An interesting and enjoyable month

Monday, February 4, 2013

 January can often be a long and depressing month, but this year it seems to have flown by. We must have been one of the few places in the UK in January that had little snow on the ground and although we had 18 nights of frosts none of  them was severe.

How green was our valley? We are right at the bottom of the snowfields - you can just see the poytunnels in the centre picture. This on the day that many places in Wales were still cut off.


I was able to do a good deal of work outside including the annual early battle with the bittercress; some was already showing flower buds and if you don't catch them now there will be even more to pull out later in the year.

How green are our borders? Bittercress as far as the eye can see!


It was good to have made this early progress and to begin seed sowing in the propagation tunnel. I said I was going to cut back this year but as always the catelogues and lists from the plant societies I belong have seduced me. If I keep the number of packets of seeds to be sown below 300 I will have done well - but don't count on it!!

I will update this pic over the next few month so you can see how the hot bench fills up. 120 pots sown already! Some since the pic was taken.




A really mixed bag of weather. Apart from snow and frost there was thunder and lightning, bizzarely in a snowstorm, some warmer days with a glimpse or two of sunshine - remember what that is like? - and the obligatory wind and rain. The ground just never dries out and the fields all around are holding more water that I have ever seen in the 37 years I have lived here. Min -6C Max 13C


Garden Update

The days are noticeably getting longer and the season is more advanced than ln the last 4 years. Many of the hardy perennials are showing new growth in the crowns and there are swelling buds on some shrubs particularly elders and hydrangeas. The cornus mas is already in flower with it's showy yellow flowers to be followed later by red "cherries" which are edible but the stone is much larger than the flesh! It's common name is the Cornelian Cherry.Roses too are growing away strongly.

I will need to be busy in February with cutting down all the dead stems on the herbaceous plants and cutting back to a couple of buds all the clematis that come into flower from mid June onwards (Group 3 clematis). You don't have to do this of course but it produces vigorous growth from the base and keeps the flowers at a lower level where they can be more readily enjoyed. However those growing up large trees can generally left to their own devices to cascade down their host. At pruning time I will make a a generous application of fish blood and bone fertiliser to see them through the early part of their growing season followed in June by a feed of well rotted manure.

I have begun to pot on and divide plants in the nursery and already the frames are full and space is running out in the tunnels. It's going to be fun in the next few months to find room for all the developing seedlings!

Having lost two of my oldest Koi carp last year (I acquired them in 1992) I am treating the water with salt water at a rate of half an ounce a gallon to kill off some of the parasites and diseases that build up in a long established Koi pond. I add the salt gently over a 6 week period until maximum concentration is achieved. I have found that it also has a benficial effect in reducing the early onset of blanketweed when the water begins to warm up in April (we hope!)


What's looking good?

I think the event I look forward to most of all in my gardening year is the first flowerings of my beloved hellebores, jewels of almost every hue scattered in the otherwise bare earth in the depths of winter. This year they are very early - a few were in flower even before Christmas. Christopher Lloyd was once asked by a visitor to Great Dixter what was his favourite plant. He had no hesitation in answering that it was the plant he happened to be looking at. I fully understand what he meant because there is so much to delight us at all times of the year, but if pressed I would have to say it would be hellebores for me. Bone hardy, long lived ( I still have the one that was in the garden in 1976 that started my love affair with them) There are now  well over 200 all over the gardens. Some of my best froms are reserved for the Spring Garden along the Beech Hedge walk. They are very clean this year with little blackspot and have grown well with all the rain last year producing abundant flower buds.

A selection of some of the better flowers



A lovely simple green coloured flowered plant with the most perfect cup shaped outward facing bloom typical of those bred by the Hellebore Queen Helen Ballard in the 1970's and 80's



A more recent acquisition from the Alpine Garden Society's early spring show last February. The most stunning and unusual  flowers with petaloid nectaries (the centre rosette). The form is called anemone centred but it is unique in my experience. It was named as a torquatus hybrid. As you can guess it really excites me. 


Companions to the hellebores are snowdrops now showing well and some great stands of cyclamen coum which are particularly floriferous at the moment with plenty still to come.

Tough as old boots with delicate flowers and wonderfully marbled leaves cyclamen coum are a must for the early spring garden.


There are pulmonarias too showing colour in the bud and a few primroses. In the tunnels a couple of exotics are in flower notably the acacia baileyana Purpurea and a couple of gorgeous zantedescia aethiopica. Usually white there are some good coloured cultivars including a delicate pink one I acquired last year called "Pink Flamingo". I also have 1 year old seedlings of an unusual form called pentlandii which  has golden yellow flowers - what would I do without Chiltern Seeds? I can't wait to see it flower in a couple of years time.



The exquisite pale pink "Flamingo" Shame about the slug hole in the tip of the flower! There is a good seed pod on this plant so it will be interesting to see what the colours of the progeny will be in a few years time.


