Friday, 17 April 2015

Revamping the cutting garden

I have always wanted a cutting garden.  I love flowers in the house but when I had small gardens I could never bring myself to cut the things which were making an impact in the garden in order to bring them inside.  Here, with lots of room and a blank canvas, I decided to make a garden specifically for cutting.  It would be full of sweetpeas, cosmos, foliage plants and dahlias with daffodils and tulips in the spring.

There were successes.  The dahlias were fabulous but only if I lifted them in the autumn and started them again in the greenhouse the following spring.  For the last two years I have tried to leave them in the ground but I am reluctantly concluding that on a high site in North Wales we do not have a long enough growing season for dahlias to get going without the boost they receive from being started off under glass.  Left in the ground they are only just beginning to flower strongly when they are cut down by the first frosts.

Sweetpeas have always been a great success.  My thin soil needs feeding furiously with compost or manure in order to be rich enough for sweetpeas and they need endless tying in but they are so beautiful and they flower for so long that a variety of strongly fragranced sweetpeas would be in any ideal cutting garden I designed.

And cosmos is fabulous.  It flowers and flowers and its foliage, unusually for an annual, is distinctive and charming in its own right.  I have grown all different kinds of annual cosmos but the pinks and whites are the most successful for me.

And yet, despite all these good things, the cutting garden is a problem area in this garden.  It lives in the productive part of the field garden, alongside the orchard and the fruit beds.  This makes sense.  It is the right place for it to be.  It is meant to be something like an allotment which also grows flowers. I wanted it to have some structure of its own when it was not full of flower so I planted two box crosses.  The intention was that each cross made four squares and that each square was planted with flowers.  The sweetpeas would grow on netting at either end of the bed.  The bed itself is about six feet wide and twenty foot long and when the sweetpeas are flowering the first three feet at either end of the bed are taken up with them and their supports.  Reading it here,the basic arrangement of the patch looks quite sensible and yet if you were to wander out to look at it you would find that it is quite a mess.

I think the main problem is that I have been tinkering with it, trying to make it less labour intensive and losing sight of what I made it for.  I planted up one square with achillea Goldplate and a Euphorbia polychroma, thinking that some perennials would make it easier to care for.  I don't think I have ever picked anything from either plant for the house but they are happy in the open sunny spot and grow well.  I got interested then in the idea that more perennials would look after themselves and, as time became squeezed by the demands of ill and ageing family, I looked around for others.  I planted a square with lupins.

They are far too big to pick for the house and although they are spectacular they don't really go with anything else easily.  Once they are finished the square is empty of colour and looks oddly unkempt.  And I have experimented with other perennials that I have felt ought to work like rudbeckia and let calendula self seed.  And gradually over the last couple of years when the cutting garden has had less attention it has become neither fish nor fowl.  The design depends on the patch being worked like an allotment.  It needs to be tidy and productive and picked from almost daily.  It doesn't work as an additional flower bed because it was never meant to be one.  It does not have the layering of flower and foliage, the contrast of forms, the attention to height, the expectation that you will look at it from a particular place or series of places.  It is meant to be a productive cutting patch and I need to decide whether I want to run it as such or give the space over to something else.

At the moment I am thinking that I will have another serious go this year at running it properly as a cutting patch again.  I will let the achillea stay but I will lift and clear everything else and plant it up with the things that I know work well and which give me endless jugs of flowers for the house and for the holiday cottage.  I have seedlings of sweetpeas, cosmos and euphorbia oblongata for foliage waiting in the greenhouse and I will see if I can produce enough time to prepare it properly and let it do its stuff.

And if at the end of the year I find myself scratching my head about it all over again, well perhaps I will decide that it should go back to grass and provide space for another couple of trees to add to the orchard.....

Thursday, 9 April 2015


The gorse is in flower, its warm cocunut sweet scent blows up from the valley as I walk down to the river.

The wood anemones are opening everywhere under the still bare trees.  I love these. I love their delicacy, the way they shiver in the slightest breeze, the way they turn their open faces to the sun.  Soon the leaves will be on the trees and the track down to the river will become a cool green tunnel.  I know I will like that when it comes but just now the track is clean and clear, full of sunshine and with open views into the fields.

My son and daughter in law's dog runs ahead but always pausing and checking where I am when the gap between us gets too wide.

Down by the river in the damper ground the strappy leaves of the wild garlic are pushing up.  There are no flowers yet so the smell of garlic is only released when I crush the leaves between my fingers.  I must remember to come down again very soon and do some foraging.

