A sunny May day is when the garden shifts into full-on growing mode, especially after a few damp days. You can feel it, there is exuberance in the air. Plants that were appearing in nooks and crannies now show themselves confidently and everything looks lush.
I can now distinguish the seedlings of self-sown plants that I want to keep – forget-me-nots, aquilegia, cerinthe, nigella, calendula, nasturtiums, ammi, cosmos, erigeron – from weeds that I don’t but it always takes me by surprise just how many pop up. There seem to be more aquilegias this year, most of them a deep purple with a few pink/lilac ones, and the forget-me-nots are spreading beautifully. I don’t mind how many of these little blue beauties grow, they can seed themselves all over the garden if they like. All of the ones that have grown this year are from a few plants my mother-in-law brought with her last year.
The briza is from a few small plants that fellow blogger Cathy kindly sent me last year – they have definitely settled in and made themselves at home (thank you, Cathy!). The borage and cerinthe are from plants I grew from seed last year. I read somewhere that once you have these in the garden you’ll have them for ever but I’m quite happy about that. The great thing about self-seeders is that you can hoik them out if they appear in the wrong place or carefully transplant them to the right place. The abundance of these plants fills me with happiness. Really, there is little more pleasing than finding a whole load of seedlings that will grow to produce some of my favourite flowers with absolutely no effort on my part!
Meanwhile, there are pots and pots, and trays and trays of young plants waiting in the wings for the weather to warm up a bit. Then it’ll be all systems go to get them in the ground, settling in and growing away in time for the great Garden Safari.
What do you imagine when you think of an orchard? The word has such idyllic connotations for me. It conjures up a particular image in my mind’s eye: dappled sunlight from a late-afternoon sun filtering through rows of gnarly old fruit trees, a blackbird singing its heart out, a gentle breeze moving the long grass which is dotted with wildflowers, the scent of ripening fruit in the air. It’s a serene scene and just the thought of it cheers me. There is an actual, real-life place that almost lives up to this – the orchard and meadow at Great Dixter. My heart skipped a beat the first time I clapped eyes on it but it’s too far away to visit often and I don’t think the gardeners would take kindly to me lying about under their trees on sunny afternoons.
My dream would be to have a little house in the middle of an orchard, but in the meantime (and this is very thrilling) we’re creating a mini-orchard of our very own. When we moved here, there were already a few low-growing apple trees, a plum (since gone), a greengage and a pear tree in the back garden but we always had the idea at the back of our minds to plant more at the front.
Our designs for planting the different levels in the front garden (the area that faces the sea) have evolved, as they do, and a few weeks ago we finally reached the decision to clear an area and plant some fruit trees. The end of the season for planting bare root trees (which are cheaper to buy and more likely to establish well than container-grown stock) was fast approaching but we managed to find most of the trees we wanted as 2-year-old bush, bare root stock from Blackmoor Nurseries in Hampshire. We ordered online and they arrived a couple of days later in a big cardboard box.
We ordered three apples, ‘Discovery’, ‘Red Windsor’ and a cooker, ‘Howgate Wonder’, two pears, ‘Beurre Hardy’ and ‘Doyenne du Comice’, and a ‘Victoria’ plum. We couldn’t track down a bare rootstock ‘Catillac’ pear (which I wrote about last autumn here) but I hope we can order one to plant next year in early spring.
We tucked our new trees into trugs of compost while we worked our socks off digging up overgrown geraniums and other plants to relocate, clearing brambles and weeds, moving rocks and levelling the ground. The space was carefully marked out, holes were dug, posts bashed into position, compost wheelbarrowed from the heap, and, finally, we were ready to plant our new trees. My mother-in-law was here at the time and it’s largely thanks to her that we achieved all this in such a short space of time. We truly have no idea where she gets her energy and drive but she galvanised us to get it done. (Our 17-year-old was even enlisted to help dig out an old tree stump!)
The trees are grafted onto dwarf root stock – M26 for the apples and Quince C for the pears – and will need to be permanently staked and they are planted a little closer together than recommended but we’ll keep them pruned so that enough air can circulate between them. They have 2-ft skirts of weed-suppressant fabric around their bases, covered with a thick layer of bark to keep moisture in and weeds down. David has laid a recycled stone path and we’ve sprinkled wildflower seeds on the soil in between. Newly planted trees do take longer to come out of their dormancy after planting, which can delay new growth, but there are already leaves and blossom on the apples and leaves are appearing on the pears. I’ve moved a seat down to the path so anyone going down the steps to see what’s what can sit a while and imagine how it will look in a few years.
