Seen at the Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Friday, 19 December 2014

Unusual Front Gardens #21: Nativity

Winter interest in the garden is always a challenge in December. Chippenham's Methodist church  solved the problem by planting a Nativity in theirs.

Merry Christmas everyone and here's to a peaceful New Year.

Monday, 15 December 2014

GBBD: Unexpected Honeysuckle

Photo of Lonicera flowering unexpectedly in December

I expect to see my winter honeysuckle starting to bloom at this time of the year, so it was a bit of a surprise to find this summer flowering version instead on my walk around the garden this morning.

It's a self-sown flower too, so it qualifies as a double Against the Odds for my front garden this month. It suddenly appeared through my Euonymus 'Silver Queen' last year, presumably a gift bestowed by a passing bird. It must be a keen survivor as it germinated in a deeply shaded spot.

The scent alerted me to the second flush of flowers appearing after its usual summer blooming earlier this year. It's not one of the most spectacular of summer honeysuckles in looks, but it certainly makes up for it in terms of scent.

I'm undecided whether it'll remain in my front garden. Tough as old boots and scented plants are usually welcome, but like the old man's beard which has crept through from the hedgerow nearby, this one looks like it's set to dominate the garden if I let it.

It's another example of the topsy-turvy time we've had in the garden this year. What's flowering against the odds for you this month?

Garden Bloggers Blooms Day is hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens.

A more typical view of summer honeysuckle for this time of the year

Friday, 12 December 2014

Plant Profiles: Mistletoe

I walked past this spot for years before I noticed the tree had mistletoe. There used to be two distinctive balls of it sitting side by side, but when I went to take a photo for this post, I found there's now just one. As far as I know it's the only tree in central Chippenham which hosts this parasitic* plant. Having gone round the shops to find some, I see it's the only place in town to have it on display too.

Mistletoe (aka Viscum album**) is one of our most romantic native plants. I don't just mean because of our tradition of kissing beneath it at this time of year, there are also a host of other associated myths and legends. On Tuesday, I went to a fascinating talk at Bath University Gardening Club, where Dr Michael Jones entertained us with all kinds of tales from his years of research.

As a result I've been musing about growing some of my own as I've discovered there's a kit available and I'm tempted to ask my niece and nephew for one for Christmas. It'll make a change from their usual pink sunshine ;)

* = it's hemiparasitic to be accurate. Mistletoe can photosynthesise, so it's not totally dependent on the tree for all its needs, obtaining just minerals and water in this instance. However, it's not a very good hemiparasite as it may kill its host in time, unless it's managed in some way.

** = there are lots of different species (over a 1,000), but the one we're interested in is this one, which is the European mistletoe. The Americans use a completely different species for their traditions at Christmas, from the genus Phoradendron.
Cultivation notes

As mistletoe might kill its host, this should be borne in mind if you want to grow your own. Harvesting a crop will keep it manageable, but it won't destroy the plant unless all of the host wood is cut away as well. This might make the remaining tree look quite odd if you change your mind later!

Also bear in mind that any branch beyond where the mistletoe is growing will die, as the mistletoe will prevent water and nutrients reaching that part of the tree.

Select your tree with care and commit to harvesting it regularly once the
plant is well established. It will be a few years before the mistletoe reaches a harvestable size.

Mistletoe is renowned for growing in orchards, particularly on apple trees. These account for around 40% of all mistletoe's distribution. However, over 80 species of tree in Britain can play host, with lime, hawthorn and poplar accounting for around another 40% of trees with mistletoe.

Michael Jones reckoned domestic apples will successfully host mistletoe sourced from any tree, but better results are obtained on other trees if the seed is sourced from the same species.

Note that mistletoe's natural distribution seems to be climate related as well as orchard related. It seems there may be a relationship between the average temperature in July, with most occurrences found south and east of the 16oC line.

Mistletoe requires both a female and male plants to produce berries (= Dioecious reproduction) and these are then produced by the female plant. The pulp of the berry is very sticky which helps the seed to stick to a branch when either wiped there by a blackcap, or excreted by the mistle thrush. So the human dispersal I'll be doing needs to mimic this.

A grouping of around 10 seeds per selected branch is recommended to ensure success. Each seed is polyembryonic, with the possibility of 3-4 plants forming from one seed's germination.

The seeds need around 12 hours of light per day to germinate and the best results are obtained from late February into March. Keep the berries from your mistletoe in a cool, dark place until then if this what you'll be using. The GYO kits aren't sent out until February.

