Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Spring has sprung at Awkward Hill

The weather is warm enough for short-sleeved gardening, or drinking a cup of tea on the terrace...

There are primroses (the native variety, Primula vulgaris)...

There are tulips ('Purissima') and multi-headed Roman hyacinths ...

There are daffodils and daisies ...

There is blossom on the ornamental cherries, the amelanchiers and the Magnolia stellata ...

Rufus is enjoying the sunshine in the garden ...

And there are new-born lambs in the field next door...

I think we can safely say that spring has arrived.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Halloween at Awkward Hill

October 31 dawned with a suitably misty, murky morning. The garden was festooned with cobwebs and shrouded with fog. It's great gardening weather, though, because with no wind and no rain, you can put in plants and bulbs without having to wipe your glasses or have your hair blown in your face every five minutes.
I went to a concert on Saturday night, to hear Elgar's Piano Quintet in A minor, played by my friends Tony Frewer (first violin) and Monica Frewer (piano), with Tony's string quartet. This was a great Halloween choice, since the inspiration for the piece is a ghostly legend.
In 1918, Elgar and his wife Alice rented a cottage called Brinkwells, near Fittleworth, in West Sussex. Nearby, in Flexham Park, was a group of twisted dead trees said to be the remains of a group of Spanish monks who had taken part in blasphemous ceremonies in the park and been struck by lightning for their sins. The first movement of the quintet has a Spanish theme which suggests the monks bemoaning their fate, and the tapping of dry branches against a window. 
There is apparently no evidence of any Spanish monastery or community in the area, and neither is there any history of a local legend involving Spanish monks. However, one of Elgar's great friends was the ghost-story writer, Algernon Blackwood, who visited the couple at Brinkwells.
Blackwood was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, whose members also included Aleister Crowley, who was notorious for his fascination with black magic and the occult. It's highly likely that Blackwood made the whole thing up.
Never mind, it's a terrific piece of music, and I love the idea of Elgar and Blackwood sitting in front of the fire in the isolated cottage, telling each other ghostly tales. Perhaps I should make up a legend about the fastigiate yews in my garden (see third picture down). 

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Autumn colour at Westonbirt

I decided to drag myself away from Book No 3 yesterday and spend the day at Westonbirt Arboretum with my neighbour Neil and our dogs, Rufus and Harry. This is one of the best times to visit, as the autumn foliage colour at Westonbirt, which houses the National Collection of Japanese Maples, is spectacular.
Unfortunately, the weather wasn't wonderful - it was grey and damp, but not too cold and not actually raining. I hadn't been to Westonbirt, which is about 20 minutes away by car, for a couple of years, so I was intrigued to see the new treetop walkway. Unfortunately, the walkway is surrounded by conifers, and beneath it is some sort of play area or work area with a lot of wooden structures (I was trying not to look down too much, so I didn't really see), so from a distance, it doesn't really give you an indication of what is in store.
Westonbirt was busy: the schools are on half-term holiday this week, so there were hundreds of people, accompanied by lots of children in brightly coloured bobble hats, and dozens of dogs.
Trying to take photographs of a garden when it is full of people is quite a challenge. I didn't even bother taking my camera - I just used my iPhone.
It's always nice to have a place to yourself when you are trying to look at things, but on the other hand, I loved the fact that it was so busy. I loved the idea that so many people wanted to take their children there for a half-term outing, and that the children themselves seemed to be enjoying it so much. All around there were small excited people climbing on trees, kicking leaves, and comparing leaf colours. It was fantastic. 
Most of the really colourful foliage was provided by the maples, but there were other trees in full autumn regalia as well, such as the Kentucky yellowwood, or Cladrastis kentukea (see final picture). Hope you enjoy the pictures.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Living in the bee-loud glade

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, 
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

