Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Morning Has Broken

"Morning has broken, like the first morning.."

This song never fails to play in my mind everytime I wander down the garden on fine spring days, seeing most plants springing back to life after a cold and dark season that is winter. It's actually an old Christian hymn but was popularised by Cat Stevens when he sang a version of it in 1971 and consequently became a hit single for him the following year. And it is his version that plays in my mind, year after year in the spring everytime I see all the new growth coming back in the garden, with the birds singing in the air, and crisp sunshine illuminating the place. It sounds a bit cheesy I know but hey, it does convey perfectly my personal feeling of joy everytime this wonderful season arrives.

One fine day, camera in hand. walking down the garden in the early morning just before going to work, I think and sing to myself, 'Morning has broken..'

Veratrum nigrum

Rheum palmatum 'Rubrum'

Ligularia przewalskii

A group of Heucheras, surrounded by Petasites frigidus var. palmatus

Cardiocrium giganteum

One of our numerous ground ferns about to unfurl new fronds

Syneilesis palmata

Arum maculatum (variegated)

Peltoboykinia watanabei

Aesculus parviflora

Ligularia 'The Rocket'

Daphniphyllum macropodum buds enlarging

Impatiens omeiana

Blechnum magellanicum about to throw out new fronds

Podophyllum 'Spotty Dotty'

Just a few of what's currently looking good in our garden. All of the plants I've featured have been in our garden for at least a year and have been through the past winter which was harsher than usual, making the sight of them even more welcome.

Morning has indeed broken, and it's just the beginning. It's going to be a beautiful year :-)


Monday, March 28, 2011

A Worthy Distraction

Another lazy weekend.....

Lazy taking photographs that is! Apart from that it's been another pleasantly hectic weekend, both from gardening and spending time with friends and family, and it never fails to amaze me how much one can fit in in a short span of two days.

Saturday morning was spent with a quick visit to a nearby nursery to check out their spring offers, and it was a very succesful visit. Lots of new plants available for very good prices so we came back with two trolley loads of new plants that will be welcome additons to our garden. By noon we were back home as a couple of friends from Nottingham were visiting for the day, together with some of Gaz's family from Kent, and all of us had lunch together in a local pub. Afterwards, they popped round to visit our garden in the afternoon. It was a lovely, relaxing Satuday and it was great to see everyone again.

So we weren't able to do much in the garden on Saturday. Feeling relaxed and chilled out from the previous day, we were eager to get stuck in on Sunday and so we did. There's so much to do, and you get this long mental list of things you want to get done in such a short period of time that it's easy to get lost in a flurry of activity. Sometimes even remembering to have lunch, at lunchtime can be tricky, only remembering to have it when your tummy starts to complain, and usually it's late in the afternoon already. But such is the joy of spring gardening, and I'm not complaining!

After telling myself off last weekend for not taking too many photos, I sort of put in my top most agenda to take lots of photos this weekend. With spring definitely here, lots of plants are springing back to life and there's so much activity going on that there are plenty of subjects to take photos of. And besides, spring only comes once a year (albeit lasts a few months) and it would be nice to capture as much of what's happening in the garden, especially most of them are fleeting moments that's worth capturing. But alas, photo taking came tumbling down the priority list again in my excitement to garden.

That's until I noticed a particular plant in bloom and I immediately grabbed the camera and took photos, not wanting to miss the moment just in case it never lasts.

Illicium simonsii (Illicium yunnanense ?)

I only acquired this plant early last year, and thinking that it's still too small to flower it was a complete surprise to find it currently in bloom. And the scent is just divine, if I can only attach a whiff of its gorgeous scent to our blog I would have. The sweet scent is very similar to the incredibly fragrant flowers of Jasminum sambac, and anyone who has ever smelled its flowers would know (and understand the heavenly experience) the wonderful scent I'm referring to.

The plant was originally labelled as Illicium yunnanense, acquired from the person who actually collected the original plant on one of his plant collecting expeditions in China many years ago. I bought up the question to him on how similar it is to Illicium simonsii, he said that there are some confusion going on about the names and identities, and that more likely they are actually one in the same. Last month Crug Farm had a large Illicium simonsii in bloom on their stand at the RHS London Plant and Design Show, and they both look very similar indeed. I bought another plant from them but that one isn't flowering at the moment so I couldn't compare the blooms side by side. Foliage wise, they look identical.

