Book review: “Earth to Earth, A Natural History of Churchyards” by Stefan Buczacki

In this highly readable book, Stefan Buczacki looks at the interesting and perhaps unique place that our British churchyards play in providing a habitat for our native wildlife.

The book discusses the churchyard in British history and its place in the landscape.  Often relatively undisturbed in comparison with the neighbouring countryside it is argued that these areas can provide an insight into the landscape that once surrounded these churches.  In addition, Stefan makes a strong case that the particular features provided by the gravestones, enclosing walls and the church itself all provide valuable microclimates and habitats that can support a wealth of plants and animals.

Each of the chapters looks briefly at plants and fungi, lichens, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, birds and other small creatures.  Although the argument that churchyards support a rich and varied wildlife is well made, I was a little disappointed that it did not illustrate the points by reference to real data from actual studies.  However, it certainly left me with a desire to learn more.

I found the discussion around the presence of yew trees in churchyards and the substantial age of many churchyard yews particularly fascinating.  Also, why there are so few yew trees of great age outside churchyards.  Those yew trees that are in excess of 2000 years old clearly pre-date both the building of the church and Christianity itself and the book leaves a tantalising question as to what may have been associated with these sites prior to the existing building.

I was also pleased to see that the book explored the rich lichen diversity that exists in churchyards.  Gravestones offer a unique and relatively undisturbed habitat for these very slow growing symbiotic organisms to thrive and multiply.

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The book is well written and charmingly illustrated with drawings throughout by Felicity Price-Smith.  The inclusion of historic verse is also used to illustrate the undoubted interest in churchyard natural history throughout the years.

The final chapter deals with the current and future challenges of maintaining and conserving the rich natural history of churchyards.  In an era of diminishing congregations and limited funding the book offers some practical suggestions on how to retain these interesting environments for future generations.

Publisher:  Unicorn Publishing Group

ISBN:  978-1-910787-74-8

 

 

 

 

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Scabious – the essence of an English Country Garden

Picture yourself in July, the sun is shining and you are taking a gentle amble down a quiet country lane, the warm breeze is reflecting off the track and the blue field scabious (Knautia avensis) are gently moving in the wind.  The butterflies and other insects are quietly working their way amongst the roadside flowers enjoying the rich nectar.  Smiling yet?

Certainly if you are looking to create the look and feel of a meadow in either your garden, at your wedding or in your floristry arrangements then the inclusion of summer flowering scabious is an absolute essential.  They are nectar rich and excellent at attracting a wide range of butterflies, moths and other pollinating insects and they provide a loose, open and natural feel to any arrangement.   With so many species and varieties to choose from you are spoilt for choice.

The naming of Scabious and its relatives

Often referred to as pincushion flowers due to the beautiful detail of the stamens, the name ‘Scabious’ is believed to be derived from ‘scabies’.  In medieval times the plant was reportedly used to treat the severe itching that results from this disease.

The term ‘Scabious’ is commonly used across a number of related genera; Scabiosa, Knautia, Cephalaria and Succisa.  They belong to the honeysuckle family, Caprifoliaceae (although many references still refer to them belonging to the teasel family, Dipsacaceae, which I believe has now been merged with Honeysuckle family² ).

Scabious 'Oxford Blue'
Scabious ‘Oxford Blue’ sits beautifully within this birthday bouquet of whites, blue and yellow. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers

Getting them started

We usually sow our scabious seeds indoors in half trays of damp compost lightly covered with vermiculite.  I usually cover the trays in cling film until the seedlings start to emerge so I don’t have to worry about watering the trays before the green shoots appear.  We rarely sow straight into the ground as too many of our precious plants succumb to slugs and weeds.  You can sow throughout April so if you want to try these charming plants there is still time.

Once the seedlings are large enough to handle we prick out into modules or trays of compost until the weather is warm enough to harden them off and plant them out.  Don’t be tempted to plant them out too early or they will just sulk.

Willow heart
Dark burgundy Scabiosa atropurpurea, blue ageratum and yellow rudbeckia decorating a hand-made willow heart. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers

Growing them on

Typically scabious like full sun and well drained soil.  We tend to plant out at one Waverley standard trowel length apart (c. 9 inches).   Growing the young plants in modules makes this so much easier and prevents excessive disturbance when they are planted out.

We do find that some scabious can be a bit wayward and need to be supported if you want long straight stems that are good for cutting and arranging.  We support many of our flowers in the cutting garden using horizontal pea netting.  By stretching across the bed using canes we can raise the height gently as the plants develop.  The holes are big enough to place your hand through for cutting and if you buy a good quality netting it can be used again and again, year after year.

If you want to keep them flowering, keep cutting.  They will flower all summer long until the first frosts cut them back.   However, if you do miss some the seed heads are also very attractive and can make a interesting addition to late summer arrangements.

