Tuesday, 31 December 2013

New Year's Eve at dusk

New Year twigs & berries from the garden
I have just come back into the house after sitting outside for the final twlight of 2013. Earlier in the afternoon I clambered around in our small orchard squishing mistletoe berries, harvested at Christmas from my parents' Gloucestershire garden, and pressing the sticky seeds into the likeliest-looking nooks and crannies of gnarled apple trees. I still remember my mother arriving to collect me from school one day in about 1979, a young crab-apple tree poking jauntily through the sun-roof of her ageing Triumph Herald. Oh the shame of it! More than 30 years later, that sapling is now a mature and shapely specimen, festooned with mistletoe propagated many moons ago by itinerant thrushes. Now I am using the fruits of those plants in an effort to establish a new colony in my own garden, and though success is far from guaranteed, I take heart from the positive result achieved by neighbours a few miles up the road. They used the same uncomplicated berry-squishing technique and are now the proud parents of a young mistletoe plant growing on one of their apple trees.

The Christmas Cactus I wrote about on 8 September
While pretending to be a Mistle Thrush, I heard the high-pitched trills of Long-tailed Tits coming from the direction of one of our suet feeders. The sibilant, penetrating call of a Treecreeper and the busy 'zeet zeet' of a Goldcrest completed a hat-trick of calls from the same end of the sound spectrum. At around four o'clock, and following their daily pre-sunset winter ritual, squadrons of Jackdaws, nearly 200 in all, flew up the valley towards a roost site whose precise location we have yet to discover. At dusk, I watched a Buzzard, simply a mewing black shape in the gloaming, flap low across the valley to its own roost site, serenaded by two Robins singing against each other – their thin winter song already infused with something richer and more springlike. Finally, three Woodcocks, one at a time, flew fast and silently over the tree tops, leaving their day-time woodland-floor roosts to feast on earthworms in wet fields under cover of darkness. A Tawny Owl hooted. The calendar year is almost done, yet the gardening year has already turned and the days are getting longer. Already, if you look, listen and smell, there are little signs of spring all over the place, of which more tomorrow...

In the meantime, Happy New Year and happy gardening in 2014!

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Lighten our darkness...

Leaf wrangling in the drizzle
Though earlier in the week I picked and ate more raspberries (see post of 10 November) and even saw a couple of bumblebees, I have just come in from the gloom and drizzle of a typical December afternoon, fit for a bit of half-hearted leaf raking and some pruning of currant bushes, but not much else. Although the thermometer – had I cared to look – would probably have read a respectable 8 or 9 centigrade, and there were little clouds of gnat-like insects, one of which I managed to inhale extremely successfully, the dankness permeated everything. My hands and fingers are only now beginning to warm up as I sit typing away in front of a log fire.

Lichen on rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) trunk
Yet all is not lost. Today marks one of four special days at this end of the solar calendar, around which the year turns and the light gradually starts to come back. We're still two weeks away from the actual winter solstice, but today the afternoons stopped getting shorter. At this latitude and longitude, 'official' sunset today was at 16.09, the earliest of the winter. It  will remain at that time until 18 December, the second of the crucial dates, when the afternoon gets longer – by one whole minute! – with sunset occurring at 16.10. The mornings, on the other hand continue to shorten and darken, the latest sunrise of the year, at 08.20, not occurring until 25 December and staying that way until 6 January, the fourth and decisive date, when sunrise is a minute earlier at 08.19. By then, sunset will already have stretched out to 16.25 and the slow lengthening of the days will gradually become perceptible. This natural period of renewal in the northern hemisphere has of course long been celebrated by human beings, from pagan times to the marking of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany in the Christian calendar. Whether we individually hold scientific or religious convictions, both, or neither, I suspect that most of us who garden share a special sense of optimism as the light on which we all depend returns. And the hazel catkins are already poised to take advantage in a few weeks' time...

