The garden and surrounding countryside have suddenly been cloaked in ice crystals this week. Due to a third national lockdown our single track lane is free of cars and most people are keeping warm indoors by their house fires.
It is all really rather beautiful and looks as if an ice wand has been waved across the trees and put the whole garden to sleep. Here are my Six on Saturday for this week which try and capture the feeling of the moment.
Happy New Year everyone!
This post is a contribution to the Six on Saturday meme which is hosted by The Propagator. Click on the link to be inspired by what other garden lovers are enjoying this weekend.
A decade ago Goldfinches ( Carduelis carduelis ) would have been a very rare visitor to our garden here in Warwickshire. In recent years however these small birds with their almost tropical, bright coloured plumage seem to be regular visitors and seem to stay with us all winter long.
It is reported that in the 19th century Goldfinches were often kept as caged birds with many individuals being taken from the wild. Thankfully the sale of wild birds is now illegal and their numbers have recovered well with an estimated 1.2m breeding pairs across the UK.
We rarely see Goldfinches visit our bird table or feeders but they often sit around in groups in the taller trees. In winter we see them perched together soaking up the last rays of evening sunshine before the sun sets. It is rather nice that the collective noun for a group of Goldfinches is call a Charm.
Described as a “colourful bird of weedy, over grown rough ground” they feed mainly on thistle heads and teasles and other small seeds (I take no offence as to the indication this gives to the state of our garden – we garden with biodiversity in mind!),
They are very lively and sociable birds and we nearly always see them flitting around the garden in groups. Their twittering song is charming and easily recognisable:
I am not sure where in the garden they nest but we do see them flying in and out of some of the larger evergreen conifers. Goldfinches nest later in the year than many other garden birds so that there is a good supply of food (mainly regurgitated seeds) for their young. This late nesting may well be something worth considering when planning your hedge cutting regime for next year.
“The Crossley ID Guide – Britain and Ireland” by Richard Crossleyand Dominic Couzens (ISBN: 978-0-691-15194-6)
This weekend saw the first forecast frosts of the winter months and so we took the opportunity to pick a selection of the remaining summer flowers to arrange and enjoy in the house.
Included in the top arrangement are a selection of apricot and burgundy dahlias, white Chincherinchee ((Ornithogalum thyrsoides), achillea and the delightfully transparent seed heads of honesty.
In the vase arrangement below are pink, white and apricot dahlias, the deep red rose ‘Ingrid Bergman’ and the fragrant rose ‘Boscabel’, purple Verbena bonariensis, Chincherinchee and blue grey eucalyptus foliage.
The final table centre piece for this evening’s Sunday dinner with family contains rose ‘Ingrid Berman’, white and pink waterlily type dahlias, honesty seed heads, the blue of Ageratum ‘Blue Horizon’, pink Schizostylis, blue-grey eucalyptus and Cotoneaster foliage.
The clocks may have changed and the nights are drawing in but we will still be able to enjoy the colour and fragrance of summer for a few days yet!
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)
Food: Small insects, larvae and other invertebrates plus seeds, fruit and buds
Wood pigeon (Columba palumbus)
Food: Seeds, grain, fruits, vegetables, berries and some insects and worms
Ketrel (Falco tinnunculus)
Food: Small mammals and birds, worms and insects
Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos)
Food: Worms, snails and fruit
Blackbird (Turdus merula)
Food: Worms, insects, berries and seeds
Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris)
Food: Berries, fruits, worms and insects
Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)
Food: Insects and seeds
Great Tit (Parus major)
Food: Mainly insects, spider and small invertebrates but also fond of nuts
Coal Tit (Periparus ater)
Food: Insects, seeds and nuts
Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)
Food: Some insects but mainly weed seeds
Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris)
Food: Seeds and insects
Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)
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
The fact that so few herbaceous plants are winter flowering makes the show of Helleborus orientalis around the Honey Pot Flowers garden particularly special at this time of year. With large flowers from dark aubergine through shades of pink to white, these flowers make you stop as you wander around the winter garden turning over the downward facing flowers to look at the exquisite markings on the ‘petals’.
Hellebores do not have petals in the normal sense of the word as their petals are really sepals (modified leaves that typically protect the flower bud).
To be honest once Hellebores have established they are very undemanding herbaceous perennials. They like areas of part-shade in our garden and seed themselves freely. When mature the plants do not like to be disturbed but careful transplanting of the seedlings (digging them up with soil so as to not expose the roots) allows you to distribute them throughout the garden.
You can also propagate larger plants by division in early spring if you have a particularly beautiful specimen that you want to bulk up. Your self-sown seedlings are unlikely to come true to colour (but half the fun is seeing how they will develop).
