Andrew from Dolton
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In My Garden, February.
22/2/65. "The tall handsome rooms were full of lovely things including a table covered with pots of flowers -- large pitcher orchids, jasmine, aconites and snowdrops -- and looked out on the beautiful frozen garden. Roaring fires, voluptuous cats;..."
Driving home from the pub two toads are in the road by Addisford. I stop the car, they are females swollen with eggs and I help them across. It suddenly feels mild and spring-like, the temperature in the car tonight says 12° Celsius. Winter moths flutter in the head lights. There is a marshy area to my left in the direction the toads were heading and I can hear the sound of males calling; a woman's prerogative, males always arrive at a spawning site first. The toads in my garden love the log pile. Raised on pallets the dampness underneath is a perfect dark hidey-hole of safety and hunting ground. Palmate newts abide in an old boiling pan sunk into the ground. Once the youngsters leave the water after their tadpole stage they live exclusively on land for a couple of years until sexually mature and they return to being aquatic again. The juveniles live amongst protection of the cracks and crevices in the raised beds and terraces I constructed over ten years ago. These also offer refuge and places to bask for lizards which flit about in sun and shady leaves as they hunt out insects. Under sheets of corrugated iron live colonies of slow worms they thrive in the warm dark dryness of this environment. Neither worm nor snake they are lizards too and as summer progresses they are joined by their young; they don't lay eggs as many reptiles do but give birth directly to live thread-like miniature versions of themselves. Occasionally there are grass snakes; sinisterly coiled, poisonous looking, they're harmless, I once saw a buzzard fly over with one hanging from its beak.
When I lived in Sussex the weather was so much more predictable than here. We rarely had the sort of day when there is heavy rain from dawn to evening, also no more near so much of that drizzly misty rain that makes everything so soaking wet. What I don't miss here in Devon are the searing easterly winds blowing icy air straight off the continent, "A wind from the east blows no good for man nor beast". Frozen dry air is blasted into even the most cosily sheltered corner, they would bring with them a black frost. In Devon the weather is far more chaotic and local, from the coast to a moor, in a valley or rolling hills a few kilometres difference is just a tiny step in distance but meteorologically it can be a massive stride. A device that I find most useful is called a Zambretti Forecaster. Made-up of a series of discs and pointers it is a weather computer. You first set the appropriate arrow to wind direction. Then next check your barometer. Then move the inner dial to point at the corresponding millibars on the middle dial. See whether the pressure is rising or falling or staying the same and you will see in a window a letter that relates to the pressure reading. Turn the Forcaster over and on the back tells you what each letter represents: A = SETTLED FINE; H = FAIRLY FINE SHOWERY LATER; P = CHANGABLE, SOME RAIN; finishing all the way through the alphabet at Z = STORMY MUCH RAIN. It is surprisingly accurate for the short term 8 hours or so; more reliable than the Met. Office.
Mild nights in February are nearly always deceptive and the toads take a gamble; if they delay spawning then the ditches and puddles they often use may dry-up before the tadpoles have time to mature, too early and they might become frozen solid. The first fling of winter's over but it's certainly not spring yet.
© AndrewtheGardener 8/2/18.
My first job where I was solely responsible for a garden was for an historic house called Charleston Farmhouse, the country home of Vanessa Bell, sister to Vriginia Woolf, and various other artists and writers, members of the Bloomsbury Group. By the early 1980's the house, garden and art collection was in a terrible condition and The Charleston Trust was set-up to try and restore and preserve some of the collection. Money was raised and an ambitious restoration was begun.
The original garden was laid out in the during the 1920's under the direction of writer, critic and artist Roger Fry. His home Durbins near Guildford had a garden designed by Gertrude Jekyll and the Charleston garden's formal structure with informal plantings owed more than a nod to her. By the time the finial resident Duncan Grant Had died in 1978 it was largely neglected, grassed over with all sorts of inappropriate plants, overgrown dead and dying apple trees. Around 1987 a generous donation from Readers Digest enabled Sir Peter Sheperd to draw out a new design based on what had existed before. There was a wealth of old photographs, a multitude of paintings by the artists (In later life Vanessa Bell had written that she was seldom interested in anything beyond her own door step as subjects for Still life paintings), diaries and letters and peoples memories, in those days they were still many friends and relatives who remembered the garden in its heyday. When I had started in the mid nineties the "new" garden was starting to mature. A garden is a growing changing organism, the Trust never wanted to preserve an unchanging vignette of the past, neither would this have been possible. There was always room for refining and tweaking.
Soon after I started I discovered digging was not just confined to the garden. A wealth of archives, paintings, sketches, diaries, letters, memories and photographs could all be delved into and tapped for information. Constantly new books appeared, biographies, published letters, unseen paintings all needed scrutinising to see if any new information could be gleaned. The writer Frances Partridge occasionally visited, she was part of the Strachey, Carrington, Partridge ménage from Tidmarsh Mill and later Ham Spray. Aged 101, the last time I'd met her, she had first visited Charleston in the 1920's and her acutely sharp memory was always fully taken advantage of. "I remember Carrington planting iris just like that at Tidmarsh", such a portal into a past and vanished world.