Monday, 2 December 2013

Crepuscular warbling

Dipper singing outside our cottage early in the morning
Not from precocious carol singers but the dawn and dusk song of a Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) advertising its winter territory along the tumbling stream that flows through our garden. Named for their characteristic bobbing curtsy, Dippers are extraordinarily well adapted to life in their watery world, immersing themselves fully in fast-flowing currents in search of the aquatic invertebrates on which they feed. Local names here in the south west include 'Water Colly' (Somerset) and 'Water Thrush' (Cornwall), while the quaintly bucolic 'Bessie Ducker', which sounds like the name of a doomed chamber maid from one of Agatha Christie's rambling country houses, hails from Yorkshire.

For some years, Dipper song – a loud, varied and irrepressibly cheerful jumble of notes – has been a daily fixture from mid-autumn to early spring and all the more welcome at a time of year when few other birds are singing. Unusually, both male and female Dippers sing but as their plumages are alike, it can be suprisingly difficult to distinguish courtship between the sexes from territorial agression between two males. We fixed nestboxes underneath the bridges in our garden, and though we think these are used as overnight roost sites in winter, they have not been used for nesting (yet!), though a pair successfully used a natural site a couple of years ago just upstream from our greenhouse. For more information about Dippers, including an example of their song (and better pictures!) visit http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/d/dipper/index.aspx

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Autumn's last hurrah?

Fleeting low sunlight illuminated some of the last vestiges of autumn and, in one case, the promise of the spring to come...

A lattice of burnished beech (Fagus sylvatica) leaves against a cloudless sky
Backlit fluffy seedheads of Miscanthus sinensis 'Flamingo' wafting in the breeze
The rich buttery leaves of Cornus sangnuinea 'Midwinter Fire'
Long-faded flowerheads of Sedum spectabile almost reborn in the sun
Wintergreen Euphorbia x martini biding its time until spring
Persicaria microcephala 'Red Dragon' soon to be cut down by frost?

Monday, 25 November 2013

Plant of the Moment No.18 – Galanthus elwesii Hiemalis Group, G. e. 'Peter Gatehouse'

The obvious seasonal successor to fruting raspberries? Flowering snowdrops of course!

While snowdrops are quintessential ingredients of late winter and early spring, with the flowering of naturalised common snowdrops Galanthus nivalis usually reaching a peak during the first 10 days of February in this garden, selection of early and late-flowering species and their cultivars can extend the season over five months or more.

A few years ago I planted three bulbs of Galanthus elwesii Hiemalis Group that came originally from Beth Chatto's nursery and which are renowned for their early flowering. It has taken a while for them to settle down, and – since no self-respecting snowdrop appreciates having a soggy bottom during its dormant season – they basically sat and sulked for several years as one wet summer followed another. But things are looking up and it's again (as so much in gardening) all down to the weather, I reckon.

The cold spring of 2013 made for a prolonged snowdrop growing season here in Devon, resulting in fat, healthy bulbs, which then benefited from a warm, pretty dry summer dormancy. Anticipating that the mild, wet autumn would have encouraged early-flowering snowdrops into an advanced stage of growth, I went in search among the still quite leafy borders on Saturday. There to greet me was an already nodding flowerhead of Galanthus elwesii Hiemalis Group (left) with further sky-pointing buds to follow.

Elsewhere, I came across G. e. 'Peter Gatehouse'  in flower (right) – each bulb's pair of leaves barely breaking the surface and seeming to clasp the base of the flowerstalk. I only planted Mr G last year, so I'm glad that he seems to be making himself at home. Spring already feels like a more tangible prospect.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Let them eat raspberries – in November

Ripe for the plucking...
One sign of the topsy-turvy season: eating fresh raspberries, straight from the plant, outside, in the second week of November! Admittedly, quite a lot of the fruits were on the watery-looking side and/or sprouting a fuzz of mould, but the ones I picked were tasty, plump and blemish-free. And those that are less appealing to the human eye will be gobbled up by Robins, Blackbirds, mice and voles, among other diners.