Whatever it is, it is wonderful, and for me exceptional enough that it was able to distract me in the midst of my gardening ecstasy to actually make me stop and take photos of it. Definitely worth the distraction! And if you can get hold of one I highly recommend it, whether from Crug Farm or somewhere else. I have yet to plant it out, this one spending last winter in the greenhouse. But the reports have been very good, and knowing one specimen that have withstood temperatures down to -18C (0F) with very little damage.

We have now entered British Summer Time (BST), and with the clocks gone one hour forward, there's more opportunity to garden after work as daytime is getting longer and extending well into the evenings. And plenty of opportunity to take photos in the next few days. And no more excuses this time :-)


Monday, March 21, 2011

A Digger's High

Schefflera kornasii (syn. vietnamensis) basking in the spring sun
It's been another succesful weekend spending time in the garden. After a frosty start to Saturday morning we had glorious sunshine all day Saturday, as well as Sunday. The weather has been definitely very spring like, the best we have had so far this year, and with such fine weather for the time of the year we managed to achieve a lot and feel very accomplished.

Still relatively early in the season but with such generous display of the golden rays of the sun, it really does give you a boost and a sense of extra energy ready to get fully stuck in again. The risk of frosts and low night time temperatures are still there of course but with such a fine weekend weather followed by very good forecasts, you can say that we're at the stage where we can start kissing winter goodbye for now. And yes, make it a very short kiss too.

I thoroughly enjoyed our time gardening this weekend that I just immersed myself getting stuck in without pausing to take many pictures. Actually whilst doing things thoughts came to mind; "I could blog about this, I could blog about that, etc.", and ought to be taking as many photos as I can. But I just wanted to get stuck in and not worry too much with distractions such as pausing to take photos, hehe! Well I'm not really doing myself any favours by slacking off in the photography department, but there are moments in life when you just want to do and experience things without feeling the need to document it, content with the experience of the moment and the good memories that come with it. And such was this weekend. After a long winter, it was nice to finally see so much sun and be able to do loads!

Saying that, I wasn't completely hopeless and did manage to take a few photos now and again. Mostly it was during the end of day when I actually had more time to do nothing else but take snaps, whilst still reasonably bright outside.

We've done the usual clearing out, tidying up, as well as planting out a few more plants so they start to establish and get ready for the growing season. But the main highlight of the weekend was that, after a long winter wait, we were finally able to resume digging the big pit again!

The big hole just before autumn last year
We started hand digging for our new Koi pond summer last year. Yep, it will have to be 100% hand dug as there's no access for a mini digger, even for a micro digger, and the soil and rubble removed will be re-used to raise the ground level of the area as this part of the garden gradually slopes down towards the back. To make things complicated, and something we weren't expecting, is that this section only has about 18" of good quality top soil and a few inches of subsoil. After that we've hit solid chalk.

And solid chalk, as you can imagine, is difficult to hand dig as you have to chip it bit by bit, either with a digging fork or for the more compacted parts, with a pick axe. Whenever we use the pick axe you can see sparks flying whenever you hit some of the flint within the chalk bed.

Hand digging a koi pond, which started last summer
The progress of the dig would have been much quicker if we were able to use machinery, but since we can't it has become a longer process. Although hearing from a few people who have done similar digs, they reckon we would still have needed to hand dig out the chalk bed as the hydraulics of the mini digger will not cope with it, so it was better not to bother and just hand dig from the start. Plus it's a rather big hole (22' x 11' x 2.5' deep) so there's plenty of soil/rubble to remove. Looking at the figures, it doesn't seem deep enough for an 'ideal' Koi pond depth but as the surrounding ground level will be raised then the intended outcome won't be the same depth. It will be much, much deeper.

Anyway, I won't go much into the technical detail nor the full history of our 'big dig' just yet, I'll save that for another blog entry. 

So we started the dig in the summer and carried on till late in the season, then stopped in the autumn so we can concentrate on sorting out the rest of the garden and get it ready for the coming winter. We were intending to resume digging during winter but found out that it was too much of an uphill battle to do so at that period!

It was such a wet (and exceptionally cold at the start) winter, almost like it was raining everyday, and the pit quickly became a mud pool. On a dry day the chalk bed becomes hard, dusty, and solid but when wet it becomes a pool of squidgy, incredibly sticky and messy pool of mud. If you walk on it, the chalk mud quickly stick at the bottom of your wellies and the layer thickens the more you tread on it, gaining an inch or so of height in a short space of time. And the rubble you dig out becomes incredibly heavy, much more than the dry weight as the chalk swells up and retains moisture. Way too much hard work and very messy, so with reluctance we had to abandon digging for the rest of the winter months.

