A frosty start to winter

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


Just before this months news,  there is an additional news item I held over from October and November - the conclusion of the celebrations for the life of Dylan Thomas on the the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of his birth.

As his home town, Swansea pulled out all the stops with a wide range of of events both in the city and Carmarthenshire , the culmination of which,  coincidiing  with his birthdate on the 27 October, was a 36 hour non- stop readiing of his works in 3 hour sessions., starting at 11.00 am on 26 October and ending at 11.00 pm on 27th, at The Grand Theatre in Swansea. Called The Dylathon there were representatives from across a wide spectrum of society in Wales and beyond. We attended the last session when all the big guns came out - Sir Ian McKellen, Sian Philllips, The President of the Irish Republic, The First Minster of The Welsh Assembly, rugby stars, local actors and schoolchildren, and memorably, a superb reading of  ""Fern Hill", one of Dylan's finest and best known poems. by The Prince of Wales.

To hear The Prince reading the poem go to dylanthomas100.org/english/multimedia/prince-charles-reads-fern-hill/  If this link doesn't work for you, google " fern hill poem" and scroll down to "Prince Charles reads Fern Hill". This should then open in your browser

 Just a few pics to give you a flavour of a never to be forgotten event




Dylan keeps a close eye on Michael D. Higgins President of the Irish Republic. 



The backdrop of Llaregub (Laugharne) with Sir Ian McKellan reading from a 1st edition of "Under Milk Wood" 



And what better way to end such a special occasion than Morriston Male Voice Choir singing  "Reverend, Eli Jenkins' Prayer" from "Under Milk Wood"



Starting to write this News Item well before the end of the month, as I usually do with the Christmas edition, I am struggling to find very much that is newsworthy., but by the time I complete it I may be overtaken by events.!!This will be shorter than December 2013 which was packed with news.



10 frosts in the first 14 days of the month (Min -6C on the 3rd) suggested that it might be a cold December, but then the westerlies returned with heavy rain and strong winds. Temperatures climbed well above the monthly average. Max 12C, on the 18th.


Garden update

The combination of frosts and heavy rain abrubtly brought to an end the late, great flower show that kept going until the end of November.  The only colour we now have is provided by early flowering heathers,  a few cyclamen coum,  lonicera pupusii Winter Beauty with its fragrant small white flowers, and a couple of early hellebores

Cyclamen coum surrounded by beech mast



However there is the promise of the good things to come with some advanced buds on many of the helleborus x hybridus, emerging daffodils and the white tips of snowdrops beginning to appear amongst the fallen leaves.



The Beech Hedge walk in the Paddock Garden, our main early spring garden,  looking rather bare but look out for how this develops over the next few months



Grasses still contributing some structure to the Paddock shade borders



The only  helleborus niger we have in bloom is in a pot in the large tunnel; those in the garden ignore the fact that they are supposed to be Christmas flowering and wait until the new year. 

 Helleborus niger "Christmas Carol"



We do however have 2 species forms of hellebore in bloom, h.odorus and h.liguricus, both with unremarkable but natural looking flowers. They are however, unusually for a hellebore, scented, with liguricus being the better of them with a strong, quite sweet prefume.  It could add another dimension to hellebore breeding as most oif the crosses have great flowers but no scent.

 Helleborus odorus



Helleborus liguricus



The fine weather early in the month was just what I needed to get in the remaining firewood from the large oak woodland above Trefynty. The verandah around the house is now stacked to the roof and there is sawn wood under cover elsewhere. It is a real comfort to have such fuel security and doubly so as it is all my own work. It looks a lot of wood but with a wood burner in the lounge and a cooker/boiler in the kitchen they gobble it up in colder spells (2 wheelbarrows a day at least). I reckon we burn between 25 -30 cu, metres a year.

We had even more firewood once the tree surgeons had been in to take down an alder growing at a precarious angle across the Paddock Pond. Perhaps this would be a good way to work off the excesses of Christmas if only I could overcome my fear of flying! Suspended by a rope upside down left me in awe of 2 great guys who did the work for us.



In the gardens I have started to remove the stakes from the borders, tidy up and stregthen the border edgings and repair the river bank at the bottom of tne Paddock Garden.


The retaining bank looks flimsy I admit but after my remedial works hopefully the river will be prevented for a couple of years from undercutting the bank and putting some special plants at risk. The height from top to bottom is 7 feet and in a spate the river comes almost up to the top but soon runs off



In the early evenings when it is too dark to work outside  but I still have energy to burn,there is always something to do in the 2 tunnels and watering too with some plants still in active growth.

 I find this bench covered in some lovely silver lichens most attractive - we are really struggling for interest at this time of year!



There are plenty of veggies for meals over the festive season both in store and fresh from the garden. The sprouts are OK but not the best I have grown. The taste has however noticeably improved after the sharp frosts, being much sweeter and crisper. It's surprising just how many people don't like the taste of sprouts but there are so many new ways now to cook them and they are good for us too. An often overlooked fact is that how any vegetables taste depends on the variety, soil conditions, feeding, weather and most importantly freshness which is why for me nothing tastes as good as what you grow yourself. This  is now being brought home forcibly to me as we have started buying salad leaves again after eating our own for 7 months. For a number of years I have grown winter salad leaves in trays in the tunnels but most of them have a death wish after a while and fall prey to botrytis or sometimes aphids. If I had borders in the tunnels I am sure they would fare much better.


What's looking good?

Not very much!!! I really am struggling so just a few pics will say it all, Ancient Chines proverb - "One picture is worth a thousand words" - I should remember that more often!


