Mud glorious mud

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I thought that following the dreadful floods a few years ago that Somerset was due a nice, cold, wintry, snowy Christmas. The most memorable part about the grounds in the snow is that… the dogs change colour. It is almost the only time of the year that Moth and Tank are not carrying an undercoat of thick, red mud.

In a fit of nostalgia for those few days of having dogs with auburn coats, I am re-posting the pics from a the last snow we had here.

And wondering if we will ever have anything but rain, rain, rain ever again? I suppose at least this year we have escaped the worst of the flooding in Somerset. But it would be oh so lovely to have a hoarfrost again, or even a frost, also absent so far this winter. We have roses growing on the front of the house, the geraniums are still in flower and the artichokes in the walled garden think it is March. Oh, and the snowdrops are coming out, a full month earlier than usual. Hello January 2016!

 

moth tank snow tank in snow tank snow Hoarforst on laburnum Hoarfrost on the laburnum by house Hoarfrost Lime avenue hoarfrost Lime avenue hoarfrost2

Wild gardening

The garden is gently going wild, and I quite like it. There is a certain degree of bitterness involved, asparagus has been off the menu this season. I simply cannot bring myself to buy it when, after 3 years of hard planting and care, the pressures of working and commuting meant I took my eye off the ball at the critical Feb-March weeding zone, and the sparrow grass beds became weed beds. Gutting.

But everywhere else the roses are blooming, the bulbs all came up, even the weeds have a rakish beauty. I have pretty much had to let it all go, and the results are rather lovely. There may be a life lesson there.

Wind and wood power at Chipley

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Thinking about trees

The end of 2014 has seen us take a massive technology leap forwards, and backwards, at Chipley. We have installed a large boiler that is fuelled by logs. We will be supplying our house and a cottage with wood-fired central heating.

If it performs well we will expand the network to hook up neighbouring houses.
We are established fans of wood-fuelled heating. We rely a lot on our clearview stoves, and we are lucky to have a lot of trees at Chipley.
Right now, we are burning yew. Don’t freak out,  part of an old yew toppled over two years ago and we tidied it up a bit and left the rest to rot or regenerate, as yews often do.
As I light a fire, I can identify the tree that gave us the wood. So far we have relied entirely on trees that have fallen over in the wind. One of the huge limes on the avenue came down five years ago, and we are still burning it.

Boxing day winds felled another tree.

Feeding the new mega boiler (I may name her Bertha) is going to change this. I have started writing a forestry plan to provide fuel for us for decades to come. Apparently a 3-bed house burns 3 tonnes of dry wood a year. I am still trying to calculate what our use will be, which is difficult given we will add more properties to the supply network.
Rather than worry about exact figures, I plan to overestimate our wood consumption. What is the worst that could happen? We plant more trees than we need. Excellent.
Many of the trees that provide good fuel are also beautiful native species. Beech, elm, wild cherry, hornbeam and oak burn very well. We don’t need to sacrifice beauty for utility, we can have both.
Plant a tree for a happy new year.

To read my Chipley garden blog, visit: www.chipleypark.blogspot.co.uk

Alliums, tulips and pot planting plans

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This month has been all about bulbs (and updating my rusty web-editing skills). the allure of alliums has always eluded me. I think because they look too much like agapanthus, a plant that I have never liked. It thrives on small islands, I don’t.

Piet Oudolf, on the other hand, appears to have a passion for alliums. Research for an upcoming feature involved talking though one of his bulb planting plans for a newly created garden. As I digested the vast reams of information, it dawned on me that in June, this is going to be all about the alliums. In a garden that has been designed to peak in late-summer, his go to plant for June, is the allium.

Intrigued, I have decided to blatantly copy his taste in my garden. Alongside the lasagna-planted pots of tulips, see below, I have bought bags of alliums. I should have put them in the ground in autumn, so they are going in late, but with a following wind, and as long as we don’t have another horribly wet winter, they may come up next year. The types I have gone for were partly dictated by what was left at the lovely Avon Bulbs (local bulb experts and retailer), but I also chose the types to give a good understanding of the plants.

