Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Chup! Chup!

I heard the loud and distinctive "chup! chup!" call of Crossbills this afternoon and looked up to see a flock of 10 of these dumpy finch-like birds – equipped with slightly comical overlapping mandibles that are perfectly designed for extracting seeds from pine cones – flying high down the valley. Crossbills breed very early in the year and roam the countryside in summer and autumn, in sometimes very large flocks, seeking out fruiting conifers.

Plant of the Moment – No. 3 Euphorbia x martinii

The spent 'flower' heads of this fairly compact, evergreen spurge are flushed with an eye-popping cerise that seems to have become more vivid by the day during the recent hot, dry spell. Strong new shoots emerging from the base will make ideal cuttings, though time is running on... This particular plant comes with a free Harvestman – a seasonal feature round these parts, both outdoors and in. For more on these spiders that are not, see

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Silver-washed Fritillaries

A mating pair of Silver-washed Fritillaries on the Telekia this afternoon. One of our largest native butterflies, the females lay their eggs on violets under the shade of deciduous woodland. In the last of the four photos below the more ginger tone of the male's upperwings can be seen contrasting with the more greenish tinge of the female's. The gorgeous, eponymous 'silver-washing' of the undersides shows up well in all of the shots.

 Other butterflies out and about...

Green-veined White
Small Copper

A stake in time...

This time last year I looked at the flopped, wind-and-rain-beaten chaos of stems at the awkward-to-get-to back of a border and told myself, "Next year I'll definitely get my staking done in time and it will all look lovely". Fat chance. So this morning before breakfast, I was once again stumbling around and swearing as I hoiked up lolling masses of Aster 'Little Carlow' and Euphorbia sikkimensis that had fallen domino-style across one another, each now-nearly-horizontal stem having bent upwards towards the light at a jaunty angle. As ever, my post-flop, too-little-too-late efforts couldn't snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and the forcible coralling of twisted stems using an arsenal of stakes, supports and endless metres of garden twine are horribly obvious. I know that come September the Aster will still be smothered in a haze of mauve flowers and alive with butterflies and other insects, and that it's really only my pride that's injured – but next year I'll definitely get my staking done in time and it will all look lovely.

Plant of the Moment – No.2 Lilium lancifolium

The long, tightly clasped, snout-like flower buds of the Tiger Lilies Lilium lancifolium that we grow in pots outside the back door have started to reveal their exotic contents – six dramatically swept back orange petals, each peppered by a seemingly random pattern of dark blotches, setting off six outwardly protruding stamens arranged around an even longer style. Each stamen terminates in a quivering anther, literally bursting with densely sticky rust-coloured pollen that stains in an instant any clothing carelessly brushed against it...

Originating from north-east Asia, Lilium lancifolium has the unusual habit – among lilies – of forming bulbils (little bulbs!) in the leaf axils, where the leaves join the stem. About the size of a chick pea, each bulbil ripens to a glossy black before dropping from the plant and rolling away in search of new ground to colonise.  From a single parent plant, I have propagated all our stock using these curious black spheres, potting them on until they reach flowering size in about three years. When in growth I feed the mature plants weekly with organic liquid tomato fertiliser. Once the foliage has died down I move the pots underneath the greenhouse staging, where they are kept dry over winter and started into growth in spring by watering and moving into bright light.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Plant of the Moment – No.1 Telekia speciosa

This gawky great plant, sometimes called Heartleaf Oxeye, stands 1.8 m high (I have just measured it) and has erupted into flower this week, its shaggy bright-yellow daisies bursting forth from rather unpromising-looking buds. Earlier in the summer, the huge, rough-textured, heart-shaped leaves form a rapidly expanding, branching green mound, from deceptively small, soft, greyish buds that are beloved of slugs when young and which we protect with copper rings.

As I write, I can see the vivid green and gold display, bathed in bright sunshine, from the corner of my eye. Earlier this morning a magnificent Silver-washed Fritillary butterfly was feeding from the densely-packed, nectar-rich true flowers at the centre of each daisy and the whole plant is now buzzing with hoverflies and bumble-bees.

A native of Central & Eastern Europe, this is a herbaceous perennial that needs plenty of elbow room and resents drying out, when it can wilt dramatically, especially when grown in full sun. I have sometimes seen Telekia speciosa listed as a thug – certainly our plant had rooted itself so firmly through the bottom of its pot at the nursery that it was quite an operation to prise it free – but the "thug" tag is unfair, at least in our garden, where it has made an admittedly large, but well-behaved clump and shown no signs, so far, of self-seeding. Ours is now in its third year after planting out and is getting close to exceeding its allotted space, so we'll be dividing the rootstock this winter and looking for new corners of the garden to light up.

Welcome to The Freerange Gardener...

...a record of life in a Devon garden.

First up, Summer Pudding anyone? The unending rainfall in 2012, followed by this year's cool, late spring and sun-drenched July, seem to have conspired to generate colossal quantities of soft fruit. Our modest array of bushes (two blackcurrants, two redcurrants, a whitecurrant, and three gooseberries, with raspberry canes romping through them), are still dripping with plumptious beauties (to borrow a phrase that Nigella Lawson once shamelessly applied to a bowl of cranberries). And that after lord knows how many Summer Puddings, kilos of jams, sauces and compotes and cereal toppings à go-go. Even better, there is enough left unpicked to supply a steady stream of Blackbirds, Robins and Blackcaps, which can be heard rustling deep inside the bushes, occasionally emerging with a colourful prize grasped firmly in a juice-stained bill. We used to faff about with netting, but have realised that there is actually plenty of fruit for both human and avian consumption if you concentrate your time and effort on making sure the plants are strong, well fed and properly pruned.