Friday, 20 December 2013

The shortest day, the longest night

Enjoying a German rose-garden alongside the River Rhein
Tomorrow (21st December) is the winter equinox when dark far outstrips daylight and time to be out of doors has to be squeezed between all other tasks and daily chores. I fell to thinking about our garden, orchard and nut plat, high in the north Cotswolds, and about all the gardens I have visited throughout the year. About gardening in general in fact – it’s a good time to reflect on the concept of a garden, and what it is that is so compulsive about the thought, or act, of gardening.

By definition, a garden is “a piece of ground, often near a house, used for growing flowers, fruit or vegetables; and ornamental gardens laid out for enjoyment and recreation.” Simplistic, but true nevertheless, though for me a garden is about the plants that surround me, the varied wild-life that is attracted to the spaces created for them, the weather – benign or otherwise.

I find the tracery of branches against a winter sky quite magical
Sometimes a pen and notebook is more useful than a camera
My camera is not always to hand, though my notebook usually is, but frequent recording and note-booking of what I see, and how the garden looks, brings joy or despair (in equal measure), yet enables long-term planning. It isn’t just about growing crops or decorative plants, but about the ambience into which one becomes absorbed. And the fact that no matter how long one has been ‘gardening’, there is always something new to learn, new plants to inspire, shows and gardens to explore, and, for those of artistic bent, a hundred-and-one ways to interpret all this natural glory.

Bliss to be working in the garden on a Summer's day
I urge everyone reading this blog to set down what it is that inspires YOU – a series of topics or headings: start perhaps with your own garden (crops, plot design, plants for cutting, new techniques, new plants to try) and then move on to ‘beyond the garden gate’. 

Properly proportioned tools are easiest for the grandchildren
There are bittersweet moments in my reveries. I remember the time when we would ‘borrow’ our grandchildren for much-needed images of children working in their garden. Though it was part of the area being reclaimed at the time: and the little beds are still there, ten years later, overtaken by weeds. All our grandchildren are now beyond the primary school stage, but nevertheless, it is a joy to see the enthusiasm with which schools are addressing ‘learning to grow’ topics.

Malvern in the Spring
So one of the first on my list of ‘must visit’ garden shows this coming year will be the ‘Three Counties RHS Malvern Spring Festival’ (formerly the Malvern Spring Gardening Show), from 8th-11th May, 2014 – “bursting with spring flowers, gardening, shopping & food” and, as ever, so much to see and do, including practical planning workshops for first-time gardeners. The School Gardens Challenge is bound to wow visitors with the thought and ingenuity that goes into all the educational work at Malvern. And at Chelsea (May 20th-24th), young designers will be showcasing their work – a stepping-stone on their way to a career in horticulture. There are lots of other RHS Shows around the country of course besides Malvern and Chelsea, and some of this year’s blog-posts were transmitted ‘live’ from various show-grounds. 

North Yorkshire - the Deer Park at Fountains Abbey
(image ©National Trust Andrew Butler)
Visits to Shows can be exhausting – one does not want to miss a single activity, but a gentle stroll around a National Trust garden can be taken at a more leisurely pace. Many are on a grand-scale but nevertheless, there’s always something that will trigger new thoughts, be it a walk through the woods, or a cheeky scarecrow in a newly-renovated vegetable plot. Such visits also offer an opportunity for capturing photographic images and making notes or sketches. Visits can be the spark that lights the way towards other creative endeavours – your own garden journal, blog or other creative enterprise. It’s a question of keeping your eyes open, and that is often easiest if you go alone, or act independently if you are with friend or partner. And if the image above inspires you, what could be more refreshing than walking through the beautiful landscaped Georgian water garden of Studley Royal at the National Trust’s Fountains Abbey, near Ripon, North Yorkshire, complete with Neo-classical statues, follies and breathtaking views. Along with the Cistercian Abbey, landscaped garden, medieval deer park and the water garden, you can experience a magical family day out through December (apart from 25th/26th) and the whole of January.

A surprise visitor
Back at home, remember that not all wild-life hibernates throughout the winter, and birds particularly need all the help they can get to survive. With so much removal of cover in roadside hedgerows, our gardens and shrubberies offer a safe haven. Ensure your bird-feeders are kept clean and topped up and maybe you will be surprised and pleased to see some new faces (or beaks). Our delight has been the timid nuthatch which in all our years here since 1969 has never been seen in our garden or orchard. It’s not a regular visitor, but comes and goes. 

