Sunday 25 March 2007

Wednesday 21 March 2007

Winter Hibernation.

Looking at this photograph, taken one November day, makes me think how much I appreciate the evergreens in the garden at that time of year. The ivy, clothing as it does the eaves of the barn, earns its keep by providing food and shelter to many insects, and finding favour also as a roosting site for hundreds of sparrows which visit the garden. On the far right under the poplar tree is a small holly, which offers its fruit of juicy berries to hungry blackbirds.

Taken during freezing fog on Boxing Day a few years ago, this photograph gives the garden a ghostly atmosphere. Jack Frost is just beginning to make ice crystals on the long drooping branches of the silver birches and the bundle of twigs by the log pile, whereas the green of the ground-covering plants has all but turned to silver.

A first glance at this winter wonderland scene, although taken in January, begs the question, ‘Did you have a good Christmas?’ The delineation of the ice crystals on the weeping birches, enhances their silhouettes, adding lustre and beauty in equal measure. Even the undulations on the roof of the barn are turned into uniform lines running from the top of each corrugated sheet to the bottom.
I took this photograph a few years ago after a blanket of snow covered the garden, creating a picturesque scene. However, later in the day, a snowstorm developed, lasting for the best part of three days, bringing much of the country to a standstill, due to roads being closed by heavy drifting and telephone and electricity cables freezing over. The only movement outside came from hungry birds flying in to the bird-table - as ever, groaning with seeds, nuts and scraps - and the odd foray by one of our cats skating across the pond.

Tuesday 20 March 2007

High Summer to Early Autumn.

In the early years as a starting point when laying out each bed, I planted a few shrubs and a tree, all of which were small and spindly initially, leaving lots of space for potential weeds to start germinating. The easiest and quickest way to counteract this problem was to plant Spring-flowering bulbs underneath the shrubs, followed by a succession of colourful annuals, which I sowed from a few packets of seed. During the first Summer my efforts were rewarded by a lovely display of peony poppies and tapering foxgloves, giving the garden a wonderfully wild and romantic look.

By the August the poppies were still going strong, whereas the foxgloves’ heads were starting to form seed, which I would harvest in September, along with those from the poppy pepperpots, to share with friends. I can still remember the hum of countless bees, droning away as they crawled in and out of the foxgloves, pollinating each in turn. My dream of having a paradise garden had begun.

This variegated poplar tree, called Populus Candicans Aurora, acts as a focal point in one of my herb beds. It has the most amazing broad creamy-white and pink heart-shaped leaves turning to green, which fill the air in Spring with a strong scent of balsam. It is sometimes called the Balm of Gilead, because of the aromatic ointment that can be made from its resin. The first reference to it can be found in the book of Genesis, in the story of Joseph. As well as being attractive, it is often home to beautiful puss moth caterpillars.

In early October most of our birch trees have begun to shed a lot of their leaves, except for this weeping specimen, Betula Pendula Youngii, which, because it only grows up to 15 feet, is ideal for a small garden. It provides food for a host of moths, which are eaten by blue tits and willow tits, who, in turn, serenade me with their frequent bursts of song. Being closest to the back door, it is the first tree to catch my eyes each day when I look out, so I love how it seems to wrap its coat around itself to stay with me a little longer.

Monday 19 March 2007

From this viewpoint.

Yesterday, on Mothering Sunday, and again today, we woke up to a light fall of snow. I decided to stand at one of my vantage points from where I take monthly photographs to ring the changes in the garden throughout the year. I thought it might be an interesting exercise to look at my archive of photographs and make up a calendar showing this particular view.

When I was eight years old, I had a wonderful teacher who encouraged the class to bring things of interest to put on the nature table. For the week leading up to Easter, we brought in different kinds of narcissi, no doubt prompted by the fact that we were learning the chorus ‘At Easter time the lilies fair, and lovely flowers bloom everywhere’. Each April when ours come into bloom, they are accompanied by the purple pompoms of primula denticulata and the pink-coloured lungwort, pulmonaria rubra redstart.

Not long after we had moved here, on his way home from work one evening, my husband noticed a Garden Centre selling off all the spent daffodil bulbs. Knowing, quite rightly, how excited I’d be with his find, he not only filled up the boot of the car with box-loads of the bulbs, but also the passenger seats and the inside floor of the car as well. With Wordsworth’s ‘A host of golden daffodils’ ringing in my ears, and hoping ours would ‘flutter and dance in the breeze’ too, we set forth and planted the first few boxes under the catkins of the silver birch tree.

