September in the Garden

Things are beginning to look knackered in the garden in September. You might think it’s time to cut back some of those long flowering perennials which have done such good duty over the summer. Don’t!
Mid September is late season for insects. Late butterflies, honeybees* and glossy new queen bumblebees are feeding on the sedum, but most of the summer’s excitement is past. Wildlife gardening books urge you to keep any ivy, which is an invaluable source of late nectar too.
I was impressed though to discover our geraniums buzzing with action yesterday. That’s geraniums, not pelargoniums – there’s sometimes a confusion. Among other varieties we have ‘Rozanne’, which has become a ubiquitous favourite in garden centres over the last few years. It has a nice habit and, unlike our native meadow cranesbill, goes on and on… and on. Not only did we have some lovely but familiar visitors on it today, but we also had something rather special…
Butterfly on geranium The Small Copper is a pretty little butterfly that you can see about into October in a good year. This is most likely its fourth – and last – generation of this summer, before it overwinters in its larval stage and pupates in April. It’s pretty widespread across the UK and a common site in our garden.
Geranium and honeybee Honeybees seem to love geraniums. Their open flowers are ideal for the bees’ flat short tongues, and they have been working them for most of the summer. The bees are busy finishing stocking up now ahead of winter. Their colony is beginning to contract and there are fewer brood to provision.
Common carder bee This is a Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum). She’s looking a bit ragged at this end of the summer. There are only a few worker bumblebees around now, and their nests are breaking up as the new queens fly off. By the way, you can see her longer tongue very clearly in the photo.
And now… the unexpected… Colletes hederae, the Ivy Bee. This chap is rare enough that I had to check the ID with my solitary bee guru Stuart. They’ve only been in the UK since 2001, and it’s highly unusual to find them inland from the south coast.
Geranium and Colletes hederae They look a bit like honeybees at first glance – very smart – and fly quickly. It’s very late in the season for a solitary bee, but that’s because their main source of pollen is… ivy. Apparently they nest in south facing banks; I would love to find out where this one came from.
Colletes hederae We’ve had several notable sightings of rare species in the garden this year. It has been really exciting, if I’m being honest, and a great illustration of what we can all expect if we create diverse and appropriate habitat. Even in the garden in September. Plant it and they will come, you might say.

*which occasionally get picked off by a passing hornet

The Cricket Field Oak

In winter when I do the washing up I can see the Cricket Field Oak. It’s usually through Somerset rain which, as you can see, has left its mark over the last several hundred years. I had to dash out to take this photo when the sun appeared briefly! This wonderful English oak, Quercus robur, was there centuries before cricket was played next to it and will stand for centuries after the last ball was bowled there.

Ancient trees
The Cricket Field Oak

It’s officially an ancient tree, with its own reference in the ancient trees directory, 46732. A minor celebrity – not that the family of Little Owls who live there would know. And I didn’t know either. I had admired and wondered at this single oak, but I didn’t realise it had been officially recognised. I’m indebted to the Ancient Tree Forum for this. They record our ancient trees and advise on their upkeep – invaluable work.

Why are these trees important? They support extraordinary biodiversity – English oak trees support over 280 invertebrate species, together with lichens and fungi. The older it is, the more diverse a tree’s associated flora and fauna becomes.

I love their cultural significance. Many are named after people or events that happened in their shade. Last year I visited Windsor Great Park. There I saw the great Signing Oak (13623), whose 9.72m girth dwarfs our little Cricket Field Oak. South of us here is the equally enormous Wyndham Oak (6884), where Sir Hugh Wyndham took his ease in the 1650s. These trees are over 900 years old.

We are blessed with ancient oaks in this corner of Somerset. We live on what was the edge of the great royal Selwood forest, where Alfred gathered the fyrd before the battle of Edington*. Later, the land hereabouts was wood pasture, used in the middle ages for hunting deer, grazing domesticated animals and producing timber. This open environment is ideal for single oak trees, hungry for light, to flourish. Many of the oaks were managed carefully and pollarded, which has extended their lives.

It’s an accident of history that these trees weren’t felled. They would have been on mainland Europe. For this we can be grateful for the failure of the Commonwealth and – shortly after – John Evelyn’s Sylva. Deer parks were the preserve of the Crown and aristocracy, who came to appreciate the value of trees in the landscape.

