Sunday, 27 June 2010

No Time For Growing? A Recipe For Guaranteed Success

We all lead busy lives these days and often don't have time to sow seeds, despite our best intentions. I garden for my living and, in the tradition of cobbler's children, my own garden is, more often than not, far from text book perfect. I simply do not have the time for all that seed sowing and pricking out even though I spend all day encouraging others to do it!

Raised beds are often described as labour and space saving and, indeed, they are. They are hugely productive and can look lovely, as the many posts and photographs by fellow Bloggers prove. But what if you don't have the time even for that?

Here is my recipe for growing summer suppers.....

1. Purchase a box of lettuce. No, not joking! Supermarkets sell a wide range of salad ingredients including growing pots of near full grown lettuce. Recently they have started to sell mixed leaves as seedlings, the idea being to keep them fresh for a few extra days.


2. Carefully remove all wrappers and tip out of their packaging. There is quite a good root system already started.


3. Divide carefully and, just by using your fingers, plant direct into your soil or compost. Water well. In the photo below, for even more speed, I just pinched a few plants out of the growing medium and planted together in one hole. I ended up with about twenty groups - planted separately I would probably have had nearer a hundred. Note the herbs behind the lettuce, all grown the same way.


4. The lettuce in the photo above may have looked a little sad but within a day, the seedlings perked up. Ten days later here are some of them again below. Enjoy!




Recently I have been taking the idea of raised beds a stage further and creating much higher raised beds that avoid the hardship of bending. I use them as 'walls' to separate different levels of a garden, I use them on the flat and I use them where the client is elderly or has a disability.

Made from chunky timber so they won't rot for years, I also make them bottomless as that is always the first place to go. They require less watering that way too. Lining them with black plastic prevents water seeping through and disfiguring the boards which is important if they have been painted or stained. And the boxes just seem to be getting ever bigger!



This box separates the lower dining terrace from the house level and creates a sense of enclosure when seated below. As it is situated close to the kitchen door, the box is planted with a mix of herbs as well as garden flowers. The twisted stemmed bay gives a degree of formality as well as height.


Exotic planting works well in this square box. A hardy palm is underplanted with coleus, the magenta splashes of the leaves are emphasised by the identical colour of the petunias and of this favourite plant of mine, Lythrum. Lythrum is native to the British Isles and grows besides streams and in boggy places. This variety, 'Robert', is identical in every way except for its shorter height and is a great garden plant. I've found that it grows in quite ordinary soil in the border and it certainly thrived here in these conditions.

PS Ive just remembered! Spring Onions (Scallions) bought as bunches from the supermarket: when planted out early in the year, grow to become reasonable sized onions. They don't store well but help to bridge the gap that occurs before those grown from sets are ready for harvest. Try some in your boxes!

1st July - This post seems to be creating a bit of interest! Watercress works as well: eat most of the stems you buy and plant just the last 2 - 3 inches in ordinary compost. Keep moist and it will provide food up until the first frosts.

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Saturday, 26 June 2010

Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Oxford

Last May, Archbishop Desmond Tutu gave the Bynum Tudor Lecture at Kellogg College, University of Oxford in the historic Sheldonian Theatre.

The lecture, "Lessons from the truth & reconciliation process for 21st century challenges", was thought provoking and fascinating. Although I have written of the lecture at the time - the post and photographs of the Sheldonian Theatre can be seen here - it is only now that the video of the lecture has become available.

For those of you that would like to view it, click on this link to Kellogg College, here.



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Saturday, 19 June 2010

Mad Dogs and Englishman...

...go out in the midday sun, according to the song sung by Noel Coward. But I don't think it was the noon heat that made She-Dog behave more like a deranged She-Devil, I think it was an extremely herb scented and squelchy bog that got her all worked up. Although she does certainly looks completely mad in this photo!


I had gone to investigate the wetland that is below the fields where we keep the horses. The horses have access to this area too and, like She-Dog, become totally hyper when they have been grazing it. It is necessary to keep your wits, as well as your nerve, when Henry, Barney and Rambo come galloping and bucking and rearing their way up to you after they have spent time in there. The overwhelming scent is of water mint but meadowsweet is also very dominant - perhaps it is one of these that gives them all this burst of energy. If so, I should try eating some too.
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The purpose of the visit was to photograph dragonflies but, needless to say, thanks to She-Dog, it proved virtually impossible. She turned what is usually a peaceful, rarely visited by humans, wildlife haven into a race track. However, I did manage to get this photo of the Common Blue Damselfly, Enallagma cyathigerum. It is found near water everywhere. In fact, it is one of those few species in the animal kingdom that is found virtually throughout the northern hemisphere.


A lurcher and part whippet, She-Dog can run pretty fast but I have never seen her move so rapidly and for as long as this day. Back and forth, round and round - even when we came to the river she couldn't stop galloping through it. It reminded me of when we had deep snow, the first she had ever seen, earlier this year.
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A fallen tree brough about another burst of energy, just when I thought she had settled down. Ignoring her as she investigated the bridge that it had created, I was surprised and somewhat alarmed to discover her seven foot up in the canopy. Before she could be rescued she took a flying leap to the ground below, landing in a heap, before accelerating into the distance.


She-Dog's madness meant that very little in the way of wildlife was seen. I had to content myself with being in peaceful surroundings on a warm summer's day, listening to the brown trout rising for mayfly. I spent some time trying to catch both trout and fly on camera and just about managed to get a trout breaking the surface of the water.