In early June each year, it’s amazing to see the transformation in the weeping silver birch tree, from a wispy silhouette into one with lush foliage. Underneath the spireas bush out, and tall spires of pink lupins in full bloom hide the evidence of the previous month’s host of golden daffodils.

Sunday 18 March 2007

From a different perspective.

Before the extension hook ladder was taken down from the roof of the barn, I took the opportunity to climb to the top and perch on the ridge to take some aerial views of the garden while it was still in its infancy. The photographs are interesting reminders of the early stages of the garden, since the height and foliage of the mature trees in Summer would now obscure any such delineation.

To my eye, looking at these pictures from fourteen years ago, everything looks so formal and pristine with fresh clean lines and no weeds on the paths around the beds. Nowadays, however, insects, bees and birds bring life to the garden by visiting the flowers which are allowed to spill onto the paths, creating an air of complete informality. Tall trees and shrubs add their own architectural beauty, and the bustling life in and around the ponds brings its own special magic, giving the mature garden a sense of harmony and romance, and, above all, calling for a gentle plea for chaos.

Saturday 17 March 2007

Like Painting The Forth Bridge.

During our second Summer in the village, when our younger son was still chief lunch-maker and I had resumed the mantle of head gardener, my husband decided that he would begin the marathon chore of tackling the rust on the corrugated tin roof of the barn before actually painting it.

The area of the roof is 1700 square feet, and being at a high-pitched angle, it was necessary to invest in an extension hook ladder, which could be fastened securely to the ridge in the interests of safety, while also allowing for flexibility in movement when the ladder needed to be shifted to a new position.

Wire brush in hand, safety goggles at the ready, my husband climbed the ladder to begin the onerous task of scraping off years of rust. After an hour or two of tiring work, during which time he had been trying to avoid inhaling the rust, he was glad to take a break while our elder son offered to take over.

This pattern of sharing out the workload continued throughout the Summer. At the end of each day, not only were their clothes covered in rust but it also found its way into their hair, ears, nose and eyes, to the extent that they could have been mistaken for coal miners.

No sooner had they completed the time-consuming job of removing the rust from both sides of the roof, when they went all the way back to the beginning again to do the actual painting. Though it is fair to say the whole process had entailed hard graft, as many worthwhile jobs often do, their spirit of cooperation had created yet another bond between father and son.

Friday 16 March 2007

Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine.....

As a child, when on holiday on the island where my parents grew up, I used to stay with my favourite Aunt Lily. I have vivid memories of helping her as we stood at her kitchen table, singing along together, while kneading a batch of loaves made with barley flour, or mixing up ingredients to make fruit and plain scones or rolling out pastry for an apple pie. The aroma of the bread, coming from her blackened stove, never failed to whet my appetite.

Outside my bedroom window, were the sounds of bumble bees buzzing around the vigorous honeysuckle growing up the walls of my Aunt Lily's cottage. The heady perfume, wafting in the open windows, seemed to fill every room, while outside, its scent followed me around the garden.

Here at Barleycorn, we have several species of honeysuckle which climb over arches, up through supports in front of the barn, along the walls of the house, as well as up through a crab-apple tree, and along a fence we share with one of our neighbours.

Periclymenum Belgica, whose roots prefer to be in shade, has flowers which are red on the outside and pale primrose within. The aphids which love them are gobbled up by flocks of hungry sparrows which come throughout the year to my husband’s bird-feeders. The Autumn berries are eaten by blackbirds and thrushes.

Along the front wall of the barn we planted Henryi, a vigorous evergreen species, with its tapered dark green leaves and tubular purplish-red flowers. After sixteen years, it has reached a height and spread of three metres. Halliana, supported along one wall of the house, has pale-cream flowers which turn yellow before fading.

It was inevitable that I would want to make room in our garden for plants I associate with my beloved Aunt. So strong are my memories of her, that, to this day, whenever I close my eyes and breathe in the scent of honeysuckle, I am drawn back in time, a little girl once more, standing outside my Aunt Lily’s cottage.

Thursday 15 March 2007

A Great Performer.

Having tried and failed to grow roses, which had been placed carefully in an area of the garden getting the benefit of full sunshine, we realised, apart from the tough Rosa Rugosa hedge and those thriving successfully against the walls of the house, that we would have to grow something else in the area which, for a few years only, had been the Rose Bed.

