Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The Fortune in Your Garden


The garden in winter; not the place where many of us loiter.  Instead we race back to the house for a nice, warming cup of tea.  On the way, we catch the scent from the Mahonia bush that thrives year after year on neglect.  Hinting of lily-of-the-valley, it’s fragrant, primrose yellow sprays of flowers will continue to give pleasure until the spring, as will the white, winter-flowering honeysuckle.  We stop just long enough to pick a few sprigs of jasmine, also pale yellow, to put in a vase.  The list of so many of our favourite plants could go on and on.

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Winter Jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum

What do all these plants have in common apart from being easy to grow?  They were all collected by a dour Scotsman in the mid-nineteenth century, Robert Fortune.  Despite being garden favourites and he being heralded as one of the heroes of the Victorians his name today is all but forgotten.  Even more remarkable, his discoveries changed society’s values, values that we now take for granted.  And the cup of tea?   Before Robert Fortune’s expedition to China, tea was an expensive commodity drunk only by the privileged few; soon it was to become the everyday drink of the masses.

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Tea plantation

In 1843, having shown great ability as a plantsman, first in Edinburgh and then at Chiswick, Fortune was sent to China with the instruction to learn about the practice of using bonemeal and to collect “tea of differing qualities.”  Commissioned for twelve months with a salary of £100 plus expenses, he proved so successful that he travelled for almost twenty years.  Upon his arrival, he disliked both China and the Chinese intensely; their dislike of him (and foreigners, in general) was even greater.  They refused to tell him where to find plants.

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Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis, another Fortune introduction

Fortune, although rude and unsmiling, was also brave and on numerous occasions had to fend off thieves and pirates.  Confined to his cabin, ill with a fever, his boat was abandoned and he was left to face his forty attackers singlehandedly.  Firing into their midst he survived both the attack and the fever and continued to Shanghai.  There he discovered the ‘Japanese’ Anemone, Anemone japonica, growing in great profusion on disturbed graves.  Now popular in the autumn border, anyone who has tried to eradicate it knows that the brittle root breaks to regrow in even larger numbers.  The graveyard story gave us ample warning of this.

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Japanese Anemone

It is for tea that Robert Fortune really deserves greater recognition.  The gardens of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, were closely guarded by the Chinese.  On a further expedition to China and disguised as a peasant, complete with shaved head and pigtail, he succeeded in sending over 100,000 seeds and seedlings to the East India Company.  It was the foundation of an industry that would create great wealth for both individuals and Britain and reinforced the British belief in Empire.

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Apart from the ‘tea’ camellia, Robert Fortune also introduced
a number of ornamental varieties

The winter-flowering Mahonia was also collected at this time.  Believed to have magical properties it was almost unobtainable; in consequence, the entire stock of Mahonia in Europe and the USA descend from just three small plants.  During Fortune’s fourth and final visit to China, Japan in 1859 opened its borders for the first time.  One of the first Europeans to enter the country he collected large numbers of plants then unknown to Europe, including many types of chrysanthemum.

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The purple berries of Mahonia appear after flowering

Robert Fortune’s legacy didn’t stop with the plants he introduced.  The wonder his plants created when exhibited in London established the international reputation of the Horticultural Society as the centre of excellence.  As the plants began to be distributed amongst the big, country estates the gentry started to take an interest in the growing of the plants themselves, something hitherto unknown.  Soon they began to assist and then direct their garden staff, culminating in the revolutionary style of Gertrude Jekyll.  Her approach is still a major influence on garden style and practice today.  This, in turn, led to even greater demand for plants.  To meet these needs, the horticultural industry worldwide is now a multi-billion pound industry.  Amongst the thousands of plant types propagated for sale each year, Robert Fortune’s introductions are amongst the most popular and enduring.

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Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’ whose flowers start with a
deep pink bud before slowly fading to apricot


recommended reading:
A Journey to the Tea Countries of China, Robert Fortune, 1852
Life in the English Country House, M Girouard, 1979
The Plant Hunters, T Whittle, 1970
The Plant Hunters, C Lyte, 1983
and, of course, Wikipedia



Wednesday, 26 October 2016

A Tour of the Secret Valley

Ask people – both here at home or abroad – how they imagine Great Britain to be, the answer is often the same: an overcrowded island. We do, of course, have our fair share of big cities, motorways and densely populated housing estates but it often comes as a surprise just how much unspoilt, open countryside remains. A few of us are lucky enough to live in it.