It was only when I returned to the car I was able to get a picture of the elusive mayfly - there was one resting on the door. The vagaries and frustrations of being a wildlfe photographer, I suppose. I think I shall stick to gardening for a living!





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Monday, 14 June 2010

A Day's Plant Hunting

One of the pleasures of living on a small island is that you are never far from anywhere - except another country (apologies to Wales and Scotland, I know that you are proud of your separate identities and rightly so).

So last Friday I spent at home in the Cotswolds - limestone country, wide open views and rolling pastures. Saturday I spent walking across Dartmoor (post to follow) - granite country of bleak, open moorland and few trees. Today I spent walking in the Chiltern Hills, my birthplace, a chalk country, densely wooded and secretive. All are beautiful in their own way.



And today was especially special for I was on a mission: looking for rare plants. And with some success, although just as much delight was found in the more common ones, for seeking pleasure from rarity for rarity's sake is a poor emotion. What could be more charming a discovery than this group of foxgloves in a woodland glade? A common enough plant: I prefer the wild to the garden varieties, that have been bred to have ever larger 'cups'. Here, the wild plants have a grace and delicacy that is so unlike their brasher relatives.



The group of thistles didn't seem to be of special interest other than for the pleasure of watching the bumble bees feed from their flowers. But when seen in close detail the flowers really are quite spectacular. Most of these were purple but some that, from a distance, appeared to have prematurely gone to seed turned out to be a variant - they had white flowers. How glad I was that I had dawdled and not just rushed past without giving them a second glance!




Further into the woodland and growing in dappled shade was the first of the 'finds'. Our native Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) is not often seen. Many that appear wild are garden escapes and are usually close to roads or houses but these were a long way from either. And, again, the flowers have a delicacy and lightness about them. Ladies Bonnets is another country name for them - it is easy to see why.



The Narrow Leaved Helleborine (Cephalanthera longifolia) is also uncommon and it was only after this one was found that we realised that there were over forty plants scattered over the area. Like the Columbine, where the plants were not sheltered by scrub or ferns, the deer had eaten the tops off. The flowers remain closed, making them unavailable to insects so, I assume, the plants self pollinate - perhaps that is why they are not at all common.



Further still along the path, was this solitary speciman of Daphne laureola, the Spurge Laurel. Although this plant grows quite widely in the Chilterns, this was the only specimen seen today. It flowers in late winter, it's greenish-yellow flowers lacking the sweet scent of its garden cousins. Already the berry seedheads are forming, these will turn black later in the year. The Mezereon, a popular garden shrub in the past but not grown so widely these days, is also a native but extremely rare. It is known to grow in the Chilterns although I've never found one.



Returning once more to open meadows the woodland gave one last surprise: tall Field Maples, Acer campestre, usually grown as a hedging plant. And this is how it would have started out: one trunk, coppiced and layed to create sturdy, stockproof fencing. The original trunk has long disappeared and the 'new' stems from around its base have grown to be trees in their own right. For a maple to be of this size - and they rarely are - it would have been planted in Medieval times and it is known that the field that it borders was first created by the Saxons, 1000 years ago.



And as a grand finale, the meadow gave us dozens of Common Spotted Orchids - only common in favoured places, the spots refer to those on their leaves. The Chilterns are a great place for orchids and are home to some of the rarest species - their sites a closely guarded secret.
A most successful and satisying day!




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Tuesday, 8 June 2010

When Greens Defeat the Blues......

We all go through periods of our lives when plans are thwarted, futures unravelled and forgotten pasts unfortunately remembered. It is something we have to come to terms with for, after all, if there were no 'lows', we couldn't have 'highs' either.




It has been a difficult couple of weeks although, in the grand scheme of things, I should not complain too much. My partner, who has suffered considerably and silently with a debilitating heart problem the past two years, has finally had the op long waited for. And it seems, a great success with glimpses, already, of the old energy that was there before.


At the same time, the first anniversary of my mother's death has weighed far more heavily than I expected. We were close and talked frequently about all sorts of things and, in her last few months, of dying. As she often said, she had a great and happy life and reached 94 despite hating being old ("it's no fun being in your 90's, you know"). She was ready to go.



So here I am, feeling a bit 'blue' and why? My partner is recovering, my mother is at peace. And suddenly, I have no need to be rushing hither and thither. I am like a train that has run out of steam or, if you want to be less kind, moping about like a wet rag, if they can mope and I can mix metaphors.


Without love there can be no loss and without illness there can be no recovery. And without fall there can be no spring. And it is the spring that renews, not just our gardens and the landscapes that surround us, it renews the spirit inside us. And so it was back to the Chiltern Hills, where I grew up and spent most of my life, that I returned to be revived by the extraordinary lushness of their beautiful beechwoods.


The Chilterns are barely 30 miles from the Cotswolds, the two being separated by the low lying Oxford vale. So close yet so different in character. The Cotwolds is a landscape of gently rolling hills, little rivers, big vistas and skyscapes. The Chilterns is a secretive land of steep combes - the beech woodlands clinging precariously to the valley walls. Few rivers, for this is a chalk land, a dry place with few views and no large skies for the forest hides them all. Yet the light is magical and nothing is as blinding as the intense greens of the unfurling beech leaves.


How can one walk here without being uplifted spiritually and mentally, whether holding religious belief or not? And if the beech is struggling to kick start you then the sight of the tens of thousands of bluebells, with their gentle scent, cleanse the body and renews the energy within.


Life is good and I've only got one attempt at it. I feel refreshed. I'd better get on with it.


Yes, life is good. No complaints. Honest!



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