Sunday, 30 December 2012

A hundred today

Working for honey
Last June I pressed ‘publish’ for the first time and my life changed, perhaps forever. Little did I imagine that by the very last day of the year I would have made a hundred posts. 

My thoughts were then, that I would make two posts a month, max! Blogger ‘Shirl’ warned me, don’t let it take over your life! She warned me not to neglect my garden to manage my blog! Two new words have entered our family vocabulary, ‘blogbore’ and ‘blogweed’. The latter has become a generic term for ‘neglecting the garden to manage the blog!’ I deny that I have!

My learning curve has been steep. As a web dinosaur I knew nothing about blogging. Things like links were as big a mystery to me as to the rest of my generation. I had done my first few posts before I knew that if I clicked a coloured word in the text of my own post it sent me somewhere out in the ether. A friend had faithfully followed my blog for eighty posts before he learned that if he clicked ‘comments’ he could have his own say. 

I was advised that I should promote my blog by making comments on other web-sites. Once I discovered I could, with huge effort, pass the robot test - and even that I could have another try if I failed - I was away. I now look back with some disquiet at my earlier strident comments in other places. I should have signed myself Victor Meldrew! 

Clearly I had help. I would like to thank my two dear friends Cathi and Harry who held my hand, designed the site graphics and edited and placed my first posts. 

Part of my learning curve has been with regard to the site archive. My mental image was of a dusty place that no-one visited. I thought that posts just languished there and, although digitally preserved, had really gone forever, just like old books cluttering the bookcases around our house. Not so, and it has been fascinating to see in the google blogger statistics how old posts continue to live. Some posts soar high quite quickly, some like my glyphosate series are ‘slow burners’ where ‘hits’ build up steadily, and some are just duds!

Right from the beginning everyone said that wildlife pictures are popular. How right they were! This suits me fine. Not only do I love animals, but I was anxious to explain how I create wildlife habitats by my minimum cultivation methods and the use of glyphosate. Without this chemical management tool I could not maintain five acres of rich wildlife habitat in my 

Posts remembered

Poetry in motion
The bumblebee posts were popular

Let me go!

Harry rescued this beauty trapped in my garage and while the hawk remained quiet, confident and defiant in his grip, Brenda and I could not contain our enthusiasm as we snapped away. We still cannot agree who took the best pictures. Here he is a few days later- still in charge!

King of the castle
Busy butterflies

The Open day photographic competition brought in some very fine entries. Very special thanks to the husband and wife team Martyn and Lesley Webster.

Still whistling

When Sue Doherty started her new blog 'Chicken Whisperer', the play on words with Whistling ducks was too much to resist. Sue’s recent post is shear genius!

The one that got away

I was sorely tempted to enter the Bishop of Llandaff (with his little goatee beard), for the recently vacant Archbishop’s post. On further reflection I decided that the blog might not go down very well at the palace.

And three misses 
I could not resist taking a picture of one of my ‘babies’ from my old Bolton Percy garden.

The corn marigolds in the next door field were so superb. I think I will try again next year  

The black panther did not bite.

The Lily beetle created a few gasps - of horror! 

The ghost of posts to come

I have waited a long time to publish this picture. The end of the year might be just the right place!

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Yule blog

We could not find a cracker, so have sent you a grenade.

Just in case you are wanting to work off all that Christmas fare and take a little exercise, I can recommend this handy tool for splitting logs.

And if you would like to get back to plain food, this is my reminder of a simple Autumn lunch.
Report of my attempt to have ripened green tomatoes at Christmas.

When I finally cut down my tomatoes five weeks ago, the remaining green ones went into a open cardboard box in the garage. Any that were not eaten or hadn’t ‘gone off’ subsequently found themselves in a tray on our conservatory floor! You can see that they don’t look very appetising!  I tried one yesterday, it wasn’t very sweet but was pleasantly piquant. I hoped to persuade Brenda to do something with them rather than throw them out! 
And indeed she has come up trumps. They have gone in with some over-ripe peppers and turkey stock to make a delicious soup.

These did not appear on the Christmas table!