I've always loved W B Yeats's poem 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree'.  It's a love song to Lough Gill, in his native County Sligo and anyone who feels homesick for woods, or water, or countryside will identify with it.  It has a special resonance for me, because Yeats wrote it after walking down Fleet Street one day, and seeing a small water feature or fountain in a shop window which reminded him of the lake water lapping on the shore.
I spent 35 years working in Fleet Street, both in the street itself, and in the metaphorical Fleet Street, as the national newspaper industry is still known. During that time, I would often sneak out of the office for half an hour or so in search of grass and trees and a bit of peace and quiet. Now, of course, I live in the country and keep bees, and live in my own bee-loud glade.
I've never quite been sure where my interest in bees comes from. When I was a child, I had a book about a bee called Buzzywing (by Edith Ellen Ellsworth), which I adored. It was basically the story of the honeybee's life cycle, and I found it fascinating.
During my 12 years on The Independent, my colleague Mike McCarthy was one of the first national newspaper journalists in the UK to highlight the problems facing honeybees, and challenge the claims of the big agri-chemical companies that their products were bee-safe.
As a gardener, I was shocked by his stories about the spread of varroa, or colony collapse disorder, and the various claims and counter-claims regarding neo-nicotinoids. Every single major problem that honeybees face today seems to have its roots in human intervention of some kind, even if it's just people throwing honey jars away without washing them out, which is one of the most quickest ways to spread two of the most serious bee diseases: American foulbrood (AFB) and European foulbrood (EFB).
I currently have three hives - two at home (or rather in my neighbours' paddock, the other side of the wall from my garden), and one at the Cirencester and District Beekeepers Association apiary.
I've also just passed my beekeeping Basic Assessment, one of the exams and modules organised by the British Beekeeping Association (BBKA). Not that this makes me feel like a real beekeeper at last; beekeeping is a bit like gardening in that the more you know, the more you realise you don't know.
I'm not a natural beekeeper. I'm impatient and clumsy, and I really admire the experienced beekeepers I meet at C&DB, because they all seem so calm and unhurried. And they are all so good at woodwork! Being handy with a hammer and nails is a great asset in beekeeping.
Needless to say, I've learned a lot. I would really recommend joining your local beekeeping association if you are thinking seriously about keeping bees, because if things go wrong (as they invariably do), you'll find other people have had the same experience. This is very comforting if you have just lost your hive to wasps, for example, or your bees failed to make it through the winter.
And when things go right, you'll have honey from your own hive. W B Yeats knew a thing or two about what really matters in life.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Trouble in Paradise

As most of you know, the village where I live is, like Mary Poppins, "practically perfect in every way". Occasionally, however, a small black cloud appears in the sky over Bibury, and most of these small black clouds seem to follow in the wake of tourists in large hire cars.
We live on a narrow lane, where there is no public parking. It's a dead end, or what we call in the UK a No Through Road. There's a sign at the entrance to the lane that clearly states this, and another sign that warns the lane only gives access to residents. Yet every day, and especially at weekends, there is a constant stream of motorists driving up the narrow lane in search of Arlington Row, Bibury's world-famous cottages, or a parking place.
The lane leads to Arlington Row, but by the time it gets to the cottages, it is a footpath, not a road. It seems to be impossible to convince someone with a sat-nav that it is a dead end, and not only that, but a dead end that becomes a footpath. They just refuse to believe you.

Visitors admire the old cottages of Arlington Row in Bibury The yellow car belongs to one of the residents

The sight of people trying to do a three-point turn on a steep, narrow road with stone walls in every direction would be amusing, if it wasn't for the damage that these vehicles do to the walls and the grass verges. Unfortunately, it very rarely is a three-point turn; it's usually a 17-point turn.
Now don't get me wrong. I don't mind tourists. I quite enjoy meeting tourists and giving them directions. It's a small price to pay for living in such a beautiful village. However, the village won't stay beautiful very long if it is constantly being worn away by tyres.
Some visitors seem very aggrieved about the lack of parking. Someone complained to me the other day that Bibury should make provision for all these cars. I told him I thought it was disgraceful that the 12th-century masons who built our beautiful parish church didn't throw up a multi-storey car park while they were at it.
My neighbour opposite has had her dry-stone wall knocked down twice within the past 12 months. The verge along my wall, which I would like to plant up with spring bulbs and perennials, is constantly rutted with tyre marks. We have both tried putting logs or lumps of stone along the boundary in an attempt to stop people reversing over the grass, but it doesn't seem to work.

 My neighbour's wall, which needs to be repaired for the second time in a year

How do we solve this? We don't want endless signs all over the place, and in any case any signs or markings are often ignored. An Australian family recently parked their car at the top of the lane, on a double yellow line. When I pointed out this out to them, they insisted that they couldn't see the double yellow line.
I said that even if they couldn't see the double yellow line, it was obvious that their car was going to block the road to other traffic, to which they replied that British roads were all narrow, and we ought to be used to it by now. They thought this was hilarious. And people wonder why Bibury residents occasionally get a bit grumpy about the tourists.

Eupatorium: a eulogy

The fashion for prairie planting, or the New Perennial style as some designers prefer to call it, may not be universally popular with gardeners, but it’s very good news for the honey bee.
Prairie planting is all about letting plants do what comes naturally. You don’t have to stake them, or prune them, or deadhead them. You choose things like asters, or rudbeckia, or echinacea, that will establish massive colourful clumps that sway in the breeze without collapsing in a heap every time it rains. Most prairie planting schemes incorporate lots of tall grasses, such as miscanthus, or pennisetum, or panicum, and even as autumn turns into winter, their bleached flowerheads still add movement and texture.

Eupatorium combines beautifully with late summer/autumn perennials such as asters and solidago, as seen heret in the herbaceous border at Waaterperry, near Oxford.

