeds quite so early as I did last year. If you remember our conservatory became a greenhouse for at least 6 months 😬. However, I discovered quite a number of seed packets that advise to start from January and February, so I thought I better get a move on! My incubators house 8 little cots so I chose to sow Alyssum, Cerinthe, Chilli, Cleome, Laurentia, Lobelia (trailing and upright) and Malope (never heard of these but they were free with Amateur Gardening and Sarah Raven looks impressed with them) – oh, and I also sowed some more sweet peas. I have taken my propagators (I do prefer the term incubators) into the conservatory but I’ve put them on the floor, concealed by a chair – I will have to prepare Grumbling Rose for the reappearance of my temporary shelving next month though.

Actually I did sow some sweet peas, larkspur and violas in September but they’re in one of my plastic greenhouses and look to be doing OK-ish although there are a number of no-shows, particularly among the violas. By the way, I am sowing for two now, as I will also hopefully be supplying plants for Rosy and Daisy’s garden.

I just have to show you this – I’ve also been sorting through some of my Dad’s belongings this week and I came across some of his school books – this is one of the pages from his Botany and Zoology exercise book dated 1949 – he would have been 16 – pretty impressive I’d say!

Just a couple of quick updates since my last blog – there’s been no sign of prospective tenants checking out the Tit Box but I think you’ll agree, Rosy’s amaryllis has flowered spectacularly!

Floral Notes

At this time of year I do admire the plants that manage to flower spectacularly outdoors, despite the cold. If I was out there 24/7, I don’t think I could manage to look in any way cheerful and certainly wouldn’t smell as nice as some of them do. The fragrances coming from the flowers of Mahonia and the Viburnums are beautiful. I get to appreciate them while I stand on the terrace first thing in the morning in my dressing gown, warming my hands on a mug of tea, making sure Lily does eventually do a wee. You’d think when it’s frosty and blowing a gale she’d want to get it over with as quickly as possible, but no, it’s a process of round and round the garden and spinning in circles, for what seems like an age, until she identifies that perfect spot on what is not a huge lawn. I’ve planted a Christmas Box in a pot right by my back door – returning to the house, I marvel how such tiny flowers can produce such a powerful perfume.

My indoor plants are providing lots of interest too. The Christmas Cactus that once belonged to my Mum bloomed magnificently in October, which seemed a tad early, but has now done so again, which seems a tad late, but an added bonus. The Oxalis Triangularis my sister propagated fascinates me – for obvious reasons it’s also known as Butterfly Plant, Purple Shamrock and Love Plant. Apparently it’s edible, but I don’t think I’ll chance it as it can be poisonous to cats and dogs, and after all, they are humans with 4 legs. She also gave me a cutting of what we think is a kind of African Violet – it’s produced several strangely beautiful purple and green frilly flowers.

For some Christmas fun I decided to set up a bit of a competition for my daughter Rosy and her partner Daisy. I potted up an amaryllis bulb for each of them. I was a bit worried when the time came to give them their gifts, as there was clearly a slight difference in progress. However they’ve both come up trumps and as one is nearing the end of flowering, the other is about to burst forth.

Talking of which, I saved two amaryllis bulbs from last year – one has stubbornly produced nothing, but this morning I opened the curtains and was greeted by the sight below. The same can’t be said for my indoor hyacinths – I followed all the advice, nurturing them carefully, but this is all they could muster for me. They still smell incredible though!

Something else I’ve been dabbling in is shocking plants into flowering. I’ve read that putting orchids in a cooler place and depriving kalanchoes of light for a short while can do the trick. I have to say, I think if I was a plant, I would definitely be spurred into action by such treatment. Anyway the experiment seems to have worked on one of my orchids, so the others have now been put in my cold greenhouse (woops I mean conservatory). My kalanchoe was banished to the attic for some time – to be honest I forgot about it – but it has come up with the goods, although I don’t think the flower stems should be that long (they’re not on the ones in the shops) – the length is a result of desperately searching for some light I imagine.

It’s RSPB bird watch this weekend – we’re asked to give up an hour of our time and report the different types of birds that land in our gardens. I’m going to participate tomorrow – I hope I get more than pigeons and magpies visiting – I might have to use a bit of artistic licence on the timeframe. Talking of birds, over New Year we had a holiday in Northumberland and while walking round Holy Island, Grumbling Rose spotted some home-made ‘Tit Boxes’ for sale in someone’s front garden – there was an honesty box nearby to raise money for St Mary’s Church. Grumbling Rose aka Peter Pan (he has never grown up), found the term hilarious and was keen to buy me one. Today he installed it under duress, as we are probably already too late to attract any residents this year. I have to admit there was some danger involved because we have experienced extremely high winds since last night, and the task did mean climbing a ladder, to reach the ideal height of 4 metres. The first attempt resulted in a box that literally bounced against the wall when the wind blew – any avian couple scouting around for a suitable home to raise their family would be thinking they were in the midst of an earthquake. Anyway, another screw fixed the problem, so now we’re waiting for viewers!

