January fill the dyke?

Monday, January 27, 2014

If, dear reader, you are familiar with traditional country weather lore (you know, sayings like "Red sky at night, shepherds delight", "Rain bafore seven, fine before eleven" and that sort of thing) you will think that I have made a mistake in the headline of this news item. If you are not familiar with country lore, you must wonder what on earth I am talking about! All will be revealed.

For centuries people in these islands who have had a close relationship with the land and who were weather dependent for most aspects of their every day lives, developed a means of simple  weather forecasting based on close observation of animal behaviour, cloud formations, the sun, moon and stars, weather patterns, the seasons and the location of their homes. These forecasts were put to simple rhymes that could be easily remembered and passed on down the generations.

The two rhymes in the headings are my amendments, a twist on the traditional lore necessitated by the kind of weather we have experienced in December and January. In the old sayings it is February that the dyke is hopefully filled, and nature that sleeps and winter that creeps - but not in 2014! Quite simply we have had no winter. Frosts occasionally, but tons of rain, horrendous gales, and temperatures far in excess of the norm for January. So the rivers are full to bursting here but never flooded, and nature in all its many forms has exploded into life, so that it has felt more like late February even though the day length tells us otherwise. 

 This lovely rainbow  perfectly frames our view from the kitchen door One of the few occasions this month that the sun has shone!


In this news item you will discover many examples to illustrate what I mean.



The rain has been relentless, the ground is absolutely soaking (as it was last January) and the leak in the conservatory has been an ever present during the month. Winds have been regular and devastating, taking off the polythene from the roof of our small tunnel house, and in the second week of the month we had concentrated thunderstorms and lightning, one of which lasted for 5 hours.



Raindrops hang forlornly (is that a word?) from acer Orange Dream


Incredibly being on overhead electricity supply we had no lengthy power cuts. In many parts of the UK there has been criticsm of the electicity network for failing to respond quickly enough to loss of. power but here we had a brief interruption for just a few minutes and received a phone call from our provider apologising for the interruption.

What on earth has all this got to do with our gardening life at Cilgwyn Lodge I hear you say. All weather has a bearing on it but with no penetrating, long term frosts and with exceptionally mild conditions growth has been incredible and there has been a lot of activity in the countryside too.

Only 5 frosts min -4C and 9 days above 10C , max 11.6C


Garden update

There has been no chance, because of the state of the ground, to get on with the weeding I had hoped for this month. The bittercress is already looking too healthy and robust for my liking! I have however taken the opportunity to do some fencing, repairing or rebuilding  more staging in the nursery, and cut back overgrown or damaged shrubs. 

An urgent task the day after Boxing Day when we lost the plastic from the small tunnel, was to relocate all the plants from there into the large tunnel where we just about found room for them. Plans are in hand to rebuild the damaged tunnel as soon as possible, retaining the orignal frame but strengthening it with crop bars and covering  with new polythene to the ground level only. This avoids the need to dig an 50cm trench in ground that has been compacted since we erected the tunnel in 1999. I was rather lost without it to start with as it was my cosy "cwtch" in winter to do my propagating

My "cwtch" in the small tunnel  - note the excellent ventilation in the roof!


I have however been able to find a not so cosy corner in amongst all the plants in the big tunnel. Just as well because the seed sowing season always begins on or around 18 January, the date I started work 49 years ago. Sweet peas are always the first to go in hopefully to flower in early June, together with early cabbage "Hispi", cauliflower "Snow Crown" and lettuce "Little Gem". These are all germinated in gentle heat and should be through by the end of the month.


Just enough space on the potting bench in the big tunnel



These are closely followed by a wide range of perennials, seed collected trom the garden at Cilgwyn or distributed by The Hardy Plant Society to members like us. I was pleased last autumn to be able to supply 21 varieties to this annual process. More later about the Society under the "Visits" heading. So far there about 140 varieties of seeds including veggies to be sown over the next 4 months, which will no doubt be substantially added to as more seed comes in from The HPS and Chiltern Seeds, not to mention the other seeds I am seduced by in nurseries and garden centres!

