June 2

The wildlife plot in May 2022

May is possibly the best month for the plants in the wildlife garden. They are all types of green, there is enough moisture to plump them out and start them of growing and it can be quite warm and sunny. Below are some of my favourite photos of the plot this month.

First up is the mint moth. I found it sitting on a Nepeta (catmint) leaf in the sunshine. It is tiny and flies in sunshine and at night and can apparently often be found sitting on mint leaves – I planted a lot more catmints last year so they have done their job.

Mint moth on catmint.

One of the best places at this time of the year is the path behind the shed. It is like a glade with some sunshine but deep shade later on in the day. In the afternoon, the plants seem to glow and if you sit and listen you can hear the birds pecking through the undergrowth. You can see the difference in growth from the 2nd and 3rd photos taken at the start of the month to the 4th which was taken at the end of the month.

It has also been the month of butterflies. There have been the whites and painted ladies but also Speckled Woods.

The Tree Mallow has been in flower all month. It has taken two years to get to this size and the bees and other insects have loved it, including Asian Ladybirds. These pictures are of one of the flowers and a bee covered in pollen and trying to sort itself out.

Finally, we have the chairs in the beds. They are not for sitting on because they have broken. They are here to rot away decoratively and provide some of that man made environment that wildlife has become so adapted to. There is also an old wheelbarrow leaning on the apple tree as if the gardener has forgotten it.

Leaving these elements in the beds is all part of the Permaculture principle of creating no waste. Things aren’t waste if they can be used aesthetically in a flower bed. No trips to the recycling centre and no fires to burn the wood.

May 24

6 ways to make an allotment wildlife friendly

Some people who are new to the allotments stopped and chatted to me when I was in the wildlife garden last week and said they wanted to do more for wildlife on their plot but didn’t have the space. Quite rightly, our committee are only giving out half plots at present because the waiting list is so long and then if you want another half, you can ask.

The wildlife plot is run as a garden so not everything that is on there can be used on half a plot and as the couple said to me, now that they have started to plant their veg, they realise that they have very little space left to make it wildlife friendly. So, this post is in answer to their question about what would be the best thing to do.

  1. If you haven’t got any, plant fruit trees, bushes and plants. The blossom on these is early in the year and is loved by pollinators. Be clever and use your space wisely – planting around the edges, espaliering trees so that they take up the least amount of space. Here are my pink flowered strawberries and a step-over blackberry.

2. Underplant the fruit with flowers that attract pollinators. If you are lucky some will self-seed and before you know it you have lots of flowers. Sometimes I plant in between as well, so my strawberry plants are interplanted with Verbena bonariensis and roses. There is a braeburn apple tree in the last picture, honest!

3. Grow herbs which will be delicious with the fruit and veg you are growing but can also be allowed to flower and provide for all sorts of insects. Chives, rosemary and mint all flower and are loved by pollinators.

Chives flowering under the cherry tree.

4. Leave one of each veg to bolt and flower and then go to seed. This doesn’t take up too much space but provides variety for the insects. For a lot of veg, this will happen in the second year not the year you planted them.

5. Water is an essential element for wildlife but you don’t have to have a pond. I have a metal dish I found on the plot, weighed it down with a stone and keep a bit of water in it.

6. Grow a bit of comfrey – just one or two plants – near a compost heap or in a tucked away space. The cut leaves make a good feed for plants when soaked in water (if a little smelly), can be added to compost heaps to speed up the process and are loved by bees. What’s not to like? It is a really useful plant. Ask around to see if anyone has any roots. You want Bocking 14 which is a sterile plant and will not self-seed. If you get the sort that self-seeds it will take over the plot!

7. Finally, if you ever have any ground that is left waiting for some veg, sow a green manure which will improve the soil and may flower and attract bees and hoverflies. I use phacelia which flowers at the end of April and in May before I plant my brassicas which will probably go in the ground in June. The patch of flowers thrums with insects all day long.

All of these ideas should be secondary to the fruit and veg you grow so plan those first and fit these ideas in afterwards.

May 23

Making compost where you need it

Each autumn I start to run out of space in my compost bins and so make it on the beds. I choose one which needs a bit of oomph and pin down a wire basket. The beds that I put them on this time had had rhubarb on them for about 15 years and I have removed it because they harbour slugs which then crawled out from under the leaves and decimated whatever else I had planted in the bed.