To show off the flowers at their best in the garden we usually remove the sad, dying leaves at soil level in January to expose the flowers. As well as exposing the flowers this helps reduce the spread of disease. The fresh new leaves will grow back again during the spring and look great throughout the summer.
Cutting and conditioning
With so few flowers around in the early months of the year, Hellebores are very valuable for winter arrangements. Because the flowers face downwards their full beauty may not be evident. For dinner table, coffee and side table arrangements simply taking the flowers and floating them in water face up in a clear crystal glass bowl can make a stunning display showing off all the varied colours and delicate markings.
It has to be said that many people find the conditioning of Hellebores a challenge. There seem to be a range of views on how this is best done.
Armitage and Lushman in “Speciality Cut Flowers” indicate that you can achieve 10-14 days in the vase. Stage of harvest seems to be particularly critical and they suggest for fresh flowers Hellebores should be cut when the stamens first become visible. For drying, flowers can be cut at anytime but particularly when the seed capsules become visible.
Sarah Raven in “The Cutting Garden” advocates putting the bottom inch of the stem in boiling water for 20 seconds and then plunging it into deep tepid water. With this treatment she indicates that the stems will stay fresh for 3 or 4 days (considerably less however than the vase life offered in Armitage and Lushman).
There also seems to be contradictory advice on the use of “flower food”. Comments from commercial growers in Armitage and Lushman indicate that “they have a wonderful long vase life, 10 days plus easy, and I give no special treatment other than Floralife”. In contrast Linda Beutler in “Garden to Vase” indicates that Hellesbore blooms do not tolerate floral preservative.
Most references indicate that Hellesbores do not last well in floral foam.
Our experience of using Hellesbores as cut flowers is that they are unpredictable. We have had most success when we have delayed cutting the flowers until the seed pods begin to develop. Cutting at this point the flowers are much more reliable and hold up well. Floret Farm’s “Cut Flower Garden” also recommends this approach and indicates that the flowers will last about 5-8 days in the vase.
It can be argued that using Hellesbores in ‘high stakes’ arrangements can be (is) risky. However, they are such charming flowers at a time of year when there is very little and it is well worth practising to perfect your conditioning technique.
As well as offering fresh cut stems, Hellebore flowers also dry well and can be used in buttonholes, corsages or wreaths. Gently covered with silica gel they will dry within 2 weeks and can then be stored in an air tight plastic box. They keep their colour well if kept in the dark and can be kept right through to the following Christmas to bring a different touch to Christmas wreaths.
Don’t be tempted to over dry them by leaving them in the silica gel for too long. They will simply suck up moisture when the are removed and will spoil quickly.
Other species in the garden
The majority of the Hellebores in the Waverley garden are Helleborus orientalis but we do also have occasional plants of the stinking Hellebore Helleborus foetidus. H. foetidus has smaller hanging bell shaped flowers on a tall stem that make a very useful fresh green addition to winter arrangements.
Origin: Greece and Turkey (ref: Wikipedia)
Hardiness: H7 (RHS hardiness rating –Hardy in the severest European continental climates (< -20)
Height: 40-45 cm
Flowering period: January to March
Derivation of scientific name: According to Wikipedia and Witchipedia, the genus name Helleborus comes from the ancient Greek word elein, meaning “to injure” and bora, meaning “food”.
Floriography: Slander and scandal
“The Cutting Garden” by Sarah Raven (ISBN 978-0-7112-3465-9)
“Specialty cut flowers” by Armitage and Lushman (ISBN 0-88192-579-9)
“Garden to Vase” by Linda Beutler (ISBN 978-0-88192-825-9)
“Cut Flower Garden” by Erin Benzakein and Julie Chai (ISBN 978-1-4521-4576-1)
One of the most flamboyant visitors to our garden in the winter months has to be the Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major). Its striking black and white plumage with vivid splashes of red are always a pleasure to see.
We often see these woodpeckers skipping around the trunks of the silver birches and they are also frequent visitors to the bird nuts for an easy meal on colder days. They don’t stay long but we were lucky enough to have the camera ready to capture the following video footage. The red markings on the back of the neck indicate that this is a male woodpecker.
The Great Spotted Woodpecker stays in the locality all year and you often glimpse its characteristic bouncing or undulating flight and hear its call as its travels across the garden. They have a remarkably wide distribution throughout Europe and Asia and also into North Africa.
Great Spotted Woodpeckers are omnivores, feeding on both insects and grubs as well as nuts from the feeders. It is also reported to take the eggs and chicks of small birds.
We have not yet found out where the nest hole is located but it is reported that they maintain a territory of up to 12 acres. We will keep our eyes peeled over the coming months. It is always wonderful to see the baby woodpeckers with the parents later in the year but unfortunately we do find that these young woodpeckers do have a tendency to fly into the window panes and injure themselves.