Monday, 24 December 2012

Christmas card

Digging-in manure on Christmas Eve

... and scraping clinker from a Robin Hood  greenhouse boiler on Christmas morning!
Reminiscences at Christmas

There was a stunned silence when I announced to my teachers at Hartlepool grammar school that I had been accepted at Wye college to attend a degree course in horticulture. Nobody from the school had ever become a gardener. My father, a lecturer in mining engineering, knew nothing about gardening but did know about education. I am ever grateful to my parents, who enabled my childhood passion to become my career. Before college it was necessary to have a year’s practical experience. I was interviewed by Mr Grubb to be a gardener at Hartlepool Parks Department. He accepted me to work at the main parks nursery.

The parks  town nursery
To my horror and embarrassment, the nursery adjoined the grammar school. The school was set in woodland and when, as pupils, you came through the school gates failing to wear your cap and ‘Death’, a senior teacher, saw you as he walked to school...well, what befell was a dark secret.
As a pupil I had never noticed that, on entering the school gates and turning left behind a barrier marked ‘private’, nestled the parks nursery. The nursery’s prime function was to produce the town’s summer and winter bedding and, perhaps more important, to produce prestigious plants for municipal functions. 
Mayor-making was the highlight of the year. We produced giant pot grown chrysanthemums. Alec Fox, the foreman, had his little book with the chrysanthemum stopping dates, all different, for a hundred varieties. A particular memory is of the giant 6ft nemesia in 10 inch pots. It was a ‘secret’ technique, they were autumn sown and overwintered. They were from Alec’s own special seed which he lovingly saved each year.

My first day
I was greeted by Alec Fox standing at the glasshouse door. I can see him now - smiling, dressed in a collar and tie and smoking his pipe. He promptly told me to go home and look for another career! There were no jobs for graduates in gardening. I have never regretted failing to take his advice. To be fair, ever after that, he encouraged me and taught me much. I was never quite allowed to pot plants, a year or two of experience was necessary for that. Alec would turn in his grave if he saw how I pot now! Foxy would later reminisce about his ‘private service’ time in the bothy in the late twenties at Alnwick castle. Absolutely fascinating.

Doing the headmaster’s flowers.
Part of the nursery’s ‘public relations’ was to do a flower arrangement in Mr Holden’s grand study first thing every Monday morning. I have to tell you that at that time I was painfully shy. It was to be my first task every Monday to do the flowers. I dreaded it. Headmasters in those days maintained their image with luxurious large offices and big shiny oak uncluttered desks. It was with a sense of relief that I returned to the nursery without seeing a teacher!

Learning about life
You learn a lot when one of  your mates is a newly married ex-dustbin man five years older than yourself! There is plenty time to talk when sitting in a cold, open shed washing clay pots all day. It would be rather risque´ to tell how my education progressed, what I can say is that my new friend taught me much about gardening. In particular, he introduced me to a book by a Japanese rice grower. It was a fascinating account of natural methods of growing, in situ recycling of organic matter and zero cultivation. An obscure, thin paperback, it would influence my life. Recent correspondence on this blog informed  me that it was written by that great Japanese father of natural gardening, Masanobu Fukuoka. His famous book, ‘The one straw revolution’, is recorded as being published in 1976. The mystery to me is that I remember so clearly discussing the book whilst washing pots in 1961!

Lots of digging to grow wallflowers 
Hartlepool town had wonderful spring bedding, a major component of it was wallflowers. It took more than an acre of ground to grow them and it all had to be dug! It had to be dug deep and look beautiful! Two of us dug all day for six weeks. Ironically, my mate, the one who introduced me to the no-dig guru, was himself a gifted craftsman digger. His work was a wonder to behold -  although perhaps not when the digger next to him was me! It was exhilarating digging on a sunny autumn day. Less so, on a cold, cloudy, wet Christmas Eve. Alec’s instructions were that the plot should be finished by Christmas. We just made it. I well remember thinking that day, as I pushed my twentieth large heavy barrow of steaming fresh manure for two hundred yards, “what am I doing here?”
Parks’ lorries ferried copious amounts of manure to the nursery. It was quite alright to use fresh manure as the ground would remain fallow for the next four months.
At the end of May the wallflowers were sown. We had a hand-pushed seed drill and were compelled to sow in absolutely straight lines. Through the summer, we would regularly push between the rows another curious machine, a wheeled hoe.