Of course these are autumn-fruiting plants, of an unknown variety – kindly given to us by friends several years ago – but one that seems to be particularly late-maturing, needing a really good summer to flower and fruit well. That being the case, we grow them as 'perpetual' croppers, leaving this year's fruited canes to grow summer-flowering side-shoots next near, and only cutting them back when we have picked that second flush of berries. In a good year, that means we can be picking over the course of four months, from two generations of canes growing side-by-side, though there is never the abundance of berries that comes from the classic summer-cropping varieties. In most autumns, the cold sets in before the second crop has fully ripened. Not so this year, but I wonder when we will next be picking raspberries in November!

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Tucked up for winter (in case we get one)

Proper winter still seems a distant prospect and I can report that the garden remains as treacherously slick and slidey as it was a week ago. The grass has put on at least 5cm since mid-October and there continues to be no sign of frost in the forecast for our neck of the woods. In a moment of madness I thought about cutting back herbaceous perennials, but working in the borders today, even from scaffolding planks, would be akin to balancing on a log in a vat of soggy tiramisu – something which is rarely advisable, and never when wielding a pair of freshly sharpened secateurs...

But one thing's as sure as a rat running up a drainpipe and that is: IT WON'T LAST. Eventually, cold air will plunge down from the Arctic, a drying wind will set in, the skies will clear and a hard frost will mercilessly cut to the ground anything remotely fragile or temperamental. And the fact that everywhere is so wet will make those tender waifs even more vulnerable, as they struggle to cope with conditions that are about as far as imaginable from their Mediterranean and subtropical homelands.

Preparing the ark to sail forth into winter...
So over the last few days, I have established a diverse collection of botanical refugees in the greenhouse, among them Agapanthus and Pelargonium from South Africa, Dahlia and Echeveria from Meso-America, Salvia guaranitica from South America, Geranium maderense from Madeira, and Ensete ventricosum from the highlands of East Africa. All of these will survive the winter – though probably not enjoy the experience very much – in pots in the greenhouse, where a small thermostatically controlled heater will prevent them from freezing solid, but nothing more than that. I'll keep them all on the dry side, and clean the glass regularly, since it's the combination of wet, low light levels and cold that will cause them to shuffle off this mortal coil, rather than cold alone. The opening of the ark doors one day in March and the ritual of carrying everything out to its summer home is one of the best moments of the year and one that I'm already looking forward to.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Slippery when wet

This cautionary phrase, beloved of lawsuit-fearing corporations and public bodies, could apply to the whole garden and everything in it at the moment. This afternoon it's grey and overcast (again), with a fine drizzle in the wind but a ludicrously balmy temperature of 16C as mild, humid air is dragged in from the Atlantic, enveloping this part of Devon in a warm, wet, claggy blanket.

This iridescent dumbledor is unusual so late in the year. Appropriately enough for a dung beetle, it's walking across the cover to our septic tank. If it only knew what riches lay beneath its feet!

A dumbledor Geotrupes sp. sitting on top of its wildest dream

At the weekend we juiced some more apples (thanks Matt for the extra supplies!), sheltering in the kitchen to avoid the latest pulse of heavy rain – ahead of which I grabbed a few photos of seasonal contrasts in the garden (see below).

On Monday (4th), some much-needed but all-too-fleeting sunshine revealed a Red Admiral butterfly and a male Common Darter dragonfly still out and about, but otherwise it is a mushy, slushy story of autumnal decay. The higher-than-normal temperatures – particularly the complete absence of night-time frosts – mean that several horticultural refugees from summer, among them Rudbeckia and Verbena bonariensis, linger on, crossing over with "winter" flowers such as a Mahonia and Jasminum nudiflorum that are already doing their thing... It's all so confusing. I need a nice soothing cup of tea.


Penstemon 'Raven'
Rudbeckia fulgida var deamii
Verbena bonariensis

 ...meets winter – on the same day!