I then fill up the bin which doesn’t take long at that time of year as the summer crops are being removed. I do layer with green, brown and manure, watering in between each layer just because I want this to rot down quickly. The bin was full in November but reduces down to about half 5 – 6 months later. There is usually plenty of nettles and comfrey which act as compost activator and help speed the process up. I don’t chop things up so I am sure if I did that it would be quicker and not quite so rough but I just don’t have the time at the point when I am building them.

Yesterday, I lifted the cage off the compost and spread it out over the bed. it took 5 minutes and there was no wheelbarrowing the compost from one part of the plot to another so was quick and easy. The compost is fairly rough and ready but does the job. I then planted squash plants – some of which have already been chewed by slugs!

April 30

What’s missing?

I am at the stage with the wildlife plot where I can stand back and consider what we have and what is missing. Last year I realised that we didn’t have any floxgloves and so we have spent this spring planting a whole range both wild and cultivated. They’ll all end up as one pinky-mauve colour in the end but at least we should have some. The other thing I noticed that we are missing is umbellifers. We have Verbena bonariensis (I think this plant counts as one) but we need more.

Anthriscus sylvestris – Cow parsley in my garden.

I’ve looked through a range of books and come up with a list that will provide some of these flowers for as long as possible across the year.

Ammi majuswhiteJune – August
Verbena bonariensispurpleJuly – October
Giant fennelyellowJuly – October
DillyellowJune to August
Daucas carrota ‘Dora’purpleJune – August
Angelica sylvestriswhiteMay – June
Seseli gummiferumwhiteMay – July
ValerianwhiteJuly – August (Thanks for the suggestion Belinda.)

This means umbellifer flowers from May to October, six months, with many pollinators enjoying these flowers. I have started sowing seeds and have Ammi majus that are large enough to go out and Daucus carrota on their way but still a bit small.

April 26

Cucumbers by numbers

I bought a packet of Cucumber ‘Carmen’ seeds. The average number in the packet is 4 so I was a little disappointed to only get 3 – but someone has to if it is an average. I think they are what Charles Dowding grows or I just picked them out and didn’t look too closely at the price and seed numbers. The packet cost me £4.99 so that is £1.66 per seed. This might be the most expensive seed I have ever sown. Usually, seed this expensive is F1 or even F2 but it doesn’t say this on the packet although I can find examples of these packets which say F1 on google.

All three seeds germinated (phew) so no losses yet. They have been potted up and are in the unheated greenhouse, growing on until I put them in the polytunnel. Tesco organic cucumbers cost £1 each. It probably isn’t enough really and with the Netherlands not exporting cucumbers this year, I am counting on these. They will only need to grow 3 cucumbers on each plant to make them financially viable. This number allows for compost and pots in the cost.

I am also growing my stalwarts Crystal Lemon and Marketmore both inside and outside as they are prolific and my usual worry is how to use the numbers of cucumbers they produce from three of each plant. I’ll keep you posted about what happens.

April 23

Gardens of the High Line by Piet Oudolf and Rick Darke

ELEVATING THE NATURE OF MODERN LANDSCAPES

This is such a fantastic book if you like the look of the High Line Gardens. These are gardens in new York created on the old railway line that is elevated above the city and was descending into disrepair since its closure. Some far-sighted person envisaged a garden and together the landscape architects James Corner Field Oprtsyiond, Diller Scofodia + Renfro and gardener Piet Oudolf created a vision and plan that became reality.

The book is a picture book of the gardens on the High Line throughout the seasons and it shows the hard landscaping and the planting working so well together. I think it is possibly my most favourite garden that I haven’t visited of all time (at the moment) because I love the hard edges of the landscaping and the wild planting.

Photo by Richard Darke

There were two things I took from the book for my garden. Firstly, always be able to articulate the vision and principles for the garden. I am well aware of doing this in my work but hadn’t thought about it from a gardening point of view and it is true. The beds in my garden or on the wildlife plot that are the least successful are the ones where I am not sure what I am doing in them. On the wildlife plot the names of the beds are sometimes a shortcut to what I am doing with them – The Grasses Bed – but I have one unnamed bed that I just stick all the leftover plants in and it looks a mess. At home in the garden I am slowly moving to be a bit wilder and this needs articulating about what I mean for each border and bed and the garden as a whole.

