Welcome Spring and some wonderful daffodils

Friday, March 28, 2014

At last it is good to be able to report more stable weather this month with a spell 12 dry days mid month, and some warm sunshine. Wet and windy at times but not excessively so. The sunshine and particularly the increased light levels brought a surge of growth all over the gardens, none better than the daffodils which have rarely looked better.

Division 6 Group Narcissus are personal favourites and "Trena" is one of the best


This time last year I was despairing at their poor showing and wondering if some of the more established clumps were past their best. The display this year suggests those fears were premature. There could be several reasons for the improved showing: they had a "rest" last spring, they were deadheaded after flowering as always, the warm weather last summer helped to ripen the bulbs, the copious rain and lack of penetrating frosts during the winter may also have played a part. But perhaps the biggest factor was the feed of fish, blood and bone I scattered around the bulbs after flowering last April. I shall return to daffodils later.

You may be wondering why I have mentioned snowmen in the heading as we have had none of the white stuff this month. We  had the warning of a short cold snap over the weekend of 22nd and 23rd and right on cue we had an overninght minimum of -4C in the early hours of 24th, enough to potentially damage the tender new growth of many shrubs, particularly hydrangeas which were very forward, so out came all the horticultural fleece (I have miles!! of it) and covered all the shrubs most at risk. When I went round the gardens next morning the clumps of fleece covering shrubs looked just like an army of snowmen!

 Just a small corner of snowmen - plenty more around the corner!


Thanks to the long spell of fine weather I was at last able to completely restore the small poytunnel damaged in the gales over the Christmas period. Without it I have been like "little boy lost" as at propagation time I spend most of my time there. More of this later.

 Getting the interior back into working order took nearly as long as rebuiding the tunnel.





As already mentioned a good month, rather typical of a traditional March -4 seasons in one month.. Most years we seem to have at least one dry settled spell often with warm sunshine. This year the max was 16.5C, warm enough to take the jumper off for the first time, and 10 other days over 12C.There were 7 frosty nights, quite a contrast to last March when there 16 with a minimum of -9C and a predominantly easterly air stream . Exactly 38 years ago when I moved into Cilgwyn Lodge we had a very mild March when the fields around us were quite bare because of the lack of rain. This was followed by the incredible summer of 1976 and caused my neighbour Meirion to caution me that this was Wales and not all years would be like this and how right he was!


Garden update

The main highlight for me has been completion of the extensive repairs to the poytunnel which took far longer than expected (12 days as opposed to 3-4 days). I took the tunnel back to bare hoops and started again, reinforcing them with crop bars and stays and constructing stronger door frames. The original tunnel is a very early form with hoops that create a half cicle and no straight sides which is the current preferred shape. The hoops are also smaller in diameter than modern tunnels so I had to make adjustments to allow modern parts to be fitted. I obtained all the materials from First Tunnels, a company I had previously used when building my second tunnel. They were exceptionally helpful and made parts to fit my old tunnel. I cannot recommend them enough to anyone thinking of erecting a new tunnel or refurbishing an old one. One particularly helpful recent introduction to save digging a deep trench in which to bury the polythene to provide rigidity and a tight skin, is an aluminium base rail initially 7 cms above ground floor level. This is clamped to the hoops and when the polythene is fixed to the rail it can then be lowered and tightened to create an incredibly tight skin. I have my refuge back at last and in just a few days it is beginning to fill up again. We are very grateful to our friends Robert and Barry for all their help with the rebuilding


The rebuilding from start to finish












 And  at twilight  just after we finished there was a perfect full moon 


I have been limited in what work I could do elsewhere in the garden but I have been able to do most of the initial border weeding which is a key task for March - a race against time before the bittercress sets seed. The lawns are green and growing strongly so have been mowed twice  with a light scarifying due - quite a contrast to the major makeover they had this time last year. Regrettably I have not been able to rotovate the vegetable beds because in spite of the sharp drainage they are still too wet. I learned the lesson last year that there is no point in rushing to sow seeds because when sown late they germinate more quickly and usually overtake those sown early. The hellebores and cyclamen coum are tailing off now but the muscarii, pulmonarias, epimediums and soon the erythroniums, and anemones of various types, are raising the colour thresholds in the shadier borders.

In spite of the limited space I have continued seed sowing in the large tunnel, recently acquiring my second batch of hemerocallis seed from the American Hemerocallis Society. I am succeeding in reducing the amount of seed I am sowing this year, but so many established plants have come through the winter in the cold frames that I seem to have even more  than last year which was something I was trying to avoid!! and can you ever resist the treasures on sale in the 2014 catalogues? Well I can't!!!

