What Nestbox Where?

During the People’s Walk for Wildlife and the rewilding conference in Cambridge last year, I learnt in disbelief about the dramatic declines in insect, bird, mammal and wild plant populations since the 1970s – the decade in which I was born. This year I have resolved to put nature at the heart of our garden in an effort to support the natural world in my small piece of over 400,000 hectares of gardens across the UK – a collective habitat with the potential to make a real difference for wildlife.

We already feed the birds and have nestboxes; we grow plants for pollinating insects and garden organically without peat. So I am beginning to look for more ways to make our garden accessible and welcoming for wild creatures. We are currently adding a range of nestboxes for different species of birds to the small hole boxes we already have, and there are plans to install a barrel pond, create a small wild flower lawn, build hedgehog habitat beneath log piles and monitor the garden birds, amphibians, mammals, mini-beasts and wildflowers throughout the year.

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Building, installing and monitoring nestboxes is a great activity for all the family. My dad made this robin box and the kids helped him put it up

In early March there’s still time to put up nestboxes before the breeding season is in full swing, so this seems like a good place to start. I hope you’ll join me throughout the year, as we encourage as much wildlife into our modest-sized garden as possible.

What nestbox where?

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Blue tits laid in one of our small hole nestboxes last year

When putting up nestboxes, it is important to ensure they do not get overheated during warmer weather. Unless they are sited in good shade, it is best to site them on a wall or tree, facing between north and east, so that they are protected from the sun for much of the day. Unless otherwise stated, it is advisable to fit them at least 1.5 – 2m above the ground. It is also worth remembering to put them out of reach of neighbouring cats.

As a general rule, it is best to avoid the “decorative” nestboxes frequently seen in garden centres and some craft shops; they are often too small and may have the hole too close to the floor of the box (a distance of at least 120mm is recommended).

Small Hole Nestbox

This traditional nestbox is frequently used by Blue Tits and Great Tits, depending on the size of the hole (Great Tits need a hole with a minimum diameter of 28mm, while Blue Tits can fit through a 25mm hole). If you are lucky enough to have Coal Tits in your garden, they will also sometimes use artificial nest sites (again, a 25mm hole is big enough for them).

We’ve had both great and blue tits nesting in the small hole boxes in the garden

House Sparrow Terrace

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House sparrow populations have declined by 50-60% since the 1970s and it’s now a red-list species of high conservation concern

House Sparrows generally nest in small colonies and will readily accept boxes if there are several close together. For this reason, many wildlife product suppliers offer “House Sparrow Terraces”, which usually take the form of a long box with 3 separate compartments. However, the same effect can be achieved by placing three, or more, boxes in close proximity to one another. Being somewhat bigger than Great Tits, House Sparrows need an entrance hole of at least 32mm diameter. Boxes should be at least 2m above the ground and, preferably, somewhere that is not subject to too much human disturbance.

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I saw sparrows with nest material on top of this box last week

Medium Hole Nestbox

Starlings typically nest in holes in trees or under roofing tiles if they can get access. They happily accept nestboxes but need more space than smaller species, so use a slightly larger box with an entrance hole of 45mm. Boxes should be placed at least 2.5m off the ground.

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This nestbox is destined for the side of the house – our neighbours already have starlings nesting under their eaves

Open-Fronted Nestbox

These boxes are aimed primarily at Robins although will sometimes be used by Wrens. Being open-fronted, they are more susceptible to predation than conventional nestboxes and should be placed in a well concealed site such as under overhanging ivy or clematis. Height off the ground is unimportant although, again, it is best to try to keep them out of reach of the local cats.

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My dad constructed this open-fronted box and the kids helped him install it under our winter-flowering clematis

Swifts and House Martins 

Swifts have declined as a breeding species in Britain as many older buildings with access to the eaves have been demolished and new houses do not usually offer any access. Specially designed Swift boxes can be put up under the eaves of your house but it might be necessary to play Swift calls throughout the summer months to attract them to the site. Artificial nests for House Martins are also available and can be fixed under the eaves.

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House martin boxes mimic their natural mud nests, like this one

Other Species

Many species will not nest in boxes. Some that will, but are less likely to be encountered in most gardens are listed below:

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Some birds – like this long-tailed tit – prefer to make their own nests

Nuthatch
Pied Wagtail
Spotted Flycatcher
Pied Flycatcher
Redstart
Jackdaw
Stock Dove
Tawny Owl

If you live somewhere that has any of these species and would like to try to get them to nest in your garden, I would recommend “The BTO Nestbox Guide” by Chris du Feu, an excellent publication, with details of a wide range of nestboxes. Good quality nestboxes can be bought from the RSPB, CJ Wildlife, Ark Wildlife and other reputable wildlife equipment providers.

What Next?

If you have a nestbox in your garden, why not take part in the British Trust for Ornithology’s “Nestbox Challenge”. They provide guidance on how to monitor nesting birds safely, without causing them to desert their eggs or chicks.

With thanks to bird guru, Alan Garner, aka my generous, talented and fabulous dad! If you’d like to follow our garden rewilding this year, just click below to subscribe. 

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25 Colourful Crops for a Vibrant Vegetable Garden

In January I banished grey days by reading The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St Clair. It took me on a vivid journey through the history of colour, to explore the unknown corners of sepia, fallow, orchil, Isabelline and vantablack. As I read, I noticed how many of the terms are derived from plants like madder, amaranth, saffron, ginger, avocado and violet. Often these words referred to the dye the plants produced as with woad, or the colour of the plant’s blooms, like heliotrope. Colour is an integral part of our relationship with plants, we have used them over the centuries to produce dyes and paints, to bring colour into our homes with cut flowers and recently we’ve learnt more about the health benefits of many of the antioxidants that give plants their colour.

Now we are nearing the middle of February and my dining table is splashed with colour as I sort my seed packets. I usually avoid sowing anything except chillies until early March, so there’s still a couple of weeks to select a rainbow of colour for health and happiness later in the year. Here are my top picks for a vibrant vegetable patch in 2019:

Red

  • Suttons’ new lettuce ‘Outredgeous’ is the first plant to be grown from seed, harvested and eaten in space. It has vivid red leaves, a sweet crunch and can be grown in part-shade as well as full sun
  • Sprout ‘Red Rubine’ is an unusual brassica with red/purple sprouts. We particularly liked the red sprout tops which taste like sweet, crunchy mini-cabbages
  • One of my favourite salad onions ‘Apache’ produces glossy red spring onions that keep their colour when peeled. They are also ideal for container growing
  • The first oca I grew was ‘Helen’s All Red’ from Real Seeds. It produced heavy crops and is also one of the best flavoured of the 15 or so varieties I’ve grown. With edible leaves and ruby fruits in November when the rest of the garden has gone into hibernation, this is one colourful crop you won’t regret growing this year

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    Oca ‘Helen’s All Red’

Orange

  • Suttons’ Squash ‘Uchiki Kuri’ has dense round fruits which keep well and look superb hanging off the climbing plants in the autumn
  • Chilli ‘Apricot’ from Sea Spring Plants was a first for me last year. Its mild fruits matured late and tasted more like a sweet pepper than a chilli – a good choice if you want chilli plants for young children or chillies for stuffing
  • Tomato ‘Sungold’ is an orange winner time and time again in taste tests for the sweetest tomato. The cherry-sized fruits are irresistible to both kids and adults, especially when eaten warm straight out of the greenhouse