Mahonia x media 'Winter Sun' or is it 'Lionel Fortescue'?
The tomato-like hips of Rosa rugosa
Winter jasmine Jasminum nudiflorum

Has bean...

Thank you!

First, my apologies for the recent lack of posts... Not only has the very wet and windy weather prevented me from doing anything much in the garden, but I was away for a while and then strapped to my computer, catching up with work, on my return.

I just wanted to say a HUGE 'Thank You' to everyone that voted for The Freerange Gardener in the RHS blog competition and to offer hearty congratulations to David Marsden over at The Anxious Gardener on his well-deserved win.

Watch out for more from The Freerange Gardener coming to a screen near you very soon!

Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea 'Edith Dudszus'

Thursday, 10 October 2013

RHS blogs competition – Finalist!

I was just about to shut down my computer this evening when an email plopped into my inbox from RHS central, informing me that one of my jottings see Juicy Story, posted on 23 September – has been selected as a Finalist in this year's RHS blogs competition!

If you have enjoyed reading these pages, and feel like exercising your democractic right, I'd be deeply touched if you would consider casting a vote for The Freerange Gardener's Juicy Story via the following link:


But hurry! They'll be locking the Wisley polling booths and weeding out the spoilt ballots at midnight on Sunday 20th October...

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Is it October already?

I bury my head in work for a few days, look up again and suddenly it's the second week of October... How did that happen?

We've had a couple of generally very mild but often quite damp weeks, with higher than average temperatures accompanied by humid air, which the low autumn sun has struggled to make an impact on, meaning misty mornings, but bright or even sunny afternoons. We had a few hours of intense rainfall last week, but it was so concentrated that the stream level has not risen much from its mid-summer nadir. The warmth – especially at night – has meant that grass is continuing to romp away with spring-like vigour and we are having to keep the meadows 'topped' with the mower to give wildflower seedlings the space and light they need to develop.

Having been shamefully neglectful of this blog for a few days, I thought I would post a few shots taken last Sunday, 6 Ocotber – a beautifully warm, bright, often sunny day, when we worked happily in the garden from morning till dusk.

Here's a plant that has seemingly had more names than almost any I can think of! In years gone by – and I'm sure, for most gardeners, total lack of awareness of the racially offensive connotations – this used to be known by the common name of Kaffir Lily. More recently, it was perhaps better known by its scientific name Schizostylis, which doesn't exactly trip off the tongue, while this beautiful pale-pink cultivar is popularly called 'Pink Princess'. But it doesn't end there... Checking the online RHS PlantFinder, I find that Schizostylis coccinea 'Pink Princess' is now officially referred to as Hesperantha coccinea 'Wilfred H. Bryant'. It's still lovely though!

This torpid, hibernating newt we found deeply buried when moving large stones and soil to make some new steps. Fortunately it was unharmed and crawled off to find a more restful spot to slumber until spring as soon as we released it somewhere safe.

This Red Admiral was drunk on the sweet, sticky innards of an over-ripe fig, split open in the sun. This somehow captures the decadence of the season; a time of plenty for humans and wildlife alike. Looking up at the open fruit reminded me of the lyrics to a Kate Bush track, Eat the Music, which uses the opening-up of a closed fruit as a metaphor for human emotion: "What am I singing? A song of seeds. The food of love".

But back to the frivolous. And it doesn't get any more frivolous than the punch of colour provided by this fine display of mauve Aster 'Little Carlow' (which looks great in spite of gross negligence in the staking department – see post of 30 July) complemented by, or clashing with – depending on your sensibilities – a backdrop of pale-yellow Helianthus 'Lemon Queen', both simply smothered with butterflies and other insects.

