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.