The snow this year has been enormous fun, damaging and rewarding. We have been snowed in twice (so far). You should know that it is almost all hills to get out of this village and we are well off the Council’s salting and gritting route. So, unless you drive a tractor or an old fashioned Land Rover (which of course a number do), the roads have been impassable and virtually empty in the snow until one unknown farmer with a snow plough attachment to his tractor, kindly clears some of the roads in the early morning when he thinks the snowing is over.

Fun

The fun has been siege mentality, village fun – closed schools, sledging on the hills, nearby volunteers (including me) wading through snow to keep the community village shop open and everyone going to the local pub (much to the horror of the regular locals). People dressed up in ski gear waded across the fields to buy from the shop. There was lots of hot chocolate drunk and those that could invited everyone with kids to their swimming pools etc., etc.. It generated a huge amount of special village bonhomie. It’s been much better than Christmas as someone said. It was an unplanned break, other family members couldn’t invade and there was no pressure to cook huge meals. It was all about basic survival and making-do - which is fun and easy when you know it’s not going to last long.

The first snow came with wind and left huge drifts. It was shortly followed by the iced rain (which I have never seen before and is amazing). This left an iced crust on the top of some 15-40 cms of snow. Daisy, my younger dog, was light enough (at 3.8 kilos) to skit across the top in many (but not all) cases but my heavier Pickle sank and didn’t enjoy it much – except eating it.

My newly acquired, wildly expensive, Daphne bholua ‘Peter Smithers’ stood it during the first snows and continued flowering. However, afterwards he looked very shocked and suddenly dropped almost all his leaves. I worried he had given up the will to live but, on closer inspection, he was still flowering and budding new leaf buds, so I had my fingers heavily crossed that he would not die on me.

We then had a gap of warm weather - sun, blue skies and rain with amazing rainbows at the end of the garden.

But after the thaw one of my neighbours, a retired local farrier, said “There be snow still lying in’t fields and they say it be waiting for more to join it”. And he was right.

The second snow was predicted for end of day on a Friday but started in the morning. I didn’t think Daphne 'Peter Smithers' could take a second blast so I rushed out and in whirling, snow-filled winds, put three bamboo sticks around him and wrapped him in fleece. It was a tricky affair as the fleece kept blowing away and snagging on nearby roses but eventually I wrapped him up – as did the snow that came in for real later that evening and through the night and next day.

This second snow was less powdery and much more fun for children and dogs – it worked for snowballs, snowmen and rushing around in and eating. It has taken a long time to thaw completely and there are still patches around as I write – waiting for more to join it again? My ex farrier neighbour says so. I sincerely hope not. “Peter Smithers” remains in his fleece for the moment and I am doing very little in the garden. I am leaving all the old and dead stuff as protection for the plants underneath until I think the coast is clear re snow and frosts.

In the meantime have weeded the third raised veg bed, pulled up some horrendous brambles and raised some Sweet Peas in the greenhouse but not done much more. I think things are going to be very late.

Damage

All this freezing fun comes at a cost and I have been surveying the damage. Two large Euphorbia were in flower and one is now looking very sad indeed. I think I may have lost three Hypericums at the back of the large border too. I have definitely lost a large number of “completely, 100% guaranteed frost proof” terracotta pots which have “exploded” exposing the roots of the plants within them and I expect I have lost the Agapanthus within them and a couple of Ceonothus in a bed near the pond and my huge Salvia 'Hot Lips'. This may not be a total tragedy because she was very "tarty" and I have ideas for her replacement.

Reward

Regular readers will know I love the birds here and thrill in new and unusual ones. The first snow brought in many new ones (Fieldfare, Lapwing and Redwing) as related in the last blog. So I have made it a priority to make sure there is lots of food for them through the snows and not just in the feeders in the air. I have been putting apple puree, seeds and fat out for the ground feeding birds too. The second snows brought back my lovely and quite rare Lesser Redpolls.

I was very surprised to see them. Normally they are January visitors and move on elsewhere. March is not their season here. But there they were, feeding greedily on the nyjer seed.

On one snow covered Saturday morning I was up early and, whilst boiling the kettle for my first coffee of the day, heard "the thud" on my kitchen French doors that means a bird had flown into the glass. It’s an awful sound. My heart sank and I looked out. Almost a metre away all I could see was a tail. The bird was beak down in 20cms of snow and probably drowning - if it was alive. I abandoned my coffee, donned a pair of gloves and boots, edged out into the drifts whilst keeping both dogs indoors and gently lifted the bird out of the snow. It was tiny, delicate, streaky brown backed and initially I thought it was a small sparrow – until I saw the red cap on its head. A Lesser Redpoll! “No. I can’t have a Redpoll die here” I screamed internally.

I cradled it into the warm kitchen and brushed off all the snow. It was alive but only just. I very gently checked it out. It hadn’t broken its neck, its wings seemed OK and its legs the same. But then what? I havered. I don’t think I have knowingly “havered” before. It was a very strange feeling. For a few moments I didn’t know what to do for the best. According to the Collins English Dictionary, to haver is to dither. I am not sure I was dithering but I was certainly searching for a solution. It was still snowing outside. I couldn’t keep a wild bird in the house with the dogs and I didn’t want to put it in the greenhouse where, if it lived, it would end up flying into glass again.

I’m told that, if they are going to survive, birds who hit glass need about an hour or more to recover. Warmth helps. It was still snowing outside and the bird couldn’t move. It would be buried in seconds if I put it back out. So, after my moments of “havering”, I created a nest from a plastic food tray and a tea towel and put it outside, under my carport, on the top of a outside “fridge” cupboard where it wouldn’t get snowed on. I checked on it every 20 minutes or so and each time I went out it moved its head a little more to try and check me out, obviously wary and scared.

