April: If ever world were blessed now it is

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

I have often said that I do not have a favourite month as they all have something unique to enjoy but April, especially a good one like this year, has a freshness and vibrancy which none of the others can match.

In several News Items over the past few years I have been indebted to the poem "April Rise" by Laurie Lee for words to use as a suitable headline  to capture the essential spirit of the month. New plant and animal life all around us and every day something different to stimulate us, small but  many significant events that we look forward to every year, like the arrival of the first swallows which burst onto the scene on 25th.

To read the poem go to www.poemhunter.com/poem/april-rise/

The landscape in particular is dramatically changed when trees and shrubs begin to come into leaf - as another poet, Philip Larkin magically puts it  in his poem "The Trees" "The trees are coming into leaf like something almost being said"





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At this time of year not everything green on a tree is the leaves. One of the fine sights is a wych elm in full flower


It usually takes me 5-6 days to compile my monthly News Items. On 25th I wrote the above lines full of the joys of Spring. On the morning of 26th I awoke to frosted fields and on entering the gardens the stench of rotting leaves, all sure signs of a hard frost overnight.


 In the borders there were many stressed perennials and shrivelled up leaves on most  of the 85 hydrangeas. The thermometer confirmed that there was an overnight low of  -5C.


If any plant in the gardens is going to succumb to a sharp frost and who can blame it for the Gunnera is a plant of Brazilian Jungle! A mature plant like this usually recovers well later.


 Hydrangeas macrophylla and serrata however are very frost tender  at these temperatures even when protected by fleece, and if their leaves are destroyed so too will be the the nascent flower buds they contain. Hydrangea paniculata however is much tougher and all plants came through unscathed


 Hydrangea aspera villosa leaves frozen to a crisp in spite of being covered in fleece



 Lilum speciosum "Black Beauty" looks very poorly lying almost flat on the ground and after 6 days shows no sign of improving



 For me the saddest casualties are 3 plants of cardiocrinum giganteum var yunnanense, 6 years old and in bud for the first time. You can just see the buds in the crown of the leaves. A few hours of sharp  frost appears to have denied their crowning glory later next month, but we just have to wait and see.



 Mostly in full leaf the many hostas here have  also suffered a big hit  even H. "Rhino" which is supposed to have the toughest leaves of any in the genus. It is a recommended slug resistant variety and very durable.


 Even a large hosta like "Sagae" looks shrivelled and a few days later the leaves had turned white


 One of the few genus to have come back quickly is hemerocallis and even they looked sorry for themselves at 6.00am! Yes I was up at that time - Julian please note!!



My mood was remarkably darker than the day before and for a while I was crestfallen as I checked out the casualties. But then I rationalised  that it was still  April which can often be  the cruellest month.

Although we have had sharp April frosts occasionally in the past, there was less plant damage then because plants then were not in such foward growth as they were this year after a fine April. Some things will come back, others may not flower this year particularly the hydrangeas and a few may be killed outright.  Gardening is full of highs and lows and we have to take the good with the bad, keep calm and carry on!

And a further pick me up on that cold morning was the sight of this cheerful group of violas in one of the cold frames. Even in the open ground all the violas were untouched, about the only genus to have this distinction.


 Just to rub salt into the wounds the next night there was another sharp frost which registered -5C that caused ice to form on the water butts.



A generally fine month with a good mix of weather and many dry and warmer days; rainfall totals generally across the country much lower than the monthly average. Bright days lead to clear skies at night and in our frost pocket setting that means overnight lows at below zero.Time to get out the horti fleece again! Sadly not even fleece could save many plants from the severe frosts in the last week of the month

2 continous periods of drought of 9 days and 13 days at the beginning and the end of the month. Only 8 days with some precipitation. Max 18.8C on 8th. Five frosts coldest -5C on 26th and 27th.

The good and the bad - a beautiful sunset lighting up the forest before nightfall and the frost. Note the fleece over the shrubs



And one of the many blue sky days showing off to perfection this fine oak



Garden Update

Two  major events were the rotovation of the vegetable beds on 11 April thanks to our good friend Robert, and completion of  the major tidy up of all the 17 borders in the gardens; weeding, trimming, feeding and  turning over the soil. Only staking now left to put in place and new planting opportunities where older plants failed to come through the winter or have outgrown their current places. Oh and of course, the never ending round of weeding until the border plants grow large enough to swamp the weeds. 


Potatoes were planted immediately after rotovation  ("Charlotte" an all time favourite, "Venizia" a truly outstanding salad potato with superb flavour and texture, and a new salad variety called "Pippa" which has had very good reviews). No main crops any more as we have one less veg. bed. A couple of days later  onions and a range of Brassicas were planted and small seeds in variety were sown. Tender veg growing well in the polytunnels. The gardening year has now truly begun.

