The Apple of My Eye

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With the end of April comes the beginning of a new year in the life of the garden’s old apple tree. There really isn’t anything quite like apple blossom to lift the spirit on what is a chilly end to the month. It’s hard to imagine these delicate little flowers will eventually turn into the huge tasty cooking apples I will bake pies with come the end of summer!

I have been tending my garden for ten years now but the apple tree is much older – maybe even older than me! I’m not sure just how old it is or even what variety of apple, but it is an essential part of this garden I have discovered and tweaked over the years. It stands over twenty feet tall (which makes for interesting acrobatics come harvest time)! It marks the seasons with its presence, heralding spring with blossom, providing welcome shade for the patio during summer and drawing a picture against the sky with its gnarled bare branches in winter. It also plays host to a number of feeders for the many garden birds that visit and find a safe feeding spot amongst its branches.

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Now it has reached a ripe old age, my apple tree requires a little more care. A few years ago I had a tree surgeon check the health of the tree only to find he could actually rock the huge old trunk! He recommended a really hard prune to help the tree put more energy into strengthening its root system. Now I have the tree professionally pruned every other year to keep it strong and healthy and always feed with a few good shovel-fulls of well rotted manure in spring. Regular pruning does mean that you only get a really good crop of apples every other year, but it does ensure a good cycle of fruiting wood with the removal of older or congested branches. I always prune during winter when the tree is dormant but some more vigorous growth can also be pruned in summer.

Every garden should have an obvious focal point that defines it. Mine is the old apple tree. Its a constant that dictates the traditional cottage character of the garden and leads the eye onto garden beyond and I am proud to be its guardian.

Spring greens

For me, April is all about green – that vibrant acid lime green of new growth which heralds the coming of the new season. The garden is full of the colours of spring, the yellow of daffodils and primroses, pinks of Bergenia and Ribes, the delicate blue of forget-me-nots, but its the greens of April which more than anything convey the promise of new life. After a winter of browns and greys, it is often those more vibrant colours of spring that stand out to us in the garden. But look more closely and it is the greens that bring it all together, the freshness of spring against a bright blue sky.

Green is all around us. Just this morning walking my dogs I noticed the acid green of hawthorn leaves unfurling and the more delicate green of pussy willow buds in the hedgerow.

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Back in the garden and I’m on the hunt for the green. The little bunches of pink on the Ribes shrub are gorgeous but would not be half as stunning without the contrast of its fresh green leaves.

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The acid green of Euphorbia spikes are a beautiful contrast to the delicate white of candytuft.

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Emerging foliage of geranium and welsh poppy against a rocky backdrop.

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The perfect green of spiky of Hemerocallis.

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Even the humble blade of grass is not to be outdone!

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And finally, spring green in the truest sense are the brussel sprout seedlings in the greenhouse, a green I will remember at in darkest midwinter.

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The Ides of March

March is a contrary month, warm sunshine and longer days can have you rushing to the garden centre or opening a packet of seeds, then the next day can see Winter back firmly in command and us gardeners scuttling back indoors! But with all the frustration this month can bring there is I believe and underlying sense of things moving forward, of Spring pushing ahead no matter what.

Now is the time when, on more temperate days, I start taking my cup of tea with me on an early morning stroll up the garden. With each day that passes there are more and more signs of new life, from hardy spring bulbs to green shoots poking their way up through the tatty clumps of last year’s perennials. I have a large old apple tree that dominates the first part of the garden, the base of which is a joyful mix of spring colour. Stalwart clumps of tete-a-tete, delicate cyclamen and polyanthus are the first signs that spring has returned to the garden.

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Crocus mix with the last of the snowdrops under the lilac tree.

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There are still winter aconites framing the stone green man that sits in the raised bed beneath the second apple tree. Yellow is such an uplifting colour at this time of year, made all the brighter on sunny days. When I first moved here twelve years ago it was spring and I was delighted to see the garden dotted with tiny little polyanthus. They continue to set themselves year after year and come in a variety of delicate colours from almost white to purple and pale pink. They seem to have colonised all the gardens in our row of cottages and I’m sure may even date back a hundred years or more when our gardens grew vegetables for a nearby hall to which the cottages belonged. Old Tom who lived in the end cottage died a couple of years back and his cottage is now being renovated to start a new chapter for a new family. So this spring I have set about saving as many of these gorgeous little plants from his garden as I can before heavy boots and rubble bury them.