For structure and exclamation points I have chosen Cristophii, which I am planning to have hovering over a drift of Salvia nemorosa ‘Ostfriedland’. Globemaster is destined for massive pots, even with a big pot I think only one bulb will fit. Allium caerulea will go into some smaller pots, densely planted for maximum impact.

A key consideration with alliums is that after flowering, the flower heads, the globes, look great, and add interesting structure even when all colour has gone. The foliage is another matter, it looks very tired, very quickly. I am planning to disguise this with the salvia, and will just rotate the pots somewhere for the foliage to die down naturally, taking all the energy back into the bulb for winter storage.

  • Tulips for pots this year: Jan Reus, a deep-maroon beauty, White Parrot, crinkly purity, and a few I have never used before, the early-flowering Pink Diamond, Paul Scherer, a late-flowering deep purple-black, and May-flowering, pinky-blue, Bleu Amiable.

For the first time I am planting them, lasagna style into large, 50cm, plastic pots, which will be put inside larger terracotta ones. The plan is to rotate the pot planting next year with first tulips, then alliums, then, possibly, dahlias. I have never managed to create attractive pots for all year interest. The rotation seems wasteful, but I tip potting compost onto the beds once I am finished with the pots.

Anyone got any thoughts on how to keep pots interesting every season?

 

Beyond the garden hedge

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The spindle tree (Euonymus europeaus) has always made me smile. It is a common British hedgerow plant, and yet in late autumn, it transforms into an exotic beauty, festooned with vibrant neon orange and fuchsia pink fruits. That was the case until I spent a day learning how to cut and lay hedges in the traditional Devon style, with Martin Turner, Chairman of the Blackdown Hills Hedge Association. Now, I view every spindle with cautious respect.

According to Martin, “Spindle is tricky”; the wood is brittle and inclined to split badly in the final stages of cutting, killing the tree, and denting your new-found confidence with a billhook, the curved cutting tool hedgers rely on.

On a sunny October day, at the start of the laying season, I met Martin at a typical Devon hedge; planted on a bank. His association runs training days for the enthusiastic public throughout winter. This avoids disturbing nesting birds, but also because deciduous trees and shrubs are dormant, you are less likely to cause critical damage.

“Left to it own devices a hedge will become a row of trees,” says Martin. “To keep a hedge a hedge, you need to cut it.” The most cost-effective way for farmers to do this now is mechanically. But with flailing you lose the sloes, hazelnuts, rosehips, elderberries and beech nuts that sustain birds, mice, voles, hedgehogs and shrews through the winter months. A good, dense hedge also attracts nesting birds.

The one-day course is very hands-on, but not too physically demanding for the average gardener. Martin first talked me though the tools of his trade. Usually all you need is a billhook and a pruning saw. Loppers and an axe might come in handy, but we didn’t use them. The billhook is a terrifying tool, perfect for this work, but the stuff of horror movies, and no two are the same. In he past, village blacksmiths would have made tools to specific local hedging requirements.

Before making any cuts, Martin described how to ‘read’ a hedge. He looked for the slope of the hedge, “You always lay uphill for water runoff and so the sap rises, and if there is no slope, you lay towards the rising sun”. He told me that on an exposed, flat site, you lay with the prevailing wind, to prevent it lifting and damaging the finished hedge.

The density and pattern of the planting is also critical. It is common in Somerset and Devon, for instance, to have two distinct lines of planting on top of a bank, and in this case you lay two hedges, one on either side. Styles have distinct regional variation, and, according to Martin, an expert can tell where he is in the UK just by looking at the hedges.

Next, we set to work with the billhook, scraping and cutting out all the nettles, brambles and rubbish that had accumulated at the base. Then we were ready to make our first cut, or ‘pleach’. Martin taught me how to take hold of the tree with my left hand, holding the billhook in my right hand. I shook the tree to ensure it was free from restriction and made a sharply angled cut on the side of the trunk opposite to the way I was laying. I chopped down until I felt the tree start to ‘give’ in my left hand (usually cut 2/3, leave 1/3). Then I supported it as I lay it down along the hedge, at the same time, gently levering the pleach open.