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    Squash ‘Uchiki Kuri’

Yellow

  • Visually, I prefer ‘Chioggia’ beetroot with its striking pink central rings, but the kids’ favourite is always ‘Burpees Golden’ for its mild, sweet taste
  • Tomato ‘Golden Sunrise’ is a beautiful contrast in a salad to darker varieties and ‘Striped Stuffer’ has scarlet skins striped with vivid yellow making the most beautiful hanging display
  • If you prefer your chillies hot then try ‘Lemon Drop’, a delicious Aji chilli that comes in at a spicy 30,000-50,000 SHU rating

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    A mix of yellow and orange tomatoes

Green

  • A poor relation in the garden, green is often dismissed as simply the colour of foliage, but it can be beautiful and vivid in its own right. Try Tomato ‘Green Zebra’ with its deep green stripes over a soft lime background
  • Or try the tinted white-green patty pan squash with their prolific scalloped fruits – a seed mix like ‘Summer Mix’ from Thompson and Morgan combines the paler squashes with dark green and yellow fruits
  • Cucamelons also celebrate the colour green with their beautiful speckles over the paler skin and Romanesco broccolli excudes lime green from every fractal millimetre

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    Cucamelon green

Blue

  • An unsual colour in the vegetable garden, many ‘blue’ crops tip over into tints of purple. You could try Tomato ‘Blue Bayou’ from Chiltern Seeds for its ‘richly coloured dark navy-blue to purple fruits’
  • Alternatively try Sweetcorn ‘Hopi Blue’, an American Indian heirloom variety from Jungle Seeds to find out if blue is for you in the vegetable garden

Indigo

  • We like the meaty, deep flavour of Tomato ‘Indigo Rose’ from Suttons. This almost black cultivar has a secret – lift up the calyx and underneath you’ll find remnants of the red coloration where the skin isn’t exposed to the light

Violet

  • I love deep purple vegetables – whether it’s ‘Purple Haze’ carrots, ‘Kolibri’ kohlrabi or the dwarf bean ‘Purple Queen’ There’s something deep and mysterious about them – especially when the colour magically disappears during cooking as with the beans or gives way to the traditional orange centre inside the carrots

Rainbow carrots and the orange inside

Rainbow

  • If your garden is too small to grow a wide range of crops or you fancy more colours for your money, rainbow collections are a fun way to liven it up. Chilli ‘Prairie Fire’ moves through the colours of the rainbow as the fruits mature
  • We love growing carrot ‘Rainbow Mix’ as the kids never know what colour carrot will appear when they gently pull out the roots
  • Beetroot naturally lend themselves to multicoloured seed mixes. ‘Rainbow Mix’ includes ‘Chioggia’, Burpees Golden’ and Albina Verduna’
  • Of course, the ultimate rainbow crop has to be Swiss Chard ‘Bright Lights’one of the first vegetables I ever grew. If the neon stems of ‘Bright Lights’ don’t convince you of the charms of colourful crops, nothing will!

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    Beetroot ‘Rainbow Mix’

What colourful crops are on your seed list this year? Do you have any favourites that you grow time and time again?

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7 Green Gift Ideas for Gardeners

Is Christmas a time for delight or dread? A combination of both if you’re anything like me. There will be more opportunities to talk, go for walks, play games and share meals than at any other time, but the endless stuff, the commercialism and the waste accepted by society makes me uncomfortable at Christmas.

David Attenborough’s words at the UN Climate Change Summit play on my mind as I write my Christmas lists, test my daughter on the words for her Christmas show and put up the decorations. The immense challenges facing us concerning the climate, plastics, pollinators and many other issues arising from our past and current treatment of the natural world can’t be solved by small changes at Christmas, but I believe it is part of a changing mindset and complements more direct activities such as writing to MPs and supporting environmental charities and campaign groups. If you are buying gifts for Christmas, here are a few sustainable options for the gardeners in your life…

1. Grow Your Own

Plug plants are ideal for busy gardeners who like to grow their own or those who would like to begin. They normally come in plastic modules that can’t be recycled, but this selection from Pippa Greenwood arrive wrapped in paper and are grown in Lincolnshire. 

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Grow Your Own with Pippa Greenwood (Image credit: Pippa Greenwood)

The selection includes your choice of 15 different vegetables and the recipient gets a weekly email from Pippa tailored specially to the plants in the pack with advice right through from soil preparation to feeding, watering, staking/supporting, pinching out, and pests and disease.

Top Tip – Avoid wrapping paper at Christmas and for birthdays, as it is usually only suitable for landfill. It often contains plastic, glitter, dyes and is covered in sticky tape. DEFRA estimates in the UK we buy enough of this single-use material each year to gift wrap the whole of Guernsey!

2. The Gift of Time

Time is a valuable gift – far more than money or stuff in so many ways. Give a friend or family member a voucher for help with the allotment in the New Year or help create a new growing space for children. Meals for the freezer made with ingredients from the garden are also a way to pass on a little love without costing the earth.

Gifts involving experiences are a favourite in our house. For a keen gardener there are fabulous courses like those at the Cambridge Botanic Garden (I’m particularly looking forward to the ‘Rewild Your Garden’ this year) and for new gardeners there are often short courses and sessions at local community gardens. As a new mum, I joined a course on fruit pruning at my local community garden many years ago and it gave me the confidence to start formal horticultural qualifications.

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Tending the apple cordons at my local community garden where I learnt to prune in my first horticultural session

Top Tip – Instead of wrapping paper use fabric bags or scrap material and ribbons which can be used for many years. The Japanese art of furoshiki is centuries old and is enjoying a resurgence in Japan now that the issues with plastic bags and wrapping are becoming clear.

3. Festive Fungi

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The oyster mushrooms we grew a couple of years ago

The Espresso Mushroom Kitchen Garden from The Espresso Mushroom Company is an edible gift grown on the biodegradable, recycled coffee grounds of one hundred espressos. Made by a family firm in Brighton, these sustainable oyster mushrooms are a fun way to get growing in the New Year. 

4. Share Seeds

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Yin Yang beans are objects of beauty

Reusing materials is the most sustainable way to create a gift and seeds are so easy to share. Choose favourite seeds – this year, for me, it would be the French Dwarf bean seeds ‘Yin Yang’. I’m passing some onto friends to grow next year and even a handful for a fellow gardener who makes beautiful jewellery so that she can create a necklace.

Top Tip – Ditch the sellotape and buy 100% recycled paper tape with a natural latex adhesive backing. 

5. Donate

Charity gifts allow someone less fortunate to benefit at Christmas. I like the gifts from Send A Cow where you can donate to a Mandala Garden, a Keyhole Garden or even an Allotment in a rural African community. I saw a keyhole garden at Gardeners’ World LIVE a few years ago and was impressed by the design which allows a family to grow enough food for three meals a day – even in the face of an extreme climate and poor soil.

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Little Havens Hospice garden (Credit: Greenfingers)

 Alternatively you could gift a donation to gardening charities like Greenfingers or the Gardening for Disabled Trust. Greenfingers creates beautiful gardens in children’s hospices across the UK. This is the interactive garden at Little Havens Hospice in Essex, designed by Matthew Eden and completed in 2014.