Because of its light requirements, the best results are obtained by choosing a solitary tree or one on the edge of woodland rather than in the deep shade within. That's why mistletoe is most commonly found in orchards, gardens, parkland and hedgerows.

The chosen branch should be around finger thickness (around 2 year old wood) with thin bark. There is no need to nick the bark to help the mistletoe establish.

NB mistletoe is toxic - it's poison is related to ricin. Farmers will often keep cows in calf away from fields as they may abort their calves if they eat the mistletoe. Bear this in mind if you have any pets or children that are fond of climbing trees.

Kissing notes

Mistletoe can deteriorate quite quickly in modern centrally heated homes, where it yellows and shrivels up in the warm and dry conditions. It's best to buy as fresh and as late as possible, then keep it in a cool, dark place until needed.

Once the mistletoe is up in your house ready for your romantic encounters, misting with some water helps to keep it fresh. The tradition of raising mistletoe isn't just so we can canoodle beneath it, it dates back to the druidic belief that mistletoe loses its powers if it touches the ground. This is also the root of the practice of placing bundles of mistletoe on straw pallets ready for auction.

The full kissing tradition says that one berry must be taken from the bough for each kiss bestowed and once there are no more left, the kissing must stop. The Victorians were concerned there might be too much of it going on! Prices obtained at auction usually reflect the amount of berries present; the more berries, the higher the price.

Further Reading

  • Mistletoe Matters - lots of information on the distribution, host trees, growing and management of mistletoe. There is event information and lots of factsheets too
  • Jonathan's Mistletoe Diary - the blog of Jonathan Briggs, a mistletoe expert and enthusiast who also edits Mistletoe Matters. This is the place to explore if you want to find out more about the myths, legends and folklore surrounding mistletoe
  • The Tenbury Mistletoe Association - Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire is the capital of English Mistletoe and is where the mistletoe auctions take place in the last 2 weekends in November and the first 2 weekends in December. 
NB December 1st is National Mistletoe Day, so expect plenty of extra festivities in Tenbury around this time!

All pictures in this section are from Wikimedia commons. The following credits reflect the order in which they appear: Mistletoe Berries by Alexbrn, Mistletoe Seeds by Fir0002, Mistletoe by David Monniaux, Mistletoe in Lime Trees by Tim Heaton
Plant Profiles is sponsored by Whitehall Garden Centre.

Note to readers:
Sponsorship goes towards my blogging costs; the words are my own There are no cookies or affiliate links associated with this post.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Evolution Plants: One Year On*

Photo directing visitors to the nursery entrance at Evolution Plants

Late October saw my latest trip to Evolution Plants, to take stock of the first year and to see what else has changed since May's visit. It was a very busy summer and autumn for us all so the timing was much later than originally planned. **

The visual clue above hints at more changes at the nursery. I usually go though the gate, but now visitors are asked to take the side path on arrival.

View of the nursery from the gate

But first I needed to take one of the standard photos I've taken for every visit; the view of the nursery from the gate. This time I poked my camera through a gap to get my desired shot. For once my arrival coincided with a beautifully sunny day, during that late unseasonal warmth you may remember we had in late October. A day which meant most of my time there was spent outside - yay!

List of nursery jobs

When Tom and I discussed this series of posts, we agreed it would be good if I got to know the whole team at Evolution Plants. It was great that at last I had the opportunity to talk at length to nursery manager Gemma Neech, and Helen Bailey, who delights in the title of Head of Friendliness (very well deserved).

We were so busy chatting about the nursery, I totally forgot to take their picture, so you'll have to make do with this hefty 'To do' list instead. I'm surprised they found the time to fit me in - it's a very busy place!

View in one of the polytunnels - it's looking a lot tidier

Whilst I didn't get to see Tom this time, instead of being disappointed I felt it marked a turning point; there was a sense of a team who've grown in confidence in what they do.

While we were going round the polytunnels, I could see Gemma is bringing a sense of order to the place. Plants aren't just plonked in where there's a space, instead they go in the right spot and that spot has an equivalent place on the nursery's database. They're saying goodbye to plants on the floor too - the ones in the picture will be up on the staging the next time I go there.

New display of agaves and yuccas

The display areas are getting a revamp too. Here is the new display of drought tolerant plants such as agaves and yuccas. There's a Joshua tree amongst that lot, so I suspect this arrangement may change in due course. I've already told Mark and Gaz they might like to check out this part of the nursery's catalogue!

The sales area at the end of the season

There was also a sense of the nursery winding down for the season, though for me this picture of the sales area represents the major changes made in just one year. When Tom launched the nursery in late 2013, he was quite clear he going to just focus on online sales and any visits would be by appointment in the first year.