And, finally, it didn’t want to be with me, was recovered enough and flew off into the nearby trees. It was a wonderful moment.

The snows melted that evening and I was able to night-walk the dogs by the light of only the moon (ie with no torch) in a “dark” village with no street lamps. That was a great day.

As we all know there is no "Winter" term at school but I have a 16 year old Japanese ward, Sky, who is at boarding school nearby and whose reports I read. So these have inspired me to decide that the garden and gardener need a report after three plus years (though I haven't had a report for about 40 years). Winter is a hard time to judge a garden but a good one. For me it should still have structure, texture, colour and, yes, scent.

Herewith the report - with interesting subjects, most of which I didn't study at school.

Design and engineering

The garden has a fair amount of hard landscaping and structures, for example: the low walls around my terrace for growing alpines; the huge iron arch parade for climbing roses, Wisteria Clematis and Lonicera (honeysuckle); another iron arch for the same; a pond with bridge and rockery area; and sculptures. On the plant side I have evergreens; dwarf conifers; and trees. I also have low evergreen edging to two of my beds (which I never guessed I would do so they are sort of a surprise to me too - but the beds that are bordered by paths seemed to need it). One edging is box (which needs cutting) and the other is Lonicera nitida Golden Glow. I also have three strategically placed box balls. No box blight so far but it is probably inevitable.

Interestingly I felt pressure to create such structure much more in this larger, flat, open garden (and this village) than I did in London where the garden was so much smaller and anyway hard fenced on three sides. This part of the world is full of really skilled gardeners and fabulous gardens small, large and seriously landed.

Looking at it now, I think it has mostly worked especially in certain places. It is now quite well structuredand, dare I say, almost formal near the house (as below).

 

I am still undecided as to whether it needs more structure toward the end. I think, on balance, I like the way that it loosens as it approaches the fields and the view of ancient oaks and woodland of our village dairy farm.

 

So: 7-8/10 for effort and achievement

Art and sensory perception

In flower right now we have scented and none scented plants. The scented ones are: a number of Sarcococca confusa plus a red budded version S. ‘Winter Gem’; Viburnum bodnatense ‘Dawn’ and V. tinus ‘Eve Price’; a Daphne bholua (more of which later); and my amazing Prunus mume ‘Beni-Chidori’ (below).

On the less or unscented side we have snowdrops, pink and white and speckled Hellebores, pink Prunus sub Autumnalis Rosea, a white Camelia, yellow Cornus officinalis in the veg bed and many different Rosemary, cascading and upright, displaying their fabulous pale blues (as below). So I think I am doing pretty well having flowers and scent in this season.

The Zen bed (above), with all its dwarf conifers, the huge evergreen Cistus Alan Fradd’, bright red rose hips plus sculptures is probably the best-looking bed in Winter. It is almost entirely evergreen with lots of different colours of green (from yellows through to almost black), so much texture etc.. I added green slate to it last year to help keep the weeds down and the Narcissi Tete a Tete and Primulae are proving strong enough to move the slates aside as they determine to rise up and flower in early Spring. The major failure is the Cytisus batandieri (pineapple tree) which is clearly hating it where it is and needs moving. I think/hope it simply needs more sun. It is still alive - just - but needs saving.

The small wall bed (above) which is opposite the Zen bed is the star Winter scented one because of the three sweetly smelling Sarcocca confusa which are in serious flower now - and I don't have to venture far from the kitchen to appreciate the scent. It also has a smaller, evergreen Cistus (C. dansereaui Decumbens), deciduous, purple flowered Daphne mezereum Rubra which, somewhat surprisingly, is doing well and will flower soon and then produce fruits, and a number of Hellebores. However, I think I dont like the basic (simple flowered) white Geraniums and the rather boring Aquilegia I planted as fillers early on and havent yet replaced. Winter term 8/10 (evergreen structure and scent). Overall 6/10. Could do better! Something fun to plan to improve on next year.

Indeed, without taking you through all the other borders and beds, my overall report for them on this subject is 6/10 for effort and achievement. The basics are there but more finessing and detailed work needed.

Cookery

I have just used my last home grown onion (sob), the tomatoes, beans and Bramley apples are long gone and I have to admit that the only things I am still cropping outside are rosemary, thyme, sage and bay, plus chillies in the greenhouse.

So, this deserves a dire Winter term report - and many more onions next year. Yes. I have discovered that I love growing onions! They are so easy from sets, they need almost no work (except protecting the young ones from cheeky blackbirds pulling them up for fun), I love deciding when to pull them and dry them (in the greenhouse) and then making them look beautiful by cutting and twisting their necks. They store well and they taste so much better than shop bought ones. These are onions that make you cry when you cut them – like they did in the old days. I am protected from this by my contact lenses but my Japanese ward can’t cut them without weeping copiously. I started two years ago with a mixed bag of white, red and brown sets from T&M. The white ones have been a little disappointingly small but the rest have been fabulous.

I love to cook and make dishes from everywhere in the world. I use hundreds of onions in a year so I have decided that, in my small veg garden space, on this soil, in my three raised beds, what grows best is onions. Thus I am going to devote most of my kitchen garden beds next year to onions. Well why not? Every single one will go to a good, “foody” cause. This year I have ordered Hercules, Hi-Tech and Red Baron. They’ll be going in as soon as I have weeded the beds and the weather improves.

So: 1/10 for Winter term I am afraid (because of slim pickings) but shows promise the rest of the year and must do more.

Economics and planning

As ever in Winter, I am now buying seeds for next season especially tomato, pepper and chili seeds for the greenhouse. I always grow Suncherry and Sungold cherry tomatoes (ab fab and really reliable), sometimes Piccolo, and I always experiment with one large, beef one. I havent found a good one yet. This year I am trying Country Taste F1 from Thompson & Morgan.

