Early March – a quiet wander around the garden in early spring

After an unseasonably warm February we are now back to a more traditional March menu of sunshine and showers and windy days.  In between showers it is nice to just wander and browse.  Every day now there is something different emerging.  Green shoots are visible on many perennials and the peonies that we moved in the autumn to a new home in more sunshine are all looking very promising.

At this time of year it is the little things that matter.  There is no full-on show of summer flowers but the small clumps of bulbs and other spring flowers that come back year after year are always very special.

It will be interesting to see whether the warm February will bring on the spring flowers earlier this year.  These photographs were all taken on 11th March 2019.

Whilst sitting enjoying a well earned cuppa, it struck me how wonderful the two flowering cherries (Prunus incisa ‘Paean’) that flank the patio steps were looking.  They are in full flower and certainly the significant pruning that we gave them last year after flowering to get them back into shape has done them no harm at all.

Even when not in leaf or flower the old twisted wisteria stems add real character to this patio area.

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In the more shaded areas and in the top copse the primroses are now beginning to emerge taking over from the snowdrops that seemed to go over quickly this year in the warm weather.  One of the jobs for the next week or so will be to lift and divide some of the snowdrop clumps whilst they are in the green.  The snowdrop walk in the top copse has developed well but the individual clumps look ready to be divided and spread around to develop the walk even further.

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Also in the woodland walk the first of the Anemone blanda are starting to emerge.  We planted these some years ago now but although they seem to come back year after year they do not seem to have multiplied up to any great extent.  They appear to be very delicate but seem to withstand the wind, rain and cold.

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Somewhat unexpectedly we have found that some of the Anemone coronaria corms that we grew when we were growing commercially for Honey Pot Flowers have survived well over the winter and are flowering again.  When growing for sale we tended to replant each year to ensure that we had good quality long stemmed flowers.  This is less important in a private garden and if they continue to survive and establish more naturally they will be a great addition to the new flowering garden.

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Regular readers will know that we are transforming what used to be our flower farm into a more aesthetically pleasing flower garden where we can just enjoy growing flowers for ourselves rather than for sale.  The structural work is now all complete and the formal hedge is beginning to establish.  We think it has all survived the hot dry summer last year but only time will tell.   There is plenty more scope for plants that will give more winter interest in this part of the garden and we are currently planting a new area of colourful Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ and the red stemmed Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ on the moist bank at the north end.

One of our favourite spring flowers that seem to thrive here in Warwickshire are the Hellebores.  They seed themselves freely around the garden and are pretty trouble free.  It is such a pleasure to bend down and lift their heads to see the beautiful markings on the inside of the flowers.

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Another plant that is flowering its socks off is the perennial wallflower (Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’).   Although we always admire this plant in other people’s gardens, especially when combined with striking orange colours later in the year, it has been some years since we have had one in our garden.   It was planted last year in an open position in full sun and has established very well, remaining evergreen with some flower throughout most of the winter.  It is now getting into its stride as the weather warms up.  Luckily it is very easy to propagate from cuttings and we have a good number of young plants growing well in the greenhouse that will allow us to create an excellent show across the flower garden and create some continuity in different beds.

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Not much is happening in the orchard yet although the young apricot is beginning to flower.  The buds of the pear blossom are beginning to swell and new green leaves are just emerging on the quince. Whether it is just too early for the apricot fruit to set remains to be seen but we were very successful last year despite the bitterly cold weather.  Thankfully all the orchard pruning is now complete and the new tripod ladder that I wrote about in an earlier article has helped enormously (both with pruning the orchard and bringing down an enormous Pyracantha to a manageable height).

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Apricot blossom

Many of the evergreen foliage plants are certainly earning their place in the garden at this time of year.  The neatly clipped Lonicera nitada hedges, the evergreen Hebe, Skimmia, Pittisporum and trailing ivy all create structure throughout the garden and have done all winter.  Alongside these green shades new leaves are emerging.  Very striking is the rich golden foliage of Spirea japonica ‘Goldflame’ which shines out in the spring sunshine.

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The stars of the show at this time though are the bulbs.  Small clumps of the miniature narcissus are returning like old friends in flower beds throughout the garden.

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Hyacinths that we grew in pots in previous years and could not bear to simply throw away are now establishing themselves and creating a lovely spring show amongst the evergreen shrubs.