Instead, the nursery opened for several days a week over the summer and autumn and there was also an exhausting looking round of exhibits and talks at various plant fairs and specialist sales. Tom has started writing a regular column for The English Garden, where he relates tales of his plant hunting adventures. He picked up a New Talent finalist nod at The Garden Media Guild Awards last month as a result - hurrah!

View of another polytunnel

A further success was the supply of plants for Flowers by Passion's natural meadow themed window display for Bath's Britain in Bloom. Another visit to the nursery resulted in the offer to supply plants to Sissinghurst. Head Gardener Troy Scott-Smith is a renowned plantsman, so this is a real coup.

View of the reference library in the nursery office

Other changes afoot include volunteer opportunities. Gemma trained at the renowned Cambridge University Botanic Garden, but even she is amazed at how much she's learned this year. Imagine how much your knowledge could expand, especially with around 5,000 different plants and that specialist library on hand. You'll get your pick of plants to take home too!

Update: Helen tells me they have enough volunteers for now as it's winter. I suspect that might change in the spring, though they're also exploring linking up with Lackham. I'll keep you posted.

Those of you who don't live close enough to volunteer, may like to know there's a 50% off plant sale on the go at the moment, which ends on 31st January 2015.

View of the nursery stock beds and greenhouse

I'll leave you with my other standard photo of the nursery, taken from the point furthest away from the gate. I'll be catching up with Tom again in January, when he is due to give a talk to the University of Bath Gardening Club.

* = and a tiny bit more

** = as is this post, though it does mean I've managed to shoehorn even more news in ;)

Previous posts about Evolution Plants:
Update August 2015 - sadly Tom has announced Evolution Plants is up for sale. Whether it continues in other hands, or his plants materialise in other nurseries has yet to be seen.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Tree Following with Lucy: November's Drama

Photo of ash tree at the side of the back garden before its tree surgery

This month's Tree Following post is completely different to the one I'd planned. I was going to explore the myths and folklore associated with my ash tree. The above picture contains a couple of clues to show why I abandoned my research.

Can you spot the taped off area and the ladder propped against my tree? The slideshow below shows you what happened next...

On November 17th my ash tree had visitors! After the tree's unexpected visit to VP Gardens last December, the local council decided the remainder of the tree was a potential safety hazard and commissioned a local firm of tree surgeons to give it a bit of a drastic trim.

The slideshow gives you a flavour of what happened. I apologise for the quality of some of the pictures, but it was a typical drizzly November's day. NAH and I hung out of our bedroom window watching what went on - judging by the tree surgeon's remarks, the trunk was quite slippery, so he was quite glad to be using crampons as well as all the ropes you can see.

It was interesting to see how he only cut part way through many of the branches, using the weight of the wood above to snap the rest of it through before lowering them to the ground for his assistant to carry them off. They took most of the wood away as ash is quite a valuable timber.

Photo of the ash tree at the side of my garden after tree surgery

After an hour and a quarter's work all that remained was an eight foot high stump. It's supposed to regrow from the trunk that's left*, so we'll see if that happens next year. The stump of the limb cut off late last December didn't sport any regrowth, so it was interesting to see the tree surgeon took off another slice of wood, possibly to help stimulate regrowth from there?

This forms a drastic change to my garden even though the tree itself is on the public land next door. My shady border is now a shady no more border. Already I'm aware of a lot more light in the garden, even though we're in the gloomiest part of the year. A rethink of the side garden border plus the previously shaded part of the double terrace border beckons...

* my initial research for this post unearthed accounts of ash coppicing as its a useful timber for making various products. A recent edition of Countryfile showed ash being steamed for the making of a large garden rake. It's one of the most pliable of woods, so it's useful for making all kinds of tools and furniture as well as being one of the best for woodburning.

Have a look at Loose and Leafy to see how my fellow Tree Followers got on this month.

Monday, 1 December 2014

GBMD: Thou Bleak December Wind

Many yellow leaves are still on the trees in my garden, December 2014
A walk round my garden this morning revealed a surprising number of leaves are yet to fall

Friday, 21 November 2014

Against the Odds: Canalside

Plant communities in a lock gate on the Kennet and Avon canal at Devizes

During the summer NAH started a new volunteer role with the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust who provide narrowboat trips from their headquarters in Devizes. When our niece and nephew came to stay, we took them to see what he gets up to these days.

I was surprised to find a whole plant community thriving in one of the lock gates we went through. These plants are likely to get a thorough soaking many times a day when boats go through the lock as the water level rises then falls.