Oaks are said to spend 300 years growing, 300 years maturing, and 300 years “veteranising”. There’s no hard and fast rule as to when a tree is a veteran and when it becomes “ancient”. Just down the road from us over the road from the pub is a fabulous ash tree (55789), which is officially a veteran; it’s a mere 5m round.

This ash is a big tree, but as it gets older, like an old man it will shrink. Its trunk will continue to thicken but its crown will reduce as a survival strategy to reduce the ravages of weather and decay.

These ancient trees are extraordinary. They are their own secret worlds, teeming with life. They have their own told and untold histories. Older and more mysterious than cathedrals or castles. Worth more pondering while doing the washing up.

*The night before the battle (in 878) Alfred stayed by the great Iley Oak, which was still used as a gathering point in the 1650s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Magic of Green Roofs

It has been three years since we planted the green roof for our new house with wildflower plug plants, which has turned out to be a fabulous success. For many, “green roof” is synonymous with “sedum roof”, p1080079we started off by colour bombing it with annuals while the slower growing perennials developed.
This sense of progression and change – like a wildflower meadow – is part of its fascination. Fortunately I can see it from my office window on the first floor! Its colours change through the season and species come and go depending on the weather. It’s much past its best now, but still lovely.

Green Roof in 2014
Green Roof in 2014
Also like a wildflower meadow, the roof serves as a wonderful habitat for all sorts of invertebrates and birds as well. Our wagtails love it, and we see different finches on it regularly too. Fingers crossed we might even have something nest on it next year!
p1080073Conditions on the roof are almost opposite to the wet clay hereabouts, so we can create diversity as well as a very different look with it. Wild Thyme and Scabious (pictured) do very well on it, for example, which we would never see normally here. There are some areas where the growing substrate is evidently more fertile than in others and the moisture retention in the substrate also varies, which gives diversity to the flora and flora within the roof too. Some areas still have a lot of bare earth, whereas others have almost tussocky grass.
p1080085It can be pretty hostile for the plants on the roof, which means I don’t need to do much more than weed it a couple of times a year. Things don’t grow to great size, and annual weeds generally don’t survive at all. In the first year I watered it a couple of times but now I don’t bother. I’ve just sown some Yellow Rattle this year to keep the grasses down a bit in some sections, too. What’s not to like?

British Nurseries

Formal GardenWe are – finally – planting our small formal garden. I wanted to source the plants for it directly from the nursery – the British nursery – which grew them. I’m lucky because I knew enough about the trade to draw up a short list of folk to approach. One of our suppliers, R.V.Roger, also grows shrubs as well as the fruit trees we sell from them. Kelways are a well known local Peony nursery. Hardy’s Plants I knew about though social media and trade shows. All lovely plants at very reasonable prices.

I think I’d have found all these folk had I not known about them previously. Some nurseries are not so obvious; they either can’t afford or don’t understand how to market in the 21st century. I found one listed in the RHS’s Plantfinder which was listed as growing a couple of the more obscure perennials I needed. They were very helpful and the quality of their plants turned out to be good. The bizarre thing was that they were 15 minutes’ drive away. I’ve lived in the area for 13 years; I’m a keen gardener and have been in a related business for the last 6 years. I’d never heard of these guys. I pointed this out to the manager when I picked the plants up, and he said people didn’t realize they were there as a row of new houses had been built between the nursery and the road. And this is isn’t even a retail outlet!

It might be that nurseries can’t afford the marketing budget to sell directly to trade or the public, rather than through resellers. The advent of social media means this is less likely; look at folk like the delightful Common Farm Flowers, around the corner from us.

We don’t pay nearly enough for our plants. It’s incredible that for £52.50 you can have three apple trees of an ancient variety of which only 10 might be grown IN THE WORLD that year. And that includes £18 for packaging and delivery. For £60 (including delivery and VAT) you can buy 1kg of wildflower seed, enough to cover 250 square metres. It’s freshly harvested, dried and cleaned from a medieval meadow. Nurseries and harvesters have very limited pricing power; people aren’t picky enough about what they want. They’re encouraged not to be by the retailers. Many people don’t even realize the difference between a nursery and a garden centre. The chances are remote that the particular Astrantia you want is not going to be in your local garden centre, but they will have an Astrantia. Chances are it will have been grown abroad.