Finally, a flowering shrub that we have loved since clapping eyes on a magnificent specimen in full flower at Great Dixter one September several years ago. This is the wall-shrub Pileostegia viburnoides, whose myriad starry white flowers exude a heady scent in the sun, which pulls in insects from all over the garden. A real treat, at its best on warm autumn days.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Innovations R Us

Update 25 Sep: Now with slightly less horrible resolution... Must do better!

The Freerange Gardener is proud to present a second technological innovation in the space of 24 hours. Yesterday the apple press, today a video clip! Where will it all end?

Here's a short clip of the butterflies about which I waxed lyrical yesterday. There were even more today; a conservative count of 55 Small Tortoiseshells at lunchtime, while the Elephant Hawk-moth caterpillar colony on the Fuchsia has doubled in size to two!

Monday, 23 September 2013

Juicy story

I wish to point out that our recent purchase of an apple crusher and press for making our own juice and – if we can be bothered with the extra faffing about – cider, was a decision 12 years in the making that had nothing whatsoever to do with a certain Mr Don demonstrating suspiciously similar-looking devices on Gardeners' World two weeks ago. So there. No impulse buys or fashionable bandwagons for us thank you very much!

Having unpacked the reassuringly heavy, not to say hernia-inducing, press and carefully followed the helpful little instruction booklet to assemble the crusher, I walked round the garden late yesterday afternoon, filling a trug with windfalls. These I washed (pressed slug might not have killed us, but I didn't fancy it anyway) and cut into halves, before feeding them into the fearsome-looking teeth of the crusher. Then, rather excitingly, it was time to turn the screw of the chunky steel and wood press and to enjoy the sight, sound and smell of our first ever bottle of home-made apple juice gradually filling to the top. But what would it taste like? Fearful of a mouth-furring, tooth-jarring blast of under-ripe acidity, we were both pleasantly surprised to find that our produce was not only drinkable but truly delicious. What better way of drinking to the autumn equinox? Cheers!

RHS Gardening Blogs Competition

Butterfly bonanza

"Not more bloody butterflies!" I hear you cry. But I make no apologies for posting a taste of today's veritable butterfly bonanza – the culmination of a warm summer and a wonderfully balmy late-September afternoon, which brought out at least 50 Small Tortoiseshells; most crowded onto Sedum flowerheads, others on Aster 'Little Carlow' and A. novi-belgii 'Herbstgruss vom Bresserhof'. With them were about 6 Commas, 10 or more Red Admirals, 4 Small Coppers, a couple of Large and Green-veined Whites and a single Silver-washed Fritillary, still hanging on. In the evening we found the striking caterpillar of an Elephant Hawk-moth on a container-grown Fuchsia 'Delta's Sara'. The large false 'eyes' and elephant's trunk-like 'proboscis' are designed to alarm and confuse potential predators.

'Dead leaf' underside, with eponymous white 'Comma' mark
The startling contrast of the Comma's upperside
Small Copper on Aster 'Little Carlow'
Backlit undersides of Small Coppers on Sedum
15 Small Tortoiseshells, 2 Red Admirals and a Comma

Elephant Hawk-moth caterpillar on Fuchsia 'Delta's Sara'

Saturday, 21 September 2013


21 September is traditionally the date of the autumn equinox, one of the four touchstones in the solar calendar that have dictated the rhythm of life for millennia. This year, and in this time zone (the quaintly named 'British Summer Time', or GMT/UTC +1 hour) the equinox actually occurs tomorrow, 22 September. A quick Google search pins it down even more precisely to 9.44 pm on Sunday, after which the nights will stretch out until we reach my favourite day of the year, the Winter Solstice, on or around 21 December. Then, a corner is turned and spring suddenly seems a tangible, if still-distant, prospect.

Signs of the equinox are all around. We awoke this morning to the familiar sharp call of a Dipper Cinclus cinclus, typical birds of fast-flowing streams. Their predominantly black plumage, with a chestnut band on the belly, contrasts with a pure white throat and breast, making this one of the smartest of all British birds (see http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/d/dipper/index.aspx). In recent years at least one Dipper has set up an autumn and winter territory along the former millstream that rushes through our garden, and it somehow seemed appropriate that we saw the first of the season today, on the eve of "official" autumn. It sat on a small wooden bridge, bobbing up and down on its strong pinkish legs, hopping from one handrail to the other, calling frequently in semi-display.