The stones lining the top of the lock have thriving mini communities too.

Plant communities along the top of a lock on the Kennet and Avon canal at Devizes

Monday, 17 November 2014

Postcard From Devon

Walking the dog on Exmouth beach with the local lifeboat on manoevres in the background

Greetings from a wilder and more woolly Devon than most postcards show. We've just come back from a week in Exmouth, where blustery walks were the order of the day. The coastal resorts of Torbay and elsewhere might be more popular nowadays, but Exmouth is Devon's oldest seaside resort and has a nice quirkiness about it.

This view is looking across the Exe estuary towards Dawlish, where last week's weather once again halted the coastal trains for a while, though not as dramatically as the storms did earlier this year. Just out of shot to the right is the coastal spit of Dawlish Warren, a national nature reserve as well as a holiday resort. The Exe hosts thousands of overwintering birds, which we had the chance to see when we took a boat trip up the river.

We also experienced a little of Transition Town Totnes, where we at last caught up with our dear friends S and L who moved there just over a year ago. It was great to stay with them and also take part in a community quiz at their local pub. I was deeply envious of their close proximity to the amazing art deco sea filled swimming pool at Brixham, where they spent many a happy hour over the summer.

We had some fantastic walks straight from the doorstep, where the weather helped to make us feel truly alive. I've realised how much I need to step out the door for a brisk walk and find an immediate and dramatic view, something which isn't available in Chippenham without a drive beforehand. In the meantime, I can at least check out the view via Exmouth's seafront webcam.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

GBBD: Hanging On

Photo of Fuchsia 'Hawkshead' blooming in mid November

The blooms at VP Gardens are breaking all kinds of records this month, with all of my late season perennials hanging on and flowering in profusion. My garden's had just one slight frost so far this autumn, which hasn't been enough to bring these plants to their knees.

I've been meaning to tell you all about my favourite fuchsia for quite a while, but I never imagined a November Blooms Day would be the ideal time to fulfil that promise. In most Novembers, the pictured blooms would be a soggy, brown looking mess by now.

I adore the elegant simplicity of Fuchsia 'Hawkshead'. Its porcelain white flowers remind me of dainty ballerinas dancing across the stage. They're a more delicate looking form which belies their hardiness. I see the common name for this species is Lady's eardrops, and I've often thought the flowers would make great earrings.

I forgot to prune the branches down to the ground in the spring and my neglect's been rewarded with the most prolific flowering yet. It seems this and its other hardy F magellanica cousins can withstand this treatment. In time they may become a bit woody and outgrow their allotted space, but I've found the 'rule' regarding annual pruning can be disregarded for a good 2-3 years.

Elsewhere in the garden I still have salvias and dahlia flowers a-plenty and it looks like it'll be a while before I need to bring out the dahlia duvet. 2014's record breaking warmth continues...

How's your garden this month?

Garden Bloggers' Blooms Day is hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens.

Friday, 14 November 2014

VP's VIPs: Our Flower Patch - The Finale

Jam jar posy of the flowers Our Flower
schools can grow
Our third and final chat with Our Flower Patch's Cally Smart and Sara Wilman takes a look at their favourite flowers, plus they give us some ideas for planting tulips - the perfect job for now. The scrummy pictures are courtesy and copyright of Sara Wilman.

What are your favourite cut flowers?

I love tulips in myriad colours and grow lots for cutting. I never grow them in the garden borders because they can look messy, especially when they go over but growing them close together in trenches on the allotment gives me dozens of buckets early in the spring. I also grow a lot of dahlias in jewel colours for late summer and autumn colour. I adore ranunculus.

Calendula is my favourite flower to sow from seed with children. It’s beautiful, easy to grow and so, so useful. It looks great in the vase with blue cornflowers, the edible petals look pretty in a salad and it has a history.

My Victorian dairy farmer ancestors used it to make their butter yellower and it was used on the battlefield during the civil war to treat wounds. In fact calendula salve is still used to soothe injuries now. We include a recipe so you can make your own in our materials. And the seeds are easy to collect. Children love them because they look like they may crawl of your hand at any moment. What a hard working flower.

Large picture: Sara's flower beds. Then, top right to bottom left: Cleome and dark Scabious; Cosmos 'Purity';
Nigella; Scabious; and Zinnia, Salpiglossis and snapdragon

Oh My!! That would depend on the season!! Since becoming involved in growing flowers I have noticed the seasonal changes more intensely. I think I focus more on what the weather is doing and am more in tune with the changing seasons and what they bring to the vase.

