Friday 27 April 2007

Viola, the botanical name for pansy and violet.

Growing just outside our front door are posies of pretty perennial violas, which create a mass of low growing colour in shades of blue, purple, indigo and violet. The plants thrive in little spaces deliberately left between paving slabs, which my husband laid. The reasons why I chose to position them there will become evident.
They first begin flowering here in April when the tulips are in bloom, and extend their growing season throughout the Summer till late October, when the Michaelmas daisies are out. Even during wet Summers they produce a wealth of charming ‘faces’ in jewel-like shades, and every year, without fail, they repeat their performance. They are not prone to diseases, are seldom affected by insects, and require very little maintenance, other than a good haircut at the end of the season. Sweetly scented, their perfume becomes stronger on warmer days.

Their habit is clump forming which makes them ideal for growing along the front of a border and along the edges of paths. Being shade tolerant they also do well under shrubs and roses. I grow the white viola cornuta under our rugosa hedge, where, on Summer evenings they draw the eye, owing to their resemblance to little white butterflies.
Although violas are similar to pansies, there are many differences. Pansies have larger heads, tend to be more straggly, are more often annual or biennial, can be badly affected by heavy rain, and have a shorter growing season. That is not to say that I do not grow them in our garden. I love the colourful frilly-headed varieties with their velvety texture, and find them ideal for growing in pots and troughs.
The earliest violas I remember as a child were the little heartsease, or Johnny Jump Ups, growing wild in fields. The first year we created the garden here, I sowed several packets of them and through the years they have seeded themselves around, beautifying the paths and our scree bed, and creating a striking effect.
Under our potentilla hedge I grow cousins of the viola, little violets with purple heart-shaped leaves. The flower is similar to the viola but at the end of each petal there is a spur. As their name suggests, they are violet in colour and are sweet scented like the viola odorata. Apart from their intrinsic beauty, I find violas, pansies and violets so irresistible, they are essential plants in our cottage garden at Barleycorn.

Wednesday 25 April 2007

The Thinking Bloggers Award.

At the end of November last year, when I decided to write the story of how we created a garden for wildlife, I wasn’t aware of the friendship that develops between blogging friends world-wide. Thalia (click on Thalia’s Musings), one of my friends, is from Bangalore in India. Amongst many other interests, she writes about her exciting travels to wildlife nature reserves, where tigers, leopards, elephants and exotic birds live. Each of her lyrical accounts is a sensory experience and told with the aplomb of all good story-tellers, where you can hardly wait for the next episode to unfurl.

Yesterday in my comments window, she very kindly announced that she had chosen me as one of her five nominations for the “Thinking Bloggers Award”. Since I am fairly new to blogging, I had never heard of this. I would like to thank Thalia for nominating me. Imagine my surprise, therefore, and the great honour I feel in being invited to nominate five blogs of real merit, which set me thinking.

To find out more about this award, click on the following link…


Here are my nominations.

1. Rebsie Fairholm.
( Rebsie talks about having an interest in experimental horticulture. That extremely modest description does not begin to do justice to the expert knowledge which she shares in the content of her blog; nor does it mention her wonderful photography, nor her infectious enthusiasm for growing heritage vegetables. She has other strings to her bow, so to speak, as she is also an accomplished musician, planning on bringing out an album of traditional songs. I have learned so much from her blog and gladly recommend it to gardeners and music enthusiasts everywhere.

2. Gotta Garden.
( Gotta Garden is an enthusiastic gardener with a specialist interest in day-lilies. She is a great photographer as well, so everything is always amply illustrated with her beautiful photographs. Her blog is always busy and packed full of detailed information. I have learned so much about botanical gardens in the US from visiting her blog, and when she visits them her camera doesn’t miss a trick. When my younger son was small, he used to say, “Do you take a photo of every single flower in the garden, Mum?” Gotta Garden’s a bit like that. In her recent blog about daffodils, you can learn about so many different varieties. I really enjoy her blog, and urge you to pay a visit.

3. Petunia’s Garden.
( Petunia’s Garden blog is mainly about an enthusiastic lady specialising in growing her own vegetables from seed, although she also grows beautiful flowers and has a very interesting herb bed too…and an interesting snake called Petunia, whom the garden is named after. Like the previous bloggers, she is also a great photographer, so all her new seedlings are there to see in minute detail. She is also interested in the birds and animals who visit her garden and makes hummingbird nectar to encourage these little beauties. From her blog I am learning tips on clever ways to grow salad crops I’ve never heard of, the habits of the various wildlife which visits her garden and, of course, I love her cat Emily.