So what’s not to like? Well, some gardeners don’t like grasses - they think they look scruffy,  or weedy, and will run riot in the borders. I’ve never understood the anti-grasses thing, because I’m a lazy gardener and evergreen grasses such as carex, stipa and acorus form a year-round framework that saves me having to think of anything else to put in their place for half the year. They look just as good with tulips and daffodils in spring as they do with Michaelmas daisies in late summer and autumn.
To be fair, not everybody’s garden is suitable for a prairie planting scheme, because this sort of planting work best where everything gets its fair share of light - in an island bed, say - rather than in conventional borders around the boundaries. However, you don’t have to have acres and acres of space or, indeed, a prairie. One very good example is the High Line in New York, the converted overhead railway line designed by Dutch plantsman and prairie pioneer Piet Oudolf.
The plants themselves tend to be on the big side - a metre-plus in height on average, if not more - and one of the most impressive is Eupatorium maculatum, known as Joe Pye weed in America, where it is a food source for Monarch butterflies on their long autumn migration south to Mexico.
In this country, you will see Eupatorium maculatum ‘Atropurpureum Group’ and Eupatorium purpureum listed in nurseries and catalogues. You may also see the name Eutrochium maculatum, because the botanists have just reclassified this plant, and in their usual fashion have come up with something that is even more difficult to pronounce. “Eutrochium” sounds more like someone clearing their throat than the name of a plant.
Matthew Wilson, a regular on the Gardeners’ Question Time panel, is a fan of Eupatorium purpureum because it is a good plant for blurring the boundaries between garden and surrounding countryside. Whatever the name, however, most eupatoriums look vaguely alike - dark green leaves arranged in a star shape around dark red stems, topped with domed clusters of pinky-lilac flowers. 
And they are all big. They form a clump of up to two metres in width and height, so definitely a choice for the back of the border, or at least somewhere they have room to spread out. Some varieties are more compact: ‘Gateway’, for example, which is stocked by Knoll Gardens, the grasses specialist in Dorset. However, “compact” is a relative term in this case - even ‘Gateway’ can grow to six feet, and the “dwarf” varieties such as ‘Little Joe’ and ‘Baby Joe’ will form clumps a metre high.
Despite this, they are not overbearing, in-your-face plants. Although they form big clumps, the subtle colours of the flowers produce a smoky, misty purple effect that recedes rather than intrudes.
So who was Joe Pye and why is eupatorium called Joe Pye weed? There are almost as many legends about the name as there are species and cultivars of eupatorium, but the generally accepted story seems to be that Joe Pye was a Native American, who used eupatorium as a remedy for typhus. Other stories say that Joe Pye is a corruption of jopi, or jopai, a Native American Indian name for typhus.
Whoever or whatever Joe Pye was, eupatorium was also used as a cure for gallstones or kidney stones (hence another of its common names, gravel root), and rheumatism. Traditionally the plants were dried, and put into to hot water to make a kind of bitter tea. Herbalists often added cayenne or ginger, and honey to make the drink more palatable. It is tempting to wonder whether it was the hot water or the ginger or cayenne that was really responsible for making you sweat, but eupatorium is still used by homeopaths as a remedy for fever.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Show time! The annual Bibury Flower Show

If you had been standing in my front garden at about 9am yesterday morning, you would have seen a small procession of villagers bearing jars of jam, or vases of flowers, or cakes of one sort or another. as they carefully made their way to the village hall.
For the previous week, those who bake, or preserve, or garden, could be seen in earnest discussion. Snatches of conversation went something like: "Well, I think I've got a couple of cucumbers, but my carrots are a disaster." Or, in the case of the more creative flower arrangers: "Well, I've got an idea, but I'm not sure if it will work."
The Bibury Flower Show, as you can see from the poster below, has been going since 1891. We don't have skittles or "cocoanut" bowling any more (although there was a brass band up at the cricket field yesterday for their fun day), but the levels of skill and artistry, not to mention horticultural and culinary expertise, never fail to amaze me.

2016 has been a challenging year for gardeners in the UK, with a long cool spring, and a cool rainy summer so far. It's been the sort of year that makes me glad I don't grow vegetables, yet the village hall was full of wonderful produce, including the prize-winning trug below, grown by my bee-keeping buddy Alan Franklin (who made the trug as well).

Half the fun of the show is going round seeing who won what. My friend Beverly won first prize for her marmalade, and her partner Andy won first prize for his aerial picture of the village

I didn't win anything for my cut flowers from the garden, because stupidly I'd stuck to a colour scheme, instead of chucking everything that was in flower into a bucket. The point of the class is variety, to see how many different flowers you have available. (Mine is the cream jug in the front row.) However, that's one of the great things about the flower show - you learn from it.

I did win first prize for my foliage-only arrangement (below) so I was very pleased with that.

It costs 20p to enter each class, and classes include photography, handicrafts and a children's section, so there really is a chance for everyone to get involved.
At the end of a week that has been full of horrific news, the show seemed to underline for me the importance of community, of creativity, of maintaining a way of life that is productive and positive.
My next-door neighbour Neil came up with a a great description of Bibury this morning as we were walking our dogs. He said: "It's the sort of place that we thought only existed in our imaginations, in some nostalgic vision of England. But it's real."