 

Gardening for Disabled

Gardening for Disabled Trust Logo

The Gardening for Disabled Trust provides small grants for people with all kinds of chronic disabilities – mental and physical – to help get them gardening again, from money for a ramp so that a gardener with MS can access her garden again, to grants to set up gardening clubs in care homes. This work is vital to enable all members of society to benefit from the therapeutic effects of gardening and interacting with the natural world.

6. Plastic-Free Pots

The majority of the 500 million pots we buy in the UK each year are incinerated or sent to landfill. Part of the solution to this astounding amount of plastic needs to be to reduce the amount of plants we produce and buy, alongside using more sustainable containers. Garden Ninja presents an interesting discussion of the issues with and alternatives to plastic containers on his blog this week. 

In addition to Garden Ninja’s recommendations, these attractive biodegradable containers available from Pippa Greenwood are made from sustainable bamboo and rice. They are sturdy enough to last several years and when they finally need to be replaced, they can be added to the compost heap where they will biodegrade in 6-12 months. They are available in 5in and 6in, and come in packs of 5.

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No plastic here (Credit: Pippa Greenwood)

Top Tip – Use newspaper to wrap presents – iron it first to set the ink, or buy a roll of recyclable brown paper and jazz up with stencilled designs or ribbons. Include a note explaining that the wrap is recyclable.

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My daughter has used brown paper with stencilled snowmen (biscuit cutters for stencils), a recycled tag from last year’s cards and reusable ribbon on this present for her brother.

7. Perennial Power

Perennials are a gift that by their very nature just keep on giving. I love growing perennial vegetables like rhubarb, sorrel, Daubenton’s kale, perennial onions, garlic chives and Jerusalem artichokes. My first port of call when I’m after a new perennial for the garden is Alison Tindale at The Backyard Larder. She grows an interesting range of perennial vegetables in peat-free compost from seeds and cuttings. The plants arrive in recycled shoe boxes using as near to 100% recycled or fully biodegradable materials as possible and she is always on hand to give advice.

 

Marsh mallow and red-veined sorrel – some of the perennial vegetables I’ve grown in the garden and allotment over the years

Please do pass on your top tips for wrapping and presents in the comments below – there’s still time to make changes before Christmas and I’m keen to learn as much as possible about how to make this festive season the most sustainable yet. 

This is not a sponsored post – all the products are ones I have either bought myself and been impressed with or have come recommended. The only product I’ve tried but didn’t initially buy myself are the oyster mushrooms which I was sent to trial a couple of years ago. They were such fun to grow and so delicious to eat that I’d definitely grow them again and have bought them for others since.

(Featured image credit: Pippa Greenwood)

Peat Bog Restoration: Protecting Ecosystems and Limiting Climate Change

Last month I wrote Why Nature Matters: In Our Gardens and Our Countryside exploring the inextricable links between gardens and the wider landscape  – with all the benefits and responsibilities this entails. As we become increasingly aware of the direct effect of our collective actions on the environment, complex issues such as the use of plastic, energy and peat in gardening are under scrutiny. We are beginning to accept that sustainable energy use and a circular economy are vital if we are to develop a world where our children can grow up to enjoy the pleasures, horticultural or otherwise, that we currently do.

One perennial issue in the garden is the use of peat. The arguments against peat use are much rehearsed and despite repeated undertakings by the government to phase out the use of peat in horticulture, there has been depressingly little progress in the past 20 years. The 2010 target to reduce peat use in composts by 90% was comprehensively missed and the same was true of the 2015 aim for all public procurement to be peat free by 2015. Unfortunately, the most recent target to stop the use of peat by 2020 by amateur gardeners looks set to go the same way.

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Degraded blanket bog

One argument which is often made against peat-free compost is the environmental impact of transporting materials like coir long distances (although much of our peat now comes from Ireland, Canada and the Baltic). Another problem has been quality – I’ve seen this in my own garden with green waste based peat-free compost which often contains a large quantity of woody material, isn’t suitable for either ericaceous plants or seed sowing, and contains fungus gnat eggs which then hatch and fill my house with clouds of irritating sciarid flies.

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Damage caused by peat extraction

To overcome these issues, a few years ago I sourced peat-free seed compost from Dalefoot Composts and was impressed by the results in comparison to other growing mediums. I’ve used their ericaeous, multipurpose, high strength and bulb composts, all with excellent results – some I’ve been sent to trial, but the majority I’ve bought myself over the years. One of the advantages is its relatively local nature (produced on the family-run farm in the Lake District) and the sustainability of the raw materials used – sheep’s wool and bracken – products which would otherwise have little or no value.

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Bracken cutting for compost

In addition, the sheep’s wool (used for the majority of the composts) retains moisture thus reducing the need to water and both materials have naturally high levels of nutrients so no additional feeding is necessary. I grew my tomatoes, chillies and cucumbers in the high strength compost this year and didn’t add any feed throughout the growing season. Yields increased and I noticed no difference in the size and health of plants or fruit.

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The Dalefoot compost range

Recently I read about the peat bog restoration work undertaken by founders of Dalefoot Composts, Professor Jane Barker and Simon Bland over the past 20 years and was keen to find out more. Jane is an ecologist and Simon a seventh-generation Cumbrian sheep farmer, so between them they have a 360-degree perspective on the damaging operation of peat extraction that has caused the loss of thousands of hectares of peat bog across the UK. Lowland peat bog in England currently covers only one tenth of its original 38,000 hectares due to agricultural drainage, forestry, landfill and peat extraction and many remaining bogs still have permissions to extract peat in the future which are extremely costly to buy out in order to protect the sites.

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Simon and Jane at work on the peat bog 

In 2002 the Government’s advisory body, English Nature, wrote in Peat Bog Conservation:

Today, one of the greatest threats to our peat bogs is from our continued use of peat in the garden. The gardening hobby that brings many of us a great deal of pleasure is doing so at the expense of our wildlife.

Wildlife is certainly one key issue – we’ve known for decades about the importance of peat bogs as a rich and diverse habitat for specially adapted plants and animals like sphagnum moss, butterwort, sundew, bog myrtle, the large heath butterfly, black darter dragonfly and wading birds such as dunlin, curlew and golden plover.

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Golden plover in breeding plumage (Image credit: Alan Garner)

More recently we’ve become increasingly aware of the fundamental role peatland environments play in storing carbon (around 3.2 billion tonnes are stored in peatland in the UK), reducing flooding and fires, and providing drinking water (70% of our water comes from peatland river catchments in the UK).¹ The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) also outlines the way ‘peat-dominated landscapes can help to underpin a sustainable rural community as well as providing key benefits to society (eg. water supplies, carbon storage and sequestration) as a whole.’ But they point out that these services can only be provided if ‘peat bog habitat is correctly identified, characterised and thereby managed in an appropriate way’.²

The definition of a bog is a wetland that receives its water exclusively from direct rainfall as opposed to fens where groundwater causes the water-logging. Raised bogs occur in the lowlands where the surface rises over time as a result of peat formation creating a dome shaped bog. In wetter upland conditions peat covers wide areas and is therefore described as blanket bog.