I have also had the opportunity through the British Hosta and Hemerocallis Society to once again obtain daylily seed from America, the result of crosses made by members of the American Hemerocallis Society and generously made available by them to other similar societies around the world. Big black coated seeds which generally germinate easily and the offspring can flower within two years.

Hellebore plants from seed sown 3 years ago are coming into flower for the first time which is always exciting as you never know just what you will get. Members of the buttercup family, the ranunculaceae, are terribly promiscuous and unless they can be micropropagated or very selectively hand pollinated, the offspring may look nothing like the parents that produced them,


What's looking good?

The first snowdrops opened on 11 January and gradually since then others have come into flower but perhaps not as quickly as might be expected given how mild it has been. Just 3 years ago I started to relocate from other parts of the garden to the Beech Hedge Walk, our main late winter/early spring border, divisions from large clumps elsewhere and already they are bulking up well. They seem to enjoy the lightly shaded well drained soil and an application of calcified seaweed, lime being one of the reasons why there are so many fine snowdrop gardens in the Cotswolds. Although I like snowdrops we don't grow many varieties of them as the galanthophile bug hasn't bitten me yet (and with prices for some of the rarer forms in the hundred of pounds I hope it never does!)  If you want to see a wide selection of snowdrops in our part of Wales in a fabulous early Spring garden, make a beeline for Gelli Uchaf. For more details go to Julian and Fiona's website at thegardenimpressionists@wordpress.com

As regular readers will know hellebores are more my thing and I have definitely been bitten by that bug!! They are all over the garden and starting to bloom very well. It is interesting to note that some forms are allways earlier than others depending on their progeny. Most of the ones in the garden are helleborus x hybridus forms but we do have helleborus niger, argutifolius, foetidus, X sternii and ericsmithii, together with a few species (wild) forms mostly from Italy and eastern parts of Europe. Much more on hellebores next month.

 A fine lemon anemone centred form always one of the first to flower at Cilgwyn



The ericsmithii group has recently been the focus of attention for breeding programmes by nurseries and some attractive forms continue to come onto the market. They are sterile hybrids of a three way cross between h. argutifolius, h.lividus and h.niger. The name of this group arises from the first breeder of them, Eric Smith, who with the late Jim Archibald in the 1960's and early 70's ran The Plantsman's Nursery in Dorset. Only in the last few years has work been done to increase the number of cultivars available and you wonder why it took them so long! as they are a welcome addition to the market: very floriferous, generally with marbled leaves (coming from h.lividus in the cross) and so far proving to be hardy and vigorous. Look out for them in your local nursery or garden centre. 


Still the best form in this group in my opinion is " Winter Moonbeam" with lovely creamy white flowers that fade to pink and the lovely patterned leaves. Also look out for "Penny's Pink" and "Anna's Red"



Cyclamen coum will always win top prizes at this time of year for the sheer joy they bring on a dismal day, drifts of them in all shades of pink or white bulking up every year from their seed dispersed by ants or mice. If you don't grow these you must be nuts!! Sorry - please do try them;you won't be disappointed. That was much nicer!


There are some good shrubs for winter flowering nearly all of which have scent. We grow only a small selection of what is availabale: hamamelis, shrubby lonicera and sarcococca with its beguiling and far reaching scent form tiny white flowers and  fine glossy green leaves. It is for the latter is is commonly known as winter or Christmas box. Daphnes are exceptional shrubs/small trees but we just can't grow them here, as are drimys in various forms and perhaps the one with the best and most beguiling scent, edgeworthia chrysantha (but it requires just the righty sort of protected spot). Some of these and a few early rhododenrdrons you will see if you if you visit Gelli Uchaf in February. Mahonias and viburnums too are other good winter flowering shrubs.

Hamamelis "Arnold Promise" good flowers but not such a good scent as the old form "Pallida"



Hamamelis "Diane" is a good red but the flowers need a green background to stand out. Good autumn colour though.



  Sarcococca confusa in full bloom



Nearby is this lovely evergreen fern polypodium cambricum "Richard Kayse" totally hardy but late into leaf often late June before it wakes up!


Just the joy of a single flower on a plant that shouldn't be flowering at this time of year can lift the spirits on the 37th consecutive day of rain! That is the beauty of a protected heated tunnel or greenhouse. There is also the joy of remembering propagating it or the generosity of a kind gardener who passed on a few cuttings at the height of summer. The plant I have in mind is a rare impatiens.