The same goes for fruit trees, shrubs, or anything else. Online resellers are better able to help, particularly if, like us, they deal with multiple growers. Even they suffer from the sometimes irresistible temptation to keep things simple and funnel people down narrow options. It’s physically very difficult to manage an online shop offering thousands of lines which are constantly going in and out of availability.

People aren’t picky enough about the folk they use to do their gardening for them either. There’s more to gardening than mowing the lawn and cutting the hedge. A qualified gardener should be on a higher wage than an unskilled labourer. Because there’s no money in horticultural businesses there’s no money in working for one. The good quality people I know who do, do it for love. This is the source of much hand wringing in the trade. I know money isn’t everything. I bet, though, that if nurseries could make good money a lot of this would change. How can they persuade customers to pay properly for their product?

God knows, I’m not qualified to comment, but it seems to me that nurseries need to emphasise provenance and quality, and to lobby to make better labelling a statutory requirement. Specialization must help them with pricing power and search engine optimization, which probably means using resellers. These should be required to disclose the source of their plants. Like my local wholesaler, nurseries can generally market themselves much more effectively, using contemporary media.

One of Habitat Aid’s most important functions is to promote British nurseries. Contrary to popular belief, they can provide exceptional value as well as quality. Additionally, using them to supply our “native” plants means we keep local genetic variations alive, as well as ensuring that the delicate relationship between flora and fauna is not disturbed. There’s no chance of importing diseases either.

Designer Habitat

I’m not a very visual person. I can’t see stuff jump from the paper into the real world at all. For me it’s a case of trial and error, then asking someone altogether better qualified to tell me what to do.

We’ve just gone through that experience with our garden. For those gentle readers who haven’t followed the agonizing process of our new build, we have a spanking new “grand design” type of modern house. We have been, consequently, completely broke over the last year. Only now with some help from a friendly Building Society can we spend some money on the formal garden bit of the landscaping and some hard landscaping work.

These elements have both been very interesting. We’ve already got significant meadow stuff going on, as you would imagine, and wanted something formal to contrast with the native planting we’ve done, as well as compliment the lines of the house. Furthermore, I want everything we do to be wildlife friendly. As far as I’m concerned there’s no point having a garden if it’s not packed with fauna as much as fauna.

New formal gardenWe’re probably not supposed to, but we’ve used two local designers. The first, Phil Brown, helped us with the meadow, pond and forest garden areas. These are now all in place and look great. For the “formal” bit we’ve had a plan from a friend, Louise Dowding. Louise has listened to the brief and come up with something simple and effective. Many of the plants arrived this week from Hardy’s and I’ve been busy popping them in. The bigger stuff is coming from one of Habitat Aid’s suppliers, R.V.Roger, in November*.

What I like about the design is that it doesn’t shout “wildlife garden” at you. The beds are formal, with a symmetrical planting scheme including easy to grow plants and interesting cultivars. There’s lots of colour, and there’ll be something in flower from January to October. That’s not just important for us, but also for bumblebee queens and honeybees, who are often looking for forage on warm winter days, for example. There’s also the mid summer gap to think about – when there’s not much in flower naturally. There are a few plants in the scheme purely selected for their aesthetic appeal, but most of them are ace for pollinators too. There’s a full list of the plants in the garden here.

New gabion wallOn one of her visits Louise made an off the cuff remark about gabions. I love dry stone walls, to the extent I went on a course and built one to retain a bank in the front garden next to our parking area. They’re a brilliant fusion of design, function and habitat. Our wall filled up with voles and toads, among other creatures. Sadly as it was my first effort, with slightly tricky stone, it looked rather er…rustic. Plus I didn’t really have enough stone left over from the old house. You get the picture. So we’ve rescued the toads and started again, using gabions to give the wall a clean contemporary look. It looks fantastic. There’s going to be a rather architectural wildflower mix going on behind it; the two should set each other off really well.

Perhaps we’re lucky because we have the space to plant trees and meadow areas, to say nothing of our wildflower roof. These work in perfect harmony with the more formal design features. It does strike me, though, that wildlife friendly gardens can look aesthetically clean and contemporary. We’ve let our hedges grow but keep them trimmed, and prune our fruit trees. We have nettle patches in hidden spots rather than letting them grow everywhere. In some parts we’ve used native plants selectively and in more formal planting patterns. Beds and swales are angular rather than forming naturalistic curves. We manage some areas actively to grow annuals, this year either cornfield annuals or phacelia.