Happily, we have had some rain since Monday and more is forecast for tonight, so I hope we won’t be using the hosepipe too much over the coming months. The nursery’s instructions were to remove any blossom and not allow the trees to set fruit in their first year – all their energies should go into establishing strong roots. I’m going to have to steel myself to prune off that blossom this weekend but I’ll admire it a little while longer…
Can you believe it’s May 1st on Monday?! It’ll soon be time to plant out all the tender stuff. I hope you have a lovely May Day weekend, whatever you have planned.
I was rummaging around in the greenhouse yesterday when I spotted an enormous bumble bee on the floor. She (I’ve no idea whether it was female but I’ve decided it was for narrative purposes) looked a bit done-in, still alive but definitely on her last legs. I lifted her carefully onto a plant tray and carried her outside, then rushed indoors to make some sugar water – I remembered this is The Thing To Do for exhausted bees from CT’s excellent blog (she is my go-to person for wildlife info). I squirted a pea-size of honey onto a spoon, added a little water and mixed it together, then I carefully put the spoon under the bee’s head. Amazingly, she stuck out her proboscis and started drinking with great big thirsty gulps! I actually spilt the liquid off the spoon in my excitement and called my daughter to bring her phone to video this Wonder of Nature. We both knelt down and watched the bee drink her fill, both awe-struck and full of delight that we were helping her. She took a while, then had a little wander around on the tray, cleaning the dust off her back, head and antennae with her legs, drank a little more then buzzed her wings a little. She took a couple of practise flights, lifting hesitantly off the tray and landing again. And then – hoorah – she flew off. Oh yeah!
I like to think that our bee is will survive for as long as possible, visit all our bee-friendly flowers, drink the nectar and pollinate as she goes. I was going to show you a little video of our bee drinking the spilt sugar-water but WordPress won’t let me upload it. I’d have to set it up on YouTube and link to it and, frankly, I can’t be bothered at this time on a Saturday evening after a day spent gardening and a couple of glasses of wine! I’ll just have to show you this rather rubbish photo instead but at least you can see her proboscis. It was amazing. Bees are amazing.
In other news, the village spring show last weekend was a rip-roaring success for David – his hot cross buns won an actual cup! Well, it looks more like a peculiar silver gravy boat, but it’s The Cup for best home produce. He was pretty chuffed. My two children made fabulous decorated Easter cakes (see below) but were beaten to the cash prize by a lovely, chocolate mini-egg confection. It’s good to learn how to lose gracefully… I was busy helping with the show so I only entered two daffodil categories (coming third in one) and the single tulip category (again coming third).
It’s all go in the garden this Easter weekend. We’ve been clearing brambles and other weeds, preparing ground, planting trees and fruit bushes (photos coming soon), weeding and weeding. Did I say weeding? It’s been glorious out there but the earth is so dry. We badly need rain – some is forecast for tomorrow, so I hope it appears. Everything in the garden needs a good drink and our aching bodies need a rest.
Whatever you’re doing, I hope you’re having a lovely long weekend and I wish you a very happy Easter.
When awful, random things happen to innocent people going about their daily business, it’s hard not to feel helpless and fearful for the future. The usual feelings of horror and shock are followed by a deep sadness for all those affected. That there are people who have so much hatred in their hearts, leading them to carry out such dreadful acts, beggars belief. Far more erudite people than me will have much to say about what happened in our capital city on Wednesday but it would have felt all wrong to not mention it here. London is a magnificent city full of wonderful people from all over the world who will not be cowed by terrorism.
I hope you won’t think me flippant and indulgent to now write about plants but whether I’m aghast at the world or just plain fed-up, spending time with nature always soothes me. Whether it’s in my garden or someone else’s, in a park or walking along the lanes and through the fields, being near plants calms my thoughts.
The straightforward rhythm of the seasons marks the months passing and spring is particularly uplifting. Sunlight shining through a patch of daffodils, the first hints of colour appearing on tulip buds, fresh spring foliage and bursts of vibrant colour popping up here and there – these tiny-seed-to-full-on-flowering-plant, blossom-bud-to-delicious-fruit miracles all work their magic. Not everyone thinks about plants in the same way, I realise that, but even the most urban, indoors type of person would surely appreciate the pleasure of spotting the first primroses of spring in the hedgerows and walking barefoot on freshly mown grass in the summer sunshine. Then there’s the joy of crunching through autumn leaves on a woodland floor and the surprise scent of a winter-flowering shrub. Nature carries on and plants do their thing year after year, reassuring and steadfast.