On dry periods the chalk hardens up that you can easily sweep up smaller debris into bigger heaps
But we've had a run of dry days lately, and with such a glorious sunny weekend it was the perfect time to resume what has long been delayed :-)

And so, we got stuck in again, chipping, shovelling, and wheel barrowing the rubble and making huge piles of chalk all over. One by one, bit by bit but we're getting there. All the digging we've done last year toned up our muscles and had resulted in weight loss too (a nice bonus!). But we haven't done it for months so I was apprehensive that we're both going to feel sore and achy again after such a long digging hiatus. But to my pleasant surprise only a few minor aches and pains ensued, nothing too bad to make life uncomfortable. They do say muscle has 'memory', looks like it has and it has remembered very well. 

A few of the strapping lads of our local Koi club have hinted at their willingness to help with the dig, after all most of them have been through to what we are currently doing. But we're getting by for now just by ourselves, reserving the need for their help instead on the more technical aspects of the pond build later in the year. And that will require more brain power. At least with digging you won't need much brain bending, you can pretty much carry out digging and go on mental auto pilot, doing it while thinking of something else, like a vacation to somewhere exotic, haha! :-)

Despite the obvious hard work, getting stuck in has given us a 'Digger's High' at the end of the day. Probably both from the fact that we have started doing again something that would lead to something we wish to achieve; and at the same the release of Endorphins from doing all that physical exertion, like what you feel after a good workout or after a long jogging session. Or it could just be the sun, casting its smily face on winter weary gardeners/garden makers raring to get stuck in again. 

It's a fantastic feeling, the high of physical exertion and a feeling of accomplishment. And whether you dig out a pond, dig up your plant borders or allotment, the satisfaction you get is equally good. Doing what you enjoy despite the hard work and seeing that something good is happening, something you wish to achieve is unfurling right in front of your eyes and it's you that's making it.

Latest photo, taken last Sunday night
So there you go, I have taken a few photos last weekend, most of them were spring shots of plants, the rest were actually of the highlight of our weekend which was the resumption of our big dig. There's a fair amount more left to remove but we're almost there, ready for the next step of the pond build.

I suppose the photos also serve as a preview to our new garden. Our blog is mostly about the two main sections of our garden: the Old garden which we started to develop nearly six years ago, and the New garden which we started to develop only last year. The old garden continues to evolve, while the new garden will unfurl as we carry on developing it. Both are, or should I also say will be exotic gardens but the new garden (with a bigger koi pond) will have a different feel to the old garden, leaning more towards a more modern or contemporary feel to it. Anyway, more about this on our future posts! :-)


Friday, March 18, 2011

Garden Visit: Majorelle Garden, Marrakech

General view towards the main buidings.
A couple of years ago Mark and I had a weeks holiday in the city of Marrakech in Morocco. Like many North African cities, Marrakech is a very busy and hectic place, with lots of traffic, people, sights and sounds. We stayed in an old converted Riad in the heart of the old city, close to the main square, Djemaa el Fna, around which the various traders, food sellers and famous souks are located.

Whilst we enjoyed the hussle and bussle of the bazaars, it was great to find a tranquil garden to visit, and Majorelle Garden was simply a delight. So much so that we visited twice during the week.

The garden was designed by the expatriate French artist Jacques Majorelle in 1924, during the colonial period when Morocco was a protectorate of France. The garden is famous for its cobalt blue walls, which are incredibly striking in the bright sun of Morocco, the actual shade used was made specifically for the garden and is now called "blue Majorelle".

The garden contains a superb arid section with some very well grown succulent plants.

The garden first was opened to the public in 1947, and in 1980 was purchased by Yves Saint Laurent, whose ashes were scattered in the garden after he died in 2008.

Cactus Garden with the house beyond.
Banana in flower

Like most gardens it is divided into different sections, from lush to arid, complementing each other well in this garden, and are such a contrast compared to the busy city outside the walls.