I try to economise by buying things as seed rather than as plug plants but I have found that my onion seed growing has been extremely unsuccessful and that the more expensive (but still cheap) onion "sets" are the answer and deliver a 100 per cent better return ie lots of wonderful onions v none.

I am also buying runner bean seeds because this is my favourite green vegetable. On the basis of grow what you want to eat I need lots of runner beans as well as onions. Wisley Magic, Firestorm, Enorma, Snowstorm and Moonlight have all done well here and, truth be told, I cant taste any difference between them when cooked. They are all delicious and are so easy to propagate. I also rather enjoy the whole process of creating the structure to accommodate them (seen behind the onions below). And, of course, the harvest is in the air, so not taking up too much ground - a "space economical" harvest.

And, to that end, I intend trying to grow next year's courgettes up a climber so that they take up less room. I have seen people doing this in magazines so surely I can do it do?

However, on the same basis, ie grow what you want to eat, my attempt last year to grow fennel (which I use often - in many fish and chicken dishes especially) seems to have failed disastrously. I dont know why. They were seeded in the raised beds but I think I put them in too late (after I harvested the onions) and weeds just took over.

I am also thinking of seeding salad crops between the onion sets. I am not sure if this is a good plan or not but I am going to give it a go.

So probably: 7/10 for effort but we await "achievement" results from her somewhat "experimental" approach later this year.

Languages: Dutch

Obviously the tulip photos above are last year's. They are of the same bed from different angles and at different times and show how the bed changed colour during March and April. Last year I dug up all 80 of them and stored them in a cold larder where, miraculously, the mice didn’t find them and they survived well. But I should admit that I only managed to get the bulbs back into the bed in late December, in a last minute, “essay crisis”, way. I am not worried. They should be fine. Late planting is supposed to help against a nasty disease and some are already beginning to show.

I have also bought about 30 more bulbs (Sanne, Minton Exotic, the famous Angelique, Orange Princess, and Abba’ – mostly all fragrant - plus five more Vaya Con Dios which, you might remember, was new last year and which I tried and loved). I bought these extras because I have cleared some self-seeded wild geraniums from some of the other beds and, until I find perennials to fill the gaps, the tulips will be fab.. It will also be interesting to see how much better, if at all, the new tulips perform over last years ones. I am told the bulbs peter out, so well see. Its one of my ongoing experiments.

So: 7/10 for effort but with a somewhat cavalier approach to the subject. Awaiting proof.

Languages: Latin

It would be wrong to have a garden report with languages and exclude Latin. As a child I was forced to study Latin because it used to be a required paper for Oxbridge admission. I was useless at it, got a D in my first O’Level attempt but then changed teacher, saw the light and finally achieved a B in my re-sit. Then, just as I was applying, Oxbridge decided it was no longer a requirement. I could have killed my parents at that point for all my years of struggling with Latin. However, ever since I became a plant lover and gardener (some 17 years ago now), I thank them almost every day for putting me through it. It is the language that means all of us, all over the world, can communicate our love of plants in. It usually tells us where they come from (so what conditions they need) and can tell us how large they'll be, what they look like (flowers and leaves), what they smell like and all other manor of things (even without a photo label). The only issue is the pronunciation – which we all seem to do differently and I have no real idea who is right.

I think I am pretty good at my Latin plant names (only because I learned about plants from my huge dictionary of them - my bible), so will award myself: 8/10 for written work – with oral “debatable”.

Languages: English

As above, I am working on my knowledge of our English names for plants but: could do better. 6/10

Orienteering

Ill admit now that the plant I have missed most since leaving my garden in London nearly four years ago is Daphne bholua Peter Smithers’ (above). Daphne hate being moved so he stayed to thrill my buyers and they tell me he is still enthralling them.

When I first bought him, some twelve years ago, he was a Sir but he seems to have lost his title recently. He would start coming into massively scented, pink clustered, flower on the North side of my swing seat in late November and would scent me through until March/April. It was amazing how many dry (albeit cold) mornings, afternoons and evenings I could find in Winter in London to wrap up in rugs and sit out on the swing seat opposite ther pond with a friend and a cup of tea, coffee or wine and Sir Peters unbelievable scent to heighten the experience. He is scented throughout day and night and adds enormously to the dark months of Winter. This type of Daphne (bholua) is now not easy to find in normal garden centres or even nurseries because they are so difficult and slow, thus costly, to propagate and grow on. Most commercial Daphne breeders cant be bothered so I had sort of given up on the idea of replacing him here.

However, as I was writing something similar for a local magazine and bemoaning his absence, I was suddenly inspired to track down another D. bholua Peter Smithers. And, thanks to the RHS nursery finder, I found him "relatively" nearby in a fabulous nursery deep in Somerset called Junkers.

I trekked cross country down the thinnest lanes (and even had to reverse about five miles for an East European lorry that had got lost on its satnav) and then, deep in the middle of nowhere between Wellington and Taunton, I found this amazing place specialising in Acers, unusual Daphnes, Cornus and others. Its not obvious and you are allowed in by timed invitation only.

I was able to buy a very well grown D. Peter Smithers (which was in fab condition, already about 1 metre tall and encouragingly already had a single flower on it at end November). It was probably the most expensive plant (excluding trees) I have ever bought and it is now planted close to a path (so I can smell it - I hope), on raised ground (they dont like being waterlogged), and where it will be somewhat shaded in the Summer (they dont like being overly exposed to sun). Fussy? Yes. Worth it? Yes, if it thrives. It has already opened more flowers so I hope it will survive. Daphnes are famous for simply dying on you and it has just had the toughest introduction to its new life with the recent winds and snow. My one in London clay thrived so my fingers are majorly crossed for this one.