The mental and physical benefits of gardening are well-documented; it is used as a therapeutic mental health tool and in schools to help teach responsibility and how to nurture. Gardeners can vouch for the positive effects and we tend to be an optimistic and patient bunch. We have to be. Planting and tending a garden is always for the future – bulbs planted in autumn flower in spring, slender tree whips will take years to grow and create the desired effect, seeds sown in early spring bloom months later. And there are always a few casualties along the way. Slugs and snails munching our delicate seedlings, badgers eating our fruit, blight on our tomatoes, fungus on our roses – all these test our perseverance. But we continue to look forward, we see the beauty and we are full of hope.
In times like this, it’s even more important to appreciate the people we love, show kindness whenever we can, find the things that make us happy and hang on to that hope. Wishing you a safe and happy weekend. I’ll be spending as much of it as possible in the garden.
Spring was tantalisingly evident here this morning – soft warm sunlight, glorious bird song, that smell of lush, green growth – and it took every ounce of willpower to stay indoors at my desk. It is not healthy to sit still for too long, though, so I took a stroll around the garden to pick a few spring beauties for a Monday vase. (Then of course I had to faff about with them for a while and take a few photographs… But, hey, I cracked on and finished my work before writing this!)
In the blue/purple vase, we have Pulmonaria officinalis, Anemone blanda (which I can’t get enough of; they’re SO LOVELY), Muscari and a couple of teensy weensy violets from my garden, and in the pink vase we have an abundance of primroses from my parents’ garden. They are currently away on holiday and I’ve been popping round to keep an eye on the house. They have masses of beautiful primroses in their front garden at this time of year, so many that I’m sure they won’t miss a few. I love the dusky, buff-pink ones and luckily there are loads of those. These crocuses are also out and looking particularly perky. I don’t know what variety they are but I like them.
David has been working hard in the garden, grubbing out old, overgrown bay trees that were in completely the wrong place, plus masses of brambles, and I’ve been weeding and cutting back stuff, so we had a big bonfire on Saturday afternoon to get rid of all the un-compostable material. (It took three rounds of shampoo to get the smell out of our hair.) It really feels as though we’re making good headway in the lower front garden now. Yesterday we planted up long section of wildlife-friendly hedging to fill a big gap on the boundary with one of our neighbours and made plans for planting more trees in the right places. We must get on and order a load of bare root Betula utilis var. jacquemontii (the Himalayan birch with very white bark) and plant them up within the next couple of weeks, plus a few apple and pear trees if we have time. We are opening our garden again for the village garden safari in June and would love to have this area looking good. Lots to do..!
I feel I haven’t got much to say for myself this week but I’ll start writing and see what happens. There has been sunshine, rain and Doris. I’ve spent too much time at my laptop or cleaning the house (something to do with spring approaching) and too little time in the garden. I reached the end of my tether with our old vacuum cleaner last week (one of those cumbersome, pull-along ones; it must be at least 14 years old). I drag it along roughly and thoroughly grumpily, cussing under my breath. Everyone knows to keep out of my way when I’m hoovering, even the dog. On Monday I had Had Enough and I ordered a new one. It arrived this morning and I used it straight out of the box. It’s brilliant – lighter, very manoeuvrable and there’s no flex to get in the way or plug to have to keep unplugging and plugging in again. I told the delivery guy that it was going to transform my life and he laughed (rather pityingly, I thought).
We’ve had school meetings to go to: one to explain UCAS and university funding (yikes) and one regular parents meeting. Both have resulted in long discussions with each boy about The Future. The eldest, who has decided he does want to go to university next year (next year?!!) is slowly coming round to the realisation that he should probably get his act together; the middle one, who takes his GCSEs next year, is totally on track. Honestly, there are 20 months between them but they couldn’t be more different. I do feel for our first-born, though – his parents have no idea what they’re doing. I often have this uncomfortable feeling that I’m slightly behind the curve, missing information that could help him and that I’m out of touch. We muddle along and do our best, make mistakes and hope we haven’t done any lasting damage. Our daughter gets the benefit of our third-time-round refined parenting skills – it’s probably no coincidence that she is a ray of sunshine.