I continue to sow seed of ornamental plants in the tunnels although far less than I used to. However Moira suggests that I am still not reducing plant propagation as much as I said I would. I assure her that I have, as evidenced by the fact that we can walk through the big tunnel without falling over plants on the floor !



Seed germination has been quite slow with cuttings taking longer to root than normal at this time of year. Salvias, pelargoniums and hardy chrysanthemums are however growing away now and have a strike rate of 80%+ .



I propagate brugmansias  from a range of stock plants, every year and have been more succesful in the last couple of years since I discovered that cuttings of semi ripe material about half an inch diameter root much better than smaller, softer pencil sized ones. One cutting, taken any time up to late December, in a 9cm pot of gritty compost, takes about 6-8 weeks to root on a hot bench.


 Lawn mowing is now a regular occurence, and with grass growing strongly I am cutting 3 - 4 times a week. When the grass was longer it was the Hayter rotary roller mower but from now onwards it will be my cherished 30 year old Webb cylinder mower which gives such a clean cut and better defined stripes. I can look at any lawn now and know what form of mower it has been cut with! Obsessive or what? 


What's looking good?

If you live in a kinder climate than ours it is said that you can have a clematis in flower every day of the year. With a range of 300 or so species forms from all over the world and countless cultivars, it really isn't that difficult. However the winter flowering forms need a warmer climate than ours; we are therefore a clematis free garden from early November until mid February when the Atragene Group of clematis come into their own. Although there are 17 different species in the group, the most commonly grown in order of flowering are c. alpina  c. macropetalla, c.koreana and their cultivars.

C. Alpina 


 c. macropetalla "Marhams Pink" one of the finest of all the named cultivars



C.koreana, a seed grown form in its second flowering year


They lack the huge flowers of  more showier species in the genus, but make up for that with lantern shaped pendant flowers  generally of blue to purple but in the cultivars  there is a better  range of colours from the pastels spectrum. They are easy to please and will grow in almost any situation including that difficult north facing area. Like most clems. they will grow up a range of support material - walls or trellis but for me they are best climbing through shrubs when they look more natural and can bring the shrub to life before the leaves arrive. They are not massively vigorous clematis reaching 8- 10 feet for alpinas, up to 13 for macropetallas and in excess of that for koreana  which is the most vigorous of the three. Collectively they span a flowering period from February with the alpinas to late May with koreanas which may then produce more flowers periodically until August. If you don't already grow them give them a try - you won't be disappointed.

And the star of the show is this ? atragene?  that came to me from the British Clematis Society in 2008 as seed of c.alpina. Open pollinated clematis from a known mother plant may have have often crossed with a different species which may have happened in this case. When I  recently showed the flower to my local Hardy Plant Society many members were in raptures about it!! The flowers are  at least 2 and a half inches across and a real true blue.



As usual a picture gallery of a selection of the other best plants this month.

A British native woodland plant equally at home in a garden setting; for shade and retentive soil is paris quadrifolia. An eye catcher for its simple beauty and a good clump former when happy.



 Some of our few small rhodos and azaleas by the House Pond. 2 days later the frosts  had claimed them


 Chloranthus sessilifolius "Domino" is an eye catching woodlander for its shiny dark foliage and scented white sprays of flowers in mid Spring. It makes a large plant in time to 3feet tall. It is however rated as half hardy so you need to live in a mild area to get away with this outdoors. Ours stays in a pot in a shady corner of the large tunnel


  Silver leaved Phlomis fruticosa with emerging flower buds creates  a lovely architectural form before the yellow flowers open late May -June  followed by attractive seed pods. A very valuable long season of interest plant.


 Native bluebells mingling with euphorbia griffithii "Fireglow" in the Beech Hedge Walk. This planting is over 30 years old.


 A less well known form of the yellow Skunk Cabbage is the white form from the far east. The delightful but very slow growing Lysichiton camtschatcensis is much smaller and less invasive than its American cousin. Our plant in the Paddock Pond is 10 years old and has 4 flowers this year. However this marvellous collection at Aberglasney Gardens puts ours to shame!



 The last daffodils to flower for us are narcissus "Pipit" a division 7 Jonquil form which apart from its graceful form has the good scent of its group. and is a fitting farewell to their season.



Wildlife and countryside


Nothing could be more representative of late April than a local oak wood covered with bluebells, intensified by the deep blue sky.


Undoubtedly in our part of the world, it is wild flowers that take pride of place for  their wonderful show throughout the month. All along the lanes are masses of celandines, wood anemones, ladies smock, wild garlic, stitchwort, the first of the umbellifers, red campion and bluebells to name just a few. A recent newspaper article pointed to the plight of wildflowers because of loss of habitat and some agricultural practices, and it suggested that road verges are the last refuges for many of our much loved wild flowers. It emphasised how important it is for local councils to be sensitive to the needs of wild flowers when planning their verge cutting programmes, and to ensure that they have chance to set seed before they are cut down.