Lilac Scabiosa atropurpurea and seedhead
Lilac Scabiosa atropurpurea and seed head (right).

Cutting and conditioning

Scabious are very straight forward when it comes to cutting and conditioning.  As with most flowers they are best cut in the early morning before the sun gets too hot.  Cut straight into clean fresh water with floral preservative removing any leaves that lie below the water surface and leave to condition in a cool place for at least 2 hours and preferably overnight.  They can be used with floral foam.

The stage of development at which you cut is quite critical if you want to achieve a long vase life.  If you cut a flower that is too mature then the flower will soon shatter and the petals will fall.  It is quite difficult to describe the correct stage in words and so I have tried to illustrate this with the following two pictures of Scabiosa atropurpurea.

Scabious flowers slightly too mature for cutting.
Scabious flowers slightly too mature for cutting. The central florets are all open and the pollen is very visible. Will have a reduced vase life and petals may fall prematurely.
Ideal cutting stage for Scabious.
Ideal cutting stage for Scabious. Central florets are still in bud whilst the outer florets are open

Floriography

Many flowers have traditional meanings and their inclusion in bouquets or posies indicated a particular sentiment or emotion.  Scabious generally signifies ‘unfortunate love’ with Sweet Scabious (Scabiosa atropurpurea) more specifically meaning ‘widowhood’.

Scabiosa atropurpurea

We grow a lot off this S. atropurpurea in the flower garden.  It comes in a wide range of wonderful colours from blue, white, violet, crimson and burgundy.  The darker colours in particular are set off beautifully by the white stamens.  It has a sweet honey like scent and has the common name Sweet Scabious (but is also known as the mourning bride scabious so you may wish to reflect on this if using it in wedding bouquets!).

Although strictly a perennial it is said to only be hardy to zero degrees centigrade.  In our garden in Warwickshire (UK Midlands) it rarely survives the winters and so we treat it like an annual sowing fresh plants each year.  It grows very quickly and flowers throughout the summer if you keep cutting.

When deciding where to plant it think Mediterranean.  Like many flowers if you add too much fertiliser or water you will suppress flowering and get lots of lush foliage instead.

Deep burgundy scabious
Deep burgundy scabious with its white pin cushion stamens makes a striking contrast in this celebration bouquet with dahlias, phlox, liatris and antirrhinums. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers

Scabiosa caucasica

Scabiosa caucasica is much hardier than S. atropurpurea and is said to be hardy to -18°C.  It originates from the Caucasus, Northern Iran and North Eastern Turkey growing in subalpine meadows and rocky slopes ¹ . Like many Mediterranean plants it is the dampness that will kill it in the winter rather than the cold so it needs to be in a well drained position in the garden.  It is reported¹ to be short lived on acid or wet soils and prefers a chalky or limy soil in full sun.

S. caucasica  has a much flatter flower with a more pronounced centre than S. atropurpurea.  The stems tend to be much sturdier than S. atropurpurea and this makes it an excellent cut flower.  S. caucasica is probably one of our favourite meadow style flowers for incorporating in our country style wedding bouquets at Honey Pot Flowers.  A beautiful flower.

Scabiosa caucasica
Beautiful blue and white country style wedding bouquet incorporating pale blue Scabiosa caucasica, white peonies, blue nigella and white astilbe and veronica. Flowers by Honey Pot Flowers

Knautia macedonica

This is a deep crimson scabious producing many small flowers throughout the summer. It is truely perennial in our garden and is hardy to -20°C or less.  In the wild it grows in scrub and open woods¹.  K. macedonica has been a bit of a labour of love for us having tried on many occasions to germinate it from seed with little success.  Eventually we succeeded and it was worth the effort.

Our treasured plants do however seem to be very tasty and we have to protect them in the early months of the year from both slugs and snails.  Claire Austin does describe it as rabbit resistant although we find we have to protect the young plants from rabbits in the early months.

A charming little plant that adds something very different to the summer garden.  Not terribly useful as a cut flower but lovely in an informal border.

Knautia Knautia macedonica Flower Insect 1626px

(c)2007 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man). Location credit to the Chanticleer Garden. [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Cephalaria gigantea

This one is perhaps something of an impostor in this list.  It is something we have tried to grow from seed on a number of occasions without success.  However, it is such a beautiful plant that I am sure we will try again to get one established.  There is a wonderful specimen in one of our local National Trust properties at Upton House.

As the common name Giant Scabious suggests, C. gigantea is a big plant growing into a large clump of some 6 feet in height.  It is a hardy perennial producing delicate, pale yellow flowers, from June until September.  It is probably not something for the small garden.

Unlike the other scabious listed above, C. gigantea  grows naturally in wet meadows and by streams and is a native of the Caucasus and Northern Turkey¹.