References and further reading
“Birds of Britain and Europe” by Nicholas Hammond and Michael Everett (ISBN 0 7063 6040 0)
The garden here at Honey Pot Flowers may appear cold and quiet but the new year is coming upon us quickly and there is plenty to do and much to see.
Despite the low temperatures here in Warwickshire, bulbs and flowers are beginning to emerge. The snowdrops are now in full swing complemented by the pinks and purples of the cyclamen and hellebores. The first of the primroses and yellow crocuses are beginning to flower and the air is filled with the scent of Daphne odora and Sarcococca. And, what is more, the sun has started to shine!
The garden birds are extremely busy foraging for food across the garden. Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tits, Long-tailed Tits, Nuthatchs, Chaffinchs, Dunnocks, Blackbirds and Great Spotted Woodpeckers are all regular visitors to the garden now with Buzzards mewing and flying overhead trying to catch any weak thermals that might come their way.
With time marching on we are also trying to get all our pruning jobs completed before we get into seed sowing in earnest. A few days bright and dry weather has allowed us to start pruning back the bush and climbing roses. Ideally the climbing roses should have been done in November but better late than never! With the climbers we are untying all last years growth, cutting out some of the old stems to shoot afresh this year, cutting off the side shoots to a couple of buds and then tying in three or four strong new stems to flower this year. In March we will give them a good feed to set them on their way.
In the orchard we are also starting to prune the apple and pear trees. There are three main tasks to perform here on each spur fruiting tree:
remove any dead or diseased branches
improve and open up the structure of the tree by removing crossing or unwanted branches (this also increases air flow and helps minimise issues with disease)
prune back any of the new leaf shoots from last year to three or four buds leaving the flower buds on the spurs to develop.
With partial tip bearing trees, such as the Bramley, remember that some of the flower buds are on the end of the stem and removing these when pruning will obviously reduce your crop. The wood, or growth buds are much smaller than the flower buds that will eventually provide you with your fruit.
One thing to remember when pruning fruit trees is that if you prune hard the tree will grow back vigorously producing a rash of long ‘water’ shoots. This will make pruning next year much more difficult. Ideally you need to achieve a balance, just enough pruning to improve the health and structure of the tree and encourage the tree to put effort into fruiting and not too much that the tree produces excessive vegetative growth.
It really is such a pleasure to be out in the garden again at the start of a new gardening year. There is much to do and seed sowing is just around the corner.
It is such a shame that a written blog like this cannot properly portray the rich fragrance that some plants yield. Daphne odora certainly packs a punch. A small, slow growing shrub with pink flowers, it is perhaps rather insignificant for most of the year. However, it is worth its weight in gold in the garden in January and February. Its rich perfume hangs in the air of a winter morning. Such a pleasure.
A native of China, Daphne ordora is an evergreen shrub that will grow in either full sun or partial shade. We have ours close to the path near to the back door so we get the chance to take in and enjoy the fragrance every time we pass by. It likes fertile, humus rich soil that is well drained.
Because it is so slow growing we have not found it valuable for flower arranging. In fact, the fragrance is so powerful when in an enclosed room that many might find it too intense.
Why do some plants flower in the depth of the winter when most days are far too cold for pollinating insects to fly? I am glad they do. Experience here (Warwickshire UK) suggests that it only takes a short period of winter sunshine and the bees are duly summoned by the perfume (evidence below). Because there are so few plants flowering there will be less competition for the attention of the pollinating insects that do brave the weather.
If you don’t currently have one of these in your garden it is certainly worth having a go.
Hardiness: RHS hardiness rating H4 (Hardy through most of the UK (-10 to -5))
There is one flower above all that signals the beginning of the new gardening year and the promise of great things to come. In the garden here at Waverley some varieties of snowdrops (Galanthus) begin to start to flower in early in December with others flowering right through the winter months and into March.
All snowdrops prefer cool, moist conditions in the spring followed by a dry summer dormancy in the shade. Planted in the right conditions about 4-5 inches deep, snowdrops seem to love the growing conditions here in Warwickshire.
Often seen as a symbol of purity and chastity these delicate looking flowers are really tough pushing through the winter soil and emerging like white pearls. Alternative names include ‘Fair maids of February’ and Candlemas Bells however the French name of Perce-Neige (snow piercers) seems particularly apt.
The love of these tiny flowers I think must run in the family with Carol’s uncle, snowdrop expert Colin Mason of Fieldgate Snowdrops, providing us with a number of varieties and species that have now established throughout the garden. It is a lovely thing that your individual garden plants can remind you so vividly of friends and relatives and the times that you have spent together.
Snowdrops and Snowflakes
Snowdrops (Galanthus) and Snowflakes (Leucojum) are closely related species. Whereas as Snowflakes have six equally sized petals, Snowdrops have three larger outer petals surrounding three smaller inner petals typically marked with green.