Autumn Bounty could perhaps be achieved again
Gardening is good for you – fresh air, exercise and a calming influence on the mind. Hopefully, I will again be producing bumper crops next year and will be spending the Christmas break trawling through the Dobies catalogue once more, whilst reading and researching new topics to bring to you. The Blog in its present guise is evidently being revamped from the beginning of January onto a new platform – I am sure the Dobies tech-guys will tell you how to re-register.

A simple photograph, digitally manipulated
Meanwhile, our very best wishes for the Festive Season and a happy New Year; and thank you for your interest and support throughout the last twelve months.

Don't forget to  visit the Dobies' website for all your gardening needs and requirements. You may particularly like: vegetable seedsvegetable plants, flower seeds, flower plants, herbs, fruit and equipment. And don't forget their regular mailings and special offers online. Just keep visiting so you don't miss anything special. 

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Important news about the blog

I'm pleased to announce that 'Dobies of Devon' blog will be moving to a brand new home in January 2014.

The web tech-guy has been hard at work and he's pretty much finished and I'm assured that everything's been successfully migrated and the new blog will provide lots of exciting new features, a brand new look and it also looks rather good on all the latest devices.

I will update this post once I have anything further to add.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

December miscellany

Narcissi from the florist and
twigs from the garden
As we all rush towards Christmas willy-nilly – or it towards us – it is all too easy to become absorbed in the usual commercial hype, and forget that it is meant to be a time of peace and good will. And what better way to take stock than to walk around the garden and mentally note what could be cut and brought indoors to beautify your living space. Truly, it can have a calming influence, as I found when I clipped a spray of hazel to add to this vase of paperwhites.  Normally, I would have had my own already in flower but this year has not gone according to plan and nothing garden-wise is as it should be. So I bought these, to support a newly-opened local florist in town.

Clipped in stages to maintain
continuity of winter flowering
Evergeens are much in evidence within our acre, from clipped box to sprawling ivy, hollies of various types which are a mass of berries until the birds steal them, and the silvery-sage scimitar-leaved eucalyptus planted in the orchard hedge. And right outside our back door is a magnificent specimen of the evergreen Viburnum tinus ‘Eve Price’ planted to remind me of days in Italy when container-grown specimens surrounded outdoor ristorante. Mine outgrew its large terracotta pot some while back, cracked it in fact, but no matter as the hrub, clipped regularly, still thrives and hides ugly calor-gas cylinders! Other pleasures at this time of year within sight of our kitchen window are brightly-berried cotoneasters and pyracantha, and in flower the sweetly-scented deciduous Viburnum farreri / fragrans – its abundant pale pink flowers a joy on a dull day.

Mahonia 'Charity'
Equally joyous is our sentinel evergreen Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ with spikes of golden sweetly-scented flowers that literally glow against a dark sky; dense yet easily controlled, ours shelters us from the night-time glare of lights from the pub across the road. Bees and other insects love the nectar – and readers of this blog will be pleased to learn that plants are now available online from Dobies – in fact the website lists four pages of trees and shrubs that will delight the eye and provide cover and food for wildlife as well. 

Camellia vernalis 'Yuletide' - a birthday gift
Indoors our deep windowsills provide space for a selection of plants brought in from outdoors – they would not withstand our cold north-Cotswold climate, although to date we have had hardly a touch of frost, but north-easterly winds have been colder and stronger than in most years. So scented pelargoniums now release their fragrance whenever I touch their leaves – they miss the hot sunshine and bright light level of summer, but keeping the shoots pinched back will I hope stand them in good stead when threat of frost is past and I can move them outdoors again into the herb garden. Scented, too, are the flowers of a recent acquisition to which I succumbed – the bright red single flowers of Camellia vernalis ‘Yuletide’ with neater evergreen leaves than the japonica varieties. I grew camellias for a number of years when we lived in Surrey but had not come across these early flowering varieties (November to January) which can be grown in a pot if desired – mine is now temporarily in the living room but will go into the revamped shrubbery-cum-herbacious area in the Spring. Dobies usually stock japonica varieties whose flowering period is between February and April.

Whilst thinking about the garden from the comfort of my workroom (I’ve come inside out of the drizzle!) – I’m indulging in a little retail therapy and making notes of how I hope the garden could develop next year. I hold in my hands a copy of a recently published title, ‘The Flower Recipe Book’ by Alethea Harampolis & Jill Rizzo. Oh this makes the heart sing – this is a book for anyone who loves to create floral displays that look natural, nothing contrived or stiff, in simple yet striking containers. There are ‘recipes’ for 100 magical, sculptural and seasonal step-by-step arrangements with basics for rules that aren’t rules but meant to be broken so you can use or substitute what you like. You’ll soon be thinking colour and shape and form – work your way through the book now, analyse what you like, what you already grow, what you don’t but wish you did, and consider how you could replace plant material that does not suit your circumstances. Illustrations are simply gorgeous and techniques are clearly explained. Your home will never be the same again. Published by Artisan, buy it online here.