Photo by Richard Darke

I love the way the tracks have been relaid and the planting appears through them in parts of the garden. Some of the tracks have also been used as sculptural items and I like that too. Context is everything here – the context being industrial but wild land.

An example of articulating the vision of the garden is of the Chelsea Thicket. Here a sense of enclosure was required with fragrance playing a key part of the experience. The ground is to be covered in a carpet of herbaceous plants that act as a mulch and prevent weeds from becoming too prolific. This has been achieved through the planting of trees that enclose area and then shrubs such as viburnum, winter hazel, fothergilla and witch hazels to name a few that provide the fragrance. Underneath these are planted sedges, hakonchloa, spring vetch and fumewort. This is a classic layered woodland.

The most essential skill to possess, whether designing or conserving layered landscapes, is the ability to observe and articulate the patterns

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The second thing I took from the book are plants to try out – I garden on sand and therefore some of the limitations they have on soil depth and dryness make the plants quite suitable for me. Once I have worked out and articulated the vision for my gardens and beds, then I will go back through the book and identify some plants to try. Easy to try plants would be spring vetch (Lathyrus vernus), Frosted Violet coral bells (Heuchara ‘Frosted Violet’) and sedges (Carex bromoides) as an understory.

This is a book I will return to time and time again, to lose myself in the pictures and to try and recreate a small part of it in the soil I tend.

April 21

A Beautiful Obsession by Jimi Blake and Noel Kingsbury

Hunting Brook courtesy of Gardens Illustrated The link takes you to the article and names the plants.

All books that are about individual gardens are promotional material for the garden, chock full of atmospheric photos of the planting and quite often key plants and this book is no different in that respect. What it is also selling is Jimi himself with a chapter on his life which is not out of place because the garden is very personal to him, from the naming of the different parts to the planting philosophy. What this does mean is that the garden is distinctive and different.

The chapters that were of particular interest to me were the ones about his planting philosophy and then how the various gardens differ from each other.

As the book says, Huntigdon is a plantsman’s garden filled with a wide range of new plants, an emphasis on foliage and colour and is also what we might call high maintenance with busy planting and removing times in May and October. Jimi uses a lot of annuals and tender plants and this is undeniably labour intensive if not as the books says Victorian. What it means is constantly changing borders full of colour. The garden does not have shrubby plants which are considered to be a bit blobby and not much fun after flowering, but uses ‘woody’ plants from the Araliaceae family which tend to be single stemmed giving a strong shape but not casting much shade. This is a new range of plants to me.

Another feature of the garden is the way summer is extended with the planting of salvias playing a key role. As Blake says, he has tried 256 species and cultivars and is gradually reducing this number to the ones he thinks work well with perennials. He recommends pruning them to keep them compact and not planting them with manure or fertiliser, just well-drained soil to encourage flowering and he dead heads them. Something I might need to start doing. There are then lists of salvias which do well in the garden and with other plants, the only one of which I grow is Salvia ‘Amistad’. There are also dahlias and here I do have quite a few of these although Blake grows mostly singles and collects and sows the seeds from them. It does mean a range of slightly different colours in the plants but these can be quite effective planted amongst the range of annuals and perennials.

The book then goes on to explore the different gardens in more detail and ends with a plant list. For me, the benefit of this book is the range of different plants that are showcased and that might be suitable for my garden.

April 17

Spring greens

The colour green has been around a long time in art, one word that covers a whole host of bluey greens, yellowy greens and everything in between. It is particularly relevant to this time of year for a northern hemisphere gardener when spring is on its way and the garden is a multitude of greens representing renewal and rebirth amongst other things.

Euphorbia polychroma

A yellowy-green or is it a greeny-yellow could be called chartreuse, the name coming from a drink the Carthusian monks created in the 1600/1700s. They blended many, many herbs together – no wonder it came out a shade of green – named it Chartreuse and sold it as an elixir for long life. Apparently, it was enjoyed so much people started to drink it for the taste alone.

This seems to be a recurring story in monasteries. The Benedictine monks at Buckfast Abbey here in Devon created Buckfast Tonic Wine, a caffeinated drink originally made as a pick-me-up that used to be sold in Scotland as a cheap way of becoming intoxicated, particularly for those under the age of 18. Not quite the legacy or elegance of Chartreuse.