Finally a word for my maligned and sorely tested vegetables that generally hated 2012. We have some very good cabbages particularly the very hardy form called "Tundra" and have been picking sprouts since September. The variety called "Brilliant" has lived up to its name as always and has just come to an end. We have recently stared to crop a late variety called "Titus" which has huge sprouts on relatively short plants which unfortunately makes easy grazing for rabbits! Leeks have enjoyed the rain and there are plenty of large ones to harvest. There are still a few chillis and sweet peppers in the tunnel and we finished our last tomatoes from 2 varieties  direct from the vines, on 9 January still tasting wonderful. The incredible "Rosada" that cropped on it's 13 truss and a standard sized form "Premio" for eating sliced in a salad or baked whole in the oven with a drizzle of olive oil and balsamico. It is very difficult to go back to buying tomatoes now!


Wildlife and countryside

The highlight of the month was the first sighting for many years of a pair of lapwings in the field opposite the Lodge. They betrayed their arrival with their characteristic "pee-wit" call. Lovely medium sized, blackish birds with white underparts and unmistakable rounded wings. They spend their winters on foreshores and estuaries and return to upland countryside to nest on the ground in fields and meadows. They were a common sight here in the 1970's and 80's together with curlews who share a similar habitat, but improved drainage and changing agricultural practices like the arly cropping of silage, means there are less suitable habitats for nesting. It would be lovely to welcome them and the curlews back to their former spring homes.

Staying with birds the robins are still constant companions. No sign of them until you step out into the garden and you then you turn around and there they are under your feet (but only ever one at a time)  dodging whatever implement you happen to be wielding to devour a juicy morsal. They can also be trained to help with the garden chores! Check this out!!

With his keen eyesight (he can spot the smallest morsel of food from 10 metres) this robin has been trained to read the faded plant labels and report back to me so that the label can be re-written! In time he will be able to write the label himself!!


Red kites are now so common here they vastly outnumber the buzzards that used to be the main raptor. Always resident in this part of Wales it was their last refuge 30 years ago when their numbers had dwindled to less than 20 breeding pairs. They have now been introduced or spread out naturally to other parts of the UK and it was an unexpected event when travelling down the M4 corridor through Berkshire and Wiltshire to see good numbers of them soaring and swoouping over the snow covered motorway verges.

On the continuing subject of sheep from previous news articles, the rams have done their stuff and their progeny are just a few weeks away from being born They now spend their days separated from the rest of their flocks at idle leisure, ganging up on walkers with malicous intent (they are quite harmless - just hungry). 

The black faced ram is a pedigree Suffolk and the others pedigree Charolais. The one on the far right is huge - above waist height on me.




We went to Godalming in Surrey mid month (more on this later) and to the Cotswolds last week but were just a little early for the main flush of snowdrops in the  famous gardens that are dotted around the area.

February sees the resumption of the winter talks season with talks on the Gower, in Swansea and West Wales. There is also the annual Winter Gardening Weekend in Llandysul from 22 - 24 February inclusive Go to www.llandysul - for more details. I will be speaking on the Saturday at 12.15 and after lunch as a panel member in a Question Time which is always fun. If you can come along it would be great to say hello!

Back to Godalming. I have always said how lucky we are to live in this wonderful part of Wales and to have such good neighbours. Our nearest neighbours, Sir Robert and Lady Clark have had a holiday home here for 25 years and we have come to know them well. Having been a disciple of Gertrude Jekyll for as long as I can remember it was incredible to learn that they own her old home at Munstead Wood, Godalming, Surrey built for Gertrude by Sir Edwin Lutyens in the last decade of the 19C. Sir Robert and Lady Marjorie moved there in the early 60's at a time when Gertrude was out of fashion and the gardens, extending to over 6 acres with additional woodland, were a pale shadow of their former glory, but with painstaking research and assisted by talented gardeners, they were able to restore the gardens and bring them back to life again. It has been such a thrill to visit and walk where Gertrude walked and to see areas of the garden that she wrote about so vividly in her numerous books. They have opened the gardens for charity over many years and vistor numbers on an open day often exceeded 2,000 people, such is the lure of Munstead.

If that were not enough we also learned about Sir Robert's amazing part in the 2nd World War as young man in his very early twenties, and his subsequent life as a major figure in the City. Sadly he passed away on 3 January, just 3 days short of his 89th birthday. Gertrude was just 13 days older when she too died at Munstead in 1932. He was a really great man, an English gentleman who had the common touch and he had a fitting and deeply moving  funeral in a packed, beautiful old church near his home,an event filled with wonderful music, love and deep affection. It was a privilege to have known him and we will greatly miss him.

Munstead in 2009 on the occasion of the Diamond Wedding Anniversary of Sir Robert and Lady Marjorie