I have found a new love of Tulips. Having been slightly put off by the tight small buds you see bundled in the supermarkets I have found a new passion for all the many and varied types that are available to grow for your own vase!

Annual Scabious are just stunning and so productive, my Autumn sown plants are still producing and we are nearly at first frost time! The seed heads are magnificent too. I love perennial scabious also. Zinnias are amazing, I love their zingy colours and I couldn't be without Dahlias in my flower patch.

The trumpets of Salpiglossis look like a silk and velvet gown. Cleomes have unforgiving spines, but I can forgive them that because of their stunning flowers. I just end up getting stabbed often! Cosmos, so simple and beautiful, a jug of pure white cosmos is hard to beat for a simple arrangement.

Nigella is such a hard working plant! In the spring I sometimes start to think I prefer the Nigella seed pods in a vase to the flowers, and then I see a new batch of Nigella flowering in October and realise how hard it works for me. Plus I dry the seed pods to use for arrangements after the frosts have arrived.

I best stop now! I’m getting carried away, thank you for not asking what is your favourite flower (singular) as that is nigh on impossible!

Tulip 'La Belle Epoque'

I'm looking to grow tulips for cut flowers on my allotment for the first time this year, which varieties would you recommend?

Tulips 'Ballerina', 'Black Prince'
and 'Princess Irene'
Over to Sara. I look through the Peter Nyssen catalogue for colours and shapes I like and to make sure that I have tulips ready for cutting over the longest period of time. I can never remember the names. Sara is more scientific in her approach. She knows what grows well, sells well and lasts well in the vase. Our different approaches make us a good team.

Ahh, my new passion! Yes I had ignored tulips for cutting as I thought they wouldn’t last. Never will I be without them again. With a combination of narcissi, tulips, ranunculus and biennials such as hesperis, sweet William and foxgloves I’ve been cutting non stop since the end of February – and I don’t have a polytunnel!

I digress! Tulip varieties! Try some viridiflora, 'Artist' or 'Doll’s minuet' – mind you I loved each of them that I grew and they are a type that will most likely return for a few years. I loved 'Belle Epoque' and its scrumptious, silky look. Bizarrely they didn’t sell well. I think for some customers they look as if they are almost over before they’ve begun, but they have fab vase life.

There is an assumption that a tulip is a specific shape, and size, the one we are used to seeing bundled on special offer 10 for £1.99 in a supermarket. They can be soooo much more than that. Lily shaped flowers that are perfumed like orange jelly – 'Ballerina'.

My tastes tend to be for the dark black flowers teamed with orange or bright pink so I had lots of those. But one of the most stunning tulips I grew was 'Snow Parrot' a white tulips that looked like it was sculpted out of porcelain. 'Black hero' was stunning and looked like a peony.

This year I’m trying some new ones, I’ve gone for some coral, peachy ones, and a few paler pinks! I personally am not a fan of the fringed types as they looked a bit raggedy to my mind. Try and get a range of flowering times, and look to get colours to flower together that go together! Or do as I did and just buy anything that takes your fancy and blow the budget completely!!!

Oops! Oooh I’m really looking forward to tulip season now!

Tulips 'Black Hero', 'The Artist' and 'Snow Parrot'

Thanks Cally and Sara for a fabulous interview! It's been really inspiring to learn more about your story and I wish you every success for the future. I'm looking forward to planting my tulips this weekend and showing you the results next year :)

If you missed their previous posts on VPs VIPs, there's how they met and got Our Flower Patch off the ground and then there's the nitty gritty on how they work together and how their scheme works.

Other useful links:

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Plant Profiles: Holly

Photo of holly berries in Trowbridge
Lots of jolly holly berries - found outside Holy Trinity Church, Trowbridge. They had a jolly red door to match. 
It's around this time of the year when I rue not having a holly tree in our garden. I hanker after oodles of red berries like the ones in the above photo, ready to nourish the visiting birds and my designs on wreath making. I've found some holly trees in our neighbourhood, but they don't seem to berry that much.

Readers from a very long time ago may recall I did indeed possess a holly tree at one time. Encouraged by the one I'd admired in Threadspider's garden when she lived at the top of the hill, I impulse bought a fetching Ilex aquifolium 'Argentea marginata'. Sadly as I suspected when I blogged about it, I never found the right spot in the garden and it didn't survive my mistreatment.

However, we're now at the time when the garden beckons with all kinds of possibilities and plans are formed for the coming year. I'm rethinking the shrubbery at the bottom of the back garden, plus the front side garden. I don't think anything with prickly leaves is suitable for the back, but there are a couple of boring conifers at the front which could make way for something more exciting.