*both family run traditional British nurseries, about which more anon.

The Shock of the New: Contemporary Homes and Solar Farms

The Shock of the NewI bet that the majority of folk who stop in front of our new house* aren’t wondering how many architectural awards it might win. I bet they’re wondering why someone in planning didn’t stop it being built, because they think it’s gopping. Each to his own; we (obviously) think it looks great. There are a couple of morals to this story, however.

First off, it should strike the gawpers that they should be that someone in the planning process trying to ensure we carry on replicating 19th century houses. The Parish Council had two planning meetings to discuss the house, the first attended by one person (me) and the second by three.

Secondly, “the country” is an environment where people live. The more prosperous it is, the better those people will be able to look after it. “The country” isn’t the exclusive preserve of retirees from the suburbs or second homers, who would, typically, like to live in an Austenesque idyll (or Poundbury!). It has to move on. I’m absolutely not saying we should rip up the restrictions on development that we have in place and go all utilitarian. Our house is not only wonderful to live in but costs nothing to run. We generate more electricity than we use and heat it and cook with wood. This doesn’t mean it should automatically get planning permission. I am saying that when the CPRE objects to faster rural broadband on the basis of disfiguring “new overhead lines and broadband cabinets blotting our finest landscapes and villages” I get cross.

The explosion of solar farms that’s happening across our landscape at the moment is another case in point. The combination of government incentives and cheap photo voltaic panels means there will be thousands of acres of them put in over the next two years. There will be some appalling cases, but I hope the planning process will generally be robust enough to stop development where it is damaging or unsightly (if the gawpers get themselves along to the right meetings). In contrast to wind farms, solar farms can also offer a brilliant opportunity to create attractive and valuable new habitat.

We are working with Solar Century and – I hope – another large scale developer, who are determined to do just that. They are putting in wildflower meadow areas and new native hedges on a large scale, and going the extra mile to make sure they are establishing the right plant species and that they will be managed sensitively. We’ve hooked Solar Century up with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, who will be helping them out.

*which is, frankly, getting a bit weird. Also, when I greet gawpers with a friendly hello I feel a bit miffed when they drive off at speed.

The Tortoise and The Hare

Talk about tortoise and hare. We trashed the soil so badly around our new build when sloshing around in last year’s mud that it’s having to undergo comprehensive restorative work. We’re on heavy, heavy clay here, so we covered the back garden area with what topsoil we had then sowed a green compost of phacelia and lupins. It has been amazing to see the relative progress of the phacelia and lupins and our wildflower meadow areas. We sowed them at pretty much the same time, but their growth rates have been almost bizarrely different.
Wildflower meadow - early daysConditions this spring were terrible for sowing, and many of the annuals I included in some of the meadow areas are still the size of a 10p piece when they should be thinking about flowering. The scentless Mayweed seems to be doing fine, which is mostly what the green is in this photo. The perennials are still tiny, although if I look hard I can see Birdsfoot Trefoil, Clover and Campion, among others. It’s partly because they’re growing in subsoil, which is great news in the long run as it will keep bullies like nettle and dock at arms length, and help to stop grasses dominating. The wildflowers on our roof are growing even slower, as they have to cope with even more stressed conditions. It’s also because perennial wildflowers do take time to get going – and need TLC over that period. Folk often complain that seed hasn’t germinated, whereas actually it has – it’s just the seedlings are too small for them to spot and identify.
Phacelia and Curly Coat RetrieverThe comparison between them and the phacelia / lupin mix couldn’t be more extreme. The whole idea of green manure is to use fast growing species, of course, and they’re not disappointing. You can almost hear them growing. Basil reckons they’re up to a foot tall. The lupins will help break down the clay too, while the phacelia will provide an attractive bonanza for pollinators when it flowers – which will start any day now.

An Empty Shell

Hookgate - old and newWe’re getting towards the end of our house build, thank goodness. Having moved into the new house – yet to be finished – we had to demolish the old cottage. The dust and mess is indescribable, which explains the lack of recent blogs. It’s like living in a bombsite with painters, and the dust is so bad I should be sitting here with an umbrella.