“You will feel the tree telling you when it is ready to go,” advised Martin. After this, he demonstrated how to saw off the heel of the cut to make a flat surface, which is less likely to trap water and promote rot and infection.

Fresh shoots will sprout from the plant where it has been cut, and from nodes on the trunk and grow up through the tightly compacted old stems, creating a dense, living barrier. In two or three years, you can start pruning or cutting the hedge mechanically. A happy by-product of regenerating old hedges is that, in spring you will have a surprise crop of bulbs. Primula vulgaris and naturalised Galanthus, which lie dormant for decades, burst into growth given some light and space, as will bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta). By disturbing the seedbank in the soil you also encourage the germination of wildflowers.

On a one-day course with close supervision you will be ‘pleaching’ many times, and I needed the help. It is a nerve-wracking process. The cuts I made to the saplings and trees were technically difficult and easy to get wrong. If the stem splits, the plant won’t lay and the tree will probably die.

Not only is the angle and depth of the cut different with every sapling or tree, but the species also behave differently. As the day progressed I was gradually able to feel those differences. The alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus) was easy to cut but the spindle (Euonymus europeaus) felt brittle and quick to split. Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) was hard and difficult to cut, but the goat willow (Salix caprea) was soft and buttery.

To secure the hedge, Devon hedgers cut and shape branches from hazel, hammering them into the top of the bank at differing intervals to pin the cut-and-laid material down. Other styles use different ‘crooks’; this type blended beautifully into the hedge.

Many trees and shrubs will withstand this treatment and traditional hedgerows contain a cross-section of native species. If you were planning a hedge to cut and lay in the future, you would be wise to mimic the native selection in the immediate environment. Like all plants, these hedges need light and water but some need a little more thought; planting beech (Fagus sylvatica) for example, on top of a bank may not work well because beech suffers badly from lack of water, and the bank is a drier environment.

Cutting and laying has always been a functional occupation, designed to stock-proof fields. The decline in its use coincides with the availability of wire fencing and flailing machines, but organisations like the Blackdown Hills Hedge Association, and the National Hedgelaying Society, are ensuring that the skills aren’t forgotten. For modern farmers, it is often not a cost-effective way of managing hedges, flailing is cheaper. (Some new legislation and funding planned for 2016 may change this balance back into the favour of cut and lay.)

For gardeners and horticulturalists, this rural skill has had no relevance. But that is changing, and it has a lot to attract the green-fingered. You get to work with plants outdoors in a season when much of the garden needs less attention. It requires some knowledge of the shrubs and trees you are using, and the result is both attractive and encourages wildlife.

Cut and lay is also the only way to regenerate a neglected hedge that has become ‘leggy’, thin and straggly; pruning the tops and branches only promotes new growth at that height, but the pleach cut allows the plant to regenerate from the base. You can customise your hedge, with your choice of plants, but also by breaking up a solid line of hedge with occasional specimen trees. Martin believes that, “You can cut and lay just about anything”, conifers being the only notable exception.

So next time you are planning a garden hedge as a windbreak, or a boundary marker, or if you simply want to learn more about hedgerows, consider something different, and sign up to one of the courses near you.

As published in Country Gardener.

The meaning and purpose of the English Park

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Looking up the lime avenue


Thanks to Professor Tom Williamson, of the University of East Anglia, I have recently  improved my understanding of the layout and purpose of Chipley’s gardens.

It could easily be argued that I should have found the time to properly research 18th-century landscapes, but I must admit the elitism and, frankly, snobbery that I have encountered surrounding many aspects of garden history put me off.


This is where Prof. Williamson comes in. In the church-shaped main hall of the Garden Museum, in Lambeth, a group of garden historians, art historians and other specialists gave a series of lectures on the topics of Taste, Wilderness, Park, Picturesque, and Pleasure. The museum had recently acquired an important painting (important in that world at least: an eighteenth-century painting of the landscape garden at Painshill), and gathered the friends of the museum for a lecture and discussion on themes inspired by the painting. 

