Wednesday 10 December 2008

A Busy Turn Of Events

Since my last post, in late August, my husband and I have been swept along on a tide of events which has taken up the majority of our time and energy. People matter most in life, and in my book, family comes before everything else. When it comes to a choice between giving up our time when they are facing major difficulties and upheaval in their lives, or spending time writing about the story of the Barleycorn garden, without question, their needs will always take precedence.
Those of you who have been in the habit of reading the Barleycorn blog must have noticed how sparce the stories have been this year compared to the previous. This has been due to the amount of time taken up each week visiting my husband's elderly parents and seeing to their every need. Their frail health has taken priority over everything else in our lives, including our personal hobbies and interests.
As this year progressed, the health of my husband's step-dad deteriorated to the point where, for the entire month of August, we found ourselves travelling 80 miles every day to visit him twice daily in hospital. As if our lives weren't busy enough, we were also very busy, in the throws of preparing for a trip to France, where we were looking forward to participating in the wedding celebrations of our younger son and his new bride.
However, to add to our already busy schedule, and to complicate matters even further - bearing in mind there were only three days left before we were due to leave for Brittany - we received a very sad telephone call from the hospital, and found ourselves, therefore, madly rushing around, trying to organise a funeral. I'm not quite sure where the extra energy we need in times of crisis comes from, but we were certainly filled with enough adrenalin, from dawn till dusk on those three days, to make all the necessary preparations.
Around that time the weather had been poorly, but, on the day of the funeral the sun shone brightly. The Service of Thanksgiving was a happy one, for the eulogy, written by me, was full of humorous stories and concentrated on celebrating a life well spent. Late into the same evening, my husband and I did not forget our manners, and took time to express our thanks to many people, for we knew we would not have the opportunity to do so the following week. Three days later, we arrived in Brittany, feeling more than a little drained, but, happy in the knowledge we had been available to do all that was necessary and spare my husband's mum, who, at her time of life, would not have coped by herself.
After breakfast on the first morning, six of us decided to take a stroll. There we were, a happy little group, chatting about the beauty of the town with its picturesque houses, busy harbour and beautiful floral displays, when, all of a sudden, my left foot jarred, turning my left leg to jelly. I found myself careering along sideways, like a crab, at a speed of knots, trying to keep myself upright and prevent myself from falling.
Unfortunately, the pavement was sloping down towards a steep kerb and onto the road, where the inevitable happened. I landed on my left side with such momentum, I immediately ricocheted onto my back where I lay motionless for a minute or so. After a little while I felt able to be hauled to an upright position by the three strong men in our group, and after checking to see no bones were broken, I was able to stand.
From the fierce impact, I knew I would ache from head to toe, and I did. But, since I was able to walk, and everyone agreed it looked as if I had, at worst, nothing more than two staved fingers on my left hand, I determined to cause little fuss so as not to detract from the wedding celebrations, which were three days hence. We made our way to a nearby chemist where my hand was strapped up and, like a good Brownie, I used my scarf as a sling.
The next morning I awoke to a rainbow-coloured left hand, which I continued to nurse throughout the holiday, and a stiff, aching body, which I was able to ease with hot showers. Just as with the funeral, I was now blessed with an inordinate amount of adrenalin, coupled with the excitement of looking forward to the wedding and the part I would play in the celebrations. I am convinced both of these factors helped to give me an even higher pain threshold than normal, because, fall or no, I was determined nothing was going to spoil the wedding.
The day before the wedding we were visiting a nearby coastal town, when I happened to chance upon an old lady crocheting a pair of those dainty little lace gloves which Brittany is famous for - and perfect for disguising an unsightly hand. The weather, on the few days leading up to the wedding, had been a bit dull at times, with the threat of rain. But, in the morning, we awoke with excitement and looked up into a beautiful blue sky.