When discussing the restoration work with Jane, I was fascinated by her description of the diversity of peat bog habitat and the huge range of flora (particularly sphagnum moss) which colonize different areas. There are many different types of sphagnum moss – the genus Sphagnum contains around 380 different species – some grow in the water and some on the edge of the bog, but all species hold large quantities of water within their cells (16-26 times their own dry weight). The moss acts as a blanket over the bog which keeps the methane in and, ultimately, becomes peat-forming vegetation.

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Sundew in the sphagnum moss

The UK has disappointingly broad terms for these diverse habitats unlike many peat-rich western nations like Sweden, whose terminology records precisely the individual fen and bog systems. The IUCN states that consequent on this paucity of descriptive language:

most of the UK blanket bog landscape is described only in terms of rather broad vegetation types, which ultimately results in poor understanding of key site features and condition.

There has been much debate recently about the generalisation of terminology for natural landscapes and its effect on our perception of the environment in which we live. In his book on language and the environment, Landmarks, Robert MacFarlane discusses the specificity of reference we are losing as whole tranches of vernacular vocabulary for landscape disappear. He suggests:

It is not, on the whole, that natural phenomena and entities themselves are disappearing; rather that there are fewer people able to name them, and that once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen. Language deficit leads to attention deficit.³

Learning more about peat bogs has revealed a rich vocabulary which I relish – a world of watershed bogs, saddle bogs, spur bogs, saddleside bogs, basin fens, flushes, kettle holes, schwimgmoor raised bogs and blanket mires. One of the strengths of the restoration work which Jane, Simon and their team undertake is their knowledge and understanding of these varied micro-habitats and the different restoration treatments each requires.

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Pristine blanket bog

Peat bog restoration is a complex and time-consuming process primarily because mires (current peat-forming bogs) are ‘one of the most sensitive ecosystems on the planet due to their limited capacity for self repair.’4  Barker and Bland – Jane and Simon’s company – have developed methods using both specially designed machines whose footprint is less than 2 lbs per square inch (less than half the weight of a human’s) and working by hand, depending on the sensitivity of the site.

The first step is to restore the hydrology of the peat bog which will have been damaged by the drainage systems put in place so that peat extraction could take place. Inspired by techniques used in rice paddy fields, the team creates crescents along the drainline, blocking the drains and ditches with peat dams to raise the water table. The hags (the eroded cut edges of the peat) are then reprofiled to prevent further erosion and sphagnum moss is introduced to recolonise the area.

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Timber sediment traps slow the flow of water downstream and enable re-vegetation

The growth tips of sphagnum moss are sustainably harvested from specially selected donor sites – usually local pristine sites as similar to the ecosystem of the restoration site as possible – and within 36 hours these must be spread across the bog in a re-vegetation layer. Sphagnum moss gets its moisture and nutrients from the air: the shallow root system simply acts as an anchor and dies off forming peat when the plant is established, so unlike other plants, moss can be propagated by spreading the growing tips across the new site. In addition to harvesting moss from donor sites, Barker and Bland have built a sphagnum farm in Cumbria to grow different species of moss for their restoration work.

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Re-vegetated bare peat

Two of the most recent peatland restoration projects undertaken by Barker and Bland include Bolton Fell in Cumbria and large blanket bog areas in the Cairngorms. In 2014 the government bought out William Sinclair Holding PLC’s peat extraction rights at Bolton Fell, a 375 hectare site and one of the largest degraded raised peat bogs still capable of natural regeneration in England. Once restoration work started in 2016 the Fell was restored to a sphagnum moss habitat with the year, although it will be many decades before peat depth becomes substantial again beneath the sphagnum moss.

In July this year, Barker and Bland began restoration work on a 134 hectare upland blanket bog site in the Cairngorms as part of the Scottish government’s project to restore 40% of Scotland’s peatland (618,000 acres) by 2030. Over the past five months, six members of the team have been working on re-profiling thousands of metres of hags across the peat bog. This work will continue until Christmas through the first sprinklings of snow.  A further two teams are currently working in the Cairngorms tackling 25,000 metres of peat hags and 1.75 hectares of bare peat. 

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Timber sediment traps across the peat bog

Over the next few years we have difficult decisions to make about how we use our land – either we learn to manage it in sustainable ways or we use up the resources in the short-term and pay for it in the future. Peat bog restoration is only the beginning of a regeneration process that will take many decades to complete, but restoring and managing our peat bogs is a vital step if we want to benefit from the practical services these environments offer and preserve the rich ecosystems which they support.

¹ UK Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands, IUCN
² Peat Bog Ecosystems: Key Definitions, IUCN
³ Robert MacFarlane, Landmarks, p. 24
4 Natural England, A review of techniques for monitoring the success of peatland restoration, quoted from (Maltby, 1997)

Image credits: Barker and Bland unless otherwise stated

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Prince and Pedlar: Forgotten Fruit

Ripening in the garden this afternoon are the last of the ‘White Marseille’ figs (Ficus carica); the first, and therefore somewhat miraculous, harvest for 14 years. On either side of the fig are the fruiting canes of the pink, seedless ‘Reliance’ grape (Vitis vinifera) and in the front garden, a handful of Chilean guava (Ugni molinae) berries that survived the drought earlier in the year are developing their burgundy shine. The honeyberries (Lonicera caerulea) and pinkberries (actually a pink blueberry, Vaccinium ‘Pink Lemonade’) also fruited for the first time this year and there were a even couple of mulberries  on the juvenile ‘Charlotte Russe’ (developed from Morus rotundiloba), although I have to say I’m still unconvinced about their quality in terms of flavour.

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When I saw these figs I could hardly believe they were real

We had a fair apple harvest from our espalier ‘James Grieve’ and ‘Egremont Russet’, although ‘Bountiful’ and ‘Fiesta’ sulked all spring and produced not one blossom. The plum (Prunus domestica ‘Opal’) had a successful year and the greengage (Prunus domestica subsp. italica ‘Cambridge Gage’) also produced a good harvest, although due to poor timing on our part we were away when the fruit ripened and on our return all that remained were a series of wasps’ bottoms poking provocatively out of each syrupy gage.

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After 13 quinces last year, this haul was an utter delight

Quantity of Quince

But the delight of the year has been the success of our appealingly dishevelled quince tree (Cydonia oblonga), the aptly named ‘Meeches Prolific’. A couple of weeks ago, at five years old, it delighted us all with a harvest of around 100-150 small fruits, picked by my husband and daughter, each quince carefully handed down from the tree and placed reverently in a bucket which it soon became clear was far too small for the seemingly limitless supply hidden beneath the foliage. The quince harvest alone made my year in the garden complete. My only regret, fruit-wise, is the lack of space for that king of trees – the medlar.

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The medlars in the community garden are cropping well this autumn

Meeting Medlars

I first discovered medlars when I moved down to Hertfordshire in 2003. Until that moment my fruit aspirations went no further than childhood memories of my dad’s ‘Laxton’s Superb’ apple trees, bilberries foraged on the Welsh mountains and the loganberry – a fruit that attained an almost mythic status in my memory as the sweetest food on earth when eaten warm from Aunty Florence’s garden, the berries almost as big as my mouth. But I’d never encountered anything like the medlar. Here was a fruit that offered neither immediate candied delight, nor vibrant hues; a fruit whose dun, leathery skin seemed a deliberate indication of its disinclination to be eaten. I was intrigued.