Impatiens apiculata 50cms tall from cuttings taken last June



Other little treasures in the big tunnel are this gorgeous primula "John Fielding" a  rare hybrid form which is totally hardy  but I keep a few inside just to be able to appreciate the flowers close up.



This bright and cheerful aeonium haworthii "Variegatum" on the succulent bench



and finally this dainty abutillon magapotanicum "Wakehurst" still flowering its heart out!


I have saved the really best until last. We have 22 types of vegetables still available, fresh from the garden, from store in the stone shed, from the freezer or dried. I find it difficult to believe but it is the best result we have ever had thanks to the mild winter and a dry autumn which allowed us to harvest all the root crops  for storing in dry peat or sharp sand. We also continued to have tomatoes from the tunnel until 12 January and still have a few sweet peppers from a purple form that haven't fully coloured but still taste good (no surprise given the lack of sunshine). I am so pleased that I am listing what we have in full (time to have a drink, alcoholic if you like!) 

Fresh: Cabbages "Tundra" and "Meribel" (January King type). 2 varieties of Brussels Sprouts, Leeks, Parsnips, Swede, Salsify and Purple Sprouting still to come.

From store: Potatoes, Carrots, Celeriac, Beetroot, Mooli Radish, Onions, Shallots, Garlic

From Freezer: Peas, Broad Beans. Sweetcorn and puree from the Tomatoes

Dried: Berlotti Beans

 The remaining leeks in a very soggy bed!



Wildlife and countryside

The plants and animals all around us are enjoying the mild weather. The grass is green and still growing, and there are worm casts all over the lawns as there has been no significantly cold weather to send the worms deeper. We don't walk on the lawns any more than we have to at this time of year to avoid compaction and it also flattens the worm casts which looks unsightly and can make work later on.

The fish in the House Pond are active and looking for food every day. I generally don't feed them in winter but just a little each day won't do them any harm. The fish in the Koi Pond however are inactive barely mowing from ther spot by the water outlet which is their winter default position so they are not fed.

 House pond fish looking for food



and the Koi pond fish a state of winter torpor


The catkins on the hazels are full of pollen which glows when caught by the very occasional late afternoon sunshine and there are still masses of berries on the holly trees. I have seen no significant numbers of fieldfares and redwings which in a colder winter would have usually devoured all the berries.

On a bright, mild morning it is good to hear birdsong all around and at twilight the owls hooting from the nearby chestnut tree. As always the "drama queen" blackbirds are the noisiest, shrieking and flying low to find a safe roost for the night. 

Last week we had a rarely sighted tree creeper fly into a window and stun itself. It is not very often you have the chance to view these small birds at close quarters as most of their lives are spent in trees where they feed on insects hiding in the bark. They are prettier close up than when briefly glimpsed in a tree, with rich brown tones, a white breast and a long bill. Fortunately there was just time to take some pics before it flew off in to an apple tree apparently none the worse for its accident. In the gardens we also have the nutchach, a much bigger slate grey and chestnut coloured bird that is a regular visitor to bird feeders. Unlike tree creepers their method of feeding in trees is to start at the top and work down, whereas the tree creeper alwatys goes up the trunk

 The lovely little tree creeper


 Having thought we had seen the back of the rabbits a few weeks ago, they have recently returned with a vegence digging holes everywhere and generally making a nuisance of themselves. As I never see them whatever time of the day or night I look for them, I have resorted to a secret deterrent - a sumo cat! This big boy will soon make short work of the bunnies!



and he has a little helper to carry away  the remains!!


There was some frog spawn on the bank of the Paddock Pond on 12 January but none in the pond  nor any signs of frogs. If it stays mild it won't be long before the spawning season will begin in earnest.  

A few days later I noticed the remains of a few waterlily flowers on the bank and some pondweed. Close by there were some fish scales and a telltale large footprint in the mud - an otter had been for supper! We have had more visits in January than at any other time of year so I should know better  and  have put up the electric fence before then. Once it is in place the otters stay away. I was intrigued why the waterlily flowers had clearly been taken to the bank and some of them partially eaten as I have never seen this before.  A Google search has failed to come up with an answer, although in the USA some pond owners report incidents of waterlilies being eaten by raccoons! Have thay arrived in the UK as the result of climate change?!!