Christmas baubles in the large tunnel! The remaining crop on the tomatoes, this year "Gourmet" (in the picture) outlasted "Rosada"and are still quite edible especially when cooked



This picture was taken on 12 December shows my last courgette from the garden (yes honestly). Picked on 23 November and kept in the salad drawer of a fridge it was in good condition and made a lovely simple dish with some of the tomatoes, our own yellow peppers, garlic and onions sweated in olive oil with fresh herbs. A taste of the Meditarranean in the winter in Waleas!



Asplenium scolopendrium "Cristata" a superb form and amazingly a British native. Like polypodiums I wrote about in a recent News Item, they can keep in good condition well into a mild winter



The polytunnels are a good source of uplifting colour and this little beauty is a lone, late flower on hedychium greenii.



And this Kaffir Lily recently reclassified as hesperantha, is an unknown form of a rather botanically confused genus and hybrids. Don't the dark stamens set off the flowers beautifully?



Wildlife and Countryside

At last we have had a few redwings around in the gardens and adjoining fields but  no fieldfare sightings. The moorhen still makes occasional appearances on the Paddock Pond and there are more herons around now than I have seen all year - but in flight not in the pond thank goodness. Starlings in small numbers put on show most days but so far not in big numbers.

On milder nights, in the light of a strong torch, there are many young rudd on the move in the Paddock Pond, I will soon need to put up the electric fence around it just to keep the otters at bay, as they become more of a nuisance at this time of year.

No lambs as yet as my neighbours with the Dorset sheep are now tending to go for later lambing. It has almost become a feature of Christmas (quite fitting in a religous sense) to have at least a few lambs in the neighbouring fields.

The next day after writing this, in the morning on a tour of the gardens, I noticed around the Paddock Pond traces of fish scales on the  bank. Sure evidence of a night time visit by an otter. It is quite a regular occurence at this time of year as young otters move upstream to find territories of their own. The Paddock Pond is conveniently situated above the River Ydw which forms a boundary with the gardens. 


Fish scales in the grass and an unmistakable otter spraint, the black deposit at the bottom of the picture




With no viisits of our own to report I was glad to have the opportunity recently of experiencing second hand a trip to the eastern Himalayas. A few months ago, as a regular customer of Plantworld Seeds, I was invited to sponsor a plant hunting trip to Nepal by Ray Brown the owner, David Howard, former Head Gardener to The Prince of Wales at Highgrove and Nigel Veitch. The deal was that in return for a speciified donation I would be sent seeds collected on the trip. I opted not surprisingly for a selection of annuals and perennials. When they arrived earlier this month they were accompanied by a fascinating account of the trip which shows the lengths that plant hunters go to and the hardships they endure in their search for undiscovered treasures. I would like to share with you a brief summary of it.


The indominatable trio having a refreshment break in the mountains - looks like taking tea in a British Garden. It makes you fell proud in its eccentricity - even a table cloth! Superb.


Setting out from Katmandu with 9 Sherpas they trekked for 4 weeks climbing to over 4,000 metres. On the way up they encountered many hazards including poisonous snakes, leeches, monsoon rain and thunder, rope bridges and some discomfort from the altitude. They camped and occasionally stayed in buildings on local farms. It was at one of them that Ray had the chilling experience of waking up in the middle of the night when he felt what he thought was someone stroking his hand only to find that he had in his sleeping bag a rat which squealed when he grabbed it and raced off onto the darkness! (the rat - not Ray!!) The determination to find plants drove on our intrepid group  but at lower levels there was a lack of collectable material because of the intense grazing by yaks. What material they did find was in awkward places that the yaks could not reach. Many of their best finds however were at over 3000 metres in boulder strewn screes.

Although late in the season which made identification difficult, seed from 79 different plants was collected. Genus represented included aconitum, ariasaema and other unidentified arums, cotoneaster, gaulteria, a suprising range of gentians and associated relatives, and impatiens.  Trees and shrubs included roses, rubus, oak, rhododendron, sambucus and berberis. Ray was delighted to find the rare and incredible megacodon stylophorus, the so called Dinosaur or Giant gentian, and the amazing rheum nobile  (google it for pics and it will be on your late Christmas list!) with huge paper like spathes growing amongst the deep scree. Knowing the preferred conditions of plants growing in the wild is a sure way of placing them successfully in the garden.

In Ray's account of the trip there were also some touching human interest accounts , none more so than that of the main sherpa leader Lhakpa, who received a message via the group's satellite phone that his elderly mother had been taken to hospital seriously ill. Lhakpa set off immediately with 2 porters. In the space of just 14 hours running and jumping over 35 miles of rocky terrain he reached a rough road, arriving at the hospital in Katmandu next day - but he was just too late as his mother had died earlier that morning.

I am sorry that space prevents me for sharing more of this amazing trip wiith you and there is nothing on Ray's website about it, but nevertheless the website is worth a visit and I can wholeheartedly recommend it to you. 

After I had received my seed allocation I contacted Ray to congratulate him on his achievement and to enquire if any seed of impatiens was still available, Expressing my interest in the genus, Ray very kindly shared with me seed of all those he collected which is very much in character for a man I have long admired and I hope I will be able to germinate notoriously difficult seed. It is so exciting because some may be totally new to cultivation.

 Go to www.plant-world-seeds.com for details of the range of seeds generally available and a free catalogue

From foreign parts back to the here and now and with Christmas just a few days away may I wish you all the Seasons Greetings and a most successful and healthy 2015. Do keep visiting our website and if you can, please come and see the gardens some time between 1 June and 31 August.

Keith and Moira