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Even more exciting are the delicate flowers of the Chinodoxa that we are slowly building up around the garden.  Their delicate pink and blue flowers seem to be establishing well at the base of the long hawthorn hedgerow and amongst the primroses on a sunny bank in the top copse.

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I could go on!  This is always an exciting time of year and there will be plenty to talk about over the coming weeks.

 

 

 

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The Dunnock – singing its little heart out in the February sunshine and inspiring poetry.

I would definitely categorised the Dunnock (Prunella modularis) as a ‘little brown job’, quietly moving about in the garden under growth eating small insects, spiders, worms and seeds.

Normally if we hear colourful and melodic birdsong it is typically a robin or wren and to date we have not really associated the Dunnock (or Hedge Sparrow) as a significant part of the spring chorus.

Over the last few days of February this year (2019) the temperature has been unseasonably warm in our garden in Warwickshire and it has brought everything to life. Not only have we enjoyed the sunshine and blue skies but clearly the birds have as well.

I was lucky enough to capture this little Dunnock on camera in the afternoon sunshine. It stayed put long enough to capture its song, clearly communicating with another Dunnock that you can hear in the background responding between the phrases.

We have written in the past about how the garden has inspired a couple of artists (Jenny Lucey and Petra Rich-Alexandre) but for the first time we have inspired a poet. My friend Paul Waring on seeing this clip on Facebook was moved to verse and I am delighted that he has agreed to allow me to publish it here alongside this clip.

Hedge Sparrow sings this Spring like day,
Before the first of March,
No Willow quite yet out in leaf,
Or Oak, Elm, Birch or Larch,
Another is but a field away,
No time to waste or wait,
With food to gather,
Nests to build,
A place to rest and mate,
We’re fools to think the Winter’s gone,
While Sun hangs long and low,
This time last year the snows had come,
Before the cold could go,
But harken at the sweet bird song,
In hope of longer days,
Then marvel at the Dunnock’s voice,
With sunshine that’s ablaze.

© Paul Waring 2019

More of Paul’s creativity can be found on his Facebook poetry page .

The first garden butterflies of 2019

The weather over the last few weeks (late February 2019) has been bright and sunny and remarkably warm (over 15°C for the last couple of days). The honey bees and bumble bees have been enjoying the daphne, emerging cherry blossom and particularly the crocus flowers that have been wide open in the sunshine.

Even more delightful has been the sight of the first butterflies of the year in the garden here in Warwickshire.

On 21st February 2019 I saw the first yellow Brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni). This yellow, butter-coloured butterfly (possibly why the insects are in fact called ‘butterflies’) is particularly tough and over winters in the United Kingdom. According to the Butterfly Conservation website the larvae feed on leaves of Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), which occurs mainly on calcareous soils, and Alder Buckthorn (Frangula alnus), which is found on moist acid soils and wetlands. Although we have a wide range of native trees in the garden and in the surrounding countryside I am not aware we have any of these close by but we do see Brimstone butterflies most years.

Common brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni) male 5

Photo credit: Charles J Sharp [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

On 24th February 2019 we also spotted the first Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta). Last year we commented that we had seen very few of these colourful insects in 2018 and so perhaps this is a sign that they may have survived better this winter than they did the winter of 2017/2018 when there were a number of periods of bitterly cold weather. Normally a migratory butterfly from Northern Africa and continental Europe there appear to be an increasing number that now manage to over winter in the UK (ref: Butterfly Conservation website).

Unlike the Brimstone the Red Admiral larvae feed on the Common Nettle (Urtica dioica), something that we have plenty of! It appears that they also use Hop (Humulus lupulus) which we have both within the garden and in the local hedgerows.

Le Vulcain (Vanessa atalanta) red admiral

Photo credit: Charles J Sharp [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Last year we kept a photographic record of the mid-summer and late-summer butterflies that we saw throughout the year and we will try and do the same again this year (see: Six on Saturday: July Butterflies and Late summer butterflies in the garden for more information and pictures)

Early February – spring is definitely on the horizon

Although some days remain cold and grey the garden is on the move. The green shoots of many bulbs are beginning to emerge from under the ground and there is an array of small, exquisite blooms to enjoy throughout the garden.

Without doubt the Snowdrops are in their prime in February. Over the years we have spread them around the garden here at Waverley and every year we have the pleasure of seeing them emerge (even though we have long forgotten where exactly we planted them all).