One of our favourite memories of the day was when my son and his bride were standing in the doorway of the church with the bells ringing, two Breton pipers playing merrily, confetti of rose petals falling around them, and that special glow of happiness on their faces. The bride was a vision of understated French elegance. Our son stood beside her, proudly showing the world his beautiful new bride. Her surprise for him was a rose, made from the tartan of our clan, in her hair. His surprise for her was the French tricolour ribbon pinned to his plaid. Both signified a new marriage, a new life together, a new merging of two cultures. They never stopped smiling the entire day. It was all so romantic! We were so proud to be there sharing in their joy.
When our holiday was over, I went to the Casualty Dept of our local hospital and had my hand x-rayed, just to be safe. I did, in fact, have a break between my ring finger and my pinkie. These two fingers were taped together and I had a plaster put on the following week, which then came off three weeks later. Since then I have been doing exercises, from my physiotherapist, to straighten my pinkie and make it mobile. Initially, I was unable to close my left hand and make a fist, as my pinkie stood upright.
For the three weeks the plaster was on, whenever I needed to be at the computer I used my right hand only to type and used a lot of cut and paste to save me typing the same information over and over again. During this time my husband and I received another call to say his mum had collapsed. And so we were on the treadmill yet again, travelling 80 miles each day to visit her in hospital.
With the accumulation of events, we both found the travelling more tiring the second time around. I was wearing my plaster all this time, so could not share in the driving. The bruising had started, two weeks after the fall, to come out all the way down the left side of my body, which had taken the impact of the fall. The weather was cold and raw, or blustery and wet. In the hospital nothing pleased my husband's mum. Everyone and everything was at fault. She had had enough, having nursed her husband for the best part of six years, followed by the month of hospital visits culminating in his funeral.
However, after three weeks she was allowed home. We then began travelling to her home, on a daily basis for the first two weeks, then, after that, thrice weekly to see to her needs. She progressed from the stage of us doing her shopping, to being able to come with us, to going independently. I had cleaned her house before she had gone into hospital and she was making great progress. Great, we thought. Breathe a sigh of relief. All's well with the world again.
But life is not that simple. I don't think I could make up what happened next! For fact is often stranger than fiction. When we got home from church one Sunday there was a message on our ansaphone to say there had been an explosion at her flat. We rushed down to discover water pouring down through the light fittings in four of the rooms. We needed wellies to wade through the mess!
We brought her home to stay with us till we ascertained the problem. It turned out to be a faulty gas coupling in the flat above which had caused a gas explosion and burst the water tank and all the pipes. It was good fortune indeed that neither of the occupants of the two flats had been hurt in any way. My husband's mum didn't seem too bothered about having to be moved to a new flat.
And so began the removal of her belongings, lock stock and barrel. She is happily ensconced in her temporary abode, with a beautiful picture window overlooking a park, till after the New Year. We are thankful she is well, and happy, and looking forward to a permanent new home, smaller than the previous one as she is now on her own. Being fiercely independent, she wants to remain in her own place and not live with us.
I did not imagine I would end the year writing about catastrophes in my life, rather than another episode in the life of the garden at Barleycorn. But, throughout all the disasters, I have never failed to appreciate the changing moods of the garden, which have sustained me and uplifted me. On dark days, when things felt a bit weary, the reflections in the ponds have charmed me. Being serenaded by the birds each morning has kept my spirits up. Jack Frost has sprinkled his glitter across the bare bones of the garden and created a magical landscape. Who could fail to smile and count their blessings living in a paradise such as this?
God's in his Heaven -
All's right with the world!
Robert Browning.
Plant list
Betula Pendula Youngii
Betula Pendula
Betula Ermanii
Rosa Fruhlingsmorgen
Berberis Darwinii
Cornus Alba Siberica
Click on each image to enlarge and read its common amd botanical name.

