Showing posts with label cottage garden. Show all posts
Showing posts with label cottage garden. Show all posts

Early Spring - too warm too soon!


I love my springtime clutter here in this 200 year old house. It has been unusually warm and sunny here for a couple of weeks, and that means that when the weather changes, as it is going to do later on this week, and becomes much much colder - with frosts too - the incautious blossoms will be nipped. 

Currently wondering if I can cover the beautiful magnolia stellata with something to protect it. At least the very old apple tree at the bottom of the garden is always very careful and bides its time! 

Vegetables No More


One of my very few successes.

Anyone who has followed this blog in its various incarnations over the years will know that I'm quite a keen gardener, albeit not so keen that my garden could ever be described as 'manicured'. It's a nice old cottage garden, with lots of wildlife. I don't use sprays and pesticides, I tend to let things grow more than they should, and there's plenty of cover for the forty or so sparrows, among many other birds, beasts and insects that call this place their home.

This year, inspired partly by friends proudly displaying all their sumptuous home grown produce on Facebook, and partly by the likelihood of Brexit related food shortages (I'll say the bloody B word, even if the wretched BBC won't) we thought we would grow some veg this year. 

It hasn't been what you would call an unqualified success.

Crunch time came at the weekend, when we dug up two potato pots and harvested what looked like a pretty good crop of nice pink potatoes. Reader, I cleaned them and cooked them. What emerged was a large pan containing a small amount of wallpaper paste, in which were floating a few pieces of tough skin. I cried out of pure rage and frustration. 

There are times, plenty of them these days, when I wish I was Deborah Meaden. Quite apart from the fact that she always comes across as such a lovely lady, I remember her saying that she 'never cooks'. I too would love to be somebody who never cooks. A little light baking would be nice but that's all. 

Back to the veg. The garden is organised to make it easier to look after. We're neither of us getting any younger, or any richer, we're still working more or less full time and Alan's severe mobility problems make it all a challenge. So I thought I'd try growing vegetables, salad stuff etc in containers. We had plenty of good rich compost from the compost heap at the bottom of the garden.

It started off pretty well: tatties, spinach, chard, runner beans, courgettes, dill, salad leaves and, indoors, chilis and aubergines. The young spinach and salad leaves (especially something called senape) were very nice for about three weeks. The dill was good too and it's still growing out there. I've been using it all summer on the excellent Ayrshire tatties bought in one of our local farm shops, about a hundred yards along the road from there they grow them. We have mint and thyme and chives too. I'm actually quite good with herbs. 

I'm not so good with vegetables.

I've had three courgettes of which one was so small that it hardly counted. Lots of flowers, no courgettes. The beans got eaten, but not by me. The field mice got to a lot of the young plants in the cold frame, before ever they could be planted out. The chard bolted before it really looked like chard. The compost turned out to have a lot of weed seeds in it, so I've lost count of the number of nettle stings I've had from pulling out young nettles while trying to get at the spinach and salad. And if anyone tells you young nettle leaves don't sting, they're havering. As you can see from the picture, I have more chilis than any human being would use, or want to freeze, so I'll give many of them away. I also have two, count them, two tiny aubergines. 

Do not ask about tomatoes. We used to try to grow tomatoes until a couple of years ago when a nunber of lovingly tended, fed and watered plants yielded two tiny tomatoes. 

As a consolation prize, the old apple tree at the bottom of the garden is having a very good year, so there will be lots of apples, and a few apple pies and crumbles if I can bring myself to make them. 

As for the potatoes: well  after I had drained the pan, fished out the bits of skin and added a large quantity of butter to the miniscule amount of tasteless paste that remained, Alan said it was OK. I ate a few oven chips instead. 

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Two tiny aubergines

Roses and Writing: Perseverance Pays


I seem to be writing a lot of posts about roses just now, but they really have been spectacular this year here in Scotland! 

About twenty five years ago - perhaps a little more - we had an expedition to beautiful Holker Hall with good friends. That's a picture of our respective kids, before they became all grown up - Charlie and Lucy. 

They had got candy canes from the gift shop and were busy sucking away at them to turn them into sharp points, so that they could duel with them, as far as I remember! 

It was at Holker that I first saw how rambling roses could be grown into trees and how beautiful they looked. So the following year, I managed to buy a couple of suitably tall ramblers from David Austin Roses: Paul's Himalayan Musk, and another called Rosa Felipes Kiftsgate. 