A Berry Merry Christmas

Some of the songs we hear for weeks on end, before we actually get anywhere near to Christmas, are full of references to plants we associate with the festive season. The Holly and the Ivy is probably the obvious one. I always thought it was quite a cheerful little carol, but on looking into it, the Holly represents Jesus’ thorny crown, the red berries the blood he shed and the Virgin Mary is represented by the Ivy. More recently Taylor Swift has released what is, in my opinion, a pretty depressing track entitled Ivy and of course there’s Poison Ivy, recorded by a multitude of artists over the years, but thankfully we don’t have that variety in the UK!

Apparently we’ve been using Holly to decorate our homes since mediaeval times – her prickles are supposed to ward off evil spirits. We love to poke bits of her behind pictures at Christmas and hang her on our front doors. You often hear people declaring with great confidence that it’s going to be a harsh winter because there are lots of berries on the Holly trees. Horticultural experts remind us that it’s the Spring weather that affects the supply of insects needed to pollinate the flowers, and the warmth of the sun in the Autumn helps the berries to ripen. Mind you, especially cold winters do often coincide with an abundance of berries, so I like to think there’s something in it.

Ivy creeps into my garden from the woods behind – I don’t encourage her because she can quickly invade space I want to use for other plants. However I feel there is plenty of room for her out in the woods, so I don’t feel at all guilty. People often say she harms the trees she climbs up, but in fact she doesn’t usually – she makes her own food and has her own root system. She provides a food source and shelter for birds, bees, butterflies, moths, bats and a multitude of insects including those pesky wasps, that actually do so much good – sorry but they’re not my favourite so they can stay out in the woods too! 

Bacchus, the god of wine, is often depicted sporting a garland of Ivy and Grapevines on his head. I’ve just discovered that this is said to prevent you from getting drunk – why didn’t I know this before?! (Note to self for next night out). Ivy is also a symbol of intellectual achievement – in Roman times winners of poetry competitions and athletics events were crowned with Ivy leaf garlands. On account of my aversion to strenuous exercise I won’t be expecting an award for my sporting prowess, but having now written a couple of sonnets, odes and haikus I reckon I might be in with a chance.

I think Mistletoe gets most musical mentions in golden oldies such as I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree, Ring Out, Solstice Bells (does anyone remember Jethro Tull?!), Cliff Richard’s Mistletoe and Whine (oh dear ….), Shaky’s Merry Christmas and Mariah’s chandelier shattering All I Want For Christmas Is You. The tradition continues with Justin B’s Mistletoe and Ed and Elton have just added themselves to the list – the lyrics of Merry Christmas also feature the custom of kissing under the Mistletoe. This is thought to have started among English servants in the late 18th century – a man was allowed to kiss a woman if she was standing underneath Mistletoe. On the face of it this sounds OK if she meant to be there – you’d like to think she wouldn’t be if there was anyone creepy in the vicinity. However the tradition takes on a bit of a sinister twist, in that it was said that bad luck would befall any woman who refused a kiss, which rather infers there may have been some duress involved. Mistletoe is associated with paganism – for them the white berries symbolised male fertility, with the seeds resembling semen – so that could be where the root of this custom lies – this is all becoming a bit disturbing – I’ll move on. 

Like Holly, Mistletoe is reputed to ward off evil and also to have medicinal powers such as prevention of epileptic fits. It does have a bad reputation though because it’s parasitic, but it’s only likely to weaken the host tree if it’s allowed to get out of hand. Victorian gardeners believed mistletoe seeds had to pass through a mistle thrush in order to germinate. It’s not as specific as that, but some birds love to eat the berries and naturally excrete the seeds, which stick to tree bark where they start to germinate. The journey through the bird will soften the seeds, much in the same way as before planting we soak seeds such as Sweet Peas and Morning Glory to encourage growth. I don’t think we could ever achieve anything the size of this sculpture my sister and I admire from a distance when we visit our local RHS garden at Christmas time – we think they should choose a sturdier branch to attach it to!

Tenbury Wells, which is officially the ‘Capital of English Mistletoe’, has an annual festival devoted to the plant during which a Mistletoe Queen and a Holly King are crowned. In my writing, I have attributed the female gender to Holly and Ivy, only because they are commonly used as girls’ names. In fact most Holly varieties, Ivy and Mistletoe are dioecious – while unpronounceable this simply means they’re either male or female and the female needs a male nearby in order to produce berries. In folklore Holly was regarded as male and Ivy as female. This gave rise to a belief that whichever plant was brought into a house first after Christmas Eve, would predict whether husband or wife would rule the roost for the year that followed – not that there’s any doubt about that in our household but I’ve set a diary reminder just in case Grumbling Rose is under any illusions.