Friday 22 August 2008

The Field Adjacent To Barleycorn

From the back garden at Barleycorn, we look across to the large expanse of the adjacent farmer's field. At one end there is an evergreen wood which borders the busy B road running past our house.
On atmospheric, misty mornings in Spring, eerie sounds echo across the field from the heronry in the wood. Herons are by far the largest birds ever to appear in any garden...especially those which have our frogs know to their cost.
After harvest last year, the farmer sowed a crop of Winter barley, as opposed to the strain of barley normally sown in Spring. It survived under the blanket of snow we had in March.
In the month of May the stalks were lush and green and wonderful to look at through the tracery of our three silver birch trees. We leave this area free of planting to observe the progress of the crop, from first sowing to harvest.

In June, the heads of barley were clearly showing...and so were a few poppy heads from our garden. Nettle, creeping thistle, couch grass and goose grass seeds find their way into our garden each year.They are blown across the windswept landscape..and, this year, the opposite happened. Poppy seeds had been blown across from our garden onto the margin of the field.
I must say, I thought it added to the overall beauty of the field, with its maturing crop, and took me down Memory Lane to the days, when, as a child, it was a common sight to find poppies, cornflowers and marigolds growing along the margins of the fields.
When the crop was golden, just prior to harvesting, flocks of sparrows gorged themselves on the seedheads each day.
Every night flocks of sparrows fly in to roost in the eaves of our barn, which is adjacent to the barley field. The sparrows must have felt it was manna from heaven having food and shelter in abundance.
For me, it was another photo opportunity, as I love everything in Nature, from the humble sparrow to the colourful 'weeds of the field', which first whetted my interest in plants.
I am not sure how the farmer regarded the border of Shirley and peony poppies along his field. But, as I have tolerated his ' field weeds' with patience, I hope he didn't mind a few of my poppies.
Although we have had a great deal of rain this month causing many floods, and our local river to burst its banks on several occasions, there was one day dry enough, early in the month, for harvesting the barley.
Before nightfall, however, when the farmer had just begun to make his 'roly polies', the rain came down yet again..and, so the straw is still waiting to be rolled into circular bales.
Wind through the barley,
The song of the breeze,
Ephemeral poppies,
The tracery of trees,
Barleycorn - Magic!
A feast for the eyes.
Our little corner of paradise

Saturday 26 July 2008

Busy Bumblebees At Barleycorn

Everyone knows that bees and bumblebees are important for the environment, for without them, there would be no flowers, trees, shrubs, fruits and vegetables. Experts say that bumblebees are under threat because all the places they like to live are being destroyed, not to mention the frequent use of pesticides which does an inordinate amount of harm too. Meadows and fields of clover are much scarcer in today's countryside due to intensive farming methods.
We all know that wildflowers and crops depend on the endearing, humble bumblebees , so it is up to farmers and conservationists, and we keen gardeners to do what we can to help their plight, for, surely, we are all the stewards of the earth.
Unlike the honey bee - a distant cousin of the bumblebee - the humble bumble is gentle and slow, trundling around the garden collecting nectar and pollen. The streamlined honey bee, on the otherhand, dashes about all over the place.
The bumblebee is large and round and furry compared to the smaller honey bee. The male, or drone bee is the smallest, the female slightly larger and the Queen bee the largest of all.
Bumblebees are much more docile and less aggressive then honey bees so, if we want to have our flowers, fruit and vegetables pollinated, giving us excellent blossoms, we can afford to encourage a nest or two in our gardens without fear of them swarming.
There are over two hundred different types of bumblebee which live in a variety of sites such as amongst leaf litter, in an old mouse hole, under large stones or under the wooden floors of a shed. The nest is about half the size of a small grapefruit and will normally contain about six eggs.
Made of wax produced from special wax-glands on their body, the nest is a comb with a few brood-cells and is often protected inside animal fur or moss or grass. If you happen to find one when turning over the soil, just replace it and the bees will repair any damage.
The smaller bumblebees we see in our gardens all summer long are the female workers, who take over the duties of collecting the food to rear the young grubs as well as building and maintaining the nests, while the Queen devotes herself solely to laying new eggs.

