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!

As Summer Into Autumn Slips

So wrote the poet Emily Dickinson. Well it’s definitely Autumn now – the leaves are turning the most beautiful colours and the temperatures are dropping. Although we’ve enjoyed some hot, sunny days in September and even into October, it can’t really be described as an ‘Indian Summer‘ because, other than a week at the beginning of September, it’s just been odd days when the temperatures have shot up. I have to admit I always thought the term ‘Indian Summer‘ was connected with South Asian India. However I have recently been educated by ‘Amateur Gardening‘ magazine. It is thought the term was first referred to in writing in a book written by J. H. St. John de Crèvecoeur in 1778 – ‘Letters from an American Farmer‘ – the author was a soldier who later became a farmer. He wrote about the north-east region of New York State and neighbouring Canada – Mohawk country:

Then a severe frost succeeds which prepares it to receive the voluminous coat of snow which is soon to follow; though it is often preceded by a short interval of smoke and mildness, called the Indian Summer.

When this occurred American Indians* could carry on hunting for longer before the snow came. Perhaps I can be forgiven for my ignorance as the term is said to have reached the UK during the days of the British Raj in India. Apparently before this we would describe warm, sunny weather occurring in September and October as St Luke’s or St Martin’s summer – personally I can’t recall anyone using these terms – can you?

In my garden in Autumn I look forward to picking the apples from my 2 small trees – one of them only managed to produce a single fruit this year and that was stolen by a squirrel. The other is hanging on to what looks like too many apples for its size! You’re not supposed to tug the apples off the tree, even if they look ready. Instead a gentle twist should detach them when they’re ripe enough. For the past few years I have protected mine as they get near to ripening, by popping them in sealable plastic bags with small holes cut in the corners to let the water out. This was a tip gained via an unnecessarily lengthy YouTube video – it doesn’t look great but it does seem to help minimise attacks by wasps and codling moths – it seems to deter the squirrels too (I was too late with the one I lost). I do reuse the bags year after year in case you were thinking this isn’t very eco friendly. Clearly it wouldn’t be very practical for a larger tree, unless you had oodles of time to spare!

Autumn also means I receive a mountain of plums from my friend’s tree. I like to stew them and have them for breakfast with some yoghurt. The stoning process was even more tedious this year though – the tree produced many more fruits than usual but they were much smaller in size. While I’m stoning them I always think about a time when I was around 4 years old. I got up far too early one morning and went into my parents’ room – they told me to get back to bed. I disobeyed and crept downstairs to eat some of the delicious plums I knew were in the fruit bowl. I swallowed a stone by mistake and ran to my parents panicking. My Dad was very cross and told me the stone would grow into a fruit tree inside me. I was petrified for a while until they calmed down and reassured me this would not be the case, but that I could have choked to death!

Another October memory is the annual Halloween party held in my school House. The main event took place in the cellar of the Victorian building. The sixth formers organised the ‘House of Horrors‘. This involved being blindfolded before entering the room and screaming hysterically while delving your hands into trays of revolting substances, supposed to feel like blood, guts, eyeballs, furry spiders etc. If this wasn’t enough we then went upstairs into the sixth form common room to be read a ghost story by the House Mistress. This was always accompanied at some stage by someone tapping on the window from the outside, a loud thud from the room above or a blood curdling scream from somewhere outside the room. Who provided these special effects we never knew but they made us jump and it’s a wonder we slept at night after that!

There are still some signs of summer in the garden – the recent winds snapped the stems of some of my sunflowers but I have been able to pick them and enjoy them indoors.

*The National Museum of the American Indian advises that ‘American Indian’ or ‘Indigenous American’ are currently the preferred terms to use.

It happens every year …

The garden is still full of flowers but I can’t help feeling a bit sad – it won’t be too long before the weather changes and the brightly coloured summer flowers are gone. Somehow gardening in the winter isn’t quite so appealing as getting out there on a warm day! However this year I will be investing in some serious thermals – mainly on account of the impending rise in gas prices – but they will also come in handy when outdoors.

I’ve been taking stock of my garden – what’s gone well and what’s been a “disaster daahling!” (Strictly is another sign that winter’s on its way!). My mini pond has not been a triumph – all the plants I put in originally – gone – eaten – by larvae and tiny snails – at least they enjoyed them! The only consolation is the birds are using it as a swimming pool – I don’t mind the sparrows but when a pigeon gets in there it’s like a tsunami.

I’ve had lots of tasty tomatoes but now they’ve got blight – luckily Victoria has a bumper crop and is passing on regular supplies. Courgettes have been a bit hit and miss and I won’t be bothering with mange tout next year – this is my second year of failure with them. I will be growing broccoli again though. My sister gave me 2 plants which have produced plenty of spears despite me nearly giving one of them up for dead when they were both savaged by caterpillars at the beginning of the season – they have fought back valiantly.

The sunflowers have been a great success this year – that is until the squirrels chewed off their beautiful heads. I have been quite pleased with my attempt at creating a packed herbaceous border with plants grown from freebie ‘Garden News‘ seeds . Next year I need to group several of the same plant together for more impact. To be honest I’m hoping everything will self-seed and all will come up in the right places – unfortunately this is in my dreams. Another thing I’ve learned this year is that I need to move plants that have self-seeded to a more appropriate place while they’re small enough. This year I have been both irritated and enthralled by a purple toadflax that decided to set seed right at the front of the border. Its has grown almost as tall and wide as me but the bees love it so I haven’t had the heart to chop it down.