Though our annual and perennial poppies liven things up for a few short weeks each year with their vibrant palette of yellows, oranges and reds, the overall colour scheme throughout the garden is made up mainly of calming tones of white, pink, lavender, lilac, mauve, blue, purple and violet. These cooler colours gave me the idea to transform the Rose Bed into one which would incorporate a large variety of geraniums, more commonly known as cranesbills, with a border of violas.

In shades of sky-blue, mid-blue and violet-purple we have Johnson’s Blue, Pratense ‘Mrs Kendall Clark’, Wallichianum ‘Buxton’s Variety’, Pratense ‘Splish Splash’ and ‘Magnificum’. As a contrast, Renardii has white flowers veined with violet, whereas Clarkei is white with soft-pink-veined flowers. The Spring-flowering Phaeum, known as the mourning widow, has dark maroon flowers, while its cousin ‘Variegatum’ has foliage with white margins. Both of the tallest ones we have, Psilostemon with mid-green leaves and Ann Folkard with golden-green foliage, have deep magenta flowers with black eyes. Summer Skies, on the other hand, has mauve-pink flowers with double blooms.

The multiple merits of geraniums are to be shouted from the rooftops. As well as being very hardy, they give trouble-free growth with excellent ground cover even in dappled shade, are easily propagated - making them great presents for ones’ gardening friends, are resistant to most pests, have a superb range of colours, and offer exceptionally long flowering periods from Spring through to Autumn. For all those reasons, even if I had the tiniest of gardens, I would not be without them. As far as I am concerned they are little garden gems.

Wednesday 14 March 2007


There was no doubt in everyone’s mind that the speed of the driver had caused the accident, in that he had driven down the hill too quickly, taking the bend at too great a speed to keep control of his tractor, and, as a result, had misjudged the width of the heavy load on the trailer. But, in view of the fact that no one had been hurt, that knowledge seemed irrelevant. The most important factor was that the driver had been able to walk away with his life in tact. Looking at the photograph of that upturned trailer, it was nothing short of a miracle.

Thankfully, also, it had not happened the previous day when I had been working in that part of the garden, or I would not have lived to tell the tale. Bearing all this in mind, we decided the best way forward would be to concentrate all our efforts on our next project – the garden makeover. In the meantime we had to be very patient and play a waiting game. Costs for the damage to the wall and the loss of the trees, shrubs and flowers had to be estimated and approved by the insurance company, all of which takes time.

Immediately following the accident, it had taken the best part of a day to remove the upturned trailer and its load. Five months later, two young lads spent a week rebuilding the stone wall. Afterwards, we spent many weeks clearing away the devastation left behind in the wake of the accident - tons of straw from bales which had split apart and had since begun to rot, tons of broken stone and rubble from the remains of our sixty feet of stone wall, as well as a lot of heavy work digging out the roots and trunks of the two mature trees, not to mention the removal of all our ruined shrubs and flowers.

But, seven months after the accident, on a sunny day in April, there we were at the Garden Centre, clearing away the bad memory of it all by finding renewed joy in choosing conifers, trees, shrubs and flowers to bring life once more to that part of the garden. In the months that followed, birds, frogs, hoverflies, bees, butterflies, snails, insects and worms all made their acquaintance with the new plants in their garden, and we were pleased to renew their acquaintance.

Tuesday 13 March 2007


Four years ago on a beautiful September morning, I was working in a part of our garden which borders a fairly busy B road, cutting down lots of the spent flower stems of lupins, euphorbia, chrysanthemums and hesperis and admiring the height and maturity of two of our trees, one a maple, acer drummondii, with green and cream foliage, the other a beautiful oak, with clusters of little acorns.

Since it was particularly warm and dry, it was a good opportunity also to harvest seed from my annuals - poppies, nigella and foxgloves. Feeling hot after working for a few hours, I sat down under the shade of the mature trees, while labelling the seed and putting it into brown paper bags. Little did I suspect it would be the last time I would ever sit under those trees.

Next morning while still in bed, we heard a thundering crash, followed by a very loud screeching sound of metal slicing through stone. Ricocheting out of bed, my heart pounding, I parted the curtains and stared in disbelief, at a scene of utter devastation. The whole top part of the garden I had been working in the previous day had disappeared. There in its place was an overturned trailer with thirty-two bales of straw.