Moving swiftly on… It was a glorious sunshiny day today, so welcome after yesterday’s storm, and I went outside to see if there was any damage (there wasn’t) and inspect new growth. Seeing spears of daffodils and tulips shooting up each year gives me such a huge amount of pleasure, more than any other type of plant I think. It’s their their promise of colour – gorgeous, rich, jewel-like colours – after the lack of it in winter. And I love the shapes and arrangement of the leaves and the way tulip leaves are often tinged with a hint of the flower colour to come. I’ve worked out that there are several bunches of tulips out there for cutting in a couple of months time. Or maybe a few of massive armfuls. Oh yes. There will be tulips galore and just the thought of that makes me happy.
I hope you’re not bored of seeing snowdrops yet; ours are at their peak now. I’ve noticed several clumps that need dividing and it’ll soon be the time to do that, when the flowers go over but they’re still in the green. I’m amazed by how easy-going they are and how far they spread without any help from us. Several single snowdrops have popped up in the front lawn this year, their little white nodding flowers dotted here and there. No lawn-mowing here for a while, that’s for sure. The weather forecast for the weekend is dry but cold so I plan to sort out seeds and sow some. We also need to move some hedging plants. We might have a bonfire.
Whatever you have planned, I hope you have a good one.
The long-awaited for snow did appear last Friday night and, although it wasn’t as heavy as forecast, it had a rather miraculous effect: two of my children came with us to walk the dog early on Saturday morning before it all melted away! My eldest usually doesn’t appear before late morning at the weekends so this is highly unusual. (The middle one is still recovering from glandular fever and extremely tired, so we let him off.)
We agreed it was more than a sprinkling of snow but less than a satisfying blanket – there was probably about 1cm, not much at all, but enough to look pretty and make that pleasing squeak-crunch under foot. The dog had a lovely time, running around and around making us laugh and it was a good start to the weekend.
We’ve had a good half term week. I’ve been to London twice, once with my daughter to see friends and again with all three children for a guided tour of the Houses of Parliament. All of them are now at an age when they’re properly interested in the world (and two of my eldest son’s A’levels are History and Government & Politics) so this turned out to be a fascinating, enlightening and thoroughly interesting trip for all of us. We had a couple of hours to kill before the tour of Parliament so we decided to look around the National Portrait Gallery. The boys went off to look at the Stuarts and Tudors while my daughter and I strolled past the women’s portraits. We were particularly taken with those of Mary Wollstonecraft and Christabel Pankhurst (daughter of Emmeline) and we talked about the campaign for women’s rights in the UK. She’s 12 and can’t imagine a world where women were treated so differently to men (some would argue it’s still happening but let’s not go there..!). Later on, during the H of P tour, we admired and learnt about the contemporary light sculpture displayed in the Palace of Westminster, ‘New Dawn’, which commemorates women’s suffrage. It’s a fascinating piece, the colours change with the rise and fall of the Thames; you can read all about it here.
The tour of Parliament totally impressed us. Our guide was an incredibly enthusiastic, knowledgeable and funny young man who obviously loved his job. He brought the history of the place to life, roping in some of the younger children in the group to demonstrate the falling-out between Charles I and Parliament, explaining some of the finer points of our constitution, the respective roles of the Lords and the Commons, while making it all so relevant to our daily lives – we came away inspired and feeling mighty lucky to be living in a country with such a robust system of government. Whatever your political leanings, you can’t fail to be impressed by the place. Do go if you’ve never been and get the chance.
Anyway, enough of all that. It’s gone 5pm and it’s still light outside! It was about 10 degrees warmer today than this time last week and I spent a lovely hour or so pottering outside taking the close-up photos above. There’s a surprising amount going on out there. The snowdrops are nearing their peak and looking gorgeous in the sunshine (I missed the sun, though, so the flowers are closed up in the pic), tulip and daffodil spears are growing taller and the birds are singing their heads off (I heard my first skylark earlier in the week which gladdened my heart). I called in at a plant nursery earlier, you know, just for a look – I was passing; spring is coming… I bought some seeds (sweet peas, beetroot and purple-sprouting broccoli) and three little pots of Anemone blanda to plant under a tree by the path. They were such good value, I couldn’t resist them.
I’m planning to do some tidying in the garden this weekend, cut back the raspberry canes and Miscanthus, and maybe sow some seeds. I hope you have a good one, whatever you have planned.