I'm looking out of my study window as I write this and pondering that front garden. I've noticed the conifers form a focal point in the winter when the other trees around there have shed their leaves. Perhaps a replacement holly tree with jolly red berries might be just the thing?
Cultivation Notes

Photo of the leaves of the holly tree Ilex aquifolium 'Argentea marinata'
Holly trees are easy to grow and suitable for most soils and situations. They are fully hardy throughout the UK. If you want berries, you need to ensure you buy a female tree and that a male one is nearby. Male trees tend not to be as dramatic, so the general advice is to hide it away somewhere in the garden.

Beware, the tree's name isn't necessarily a guide to its gender, so it's best to check what you're getting when you buy.

Photo of holly tree flowers Hollies can grow up to 12 metres in height, though they can take quite a while (20 to 50 years) to get there. However, they respond well to clipping and can be grown as a hedge, or trained into different shapes. I've seen a couple of houses on my travels where clipped standard hollies in huge pots form a nice welcome to a front garden.

I've looked again at my image at the top of this post and noticed hardly any of the leaves are prickly. Apparently holly trees have adapted to grazing by herbivores by developing prickly leaves lower down the tree and those out of reach are smooth.

Apart from those herbivores, holly is relatively free from pests and diseases. My Ilex died from neglect supplemented by invasions by scale insects and holly leaf miner on my weakened tree. Aphids and holly leaf blight are the two other concerns to look out for.

I also have a nagging feeling at the back of my mind that I've seen some holly tree cultivars that are entirely smooth leaved which might be an option to consider for my garden. I need to do some further research.

Propagation is by seed - if you have the patience - or by semi-hardwood cuttings.

Whilst birds can feast on the bright red berries with impunity, unfortunately we can't. Beware an upset stomach if you do.

The National Plant Collection of hollies is held at RHS Rosemoor in Devon.

Further reading

The photo of holly flowers is courtesy of Penny Mayes via Wikimedia.
Plant Profiles is sponsored by Whitehall Garden Centre.

Note to readers:
Sponsorship goes towards my blogging costs; the words are my own There are no cookies or affiliate links associated with this post.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Unusual Front Gardens #20: Statue

Photo of a front garden in Wiltshire with a statue of a girl dressed for the season

I spotted this jolly scene on a trip out with my SUP friends recently. We were walking through the village of Holt and stopped to admire the sunglasses and umbrella on the statue. October was very warm this year, but umbrellas not sunglasses were needed on our walk that day.

Just as we were about to leave the cottage owner appeared, who smiled and laughed at our appreciation of her handiwork.

"Ah yes" she said, "I really must dig out her coat now that autumn's here".

It turns out the statue is well known locally. Often when she gives directions to where she lives, there's a cry of recognition - "Ohhhh, you're the lady with the girl in the garden!"

Friday, 7 November 2014

Tree Following With Lucy: Autumn's Demise

Photo of ash tree beginning to turn autumnal October 2014
Not quite green beginning to turn yellow, 21st October 2014

As I anticipated last month, Lucy's Tree Following project has allowed me to see how Autumn affects my ash tree in some detail.

This tree species is usually one of the later ones to turn around here and 2014 is no exception. Initially they spend some time deciding what to do and look more not quite green than properly autumnal. My tree looked like that from the beginning of October, and then on the 18th, the change began properly. Just one single branch - the lowest one - started showing distinct signs of yellow.

Photo of an ash tree at its most golden moment October 2014
At peak yellow on October 25th, but already there's a hint of brown

Then in what seemed a flash, the rest of the tree followed suit. It was at this point I tried to film what I call the 'the quiet rain' I remember from previous years. There is a point when the ash's leaves rain down silently on the garden, each twig quietly and suddenly letting go of its golden load.

Alas it was not to be. Each time I got my camera out to record the event, only a few leaves fluttered down obligingly. I think our exceptionally warm autumn means the annual letting go was quieter than ever. Perhaps a good hard frost is needed for the whirl of leaves across my garden I was expecting to happen.

Photo of ash tree with almost no leaves left - October 2014
Leaf drop almost complete, October 31st. Note all the leaves needing to be cleared off the vegetation below

Of course, as soon as I put my camera away, I spotted more leaves falling into the garden. I got my camera out again and the leaves stopped. Even the marvellously named 'remains of hurricane Gonzolo' blowing across the garden didn't stir my tree into dropping its leaves in a spectacular fashion.