By the way, the other recommended highly scented D. bholua is Jaqueline Postill’. She is much more widely available and you can even buy her from Waitrose, apparently. I might try her too if I find one.

So, at last, a 10/10 for effort and fingers crossed for the result.

Nature

 On the wildlife front things are thriving. I have toads and frogs by the pond and newts waking up in it. The prolific slug and snail communities also seem to be thriving - grrrrr.

 

Starlings, sparrows, wrens and collar doves are nesting (in the house and garden) and there are many regulars such as blackbirds, thrushes, robins and tits plus many visiting birds. For example, the goldfinches and redpolls are back (first below), as are the long-tailed tits (second below). 

And during the recent snow I have been visited by a glorious Fieldfare, a very colourful member of the thrush family I have never encountered before (sorry no photo). I have also seen a Redwing and huge Lapwing on the common outside the front of the house.

Something that’s making me especially happy in the "uncultivated" element of the garden is that I have some amazing mosses growing (one/some of which above). They are particularly beautiful after a frost, tiny as they are. There are lichens as well on the trees and fences. However, I have not yet got to grip with some of my nature. The weeds are everywhere. It is a constant battle. Brambles are throwing themselves in from neighbours' hedges to East and West and trying to root in my borders. The moment they touch the ground they "layer" and a new plant starts. And unwelcome grasses are coming in from everywhere, especially from the surrounding fields.

I now even have grass growing happily on one of one of my outside door mats as well as on the swing seat (above). It’s ridiculous and their control is never ending.

So 7/10. She shows promise but applies herself too selectively. Some areas need serious improvement - and the swing seat covers need replacing.

Head’s comments

Overall the structure and planting is working well but Rosie needs to apply herself more to individual beds to improve their planting, her vegetable growing (to lengthen her harvest) and to controlling the onset of nature (weeding). She is an enthusiastic and promising gardener but has been letting extra curricular activities (especially paid work and village commitments) get in the way of the work needed for tending - and blogging.

Ideas 8/10, effort 6/10, effect 7/10. Could do better and we hope for improvements this year.

The high and lows at the start of this year have been personal and weather based. Winter was rather good to us here. It was cold enough to kill lots of bugs but was nothing like as wet or windy as my previous two winters. So Spring started well.

My first plant in flower is almost always a stunning Japanese Prunus mume ‘Beni-Chidori’ which has deep pink, highly scented, flowers that spring directly from the dark stems in February.

It was fabulous this year and was followed shortly by the three Daphnes (which flowered properly for the first time), the snowdrops, Helebores (below), daffodils and early flowering Arabis ‘Little Treasure Pink’ by the edge of the pond.

 

Then my newly (last Autumn) planted small flowered Clematis along the difficult rose arches bed came good (C. Alpina Frankie’ and C. macropetala ‘Wesselton’) as did the one on the oil tank trellis (C. macropetala ‘Propertius’).

The “smaller flowered plants” planting plan in my difficult border has gone quite well. The little Chionodoxa ‘Lucilae’ were charming very early on and are now followed by the Anemone ‘De Caen Blue’.

In April the temperatures soared and we had uncommonly high ones (27 degrees in the sun one day – which is basically a very good Summer temperature here) and everything got very excited and came into bud.

 

The tulips were magnificent (more about one of them later) but we had no rain for about four weeks so I was watering where needs be.

So Spring was looking good – as were my Wisteria. One of things I am proudest of in my new garden is that I managed to get the existing Wisterias at the front to flower the first year after I was here (they hadn’t before). They just needed a proper prune. They have been good for the last two Springs but this year the flower buds were massively abundant. This is what they looked like around mid April – I was so excited and looking forward to a fabulous display.

I have three younger ones on the rose arch parade too and they were also in amazing bud – so it was going to be Wisteria heaven chez moi this Spring.

But then, on the nights of 24thth and 25thth of April everything changed and we had overnight frosts and cold winds. It went down to -3 degrees plus the wind chill factor. I awoke to a white lawn but wasn’t overly worried because my outside plants are hardy (officially to -5 or more) and I’d put all the geraniums and pelargoniums etc back into the greenhouse.

But then I saw the Wisterias with their “oh so promising” buds flopping like dead things in the light wind. I walked the garden - the Dicentra were drooping, a new rose stem was doing the same, young leaves on the multi-stemmed Circis Siliquastrum (Judas tree) and some of the Acers were “burned”, and the Camelias were totally finished off. The catalogue of plant misery was too much to burden you with (if you are of a sensitive disposition) but suffice to say it was devastating.

On the upside some things seem to have brazened it out. The tulips have recovered, the roses are mostly fine. healthily in bud with some just coming into flower, the Geums have weathered the storm with impunity and once again are in blazing flower. Even my somewhat tender Pittosporums and some of the Acers seem to have ignored the shocking freeze.

And despite the general drought most things continue to flourish.

My lovely Actinidia Kolmikta is becoming a nice shape on the workshop wall. Training the helpfully pliable stems sideways has the same effect as with roses. It creates new shoots vertically from the more horizontally tied stems. It is supposed to be a twining climber but it seems to respond well to this treatment. I love the white and pink tipped leaves and many people don’t realise that these hide tiny flower buds which, when open, exude a fantastic scent in the sunshine. It’s always great fun seeing people trying to work out where this amazing smell is coming from this early in the season.

And re tulips … last Autumn I read in one of my Gardening magazines about a new tulip called ‘Vaya con Dios’ (Let’s go with God). It is huge, open cup shaped, slightly frilly on the edges and yellow in the photo. I wanted to try it and the only seller online seemed to be Kelways. So I ended up ordering all this year’s tulips from them (pricier than many but very good quality bulbs). All of them have been great – large, tall and strong. But Vaya con Dios has been astoundingly wonderful.