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This year has been a time of change in the garden – some planned and others an act of nature. Such was the destruction of an arch of honeysuckle growing over the gravel path at the top of the garden. The honeysuckle was being supported by the branches of a dead cherry tree which collapsed under the weight of the snow we had earlier in the winter. I’ve lost the honeysuckle but have gained more light as it’s loss has opened up an area where previously shade dominated. Fritillaria, miniature narcissus and wild primrose now brighten this patch.

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There may not be much in the way of colour yet in the pots in and around the sunken patio – the roses are only just beginning to bud and other pots lay empty waiting to be filled with annuals. However, one of my very favourite spring flowers are starting to appear and they are my pots of Auriculas. I am fascinated by these delicate little waxy flowers, so perfect they often don’t look real.

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And finally, as it happens to be one of those sunnier days in March (rather than one to beware) I’ve spent the morning sowing seeds in the greenhouse and filling empty pots like this one filled with thyme. Happy days!

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A North Norfolk winter

A dull, sleety, cold January day and who couldn’t be excused for yearning after a week away in the sun! Not me. My idea of a winter haven is one of my favourite spots in the country, the North Norfolk coast and thats exactly where me, my partner and and our two dogs went to start the new year.

The North Norfolk coast is a wild and beautiful stretch of coastline 93 miles in length, most of which is covered by the ancient Peddars National Trail. Most popular among tourists is the stretch between Hunstanton and Cromer with some of the areas most spectacular beaches. My love affair with Norfolk began around ten years ago and regular visits since have instilled a deep passion for its brick and flint cottages, vast open beaches where you can lose yourself even when the car parks are full, friendly local pubs always ready to welcome you (and your dogs), and large swathes of unspoilt countryside. Its a treat any time of year, but my favourite time to go is during the winter months.

Winter on the Norfolk coast is a special time of year. Geese, pink-footed, Brent and Canada visit to spend the winter months on the open marshes. They are a wonderful sight each day as the light fades and they make their way in huge flocks to spend the night inland. The marshes are a beautiful and desolate place in winter. Marsh harriers are a common sight as they harry the geese and send flocks into the air with a riot of noise. Graceful white egrets are easily spotted among the browns and buff shades of marsh grass and this bleak wilderness is made complete with the haunting call of the curlew. But for me one of the most wonderful sights of this winter landscape is the glimpse of a ghostly barn owl hugging the hedge line in search of a meal. Barn owls are a common site here in winter. Cold short days mean they often have to venture out during daylight hours to hunt.

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Norfolk just happens to be one of the driest places in the UK. A lot of the weather that spreads its way from west to east across the country peters out by the time it reaches the Norfolk coast. So it came as no surprise that our week at the beginning of January was largely dry and sunny, if not a little chilly. Plant life along the coast doesn’t change an awful lot from season to season. The stretch of coast between Holkham and Wells-next-the-Sea is bordered by pine woods which comprise Scots pine, Maritime pine and Corsican Pine growing on sand. These majestic evergreen pines create the illusion of summer on a sunny winters day.

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The pine woods are sprinkled in winter colour. The golden splash of gorse and silvery hues of Betula pendula (Silver birch).

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The sand dunes that lay beyond also change little during winter, with clumps of tough grasses that not only harbour wildlife but are vital in helping to keep the dunes stable.

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The dunes not only provide a sheltered place for a picnic but are also home to an abundance of wildlife. Grasses such as marram and sand couch provide protection for insects such as grasshoppers and dragon flies. There are clumps of sea holly and even some species of orchid. This stretch of dunes is particularly popular with rabbits and is littered with sandy burrows.

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As dunes give way to marsh the landscape is dotted with reed beds and ponds that provide a home for many species of duck and other birds; this one is frozen over on a chilly bright day.

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And then it’s the beach. The dogs and I running to the top of the dunes and over, bursting with excitement at the vast expanse of sand awaiting us as it goes on for ever, the tide is out! At this time of year high tides bring all sorts of wonders up on to the beach, from oyster shells to dead sea birds (I even found a Puffin once)! I’ve spent many a happy hour rummaging amongst the natural flotsam and jetsam.