Feeding the soul is one thing, but it is equally important to care for the body, and my other suggested addition to your bookshelf is ‘Herbal Antivirals’ by Stephen Harrod Buhner. Published this month by Storey Publishing, and subtitled “natural remedies for emerging and resistant viral infections”, this title follows SHB’s former book, ‘Herbal Antibiotics’ and is a treatise on herbal medicine and herbl plants. As I am no expert in the medical field, and indeed – though a lover of herbal tea – have absolutely no knowledge of the use of plants to combat viruses, let me offer instead the publisher’s press information that I received along with the book itself: “Emerging viruses are becoming more virile and aggressive, and traditional medications are becoming less effective against them. The author offers in-depth instructions on how to prepare and use herbal formulations to strengthen the immune system and treat vital infections". Interesting that I was given home-made elderberry syrup as a child in the late 30s to combat sore-throats and colds (to which I was prone). Buy it online here.

Next week, as a further prelude to the festive season, I'll touch on how gardens influence our lives. Meanwhile, don't forget to visit the Dobies website for last minute Christmas gifts.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Winter walks and garden discoveries

My blog story to celebrate 'National Tree Week' is a little different - so I
hope you enjoy the change in presentation, relevant to the chosen topic.

Don't forget to  visit the Dobies' website for all your gardening needs and requirements. You may particularly like: vegetable seedsvegetable plants, flower seeds, flower plants, herbs, fruit and equipment. And don't forget their regular mailings and special offers online. Just keep visiting so you don't miss anything special. 

Monday, 25 November 2013

On the Shelf - or your wish list

Plenty of inspiration and joyous material in my Christmas book selection

With Christmas almost upon us, and books very much a suitable gift to give to a gardening friend (or to add to your own wish list), I have assembled a selection of titles to inspire you. All are new releases, or recently published. I have concentrated not just on ‘a good read’ but on the fact that so many visitors to this blog also have an artistic bent, or would like to develop skills in recording in various ways their garden and their visits to gardens.

A book to dip into every month - or every day
Last week, in the Dobies November e-newsletter, I introduced you to ‘The Joy of Allotments – an illustrated diary of Plot 19’ by Caroline Deput (published by Souvenir Press). I showed you the cover, which is a joy in itself, but did not have space for including something from the actual book. Every page brings joyful discoveries of Caroline’s allotment in Richmond (London), all handwritten alongside her exquisite drawings. With every month covered, it should certainly inspire you to start your own sketchbook/diary. Buy yourself a spiral artist’s sketchbook, a waterproof pen and a tiny paintbox or some coloured pencils. Open the page, and start – and if the thought alarms you but you are determined to try, cut and paste magazine images or old Dobies catalogues (collage) and add your own notes. A useful online source of supplies is 'Great Art'.

Did you as a child read and fall in love with the books of Beatrix Potter? Held them in your hands (even learned to read by pouring over the pages) and maybe entered another world where you might, like Peter Rabbit, crawl under the garden gate and encounter a garden full of vegetables? Or Jemima Puddleduck sitting her eggs. I certainly did and, years later realised the significance of Beatrix  Potter, her life in the Lake District and her indomitable spirit. Her story is woven so skilfully into a new book, ‘Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life’ by author Marta McDowell, that you will be beguiled into far more than those Tales. For the book is the first to explore Beatrix Potter’s love of gardening and covers the plants and places that inspired her classic tales through a highly scholarly account that you will find hard to put down until you have read it cover to cover. Published in November 2013 by Timber Press.

‘Just Vegetating, A Memoir’ by Joy Larkcom was published last year by Frances Lincoln and is one of those ‘must-haves’ that hardly ever stays on my shelf, for I dip into it constantly. Read it of course for its content, but if you are a would-be diarist and author, analyse the skill with which it is put together and the chatty way that JL pulls you into her gardening world. I remember the day I first came across Joy’s design for a tiny potager (in the Sunday Telegraph magazine, I think) and the way she combined salads and edible flowers for their look as much as their taste. I was hooked and have read and now own all of her books. They are Gardening Bibles par excellence.  In ‘Just Vegetating’, we are led from 1976, back in the days before supermarkets sold bags of mixed salad leaves, to the time when Joy Larkcom and her husband set off  around Europe with her husband, two children and a caravan in a search for seeds of rare vegetable varieties. The rest is history and much of it is detailed within these pages.