4. Abraham Lincoln.
( Abe is an enthusiastic and passionate photographer, who finds so much of interest from his back yard in Brookville, Ohio. The close-up detail in his photographs is truly amazing. Even his photo of a simple little sparrow shows such exquisite tones and shades in its feathers, that you will never again think of it as a ‘common sparrow’. Recently he had photos of a bee collecting pollen, and it is so detailed you can see single grains of pollen spilled onto the flower from the buds; and a spider spinning its cocoon around its prey of maggots before it devours them. As a fellow nature lover, I find his photographs of birds, insects, spiders and mammals heart-stoppingly beautiful, and recommend you to take a look for yourself.

5. Libby’s Blog.
( Libby is one of my newest blogging friends. She is a very enthusiastic gardener who wishes she had an allotment, but being short of space is not an obstacle to her, as her garden is growing upwards, with lots of climbers. However, she does have a greenhouse, with shelves stacked high, where plants jostle for space; and four happy chickens scratching away in their new bedding. If you wonder where she gets such beautiful plants, wonder no more, because she’s a dab hand at procuring bargains from Ebay. She also has a pond, where you can read all about the pesky heron who is stealing her fish. Pay Libby a visit and find out how to maximise the space in your garden.

It just remains to say I recommend these five blogs to everyone. Thank you, Thalia, for choosing me and giving me the opportunity to express my views on why these blogs are worthy choices and why they make me think.

Sunday 22 April 2007

Spring Fever

The Roman Goddess of Spring and Fertility was known as Flora, whereas the Saxons gave that honour to Oestre. Christians celebrate the festival of Easter as a time of rebirth and renewal. Historically, Spring has always started on the night of the vernal equinox of 20/21 March, though this year the Met Office claimed the first day of Spring was actually the first of March. It’s an interesting question. When does Spring officially start?

Regardless of the debate about the exact date, the time of fertility and renewal at Barleycorn, happens during the month of April when large drifts of golden daffodils, and their numerous hybrid cousins, bursting forth like so many trumpets joining together in unison, herald the arrival of Spring in all its splendour.

Even on rainy days, each flower seems to proffer a cup of golden sunshine in thanksgiving to the Goddess of Spring. Joining them in the dance are little posies of blue grape-hyacinths, upright scented purple and white honesty, acid-green euphorbia, sulphur-yellow primroses, colourful primula and the velvet-like blooms of polyanthus, while large swathes of pink, white and blue forget-me-nots jostle for space in tulip-filled beds, and meander along the curving paths, creating an air of informality.

Catkins of silver birches, like so many lambs’ tails, dance up and down in the spring breezes, and lush green leaves emerge gradually to clothe the slender branches with a shimmering new spring coat, while numerous little birds pay homage by singing their melodious bursts of song to establish their territories and attract a mate.

Along the margins of the ponds, the first plants offering a burst of sunshine are members of the buttercup family, the bright yellow marsh marigolds, attributed in Mediaeval times to the Virgin Mary as Mary Gold, with their shiny succulent leaves and flowers which open at the rising of the sun and close at its setting.

April is the month in which I was born, and each birthday, as I start a new year in my life, I am smitten by the infectious joys of Spring, which never fail to create a frisson of excitement in me, for, along with all the frenzy of daily change in the garden, with larks bursting into joyous rapture and the cries of baby lambs bleating from the adjacent field, I, too, am filled with a sense of hope and renewal, and an awareness of being part of the magical blessing of Spring, as my heart rejoices and I am reborn once again.

Wednesday 18 April 2007

Pets And Gardens - Part Two

Gentle Cookie purring all the day long
Gentleman Jaffa, the pacifist, on his cover
The ever-hungry Monster on his favourite chair
Young Taz, who likes being cuddled and wandering around the kitchen
Titch in his favourite place, under the boiler

Imagine my joy when my mum woke me up later that morning to tell me my bunny was still alive, having been fed several times after I’d gone to bed and been wrapped up, literally, in a roll of cotton wool and placed in a little box on a shelf in the heating cupboard till morning. It was nothing short of a miracle. Before I went to school that day I was allowed to feed him. After that, I was full of inspiration. With a hop and a skip and a jump I ran off to tell my teacher all about my bunny, which I called Easter, because Brian had found him then.