Anyway, demolishing the old cottage was interesting. I had no love for it. In many ways it came to represent all the reasons we were having to build a new house; it was dark, damp, cold and Jerry built. It drank oil, and had leaky plumbing and drains. The loos didn’t work properly and there was a toad living in the sitting room (escorted out of his home before it came crashing down around his ears). I guess the orginal cottage was pre WW1 but most of the buildings were less than twenty years old, and the difference between them and what we’ve built is night and day.

What was interesting about knocking old Hookgate cottage down was that there was an oddly moving moment when it stopped being a house and started being a half derelict building. I’m not sure exactly when it was, but it was rather moving to suddenly see it as a lifeless empty shell. Reading the State of Nature report I wondered whether we might not be staring at a similar process on a grand scale. Perhaps the UK is turning into a lifeless empty shell. The difference, of course, is that it’s relatively easy to build a new house and not impossible to build a much better one.

Not Great Weather for Our Garden

Gardening weather
Spring in Somerset
Looking at our garden you’d never know it was spring. It’s a smidge ironic that global warming seems to have resulted in tempest and deluge in this corner of the globe over the last few years. We have been struggling to build a new house over the last year, and now the weather is making even the landscaping damn near impossible. That’s even with jolly wetland and pond features – swales and ditches and bogs and overflows.

The (heavy clay) soil is completely unworkable. Some of it has turned into Glastonbury gloop. Even where it hasn’t I can’t dig it manually, let alone get machines on it. I’m trying to sow green manure in the swamp that will be our back garden to improve things.

not gardening weather
Water feature
Our wildflower seed has arrived for the (wetland) meadow areas. Ha ha. No chance of anything even germinating in these temperatures. Friends of mine locally are just giving up on their gardens. It’s probably sensible ahead of the spring proper, which when it does finally arrive will feature two months of drought before the cricket season starts in earnest. Cue Biblical downpours again.

I suppose this extreme weather is gratifying for us in a way, as we’re building a stunning new house to deal with it. In the garden, though, we need help. Perhaps it’s time for the gardening Press to scrap all those articles and programmes about Mediterranean planting and address the issues we’re actually confronted with as gardeners. If the weather here is getting more extreme rather than warmer as a result of global warming could we have some help in dealing with it? I have no idea how to tackle our land – no idea at all – and I can find no advice other than the helpful observation that roses like heavy clay. WTF? as the youth of today might say. In the meantime, here’s a cheery tune about the weather here for the youth of yesteryear. Perhaps it hasn’t hasn’t changed much over the last 60 years after all.

Phoargh! Nice Understory…

We’re establishing a kind of mixed orchard area at our new house. I say “kind of” because I’ve slipped a few other things in there, about which more anon, but also because we’re developing a really interesting understory. I’m baffled by folk who plant trees and don’t do anything about the ground around them, which can often be barren. We hear quite a lot from people wanting wildflower meadows in traditional orchard schemes, which is a bit tricky, and we thought we would do something different to match our informal design and interesting plant choices. I started our understory planting last winter when I popped in some Rosa rugosa, together with various berries and currants, and now it’s the time of year to move on to bulbs.
I’m in the middle of planting 3,000; Bluebells (English, of course), Wild daffodils, Wood Anemones, Crocus, winter aconite, Common Snowdrops, Ramsons, Fritillaries – some of my favourite things. They’re going to be perfect as the canopy develops, and I hope there’ll naturalize freely like they’re supposed to because I’m not planting another 3,000! These bulbs have a number of fabulous qualities:
1. They’re beautiful flowers.
2. They often flower at helpful times of year, not just from an aesthetic point of view but also for…
3. …wildlife. Bees crave early season pollen for their developing brood from early flowering plants like winter aconites and crocuses, for example.
4. They generally do well in the shade, where not much else might thrive.
After these have gone in I’m getting some Meadow Cranesbill going in a sunny spot, plus native Foxgloves of course. These are great bumblebee plants; many of our bumblebee species’ natural habitat is, after all, woodland edge, where they thrive.
I’ve got Nepalese and Szechuan pepper plants coming from Otter Farm, and there’s a lot more to go in, but all in good time. We need to let the trees get going and the site develop.