Of Swings And Daisies

What is a garden? An ever-changing expanse of blue, lightness, the rush of air, freedom and energy. Swinging aloft, earthly concerns forgotten in the airborn joy of movement. In childhood days I thought little of seasonal changes, of buying plants or raising vegetables from seed, of compost, plant labels and copper tape as hosta protection from the ninja slug brigade whose mucilaginous forays even surmount the uppermost greenhouse shelving. There was no thought of gardens as outdoor rooms for entertaining, no knowledge of how to design herb wheels or construct fruit cages as I picked fresh peas, discarding any maggoty pods as I went. Behind the vegetable beds a shed, no pots or tools committed to memory, only scratched legs from wading through a sea of raspberry canes to emerge, variously reddened at the shed door with its rain-softened label marking the secret meeting place of myself, my brother and our friends.

The garden was a place of physical intensity and a portal to other realms – the immeasurable expanse of sky or the miniature world beneath my feet. Hours spent stretched on the grass amidst the daisies, reading, eating, revising and playing with the cat, grass blades tickling my feet, the whole world buzzing and vibrating with insect turmoil. Flower borders mattered little, but the mesembryanthemums fringing the beds, opening and closing their candy petals marked the passing of summer days in a wash of colour.

These peripheral details seem outside my adult experience of the garden as I hurry from shed to greenhouse, from washing line to flower border proceeding along task-oriented lines. Or as I view the garden from an upstairs window whilst watering seedlings, writing articles on how to extend the strawberry season and when to plant new potatoes. From my elevated vantage point I can appreciate the developing maturity of the fruit trees, the seasonal highlights of bulbs, blossom or annual flowers, but distance and haste detract from my physical relationship with the garden. 

I don’t have time to swing with the kids for as long as I’d like, watching the sky with the childlike fascination which contemplating the immeasurable so easily engenders, but I would do well to remember my childhood experience of a garden and pause for a while in wonder. Just to be, in a garden, at times should be enough.

Mesembryanthemum

January Delights: Inside and Out

January can be a hard month to love. A cold, dark, post-celebratory descent where the first hint of spring feels far too far away. But in times of scarcity even the smallest signs of life punctuate the gloom, creating little moments of January delight. Over the past couple of weeks, writing, design work and an inflamed hip have kept me mostly inside. But from my work space (the kitchen table) I can see the redwings eating next door’s cotoneaster berries and there’s just the merest hint of acid yellow – could it be the primroses in the lawn starting to emerge?

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Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’

My Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’ and ‘Jingle Bells’ are flowering and I’m pleased I planted them near enough to the window to be able to see the swaying bells – some creamy white, the others cream above and splotched with purple beneath. Flocks of long-tailed tits have been passing through, voleries of cheerful pompoms on sticks, bouncing in the birch canopy outside my daughter’s bedroom. Today the wren was watching me quizzically from the fence, head on one side, perhaps wondering why I wasn’t out working in the garden.

 

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Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’

The buds on the Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ are beginning to break and as it’s in a pot I’ve brought it right up close to the window – flowers in January are to be treasured. Not to be outdone by the viburnum, my witch hazels (Hamamellis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ and ‘Diane’) have been flowering for several weeks with their vibrant copper and red curled petals like delicately zested orange peel, their warmth defrosting any sombre winter moods.

 

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January chilli harvest

But the natural world isn’t deterred by a mere sheet of glass – it seeps into the house and surrounds us, even in the coldest months. In our bedrooms, chillies, lemongrass, physalis, coffee, tea, Vietnamese coriander, cucamelon and yacon are all overwintering. So many chillies have ripened this winter that we’ve been making chilli jam – in January. Our oyster mushrooms have proved their worth by growing a second crop. We made them into a spicy broth with frozen stock and meat from our Christmas turkey and, of course, a couple of chillies for good measure.

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Long-tailed tits – always a cheerful sight

We’ve been planting indoor bulbs to bring us colour and fragrance before the end of winter and in the propagator, chilli and sweet pea seeds are slowly waking up. Whether I look outwards or inwards, I can feel life stirring. Winter, darkness and even thundersnow might be upon us, but bowls of warming broth, trays and propagators full of plants in waiting and the ebullient winter flowers and birds outside my window provide a series of January delights to help us hang on until spring.

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Planning a Cutting Patch: Annual Choices

The winter garden is waiting, the new raised beds watching me through the windows, daring me to step out into the frost, the drizzle, the sunshine to tackle a host of gardening jobs. Instead I’ve been cooking, eating, playing, crafting, walking, cycling and enjoying this unusually long period of family time together. But this afternoon I snatched a quick break to curl up with a notepad, some new seed catalogues and my seed packets to plan the annual layer for the new cutting patch.