Thanks to the round-the-clock care from my wonderful mum, who nursed him and saved him - virtually from the brink of death - and as much help as a five-year-old could muster, Easter survived his ordeal, and through careful nurturing, had a great life. He slept on his bed of straw in the hutch, which my hero-of-a-dad built for him, scampered up and down the outdoor run nibbling the grass, and was given freedom to hop about indoors after I got home from school.

Through their love, my parents had demonstrated that a garden need not be solely a place for growing vegetables and flowers. There was no sign saying, ‘Keep off the grass’. It was not one of those pristine lawns with clipped edges. Instead, it had daisies and buttercups, sweet clover and baby-blue cats’eyes - those sweet little veronica flowers.

My friends and I made daisy-chains and buttercup-chains, and had fun picking buttercups to place under our chins and ask ‘Do you like butter?’ On sunny days we spread out rugs and brought out our toys and had teddy bear picnics and dollies’ tea parties, afterwards playing a game of rounders, or hide-and-seek amongst the lines of washing. The garden was a fun-filled place, secure and child-friendly. Best of all, it was a sanctuary for pets too.

Thus, I remember happy days in our garden, where I helped my mum hang out the washing, and was encouraged to sow seeds under the watchful eye of my dad, who raised crops of healthy vegetables and grew colourful nemesia, dreamy violet-hued geraniums, scarlet peonies, and the tiny flowers of London Pride, while I played with my Easter bunny and showed him off to all my friends.

As I look around Barleycorn, not forgetting our previous garden too - I think of all the plants and flowers our two sons have grown; the fun they have had as children, playing with their friends in their sand-pit, their paddling pool and sharing their toys; learning about all the wild creatures which come to visit; and the rescued pet cats and rabbits they have had - and I remember golden days in the garden of my childhood and the life-enhancing example my loving parents taught me about the all-encompassing qualities of a garden where family and friends, and pets, too, are made welcome.

Tuesday 17 April 2007

Pets And Gardens - Part One

Cookie and her misaligned jaw

Of the three stray cats, who have adopted us and taken to living in the barn, Cookie is the one who needs the most TLC. An old frail cat, who hirples along with an unsteady gait, Cookie’s jaw is out of alignment, as a result of an accident with an airgun, her owner informed me one day. Realising that was already too much information for my sensibilities, vis-à-vis animals and unfortunate accidents that happen to them, I refrained from asking her to elaborate.

As I cradled this survivor in my arms, trying not to think about her ordeal with the airgun, I was suddenly transported back in time to a day in my childhood. After school I played with a little boy called Brian, who lived next door to me. One day he came knocking on our door to tell us a story about ‘bad boys’ who had thrown a baby rabbit into our dustbin.

Sure enough, we found this pathetic little creature, covered in the old ashes from the previous evening’s coal fire. It looked quite lifeless, as my mum lifted its minuscule limp body into her cupped hands. Convinced it was dead because its body was cold and it did not move, she said the kindest thing would be to bury it. I had never seen so small a baby animal before. It was love at first sight. Looking at it as intently as I could through misty eyes, I imagined I saw a slight twitch of its nose and begged my mum to let me take the rabbit indoors.

Once inside, I ran for one of my mittens to make it a cosy bed. The baby rabbit could not have been more than a few days old. As I was only five at the time, you can imagine how small my tiny hand was, and the size, therefore, of the tiny creature which could fit easily inside my mitten. My mum placed it on the top of the warm stove to see if the heat would help to revive it. As it was not yet weened, she told me to run and fetch my dolly’s bottle, which she then filled with warm milk and a teensy amount of brandy.

It seemed to me that it lay for hours, motionless, on that stove. But, when it finally did make the tiniest of movements, I shall never forget the sucking sound as it managed, ever so slowly, to take a few sips from the bottle. I was enraptured. So reluctant was I to go to bed that night, thinking, as I was, about my new ‘best pal’.

This weak little creature, tucked up inside my mitten on the stove, clinging on for dear life, had stolen my heart. All kinds of questions assailed me and prevented me from sleeping. Would he be alive in the morning? If he survived would my dad build him a hutch? And an outdoor 'run' to play in on sunny days? What should I call him?

Very early next morning, I remember creeping through to the stove, but there was only an empty mitten lying there. Assuming that he had died, and that my dad had probably buried him, I went back to bed and crawled down under the covers. As I sobbed quietly to myself, I made up my mind that I was definitely going to be a vet when I grew up. I would look after sick animals and make them all better.