 It starts out as a huge, slightly frilled, bright yellow cup the size of a small noodle bowl when it opens – much larger than a Peony flower. It's the yellow one at the bottom of the top photo. It then takes on raspberry ripple-like pink lines until it slowly develops an overall pink with a glowing yellow centre and it never fades – unlike some of the others.

Despite the tulip success I am already grieving for my frost hit Wisterias. Some buds have survived. As you can see there will be some flowers but they are not going to look anything like as magnificent as they should have done.

And talking of grieving, the reason I haven’t written a blog since September is firstly because it became Winter and not very interesting, secondly because I got busy work-wise but mostly because my beloved dog Lottie (who has featured in lots of the garden videos) became very ill in November/December (at only six and half), was finally diagnosed with a large, inoperable brain tumour in early January, and I had to have her put down which was the hardest but kindest thing I have ever done in my life. Her absence knocked Pickle (my other dog who loved her dearly) and me sideways to say the least and, honestly, I haven’t been inspired to write about the garden again until now. So please forgive me. I just wasn’t in the mood. A little Lottie gallery is below.

But onwards and upwards. I now have a wonderful new, very shaggy puppy called Daisy who is a Poochon (half toy poodle and half Bichon Frise) who is growing fast. She looks a bit like Lottie (similar colouring) but with a longer nose and longer legs. And she is a very different and busy girl – always playing with things, bringing me presents with a madly wagging tail and generally wriggling, running and jumping with the joy of being alive.

And she is my new joy. Pickle was very unimpressed when she arrived and it took a full month of keeping them physically apart in pens and cages in the kitchen and garden before I was confident that he would not kill her. Joyously, they are now best friends and do a lot of dog kissing.

So a new balance has been restored to our household that means I can again relax, enjoy the garden – and write about it. But we still miss our lovely little Lottie (20.08.2000 – 09.01.2017).

RIP my darling.

The video above gives movement to the interersting insetcs featured below. It is very short - so worth watching.

Dragonflies

This year the pond has attracted a number of flying visitors including the charming and common red, blue and green Damsel flies with their extraordinary mating circle. I had these around my smaller pond in London but, more excitingly, this year I’ve had a range of the larger dragonflies I never saw in town. The most prevalent of these have been large, hairy Brown Hawkers, the smaller green, red and orange ones and the gloriously coloured, large blue and green ones.

Most are, however, extremely difficult to film because they move around so fast and seldom settle, certainly not long enough for me to rush back to the kitchen to get the camera-on-tripod out, attach the right lens etc.. A few, like this orange/red one, like to sunbathe so are more readily available for pics and video but they tend to be small.

So, just as I was thinking this blog was going to have to be without representation of a large dragonfly this afternoon a huge blue and green one flew into the kitchen and caused us all (the dogs and me) some disquiet as, with a great deal of noisy flapping, it seemed to get stuck in one of the overhead lamps.

Having removed the bulb to help it escape it flew the wrong way towards the front window and flapped around there.

Once I’d opened the window however, rather than fly away, it just sat there seemingly recouping after its lamp foray allowing me every opportunity to take pics and video - so here he is in all his glory.

I say ‘he’ because I now believe he is a male Southern Hawker. He, and all those like him, are very welcome visitors – though best around the pond and not in the kitchen in future please.

Wasps

Less welcome visitors have been (and still are) the wood stripping wasps. My neighbour has a wasp nest being built above her porch. It is obviously a very upmarket nest, fit for the most demanding of Queens, for it is being built in the chewed up and regurgitated mush of wildly expensive oak (my bridge), finely decorated with inlays of teak (my garden furniture) and cedar (my greenhouse).

I must say the wasps are very industrious. They munch and chew all day, mostly in line with the grain, which means I have stripes missing from my garden chairs, greenhouse, shed and bridge and ovals evident all over the table.

Not much deters them and they ignore me even as I eat outside. I am guessing that my savoury rather than sweet palate is aiding our co-existence at the table.

My neighbour of course refuses to accept that they are “her” wasps - which technically of course they are not. Luckily we are great friends so this is good teasing material. But I cannot find signs of a nest being built in my garden, sheds or house so I am continuing to blame her, which is great fun.

And look who came to visit the terrace recently.

At first glance I thought it was a large slug but the way it moved and its long, trunk-like nose soon made me realise it was a giant caterpillar. I am sure all you insect experts out there are shouting “Deilephila elpenor” right now but I had to resort to my Butterfly and Moth books and Google images before I could identify it as the caterpillar of the Elephant Hawk-moth.

In defence, which it did after Pickle accidentally sat on it despite my best efforts, it also makes itself resemble a snake.

Luckily Pickle didn’t kill it and it “caterpillar-ambled” away into a flowerbed where I hope it will be allowed to transform itself without further disruption.

Some of you might remember I found an Elephant Hawk-moth just out of its chrysalis in a pot in my London garden some years back so I know what size it will be. Strange how large the caterpillar is before it metamorphoses.

Other than these three specimens there is nothing much unusual to report. The Butterflies have been less numerous and only the usual suspects (ie Peacocks, Red Admirals, Whites, Brimstones and various Browns) turned up ie the Painted Ladies didn’t show this year sadly. The bees have been numerous, many coloured and sized and as busy as usual. There have been few greenfly this year (good news) but as a result, sadly, very few ladybirds. The black fly had been scarce too but in the last two weeks a flock has decimated my chives. And there are a fair few too many earwigs hiding in the petals of my Dahlias (along with myriad baby snails) so I have to chase these out of the kitchen when the cut flowers come in for arrangements.

Talking of the kitchen again - it seems somewhat of a magnet. A large black/brown grasshopper/cricket lost its way and was in here the other day too. Obviously they are all bored with being unseen and seek the bright lights of the Internet and being featured in a blog. My pleasure!