 The electric fence in p;ace and look at the colour on the grass!



Finally a sure sign of the approach of Spring is the arrival of the first lambs. All lambing is now done in barns and the lambs are not turned out until they are strong enough to cope with vagaries of the weather so it will be a while yet before we have the joy of seeing them in the fields again. Pics soon but in the meantime check out these ewes colourfully dressed up in all their finery. (The coloured marks indicating the farm ownership (red) and the red or the purple markings whether they are carrying twins (blue) or triplets(purple).


In spite of all the early promise of Spring, I am convinced that Winter still has time to bare its teeth which with so much forward growth will not be good news.



One talk this month (Designing with Perennials - Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden) to the Hereford and Mid Wales Group of The Hardy Plant Society which was a lively and enjoyable meeting. Some excellent discussion points and questions from a very good attendance.

There is usually a good raffle at most HPS Group Meetings but this one was something special. A member had donated this wonderful specimen of a very challenging winter flowering clematis, urophylla "Winter Beauty" considered by many experts to be almost impossible to flower outdoors in the UK.  The donor has the mother plant on a wall of his house 800 feet up in the Black Mountains. Such a delight for me to see it in flower for the first time but sadly I did not win the raffle!


We have been members of the HPS for many years which has a large membership across the UK and beyond with 42 regional groups that members can join if they wish. They organise and parrticipate in local horticultural events and make stands at all the major shows including Chelsea and other RHS events. There are Newsletters, Journals and Bulletins and plant specific booklets are published. One of the highlights is the annual Seed Exchange when members contribute seeds from their own gardens for distribution. The seed list usually extends to over 2000 varieties including many rare or unusual forms often unobtainable elsewhere, all for a cost of £5 for 20 packets with more available at the end of the normal distribution period. The whole process is completed in just 4 months ensuring that the seed is fresh which in my experience ensures optimum germination rates. Some of our most prized plants have come from HPS seed. We warmly recommend membership for any plant lover and for more information about the Society please visit the website at www.hardy-plant.org.uk

Last Saturday we visited Ashwood Nurseries near Kidderminster which is an example of what all garden centre/nurseries should be like. Many plants (including rare and unusual) grown on site, great tea rooms and gift shop and knowledgeable and helpful staff. The Nursery has achieved worldwide fame  particularly for its hellebores and is one of the leading breeders but they also specialise in other plants too, auriculas being one of them.

This lovely display of floated auriculaflowers in the alpine house took the breath away. They can last for up to a week if kept cool. Of course this is  also the usual way of displaying hellebores in the house.


Back to hellebores, each year in January and February the public have the opportunity of  guided tours of  their breeding houses and tunnels and to have the pick of some of the finest forms before they go out to the general sales areas.  The sight of 10,000 top quality hellebores in bloom is quite an experience and if you are not already hooked on hellebores by the time you finish the tour you will be! But be warned they can be seriously addictive and some of them expensive to buy but as they can live for well over 20 years they represent excellent value. Find out more about the nursery go to www.ashwoodnurseries.com

 The lecture in the propagation house



The main tunnel holding the plants ready for sale



Some of Ashwoods famed varieties, this one has been named "Neon", an exception to the normal practice of the nursery which says all you need to know about how special they consider it to be - £25.99 and its yours!



 Aswoods have some of the best yellows in cultivation and this one typifies the quality on offer



This form of helleborus niger is a strain introduced by the nursery and has a semi double form.


Events in February include 3 talks to Gardening Clubs, a Question Time for West Wales Country Gardeners and the annual highlight of the month, The Winter Gardening Weekend in Llandysul from 21 -23 February. Plants for sale, crafts, refreshments, a stage display of winter flowering plants by Farmyard Nurseries and a range of speakers each day including yours truly (on Growing Vegetables on the 22nd) . For more information go to www.llandysul-ponttyweli.co.uk and click on the link to the 2014 Wnter Gardening Weekend.