Sunday, 30 June 2013

All the Colours of the Rainbow

There are certain flowers that I have been aware of all my life.  I’m not sure if that proves that I was an extremely sensitive child or whether it is just because my parents and other relatives only ever talked about gardening.  I can still see pansies growing in the circular bed beneath the apple tree and shrub roses either side of the archway that led to the vegetable garden.  The strawberries grew along the right hand fence and the rhubarb in front of the chicken run and yet we moved from that house when I was just nine years old.  But there is one thing that bothers me: I can recall the Iris, dark blue, growing tall and strong but I can’t remember if they were in the front or back garden. It doesn’t really matter, of course, but it seems odd that I can’t picture them when I can clearly remember my father telling me enthusiastically that “they come in all the colours of the rainbow.”  Despite his passion for them he only ever grew the one colour (which is perhaps odder still) and it was only when I had a garden of my own that more and more colours started to creep in.
An idea that I had wanted to try out for some time, spurred on by this memory, was to plant a border devoted to iris of all colours – a rainbow border.  This requires space, not because the plants take up much room but because they have quite a short flowering time, perhaps just two or three weeks.  This makes such a border rather a luxury, especially in a small garden.
 

I garden for my living – a hobby turned into a career – and I have quite a number of clients with gardens, some of very many acres.  It is in one of these that the rainbow border has been planted.  Confidentiality prevents me from showing the completed border in its entirety so you will have to imagine wave after wave of varying shades of blues, whites, burnt ochres, burgundies, golds and purples.  The effect is breath-taking as is one other thing I’d forgotten from childhood: scent although not all colours are fragrant and those that are vary in strength and quality.  Spectacular they may be when in bloom but blink and they are gone for another twelve months.  Fortunately, herbaceous borders bursting into flower draw attention away from what has now become a dull part of the garden.
In my own garden, I’ve had to be more restrained, poking them into odd spaces where they can get enough sun, yet they still offer surprises.  This yellow variety, Butterscotch Kiss, is a good colour for it is not harsh; best of all its fragrance is overpowering, scenting the whole garden and wafting into rooms through open windows.
Although the Bearded Irises, Iris germanica, are favourites, there is always room for smaller varieties. The tiniest are the early flowering Iris reticulata which tend to get lost in my borders so are grown in pots.  They flower in February and March.  The Dutch Irises are useful grown in the vegetable garden for cutting but also grow well in the flower garden, flowering about now.  Both types are grown from corms (similar in appearance to bulbs), planted in the autumn.  Iris unguicularis is a perennial, winter flowering iris, ideal for picking and often with a delicate perfume.  In the photo below, it is growing in a pot indoors and flowering on Christmas Day.  In the garden it wants to be placed at the foot of a wall and grown in poor, stony soil.
The bog Iris, Iris sibirica, grows well in wet soil but also adapts quite happily to the garden border providing it is kept well watered until established.  Its leaves are grass-like and the flowers much daintier than their Bearded cousins.
Compared to the standard Iris sibirica above, Flight of Butterflies is more compact and has flowers with emphasised blue and white veining
There are numerous types, too, for the pond and these grow standing in several inches of water. Our native Yellow Flag, Iris pseudoacorus, is robust and can be too dominant in smaller areas of water. It is a lovely sight when seen in the wild – we have plenty here in the secret valley growing along the edge of the river, their broad rush like leaves making the perfect resting place for dragonflies .





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Monday, 17 June 2013

Babies Everywhere


Everywhere I  look at the moment there are babies - it's that time of year.  I'm not talking human babies although quite a lot of my friends seem to be having new grandchildren, yet another sign of our ageing.  In the secret valley animals outnumber humans by dozens to one so it isn't surprising that all around us there are signs of new life.