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The M40 motorway where it enters Oxfordshire

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Less than two hours drive from the centre of London, the secret valley, seems more like a million miles away rather than just the eighty odd miles that, in reality, it is. Tucked down an unclassified side road and not shown on a number of maps, only those ‘in the know’ tend to visit it. Time for a quick tour.
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The Secret Valley

The approach to the secret valley gives little hint of what’s to come. Lined with crab apple trees, the lane gently descends between a fold in the hills where, on the steepest banks, wild thyme, orchids and other wild flowers grow.

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A bend in the road conceals the valley’s crowning glory: the most perfect, easily jumpable river (as can be seen in the header image of this blog page). Twisting and turning as it passes through meadows, in its shallows watercress grows where both trout and crayfish hide. By its banks willow pollards, now elderly and bent, wear garlands of wild roses; they grow from the tree crowns courtesy of seed dropped by birds generations ago.

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The lane, crossing the river, passes our tiny stone cottage and climbs towards the village – a cluster of nine houses, a farm and little else. Our home sits alone, down by the river bank, with just one other as companion. Here, the lane – barely wide enough for a combine harvester to pass – once was busy with drovers taking their cattle and sheep to the markets in Oxford.

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These days the drove road enters and leaves the secret valley by a different route, only its mid-section by our house is still in use. The ‘old road’, as it is known, can still be walked – its path clearly defined by the wild flowers and hedgerows that line it.

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The river, too, has chosen a different route according to the earliest maps. Downstream from our house, it flows past wooded banks to widen into a small lake before passing through fields, these days marshy where the watermill’s sluice gates have decayed with age.

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Further downstream still, where the sheep cannot graze, swathes of scented, moisture loving plants such as wild valerian – looking very different from the one grown in our gardens – provide nectar for insets and a hiding place for deer.

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a forest of Valerian & Meadowsweet

On the higher ground of the secret valley, the fields are cultivated with wheat, barley and oilseed rape. Even here, in the favoured places, wild flowers and birds of many types can be found: the diminutive hay rattle, a relic from the old farming days to ravens, buzzards and red kites, all now common again after centuries of persecution.

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Red Kite

Sounds idyllic? You’re quite right – it is!

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Monday, 26 September 2016

We Built a Pond - you can too!

Winter is an ideal time to create a pond and with it fast approaching now is the time to start planning.  Quite probably you have an idea where you want to place it but do think about its position carefully.  Falling leaves from trees is an obvious issue but some others aren’t until it is too late. Water always collects at the given lowest point; a pond perched on top of a mound will look ridiculous so check where the lowest point in your garden is and create the pond there, remodelling other sections of the garden, if need be, to tie in. 

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With our proposed pond site, we already had a large depression where garden rubbish and junk had been thrown for years.  Now overgrown with scrub, it needed careful clearing, including roots that may have punctured the lining.  If space is tight, the pond should have a planting shelf set several inches below water level, around at least one third of its edge; if space permits a graduated slope to the pond encourages plants to spread more naturally and, to my mind, is preferable.

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If access allows, it is sensible to hire a digger to create the pond for even a small one involves a lot of digging and moving of soil.  In the past, the mound was often left behind with a few rocks, or even worse, bits of broken concrete, to create a rockery.  This very rarely works well and it looks far better to have lawn leading down to the pond with possibly shrubs or other plants surrounding it.  Whatever the choice, it is important to have a seamless transition from water to garden.  Iris work well for this as there are varieties that will grow in shallow water and on the moist soil surrounding it; some reeds, too, will colonise the bank giving the pond that natural look.

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When using a lining it is important to allow a decent overhang onto dry land.  In this photo, the lining has been cut a little on the tight side – the weight of the water pulled the liner down into position; it is better to trim the liner after the pond has filled.  Once that has been done the liner can be disguised by laying turf down the sides to just below water level.  Once grown, it creates a beautifully natural appearance to the pool.