There are all sorts of things going on the garden, from little granddaughter, with a muddy smudge on her nose, loving being raced round in the wheelbarrow

to scratching hens,

the pompons of primulas,

and the singing red of the first of the tiny tulips.  What a lovely Easter it has been.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Stars and dinosaurs and knitting hillsides

The wind blew back in early this week and after a sunny, warm weekend I turned back inside.  There was a huge floor cushion to be made for five year old grandson to accompany his curtains.

There was more to be done on the project of knitting a cushion to reflect our hillside.

The colours reflect the different greens of the fields and the open hills.  The darker brown rows are the lines of hedges and bare trees and the gold is the bracken.  I have spent an hour or two weaving in the ends, an oddly meditative kind of thing to do, before casting on the other side and seeing what comes.

Then there was bread to be made before turning from the practical to the numinous.

There was Alan Garner's last public lecture to go to.  Alan Garner is a great writer and counts amongst his admirers the author Philip Pullman and Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury.  The picture shows Alan's house where he has lived and written all his adult life.  He was lecturing at Jodrell Bank, which is an unsettling yet fitting neighbour to his medieval house on its ancient site.    The lecture was accompanied by the release of this previously unpublished poem.

Across the field astronomers
Name stars.  Trains pass
The house, cows and summer.
Not much shows but that.
Winter, the village is distant,
The house older
Than houses and night than winter.
The line is not to London.
Unfound bones sing louder,
Stars lose names,
Cows fast in shippons wise
Not to be out.  I know
More by winter than by all the year.
And a night to kill a king is this night.
© Alan Garner
Erica Wagner, former Literary Editor of the Times, is putting together a celebration of the life and work of Alan Garner via unbound, which provides crowd funding of books.  If you are a fan of Alan's work have a look here and get involved.
And there were more and more flowers to pick and eggs to eat.

What a satisfying mix of the things you can hold in your hands and the things that you can't.  A good week.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Spring cleaning the shepherd's hut and welcoming the daffodils

Daffodils sing of spring and spring arrived this weekend in a glow of sunshine and yellow flowers.   I have been out in the garden all day long, spring cleaning the shepherd's hut and tidying and weeding everywhere. Spring hits me like this every year, giving me a great rush of energy and sending me outside at every opportunity.

All the furniture came out of the shepherd's hut, except for the built in sofa which folds down as a bed and everything was laid out on the grass.  I swept the hut out, wiped down all the woodwork and cleaned the windows.  Then back it all went.

Rugs were beaten, curtains shaken out, and the woodburning stove cleaned out.

Today I painted the door and tomorrow I will rub down and paint the windowframes, as long as it is dry.  I have a yen to change the cushions and the rug and to move from a palette of soft creams, pinks and greens to something in blue and yellow.  It must be spring!

As a break from cleaning and weeding I wandered around looking at the daffodils and seeing what is out.

The first daffodils to come out up here are the Welsh daffodil, known as the Tenby or narcissus obvallaris.  These are a small, upright daffodil with neat, slightly glaucous foliage.  we have hundreds of these, spreading around the trees in the little orchard.  I know that I planted five hundred bulbs and I am pretty sure they are spreading of their own accord these days.

Following close on the heels of the Tenby daffodil is February Gold.  I love the slightly swept back shape of the flower.   These crowd behind the swing in the field.  As time goes on they will be joined by Thalia, a creamy white daffodil, and Sweetness, a jonquil type with a delicious sweet scent.

Jack Snipe is coming out along the side of the drive and little Tete a Tete is blooming in the kitchen garden.

I have recently started to grow narcissus pseudonarcissus.  This is the British native daffodil, the dancing daffodil of the Wordsworth poem.  It is a graceful, delicate little daffodil, less sturdy than the Tenby.  So far these have not begun to settle and spread for me but I hope they do.

These are one of my favourites, Telamonius Plenus, an old double daffodil which has grown in cottage gardens since the early seventeenth century.  Later there will be narcissus poeticus, Pheasant's Eye.

This is an image from the RHS.  It will be a few weeks before mine are in flower.  I love how different the later flowering daffodils are from the early ones: pale rather than bright and with an open face rather than the hanging head or swept back petals of the earlier ones that I grow.

So for now it is daffodil time up here.  Even though there are so many I find myself visualising even more.  I think maybe there should be more up by the shepherd's hut....

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Dartmoor sun and splitting snowdrops

Our weeks have now settled into a pattern which involves a lot of driving up and down the country in order to spend time with my father.  Normally we make a flying visit to Devon but this week we stayed longer and took a day in the middle of the visit to walk, in the morning, and to visit younger son and his family in the afternoon and overnight.