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A most unassuming fruit

The tree stood in the corner of my friends’ new garden – a modest, rather overgrown patch with unexpected treasures lurking at the back of each brimming border. Their area has a rich horticultural history: situated on the borders of a medieval park dating from before 1380, then developed into a town pleasure garden in the 18th century. With the cottages and gardens themselves dating back to 1820s and 30s, theirs was a historically interesting garden with dynamic borders full of flowers and fruit – redcurrants, damsons, gooseberries, blackberries, quince, raspberries, rosemary, campanula, hollyhocks and clematis.

The garden in winter and with spring blossom (Image credit: Lindsay Cook)

I was attracted to the story behind this garden and the questions behind the design – who had planted with this balanced purpose of beauty and productivity – and what had the garden meant to them? Why had they chosen the majestic medlar as the cornerstone of the garden and what did they do with the fruits? The garden and its medlar tree ignited my interest in unconventional fruits and the stories that they can tell. We harvested the medlars in the garden for several years, bletting the fruits, watching the disintegration of the skins as the not-quite rotting took place and savouring the smoky date-apple flavours of the jellies and cheeses that we produced using methods that have been around for hundreds of years.

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Beautiful, yet the undignified butt of many an ancient joke

Ancient Fruit

Both quinces and medlars were once popular fruit in the UK. In 1629 John Parkinson, Royal Botanist to Charles I, lists three varieties of medlars and six of quince in his study of plant cultivation, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris. Gervase Markham (1568-1637) has advice for both ‘husbandmen’ and ‘housewives’ regarding storing and cooking these fruit. Husbandmen should ‘gather [medlars] about the midst of October after such time as the frost hath nipt and bitten them’ and lay them in ‘thicke woollen cloathe, and about the cloathes good store of hay, & someother waight of boards’ to heat them and bring them to a ‘perfect rottenesse.’ Quinces, on the other hand, should be stored away from other fruit ‘because their sent is so strong and piercing, that it will enter into any fruit, and cleane take away his naturall rellish’.

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One of the joys of growing quinces is their pale, cupped blossom in mid spring

In The Well-Kept Kitchen, as well as advising housewives in matter of religion, temperance, dress sense and their knowledge of gardening, Markham also includes instruction in the art of  making quince conserve, preserve, cake, paste and marmalade. 200 years later Eliza Acton continues the tradition with her recipes for quince juice, custard, jellies and marmalade, whilst Isabella Beeton’s 1860s recipes for medlar jelly and mebrillo (quince cheese) are the ones we use in our kitchen today.

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Quince cheese – a special autumn treat

Soup Tales

Many years ago at university I bought Soup & Beyond by the New Covent Garden Soup Company – an exploratory cookery book for which we were required to ditch our student staples of chicken, pasta and cheese, and explore hitherto unknown ingredients like dill, lovage, buckwheat and buttermilk. One of the recipes for prince and pedlar soup looked intriguing, but I was at a loss to source the strange fruits so as I worked my way through the other recipes the prince and the pedlar remained uncooked, forgotten for the last twenty years. Yesterday, with huge piles of quince fragrantly ripening in boxes in the kitchen I remembered the old recipe and unearthed the soup book. 

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The downy coating on an unripe quince disappears as it ripens

Although we have a few foraged medlars they haven’t yet completely bletted, so this time I’ve substituted one of our Egremont Russet apples as suggested in the recipe:

Ingredients

50g (2oz) butter

575g (11b 5oz) quince (approx 3), peeled, cored and roughly chopped

1 russet apple, peeled, cored and roughly chopped (or bletted medlar – I’d use 3/4 and just add the flesh to the soup mix)

1 teaspoon tumeric

1.25 litres chicken stock

3 tablespoons single cream

2 egg yolks

salt and freshly ground pepper

Method

Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the quince, medlar and tumeric. Cook over a low heat for 10 minutes. Add the stock, bring to the boil and then turn down the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Take off the heat and leave to cool.

Process in a liquidiser until smooth, then return to the pan. Beat the cream and egg yolks together, add a ladle full of soup to this mixture then pour into the soup. Cook gently over a low heat until the mixture thickens, stirring continuously. Season to taste.

From New Covent Garden Soup Company’s Soup & Beyond (1999)

The Taste of History

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Prince and Pedlar Soup finally in the flesh

Supper is now served: a warm yellow soup with a silky texture and a mellow sweet and sour flavour that reminds me of parsnip and orange. I’ve made cheese bread, so we’re all sorted for the evening. Whether your taste is for soups, jellies, poached fruit, marmalade or membrillo, quinces and medlars have so much potential and they deserve to be remembered.

 

What are your favourite autumn fruit recipes? Do you have any special quince and medlar concoctions? If so, please leave me a comment so that I can try them too. Thank you.

 

Why Nature Matters: In Our Gardens and Our Countryside

in Just-   

spring    when the world is mud-

luscious…                                                                                                                                     

when the world is puddle-wonderful

So wrote the idiosyncratic American poet e.e. cummings in Chansons Innocentes: I, expressing a child’s wide-eyed wonderment and joy upon encountering puddles in early spring. We are all born with this sense of awe but as we grow towards adulthood a lack of exposure to the wonder and intriguing ‘otherness’ of the natural world can blunt this fascination and ultimately extinguish it. 

Nature in the Garden 

Last year, when I asked readers why we love to garden, many of the responses linked gardening with an innate connection to nature and the landscape, often first experienced as a child. Joanne explained that when she was young:

I felt this connection, an enjoyment, a love and nurturing feeling and my passion for plants, flowers and soil was born…

and another gardener, whose love for growing began in 1938 when she first entered ‘the wondrous kingdom of the allotment’, wrote:

[to] sit and watch our own small wildlife going about their daily lives is as good as it gets.

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Kids need access to the natural world in gardens and the countryside. Image credit: Plantlife/Kim Newman

Whether it’s the ability of my tithonia to produce its flaming blooms at the height of my daughter’s head within a year from sowing the claw-shaped seeds or the subterranean mycorrhizal networks connecting the plants in our borders, it’s this fascination with the power and precision of nature that draws many of us into a lifelong relationship with our gardens.

Nature in the Wider Landscape

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So much has changed since I was a kid – the 1970s are my baseline – but the decline in habitat and species began far earlier…

I’ve been captivated by plants, their habitats and the ecosystems which they support, for as long as I can remember, fostered by a childhood spent in red wellies (if the family album is to be believed) helping my dad dig in our vegetable patch, foraging in the Welsh countryside with my grandparents and birdwatching as a member of the Young Ornithologists Club. Since the 1970s and 80s – the decades of my childhood – there has been a dramatic reduction of natural habitat in the UK and an equally rapid decline in populations of a whole range of species, including farmland birds, hedgehogs and insects. In addition, shifting baseline syndrome adjusts our collective memory as each generation believes that their baseline is the original ‘normal’.

Even with the statistics from the 2016 State of Nature Report readily available, with the evidence that in terms of biodiversity we are ‘among the most nature-depleted countries in the world’¹, we continue to sanction the destruction of natural habitat referring to passive ‘losses’ of species like the apple bumblebee, the frosted yellow moth, the Kentish plover and the wryneck, instead of extinctions brought about by human action. As Sir David Attenborough states in the introduction to the State of Nature Report:

Our wonderful nature is in serious trouble and it needs our help
as never before.