It was ambitious, but we do have a handful of quite tall trees in our cottage garden.

Paul's Himalayan Musk took off right away. It was a few years before it was properly established, but look at it now. 

Kiftsgate was different though. It grew a bit, and then seemed to get some kind of fungus. I cut it back and left it alone. It grew again, but not much. And to be honest, I kind of forgot about it. It had been planted in a little shrubbery, with a gorgeous holly tree that grew taller every year. Sometimes I would see a few flowers, and sometimes I would trim back a bit of the resulting growth. Often I would think I should get rid of it, but then I would forget and just leave it to its own devices. The slightly chaotic shrubbery with holly, honeysuckle, spiraea and philadelphus, provides great cover for the smaller birds in summer and winter alike, so we trim it back a little, but otherwise leave it alone.  

Cue forward to this year, which has been a bumper year for roses of all kinds. The Himalayan Musk had flowered and mostly died back by last week, when I was standing beside the holly tree and suddenly noticed that here and there were clutches of rosebuds. Lots and lots and lots of them. 

Quietly and without fuss, Kiftsgate has clambered up and through the bigger branches of the holly tree - and here it is, twenty five years later, flowering beautifully and almost reaching the top of the holly. When I walk down the garden at night, I can smell the gorgeous scent of it. I can see it from my window as I type this.

As with writing, sometimes gardening just takes a little time and patience! 

Where do the crows roost at night?

Drawing by Alan Lees 

 The birds in our garden have pretty much kept me sane throughout the past covid infested months. Especially a pair of very large crows - carrion crows, I think - that have become reasonably tame over the summer. At first they would watch me from a distant rooftop and only come down into the garden once I was safely indoors. 

Now they watch me from our own rooftop, and will even come down onto the bird table when I'm still in the garden. A couple of weeks ago when we were taking advantage of the last of the fine weather, sitting outside for a late afternoon glass of wine with our immediate neighbours, they even flew down to have their customary supper from a smaller feeder, with a drink of water from the bird bath afterwards. We carried on talking and they carried on eating, glancing around occasionally to make sure that we were still in friendly mode.

I put out a seed mix for the birds - we have a lot of small birds in this garden: sparrows, tits, robins, wrens, blackbirds and many more, as well as bigger birds like wood pigeons and collar doves. There are covids in plenty: jackdaws on all the roofs, rooks in the trees in the overgrown field at the bottom of the garden, and a pair of magpies that are not very welcome since they do tend to bully the smaller birds. However, there is plenty of cover for the wee ones in this garden, so they should be OK.

The crows are shown a great deal of respect by everyone else. It's fascinating to watch them. They don't seem to be particularly aggressive, but the smaller birds, and even the smaller corvids, always give way to them. 

Very occasionally I'll put out a bit of stale bread. The crows love it, but they will dip it in the bird bath till it's nice and soft, like dunking a biscuit I suppose. Sometimes, with a particularly hard bit of crust, they will leave it in the water for a few moments, eat a bit more seed, and then come back to it. 

What I really want to know though, is where they roost at night? I assume it must be in one of the bigger trees. We have old fashioned hedges and a big viburnum, and I know that's where all the sparrows hang out. The blue tits and the robin commandeer a holly tree. The pigeons take shelter in a tall fir tree, very thick at the top. The jackdaws lurk among the chimney pots.

But I've never managed to see exactly where the crows go to roost. And they're so big that you'd think it would be obvious. 

Casual Gardening: The Rampant Rose

Paul's Himalayan Musk in full bloom
I've decided to try to write a weekly post about gardening, as well as everything else, since every time I put something about our cottage garden on Facebook and Instagram, people seem to be interested. And gardening is another subject that often finds its way into my fiction.

To tell the truth, I'm a fairly casual gardener, albeit an enthusiastic one so that's what these posts will be labelled as: Casual Gardening. Almost everything grows for me. That may be because we have a sheltered, south facing cottage garden that is some 200 years old, which means that it's incredibly fertile. Or it just may be because I talk to my plants ...

The picture above is of a rambling rose - boy does it love to climb - called Paul's Himalayan Musk, bought about twenty plus years ago from David Austin Roses. I first saw this rose at a place called Holker Hall in the Lake District where the gardens are fabulous. The roses there are spectacularly beautiful and I immediately wanted a rose clambering through a tree in our own cottage garden. Which is what you can see in the picture. It has a flowering period of a few weeks, although it doesn't repeat flower. But it's worth the wait and the flowers last quite a long time. It's a robust but incredibly elegant rose that grows very quickly. The scent is just wonderful. I'm looking at it now through the window of my office and thinking how beautiful it is with the evening light turning the flowers a deep pink - much deeper than in the photograph.The pink colour also deepens as the flowers mature.