It was a cold bright morning with an edge to the breeze and a milky light.

We parked high on the edge of Dartmoor and walked immediately out onto the moor, heading for Cox Tor.  The grass was bleached to straw by winter and everywhere stones were piled on either side, crusted with lichen.   Underfoot the grass was springy to walk on.  Blackfaced sheep grazed, their rumps marked red by the ram, not yet ready to lamb.  They are a hardy breed to lamb up here.

The tors rise up in piles of stone.  They look man made but they are not, although the stone is piled like liquorice cakes.

It is extraordinary to think that Dartmoor, like the Clwydian hills where we live, is a place of ancient habitation.  People have lived on Dartmoor for five thousand years or more, since the Bronze Age at around 2300 BC to 700 BC.    All over Dartmoor are standing stones or menhirs, stone circles and stone hut circles.  The Iron Age which followed, running from 700 BC to the arrival of the Romans in the first century AD, has left the remains of hillforts.  Dartmoor and our own high hills are empty today and they can feel desolate and inhospitable.   To the twenty first century mind it is hard to see why people would have chosen to live in these high places when there is softer, gentler land close by. It is hard to imagine that when the country was heavily forested it was the lower lands that were hunting grounds and places of darkness and danger and the higher places which provided refuge and safety, the chance to build settlements which could be defended against your enemies and the chance to see your enemies coming!

There are tarns and streams in these high places and more life than you would expect.  All morning we walked under lark song.

The moors are dotted with Dartmoor ponies, stocky and shaggy in their winter coats.  In the village on the edge of the moor where my sister lives the ponies move into the village in winter, crowding the lanes, grazing on the green, invading gardens if the gates are left open.  This pony was surprisingly friendly and unphased by close human contact.  Dartmoor feels like undiscovered country to me.  I hope we get to explore a bit more.

And at home again today I have been splitting snowdrops.  This is such an easy thing to do and makes a real difference to how quickly snowdrops spread.  For the last five years I have been counting my snowdrops every year (I know, I know, I need to get a life) and I have seen them steadily increase.  The first year in which I counted was 2009.  It is not the most scientific process in the world and I am pretty sure that I miss things and miscount from time to time but I use the same approach every year.  In 2009 there were 725 snowdrops in the garden.  That year I split the larger clumps and spread them about and by 2010 there were 1094.  When the flowers were going over but the foliage still green I split them again and by February 2011 when I counted towards the end of the season the numbers had jumped to 1480.  Then I had a couple of years when I didn't do the splitting on the same scale and 2012 produced 1486, followed by 1580 in 2013.  I decided to return to splitting them up and moving them around in 2013 and was rewarded in 2014 by a great rush of growth to 2693!  Last year I didn't get round to it and this year's count was 2504.  So this year I am lifting all the larger clumps and pulling them apart.  The bulbs are then planted out in groups of seven to ten, still with their foliage and some of the last of the flowers.

So next year I hope there will be snowdrops all along the drive, washing out in a wave of foam from the base of the side garden wall and pushing up amongst the hellebores down by the native trees. And it is becoming clear that I need more crocuses...

Friday, 13 March 2015

Inside and out in the middle of March

I do love a good project and living somewhere like this means there are always things on the go. Inside there is usually something on the needles or on the sewing machine, especially in winter.

Outside is ignored when it is cold and wet but it begins to call about now and I have spent a couple of days working in the garden.  So just for the record before inside gets abandoned for the spring and summer, here are this winter's projects plus a new one cast on yesterday.

Here are some curtains made from dinosaur material for grandson number two, aged five.  The material comes from textile express, a great business based in Oswestry with a really good website and web presence.  I make lined curtains about once a year and every time I have to go back to square one in terms of reminding myself about the order of events.  Last time I did it I made three pairs in one marathon effort for the holiday cottage so I took the time to write down all the things that were at the forefront of my mind as I was finishing them in this blog.  I was really pleased I had done that as I saved myself loads of time by referring back to it when I would normally have been wondering whether to do the hems before the header tape!  Joseph had been waiting for these very patiently but I was distracted from finishing them off by another request from him.   When asked whether he would like me to knit anything for him he thought carefully - he is a thinking sort of a child - and said eventually "Could you make me a flying pig?"  I had been thinking more in terms of a jumper but I can quite see that a flying pig is a lot more useful.

So here he is.  Ian suggested that his wings, as befits a Welsh flying pig, should be dragon wings so I invented what I hope are the wings of a baby dragon.  He has flown off to South Wales now and I hope is settling in nicely.