For this reason, I joined the People’s Walk for Wildlife last weekend: a peaceful family event attended by around 10,000 people. We walked from Hyde Park to Downing Street to express our shared love of nature and highlight the catastrophic consequences of continuing to destroy our ecosystems and wildlife. Chris Packham and six young conservationists handed A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife to the government. This draft manifesto is a collection of short essays and practical steps written by 18 experts, which if implemented today would make a huge difference for wildlife tomorrow.

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Ten thousand campaigners walked together through London. The BBC and ITV failed to cover the event. Image credit: Luke Dray/Woodland Trust

A Part of Nature, Not Apart From It

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Poster created by RHS Gold Medal winning landscape architect Adam White

Within our private gardens, enclosed by boundary hedges, fences and walls, it’s easy to believe we exist apart from the surrounding countryside, but in reality each garden is a part of the whole landscape – the way we treat the plants, insects, birds, animals, water and soil in our gardens affects what happens beyond our boundaries, on a local and national level and, conversely, changes in the countryside directly affect our gardens.

On a practical  level, our gardens need access to healthy populations of beneficial insects – bees, butterflies, moths, and even wasps to pollinate flowers, creating seeds for subsequent years and fruits to harvest; we need ladybirds, toads and birds to act as pest control in place of the chemicals that simply exacerbate the ecosystem problems.  At a deeper level, we need nature in our lives to enable us relax, to feel part of a seasonal, more natural rhythm of life, to inspire, give solace and to improve our general mental health. Fortunately, the symbiotic nature of the relationship between our gardens and the wider landscape means that any practical steps we take to improve the natural health of our gardens can have far reaching consequences…

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This waxwing was such an inspirational sight and a wonderful reminder that my garden is part of the local landscape. Image credit: Alan Garner

Practical Steps

With over 400,000 hectares² of garden habitat across the UK, gardeners are in a position to make a real difference. Here are a few ideas arising from A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife

1. Rewild Our Gardens

We’re unlikely to be in a position to reintroduce beavers or longhorn cattle as Isabella Tree and her husband, Charlie Burrell, have on the Knepp Estate (as Isabella recounts in her ground-breaking book Wilding), but we can all make a space for the wild in our gardens. We know that introducing ponds, long grass, log piles, trees and hedges, and leaving stems and seedheads over winter in our gardens creates food and habitats for a wide range of animals. Even in a small garden, containers with plants for pollinators (single flowers, rather than doubles) and a bird feeder can bring in wildlife from the local area.

This August, at the Great British Birdfair, I met the Butterfly Brothers. Their award-winning wildlife garden designs focus on attracting butterflies to the garden, but they also spoke passionately about the dragonflies, moths and birds which visit the gardens. Jim and Joel have a YouTube channel with practical ideas for encouraging wildlife into the garden and also more information on British butterflies like the ringlet and the chequered skipper. And even if you live somewhere where ringlets are unlikely to visit your garden (we’ve had whites including green-veined, gatekeeper, peacock, red admiral and small tortoiseshell, but never a ringlet), adding a bird box for tits or house sparrows or a hole at the bottom of the fence to give hedgehogs a passageway, makes every garden a little wilder.

For more information, George Monbiot’s proposals regarding rewilding on a wider scale are available on page 33 of  A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife.

2. Garden Organically

Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at Sussex University, bee expert and author of a number of books, including A Sting in the Tail, has written the proposals addressing pesticide use. Whilst these proposals are primarily aimed at agricultural use, there is still the issue of pesticide use in gardens and by commercial growers.

The RHS advice to its members and to ‘millions of other gardeners’ is ‘to avoid using pesticides’. Organic methods help create a sustainable environment for beneficial wildlife like blue tits and ladybirds, which act as natural pest control. Using physical barriers and biological controls is often extremely effective, and if I have holes in some of my hosta leaves when the slugs breach the copper tape barriers, at least I know my plants are part of a natural cycle and nothing I’ve put on the garden will have harmed the toads, hedgehogs and birds that live alongside us.

The manifesto pesticide proposals can be found on page 22 of A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife

3. Embrace your Growing Space

Garden writer, Kate Bradbury has written the proposals for urban spaces in A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife. She begins by discussing the RHS report which found that 24% of front gardens had been lost to paving, concrete or gravel by 2016, as compared to only 8% in 2005. The report suggests that by 2016 more than 4.5 million of Britain’s front gardens were completely paved, and 7.2 million mostly paved. As these spaces disappear, as back gardens are given over to offices, fake grass, decking and low-maintenance paving, and as more gardens become fenced, Kate points out that wild creatures such as amphibians and hedgehogs are excluded from our gardens. Without access through gardens and with the added dangers of roads, it is difficult for many animals to travel through their territories. By making our gardens accessible, we can help to create wildlife corridors and improve the chances of these animals.

If car parking or paving is necessary in front or back gardens it can be kept to a minimum and integrated with planting spaces. The RHS has some excellent advice on how to green your grey front garden to create a practical and wildlife-friendly space. Kate’s other proposals can be found on page 41 of A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife.

4. Support Wildlife Charities

Charities like Butterfly Conservation, Bat Conservation Trust, Plantlife, The Wildlife Trusts, The RSPB, The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, The Woodland Trust and many more organisations, work tirelessly to conserve our wildlife and the habitats upon which they rely. Supporting their work helps to protect plants and animals which then become an important part of garden life.

I joined Plantlife earlier this year when I read that the RHS (of which I’m also a member) has around 500,000 members whilst Plantlife, a charity working to save threatened flowers, plants and fungi, has only 11,000. I love my garden and believe that growing ornamental and edible plants is one of the great joys of life, but my garden is part of a wider landscape – a landscape I treasure and want to help conserve.

References

¹ Introduction to The State of Nature Report, 2016

² For more on garden statistics, Gardens as a Resource for Wildlife by Ken Thompson and Steve is an interesting read.

 

 

I believe that the only way to create a truly balanced garden is to put nature at the heart of it, and then it lives.

Sowing the Seeds of Tomorrow

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The offending articles

When my godson was three his favourite foods were apples and peas: a predilection that I naively assumed was the norm for small children. As my son started on solid foods I offered him fruit and vegetables with enthusiastic expectations, only to find he cried when peas appeared on his plate and the concept of eating apple brought on sulking and tantrums.

Perplexed, I persevered – we sowed seeds together, pricked out tomato seedlings, watched apples swell and picked as many colourful crops as we could – yellow ‘Allgold’ raspberries, ‘Purple Haze’ carrots, ‘Pinkberry’ blueberries, deep red ‘Boltardy’ beetroot, striped ‘Green Tiger’ tomatoes and purple-podded ‘Blauwschokker’ peas.

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Vivid colours motivate children to try new foods…

Gradually he started trying a wider range of fruit and vegetables – it’s hard not to get excited about ripening tomatoes when you can remember pushing the seeds into moist compost with your fingers. That was over 5 years ago, and this week my daughter (6) decided she likes our homegrown beetroot and my son (now 9) ate one of our James Grieve apples whole – an unimaginable feat just a year ago. 