Lambing starts later here than in many places, for the spring grass is also later, so it is with impatience that we wait to see them skipping in the fields and chasing one another up and down the  river banks.  Of course, that was some weeks ago - now they are grown quite large and, as I write this, very noisy as they call for their mothers who have been separated for shearing. It will be a few hours before they have all found one another and normality returns again; the sound of contented and playful bleating telling us that all is well.
Calves can be born in spring or autumn.  Beyond the secret valley is a beautiful herd of Red Devon cattle and they make good mothers.  I first came across this gentle breed when I worked on a farm as a teenager on Exmoor and they have been a firm favourite ever since.  Bred for beef, we used to hand milk a few for the farm's own use and the milk was very rich and creamy.   Large enamel basins of it would be placed on top of the Rayburn stove (fired by the peat turves I have recently written about, click here)  and I would watch fascinated as the cream would rise in large clots to be skimmed off  to be eaten with afternoon tea, that most traditional of West Country meals.
The bantams - Lavender Pekins (Cochins) - are all rapidly going broody.  I find that they are only good layers in spring, the rest of the year they lay fewer eggs.  We always set some of these under them so that we have a new supply of youngsters: if we get too many there is always a ready home for them but mostly they are there as ready-made meals for Mr Fox who is a far too regular visitor.  I'd rather see the bantams having a short but very lovely time wandering about the place than cooped up in a pen somewhere.  When left to free range it is amazing just how far they travel up and down the field which does make them rather vulnerable.  As the fox usually visits in the early hours of the morning I try to always remember to shut them away safely for the night.  In the cold weather earlier in the year a fox visited the garden regularly during the day - at one time actually peering through the glass garden door at us.
 
We don't keep duck but that doesn't stop us from seeing them in the garden.  Usually one raises a brood of ducklings somewhere secluded: often under a large clump of oat grass or, before it rotted away completely, a few feet up on top of a rotten tree stump at the foot of a hedge. As soon as they hatch, she leads them away down the field to the river below the house.
Every year, there are many pheasants that survive the shooting season.  Last spring we had one nest in a planting trough beside our kitchen door.  Despite the constant activity, she sat tight and none of the dogs, visiting or resident, discovered her.  I have read that, when sitting on eggs, the hen pheasant can supress any scent so as to avoid predators.  No sooner had the chicks hatched than every dog in the neighbourhood was investigating the planter but by then, of course, she had led them all to safety.
Partridge also visit the garden but are much more wary.  When their eggs hatch the chicks are not much bigger than bumble bees and swarm about their mother.  They are so tiny they appear to have no legs moving as if somehow they are fitted with wheels instead!
I almost certainly won't find it necessary to blog about the next 'hatching' for an eagerly waited event is the royal birth.  When Kate has her baby it will make world news - you won't need to see a photo of it here!


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Saturday, 1 June 2013

Turf Cutting on Exmoor

A few weeks ago I blogged about cutting peat - or 'turf' as it is known on Exmoor - for burning.  It is an ancient tradition, now past.  You can read that post by clicking on the link here.

When I first visited Exmoor forty-five years ago one of the first tasks I was given was to 'turn' the turf, literally just turning it over and over so that the wind dried it.  In many ways it was a boring and monotonous job but it had to be done for it was the provider of heat for the farm, both water and cooking.  Being alone, high up on the moors, was never lonely for the isolation, even for a lad, was awe-inspiring.  I loved it.

Recently, I was flicking through the pages of a book that has been in our possession for as long as I can remember and came across a photograph of an Exmoor turf cutter.  I'd never noticed it before.  The book is called 'People of all Nations' and was written about 1920.  The photographs are wonderful and show a way of life long gone.  

click on the photo to enlarge

With the benefit of hindsight, it is a pity that I took so few photos of my early days on Exmoor.  At the time, it seemed that the unchanged life of the moors would go on for ever.  Little did I realise that I was witnessing its passing and  I feel very privileged to have been a (very tiny) part of it.  What has endured has been its influence: my arrival quite by chance on Exmoor and being taken into its heart has been a subject of discussion recently with Phil Gayle on BBC Oxford.

The caption below the photograph reads:

Cutting Turf on the Rolling Heights of Exmoor. With his primitive cutter this Devon labourer is procuring long strips of turf at the opening of the shearing season.  The turf is stacked into barns in which the sheep are herded on the eve of shearing.  They rub against it and lie on it, thus ridding their wool of much dirt and grease which would detract from the value of their fleece were it present when shearing began.



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