Bulb Base Layer

Since I last wrote about the cutting patch (in Planning a Cutting Patch: Bulb Time) I have buried all the Narcissi and Tulips deep down, ready for spring.

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The tulips were planted in trenches on a layer of grit to aid drainage

It’s now time to consider what will grow around and alongside the bulbs and how I will produce flowers and foliage for cutting throughout the spring, summer and autumn.

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An empty plot – with hidden treasure…

My seed packets make me smile with all their potential for colour and texture for flower arrangements in the New Year. I’ve already amassed a lovely collection: Lathyrus odoratus ‘Midnight Blues’, ‘Fragrantissima’ and ‘Floral Tribute’, Antirrhinum ‘Royal Bride’ (a lovely tall, white snapdragon), Cosmos ‘Purity’ (a particular favourite), Papaver somniferum ‘Irish Velvet’ and ‘Paeony Black’, Calendula ‘Daisy Mixed’ and ‘Sherbert Fizz’ (which I admired at Chelsea, so grew myself last year and liked), Nigella papillosa ‘African Bride’ (another favourite), Tropaeolum majus ‘Milkmaid’ (love the milky colour of this nasturtium and can’t wait to try it), Euphorbia oblongata (a short-lived perennial, often grown as an annual for cutting), Ammi majus (a winner in my current flower border for its delicate, feathery umbels), Coreopsis ‘Unbelievable!’ and Centaurea cyanus ‘Polka Dot’ and ‘Classic Romantic’ (you can’t have a cutting patch without cornflowers).

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Temptation…

I’ve also been sent a few treats to trial by Suttons Seeds (a company I’ve been using for years) like Bells of Ireland (Moluccella laevis – with tall spikes of fresh green bells), Calendula ‘Snow Princess’ (once I’d seen this white beauty with its dark eye I had to try it), Bunny Tails (Lagurus ovatus – an annual grass with fluffy white tops which is great for cutting) and the Scented Garden Collection (Sweet William ‘Perfume Mix’, Sweet Pea ‘Patio Mix’, Night Phlox, Lavender ‘Blue Wonder and Brompton Stock) which I’ll be including in the mix (as the patch will also include biennials and perennials too – more on these in a later post.)

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Greens, dark purples and rusty oranges are my colours this year

Then, like many of my fellow seed addicts (there should be a mutual support group – maybe I’ll set one up…), I have been enticed into a few extra annual purchases in search of floral perfection. My current order comprises: Bupleurum griffithii with its acid yellow flowers and lime green leaves (I’m definitely after green foliage and flowers to offset the deeper colours of the dahlias, tulips and others), Centaurea ‘Black Ball’, Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’ (stalwart of any cutting patch), Cosmos ‘Double Click Cranberries’ (what a stunning colour), Crepis rubra (this pink Hawksbeard/dandelion lookalike wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste, but I encountered it on a course this year and fancied a try), Daucus carota ‘Purple Kisses’ (more umbellifer indulgence), Linum grandiflorum rubrum (Scarlet Flax – another beautiful new flower for me this year), Nicotiana ‘Lime Green’ and Zinna elegans ‘Benarys Lime Green’ and ‘Benarys Giant Scarlet’.

I don’t imagine I’ll get round to sowing all of these, or indeed have the room to plant out a row of each, but I’m hoping most will find their way into the new cutting patch. Out of this marvellous annual selection, along with the bulbs, tubers and perennials, I must, surely, be able to create a little magic in 2017?

What are you planning to include in annual planting this year? Any thoughts for additions to my list to extend the season or offer alternative colours or textures would be great too. Thanks  🙂

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              With very best wishes for a happy and peaceful New Year xxx  🙂

Planning a Cutting Patch: Bulb Time

I started a cutting patch in the back garden last year. It was a disaster. I planted Echinacea purpurea, Monarda, Calendula (‘Indian Prince’ and ‘Porcupine’), sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus ‘Barry Dare’, ‘Cupani’ and ‘Arthur Hellyer’), Gladioli (‘Flevo Cool’, ‘Flevo Flash’ and ‘Flevo Sylvia’) and nasturtiums. It was a bit of an odd mix with little forethought, just plants and seeds which I had available and which I knew would also be good for wildlife. The patch grew beautifully and created a mini pollinator paradise. It also added a focal point with vibrant colours at the end of the vegetable raised beds, but herein lay the problem. It was too lovely. Every time I contemplated ravishing it with my scissors, I hesitated and backed away. I did cut a few blooms, but each time I harvested flowers for the house, I felt I was depriving the bees and butterflies, and diluting the visual effect.