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First steps – sowing seeds…

We have all benefited from growing food as a family. Each spring we choose our crops for the next growing season and from that moment, the anticipation begins. This February we made our choices and were soon surrounded by a colourful collection of seed packets from the Fun To Grow range, courtesy of Suttons Seeds. We began with Table Top Tomato, sowing the seeds almost immediately, then started off the delightfully alliterative Crocodile Cucumber, Mini Muncher Peas, spherical Bowling Carrots and the non-edible but nonetheless exciting Dancing Plant and Caterpillar Plant a few weeks later.

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Pleased with the new arrivals

Recycling has been a family priority this year, so we began by making our own seed pots out of old newspaper. It’s a fun job and the kids quickly got the hang of wrapping the paper strips at just the right tension so they would slide off easily once the bottoms had been firmly secured.

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First job: roll the pot sides

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Pressing down the base firmly ensures the compost won’t escape later

Then we filled our pots with compost and read the seed packet instructions – learning about the varying depths, light conditions and germination temperatures that different seeds require. 

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Writing labels

Once the pots were labelled, we counted the days until germination and slowly but surely tiny shoots and seed leaves began to appear. The appearance of new growth, that magical emergence, fills cold spring days with joy for adult gardeners – so what a wonderful experience for young children for whom the world is naturally filled with enchantment. 

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Crocodile cucumber buckets

In late spring we planted the Crocodile Cucumbers into a couple of broken buckets, the Table Top Tomatoes went in the greenhouse with the Caterpillar Plants, and the Mini Muncher Peas and Bowling Carrots began developing in the vegetable beds.

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Table Top Tomatoes were a sweet hit with the kids

We ate peas fresh from the pod throughout June and the tomatoes are still being picked and ripening in the greenhouse. The cucumbers have produced so many fruit that we’ve had enough for tzatziki – another first for the kids, declared ‘delicious’ and requested as a regular dip with pitta and olives. 

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Tasty Mini Muncher Peas are so low growing that they need no staking and are easily accessible for small people

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These ‘Boltardy’ beets were harvested by the kids for Beetroot and Chocolate cupcakes

The Caterpillar Plants have bloomed all summer in the greenhouse – tiny yellow flowers which have turned into the eponymous caterpillars curled back on their stems, providing seeds for sowing next year. The Sensitive Plants didn’t germinate, so no scientific experiments to test whether the foliage responds to our touch this year. But it’s good that the kids experience growing failures as well as successes – one of the realities of working with nature.

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These delicate, furry caterpillars delighted the kids

Growing our own crops has, without doubt, had a positive effect on the way my kids approach what’s on their plates. But learning about how plants grow, how they provide for us and for wildlife, goes deeper than this. Such experiences help to form lifelong relationships with nature and develop an understanding of its fundamental role in our lives – providing us with enjoyment, wonder and the food upon which we rely.

Tulip Time…

I can’t believe it’s already time to decide which bulbs to grow next spring. It’s taken a while, but I’ve finally managed to whittle the current list down to ten – based on the most reliable, perennial and beautiful varieties we’ve grown in the past 15 years…

1. ‘Ballerina’

One of my favourite tulips with its perennial nature, such a feisty colour and the way its shape and hue changes as it matures. Initially almost red, it matures to a bright orange with red stripes down the middle of each petal. It looks stunning on its own, for example as an edging plant in these images taken at Capel Manor gardens…

It thrives in my gravel garden despite clay soil, although I do plant all of my tulips with a handful of gravel beneath each bulb. I combine ‘Ballerina’ with ‘Queen of Night’ in the front gravel garden. In the back flowerbed it blooms alongside ‘Purple Prince’, ‘Queen of Night’ and blue forget-me-nots and never fails to lift my spirits when I see it emerging in the spring.

The versatile ‘Ballerina’ thrives in the back garden, front garden and in pots

2. ‘Swan Wings’

Generally I favour simple shapes and colours with my tulips, but I photographed ‘Swan Wings’ years ago at RHS Wisley and have always wanted to grow it. Maybe this year’s the year…

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3. ‘Queen of Night’

I love deep purple/black flowers and foliage; I use them in my garden and my work as often as I can. I’ve been growing ‘Queen of Night’ for years and find it reliably perennial. It combines well with lighter purple and orange tulips, but also looks stunning with white or off-white bedding plants. It works well combined with wallflower ‘Ivory White’.

4. ‘Mistress Mystic’

Combining style and subtlety, ‘Mistress Mystic’ has a vintage allure and charm all of her own. We grew this in the allotment last year; it lasted well in arrangements and worked beautifully with other soft white, green and pink tulips.

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‘Mistress Mystic’ is one of the most elegant tulips

5. ‘Prinses Irene’

Possibly one of the most beautiful tulips we’ve ever grown, ‘Prinses Irene’ is a subtle, understated winner. They thrived in pots and we’ve also been impressed by  ‘National Velvet’ which we grow alongside and which has a superb colour and sheen.

‘Prinses Irene’ and ‘National Velvet’

6. ‘Purissima’

Another favourite is ‘Purissima’ with its white/cream flowers which open up to dinner-plate size in the sun. It is a reliably perennial tulip and has lasted several years in big pots in the garden.

In pots with wild strawberries at the back and with mixed muscari at the front

7. ‘Shirley’

‘Shirley’ was the only tulip in the first garden I owned, although I didn’t know its name at the time. I loved its soft markings and photographed it in wonder. I think it’s about time I grew it again…

‘Shirley’ in my first ever garden

It looks great in a pot (with ‘Jackpot’) or in borders (with ‘Paul Scherer’ at the back)

8. ‘Purple Prince’

We grew ‘Purple Prince’ a few years ago to create a purple accent against the orange of ‘Ballerina’ and dark purple of ‘Queen of Night’, then decided we preferred the orange and dark purple on their own and marked the ‘Purple Prince’ tulips so we could remove the bulbs after flowering. Two years on they are still appearing en masse in the flowerbed so we’ve decided they can stay, especially when this serendipitous combination appeared as ‘Purple Prince’ emerged in front of the foliage of the Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’. 

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9. ‘Zurel’

When we moved into my current house 6 years ago there was a purple and white rembrandt tulip in a border we had to remove to make room for the apple espaliers. We replaced it the next year with ‘Zurel’ – a striking, upbeat tulip. Unfortunately the bulbs didn’t reappear – probably because we overwintered the pineapple sage (which was sharing the same pot) in the greenhouse and they dried out. The area at the end of the vegetable beds hasn’t looked the same and we definitely need to get our stripes back.

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 10. ‘Slawa’

For maximum impact in the garden and in a vase, ‘Slawa’ doesn’t disappoint. It grew well in the allotment cutting patch and its rich two-toned flowers added a bit of spice to all my spring arrangements.

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More tulip images from my albums which have me reaching for the catalogues…

Which tulips can’t you be without and which new ones have bewitched you? Leave me a comment so I can make my wish list even longer  😉

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Book Review: Dahlias by Naomi Slade and Georgianna Lane

Published earlier this month, Dahlias: Beautiful Varieties for Home and Garden is a captivating celebration of the dahlia combining Georgianna Lane’s sublime photography of single cultivars and mixed arrangements with Naomi Slade’s lyrical and engaging text. I’ve been looking forward to reading Dahlias since May, when Naomi mentioned the new book she’d been writing. Having been kindly sent a review copy a couple of weeks ago, the first half of August has been filled dahlia joy – watching the first flowers emerging in the garden and discovering new cultivars in the book.