Remembrance

There are a number of plants in my garden associated with remembrance. Rosemary is an obvious one. Apparently the ancient Egyptians adorned coffins and tombs with sprigs of rosemary and the plant has historically been associated with memories of loved ones who are no longer with us.

A plant that always evokes fond memories of my parents is the forget-me-not. Their garden was full of them – I pinched some before their house was sold and popped them into mine. They have of course reseeded with great gusto every year. 

Legend has it that a knight toppled into a river and drowned while picking forget-me-nots for his lover. Unfortunately the weight of his armour didn’t help the situation but before he disappeared under the water, he managed to call out “forget-me-not” as he threw the flowers to his lover who was standing helpless on the bank. I suspect their name is more to do with the fact that once in your garden you would be hard pushed to get rid of them – but then why would you want to? If they pop up in the wrong place you can move them or dispatch them if you really must.

Remembrance Day has come and gone again – we must never forget the many who have made the ultimate sacrifice for us and those who live on, bearing life-changing battle scars. This year I partly watched and partly listened to the remembrance ceremony while gardening – well to be honest while assembling my new plastic greenhouse. While observing 2 minutes silence I started thinking about the tradition for wearing poppies and how that had begun. It seems that the red corn poppies grow best in earth that has been disturbed – battlefields have sadly provided perfect conditions for them. Poppies were said to be one of the only plants growing in the battlefields of Flanders in 1914 and they became a symbol of those who had sacrificed their lives in wars since WW1. John McCrae captured their significance in his poem In Flanders Fields and the poppy subsequently became the symbol adopted by the Royal British Legion charity. I will let you know how their poppy seeds fair when I plant them next spring – I imagine they’ll do well as I’m not very diligent at digging and improving my soil! In 2014 ceramic poppies filled the moat at the Tower of London – 888,246 of them – representing every British and Commonwealth soldier who died during WW1. When the artwork was dismantled all of the poppies were sold to raise money for service charities. I bought one for Grumbling Rose – it lives in our garden in warmer weather but comes inside before Jack Frost starts to visit.

I discovered last week, while researching for my family tree, that one of my great uncles – Horace – was killed in Flanders in 1917. His joining up papers in 1914 state “apparent age 18 years and 6 months” but he was in fact only 16. I couldn’t help feeling heartened to learn from his service record that he clearly had spirit – before leaving these shores he had several spells in the guardhouse for being absent from barracks without permission, using obscene language and being insolent to his superiors!

Horace was 19 when he lost his life – a brave boy – I will always be proud of him.


Garden Art

Flicking through the RHS Magazine I often linger over the ads for garden sculptures – I’m more drawn to the contemporary metallic style than the marble classics with all their bits on show. Most of these artistic creations are way out of my price range. However I am lucky enough to have inherited a beautiful dragonfly, sculpted from Sheffield stainless steel by a local artist. It was a retirement gift presented to my Dad so it holds a special place in my heart.

I’ve written before about Jeremy, my frog ornament – he never looks very happy with life. I have a tiny frog too – Kiki – she currently sits on the corner of a low wall – I need to find a better place for her though – I keep kicking her as I pass by – not intentionally of course! I also have a motley assortment of little stone birds – actually I think they may be concrete, judging by the damage they’ve suffered to various parts of their tiny bodies.

I really must do something about my sundial. I bought the concrete base about 10 years ago from a local charitable organisation – they operate a workshop for people suffering from long term mental health conditions. After several coatings of milk and yogurt and general weathering it actually looks quite old now. The sundial itself is old but it’s still not fixed to the base. Some years ago I looked up how to position a sundial correctly. I went into a state of denial as phrases such as ‘magnetic deviation‘ and ‘the angle of the gnomon‘ leapt out from the page.

I’m not exactly sure what a gnomon is, but I do have a resident garden gnome. He was here when we moved in 18 years ago. I didn’t find him for several years as he was hidden in an overgrown rockery. He’s very dirty, pale and battered but I haven’t the heart to turf him out of his home. I had thought of getting him refurbished but I’m not sure he’d be grateful. There was an article in Garden News recently about Simon Horton who has set up the “Gnome Surgery”. Unfortunately an apology had to be issued the following week for referring to him as David Horton (of Vicar of Dibley fame). Simon sounds to be a lot nicer than David. Despite his wife’s disapproval, he’s always kept gnomes (Simon that is – David just wouldn’t, would he?). He decided to refurbish them when they gave their garden a makeover. Since then he’s received requests from people to do the same for theirs (gnomes that is, I don’t think he extends to gardens). At the last count he had put a new lease of life into around 50 – he does it for free because he enjoys it and likes making people happy – he is definitely nicer than David!

It’s been a good few weeks for misprints – the latest issue of Amateur Gardening features this advice – “These are the best pants to give you fragrance in November” – it made me laugh so much, I could have done with some of those pants!