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In the spring, aquatic plants can be planted.  Oxygenating plants grow below water level and apart from being essential, make good cover for fish and insects from predators.  Marginal plants grow in shallow water and are used for lining the edges of the pool.  A thick planting of these are a good safety measure if small children are likely to visit, although they should never be allowed to do so unsupervised.  Water lilies grow in different depths of water so do make sure that the variety you choose is suitable for the depth of the pond.

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Ponds, however large, never need to be exceptionally deep, rarely more than a metre and can be as little as 50cms.  Smaller ponds benefit from a deeper ‘hole’ so that fish can take shelter from the coldest weather.  It is worth remembering that the larger the pond the easier it is to maintain and keep healthy.  Finally, once the plants have established, fish can be added.  For a wildlife pond, ornamental goldfish should be avoided although some of our smaller native fish can be included.

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                     Koi Carp are best kept by enthusiasts!

It is always a surprise at how quickly new plantings grow in a garden and the pond is no exception.  The scars of our pond had healed within months and even after just a couple of years ponds can look as if they have been there for ever.  Now twenty years later, visitors to our garden find it hard to believe that the pond isn’t natural; it abounds with wildlife and there isn’t an inch of black butyl liner to be seen.

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The pond featured here was built in the large garden of the house that I claim to be my birthright (joke).  Correspondingly, the pond also had to be large but the principles of pond design and placement are the same whatever their size.

To read about the bizarre coincidences that cause me to ‘claim’ the house click on these links:

The House My Parents Built – 200 Years Ago

Reincarnation – or just Coincidence?









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Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Visiting Canyon de Chelly

For most people living outside the United States – and perhaps a large number of Americans too – the word ‘canyon’ sums up the deep and stunningly beautiful chasms of the Grand Canyon.  Certainly, for me, so familiar with those dramatic images from my earliest schooldays, television documentaries and travel journals, I had never considered that there might be any others.  Or that they could be very different in character.  Then I visited the Canyon de Chelly (pronounced ‘dee shay’).

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The Canyon de Chelly National Monument is located in the north-east of the state of Arizona and fully within the Navajo Nation.  Today about forty Navajo families live there.

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Unique amongst the National Parks, the Canyon de Chelly is privately owned by the Navajo Nations Trust and is jointly managed by them and the National Parks Service.  This arrangement was agreed after many years of negotiation in 1931.

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Strict controls on entry are enforced to preserve the floor of the canyon with most parts  accessible only when accompanied by a Navajo guide.  One trail, the White House Ruin Trail, is an exception and it is the one that I explored, now a number of years ago, hence the rather poor quality of the images.

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Long before the Navajo came to the canyon it was occupied first by the Anasazi and then the Hopi peoples making the canyons one of the longest continuous inhabited places on the continent.  These early peoples built their homes not just along the valley floor but also in niches hundreds of feet up in the sheer rock face, reached by toeholds in the rock.  The ruins are now preserved.

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Sadly, I had very little time to explore the canyon but for my visit the weather was perfect, warm and sunny.  On the drive leaving Arizona, we were caught in a duststorm – another new experience for an Englishman used to the benign British climate where extreme weather of any kind is virtually unknown.

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For further information:
Canyon de Chelly National Monument

History of the Canyon de Chelly

Visiting Canyon de Chelly

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Standing on the edge of dramatic cliffs near the tiny Cornish village of Porthcurno, it seems inconceivable that anyone would consider trying to create a theatre there.  Yet Rowena Cade, in 1932, not only thought it, she spent that winter moving rocks and boulders. With the help of her gardener she created a stage and, what is now, the lower tier of seating.  Over the years the theatre developed to its current size.

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The evening of my visit, 11th July, a production of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale was performed by Moving Stories Theatre Company.  The coastal backdrop is constantly changing: light, shadow, sea birds feeding and the sounds of the waves smashing onto the rocks below. On rare occasions porpoise have been known to steal the show.

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The interaction between stage setting and ocean can, at times, be used to advantage by the actors.  When Florizel delivered the lines with a vague flourish of an arm

“And so deliver, I am put to sea With her whom here I cannot hold on shore;
And most opportune to our need I have
A vessel rides fast by

an ad lib came back “it’s over there, actually” for at that moment, by chance, a boat came into view.