Giant scabious - Flickr - S. Rae
By S. Rae from Scotland, UK (giant scabious) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons 

References

  1. “Perennials:  Volume 2 Late perennials” by Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix (ISBN:  0-330-29275-7)
  2. LuontoPortti / NatureGate

Six on Saturday: Spring Green Texture

Despite the rather cold, grey days of the last week the garden is beginning to green up nicely with fresh leaves and shoots.  The different textures and shapes are fascinating in themselves. Here are six to demonstrate the rich variety.


One:  Anthriscus sylvestris (Cow Parsley)

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Two:  Galanthus (Snowdrops)

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Three: Stachys lanata (lambs ears)

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Four:  Aquilegia

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Five:  Nigella

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Six:  Hebe

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The Six on Saturday meme is hosted by The Propagator.  Click on the link to see what other plant lovers are chatting about.

Art in an English Garden – Petra Rich-Alexandre

This month’s guest artist is Petra Rich-Alexandre.  Born in Niteroi across the bay from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Petra now lives in England having qualified from Birmingham University with a first class honours degree in Anthropology and Classics.

Petra has kindly allowed us to reproduce a number of sketches she has made of the garden here at Waverley.

scan 6 (2)

 

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scan 4 (2)

Soil blockers – reflections on using them for a season

I have to admit we are sometimes tempted by the odd gadget or two and last year at the Flowers from the Farm conference in Birmingham we were tempted to buy some ‘Soil blockers’.

One of the reasons for purchasing these was an ambition to try and reduce the amount of plastic, particularly plastic pots, we use for propagation. The ‘Soil Blockers’ allow you to create individual blocks of compost which you can sow your seeds into directly.

The Ladbrooke ‘Soil Blockers’ we bought come in three sizes; a ¾ inch mini block, a 2 inch medium block and a 4 inch large block. One very interesting feature is that using a special indent the mini block can be neatly slotted into the medium block and the medium block can be slotted into the large block when you want to transplant your developing plants. We purchased the mini and the medium sized blockers.

Mini Soil Blocker from underneath showing the shaping that creates the indent for each seed
Mini Soil Blocker from underneath showing the shaping that creates the indent for each seed

In theory the air around each block stops the roots of different plants tangling together and they are therefore less prone to damage when you come to plant out in the garden.

Medium Soil Blocker from underneath showing the shaping that creates the indent for each seed
Medium Soil Blocker from underneath showing the shaping that creates the indent for each seed

So how did we get on.

Creating the compost blocks works very well. Each block comes neatly out of the blocker and has a small dibble (technical term!) in the top to allow you to place your seed in. The down side is that loading the blocker with damp compost can be a rather messy business. We tend to start sowing early in the season to give our plants a good head start. Because it is cold and miserable outside we often work in the snug kitchen sowing seeds and pricking out. It is quite easy to sow seeds indoors with dry compost in small seed trays which you can carefully water but really not practical using large buckets of damp wet compost and a soil blocker. Really a job for the greenhouse only.

Compost blocks
Moist compost blocks in standard seed tray ready to receive the seeds

Being able to sow individual seeds in separate blocks made good use of expensive F1 seed in particular and the seeds did seem to germinate very well.

One seed (in this case garden peas) is placed in each indent ready for germination
One seed (in this case garden peas) is placed in each indent ready for germination
Indent filled with fine vermiculite to cover the seed keep the soil and seed moist
Indent filled with fine vermiculite to cover the seed keep the soil and seed moist

Our main problems began to emerge once the plants had started to grow. We found it quite difficult to keep the blocks moist enough. This was particularly the case for the smallest mini blocks. Watering from above tended to break down the compost blocks we had carefully created so the only satisfactory way to keep them adequately moist was to place the trays in a shallow bath of water and leave them to soak. This worked well but was extremely time consuming and was not really practical for the large number of seed trays we have to deal with each year.

The idea of being able to slot a mini block into the larger medium block also appealed but we found this to be very time consuming and we soon lost patience with this approach.

Over time we stopped using the mini block and sowed our seeds directly into the medium block. When the plants were large enough we either planted the blocks directly out into the garden or potted them up into larger plastic pots as appropriate. The roots held the blocks together very well and we did find them extremely easy to plant out or pot up at speed.

We found that some plants thrive better than others in the blocks – probably because we were struggling to keep them all watered well in the greenhouse and polytunnels as the weather warmed up. I was quite surprised to find that the medium blocks worked very well for podding peas for the vegetable garden. Because I loose a lot of seeds to mice and voles if I sow directly into the ground I have for a number of years started my peas off in modules and then planted these into the ground when they are big enough to look after themselves. Sowing individual seeds into the medium blocks created strong robust plants which then grew away wonderfully well when planted out. There was little or no disturbance to the roots and I think they appreciated this.