The orchard is dripping with Bramley apples, the crab apple 'Red Sentinel' is studded with scarlet fruit, and both the Persian ironwood Parrotia persica 'Felicie' and Euonymus europaeus 'Red Cascade', a cultivar of our native spindle, are starting to show their brilliant autumn colours.

Euonymus europaeus 'Red Cascade'
Malus x robusta 'Red Sentinel'
Parrotia persica 'Felicie'
Late-morning I drove down to the nearby coast and watched small groups of migrating Swallows Hirundo rustica – totalling some 300 in the space of an hour – arrive from the north, low over the sea, twittering excitedly as they made landfall and flying right past me to hurry on southwards. Still only at the very beginning of their epic trans-Saharan odyssey, they will track the sun's journey into the Southern Hemisphere, as far as South Africa, to reap the insect-laden riches of their second spring and summer of the year. As I wished the Swallows safe travels, the outflowing equinoctial spring tide surged round the rocks below me.

Adult Swallow – Photo © Richard Campey
So tomorrow evening, at precisely 9.44 pm, I will raise a glass to the turning of the seasons and all that it means in the natural world.


At 6.30 pm I heard Swallow alarm calls and looked up to see a tight-knit bunch of about 25 Swallows high over the garden, almost disappearing in the misty low cloud and drizzle. I think they must have been trying to roost in the tops of the conifers in the nearby plantation, but got spooked by something, perhaps a Sparrowhawk hunting under the cover of failing light.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Plant of the Moment – No.17 Ensete ventricosum 'Tandarra Red'

Continuing yesterday's theme of light, here are the enormous paddle-like leaves of the banana Ensete ventricosum 'Tandarra Red', the glossy upper surfaces reflecting burnished tones of deepest red and dark green, the matt-effect undersides like ruby port. When back-lit the strong red mid-vein and horizontal ribbing are beautifully picked out.

This plant is in a large pot, which stands outside in a sheltered sunny spot from May to October, spending the rest of the year in the greenhouse, where I keep it completely dry in mid-winter. With frequent watering, a diet of tomato feed – and above all – warmth, successive leaves unroll and expand to form one of the most dramatic plants in the garden at this time of year.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

September light

Today was one of dramatic contrasts: heavily overcast, grey and drizzly all morning – with a couple of hours of heavier rain thrown in for good measure – followed by that dazzling light you get in September when the sun shines from a clear blue sky onto a garden still full of summer-nurtured colour and texture. I always associate the jewel-like intensity of light that we enjoyed this afternoon with the passage of a cold front. Here, close to the coast, the fresh Atlantic air is clear and crisp and though the days are rapidly shortening as we hurtle towards the equinox, the sun is still high enough in the sky to flood the whole garden with light and warmth and it feels like summer has stolen a day from winter.

I raced around with the camera and captured a few appropriately jewel-like plants and butterflies.

Red Admiral and Small Tortoiseshells on Sedum spectabile
Red Admiral – an iconic autumn butterfly that actively migrates south
The clump of Colchicum autumnale featured in yesterday's post stretches out to the sun
Miscanthus sinensis 'Flamingo' with Aster, Patrinia and Sedum
Aster amellus 'King George'
Also out in the sun were a very tatty end-of-season Silver-washed Fritillary (amongst the latest we have ever seen of this quintessential ingredient of summer in our garden), Speckled Woods and Green-veined Whites. A Herald moth (see post of 9th September) fluttered out of a cupboard in our utility room (possibly thinking "Hurrah! It's Spring!"), while Southern Hawker and Common Darter dragonflies continued to patrol the ponds and woodland edge.