Then, I compared my tree with the other ashes nearby to find mine had none of the deep reds the tops of the others were waving about with gay abandon.

Photo of an ash tree in the final stages of autumn 2014
Leaf-clumped branches silhouetted against my neighbour's birch tree, 4th November 2014

Now, just a couple of weeks later my tree is almost winter ready. It's at its most mournful stage where sorry sodden clumps of brown leaves hang onto the end of most branches. This state of affairs will continue until the roaring winds of winter finally strips the tree bare.

I think I might have a duff tree in the autumn department.

Photo of a stray ash leaf on a kitchen floor
A stray ash leaf on my kitchen floor

Have a look at how the other Tree Follower's autumns have progressed over at Loose and Leafy.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

I Love November For...

... Pears

Now is the time when my Concorde pears reach their peak of perfection on the allotment. This variety has better storage properties than most, so we rarely have a problem with too many ripe pears at the same time.

This year is proving to be an exception to the rule as the tree blossomed at exactly the right time during a spell of exceptionally warm weather. This ensured every single bloom was visited by a bee and thus turned to fruit. The tree may be small, but I have over 100 pears and around a month in which to eat them with the juice running down my arms.

So I've devised a variation on my 'Windfall Cake' to soak up some of the abundance. I liked the idea of chocolate and almonds to complement the flavour of the pear and developed a recipe along those lines. It's still a work in progress - the balance of the pear and chocolate flavours with the sugar is right, but there is no hint of almond. A little almond essence is called for methinks.

It's still delicious as it is though, served neat or with a dollop of Greek natural yoghurt to help it go down. Serves 8-12 slices, depending on how greedy you are.

Pear, chocolate and almond cake


4 oz softened butter + a little extra for greasing
4 oz golden granulated sugar
2 large eggs
4 oz self raising flour
4 oz ground almonds
2 oz good quality chocolate pieces (I prefer plain)
4 small ripe pears, peeled cored and chopped into small pieces (best done at the last minute when adding to the cake mixture)

For those of you using metric measures, use 110g for the 4oz ingredients and 55g for the chocolate pieces.


  1. Preheat the oven to 170oC (fan assisted oven), 190oC (electric oven) or gas mark 5
  2. Grease a deep 8 inch (20cm) springform round cake tin with a little butter - there is no need to line the tin with baking parchment if it's greased well
  3. Cream together the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl until the mixture is light and fluffy
  4. Shell the eggs , add them to the bowl and mix well
  5. Gradually add the flour and ground almonds - don't be too alarmed if the mixture is a little on the dry side at this point, the pears will add some moisture
  6. Add the chocolate pieces and the chopped pear; mix together well - the mixture should form a soft dropping consistency
  7. Scoop out the mixture into the cake tin, ensuring it's evenly spread
  8. Bake in the oven for 50 minutes or until a skewer comes out cleanly when the centre of the cake is pierced - non fan assisted ovens may take a little longer
  9. Leave in the tin for 10 minutes and then turn out the cake onto a cooling rack
  10. Slice and serve when fully cooled

Note that the cake won't rise that much owing to the ground almonds. It didn't spoil my enjoyment of the result and the cake had a nice, moist crumb without a heavy consistency. Therefore I'm not going to experiment with the addition of baking powder in the future.

I've just realised it's my blog's 7th birthday today. What better way to celebrate than baking a cake?

Saturday, 1 November 2014

GBMD: A Society Grows Great

Picture of a katsura tree at The Dingle Garden near Welshpool
Photo taken whilst standing beneath a Katsura tree at The Dingle, October 2014
NB This year's National Tree Week is 29th November to December 7th.

Friday, 31 October 2014

VP's VIPs: Our Flower Patch Part Deux

Previously on VP's VIPs we learned how Cally Smart and Sara Wilman met then came up with the idea of Our Flower Patch. Today, they're going to tell us more about their business and how they are inspiring a new generation of  growers...

Describe how you work together. Do you have fixed roles?

At first we worked together on everything, although Sara knows more about growing flowers for sale than Cally does and Cally had more hands-on gardening experience with school aged children.

Over time we have taken on more specific roles. We meet together formally once a month to plan what is going to happen and discuss ideas and keep in touch via phone, text and social media, sometimes every day in the meantime.

In general Sara is the website geek and photographer and Cally is the writer, though we bounce ideas off each other across our roles. We both make the most of social media, tweeting and retweeting things our audience will find interesting via @ourflowerpatch.

We engage with parents, grandparents and teachers via Facebook and our Pinterest boards are full of workable ideas for children to get stuck into.