The fact that we have brought the ‘Soil blockers’ out to use again for a second year I think shows they are a valuable addition to our gardening equipment. I don’t think they actually saved us much time or reduce the number of pots we use but for some plants they worked very well indeed. In reality we use our plastic pots again and again, year after year. The watering was a real problem and so I suspect we will only use the ‘Soil Blockers’ this year for seedlings that really hate root disturbance and worked well with this approach.

Further information

Ladbrooke Soil Blockers are available from www.soilblockers.com

Six shades of yellow on Saturday

April is definitely a month of fresh spring yellow and today’s Six-on-Saturday post celebrates some of the plants that are currently at their best here in Warwickshire.


One: April would not be April without daffodils.  Common as they are there are some charming miniature varieties out at the moment in the garden.  This one is ‘Jenny’.

Miniature daffodil Jenny


Two:  The tulips do seem to be late getting going this year.  However, the cold winter weather should yield strong, tall blooms for cutting.  For us one of the earliest tulips to appear are the Kaufmanniana varieties.  This one is ‘Ice Stick’.  It stands tall, swaying strongly in the wind and stands up to the April showers well.  Whereas many of our tulips have to be treated as annuals and replanted each year, Ice Stick seems to be more long lasting coming back well year after year.

Kaufmanniana Tulip Ice Stick


Three:  My third choice is a plant that is so widely grown that it is often overlooked.  But, at this time of year the Forsythia is in its prime.  The large shrubs create a spectacular show that brightens the spring garden without fail.

Forsythia


Four:  Next on my list is a charming tree that always makes me smile, is rather fleeting, but is instantly recognisable – Pussy Willow.

Pussy Willow


Five:  The small violas we planted in the Autumn have been flowering quietly for most of the winter.  Now the temperatures are beginning to rise they are starting to grow away strongly and will continue flowering well into early summer.

Viola


Six:  My final choice from the garden is another type of tulip which only started to flower late this week, Greigii Tulip ‘Vanilla Cream’.  This fresh, pale yellow early tulip is again one that seems to be more perennial than most coming back strongly each year.

Greigii Tulip Vanilla Cream

It has actually been quite difficult to limit myself to six this week.  Also out at the moment are the primroses, yellow hyacinths and a host of other narcissus varieties.  Indeed some of the so called ‘weeds’ like dandelions and celandine are giving a wonderful show in the more wild parts of the garden.


The Six on Saturday meme is hosted by The Propagator.  Click on the link to see what other plant lovers are chatting about.

 

 

 

Autumn and winter residents – our feathered friends

Our garden here at Waverley is home for a wide range of birds, many of whom stay with us throughout the winter weather.  Some, like the fieldfares and redwings, are migratory and visit to feast on the berries.

Over the last few months we have been trying to catch as many of these on camera as we can. Not an easy task as some of them move so very quickly and many are very shy creatures.

Here is a selection of the residents for 2017/18.


Blue Tit (Parus caeruleus)

Blue Tit

Food: Small insects, larvae and other invertebrates plus seeds, fruit and buds


Wood pigeon (Columba palumbus)

Wood Pigeon

Food: Seeds, grain, fruits, vegetables, berries and some insects and worms


Ketrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Sparrow Hawk

Food: Small mammals and birds, worms and insects


Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos)

Song Thrush

Food:  Worms, snails and fruit


Blackbird (Turdus merula)

Blackbird

Food: Worms, insects, berries and seeds


Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris)

Fieldfare 4

Food: Berries, fruits, worms and insects


Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

Chaffinch

Food:  Insects and seeds


Great Tit (Parus major)

Great Tit

Food: Mainly insects, spider and small invertebrates but also fond of nuts


Coal Tit (Periparus ater)

Coal Tit

Food:  Insects, seeds and nuts


Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)

Goldfinch 1

Food: Some insects but mainly weed seeds


Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris)

Greenfinch

Food: Seeds and insects


Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

Nuthatch

Food: Insects, seeds, nuts and other fruits


Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

Food:  Mainly insects and larvae but will also rob nests for young birds.  Will visit feeders for nuts in winter.


Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Food:  Mainly insects and spiders but also seeds.


Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Food: Mainly insects and spiders plus some fruit, seeds and berries


Redwing (Turdus iliacus)

Food: Berries, fruits, insects and worms


Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)

Food: Seeds, berries and fruit


Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

Food:  Insects and small invertebrates with seeds in winter


In addition there are some I have not managed to catch on camera yet. These include wrens, collared doves, sparrow hawks, magpies, buzzards, jackdaws, jays, carrion crows, sparrows and more.

By trying to provide garden habitats that offer seeds and attract insects our aim is to encourage as many of these beautiful birds as possible. They all add interest to the garden and keep us occupied with the binoculars for hours!

 

All photographs and videos are the property and copyright of Dr Stephen Lucey, 2018