The drones, which are the males, do no work in the colony, and spend their time mating with other queens from other colonies, after which they die. Once they are fertilised the queens leave the nest and begin their winter hibernation.Unlike young wasps, which are fed on caterpillars and insects , the young bumblebee grubs are fed on nectar and pollen. In the photograph below you can see bulging pollen sacs on the bumblebee's hind legs.
All the fairly large bumblebees we see in our gardens in early spring, foraging on the early crocus, anemone blanda and other spring bulbs, are the young nesting queens which have overwintered and are looking to build new nests. Nature provides their first meal from the succulent dandelion heads, which we should leave till the seed forms, thus helping the queens to survive after their long winter hibernation, and they, in turn, will repay our kindness by pollinating everything in our garden.
The Queen spins a bright yellow cocoon of silk around her first batch of pupated eggs, which emerge a few days later as adult worker bees. Unlike their cousins, the honey bees, the young queens will continue to live in the nest all summer and autumn.
Creating a nectar border in our gardens, or setting aside a little area for a wildflower meadow, or leaving clover on our lawns will encourage bumblebees to come to our garden and help their survival.
The kind of plants we choose to grow is also important. Pussy willow, winter-flowering heather, a continuation of summer-flowering annuals and perennials and honeysuckle are a few plants which will attract and supply nectar and pollen to hungry bees. All the plants in the photographs in this post are examples of species which are attractive to them.
Although bumblebees do not produce enough honey for commercial use - only a few grams at a time to feed their young - they repay us by pollinating our flowers, fruits and vegetables.
The chaenomeles japonica, or quince, which provides the opportunity to make a succulent jelly from its enormous fruits, is just one example of the benefits from the pollination of bumblebees in our gardens.
Ever since childhood, nothing pleases me more than to have the familiar hum of droning bumblebees for company on warm summer days when I am in the garden. No matter how early I rise they are always up and about, and even on cool autumn evenings, they are still hard at work.
Bumblebees are definitely one of Nature's most harmless and industrious workers, and as such, I have always felt an affinity with them for they are often my sole companions when I am in the garden before the world at large has woken up.
Whenever the wasps are around I keep alert and try not to disturb them as they can be unpredictable, whereas bumblebees rarely attack humans as they go about their business. Once they realise you do not have pollen, they fly off to the nearest flower.

Oh, what a wonderful thing to be,
A healthy grown up busy busy bee;
Whiling away all the passing hours
Pinching all the pollen from the cauliflowers.
I'd like to be a busy little bee,
Being as busy as a bee can be.
Flying around the garden brightest ever seen,
Taking back the honey to the dear old queen.
Where the bee sucks, there suck I,
In a cowslip's bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry,
On the bat's back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily, shall I live now,
Under the blossom under the bough.

The Bee Dance
Why hello, Mr Bee,
Can you please show me your dance?
Why hello, Mr Bee
I believe this is my chance
Why hello, Mr Bee,
Won't you please dance now with me?
Why hello, Mr Bee
How I'd like to be a bee.
We would dance through the flowers,
We would dance through the trees,
We would dance over hayfields,
We would be the bees-knees.
We would dance round the gardens,
We would dance through the trees,
We would dance over cowslips,
We would be the bees-knees.

Raspberries and strawberries are two fruits which I continue to grow at Barleycorn. With very little effort on my part, I am always amazed at the bountiful harvest each year. I know, of course, it is thanks to the pollination of the bees and bumblebees.
Bumblebees enhance the garden at Barleycorn and bring it to life, which is why I will always continue to be welcome these fascinating furry little beasties, for without them, there would be no garden at all.
There is a little video of bumblebees below. Turn up the sound for the best buzz!
Here are two sites with information on how to attract bumblebees into your garden.
List of plants
Persicaria Bistorta superba, Polygonum 'superbum', bistort
Pink Helianthemum, rock rose
Geranium Phaeum, cranesbill
Cirsium Rivulare Atropurpureum, thistle
Leucanthemum vulgare, ox eye daisies
Centaurea Montana, perennial cornflower
Papaver Orientalis, red Oriental poppy
Geranium Macrorrhizum Album, white geranium
Yellow Perennial Potentilla
Geranium Clarkeii, blue-veined white geranium
Alstromeria, Peruvian Lily (very invasive!)
Digitalis, common foxglove
Geranium Psilostemon
Allium Christophii
Geranium Magnificum
Chaenomeles Japonica
Lonicera Belgica, honeysuckle
Blue iris
Anthemis Daisies
Don't forget to watch the charming little video of bumblebees just below this post.