Apologies for the radio silence - village life is more hectic that I had expected. Paid for work has also been busy.  So I got behind – in the garden and in blogs. However, below is a bit of a summary of what I have been dealing with this year – and it's not been all good to say the least.

Bog problem

Late last year I discovered I had a serious problem. One of my beds, alongside the rose arch parade, is a “bog” at all times of year. I think this because a Victorian clay pipe land drain, designed to take water off the house toward the fields, has been broken at this point. Possibly we broke it as we dug to create the garden or when we installed the parade arches. Possibly it was already broken - who knows? But the resulting bog is ruining my best-laid, rose arch planting plans (ie some of the roses and other plants are struggling badly).

There were two obvious choices: dig it up, again, re-do underground drainage and stuff or accept it and replant with things that will thrive in the wet conditions. I simply couldn’t face digging everything up again so there was really only one choice – the latter. I had to find plants to work.

So I bought two great books on bog gardening via Amazon, the wonderful Beth Chatto’s “The Damp Garden” and John Simmons’ “Managing the Wet garden” to help. I also went online to good plant selling sites like Crocus and Claire Austin perennials to see what they recommended.

I am sure Beth Chatto’s book is a masterpiece but it is very long. My copy is an old paperback and all the words are in tiny type and it has very few pictures. I really didn’t have time to get to grips with it. However John Simmons’ book (hardback) is full of useful pictures and is much more accessible visually. I have therefore pretty much read the whole thing and it has been really helpful.

Bog planting proper needs the soil to be reliably moist ie even in a hot summer. I think it is, lower down, but I am not sure. In the heat of mid Summer the surface clay still cracks despite all the manure and soil improver I have added, but just a few inches down there is lots of water. I am told mulching is therefore very important to help retain the moisture in drier weather.

Because I have been planting in a pond for many years now, I am aware of those flowering plants and grasses that cope with full water and marginal conditions (like Lobelia Cardinalis, Iris, Equisetum and the dreaded Ranunculus etc). However, because this "bog" is not in a pond but, very inconveniently, on the house end and East side of my huge rose arch parade which is supposed to be covered in roses, Clematis and Wisteria, I really don’t want it to be filled with pond/marginal plants.

The key knowledge I have gained from my reading/study is that small flowered Clematis and roses cope much better with wet conditions than their larger flowered versions.This seems to proven by the fact that my smaller flowered  C. “Wisley “ (which did very well last year on the other side last year in similar-ish conditions has been amazing this year and flowered for months).

 

I have also found out that just raising the crown of lots of plants helps them to survive the waterlogging lower down. 

So, I have done both. I have built two more large raised beds to cover most of the area. They are only raised by six inches and I have filled them with the friable Viridor compost from the council tips.

I have planted two rambling (ie small flowered) roses in this new environment, R. Francis E Lester (scented, white with yellow centre) and R. Albertine (scented and pink). They’ll be more vigorous and shorter flowering than the roses originally there but at least they should thrive whereas the others are struggling. As an aside, this brings the total number of roses so far in the garden to a staggering 51.

Talking of roses, the only one that is already up and over the 8 feet high arch is one of the NON-climbing ones. It seems R. Arthur Bell (admittedly a tall rose – 5ft or so usually) had not read its own, very clearly marked, “non-climbing” label and must have hit a horse manure spot or something. In its first year it put on two huge new shoots, both about 5cms in diameter. I cut one back but let the other go, and it has shot - upwards and over.

I have also planted more of the smaller flowered Clematis up both sides of the arch including C. alpina 'Frankie' (blue/white), C. macropetala 'Wesselton' (purple/white) and C. 'Brunette' (purple/white) plus the very late flowering C. Vanessa’ (pale blue) and a pink and white C. viticella which I think wins the prize for oddest named plant in the garden being called “I am A Lady Q”. This one is climbing up the back of the swing seat and has flowered following the C. Montana and with the Pasiflora given to me as a cutting by a neighbour.

As an aside the Pasiflora flowered for the first time this year and one of the flowers was a “Siamese twin” (see pic below) with a conjoined upper and lower flower created from one bud.

And talking of Siamese twins, I've also had a Siamese tomato.

So, back to the bog. Since the new raised beds are officially in the “vegetable” garden, I filled them with bulbs of Allium of every sort, decorative purple and white Allium flowers, plus edible ones such as leeks, onions, spring onions, garlic and chives So far they are all appreciating the conditions and thriving and I am thrilled with my first ever crop of brown, red and white onions.

And the dried heads of Alium Christophii are also now looking fab as decoration in the house.

In the wet gap between the two raised beds I planted mint, which loves water. However, I’ve planted it in pots sunk into the ground to help limit it spreading everywhere. Putting terracotta pots into the ground helps to keep the plants cool and the clay is supposed to let water move through them. Perfect!

And between the raised beds and the path I have planted bog irises (Iris Ensata) and Lobelia ‘Hadspen Purple’. They are lovely but the Irises have failed leading me to worry that the bed is not waterlogged all the time. Crikey. That’s a real bore.

Further, this general planting failure means I still have a big flowerbed gap to deal with. It is not good enough at all yet - but that will be this Winter’s challenge to solve.

Weeds

They say a weed is just a plant in the wrong place and late Spring/early Summer saw a huge number of weeds in the garden and I have been pulling them ever since. By weed I mean basically “something I haven’t planted on purpose”.

Just a few however looked (and still look) rather splendid and have been allowed to flower before being removed before they set seed – I hope. In fact anything that looks like a daisy, especially with long stems, is welcome here.