Screen grab from the Our Flower Patch website

Tell me a little bit more about Our Flower Patch. How does it operate? What is its philosophy? 

We want to get teachers, parents and children learning and having fun outside. Many schools have school gardens but their potential isn’t always fully exploited.

We wanted to have an all-year-round educational progamme which is easy to follow even for non gardeners, fun to do and inexpensive to start, in fact run the way we advise, it can be self-financing, even profit making. It can stand alone or work alongside edible growing, increasing the biodiversity and crop yield of your veg plot and fruit garden and providing funds to buy seeds and fruit bushes
from the sale of flowers.

The programme is eminently flexible and can be run with children of all ages either in class, as Planning, Preparation and Assessment cover, or as an after school club. It can be managed by teachers, teaching assistants or volunteer parents and grandparents. Some schools might consider using it as a programme to support ‘nurture groups’ or children who need opportunities to learn more flexibly outside the classroom.

As well as learning to grow flowers as a crop, the activities are closely linked to National Curriculum subject areas, allowing teachers to use it to tick these boxes, rather than taking time away from valuable classroom time.

Running Our Flower Patch as a mini business within the school teaches all those soft skills that employers say school leavers lack – planning, team working, budgeting, negotiation, problem solving, keeping customers happy, marketing... and as the children are seeing the project through from start to finish it is real to them. They are fully involved in all aspects and are true owners of the project, able to develop it in the way that works for them.

Who is Our Flower Patch aimed at? Do you have a cluster of members anywhere?

We have a cluster of school members in Wiltshire, inevitably, although we have had enquiries from as far away as Northumberland. The common factor is that we have some sort of connection with all our current member schools and interested parties.

The next phase is to engage with people who don’t know us or know people who have worked with us. We are aiming at primary schools who want to use the school grounds to teach the National
Curriculum – all subjects, not just gardening.

Our activities cover the whole range of subjects – numeracy, literacy, design and technology, geography, science..... In the future we’ll be developing a programme for nursery schools and secondary schools and possibly for children to do at home.

Any feedback or anecdotes you'd like to share?

It’s early days but one of our newest schools sent a couple of Teaching Assistants to have a look at Our Flower Patch in operation at another school. At the end of the morning one of the ladies said “ I’m so excited about this. I don’t ever want to go back into the classroom. I feel I could do it all outside in the garden.” We were happy with that.

Earlier in the year, during an interview with the local BBC radio station one of the children involved in Our Flower Patch said “this is the best time I’ve had in school – ever.” We think that’s a pretty good endorsement.

Some youngsters who maybe struggle a little with the sometimes abstract classroom maths have been witnessed using maths to solve practical problems during sessions, they don’t see it as how many fives in 25 but how many rows of 5 seeds can I sow if I have 25 seeds. It is more visual for them.

Screen grabs from Our Flower Patch's social media - blog, Facebook, Twitter & Pinterest

Autumn term has just started, what's new on Our Flower Patch? What activities do you have to cover the non-growing season? How do school holidays affect what can be grown?

Many school gardeners come back to a flurry of activity at the start of term, harvesting anything left alive after the summer holidays and tidying up. Then, when the weather turns bad, nothing much happens until the Spring.

The Our Flower Patch programme runs all year round. Our members have already been growing and sowing for next season and there are plenty of activities to do in and around your flower patch, even when not much is growing.

These will appeal particularly to eco schools who want to develop their school grounds from rainwater harvesting and building a successful compost heap to recycling materials and looking after the biodiversity of your patch.

We provide weekly activities for our members throughout the year. The holiday week activities can be carried out at home or in school if there is a holiday club. Everything is flexible.

We’ve started a blog this term alongside the website to share information, ideas and snippets with everyone. We want to help anyone to start on their flower growing adventure and share good ideas for getting children outside learning, rather than stuck indoors. Even being outside for 15 minutes every day is good for you and the school grounds are a rich and often untapped learning resource.

How's recruitment going?

Teachers are amongst the most difficult audience to convince about a new programme. They seem to have had so many new initiatives land on their desks in the last few years. We don’t want Our Flower Patch to feel like something else they have to do.

Therefore we are taking our time to build a community of school growers who feel supported, engaged and have access to new resources on a regular basis. Our Flower Patch is not just a one off package. We’re writing new stuff all the time and want to continue to act as a hub for useful and up to date information to share with young growers.

Thanks for another great set of answers Cally and Sara! In their third and final part of VPs VIPs, they'll be talking about their favourite flowers for cut flower growing, which will appear on Friday, 14th November.
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