In the garden, it is a colour that lights up a darker corner, stands out from the crowd and screams ‘Notice Me!’ and goes so well with purples and reds and oranges. I have quite a lot of it to remind me in spring that things are on the move.

Fiddlehead fern

Slightly less yellow and you end up with what I call fiddlehead green, lime green or the HEX code #57E960 used by computers to communicate the red, green and blue colour value.

Fiddlehead ferns unfurl (try saying that quickly) in spring to reveal a light green that darkens over time. Called fiddleheads because they look like the scroll at the top of a fiddle or violin, they can be picked and eaten if cooked when they are supposed to have a taste somewhere between aparagus, broccoli and spinach. They are, however, poisonous if eaten raw and so I haven’t ever tried them myself.

The fiddleheads are large ferns and can reach over a metre high if the conditions are right and wave their greenery around in breezes. They keep a fairly dry patch of the garden looking fresh and as if there is far more damp around than might be expected. They look good under trees, out in the open and on banks in dappled sunlight – I have them in all three places and wouldn’t be without them.

How about some greens working together?

That’s the thing about greens in leaves, they always go together so here we have the yellowy-green of Penstemon pinefolius from California and the patterned green leaves of Cyclamen hederifolium. I really like the combination of greens in these two plants but I can’t take the credit for it. I planted the Penstemon but the Cyclamen planted itself in the little gap between the concrete edging of the bed and the tarmac of the drive. The coum (the tuberous bit the leaves and roots come off) is now almost the size of a dinner plate and spreading all over the edges of the drive.

The greens in the Cyclamen are more the racing type green in the centre with almost a grey-green outside that with some lighter edges to it that are nearly white. Each cyclamen plant has its own pattern and colours so no use trying to match them.

For a green with a hint of silver and on a completely different scale to Cyclamen, you can’t beat Globe Artichokes. These are big plants with serrated leaves that hang down. Sheltered by the greenhouse, it was so warm here in the garden this winter that the plant never lost its leaves, something they do up on the allotments, and so it has fruited a lot earlier than I would normally expect. These are dramatic plants which add a touch of glamour to a planting scheme. They do have a chemical in them called cynarin which can be bitter and hard to wash off your hands after you have handled the plant. The chokes of the flowers are delicious and I prefer to eat mine the french way, peeling off each segment, dipping it in mayonnaise and then scraping the flesh off with my teeth. Not something for the faint-hearted.

And finally, a very silvery-green not made out of pigment but caused by a host of white hairs fuzzing over sage-green leaves which is usually an adaptation for plants from hot countries to prevent water loss. This is a buddleja, a fancy one at that, but whose name I have forgotten. Once the shrub flowers, I will take photos and try to find a name for it. You can see the flower buds inside the protecting new leaves. Eventually those buds will hang down from the stem and the flowers will have a bell-like shape in purple-pink.

Something I always think about with these plants is how many different ways can you spell buddleja or buddleia? Which do you prefer? I bet the spelling with the i is the original and it has now been replaced with a j. Anyway, either works.

As the year goes on many of these greens will darken and fade so that freshness and symbol of growth and the year to come is at its strongest now. This is why I love spring greens so much.

This post was written as part of the #Wordpress #WordPrompt project where a different word is given each month to write about. This month’s word is #Green.

April 15

Trees trapping moisture

In Permaculture you are encouraged to find as many functions as you can in each element you use in the garden/land that you have. Trees are one of those elements that are a must; food forests are ubiquitous nowadays, and on permaculture courses you are often prompted to list all of their functions from food and fuel to leaf litter which enriches the soil. But one of the key things trees can do is harvest moisture from the air such as when it is misty and deposit it on the land.

We have had several days of sea mist this week with a couple of days when it hasn’t cleared at all. This morning was misty again and the picture shows clearly the damp spots on the ground where the mist has collected in the evergreen trees and then eventually fallen. Unfortunately it is on to tarmac so they won’t benefit from the moisture but this is going on wherever there is a tree.

Or so I thought until I walked down my road home. Here, there is no damp patch under the enormous eucalyptus, the small damp patch you can see is from the silver birch just past it. As Eucalyptus are a drought tolerant tree coming from hot places I wonder if they have some mechanism whereby they retain the water in some way through their leaves, bark, trunk etc. Silver birch don’t perhaps because they are a temperate climate tree.

You learn something every day!