Such variety of colour and form

The History and Botany section offers a fascinating insight into the Mexican origins of our garden dahlias and the history of dahlia breeding and classification. Recently, I’ve become interested in the physical manifestation of colour and the language used to describe it, so I particularly enjoyed the section on ‘Colour Magic’ where Naomi explores the relationship between optics, biological systems and our perception of colour. If you need help to distinguish your Balls from your Pompoms or to differentiate between a Collerette and a Waterlily dahlia, then Naomi’s explanation of dahlia classification is a good place to start.

Pompom and Ball dahlias are particular favourites of mine

Once I began reading about individual varieties, the temptation to compile a list longer than the depth of my pockets was overwhelming. Naomi explores different dahlia styles from ‘Romantic’, through ‘Fabulous and Funky’ and ‘Dramatic and Daring’ to ‘Classic and Elegant’ and it’s easy to see why there’s a dahlia for every border, container and flower arrangement. Details on each variety include height, spread, flower size, its suitability as a cut flower and practical advice about which other plants and colours make good combinations. There’s even a list of alternative varieties in case you can’t get a particular dahlia or if you wish to explore flowers with similar forms or colours.

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Cafe au Lait is one of the best for soft arrangements

It’s almost impossible to pick favourites as Geogianna’s images capture the essence of each flower so beautifully and Naomi offers compelling reasons to grow each variety – even those which you wouldn’t normally choose. I might have considered Dahlia ‘Pooh’ a tad on the garish side with its ‘dark orange petals dipped in custard at the tips, and a handsome golden ruff in the centre’, but the three pages of images of ‘Pooh’ in a garden setting alongside the information that it has a RHS Award of Garden Merit and is a prolific flowerer with blooms that are ideal for cutting, had me reaching for the pen to add it to the list.

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Cricket enjoying my blazing Dahlia ‘Firepot’

I was pleased to encounter old favourites like the refined ‘Twyning’s After Eight’, the cheerful Happy Single series and the sultry depths of ‘Thomas A. Edison’ and I fell for some new varieties too. ‘Jomanda’ is a delicate ball dahlia with petals that ‘wax and wane in size’ washed with sunset tones. It has an Award of Garden Merit and is a good cut flower. ‘Neon Splendour’ attracted my eye with its flamboyant decorative form and neon orange, apricot and gold petals. Described as ‘cheeky, riotous and slightly decadent’, I like the advice to ‘grow it with plants that are equally splendiferous – the smaller sunflowers, delphiniums, Amaranthus caudatus or Leycesteria formosa.‘ This type of pragmatic knowledge about how the plant performs in a real garden setting and as a cut flower helps to set each dahlia in context and, in this case, demonstrates the practical potential of showy ‘Neon Splendour’. 

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‘Happy Single Date’ combines compact growth with deep chocolate maroon foliage

The dahlia at the top of my unfeasibly long list by the time I’d reluctantly reached the last page was the fresh, understated ‘Eveline’. The patterning on this small Decorative dahlia is exquisite and the mauve eye is surrounded by petals of the purest white. Naomi introduces ‘Eveline’ as ‘romantic and ethereal, this lavender-flushed bloom recalls milky dawn mists over a late summer meadow.’ It’s the combination of these evocative descriptions with the clarity and detail of the photographs that makes each new variety irresistible. Once you’ve read Dahlias there’s no return – it’s a one-way ticket to a lifelong obsession.

You can buy Dahlias here

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Family Fun: The Great British Wildflower Hunt

In 2012, Oxford University Press removed around 50 nature words from the new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, replacing them with technological terms such as ‘chatroom’, ‘attachment’ and ‘broadband’. As Robert MacFarlane writes in his extraordinary celebration of the language of landscape and natural life, Landmarks, ‘for blackberry, read BlackBerry‘. These substitutions reflect changing times, with three-quarters of children now spending less time in the natural environment than prison inmates. The OJD word lists are taken from data compiled from children across the country and highlight the way experiences in nature are disappearing from many young lives. Without the vocabulary to describe a bluebell or wren, how can we expect the next generation to recognise, value and conserve the natural world for the future?

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Learning about wildflowers in a Wiltshire meadow, photo credit (c): James King

One way to engage kids with the natural world over the summer holidays is to take part in campaigns such as Plantlife’s Great British Wildflower Hunt. It’s always fun to search for species to tick off – I remember many happy hours with the I-Spy books as a child – and it’s a way for adults and children to work together, sharing experiences and knowledge. When adults communicate their passion for nature to children some of the magic inevitably rubs off. I was reminded of the potency of inspiration last autumn when I asked the question ‘What began your love of gardening?’ Of the 200 or more responses, almost all began with tales of a grandparent, parent or family friend who took the time to share their love for the gardening and natural world.

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Dandelion contemplation, photo credit: Plantlife Kim Newman

Plantlife outlines two compelling reasons why we should spend more time on our hands and knees exploring the world of wildflowers close up. Firstly, wildflowers are beautiful. Yesterday, while walking in a local nature reserve with my dad, we spotted some hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica). It’s a tall but modest plant in the mint family, but on closer inspection the tiny hooded flowers, circling the stem in whorls, have intricate white patterning on the deep red-purple lower lips which reminded me of the elaborate markings on orchid labella.

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Children love to explore nature closely, photo credit: Plantlife Kim Newman

Secondly, Plantlife reminds us of the undeniable, but often overlooked fact that ‘wildflowers are vital to our planet. So much depends on them – bees, butterflies and us.’ As many of us are aware, in the past century we have lost 97% of our wildflower meadows, species-rich grasslands which were 6,000 years in the making. As these habitats disappear, they take with them populations of wildflowers like bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) and bee orchids (Ophrys apifera), and native grasses like sheep’s fescue (Festuca ovina) and soft brome (Bromus hordeaceus). 

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Common bird’s-foot trefoil, photo credit: (c) Plantlife Trevor Dines

Getting involved in the Great British Wildflower Hunt is easy. You can choose to search in a town or city, or in the countryside – there are different resources for each location. The Wildflower Hunt materials include activities for families and there are spotter sheets to download. Results can be submitted online and even if you don’t manage to find any wildflowers on your hunt, it doesn’t matter. All data is valuable to build a picture of the state of wildflower populations in the UK.

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Common Knapweed, photo credit: (c) Plantlife Trevor Dines

Last year, from the Channel Islands to the Orkney Islands, more than 15,200 wild flowers were spotted by the British public. 15% of participants started out saying they couldn’t name any wildflowers and were ‘unsure’ of their identification abilities, but they completed the hunt which was a fantastic achievement.  At the other end of the scale, thirteen hunters scored a full house, finding all the species on their spotter sheets and scoring the maximum 37 points.

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Celandines in Camarthan, photo credit: (c) Trevor Dines

So do something special this summer and take a walk on the wildflower side. I’m looking forward to getting out and about, exploring new sites on our holidays and adding our records to Plantlife’s database. Hopefully our sightings will be a small step along the route to conserving our native flora and I’m sure we’ll have a lot of fun along the way.

Girl and boy bluebells Plantlife/Kim Newman (2)

Fun in the bluebells woods, photo credit: Plantlife Kim Newman

Featured image photo credit: Nicola Acketts

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