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The Minack Theatre can be visited throughout the summer months for it is impressive to see even when a performance is not taking place.  The intrepid can scramble down the cliff path to the sandy beach below for a swim, the less adventurous can explore the stage and the gardens that are incorporated into the design.

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The theatre is situated just four miles from Land’s End, the most westerly point of Britain.  As a consequence, snow and frost are rare and many sub-tropical plants that cannot be grown elsewhere in the UK thrive in the benign climate.

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To find out more about the Minack Theatre and surrounding area take a look at these websites:

The Minack Theatre
Visit Cornwall
South West Coast Path  the 630 mile coastal path doesn’t have to be walked all at once!





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Sunday, 19 June 2016

Butterflies in the Garden




It is telling that when Richard South, the eminent entomologist, wrote The Butterflies of the British Isles in 1906 he stated that “half of our native butterflies are so widely distributed that the collector should secure nearly all of them in his first season.”  Today, that would almost certainly be impossible and, fortunately, the collecting of butterflies, along with the collecting of bird’s eggs, is largely a thing of the past.
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Common Blue Butterfly

Butterflies, as well as many other insects, have become increasingly scarce for the wildflower meadows that many rely upon for breeding success have been lost with changes in farming practice.  Since South’s day 97% of our meadows have disappeared either to the plough or by the use of fertilisers and chemicals to ‘improve’ the grassland.
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Pyramidal orchids flowering in a traditional meadow

Where wild flowers thrive – in protected meadows, organic farms and odd corners of the landscape – butterflies can still be found, although rarely in great profusion.  Gardeners can be of great help when it comes to conserving wildlife and by allowing some of our native species to grow in our gardens we are able to see a number of butterflies at close proximity.  I will shortly be writing an article on growing wild flowers in the garden so, as they say, watch this space…
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Gatekeeper Butterfly on Wild Scabious

In the secret valley, we are fortunate in having a number of unimproved meadows and banks, deserted drove roads and flower-rich roadside verges, all of which means that butterflies readily come into our garden.  Even in town gardens a limited number of species will gradually appear and increase in number.
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The wild Geranium pratense is common throughout the Cotswolds and readily available to buy as a garden plant too

One of the first butterflies to be seen on the wing in spring is the Brimstone.  Flying at the first hint of warmth, they lay their eggs on Buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica, a spiny shrub that can be grown in the garden as a clipped hedge or allowed to grow freely.  Its citrus green flowers are followed by shiny black berries in the autumn.  In the image below the Brimstone is feeding from Ceonothus flowers, a popular garden shrub.
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A common butterfly seen from mid-summer onwards is the Peacock, collecting in numbers to feed from Buddleia flowers.  This is such a popular shrub with butterflies that it is often known as ‘the butterfly bush.’  This Peacock is visiting Dame’s Violet, a scented herbaceous plant.
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Another butterfly that visits buddleia is the Comma which has increased steadily in numbers in recent years.  The Comma can be readily identified by the shape of its jagged wings and the white comma mark that is visible on the underwing when the butterfly is at rest.  It lays its eggs on currants, hops, willows and nettles.
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Not all butterflies are brightly coloured as those above and the Meadow Brown, in comparison, is quite drab. As its name suggests, it is found in grassland often in relatively large numbers and flying up from beneath your feet as you walk.  Not restricted to the countryside, keep an eye out for it in parks, cemeteries and gardens.  The photo below shows a female Meadow Brown resting on lavender; it can be identified by the orange markings on its wing.  Compare it with the all brown male feeding on achillea.
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All butterflies fly in daylight but not all moths fly at night.  Moths aren’t always dull either: the day fliers can be very bright.  One of the most spectacular to be found in gardens in the south and west of England is the Scarlet Tiger.  Its caterpillars feed on a variety of plants including comfrey, honeysuckle and nettles.
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Want to know more?  The excellent website of Butterfly Conservation, the UK’s leading charity, has good identification pages for both butterflies and moths as well as a host of other information.  Better still, get out into the garden or countryside armed with camera and ID sheets.  Good butterflying!