From books that talk about actual gardening and growing to three that will encourage and inspire your attempts to put thoughts, plans and results onto paper. More than analytical lists of what you sow, grow and harvest, your ongoing records can become hand-made artefacts of beauty.

‘Paper to Petal’ by Rebecca Thuss and Patrick Farrell, published earlier this year by Potter Craft (Random House) took me back to time spent with my grandmother during World War Two and just after, when she decorated her house in winter with enormous Oriental Poppies made from luscious crepe paper (not the thin sort all too frequently on offer now). There’s no need to spend hard-earned money on ‘artificial flowers’ for online good quality supplies are available and listed. Detailed instructions, templates and techniques along with magnificent photographs will enable you to make a vast range of individual paper flowers and theatrical displays – perfect for festivals if nothing else.

Photographers may be overwhelmed by ‘A Beautiful Mess’ – if all that you have snapped to date have been gardens or flower and vegetable portraits. Created by sisters Elsie Larson and Emma Chapman and just published by Amphoto Books (distributed in the UK by The Guild of Master Craftsmen), this title is an eye-opener. It’s a photo ideas book for photographing “your friends, your world and yourself” and whilst, from a gardener’s viewpoint, it may appear at first to be far too way-out for the seriously sedate, you’d be surprised at the ideas that will spring into your brain and through the lens. So go ahead, open your eyes and your mind to new creative possibilities, grab your camera, challenge yourself, fall in love with photography and capture your everyday gardening life in beautiful and amazing images.

I have left until last a book that should appeal to anyone who wants to create their own journal rather than work in one bought off the shelf. Indeed ‘Journal Your Way’ is a journal-maker’s bible, or will become so, for it is an amalgamation of two excellent previously published books (‘The Decorated Page’, 2004 and ‘The Decorated Journal’, 2005), but with much additional content. Written and contrived by the marvellous Gwen Diehn, and published in September by Lark Books, you will be led on your own self-directed book-making adventure. Whether you want to record your travels and garden visits or just jot down your daily thoughts, this book will show you how to select, design and create custom-made journals that will enhance the experiences you wish to document – a new and exciting adventure.

Click on any of the links given above to take you to that specific title on the Amazon website – you can actually ‘look inside’ many of the books online. And don’t forget that Dobies have an excellent selection of books to offer in their own booklist. Click HERE to go to the Dobies gardening bookstore website.

Don't forget to  visit the Dobies' website for all your gardening needs and requirements. You may particularly like: vegetable seedsvegetable plants, flower seeds, flower plants, herbs, fruit and equipment. And don't forget their regular mailings and special offers online. Just keep visiting so you don't miss anything special. 

Friday, 1 November 2013

Catalogue Trawl Two – and a bit of play

Garden reclamation is in progress
I seem to have spent more time in the garden this last month than in all the rest of the summer. It’s been so warm and the forecast gales never materialised and so virtually everyday has seen me outside with saw, pruners and secateurs. It’s been a controlled hack-back using steps or a newly acquired sturdy platform (more of that next month), initially sawing through over-tall branches and then today, cutting and shaping. Whilst I cut and then carted the prunings down to the bottom of the orchard, my husband set about the bonfire, compost heap and raking windfall apples for the hens. There’s so much still to tackle, but I am determined to have the acre more under control before the New Year!

Fallen leaves have their uses in more ways than one.
It hasn’t been all reclamation, for as readers are no doubt already aware, our garden is my creative springboard. I spent an hour walking in the neighbourhood taking photos of trees, whilst collecting fallen leaves with typically Autumn colours. These have been rinsed and are in the press ready for mounting into a tiny handmade journal with cheesecloth pages and mounting made from tea-bag papers. We are awash with tea so that I have sufficient – they lie around the house drying on radiators!!

Hanging baskets add that extra dimension to house and garden.
It is whilst undertaking these activities that I mentally plan changes to the garden, thinking ahead as to what we need a) to eat and b) to furnish my artistic passions. Both are equally important. So out came the Dobies 2014 catalogue again in the evenings and my sketchbook with a page per area of the garden – ready to list where I would sow flowers – flowers for there inherent beauty, flowers for cutting, flowers for wild-life and flowers to eat. It must be at least three years since I last revamped various gardens-within-gardens; oh how time flies.

Meet Chris Spanton
Selecting seeds for any garden is always involves tough decisions; as the list grows, the garden seems to shrink – so it pays to be selective and think what you want to achieve.  The 2014 Dobies catalogue is better than ever, but first let me introduce you to Chris Spanton who is always in search of the best new varieties, selecting flowers that will give the best garden performance. This year there is a helpful section on the three main flower plant types (page 62) – annuals, biennials and perennials, alongside a guide to sowing and transplanting. Ideal if you are new to this gardening game and don’t know what to select – for they all look lovely.