Quickly throwing on our dressing gowns, my husband and I, with phone at the ready to call the Emergency Services, rushed up the drive to ascertain the welfare of the driver. Nowhere in sight, we later learned that he had abandoned his tractor and scurried off along the road to a neighbouring farm where he had been drinking whisky, no doubt to steady his nerves after the shock of his accident.

Meanwhile, someone else had called the police, who arrived quickly and began to direct the traffic around the mayhem of debris scattered across the road. Suddenly, curious neighbours from the village began to gather around to survey the upturned trailer with the thirty-two bales of straw, and to stare, open-jawed, at the enormous gaping hole where the missing 60 feet of stone wall had stood as a border between our garden and the road.

Monday 12 March 2007

A Bed Of Roses.

After a few years, flushed with the success of the climbing roses and hybrid teas growing close to the walls of our house, as well as the rugosa hedge, the Dog-Rose and the Rosa Moyesii surviving the bitter winds, I decided to try my luck with a rose bed surrounded with little rockery plants which would give colour when the roses were not in bloom, and to plant them all in front of the house where they would get the benefit of the sun all day.

Before making our purchases, it was important to make sure each of the roses had the frost-hardy symbol next to it. My overall plan was to put large shrub roses down the centre of the bed, with ground-covering patio roses around them, followed by the rockery plants at the outside. Among the shrub roses were species such as Felicia, Complicata, Ballerina, Yesterday, Fruhlingsmorgen and Fantin-Latour. Some of the Patio roses we chose were Queen Mother, Magic Carpet, Scented carpet and The Fairy.

They all grew really well, producing great clusters of flowers over the first few years. However, during one particularly cold Winter, their stems were burned black. Accepting that there had been some truth after all in our local villager’s warning that we wouldn’t be able to grow roses here, we decided to cut our losses and be thankful for the ones which are able to withstand the ravages of our gales and frosts.

Sunday 11 March 2007

Rosa Canina, The Dog-Rose.

One year we took our boys to an Agricultural Show where the organisers were running various children’s competitions to test their knowledge about native trees and flowers. The prize for each correct entry was a little sapling. Eyeing up the rows of little trees, our boys were keen to have two attempts each. Flushed with their success, we returned home with three silver birch saplings and a little Dog-Rose, also known as the Briar Rose.

Later that day, they duly planted their baby trees, which have grown over the past sixteen years to a height of thirty feet. Their little Dog-Rose, which sits beneath one of their trees, grew very quickly into a mature shrub, six feet in height and spread.

The fragrant flowers, whose petals can be used to make a scented jam, are a lovely shade of pale pink. The fruit, rich in vitamins A, C and E, can make delicious syrups and jams, and if dried can also be used as a tea. I associate the Dog Rose with two memories, the most recent being when our boys won theirs in the competition, and the earlier, when on far-off childhood Summer walks, I gathered its fragrant petals to make perfume.

Rose Perfume
6 cups of freshly scented petals.
6 cups of cold water
bring slowly to the boil.
Simmer for 2 hours.
Cool and strain.
Pour into a decorative perfume bottle.

Saturday 10 March 2007

Rosa Moyesii Geranium.

On another visit to my dear friend I was invited to dig up a different rose sapling, this time from beneath the parent bush itself. The cultivar, called Rosa Moyesii Geranium, originates from the mountains of Western China, and is one of the tall shrub roses.

I took the sapling home and planted it close by an alder tree, where it has tolerated the shade and dry conditions well. Although very hardy, which is a must in our area, I enjoy it for its dazzling single red flowers and its crown of yellow stamens, which are pollinated by the bees in May and June. The flowers are borne along open arching thorny stems, which, unfortunately, never fail to penetrate my gloves whenever I’m pruning them.

Not only are the flowers stunning, its pinnate leaves are interesting too, for they are medium-green above but grey on the reverse. Best of all, in Autumn it displays clusters of spectacular two-inch long orange-red flagon-shaped hips, which are quite unique when compared to the more common red hips. What better way to remember my generous friend that to have living reminders of her growing in my garden?

Friday 9 March 2007

The Scots Rose. (2)

Rosa Pimpinellifolia has double-headed pink flowers, two inches across, and borne in such profusion on the shrub that it greets you with a halo of perfume when you are standing near it. The flowers have mossy flower stalks and calyxes, greyish-green pinnate leaves, resembling those of the Sanguisorba Burnet plant, and globular flowers which have a fruity perfume.