Up until very recently we paid for our lawn to be cut but I am forward planning to my retirement and looking at ways to cut back. So, I suggested to Grumbling Rose that we buy a lawn mower – “it will have paid for itself in a year” I said. He agreed – as long as I was doing the mowing! The gardening mags are full of how to care for your lawn at this time of year. My purchases have now extended to a strimmer/edger and a grass feed/moss killer distributer – think it will be a couple of years before we see the benefit of our investments. The advice is also to rake your lawn. I borrowed a grass rake from Victoria and Albert and set too. It was hard work and I have a slow to heal blister on my hand to prove it – I needed a sit down part way through! I couldn’t believe how much moss and thatch (dead grass to you and me) I raked up – the lawn looks as though it has been in a fight and Lily didn’t do anything to help – she was always in the wrong place at the wrong time during the raking process! I have also been educated regarding grass feeds – for a start I didn’t realise there is a Spring variety and an Autumn variety. Apparently Autumn lawn feeds are low in nitrogen, as we don’t want to encourage any top growth, which can be soft and easily burnt by frost – we know all about frost. The spring feeds quickly help the grass to start growing again and control any weeds that are present, plus kill off the moss that might have invaded the lawn over the winter. I found half a box of Autumn feed in our garage but although there wasn’t a use by date on it, even Grumbling Rose agreed we shouldn’t use it as our paid grass cutter has been doing all this for at least 10 years, so it must have been sat there for at least all that time! The instructions for use are quite frustrating – apply to dry grass but damp soil – we’ve had no rain for ages so the ground is rock hard – it’s due to rain this week so probably need to wait for that to happen first. Keep pets off until watered in – so once applied need it to rain quickly before Lily can venture out safely.

What has gone well, after a dodgy start, is the Morning Glory and those notorious Cerinthes have mustered a second flowering – the flowers are smaller than the early ones but very pretty – and as for the verbena bonariensis – look at these – why did I fret so much! The final word has to go to Captain Sir Tom who is making a magnificent second appearance – many buds – I hope the blooms last as long as the first round!

Wild Things

I’ve not long returned from a few days on the Northumberland Coast.  One day instead of walking along the beach, we walked along the tops of the dunes from Low Newton by the Sea to Embleton, passing a number of beach huts along the way. While of course they have amazing views, most are pretty run down – no mains electricity and running water for only part of the year. Despite this they are very sought after  – there’s one on the market for £140k! However my attention was more drawn to the wildflowers we found along the way – Grumbling Rose got a bit impatient because I kept stopping every few minutes to take photos, with the intention of identifying them later. I haven’t had a huge amount of luck on that score – I still have many I can’t put a name to, despite my Googling efforts – any help gratefully received.

The names we commonly know wildflowers by interest me – the origins of some are obvious – bluebells being a prime example. But how about harebells? Granted they look like bells but what’s with the ‘hare’ bit? The story goes that witches disguise themselves as hares and hide among bluebells – but it could just be that they grow in places where hares are commonly found.

I’m pretty sure I found a Bird’s Foot Trefoil – for those like me who don’t know what trefoil means , it’s from the Latin trifolium –  “three-leaved plant” – the flower does looks a bit like a bird’s foot. Apparently it’s a favourite with beekeepers as they (the bees not the keepers) love the nectar. I also saw red campion. These flowers are said to guard bees’ honey stores, as well as preventing us finding the fairies – I have to say I didn’t see any!

Quite a number of wild flower names include the word “wort”- butterwort, lungwort, woundwort and St John’s Wort ragwort was one I found on our walk. These plants have historically been used for medicinal purposes in oils, balms and poultices. ‘Wort’ is a word used to describe infusion of ground grain used in the production of beer and whisky. I guess the method could also be applied to making medicinal potions.

When we got back home, I had to make a half-hearted effort to be seen to be helping with putting away holiday stuff before I could disappear into my garden. One job I tackled straight away was deadheading the foxgloves. I love to see them in my garden – I can’t look at them without thinking  of Jemima Puddleduck. Their scientific name is Digitalis which means ‘finger-like’, so this fits with the ‘glove’ bit. One piece of folklore is that foxes wear the flowers on their paws so they can’t be heard when out hunting. A bit like the harebells – it’s more likely they grow in areas where foxes live.

Of course we need to be aware that while they look beautiful and may have medicinal purposes, many plants can also be dangerous. Foxglove contains a chemical which can be used to treat heart failure and high blood pressure under controlled conditions, but it’s highly toxic if eaten.

I‘m a regular visitor to our local RHS garden and spent yesterday afternoon there with my sister. We decided to walk there and back to get our 10,000 steps in, although there was an ulterior motive as our picnic consisted of delicious Betty’s salmon and prawn sandwiches accompanied by a can of Pimms each. We sat by one of the lily ponds and were joined by a squirrel, a blackbird and two robins – they all had some of our bread so that saved us a few calories. The highlight was the appearance of a large dragonfly, darting back and forth across the water. Between us we took a ridiculous number of photos in an attempt to capture it – not literally of course. It only actually featured in two of mine – I like to think the pink glow at the top of the photo is caused by the sun, but I think it’s more likely my finger!

I’ve been playing at being a famous wildlife photographer  in my garden too – as well as the birds and the bees there are so many butterfies around at the moment. You’ll be glad to know I didn’t take a photo of the dead rat I found when I pulled back some montbretia, while searching for space for pulmonaria plants (lungwort), donated by Victoria – Grumbling Rose was summoned to deal with the rodent!