However, I have a new weed that is a nightmare. It spreads by growing up and flowering (ie by seed), by over-ground runners, and also, like Convolvulus and Ground Elder, by underground shoots which multiply every time you pull/dig them up and leave a miniscule amount in the soil. It wasn’t here when I arrived (as far as I know) so it has come in with a bought plant or in the compost. It has quite attractive, velvety, heart shaped leaves, small purple flowers so it could beguile you into thinking it’s a welcome visitor. But it’s not. It has spread into lots of my beds and I am now seriously considering chemical removal over Autumn/Winter with a Glyphoshate spray. I haven’t used a single chemical since I arrived here, so this will be a major step change. If anyone can tell me what this weed is and how to deal with it I would be ever so grateful.

Moving plants

“Right plant, right place” is a very useful rule to help us make sure we plant something in conditions in which it will thrive ie as close as possible to those in which it would grow naturally, wherever it came from (often not the UK) – soil type, temperature, hours of sunlight/shade, wind levels, metres above sea level etc..

In my garden “right plant, right place” is also all to do with the combination of flower and foliage colours, foliage types, heights and scent. To this end I have already moved three pink roses that were being far “too pink” in what is now the “hot” Kennett bed. Rosa ‘Pretty Lady’,’ Eglantine’ and ‘Scentsation’ are now in the “Shed bed” and seem much happier as well as now looking “in place”.

I have also added the clay loving Sanquisorba to the bed which, with its lovely little burgundy heads on light foliage is looking pretty great against the Miscanthus sinensis 'Strictus', 'Ghana' and the Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Silver Sheen' which, miraculoulsy, has survived the frosts and seems to be thriving.

And I seem, somewhat inadvertently, to have created a bed for transient plants. Last year this spot was filled with sweet peas. This spring it was filled with tulips (all now raised) and now it is filled with Dahlias and Cosmos which, after they are done, will be replaced by more Tulip bulbs later this year.

Bathtubs in front

I also tackled the front garden. I am not planning to change its overall design and layout at the moment but the area in front of my kitchen looked very naked and clean once I removed the leftover paving and stone sets/bricks etc which were cluttering it up.

The front is South facing so gets a great deal of sun and weather generally – winds being the other issue. I use thyme, rosemary and bay in cooking a great deal and never have enough. The back garden clay does not provide suitable conditions for growing it successfully. It needs to be in pots.

So I decided that two great big, well-drained troughs under the kitchen windows filled with low growing Mediterranean plants like cascading Rosemary, proper thyme and perhaps even some garish, bright red Geraniums/Pelargoniums (to match the roses out front) would bring it to life and keep my cooking pots well flavoured. And of course a new bay tree between them because I have used nearly all the leaves off my old one in a pot which came with me from London.

Somewhere in a different galaxy I imagined the troughs would be stone – until I went online and discovered how horrendously expensive, heavy and often small they are. I have tried large wooden ones before and they just rot after about 10 years, so I needed something else.

I am very lucky to live in a village that is also the antiques centre of the area. We have two huge emporia representing a great number of dealers. On a recent trip to one of the aforementioned emporiums (I gather both the “a” and “ums” plurals of “um” are acceptable) I spotted two old zinc bathtubs from Eastern Europe. They are real, old-fashioned baths for humans, with no plughole. But I wasn’t sure they would be “quite the ticket” for the front garden. What would “the village” say about bathtubs out front?

After discussing the alternatives with various friends, checking that it’s OK to grow edibles in zinc containers and negotiating hard, I secured both baths and another large zinc pot for a very reasonable amount. The baths are 140cms x 60cms and 40 cms deep – simply the perfect size and height.

I drilled lots of drainage holes in the bottom and I filled them with the lovely friable stuff from Viridor plus left-over gravel (herbs don’t like it too rich) and have planted them as planned. I also found a lovely new bay tree to sit in the round zinc pot between them. I’ll take the leaves for the cook pot from the back!

Initially they looked great and it seems the village ‘approved’ because others have copied the idea. But it has not been all been good. The heavy rain in early Summer seems to have pushed the gravel down to block the drainage holes and the Thyme has “drowned”. My cooking now is still relying on the 10 year old thyme in my tiny, neglected, terracotta window pot sitting by the greenhouse so I have invested in lots of sacks of horticultural grit for re-doing them - when I can bear it (probably when the Pelargoniums are done).

So, apart from these troubles, a couple of trees that look as if they are struggling, the mass devastation caused by this year's onslaught of slugs and snails and the fact that my very tardily planted out tomatoes, beans, sweet peas and salad sowings are only now bearing fruit and flowers, things seem to be working OK and it’s looking and smelling lovely. Phew!

Have you ever reared a fledgling wild bird until it can fly away? I hadn’t until Bob Starling came into my life this year. This is Bob’s story.

Bob dropped (or was pushed) from a great height (three floors up) from the very noisy and messy starling nest that existed in my roof edgings.

Bob was so named – some days later - without my knowing the bird’s sex because I used to have a friend at university called Robert Stirling, he spent some time in my pond (Bob the bird, not my friend) and it just sounded right. Bob can be a unisex name ie Roberta/Robert. However, for the sake of this blog Bob is a male bird.

Anyway, back to the story. He fell/tumbled down a lower roof and into a corner of my terrace, where the dogs found him. They didn’t attack him but got very close and barked lots. He made desperate attempts to flutter up the wall away from them but clearly couldn’t fly. I shooed the dogs away and picked him up. He seemed unharmed by his fall – legs, wings etc, all OK.

So suddenly I had a live baby bird, partly fledged, that couldn’t fly properly, in my hands. On the ground he was prey for the many local cats plus the magpies, sparrow hawks, red kites, owls and other predators that would love to take him from here – dead or alive.

Stupidly, initially, I hoped I could get him back to his nest so I put him in the highest gutter that I could reach on a ladder. It was still many metres away from the original nest and all he did was sit there, shiver and look miserable.