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The strong tides make beautiful shapes in the sand as the sea recedes.

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Much further along the beach and there is a creek that sweeps round in towards the marshes. It is a favourite place for a small number of the coasts most favourite inhabitants, the grey seals. Blakeney Point further down the coast is the best place to see these lovely creatures and especially at this time of year, if you can brave the cold and choppy seas to venture out on one of the popular boat trips, as the small beach is crowded with seal pups! Grey seals have been breeding in this remote spot since about 2001 when just 25 pups were recorded. This year the population has exploded, with numbers rocketing to over 2,000 pups. Here at the creek our little group is a more relaxed sight. Most are shy and quickly submerge themselves as we and the dogs approach. But sitting quietly on the sand bank and all four of us are surprised and rewarded by one brave fellow who comes close for a better look!

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Back home and looking out into a garden drenched in cold and sleet I take heart with these memories and the knowledge that winter isn’t all gloomy.

…after the horse has bolted!

It has to be said that we don’t get very much in the way of snow here in the UK and living in the middle of the country we tend to be on the fringes of any extreme weather; so when it does come snow is almost always unexpected.  Just so this morning as I woke to a couple of centimetres deposited overnight and frozen by a sudden dip in temperature. It’s on days like these when, as a gardener, you look out of the window and think did I do all those pre-winter jobs in the garden to protect against such a day as this? It may be a case of shutting the door after the horse has bolted, but here are some of the thoughts running through my mind as I wandered about this winter wonderland with my dogs this morning.

Roses should have had a good winter pruning by now. Not only does reducing the height of a rose help prevent wind rock (where extreme windy weather can loosen and damage the roots), but it will also help prevent heavy snowfall breaking off vulnerable branches.  Tender plants need protection against frost and snow, so while its a good idea to prune some plants, leave old growth on tender plants such as hydrangeas unpruned during the winter as this will help protect the central crown and any new forming buds and will bear the brunt of the cold and frost.

Climbers grown against east or north facing walls and other tender plants can be given some protection from the weather with fleece or for ground plants a covering of dead leaves or bracken. Mulching herbaceous borders with a thick layer of organic matter will help protect perennials and tender spring bulbs. Palms and cordylines can be protected by tying their leaves into bunches.  Container grown plants are extremely vulnerable to frost and ice damage. Pots that are not fully frost proof can crack in extreme temperatures and the wet roots of container grown plants can freeze. Make sure you move potted plants to a greenhouse or more sheltered area of the garden. You can also protect them by wrapping the pot in bubble wrap.

There are a few things I can get out and do today to make sure some of my favourite plants survive the inclement weather. The snow may not be too thick but it has frozen, making it sit heavily on top of my box topiary. One of my first jobs will be to brush this off before any damage occurs. Any plants I fear may have been damaged may still survive. I have a couple of miniature myrtle trees in pots. Moving them out of the direct sunlight will ensure that they don’t thaw out too quickly thereby damaging the roots beyond repair. And lastly I mustn’t forget my garden birds. Refilling the feeders hanging in the apple tree will ensure they replenish their body fat and survive this cold spell.

Like most of the extreme winter weather in this country, I’m informed that this wintery landscape will be short-lived and we return to rain and wind tomorrow – as I write the snow is already melting and falling from the branches of my old apple tree. So here are a few pictures I took while out enjoying a snowy white landscape with my dogs this morning.

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Snowy catkins!

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Icicle branches.

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Rabbit footprints.

 

The blooms before the frost

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The start of this week saw our first real frost. The roof of the summer house was white all over and a film of water on the patio table had turned to ice. The day before I had resumed the task of pruning my roses, something I do initially at this time of year to prevent wind rock to the roots if the weather gets bad and then again around February time just to tidy things up. Standing as testament to the mild autumn we have experienced so far, a few of my old English roses are still flowering and producing buds. Rather than leave them where they won’t be much appreciated I picked an armful and brought them indoors where they offer a fragrant reminder of those heady summer days that now seem so far away! This vase contains a mixture of Strawberry Hill, named to commemorate a beautiful house at Twickenham built by Horace Walpole, and Spirit of Freedom, a strong growing large shrub named for the Freedom Association.