Forever an avid reader I devoured any relevant book for information quickly developing a great curiosity for historical facts and information. Frances' diaries, especially 'A Pacifist's War' are some of my favourite literature, every year I re-read the five volumes of Virginia Woolf's diaries as an eagerly anticipated and delicious treat. After I moved on from Charleston I was head gardener at Gravetye Manor, a garden created by the great horticulturalist William Robinson; more research and discoveries to be made. Moving down to Devon 12 years ago I soon found out that the location of my cottage had been the subject of an important photographic study and an internationally important archive was created by James Ravilious whose beautiful photographs documented every day lives of people, places and scenery over 17 years. I am just 10 minutes walk from the river Torridge, where Henry Williamson set his famous book Tarka the Otter and I see otters in the stream in front of my cottage, you hear them most often at night whistling to each other and turning over rocks as they hunt for eels. In recent time there was a film made by Steven Spielberg from the book and play (with incredible puppetry) based on the book War Horse by Michael Morpurgo. Little did I realise that this quiet out of the way piece of North Devon is full of history and interest and bitten by the history bug I have developed a fever for this sort of thing.
Close-by to my cottage is a derelict mill and one day whilst taking some pictures of the decaying house and barns I noticed a rose in the remains of a garden. In fact there were two, I took cuttings of both. One was 'Paul Ricault' and the other probably 'Turner's Crimson'. The mill changed hands a few years ago and the new owner is steadily restoring it. The "garden" has been cleared away and I have offered plants back of both of these. The same distance in the other direction was Bissett Cottage, nothing remains of this dwelling except lilac, periwinkle and masses of Rosa cinnnamomea 'Plena', which was identified by members of HMF. Deep in the woods down by the river is what is left of Dye Cottage, almost completely consumed by woodland now. Last year I noticed a few tiny growths of a rose, very different from the surrounding Rosa arvensis. A small root of this planted in my garden has produced four stems 1.2metres tall which I have great expectation to see in flower. These last two cottages were abandoned around the turn of last century, both the roses have survived at least 120 years.
A week ago I purchased a book written about the history of our village, there have been several other abandoned houses in and around Dolton. Most of the cottages, mine included, are made from cob -- a mixture of straw, mud, manure and stone. It has never been a very prosperous part of the country, in the 1950's you could have purchased one of these little cottages for as little as £100. From around 1800 there was a gradual migration from rural living to people moving into towns. 100 years ago if one fell into such a state of disrepair it was uneconomical to rebuild they were just abandoned and gradually melted back into the soil from which they were created. Today it was too cold to garden so I ventured out for a brisk walk to try and find another site, Tabernacle Cottage sounded intriguing:
"This site on the Dolton -- Beaford road is situated between the side lanes to Iddlecott and to Venton. Its 1/2 acre is now occupied by scrub and a derelict corrugated iron shed + ruined caravan, but in 1842 there was a cottage here housing John Lyne with his blacksmith's business (he was doubtless a relation of the two Lynes, also smiths, at Northbrook Cottage in Dolton). Later in C19 the dwelling was used by farm labourers, but around the turn of the century was demolished; then in the mid-C20 the existing (ruined) structure was built, and was used as a slaughterhouse".
The site in a copse was easy to find, at this time of year it is covered in clumps of snowdrops, a moribund bush of Lonicera nitida and the area is also one great mat of lesser periwinkle, Vinca minor. This plant is interesting; most probably introduced by the Romans, it is doubtful that it ever reproduces sexually. So simple to propagate, every stem will send out roots from pairs of leaves where ever it touches on the soil. It is never found far from cultivation. And also there was a rose! It is growing in amongst the trees it three or four parts. One a lax looking bush, the other trying to climb with stems 3 metres long. I returned tonight and rustled pieces of both. I thought they may have been Rosa multiflora but the stipules are barely ciliated at all, the prickles are short, pale brown and slightly hooked. I will post better pictures as it starts to grow and so with great excitement I will wait until this and the Dye Cottage rose flower this year. I find this detective work utterly fascinating.
Some Scribblings on a Wet and Windy Day.
"The flowers of late winter and early spring occupy places in our hearts well out of proportion to their size."