Though the more common species of the moss roses are white in colour, ours bear exquisite, double-headed, blush-coloured flowers, with a heady perfume that acts like a magnet to pollinating insects. In Autumn it has attractive little black fruits which are rich in vitamins A, C and E, and a good source of essential fatty acids, which is unusual for a fruit.

Thriving happily as it does in our sandy soil in full sun, we now have several specimens dotted around the garden. As a result of propagation from its suckers, I, too, have been able to pass on cuttings to my friends, just as my dear friend once shared one of hers with me. Though she passed away a few years ago now, each time I smell its sweet perfume I think of her.

Thursday 8 March 2007

Rosa Pimpinellifolia, The Scots Rose. (1)

Many years ago, a dear friend, an octogenarian at the time, offered me a tiny rose sapling which the birds, no doubt, had helped to seed onto her drive. I took it home and potted it up, nurturing it carefully till it was sturdy enough to be planted out. She had referred to it as one of the cabbage roses, so-called because the flower-heads bear numerous thin overlapping petals.

I have learned since that it has a fascinating history, long associated with Scotland, and is known as a cheerful little Scots Rose or Burnet Rose, greatly favoured by Gertrude Jekyll, who frequently used them in her gardens. Scottish nurserymen were the first to raise the double forms of this species, named on the RHS database as Rosa Pimpinellifolia. In Scandinavia it is associated with Midsummer and is known as the Midsummer Rose or St John’s Rose.

A Rose-Bud By My Early Walk
A rose-bud, by my early walk,
Adown a corn-enclosèd bawk,
Sae gently bent its thorny stalk,
All on a dewy morning.
Ere twice the shades o' dawn are fled,
In a' its crimson glory spread,
And drooping rich the dewy head,
It scents the early morning.
Robert Burns.

Wednesday 7 March 2007

The living fence.

Sixteen years ago we wanted to bring shelter to an exposed side of the garden, stretching along a distance of 100 feet, which gets the full blast of the prevailing winds. We decided on a pyracantha hedge, which would thicken over time to a dense growth, and the Autumnal berries would feed the birds. Unfortunately, during the first Winter of its existence the winds burned black the foliage of the entire hedge, putting paid to that choice, not to mention our hard work and expense.

The following year we dug out the remains and decided to try again, this time with a deciduous hedge of Rugosa Scabrosa. The word Rugosa means ‘wrinkled,’ and refers to the texture of the leaves, which are disease-free. I read that it would be fast-growing, that, in time, it would spread to form thickets, and that its large tomato-like fruits would attract the birds, with finches in particular, who would come to eat the seeds in Autumn.

We have not been disappointed. The rugosa hedge bears heavily-scented magenta flowers, which bloom from June till September and attract bumble bees. In China and Japan, where the rugosa has been cultivated for a thousand years, the sweetly-scented blooms, four inches across, are used to make pot-pourri.

The stems, covered in thin straight sharp thorns, bear hips which are good for making rose-hip syrup and have leaves which turn bright yellow in Autumn before falling. Winter hardy, and requiring little maintenance, as well as being shade and salt tolerant, the rugosa was a good choice for us as it borders a road which needs regular de-icing.

Tuesday 6 March 2007

Hybrid Teas.

Below our kitchen window, which faces west, we have two hybrid tea roses, presents for my birthday sixteen years ago, from my two sons and my two nephews. The first one I planted is the multicoloured Peace rose, which has large double blossoms in bright yellow, edged with a soft pink that deepens with maturity. It exudes a mild, fruity fragrance. Although its leaves are a little bit susceptible to black spot, I continue to grow it as I love nothing better than cutting three of its long-lasting flowers to put in a jug, which I then give pride of place on our dining-room table.

The second, Silver Jubilee, introduced in 1976 to commemorate H. M. the Queen’s 25th year of reign, is a slightly fragrant, shapely rose with silvery-pink and apricot colours. Its free-flowering ability on a vigorous bushy plant is not spoiled by the hot sun and rain, which makes it a very robust and outstanding specimen in any garden. Its dark green foliage is both glossy and luxuriant. So far, it has been disease-resistant and hardy, surviving a few heavy falls of snow, severe gales and temperatures of minus twelve, which makes it worthy of celebration in my book.