So I brought him back down. He shrieked his disapproval of being handled again and a parent arrived. “Thank goodness” I thought. The parent dive-bombed me very aggressively so I put the fledgling on the lawn for his parent to take him away. It worked tirelessly attempting to teach him to fly. I stood aside, locked the dogs in the house, kept cats/magpies etc away, watched for a bit but went back to my gardening.

Eventually the parent and baby were gone. As far as I was concerned, that was the end of baby starling - he had flown off with his parent successfully. I continued with my gardening and weeding.

An hour or so later Pickle started barking at the pond. He barks at the pond a lot when he drops his balls in there for fun, but this barking sounded different. I investigated and found the starling babe floundering in the plants I had recently planted. His flying attempts had obviously ended in the pond and his parent had given up on him, without my noticing.

He was alive if drenched

But he was still alive, if drenched. He must have been in the pond for an hour or so and was tiring as he tried and failed to clamber out of it. Now that he was wet there was simply no way he could fly anywhere, let alone back to the nest.

It was early evening. It suddenly dawned on me that he was now my responsibility if he was to survive the night. I had to dry him off, warm him up and try to keep him alive, at least before returning him to his nest or the wild - if possible.

So, despite his loud shrieks, I fished him out of the pond, wrapped him in swaddling towels and held him to my breast in the warm kitchen for much of the evening. To the dogs’ amazement I carried on normal life with a small bird wrapped up and stuffed into my bra. I had seen my mum do this with sickly chicken chicks when I was a child so I knew it worked. And it did.

Bob seemed very determined to stay alive but he had to go somewhere overnight - he couldn’t stay in my bra or, indeed, in the house.

The greenhouse was my saviour. I put my heated propagator shelf on the ground, found an old dog cage and covered it tightly in an old sheet. I put lots of old dog toys, towels and cuddly things inside to make a sort of nest and then placed Bob in, feeling very pleased with my imaginative response to young bird care.

Seconds later I panicked. I realised I also had to feed and water him to keep him alive. Saving him from the fall, the dogs, predators and the near drowning was not going to be enough. He needed to eat and drink.

But what to feed him?

I had no idea what to feed him. I have never fed a wild bird except via a bird table or my parents’ feathererd menagerie of chickens, ducks, geese, Guinea fowl etc. when I was a child.

Thank goodness for Google!

I searched “what to feed a fledgling starling” and of course lots of people knew. In the nest they live on insect protein but the site I chose made it very clear I should not feed him worms. Apparently adult birds know the difference between good and bad worms and humans simply don’t. A bad worm could kill him.

I had to make a mix of cooked, chicken-based, dog or cat kibble combined with stewed apple and hard-boiled eggs. I had to borrow an apple and an egg from a neighbour and then I cooked up this foul smelling and somewhat cannibalistic yellow/green concoction.

Not very hopefully, I approached Bob in the greenhouse. I used an old feather quill from a blackbird to offer the food to him. He was wary and difficult but eventually the scent got to him. He took a first, cautionary bite. Then he decided he loved it and would take it from me. He ate a lot. I can’t tell you how thrilled and excited I was.

Then I was worried about water. Apparently you shouldn’t put water directly into their mouths – they can drown. You have to drip it onto their beak. So I did this too.

It was all pretty messy but he ate and took water. I did this a few times that evening because they are supposed to be fed every 45 minutes can you believe? He responded well and I began to think he might possibly survive the night.

The next morning, there he was – dry at last, warm, alive, noisy, calling for food, and making the same sounds as his siblings in the nest far above in my roof. Suddenly I was his new parent until I could return him to them – or later to the wild on his own.

Something of a responsibility

Thus started 10 days of caring for and feeding Bob Starling. I let him have the full run of the greenhouse every day and put him to bed in the cage at night. I fed him every two hours or so and started leaving the food mix and water for him in upturned jam jar lids. He learned to feed himself from these, especially overnight, which was very gratifying.

 The older I get the less happy I am to kill anything. I admit to drowning snails and slugs and to squashing blackfly, greenfly and Lily beetles on my plants but almost everything else I usher away or out of the house and garden. However, I have to admit that I killed flies and small spiders in the house and greenhouse for Bob. He didn’t get many but, when he did, he relished them.

Feeding him by hand was somewhat chaotic. First I had to find him on the floor under the staging, behind the empty pots and general greenhouse stuff. Then I had to tempt him to come to the food. It was hard on my knees and I got bored so eventually I took to chasing him/picking him up and feeding him with my fingers. It was much more effective.

Then one day I found him on the bottom shelf of my staging – about 20cms up. He must have jumped or flown up – a good sign. A few days later he was on the top shelf of the staging (about 1 metre up). He could only have flown up there – a great sign.

I continued to hand feed him and leave food and water in the lids, day and night. Despite his squawking on being caught, I think he quite liked being hand-fed as he got older - he got better and better at it. I think he also quite liked being put to bed in his dark, warm ‘nest’.

Towards the end he spent a couple of days on the top of the greenhouse staging by a North-facing window watching all the other birds outside. He didn’t try to fly at all. He just watched, all day. When starlings came past he would give a little squawk of recognition but he did nothing else. I like to think he spent the time learning about life outside and other birds - from the safety of my greenhouse.

His release

A couple of days later he started to fly around the greenhouse. I studied his siblings in the nest at the top of my house. They too were experimenting with flight, albeit supervised by their parents. They were also starting to feed on my bird feeders.

So this was when I knew it was time for him to go. I opened the door and all the windows in the greenhouse so he could get out. I expected him to make an immediate escape - he had stayed ‘wild’ as far as I was concerned.

But Bob didn’t leave the greenhouse for a long time that day. He sat by his favourite, now open, window for hours just watching. When, at last, he took the plunge, he ignored the open door, and chose the small gap afforded by this favourite window. But all he did was drop onto the cold frame immediately below.

He then spent a lot of time looking back u