Back then, I just planted it and let it go. Which it did, climbing through the tree at a rate of knots. Periodically, we get somebody to chop it back a bit, which is - it has to be admitted - a prickly job. But that's all the care it seems to need - and it doesn't even need to be done every year.

It seems to like rain and sunshine - we have lots of both. We have fairly mild winters here in the West of Scotland, but we still get hard frosts from time to time, and it doesn't mind those either. I suppose the clue is in the name 'Himalayan.' These are old, tough varieties, and they seem to like the climate in Scotland and the North of England as well as anywhere.

Rampant, robust and extremely rewarding.

Cottage Garden Favourites: Canary Island Broom

When I'm not writing, at the moment, I'm spending a lot of time in the garden. Still, the weeds are growing too fast for me to keep up to them, the ground elder in particular, which was seemingly introduced by the Romans (drat them) and is said to be edible. I haven't tried it, but it certainly smells lovely and I'll admit that I often leave bits of it to flower, because the blossoms are very pretty. I'm saying 'leave' but in reality, because it runs along under the ground, it's almost impossible to get rid of  it without resorting to weed killers, and I don't like them.

Anyway, in a cottage garden like mine, it doesn't seem to matter too much if there's a certain untidiness and wildness. Lots of shelter for the birds!

One of my favourite shrubs is this one, pictured above. Everyone thinks it's a forsythia, but it isn't. It's a Canary Island broom. I can't remember where I bought it, but it was a very small, thin plant and like everything else in this ancient garden it has grown into this robust monster! It seems to like it here. It flowers quite late in Ayrshire. This is it in full bright bloom, more or less at the same time as the dazzling 'whins' or gorse bushes, and the may blossoms, in all the country round about.

By the way, the old saying 'ne'er cast a clout till may be out' refers to the may or hawthorn blossoms and not the month. I'll post some pictures of them soon, when they're at their best. We have a big hawthorn in the hedge at the bottom of the garden.

I grew up knowing with absolute certainty that you should never bring these blossoms into your house. I suspect this belief came from my Irish nana, Honora Flynn. It was deemed to be unlucky. The reason for this may have been as prosaic as the fact that the heady scent attracts insects, but I think it much more likely that - as a tree often dedicated to the fairies, or 'good people' - you meddle with it at your peril. So you should admire, but don't chop. That's what my nana thought, anyway.

Meanwhile, the may is just coming into beautiful scented bloom here, so you can take off your winter woollies. Allegedly.

Our Cottage Garden - The Pound Shop Amelanchier

Some years ago I visited a friend who had a beautiful, elegant, delicate tree in her garden (we sat under it in the summer sun and drank gin and tonic!) I asked her what it was and she said it was called an Amelanchier. And yes, I had to look it up because I couldn't figure out how on earth to spell it.

Cue forward a little while and I came across a small, weedy plant in a Pound Shop. It was fainting from lack of water, and it didn't look very healthy, but when I examined the packet I saw that it was labelled Amelanchier - the only one on the whole stand, among the more commonplace trees and shrubs. So I decided it was well worth risking my pound on, took it home, nurtured it a bit and finally thought I could risk planting it out in the garden.

That was some four or five years ago, and just look at it now! It is probably the most beautiful thing in the garden - delicate, elegantly shaped and with gorgeous, fine blossoms. A pound well spent.

That's what gardening is all about for me. Not paying a fortune for high concept designs and expensive plants, but looking for wonderful finds in unexpected places and bringing out the best in them. Not a bad motto for life and maybe for writing too!

Meanwhile, you could do worse than explore the Pound Shops, and other bargain shops, which all tend to have stands of inexpensive shrubs, trees and other plants outside at this time of the year. But even in your local garden centre, there are amazing bargains to be found languishing in some sad corner: plants that may seem to be past their best, but only need food and water and dead-heading; plants that are just out of season, but will be wonderful if you can wait for next year; trays of annuals that are root bound and have dried out a bit and need potting on. All of them tend to be sold off at bargain prices, so if you're working to a budget but still want a nice garden, use your imagination and do a bit of rescue and rehoming. The plants will thank you for it.