Gertrude S. Wister
It is now over a month since the shortest day, as the earth begins tilting forwards already the season starts to change. By this time there is almost an hours extra light in the evening than there was at Christmas and in the mornings it's lighter too; you can really notice that the birds are singing audibly louder with a sense of purpose. All along the stream in front of my cottage on the rich silty banks snowdrops are blooming with their icy whiteness and hazel catkins start concertinaing into golden lamb's tails. In the hedgerows honeysuckle shoots are beginning to sprout as are Rosa canina and Rosa dumalis whilst on Rosa arvensis they are still shut quite tight. Hellebores are stretching up but the only one fully out has the rather clumsy name of Helleborus orientalis Lam. subsp. abchasicus Early Purple Group; it has dusky light purple flowers and has been flowering since new year's day. Some roses still hold on to their hips. 'Scharlachglut' makes a big shrub, 2 metres high and wide; the hips are fat and round, the same colour as a pomegranate. Dwarf Rosa multiflora 'Nana' retains its orange/red pip like hips very prettily, nearby 'Mr Bluebird' also does so like wise. The shiny rounded fruits of Rosa virginiana are wider than they are long, bullet hard they hold on until well into the spring. Witch Hazels open now, they are cast iron hardy, what ever winter throws at them their spidery crepe paper flowers unravel with delightful scent. 'Pallida' is bright yellow illuminating the most drear and pinched winter day with bright cheerfulness. It has made a substantial plant now, repaying what was quite an expensive purchase (€40) for a smallish plant, but, after 11 years its has steadily grown into a significant shrub, 2m x 3m, repaying me back a hundred fold and now looks spectacular! I also grow plain mollis too with yolk yellow flowers and the superb red 'Diane'. In recent years many more varieties have come on the market but these three still hold their own and are difficult to surpass. There are also types with purplish flowers, but these in my opinion are just a little bit too much on the brown colour spectrum to be really effective winter flowering plants.
Certain roses are stirring. In a little border along the back of the house the miniature rose chinensis 'Minima' is sprouting as is it's neighbour 'Baby Faurax'. China roses in pots against a sunny wall already have growths 10cm long but they are protected under big sheets of glass, (old conservatory windows), that help keep the worst of the weather off them and some protection form late spring frosts, 'Old Blush' still carries a half opened bud.
The weather still has plenty of scope to deteriorate, heavy snow and hard frost are still easily possible but with every day that passes the likelihood grows slimmer and the duration shorter, after the next four weeks the worst will be behind us and a spring time of colour awaits.
In My Garden, January.
"Nature has undoubtedly mastered the art of winter gardening and even the most experienced gardener can learn from the unrestrained beauty around them."
Vincent A. Simeone
As I lie back in the bath, my skin becoming soft enough to pull the thorns out of my hands; very easily done with nail clippers. I have been training rambler roses. The pruning and cutting of these climbers can easily be done wearing gloves but tying-in the canes can only be done with the extra dexterity of naked hands. If you hold out your left hand side ways on (left handers do the opposite), hold down a piece of string on to the top of this hand using your thumb. Always use natural jute string, with three strand thickness, never nylon or cable ties. Wrap the string around your hand many times. Cut the piece of string on its final return to the thumb. Then, also at this point, cut right through all the whole bundle of string. You will be left with thirty or so 15cm long lengths of twine, the perfect length for trying in most plants. You can vary the length of each batch of pieces by opening or squashing together the fingers of your hand. It is a hack I learnt as a student in the rose garden at Wisley, many years ago, I've constantly used it almost every working day ever since. I always cross over both ends of the string behind each shoot before I tie-in anything, that way you have a little buffer between the stem and the surface of the wire or cane.
By-the-way, roses don't have thorns, they have prickles. A thorn is a modified stem and usually is still a living part of the plant, just look at the younger branches of a blackthorn or a hawthorn tree. A prickle has evolved from hairs on the stem and they gradually dry out and harden as the shoot matures and ripens. The prickles are to help roses climb, or rather hook on to other plants and heave themselves up higher and enjoy more sun. They offer very little protection from browsing animals, anyone who has ever had deer in their garden will know that roses are the first plants they'll strip bare of any new shoots.
One of the roses I was tying-up was a member of a group known as the "mauve ramblers", Rosa multiflora hybrids that were mostly raised in the first part of last century. The colour of the flowers ranges from mauve to almost indigo, at times they can show the truest tints of blue as any rose flower. Dark purple and violet 'Bleu Magenta' thornily embraces the shell pink 'Debutante', an inspiration from the National Trust's garden, Mottisfont, in Somerset. Please consider 'Debutante' instead of 'Dorothy Perkins', it has flowers scented like primroses and are presented in a far more elegant way than the brash blousiness of Perkins. Another combination I find most satisfactory is 'Aschermittwoch', ('Ash Wednesday'), a hybrid between a wild sweet briar rose and a deep pink hybrid-tea. It is not everyone's favourite as the flowers are a pale greyish pink, described by some as looking like "poorly nourished flesh". Its companion is called 'William Lobb', not strictly a climber but it makes a rather lax bush that works well with some support. The flowers are deepest magenta-purple and lavishly scented. It is also a moss rose which means its stems are covered in masses of hairs and fine prickles which when rubbed leave behind the most delicious resin scent on your fingers. The two flowers, dark and pale compliment each other, highlighting the contrasts of both the different colours.
Outside the warm secureness of my bathroom it is bitterly cold, the rain lashes and the wind howls. To most rose growers scratches and prickles are not an issue, all we see are the flowers to come in summer time. I feed the birds with leftover Christmas biscuits, at the windows my cats stare owlishly out.
© AndrewtheGardener 15/1/18