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The cutting bed was wild and wonderful

So this year I’m approaching a cutting patch with a new plan. I intend to interplant my veggies with edible companions like calendula, nasturtiums and borage to create colour and cater for the insects. Then in the allotment – far away from the kitchen window and my view as I’m washing up – I’ll plant my cutting patch which will be one bed about 1.2m by 6m. This time I’m putting a little more thought into the planting so it really earns its keep year round. We have a half plot (I’m banned from taking on any more land or responsibility for any more gardens at the moment), so every bit of space matters.

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The calendula now self-seed and create a blast of colour throughout the summer

I have plans for bulbs, perennials and annuals, plus I’m hoping to squeeze in a Cornus alba ‘Kesselringii’ when no-one’s looking. I already have Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, Cornus sericea ‘Flaviremea’ and Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ in the garden providing wonderful winter cutting material, so a ‘Kesselringi’ will add to this collection with its stunning deep purple/black stems. I’ve been reading up on plants which offer good material for cutting at different times of year and thinking about how they might combine in arrangements. I’ll be writing about my choices of perennials and annuals in a later post, but here are my bulb plans and some of the thinking behind the combinations.

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Sweet peas are a must for my cutting patch – this is the striking ‘Barry Dare’

I have never grown enough tulips to have many for cutting and it struck me that including tulip and narcissi bulbs in the cutting patch won’t require much extra room. The soil will not be supporting large plants during early spring so the tulips can easily come up between the perennials as they grow and the dying foliage should be covered by the annual flowers later in the season. I’ve chosen the Sarah Raven ‘Vintage Silk’ collection as I haven’t grown ‘Apricot Beauty’, ‘Mistress Grey’, ‘Spring Green’ or ‘Groenland’ before and I love their subtle smoky look. I’m also planning on including ‘Shirley’ (which I vowed to grow again when I wrote my tulip review earlier in the year), ‘Attila’ (deep purple), ‘Carnival de Rio’, ‘Hollandia’ (these two make a red/white striped and red mix), ‘Slawa’ (an amazing maroon tulip with outer orange stripes), ‘Ronaldo’ and ‘Jimmy’ (these two create a deep crimson and coral orange mix). I’m hoping these combinations will look great in vases – they should last for 10 days or longer and will also mix well with the greens of Euphorbia palustris and Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae which will be planted in the cutting patch.

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This is as far as I’ve got with tulips in arrangements so far – the odd ‘Queen of Night’ with Ammi majus, Centaurea montana ‘Jordy’ and Centaurea cyanus ‘Black Ball’

The narcissi should provide blooms from March to May – from ‘Gigantic Star’ with a vanilla-like fragrance in March/April, through ‘Thalia’  and ‘The Bride’ in April/May to ‘Piper’s End’ in May.   J.Parker’s have offered me the narcissi and the seven tulip varieties ‘Shirley’ – ‘Jimmy’ to trial this year, so I can see how the varieties perform in the allotment and how suitable they are for cutting. The tulips bulbs will be planted about 15-20cm deep, 10-15 cm apart and the narcissi 10-15 cm deep, 8-10cm apart, depending on the bulb size. The extra depth will hopefully encourage the tulips to flower well in subsequent years. Both bulb types will be planted with a handful of grit beneath them as we do in the garden, to aid drainage. Then the perennials can be planted alongside the bulbs and the annuals sown above once spring arrives. I’m also considering planting winter/spring bedding to reduce weed cover, add colour and provide material for cutting before the spring bulbs and annuals begin.

Once I’ve added in the Gladioli ‘Flevo’ series from the garden and a mixture of dahlias which I already have and some new faces (‘Café au Lait’ and ‘Henriette’ – with their milky coffee and peach hues, alongside the deep velvets of ‘Thomas A. Edison’, ‘Downham Royal’ and ‘Con Amore’), I’ll have pretty much filled (probably over-filled) the available bulb/tuber/corm space. The dahlias will go in after the frosts next year above the narcissi, to maximise the use of space. And I’m literally bouncing off the seat with excitement at all the promise which will be hidden underground throughout the winter months. I’ve no idea how I’ll contain myself when I get to planning perennials and annuals – maybe I should read up on rabbit damage, greenfly infestations and fungal problems to introduce a degree of pessimistic balance.

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Gladioli ‘Flevo Cool’ looks magnificent in the garden and in a vase

But whatever problems lie in the future, for the moment I can watch the leaves falling with my cup of tea in hand and dream about vases of glorious spring blooms adorning the house. Then it’s back to the allotment, trowel in hand, to start digging.