Traditional spring bedding in the Valley gardens, Harrogate
In September and early October the lorries would return and the gardener/drivers, Eric and Jim, would lift the mature wallflowers with a garden fork. Woe betide if Alec spotted them just yanking them out!
It is important when wallflowers are bedded out in autumn (to flower in spring), that they are almost fully grown and have a few weeks when the soil is still warm to establish themselves in their new position.
These days I cringe when I see garden centers selling pots of spindly wallflowers in autumn.They are doomed to fail.
Alec used to do weekend and holiday boiler duty himself. That Christmas he was out of town. I don’t know what health and safety would say now, about an unattended, untrained young man doing the boiler!
Christmas cheer to all gardeners
The no dig gardener was also caught digging in these two posts. Here and here.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Variegations on ivy

It seemed a good idea to write about ivy as a plant strongly associated with the end of the year. Then it dawned on me what a task that would be. Ivy can impact so strongly on our lives, especially my own, where I have a love-hate relationship with it in my two cemetery gardens. I am, therefore, restricting myself to variegated ivy!  Many gardeners are a bit precious about variegated plants. I think they have wonderful potential to brighten a garden.

Ivy is not only a self clinging climber, it is a wildlife friendly ground cover plant which is so useful for tumbling over the side of a tub, basket or steep bank. I grow those ivies often sold as house plants, for planting outside as trailing tub plants. Most of these are varieties of Hedera helix and are completely hardy. We bed them semi-permanently in outdoor containers as a backcloth to summer and spring bedding, which we interplant into the gaps. When the ivies threaten to become too large, I prune hard. After a few further years I yank them out and start again! Propagating new ones is easy. Just grab a bundle of young shoots and, with their tips just visible, stick them in. We started to use ivy this way when one year I ‘temporarily’ refreshed a tub of autumn bedding with a few long sprigs of unrooted ivy shoots and, to our surprise, they rooted to make fine plants

Some variegated ivies such as ‘Eva’ and ‘Glacier’ are prone to revert Varieties such as ‘Goldchild’ are more stable. When buying a plant, closely inspect it to ensure it shows no sign of reverting. It is really important to prune out any reverted growth at first sight.
If variegated ivies are grown in extreme shade, the white portion of the leaf develops some chlorophyl and the wish-washy appearance is most unattractive

Ivies demonstrate the phenomenon of juvenility. Many perennial plants display distinct characteristics dependent on age. A classic example is when juvenile beech trees, unlike an adult, retain their dead brown leaves over winter. Clipping beech hedges maintains this juvenile condition indefinitely. Juvenile plants do not flower and, in the case of ivy, this condition lasts for many decades.This may be a very good thing if you want your ivy to creep and climb, but not if you want ivy flowers and fruits to feed the winter wildlife. The fascinating thing is that when ivy is propagated vegetatively by cuttings from the adult form, it retains it’s flowering capability and even can be used as a low standing shrub.

This thirty year old ivy covers a fence in my sister Marilyn’s garden. It has developed adult characteristics and also started to revert to green!

Ivies cling tightly with their adventitious roots. Plant  new ivies horizontally at the base of a wall. They will soon start to climb!
In my churchyard gardens, juvenile and adult forms of common ivy are everywhere. At this time of the year the flowers and fruits are an important food source for wildlife. The flowers produce pollen and generous nectar. The complete life cycle of the ivy bee depends on ivy.

song thrush

The berries are a food source for many birds including the thrush. The thrush is a bird that exhibits ornithochory. This is when a seed’s dormancy is broken by digestive processes in the gut and the seed is subsequently distributed over large distances. Ivy leaves are also an important food source for many insect larvae, especially caterpillars.

