Thursday, 30 January 2014

A sunny interval

One side-effect of this miserably dull January is that on the rare occasions when the sun does make an appearance, I am astonished to see how high in the sky it has already climbed and how rapidly the days are now lengthening. Last weekend, we enjoyed a brief sunny hour or two and ran around with the camera, revelling in the quality of the light; all the more striking in contrast with the prevailing gloom. Oh, and a Song Thrush was singing at dawn this morning; our first of the year at home, although they seem to have been singing for weeks in more built-up areas, stimulated by the artificial light and warmth. But back to plants. Here are some that caught my eye in the sun on...Sunday!

Bergenia purpurascens 'Irish Crimson'
Daphne bholua 'Jacqueline Postill'
Fatsia polycarpa
Fatsia polycarpa close-up of flower buds
Salix alba var. vitellina 'Britzensis' and snowdrops
Prunus x subhirtella 'Autumnalis Rosea'
Prunus x subhirtella 'Autumnalis Rosea' close-up of flowers
Schefflera rhododendrifolia
Narcissus 'Rijnveld's Early Sensation'

And I even did a bit of gardening; namely tying-in of autumn-fruiting raspberry canes. I know you're supposed to cut them all down to the ground in winter, but I find that if I keep the canes that grew last year, side-shoots grow away strongly in the spring and I get a summer crop as well as the later autumn crop on the brand new canes that only begin growing this year.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Snowdrops & Hellebores

Common snowdrop Galanthus nivalis – elegant simplicity
That wonderful late-winter duet performed by snowdrops and hellebores is rapidly approaching its peak, some two to three weeks ahead of average, in response to the damp squib of a 'winter' that we have squelched our way through so far. The greyness of the past few weeks makes the flowering of these beautiful stalwarts all the more cheering and I grab every chance I can to inspect the developing display.

While our earliest snowdrop varieties flowered in November, now the main cast is performing, with maybe 30 cultivars already in flower and many more just about to start. For the last two years, at least, more than 90% of our hellebore flowers were lost to mice and voles, which devoured the fat buds, still held close to the ground – an irresistibly tempting meal in harsh conditions. This year, the buds have gone un-nibbled and most are now lifted well-clear of the ground and about to open – if not already in full flower.

With so many good garden snowdrops and hellebores being hybrids, the range of forms and precociousness of flowering are a reflection of the genetic contributions made by the various wild species that have gone into the mix – sometimes by chance, other times with a guiding hand (perhaps clutching a small pollen-dabbed brush?) from a gardener or nurseryman. These are just some of my favourites, photographed on 25 January. The hellebores are all Helleborus x hybridus, many originating from John Massey's extraordinary breeding programme at Ashwood Nurseries.

G. 'Atkinsii' –  from Painswick Rococco Garden; early and dependable
G. 'Desdemona' – a tall double raised in Norfolk by Heyrick Greatorex
G. 'Trumps'  – vigorous with pagoda-shaped flowers
G. 'Sutton Courtenay' – narrow glaucous leaves and lime-green ovaries
G. 'Magnet' – rapidly builds up strong clumps of long-pedicelled flowers
G. 'Ding Dong' – from Avon Bulbs. Are you old enough to remember the ad?

Not a frog in sight!

Though the weather remains unsettled, a change in air-masses brought a big drop in temperature overnight and it was hail rather than rain rattling on the roof. So perhaps it was no great surprise to find not a single frog in the ponds this morning – the gelatinous result of their passionate trysting the only sign that they were ever here. I wonder where they have all gone to now. Back into some kind of hibernation until spring 'proper' comes, if they've any sense. In the meantime, we shall endeavour to protect at least some of the spawn from the depradations of our local Mallards, which seem to time their annual springtime appearance in our garden to coincide perfectly with the 'hatching' of all those protein-packed little tadpoles...

Sunday, 26 January 2014

A breakfast-time orgy

I know, it's enough to make you choke on your cornflakes... But it's true; the garden has been a writhing mass of copulating couples all weekend, albeit of the amphibian variety and in the pond. I went out yesterday morning after a mild, drizzly night, intent on opening the greenhouse door and windows to let some fresh air blow through, but got distracted by a frog – the first of the 'spring' – hopping across the grass right in front of me and making a bee-line for the nearest of our two ponds. I was gobsmacked by the sight that awaited me there. 

Overnight, masses of glistening clumps of fresh frogspawn had been laid in the pond and the water-surface was literally alive with dozens of bonking frogs. As I approached, they did a gold medal-winning synchronised dive, before gradually popping back up to carry on the sexual frenzy; males clasping gravid females in a tight embrace, with other males clambering over one-another hoping to be next in the queue and still others croaking in unison aiming to lure new females to the rut. The variety of sizes, colouration and markings was astonishing and I counted a minimum of 150 individuals.

After more heavy rain on Saturday night the frogs were still there this morning and while the numbers may not have been quite so high, the area of spawn had further increased. As every year, local Buzzards are all-too-happy to take advantage of the temporary abundance of frogs – a fact I first realised several years ago when I found lumps of spawn halfway up an oak tree; the grisly remains of a predated female. If frogs' legs are good enough for haute cuisine, they're good enough for Buzzards, which swoop down to the pond to seize unwary individuals sitting out in the open. So it's a potentially dangerous time for the frogs, but they'll be gone within a day or two and living a far more solitary – and indeed chaste – existence for another year. Incidentally, this is the earliest and biggest spawning season of our 14 springs here.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Spring is bustin' out all over

A slight exaggeration perhaps, but when is the time to be full of optimism if not on New Year's Day?

Here is a selection of some of my favourite plants, at their best right now, in the depths of winter, yet redolent of the approaching spring.

Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire' – a summertime ugly duckling turns into a winter swan
Daphne bholua 'Jacqueline Postill' will fill the garden with fragrance for weeks
Galanthus 'Faringdon Double' an early snowdrop discovered in an Oxfordshire cemetery
Narcissus 'Cedric Morris' named by Beth Chatto for her friend the late artist-gardener
Salix alba var. vitellina 'Britzensis' positively glowing in the low winter sunlight
Winter heliotrope – a cloyingly perfumed thug but welcome for its early flowering