Calendula 'Daisy May'
Annuals are by far the quickest and easiest for an immediate display, flowering in the same year they are sown. Even these however are subdivided into two: Hardy Annuals (HA), which are the toughest and can be sown outdoors from March onwards, or even in the Autumn when they will flower much earlier in the following Summer. Many cottage garden flowers fall into this category: calendula (pot marigold), cornflower, echium (for bees), larkspur, linaria, nasturtium, nigella and sunflower to list just a few. Allow them to self-seed and you will be pleasantly surprised when new plants appear and flower much earlier than you might otherwise expect.

Aren't these glorious?
Cosmos 'Feng Shui'
Half-hardy annuals (HHA) are more tender and would most likely succumb to late frosts if sown outdoors, so seed is best sown thinly in pots or trays in the greenhouse or on a kitchen or conservatory windowsill and pricked out into small pots until sufficiently large to transplant outdoors. Actually, these can of course be sown outside – later than hardy annuals and it’s also surprising how self-set seeds will survive in the ground to germinate in late Spring, if left to their own devices. Some of my favourite HHA are cosmos, lobelia, French and African marigolds which I always thought were known as tagetes, plus rudbeckia and zinnia.

A heritage sweet-pea
'Cupani' c.1699
And of course Sweet Peas, which have obtained cult status and multi-classification. Actually, they are in fact a hardy annual but to get the best flowers – and prize-winning blooms – they are best treated as an HHA and sown indoors in January or February for really early flowers or direct outside in April or May. But watch those slugs and sparrows! Probably because I lack the patience of the dedicated sweet pea grower, I prefer the almost wild ‘Cupani’ – the original sweet pea that was introduced into Britain in 1699 by a monk. It has small flowers in a deep purple/cerise and the most heavenly scent.

Amazing 'Root Trainers' - I'll definitely be trialling these
This coming year I will cultivate patience, and endeavour, as my teachers so regularly used to tell me, “to do better”.  Encouraged I am sure by sowing seed in the very clever ‘Root Trainers’. These clever clusters of pots have unique deep-ribbed cells that encourage a strong fibrous root system, ideal for seedlings with brittle roots such as sweet peas which hate root disturbance. Simply ‘open’ the cells and lift out each plant, ensuring you use a slim transplanting trowel (see page 95, ref 58 45 42) to prepare appropriately deep planting holes. It’s always best to consider the root structure of any seedling and when sowing in seed trays (as detailed in last week’s blog), ensure you have ready an appropriate selection of pots and trays for growing on. Small, medium and large sizes are available (see page 83), the handy trays into which the trays slot make for easy transportation from potting bench to garden.

Three pot sizes will cover most potting-on needs.

Honesty flowers are purple or white, but
it's the seedpods that beguile.
Moving on to Biennials and Perennials – which this year are listed within their own catalogue section Pages 96-101); a helpful idea for anyone not familiar with the various nomenclatures. Biennials cover such well-loved names as digitalis (foxglove), wallflower and honesty with its glorious ‘everlasting’ papery seedheads. You sow them one year, nurture them into the next, and then they will flower, to die when the year is over. If left to self-seed, or you sow every year after the first batch, you will have ongoing displays. However, as with most plants grown from seed, there’s an overlap; what to sow and when, and how to cultivate once past seedling or transplant stage, depends so much on soil, location, and above all, the season; and climate change. Tender plants that will bloom almost all year in the south-west may struggle to survive even with protection in the far north of Scotland. 

A touch of nostalgia - Aquilegia (Columbine) 'Cottage Garden Mixed'.
Perennials once established come up year after year, though even they need attention and some are short-lived and best treated as a biennial. Into the perennial category come all the stalwarts of the herbaceous border: achillea, delphinium, eryngium, helenium, hollyhock, lupin, pansy, polyanthus, primrose, verbascum, and a whole lot more. My favourite I think, because it suits our soil and survives the easterly winds of Spring, has to be the columbine – aquilegia to give it its botanical name. There are many types from the long-spurred to ‘granny’s bonnets’ which look just as their name describes. I can see that my garden in 2014 will be ‘blooming marvellous’ with more space devoted to decorative plants  than to veg – two of us do not consume as much food as when we were a family of five, so the house can instead be filled with flowers.

Don't forget to  visit the Dobies' website for all your gardening needs and requirements. You may particularly like: vegetable seedsvegetable plants, flower seeds, flower plants, herbs, fruit and equipment. And don't forget their regular mailings and special offers online. Just keep visiting so you don't miss anything special.