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

p227

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!

March 5

Using building rubble

I am not alone in using building rubble – bricks and sand – for wildlife. Below is Dusty Gedge explaining how to do it on a much larger scale.

February 24

Log piles on the wildlife plot no.3

When dead doesn’t mean dead!

I have written about the various log piles that are dotted around the wildlife plot and found a great graphic that shows who and what lives on dead wood so in this post I would like to look at the stages of decay in the log piles and what they look like.

There are several stages of decomposition in trees which this diagram clearly shows

Diagram from ResearchGate

Stage 1 and 2 are living trees but stage 2 has a tree that is slowly declining with patches that are dead or severely damaged. Branches and twigs may break off but the tree is left intact and standing.

Stage 3 is a dead tree which is still standing but starting to sag and its texture is starting to soften. This is represented on the plot by the dead trees I have planted in the Thugs Bed.

Stage 4 is where the tree starts to lose its bark, sags to the ground and breaks into large pieces. Plant roots invade the sapwood. An example of this is the standing dead tree on the wildlife plot which is losing its bark through peeling and creating a heap on the floor which plants (weeds!) are starting to colonise.

This is not a planted dead tree but a dead tree that remained where it stood when alive, by far and away the best place for them to stay.

In stage 5 most of the tree is on the ground, in contact with the soil and decomposing by breaking into smaller, softer pieces. Roots of plants invade the heartwood. There isn’t any of this at present on the plot.

Stage 6 is the final stage where the tree is soft, powdery and basically a decomposed mound. We don’t have any of this either.

My understanding is that for a healthy forest you need trees at each stage of the decomposition process and whilst the plot is not a forest, each stage of decomposition has different fungi, lichens, invertebrates etc living on it and so it provides for the greatest diversity.

Fungi are the main agents of decay in wood, breaking it down with secretions of enzymes.

After the wood is softened, saproxylic beetles – those that feed on dead wood – and their grubs feed on the tree and on the fungal bodies on the tree. There are around 650 beetle species that are thought to need dead wood at some point in their life cycle. The tunnels and holes they make allow water to get into the wood and this softens it more and this is an invitation to the invertebrates such as woodlice and millipedes to feed on the wood. Predators and parasites such as robber flies and ichneumon wasps arrive to feed on the beetles and other invertebrates.

There are three main types of decay in dead trees; white rot, brown rot and soft rot. White rot breaks down the chemical components of wood into carbon and water, releasing nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus that were locked in the material. As the rot proceeds the wood takes on a bleached appearance, becoming fibrous and springy. The silver birch branches at edging the beds have rotted down like this and there is some at the top of the standing dead tree.

Brown rot only breaks down the simple sugars such as cellulose and the wood becomes brown, cracked into cubes and crumbly. Soft rot happens in environments where moisture content fluctuates such as wood lying on the ground. Lignin is broken down and the wood is white in colour.

The first picture shows cracking in the wood where the different fungi are working. The middle is holes in dead wood caused by beetles and their grubs and the third is an example of white rot in the standing dead tree.

See a short video about this process on post no.4

Have you got any decaying trees? What wildlife have you seen on them?

February 23

What and who uses dead wood

Following on from my post about log piles on the wildlife plot, I came across this brilliant graphic about dead wood and who feeds on it.

You can download a copy here – I used google translate to help me through the process as it was in Dutch. I don’t think I have the lynx and wolves but probably have many of the smaller species. I shall be keeping an eye out and trying to identify them across this year and then create my own version of this in December/January.