The dunnock does not want to nest in one of those fancy variegated things.
Beware, ivy can be a thug
If  ivy becomes too much and you pull it off, the above picture illustrates what you get! It is almost impossible to regain a pristine wall. The above photograph is just below a low window ledge and I have allowed the plant  to regrow from it's base. The photograph below is the same ivy a year after cutting back. The camera does lie however, there is only fifteen inches of new growth, but I do expect it to reach the ledge and cover up the mess this year.                      
Strong new growth from the base starts to re-cover the wall

Has Brenda’s son achieved a horticultural triumph or a problem for the future? I think it looks great.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Christmas cactus

Schlumbergera - the Christmas cactus is yet another of those plants with confusing names. You will be lucky if it flowers at Christmas but it is a true cactus, although you might not recognise it as such. As far as latin names go, it has been so hybridized between diverse genera and species that almost anything goes! 
Schlumbergera truncatus is now endangered in its natural habitat in Brazil. Indeed, matters have been made worse by introducing modern hybrids into the wild. It’s natural terrain is rocky, warm and shaded at about 1000 meters height.

It is pollinated by hummingbirds in the wild

When growing this cactus, it is important to recognize that it is not a desert cactus It does not need high light in summer nor drought in winter! It is described as an epiphyte and in nature grows on organic debris on the branches of trees under the leaf canopy. It also grows on shaded rocks in cracks and crevices. 

We used to grow zygocactus - as it was then called - at Askham Bryan 
College as a commercial pot plant for the Christmas market. In January, three cuttings were placed direct into John Innes No.1 compost into the same small pots in which they would flower later that year. They were watered and placed straight under the warm greenhouse bench! This otherwise wasted space is both humid and shaded - very similar to this cactus’s natural habitat. By October the ‘zygos’ were brought out and spaced out on top of the bench, where the brighter conditions were enough to induce flowers.

specimen cuttings

cuttings  inserted

Christmas cacti come in many colours - pink, red, white and yellow. It’s low light requirement makes it an excellent house plant. In autumn and winter we stand our pots in plastic hanging baskets in our east facing conservatory. We live much of our life in this room so it is quite warm! The conditions suit the plants so well, they flower twice, in October and March. They do look rather moribund between flowering, and even more so in summer. Having seen epiphytes stressed in the wild, I persuade myself that a few brown scars are part of their charm!

Foliage may go bronze if exposed to high light
If you occasionally forget to water, they don’t really mind. Ours get watered if I remember, about once a week throughout the year. Our own plants have a six month summer holiday in our very small, north-facing, glass entrance porch.
A good liquid feed for house plants is one formulated for tomatoes. Christmas cacti can be fed at normal strength every month throughout the year.
Some people have a problem with Christmas cacti dropping their flower buds. This might be due to low temperature or because there is insufficient winter light. Although in summer the plant will thrive away from the window in a bright room, winter light is much less intense and the days are short. Best that the plants are on a warm window-sill on the inside of the curtain. 

Poppy’s favourite perch. He does not permit humming birds

Friday, 14 December 2012

Pernettya harem, the acid truth.

Plant of the week

Pernettya mucronata, the ‘prickly heath’ is not very prickly, nor is it a heath! For that matter it’s not the genus Pernettya any more, they have changed the name to Gaultheria mucronata! I fell in love with pernettya when I worked at the Lancashire College of Agriculture. It thrived there on a heavy, clay-textured, poorly drained, acid soil. And Lancashire does get very heavy rain! The plant is a completely hardy evergreen suckering shrub. It’s magnificent pink, white or red berries last for six months.

Most plants have an achilles heel. This one has two! It must have an acid soil and it needs a male! Bolton Percy has a slightly calcareous soil pH7+ and for my 25 years there, pernettya would not grow. Now, at Boundary Cottage, where the sandy-textured soil is pH 6.5, it prospers.
Pernettyas are one of those plants described as dioecious. Like holly, they are male or female. You need to plant a horticulturally boring male to pollinate the female plants to achieve berries. Pollination takes place across several meters, so there is scope for planting plenty of females for just one male! I planted three females with red, pink and white berries. With their spreading habit and with light pruning in spring, they form fine clumps and merge well within an ericaceous border. The male tends to be rather vigorous so I prune it hard after pollination and, to keep it small, occasionally yank out suckering shoots.

Even the ‘boring male’ in the foreground looks quite nice on a frosty morning 

You might have to shop around to find a male, only good garden centers sell them. I am told that without a male you sometimes do still get a thin crop of berries. 
It is curious that the berries are not taken by the birds.The label will probably say they are poisonous, but this is in doubt. In researching this point I found this informative web-site.