Over a number of years we have sought to create a snowdrop walk in the copse at the north end of the garden. The bulbs of the common snowdrop Galanthus nivalis that we lifted and divided in the green have established well and bulked up into substantial clumps. Each of these could probably be lifted again this year and spread out further under the trees.

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It is always wise to stop and turn over some of these beautiful flowers. I was surprised to come across this double variety in the leaf litter of the woodland. We must have planted it deliberately in this position at some time in the past.

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Some of my favourites are the larger, glaucus leaved Galanthus elwesii which tend to stand tall and bloom on much longer individual stems. They also start flowering soon after Christmas. This group contrast well with these dark hellebores that flower at the same time.

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Similarly the naturalised snowdrops sit so comfortably with the first of the emerging primroses.

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But it is not all about snowdrops at this time of year. The yellow crocus have now pushed their way through the winter lawn and as soon as the sun shines will open into their full glory.

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Also complementing the snowdrops are these tiny pink blooms of Cyclamen coum surrounded by a carpet of their mottled green leaves.

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The striking blue flowers of the Iris reticulata are also starting to emerge. We have tried to grow these in the flower beds but they do not seem to thrive in our cold damp winter soil. However, growing them in bowls of gritty compost seems to work well and they are a delight to see each year on the patio.

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It certainly will not be long until more spring flowers begin to appear but for now it is the snowdrops that take centre stage all over the garden.

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Six on Saturday – January blooms

In spite of the rather uninspiring grey (but mild) weather after Christmas we have been out and about in the garden cutting back and pruning ready for spring.  We have just about finished the winter pruning of the orchard, made much easier this year by the purchase of a new Niwaki tripod ladder.  Just the clearing up and shredding of the resulting pile of prunings is left to be completed.

Winter is not devoid of flowers and many of the shrubs in bloom at this time of year give off a strong fragrance to attract the few pollinating insects that are out and about.  In January you get the chance to stop and appreciate the few plants that are braving the weather.  Many are exquisite and well worth a closer look.

Here are my six for this week.


Sarcococca confusa

This small evergreen shrub, a native of western china, is producing a lovely honey scent that hangs in the air around the patio by the kitchen.

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Daphne

Again in full bloom at the moment, this slow growing shrub was originally a rooted sucker that we obtained from a relative in Cornwall.  It is now establishing well and flowers profusely every year giving a wonderful fragrance in the winter months.  Many of the plants we have collected together over the years remind us of friends and family, holidays and special garden visits.  A subject of a blog in its own right perhaps.

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Snowdrops

We really associate snowdrops with February in our garden but the first few that emerge are a real pleasure and herald the beginning of the new year.  They are such charming, perfectly formed flowers.  See last year’s more in-depth blog on snowdrops for more background and their associated folk-lore.

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Winter flowering cherry

A number of the trees around the garden mark certain events.  This particular tree was planted in memory of our very first German Shepherd Dog, Lenka.  It is a lovely reminder of her each spring.

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Helleborus orientalis

Just budding up and starting to emerge throughout the garden are our hellebores.  We love them and they seem to love it here in the garden.  We are quite happy to see them seeding new plants all over the garden and never quite know what hybrids and colours are likely to result.  (See last years blog for more background)

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Viburnum x bodnantense

Another highly reliably plant that flowers consistently year after year in the winter months and produces a lovely scent.  Yet another hardwood cutting from someone’s garden over 20 years ago (Carol and I can’t recall quite where it came from but thank you anyway if it was you!).  This now substantial shrub (nearly 8 feet in height) is situated just near the path and we enjoy its fragrance whenever we walk out into the garden at this time of year.

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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.

January treat – Niwaki Japanese Tripod Ladder

I know we are not yet far into 2019 but this has to be my purchase of the year so far.  It is excellent and has made the pruning of the large established orchard so much easier this year.

The Niwaki Japanese Tripod Ladder (available from www.niwaki.com) is a light weight, free standing, aluminium ladder.  They come in a range of sizes but the one that I plumped for is the 8 foot ladder which I have found perfect for the winter pruning of the orchard this year.

In previous years I have had to climb up inside the big apple trees to get to the very top and it has always been a difficult and rather precarious activity reaching large, high branches on the edge of the canopy of the larger trees.

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I treated myself to this ladder after Christmas and it has been a revelation.  I have found it to be a very stable ladder and the tripod leg allows you to work very comfortably in positions around the canopy where there is nothing to lean a normal ladder onto.