This year I’ve decided to give my roses a more severe pruning than usual. There are various theories about rose pruning, from those who recommend light pruning to those who prefer something more severe. I have even heard that you don’t need to prune them at all. Pruning does however have some beneficial effects. It allows you to give each rose a health check and remove any dead or diseased stems. Pruning also ensures that plants grow vigorously and flower well each year. Some varieties of rose have a spreading habit, so pruning back to an inward-facing bud will create more upright growth.

So back to my roses. For the past few years I’ve only pruned very lightly, removing crossing or dead stems and shaping. However this year I found that some of my older roses weren’t looking as healthy as they have been, particularly two of my climbing roses. One, Maid of Kent, normally a vigorous climber that is extremely disease resistant, produced very weedy new growth in the spring and hardly any flowers come the summer. It shares an ornate metal archway that leads into the third room of the garden with a clematis. The wet spring, followed by that gloriously hot summer caused most of the garden to run away in a riot of growth and this particular clematis was no exception. So, rather than face the dilemma of uprooting the rose and not being able to replace it with another for fear of disease, I set about pruning both right back to the ground. I am hoping that with a good feed in the spring this rose will shoot back into life. The other climbing rose I inherited with the garden and so unfortunately it has no name. This rose climbs through the branches of an old apple tree. Because of the upright nature of this rose it has grown straight and tall right to the top of the tree and so any flowers have become difficult to see high up among the thick foliage. I’m hoping that a severe prune will encourage the plant to send up new shoots that will flower at a level I can better appreciate them. I’ll let you know if both plans have worked!

There is one other problem I’m hoping to tackle with a severe pruning of the garden’s roses and that is black spot. It’s a constant battle to control this fungal disease – too much and even too little water can exacerbate it and its spors are easily spread from one plant to another. A good prune, thinning out stems to create more air flow, will help to delay the onset of the fungus. I always follow pruning with a good feed which will assist the plant to , recover from the severe pruning.

Meanwhile, while my vase of blooms last, I can come back indoors, close my eyes and inhale the fragrance of a rose-scented summer to come!

Save our seed!

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I don’t profess any expertise when it comes to propagation but I do like to experiment with cuttings and growing plants from seed. So when our local gardening club advertised a talk from someone from the Heritage Seed Library recently I was keen to go along.

The Heritage Seed Library collects and conserves over 800 historic and heirloom varieties of vegetables from all over northern Europe which would otherwise have disappeared. But what makes the HSL different from other seed libraries is that it makes its seed available to us gardeners, thereby creating a ‘living library’ which will be available to future generations.

As well as showing us seed from endangered and weird and wonderful vegetables such as the huge Sharks Fin Melon, our speaker also gave us some useful tips for saving and growing our own vegetable seed. When collecting seed from any vegetable or other plant be careful which seed you select, as the main rule of thumb seems to be that many seeds will not grow true to type. For instance, eating peas fertilise themselves and so won’t cross themselves. Sweet peas on the other hand are known as outbreeders as they need the pollen from other plants in order to breed. Broccoli is another example. Beetroot for example, can cross with both sugar beet and leaf beet. So can crosses be a good thing? Outbreeding is often used to create varieties of superior quality and the same principle is applied to animal breeding.

Collecting and saving seed

Here is a good tip for collecting allium seeds. Once the allium has finished flowering, shave off the seeds with a penknife. Because by doing this you have retained the mother bulb the allium still wants to propagate, thereby producing small bulbills which will then grow true to the original variety. For all types of bean seed, leave the seeds until they are brown in colour and rustlingly dry. The key to successful storing of any seed is somewhere cold, dark and dry. Use bought paper seed packets or make your own!

There are three main keys to germinating seed – light, temperature and moisture. Some seeds need one or all of these factors in extreme in order to germinate. For instance, parsley can sometimes be difficult, so let the plant set seed and ripen. Put the seed into a paper bag to keep, then 3 weeks before you want to sow, put it into the freezer for at least five days.

So what was the main message I took away from this very interesting talk? Well, saving your own seed may not always give you a plant that is true to the parent but by collecting and sowing your own seed, in three years you will have created a variety that is more ideally suited to your own garden climate. A very rewarding thought!

For more information about the Heritage Seed Library and how to support its work go to: http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/heritage

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