In addition to the snowdrops we have also been increasing the number of summer snowflakes (Leucojum aestivum) that we have around the Honey Pot Flowers garden. These flower much later (May to June) and because of their longer stems prove much more useful as cut flowers than the shorter snowdrops.
The arrangement of the paired leaves at the base of the snowdrop plant is helpful in identifying the different species. For example, in the common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) the two leaves are pressed flat together (applanate) whilst in Galanthus elwesii one leaf is clasped around the other (supervolute).
We find, if you have patience, that the snowdrops bulk up very effectively throughout the garden with little effort on our part. When the clumps get too dense we lift them when they are ‘in the green’, gently separate the bulbs and distribute them more widely throughout the garden. In particular we have started to develop a snowdrop walk through the copse at the north end of the garden providing a fresh splash of white on dull February days.
If you believe in such things it is worth noting some of the common folklore around snowdrops. In her book Snowdrops , Gail Harland reports that there is a country belief that it is unlucky to decorate a room with cut snowdrops and that these should not be brought into one’s house until after Candlemas Day (2 February).
Whereas this mythology, and the wider meaning associated with giving particular flowers (floriography), are less widely understood these days, it is worth bearing these aspects in mind when preparing bouquets and giving flowers. A bouquet of flowers, buttonhole or gift of flowers with inherent meaning is always a nice touch.
The short stem length of snowdrops really only makes them suitable for small posies and arrangements. We have found that they make charming place settings for dinner parties in tiny clear glass vases (but only after the 2 February of course!).
Hardy Perennial Bulb
Family: Amaryllidaceae (ref: Royal Horticultural Society)
Floriography: Purity and innocence
Origin: The common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) has a distribution from the Pyrenees to Balkans however there are also some 20 species of Galanthus in total occurring in a wide variety of habitats.
“Snowdrop” by Gail Harland (ISBN 978-1-78023-492-2) – an interesting account about the biology of snowdrops, collecting and their appearance in poetry, art and music.
We have always been rather surprised at how successful we have been at growing grapes outdoors in the garden here at Honey Pot Flowers. Anna Pavord in her Independent article suggests that it is difficult to grow them north of a line between Gloucester and The Wash so here in Warwick we must be pushing our luck a little.
We have two vines, one of red dessert grapes and one of white dessert grapes. They have been in place for about 12 years now but unfortunately the variety names have become detached along the way. Year in, year out they produce a good crop of sweet and tasty grapes and it feels rather special when it comes to harvest time.
In November/December we prune the vines ready for next year. Writers indicate that if you leave this until the spring when the sap is beginning to rise there is a tendency for the cut ends to weep.
Next year’s grapes are produced on the laterals formed in the current year. The plants grow very vigorously in the spring and can produce a huge number of floating laterals with many spectacular large fresh green vines leaves. The aim of the pruning is to not allow the plant to produce too many laterals and encourage the plant to put its efforts into a smaller number of larger bunches of grapes.
Having said this we nearly always have to prune out some laterals next year as well as thin out the number of bunches of grapes on the plant as a whole. In this way we get larger, juicy grapes.
Grape vines are very attractive climbing plants and we grow our vines up the same trellis supports as our climbing roses. The main leader is trained in a spiral up one of the main uprights and allowed to clamber across the top so that the grapes hang down and can be picked as you walk through the arch. A lovely thing to do when you are taking a gentle evening meander around the garden to appreciate your days work.
At this time of year (December) we cut back the leader by about a third and shorten last year’s fruiting laterals back to 2 or 3 buds. These buds will create next year’s fruiting laterals. Any unwanted, broken or crossing laterals are also removed to create a nice tight structure that is firmly tied into the supports. It is very important to take time to tie in carefully and robustly so there is minimal chance of damage from the winter winds over the next few months.
All of this work now will pay dividends next year. In September/October next year the grapes will begin to ripen and be ready for picking. Surprisingly we get very little bird damage and without netting we get a good crop for ourselves and also enough to share. Despite being outside they are sweet enough to eat fresh but one of our preferred methods is to make juice (there is not usually enough to make any sensible amount of wine).
Making the juice is a very simple process. Pick and rinse the grapes and give them a very quick pulse in the food processor. This should be just enough to break up the grapes and release the juice but leave the pips intact. Strain the resulting pulp through a course plastic sieve into a jug and store in the fridge until you need it. Avoid using a metal sieve as this may impart a metallic taint to the juice. No sugar needs to be added and the juice will keep at least 2 or 3 days by which time the family have guzzled the lot.
Drinking your own freshly pressed grape juice from your own grape vines is such a pleasure and a real taste of summer.
Further reading: “Pruning” by Christopher Brickell (RHS) (ISBN: 1-85732-902-3)