The tripod leg itself is easily adjustable and so even if you are working on a slight slope you can maintain the 75 degree angle required for safe working.

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The safe working height of the ladder is three rungs from the top and this gives you a lot of support on the front of your body when you are working two-handed with loppers.  On my 8 foot ladder your feet are three rungs from the top at around 5 feet.  With your own body height (in my case 5ft 6inches) you are working very comfortably with secateurs or pruning saw at 9-10 feet and able to reach up to 12 feet with extended loppers.

If you are working on ladders for long periods of time, many traditional aluminium ladders only have a single narrow rung and this can be very tiring on the feet after a few hours.  The Niwaki ladder has a double bar which gives much more support.

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I would highly recommend these ladders.  They are stable, light to move around and allow you to work safely and in comfort for many hours.  I am very pleased with my purchase.  The website is very informative about the height options available and safe working practices and well worth a look.

January sown Sweet Pea varieties for 2019

With the Christmas and New year festivities behind us our thoughts are turning to the new gardening year.  Sowing sweet peas just after Christmas has become a bit of a tradition and makes you feel that the new year has begun even though the January weather is cold and uninviting.

This year we have decided to create two themes using the following varieties (all available from Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (www.rpsweetpeas.com)).  For us a sweet pea must have a good scent to be worth growing.  We also look for varieties that have a longer flower stem so that they sit well amongst other cottage garden flowers when brought into the house.

Details on how we sow our sweet peas and bring on our plants are also included below.


Pink, red and white selection

Emily (tall grandiflora type – rose pink on a white ground)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

Millennium (tall spencer type – crimson)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

Zorija Rose (tall grandiflora type – deep rose shades)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

Hannah Dale (tall early grandiflora type – purple maroon)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

Mollie Rilstone (tall spencer type – cream with a pink edge)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

CCC (tall grandiflora type – white)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

Blue and white collection

Blue Danube (tall spencer type – mid-blue)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

Just Jenny (tall spencer type – navy blue)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

King Size Navy Blue (tall semi-grandiflora type – navy blue)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

Greenfingers (tall grandiflora type – cream with a violet edge)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

Adorabel (tall grandiflora type – lavender turning mauve blue)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

Dragonfly (tall semi-grandiflora type – cream marked with lavender)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

CCC (tall grandiflora type – white)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

Sowing and growing sweet peas

There seems to be a lot of mystique around sowing sweet peas but we have always found them very easy to grow and need no specialist equipment or seed treatment.  Although in the past we have soaked the seed overnight before sowing we have not found this necessary to get good germination.  Roger Parsons ( www.rpsweetpeas.com ) indicates that soaking or chipping the seed may in fact reduce germination.

We certainly have good success with the following approach:

  • Sow 3 or 4 seeds in January in standard 9cm pots in a mix of multi-purpose compost and perlite.
  • Water well and place on the kitchen window sill (this is usually around a constant 18°C-20°C).  Do not water again until the seedlings start to emerge.
  • You will typically see the first seedlings show themselves in about 7-14 days.
  • Once the seedlings have emerged we move them out into a cold, unheated greenhouse.  They are best grown on hard in plenty of light so that they do not get leggy.  If the temperature drops to below -5°C they may need some protection.
  • We keep the seedlings up high on the greenhouse staging so that there is less risk of mice and other rodents getting to them.
  • Once the plants have reached four leaves, pinch out the tops of all the plants so that they bush out.
  • In around mid-March, we harden off for a couple of weeks before planting out into the garden.  We have grown them up canes in the past but this requires a lot of attention to ensure the plants are tied in effectively.  More recently we have found that standard pea and bean netting works particularly well as long as you buy a decent quality that can be used again and again over a number of years.
  • You should create a deep well dug planting trench incorporating lots of well-rotted organic matter into the soil both to hold the moisture and feed the hungry plants through the season.
  • Plant out the whole pot of 3 or 4 plants together without disturbing the roots and water in well.  Each pot should be planted around 12 inches apart and the tendrils gently encouraged to take a grip of the netting.
  • The final stage for us (if we don’t want to have wasted all our hard work) is to run chicken wire around the base of the row to keep the rabbits at bay.

All you need to do now is stand back and watch them grow making sure that you keep them regularly watered and fed with a liquid feed every couple of weeks once they are flowering.   As soon as they start to flower pick them regularly (probably every day).  The more you pick the more flowers you will get!