Frosty december morning
Previous plant of the week posts


Opuntia engelmannii

Salvia guaranitica

Clematis integrifolia

Dicentra macrocapnos

Aster amellus

Monday, 10 December 2012

Book review: Wild flowers on the edge

The Story of North Yorkshire’s Road Verges by Margaret Atherden and Nan Sykes.

You sit up and take notice of the publication of a book with an original theme, written by two local experts about their lifetime passion. When it’s about native flowers and escaped garden plants that survive and thrive alongside the highway, and which provide sometimes  perilous habitat for wildlife, you know its going to be a good read. When you open the book and see headings such as ‘Ancient tracks to Modern Highways’ and ‘Nettles and Strange Onions’, you can anticipate something special. I was hooked by page three which depicts verges that reflect diverse Yorkshire roadside ecologies, everything between limestone grassland and moorland heath. A picture of Yorkshire Wolds chalk scenery overlooking the flat vale of York where I live, gave me a warm thrill.

  • The paperback is only 88 pages long. The first half reveals fascinating insights into the history, geography, ecology and management of the county’s linear wildlife habitats. The second part of the book is a beautifully illustrated compendium of nearly a thousand plants.
  • It’s a book difficult to classify. It has the beauty of a coffee table book, but not it’s  thick glossy girth or shallow content. It’s not a dry flora, but is an accurate source of information when you want to identify a plant. It’s a wonderful book to just dip into. If, like me, you like to curl up in an armchair and dream about beautiful plants, you will want this book on your lap.
  • As a means for a non-expert to quickly identify a wild flower it is second to none. As a flora, it’s text is unencumbered by latin names which can instead be found in the detailed index. If, as a gardener, you have a basic plant knowledge, enough to know whether a plant is a clover, buttercup, St John’s-wort, cranes-bill or speedwell, you can go straight to the right page where you will find a clear photograph, exact common name and a simple pen-picture. The illustrations are very good. I love the helpful page titles that aid plant identification. Headings like ‘small white look-a-likes’, ‘yellow daisies’, ‘white umbrellas’, ‘down in the ditch’, ‘hedge row trees and shrubs’.
  • It’s much more than a flora. The authors share their great knowledge of professional management of roadside vegetation. They explain how, by enlightened procedures, such as method, frequency and timing of grass cutting, rich habitats can be created. Every theme is supported by clear illustrations.They record good and bad examples of roadside management and rejoice in the fact that the use of herbicide is out of fashion. Although in general they are not censorious of poor management practice, they are rather scathing about men with ride-on-mowers who closely mow grass verges way beyond their own property.
  • The book describes how roadside flora reflects local ecologies such as land use, soil, rainfall, drainage and much more. In addition, roads have their own ecological drivers, such as salt. The book describes how salt-marsh and coastal plants have colonized roadsides for many miles.
  • I have many of the wild flowers, such as wild strawberries, arums and violets etc that are mentioned in the book, in my own garden, along with many of the weeds!  On verges there are no weeds and all plants have their place! 
  • Because the book does not group plants by latin name, each plant is identified by its traditional country name. We have a rich linguistic heritage: dewberry, hemp-agrimony, sneezewort, cuckoo-flower and lady’s smock, I could fill the page with evocative names. Not sure about Brook-lime though! 

Brooklime, a plant for boggy places, sprawls over my small pond. I prefer its common name, Veronica beccabunga!
‘Wild flowers on the edge’ is published under the auspices of PLACE, a registered charity based at York St John University. The final pages describe how you can get involved. It is available at YPD books.

Friday, 7 December 2012

All things bright and beautiful

              Beauty in miniature, looking back to November

I won’t call ox-eye daisy a weed any more!
log pile fungi
Sticky centres.  Saxifraga fortunei  ‘Autumn Tribute’
Perfect white droplets. Acis autumnalis, the autumn snowflake

The spider and the fly
Yellow jewel. Sisyrinchium californicum, yellow-eyed grass
 Red spot. Mimulus luteus, monkey flower, normally flowers in Spring
Little red bug, identification please, Daphne ‘Ernst Hauser’ is just 20cm high

Yellow cup, from a self-sown seed of Clematis 'Orange Peel'

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