There was also this jacket for grandson number three which I really enjoyed making.  It comes from a Debbie Bliss pattern book.  I love her patterns and her yarns and the way you can produce something from them which is just a little different.

Then there was the window seat cushion which I slipped in sometime in February.  Both of these last two have already appeared in the blog but I include them again for completeness.  I thought I would shelve inside projects for now as the days lengthen and things start to grow in the garden but, as is often the case, somehow I decided to fit just one more thing in.  After all although it was sunny and mild on Tuesday, today it is pouring with rain and an inside project seems just the thing.

My daughter in law gave me a ball of the darker green wool as part of my Christmas present and I have been wondering what to make with it.  I contemplated another cowl or more fingerless gloves but I do have quite a number of both.  Then I found myself thinking about cushions.  A couple of years ago I had a bit of a run on cushions and made three for the sofa:

I really like them and am planning another go on the sewing machine for cushions for the holiday cottage but the cushion that has given me most pleasure is the one I made with wool I bought in the Outer Hebrides on our holiday there in 2013.

I wanted to catch the colour of the sea and the sky and the process of designing and making it and the finished product gave me a lot of satisfaction.  I am not an artist.  I am not even a craftsperson.  I am simply a knitter and sewer again, after years of no time when the job and the family filled every minute of every day and absorbed all of my time and energy.  Part of the drive in leaving my job was to spend time on things and people and places and parts of myself which had been neglected in the whirl of work.  For some reason knitting has filled the place which for others might have been used for art or music. Having worked with my brain all my life I find real pleasure in doing things with my hands. Throughout the frantic years cooking was the only way I held on to my interest in making things. Knitting needs time and a calm head.  Sewing needs space which is not full of teenagers and televisions.

So I bought some other muted greens and neutrals to try to have a go at a cushion which would echo the colours of our hills just now.  I am not sure I quite have it yet.  I need a more vivid green and a brown for the lines of hedges and bare trees.  I don't intend to produce anything which is pictorial and it is quite likely that no one but me will look at the finished cushion and see anything but stripes but for me it will have meaning and that is enough.

I was going to move on to outside projects but I will keep that for another day.  The big project is Ian's and the construction of a new henhouse but I will leave the detail of that for him to share.  In the meantime I leave you with a picture of the work in progress.

Where are you at the moment?  Inside or out?  How do you find your pleasure in creating things?

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Laying hens and turnip eating sheep

Hens are great heralds of spring.  Although it is still cold enough for the woodburner and the electric blanket every night, the hens are more responsive to the lengthening daylight than the temperature.  We have eight hens and one cockerel.  Throughout the short dark days of November, December and January we get just one or two eggs every couple of days.  It is hard to tell whether they are laid by our rehomed hybrids from the British Hen Welfare Trust or by our own Welsumer crosses as both lay a medium sized pale brown egg, though perhaps the Welsummer eggs are a little darker and more inclined to be speckled.  The Cream Legbars don't lay at all in the winter.  Their eggs are a beautiful pale blue and as the days get longer we check the nesting boxes hoping for the first sight of that pale blue gleam.

This one is so pale you can hardly tell it is blue in the picture but I promise you it is.  Now we have all the Cream Legbars laying and eggs coming out of our ears.  Spring is very nearly sprung.

And by the drive the very first of the cowslips is just beginning to open.  This is a pretty poor photo but you can just see the flowers emerging.  When they are fully out they will be held high on their stalk, quite distinctively and nothing like the ground hugging primrose.   This is a little patch which started as four or five plants a few years ago and is slowly spreading.  I have tried to establish cowslips in the field as well but so far only one solitary plant seems to have survived.  Surprisingly they seem happier in the poorer soil by the drive than in what seemed a more favoured spot in the field.

Up on the top of the Clwydian hills just half a mile stroll from home, the grass has not yet started to green up and only the windblown pines are green against the sky.  There are hawthorns up here too, twisted by the wind, but it will be weeks until they show their new spring green leaves.

There are cattle up here though who seem happy enough amongst the grass and gorse.

Sheep up here have their meagre grass supplemented by turnips in February and early March before the new growth comes.  That was a revelation to me when we came to live up here over nine years ago.  I never knew that sheep eat turnips!

But in the shelter of our fold of the hill where the wind is soft and the sun has warmth in it, primroses are flowering.  There are so many contenders for my favourite flower at this time of year and the flood of native daffodils is still to come.  I am still loving the snowdrops and hellebores but perhaps right now, today, primroses are the flower that whispers spring.