I enjoy flower arranging and I’ve been on a couple of courses, but it’s very much a work in progress!

Are you planning a cutting patch or garden, or do you already have one? What tips would you give a newbie cut flower grower like me? I’m in two minds about whether to plant the narcissi singly or in groups and would be interested in thoughts on this. I’d also love to hear about what works and what hasn’t been as successful in other cutting patches, so do leave me a comment below  🙂

If you’d like to follow my cutting patch as I continue to plan and plant, you can follow the blog below. Next up it’s perennials and no doubt some photos about how the bulb planting is progressing…

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The Paper Garden: Mrs Delany [Begins Her Life’s Work] at 72

Biography, art history, botanical study – none of these terms do sufficient justice to Molly Peacock’s expansive, lyrical and thoroughly readable account of the life of Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (1700-1788). Over a period of ten years, Delany created nearly a thousand cut-paper botanical images of flowers from all over the world. Living in a period of intense botanical exploration and investigation, Delany had access to Kew for specimens through her friendship with Sir Joseph Banks.

The parallels between Peacock’s contemporary investigation into 18th century artistic life and Delany’s progress towards ‘a new way of imitating flowers’ add depth and a personal warmth to the story. Peacock considers eleven of the botanical collages, including ‘Opium Poppy’ (Papaver somniferum), ‘Magnolia’ (Magnolia grandiflora), ‘Bloodroot’ (Sanguinaria canadensis), ‘Portlandia’ (Portlandia grandiflora) and ‘Winter Cherry’ (Physalis alkekengi) in great detail, relating each to stages of Delany’s personal and artistic development. Occasionally the botanical analogies feel a little strained, the mental contortions necessary to compare human and plant lives a little jarring, but on the whole these parallels enrich the text as they suggest echoes of life in art, in nature. As Peacock writes about the flowers in the Delany mosaics:

Each of Mrs. Delany’s flower mosaicks is a portrait, highly individual, full of personality, the bloom posed as a human figure might be positioned in a painter’s portrait… The flowers are like dancers. Like daydreamers. Like women blinking in silent adoration. Like children playing. Like queens reigning or divas belting out their arias. Like courtesans lying on bedclothes. Like girls hanging their heads in shame. Like, like, like. Along with the scissors, the scalpel, the bodkin, the tweezers, the mosaicks make use of one of the main tools of the poet: simile. By comparing one thing to another, a simile leaves the original as it is – say, just a flower – but also states what that is like, making a threshold into another world.

Art and nature are seen, by Delany and Peacock, as being intrinsically linked. Delany’s eye for detail, her botanical dissections and biological knowledge underpin the beauty and verisimilitude of her art. Science is an intrinsic part her of artistic endeavour and her art reveals the glory and power of science. As Peacock writes ‘The lines between science and art in [Delany’s] day were fluid, but in 1966 [the time of Peacock’s education] they had become as thick as the stays in eighteenth century ladies’ clothes.’

In 1993, when I began my university education, an interest in mathematical and scientific issues within the arts (in my case, English Literature) was still viewed suspiciously in many quarters – as if it somehow diluted the essence of language and art, rather than enhancing it. In 2006 interdisciplinary studies were becoming more mainstream and I wrote an MA dissertation on the ways in which contemporary science profoundly affected the style and structure of the early nineteenth century novel. The tyranny of subject boundaries was dissolving and both the arts and sciences were benefitting from increased integration. This integration continues to develop, with many universities now running courses such as ‘ecocriticism’, ‘digital studies’, ‘interdisciplinary work for policy-making’ and ‘wild writing – literature and the environment’. We are rediscovering the power of connections, of contextual knowledge and mutual respect which an eighteenth century education took for granted.

The Paper Garden celebrates Mary Delany’s life, her artistic endeavours and the way her mosaics reveal a love of both art and science through her minute observation of the plant material. This is a book which offers hope for all of us who feel our best is yet to come. It is a book for art lovers and plant lovers alike. Indeed, when leafing through the Delany mosaics, it’s hard to imagine being one, without becoming the other.

 

The extensive collection of flower mosaics is available to view on the British Museum’s online catalogue – for individual flower mosaics mentioned in the text, click on the links above. Individual mosaics can be studied or the entire Flora Delanica viewed, with 1,005 images held in the catalogue.

If you have enjoyed this post, The Paper Garden: Mrs Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, (Aff. link) is published by Bloomsbury and available as an eBook or paperback. Follow the blog below to get updates on new reviews in ‘Write Plant, Write Place’. At the moment I’m enjoying reading a trio of books about trees…

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