Dandelions put up a colourful show at the verge of the Llandeilo By Pass 



On a main Roundabout on the A40 in Carmarthen is a show stopping display of Ladies Smock or Cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis). Quite a distraction for a plant nut like me. Fortunately Moira was driving!


 King Cups at Aberglasney



And a bank of primroses, sweetly scented on a warm day


 Cowslips again on the road verge


 Two superb stands of Ladies Smock in a field alonside the A40 in Carmarthenshire , the wildflower capital of West Wales?



 And back again to Llandeilo!  this bank is covered in what I thought from a distance were oxlips, the primrose/cowlsip cross. Research however reveals that this fine plant is too multiheaded and pale yellow to be what I first thought it was. Oxlips have simpler infloresences and the flowers hang like a cowslip. Further research into its identity is continuing as there are only cowslips on the bank but no primroses. It seems far to vigorous for any wild species




One plant which is native to the UK  is fritillaria meleagris but I have never seen it in the wild in our part of the world. However our friends Liz and Paul have scattered seed over a good few years in the moist shaded areas of their superb 3 acre gardens to produce this jaw dropping show.

To see this wonderful garden go to www.llwyngarreg.co.uk for visiting times and details of the garden.



And a final observation on wildflowers along a road verge. WhenI was travelling back and forward to work in Swansea over 11 years ago, along a stretch of the A48 there is a central grass verge  which divides the dual carriageway. Every late May or early June, I used to go bonkers when the local council saw fit to cut back the grass verges which were full of Southern Marsh orchids and common spotted forms, along with a supporting cast of Ox Eye daisies in their prime. This continued over a number of years but at last the council came to their senses driven mostly I suspect by the recession. A more enlightened approach seems to have secured the habitat which now enables the plants to complete their life cycles.

On the Paddock pond at dusk a few weeks ago I caught sight of a mallard duck with 10 ducklings, a charming sight as they all followed her in a straight line to roost under the large juniper at the edge of the pond. Too dark to take pictures I consoled myself that there would be plenty of picture opportunities the following day as they seemed to be well established. However I never saw them again! I have observed previously that when they are disturbed the mother bird often leads them to another location, usually along the little river at the bottom of the garden where there is more cover.

The swallows were a good week later this year than usual arriving on a fine morning on 25th. Having been quite common here for nearly 40 years, pied flycatchers have become quite scarce, the last ones here being sighted in 2013. A distinct absence of other summer migrants too, and it goes without saying no cuckoos.

 One of the best sights on the farms at this time of year is  the releasing of cattle which have been indoors all winter, into fields full of lush grass. To see whole herds of cattle particularly milkers enjoying their first taste of freedom  for 5-6 months is quite mooving! They skip and jump and chase each other, with their udders swinging too and fro! It is a sight that gives delight to our farmer neighbours too, especially as they have no more yard scraping, a never ending chore, to do until next winter.



Plenty of outings were squeezed in:-  to RHS Flower Show Cardiff, a Plant fair at Rhosygilwen Mansion, and 2 of the best West Wales gardens which, with with acid soils, have a superb range of rhododendrons , camellias, other choice trees and shrubs and many fine Spring woodland plants.


RHS Cardiff was disappointing this year I thought, even though the weather was sunny and warm. A cramped site and lack of seating made it incomfortable to walk around the show ground, set in the beautiful Bute Park, a stones throw from the City Centre. There were less nurseries and large gaps in one of the floral narquees



 A superb exhibition of paeonies  on this stand and in this wreathDSCN6466


This plant was the highlight of the day  for me, one of the newer introductions of far eastern epimediums with huge flowers (for the genus) floating like bees on long stems. It was named as e. wushanense ssp wushanense



Pics and website details for the gardens which are worth a long trip to see our part of Wales in its horticultural prime.

Aberglasney Gardens www.aberglasney.org















Picton Castle www.pictoncastle.co.uk

Many fine old rhododendrons and other specimen trees dwarfing Moira, Liz and Carole on one of our day long outings. Paul and Peter are camera shy!










 Plant fair at Rhos y Gilwen Mansion which only opens for events during the year


 And once again a plant stole the Fair: arisaema sikokianum is very difficult to grow well but Richard Cain of Penlan Perennials has the knack with 12 plants in superb condition. For more info about Richard's nursery go to www.penlanperennials.co.uk


 On the way home from the Plant Fair the unusual sight of a couple of fields of oilseed rape which lit up the surrounding countryside


Hope you have had a similarly enjoyable April, minus the severe frosts,

and that May brings some warmth and all the fine things we have to look forward to then.