Majorelle Garden is one of the most beautiful gardens in the world, and a must see when visiting the city of Marrakech.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Wordless Wednesday

Friday, March 11, 2011

A tricky thing called early Spring

Our garden is starting to wake up from its winter slumber. This photo was taken this week.
Spring is definitely just round the corner, with buds enlarging on several deciduous trees and shrubs, as well as some perennials starting to peep out from their winter dormancy. Even several woodlanders are starting to push out now. It's nice to see some 'life' starting to come back again all over the garden.  

But it's also this time when most of the evergreens are showing winter weariness and looking their scruffiest, and last years growth on some plants seem to wave at you, begging for your attention, needing to be cut back in preparation for this season's new growth. And it has been a harsh December too which left a few unexpected casualties that needs clearing out.The weather has been relatively mild for the past few weeks, mild enough to start getting stuck in with spring maintenance. And there seems alot more to do this year compared to the previous ones.

Podophyllum 'Spotty Dotty'

Digging up a dead palm

It's good to start early, left too long it becomes a mad rush come April when the tidy up post winter merges in with the preparation for the new growing season. I usually take a few days vacation that month to dedicate my time with this spring preparation, so I can be on top of things rather than drag them on. So anything that gets sorted and ticked off the 'to do' list will help ease off the April rush.

One of the things that can be done this early, plant out a bamboo. Or in this case repot it. I line the sides (but not the bottom) of a terracotta pot with plastic to make it more water retentive as bamboos require more moisture but good drainage.

In truth, things never really get entirely finished. There's always something to do and other things do crop up on the way that you weren't expecting before that needs sorting out. That's gardening in general for you though, a never ending process that is mostly enjoyable to the hobbyists like us. All sorted or not, as long as most of it is done then I'm content with what I've achieved.

As tempting as it may be to get fully stuck in, early spring is a tricky time of the year and can be unpredictable. You have to be careful and cautious on what you do, as well as limited by the current conditions, unable to rely too much on the forecasts. The weather may be mild, but the threat of frosts, low temperatures, and even snow is still there. A constant eye on the weather is still needed.

Epimedium looking good after the winter

One word that comes to mind now is the word Tidy; you can't be too tidy at this time of the year, or rather just be selectively tidy and not be in a rush to do everything too quick. It's true that early spring can be the scruffiest time of the year in the garden (with autumn being the messiest) and the temptation is there to tidy up everything so the area is more pleasing to the eye. But it's best not to remove all of last years growth on certain herbaceous plants, they also serve to provide some protection to the tender new shoots starting to come back from the growth. And you can't remove all of the winter protection you have afforded on some plants, nor place outside all of the hardier plants mollycuddled inside the greenhouse. Not yet anyway with the weather still unpredictable. 

A lot of our evergreen ground ferns were flattened by snow last year, and are currently looking all splattered. But the fronds are still green and photosynthesizing, giving support to the new growth that will unfurl later in the season, so best left untidied for now. Tree ferns all still have their crown protection but I've loosened them up a bit to increase air circulation.

Gunnera tinctoria

Our Gunnera tinctoria however is bursting to get out of its protection so I have uncovered it from its fleecy blanket. A section of it was actually under the plastic roof panels covering the pond, and it was only bought to my attention that it needs uncovering when it actually pushed up one of the panels. That is remarkable strength from the plant considering the panels were weight down with stone blocks! It was lovely to see this prickly giant bursting to life, it's put on a massive display of leaves last year and looks like it will get even bigger this year.

Despite the limitations we've managed to do loads already, and looking forward to much later in the season when the weather is a little bit more stable and predictable (although it never really is). And that's when we can go full swing.

Which reminds me, I need to book some time off from work soon.....

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Wordless Wednesday

Syneilesis palmata

Monday, March 07, 2011

Madeira Series: Funchal Botanic Gardens

Funchal's Botanic Garden only started in 1960, so is a relative newcomer compared to many of the well known Botanic Gardens elsewhere in Europe. However there are a significant number of large and interesting plants to make a visit worthwhile, (plus entry is a very modest €3).

The garden, like much of Madeira is on quite a steep slope, so various terraces are cut into the hill side.

The garden has a large arid section with numerous large yucca, aloe, agave as well as opuntias and euphorbia. This really highlights just how fantastic these plants can be given the right settings, and the ability to grow outside permanently without a British winter to set them back.

Everywhere you go the terrain of Madeira is breathtaking. This photo taken from the botanic gardens shows the engineering skill required to create the expressway. There are a number of similar bridges and tunnels cut into the volcanic rocks to create a fast link along the southern coast of the island.