We have just about finished potting on all the outdoor overwintered pots and then we turn our attention to those in the tunnels and glasshouses. At this time of year there is not enough time in the day so we are looking forward to BST starting on 30 March and an extra hours daylight in the evenings.


What's looking good?

In a word - daffydowndillies (I love that old 16C word for daffodil, which can be spelt in a variety of ways)  and it is  still used especially in  Cornwall where the flower is celebrated at Spring events across the county. We don't have huge numbers in the gardens but as they are long lived you can chart our tastes over the years. We started off with sacks of mostly large flowered forms graduating to a love of the shorter more natural and resilient forms and we are now hooked on the Division 6 forms, the cyclamineus hybrids. Ideal choices for smaller gardens or windy sites, they bulk up quickly and there is a wide range to choose from

 "Peeping Tom" rather taller than most others in the Division



Probably the best known and most widely available is "Jet Fire"



 And this little cracker is "Rapture" the neaest to the species cyclamineus - short and with tightly swept back perianth


 "Little Witch" is a long establshed  cultivar. A small bicolour looking as good from the back as the front



But nothing looks as good as the wild pseudonarcissus  (n.Lobularis) shown here in an orchard of a gardening friend in Cardiganshire



Such a beauty with flower  and glaucous leaves in perfect harmony


Winter flowering heathers are no longer as fashionable as they were between the 1950's and 1980's when they were one of the staple plants of most gardens, to go with conifers and rhododendrons. If grown in a mixed border they can look very boring during summer months and can be difficult to integrate. However find a spot where they won't impact on  summer flowering plants and they will reward you with a terrific display of colour from January to April depending on the variety chosen and the prevailing weather conditions. There also heathers for summer and autumn flowering. Apart from their uplifting colours in shades of pinks, reds, purples and whites, they are marvellous resources of early nectar for bees and insects. This month the few plants we do have have been constantly covered with them. We get round their unsightly summer presence by growing smaller flowered clematis to scramble over  them - clematis don't have to be trained over trellis or pergolas to make an impact. 



In 2005 I purchased an already reasonably sized shrub, corylopsis pauciflora, a relative of the Chinese witch hazel, hoping that it would soon flower. It never has done so up until now. To be fair it had a rather severe check to its growth five years ago when it was half eaten by a Hereford steer that had managed to get into the garden. The shrub is now wider than it is tall but at last it has at last flowered well with short chains of lemon yellow, scented catkin like flowers. I believe that the weather has been the main reason why it has flowered this year with plenty of rain which they like and no penetrating frosts to damage the flower buds which start to form early in the new year. There are better forms with longer, later flowers but this one will do fine if it continues to flower like this every year.

 Corylopsis pauciflora


There are lots of buds on the clematis in the Atragene Group comprising spring stalwarts such as cultivars of the alpinas, macropetalas and Koreanas, which come into flower throughout the Spring in that order. There are a few flowers on some alpinas, the vast majority of which I grew from seed from the Britsh Clematis Society - a fun way to get new plants but it can often take up to 5 years to flower them.

 Clematis alpina from seed sown in 2009


Even slower than clematis in the race from seed to flower is the giant Himalayan lily, cardiocrinum giganteum. which can take 7 years or more to flower whereupon it dies! Challenges like this cannot be ignored so in 2008 I sowed some seed whch germinated a year later and we now have 12 plants in the shady Paddock Garden borders which have formed large bulbs looking fat enougn to flower, perhaps this year. I may be a little premature of course but I can't wait to see them flower as none of us are getting any younger!!. Sometimes exceeding 10 feet they make a tremendous impact with huge, scented, downward facing trumpets. There is an iconic picture of my gardening hero Gertrude Jekyll  standing by one in flower at Munstead Wood, her home in Surrey, dwarfed by its magnificence. and I look forward to a similar picture soon.



Finally a genus that is looking marvellous right now are various forms of euphorbias the best of which are shown below. What a month - sap (including mine) is going into overload!!

Euphorbia myrsinites low growing and wide spreading is one of the first into flower




 At the other end of the scale is E. characias grown from seed  which gets to its full size of nearly 6 feet within 5 years from seed 


 Two more suitable for smaller gardens are on the left E. "Silver Swan" an excellent variegated form for a dry sheltered spot making abot 2ft in time. On the right is e. amagloides "Purprea" ideal for shade and a moiture retentive soil.



Wildlife and countryside

Apart from lambs everywhere it has been a relatively uneventful month. The frog spawn has hatched and the water gets "blacker" by the day as the tadpoles begin to grow, but there are far fewer than last year. The toads have arrived recently. They are always a few weeks later than the frogs and again their numbers are rather limited. It is difficult to see toad spawn because it is laid in long strings on aquatic plants. They are being spoiled this year because there is huge amounts of blanketweed on the Paddock Pond, a legacy of the warm sunshine. 


The golden rudd in the Paddock Pond are starting to show well and taking a little dried food as are the fish in the 2 ornamental ponds. There is a mystery however in the Pddock Pond. When I introduced the rudd in 2011 I also stocked 50 small mirror carp which were very showy to start with regularly taking food on the surface . Less so in 2012 since when we have not seen them at all. I know that carp have a preference for living most of the time in mud at the bottom of the pond but you would have thought that there would be occasional sightings. Even on late night patrols with the powerful LCD lamp I see no signs of them.  If they had been predated as the rudd sometimes are by otters there would have been tell tale remains on the bank which is where they seem to prefer to eat thir prey. Incidentally one amazing fact came to light on my late night forays with the lamp - dragonfly larvae are incredibly fast swimmers with eyes that glow brightly in the beam rather like squid but not so nice to eat!

It is good to have lighter evenings to extend our working day and also to hear birdsong from dawn to dusk on the warmer days. No sign of any summer visitors yet however - the first arrivals usually being the pied flycatchers. I will have to be quick because the bird box in the big alder by the pond, they have used for the last few years, was completely destroyed in the gales so I need to get the new one up a.s.a.p. Currently job no 252 on an ever growing list!

Finally a little teaser for you. What am I holding in my hands in the picture?  No not an early Easter egg or a rugby ball, so what is it? One clue - it is a light as a natural sponge which it closely resembles. Answers at the end of this News Item





We have hardly been out and about this month because of all the pressing tasks at home but three talks to clubs were a welcome escape. Topics were varied with "Hostas" getting a very rare outing for Llanwrtyd Wells Gardening Club. Thanks to them for choosing it and also to Penllergaer and Kidwelly Clubs for a warm welcome and 2 great audiences.

Next month we have 5 talks to finish off our season, including our long awaited trip to The Hardy Plant Society's Dorset Group in Wimborne - 150 miles away, the furthest we have ever travelled for a talk. Aside from the occasional rank amateur like me, Hardy Plant Society Groups can be relied on to have a range of top flight speakers and it is a privilege to be squeezed in between Chris Beardshaw this month and Timothy Walker curator of Oxford University Botanic Garden in May. No pressure then!! Really looking forward to it and meeting up with members who visited Cilgwyn last July

Dylan Thomas Centenary Year

Today on one of our monthly trips to Swansea 35 mile away,I thought it was about time to revisit some of the childhood haunts of Dylan Thomas whose centenary year is being celebrated in the city of his birth, as it is  in all other parts of the world where his poetry and prose are held in great affection. The pictures below supported by some of his magical words, convey the feeling of place that shines through all his work, wherever that place happens to be.

 Dylan's home at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive and upstairs the front bedroom where he was born. Now restored by the current owners and open to the public.





 Cwmdonkin Park  "that grew up with me; that small interior world widened as I learned its names and boundaries"



 "the trees of the everlasting park, where a brass band shakes the leaves and sends them showering down on the nurses and the children,the cripples and the idlers and the gardeners"



 " ...a world of rockery, gravel path, playbank, bowling green, bandstands, reservoir, dahlia garden.. " - all still there making it a very special place of pilgrimage.



 There are references to Dylan wherever you look in the park.



"The hunchback in the park, A solitary mister Propped between trees and water From opening of the garden lock That lets trees and water enter Until the Sunday sombre bell at dark.



 The view from Cwmdonkin, "over the trees and chimneys of my ugly, lovely town"..." across the Devon facing seashore".. " and the mumbling bay". "The memories of childhood have no order and no end"


To discover more about Dylan and how to visit his birthplace and other landmarks go to www.5cwmdonkindrive.com and www.dylanthomas.com

Finally the answer to the little teaser I posed earlier on and well done if you got it right. It is the spent remains of the giant puffball I featured in the the August News 2013. (And in that article I was clearly wrong to suggest that when the spores form the puffball quickly deflates; it is part of the never ending fascination and education of watching and learning from nature). It has been blown well away from where I photographed it so being full of spores will there be giant puffballs all over the field this autumn? Watch this space.

Happy gardening and enjoy Spring, probably the best time of the year.