I’m a friend of the museum, and, acutely aware of the yawning gap in my knowledge of the history of English gardens and landscapes, I decided to attend.


But this was not an event for the amateur, until Williamson rose to speak.As intimated by the themes of the lectures, the landscapes I associate with Austen’s novels are the realm of the rich, and the posh, or the rich and the trying to be posh. Even writing that short description makes me cringe. Any discussion of class in our lovely country is a minefield of snobbery, misunderstanding, and anger/fear. Putting the landscape in context is tricky, and negotiating the strong themes of social snobbery that often inspired the landscape is trickier.

The theme of social climbing is as important now as it was to the toxic Humphry Repton. What proportion of the many articles written about Kate Middleton and her family did not refer to, or snipe about, her origins? In much the same manner the 18th century was joyously socially mobile. Frankly I think we always have been. Tradesmen and traders became wealthy and adopted the style associated with the nobility, and people like Repton made money from selling that taste, in the form of landscaped gardens and parks.


Gardens that we create show those around us who we are and what we like, and we are judged by those choices. I suspect it is a fundamental part of human nature to attempt to place ourselves, and those around us, into groups, differentiating ourselves through our choices. Even more fundamentally, until very recently, gardens were the playground of the wealthy and powerful elite with time to demonstrably spend designing and enjoying them. In the 18th century, I believe that most people gardened for food; pleasure was for those with the cash to enjoy themselves rather than just survive.


Do you see how political this all gets when you start to think about it?


Williamson cut through all such concerns, and spoke about the English Park. His enthusiasm for the subject was infectious. The first point he made was that the park was not an 18th-century invention, and in fact parks had been part of the English landscape, albeit fewer of them, for centuries. He has found medieval parks, and parks were also listed in the Domesday book.


I was gripped.


According to Williamson, parks were private enclosed areas of wood and pasture, mainly to keep deer and game in. Not forgetting that deer was an important source of status and food in England. Parks functioned partly as hunting grounds and partly as venison farms, an elite and controlled food that you could not buy and sell.


By the 13th century, he revealed, most parks were not associated with houses or palaces, although some would have lodges for hunting trips. This idea that parks were standalone features was entirely new to me. I have often puzzled as to why a large, grand house was only built at Chipley Park long after the park existed. A Queen Anne house was built here in the early 1680s, the ruins of it lie underneath the lawn in front of the house. The house we live in pre-existed the Queen Anne structure, but was re-facaded in the Queen Anne manner, leaving the original parts of the house difficult to identify.


Along with the grand new house, grand new garden features were built. I had previously assumed that all the features I have identified here were built at that time. Not so. Enclosed parks and wooded areas for deer and game hunting must have pre-existed the ‘park upgrade’ in the early 1680s. As do, I suspect, the old fish ponds to the right of the area that is now lake. There is an ancient yew tree growing by the lake, and springs feed the lake, clearly identifiable in cold winters by the areas of water that never freezes over. Before the 18th century, most parks used the existing landscape features to create a managed one. So fish lakes (or stews) would be dug where springs and water existed. Game woods would be a managed version of the pre-existing woodland.


So perhaps Chipley Park was a larder. It is a leap, but the ridiculously healthy population of rabbits that live in the park with us and regularly devastate my plants could have come from another feature of parks, the warren. 16th- and 17th-century parks also had areas farmed for arable crops.


The 17th century heralded the arrival of the Avenue too, a date that correlates pretty well with the establishment of our lime avenue. The lime trees (Tilia x europaea) were provided and written about by the philosopher John Locke in 1683/84. The mature trees still stand, and it is my intention to replant the avenue for when the old trees finally die off.


That landscape Williamson described is one I find easier to understand: parks as a managed source of food. In the 18th century Williamson identified an aesthetic colonisation of the park, with specific and detached areas of gardens to walk to and enjoy. And it is at this point that features such as the maze, and the wilderness, are constructed. The wilderness is perversely not a wild area at all but a highly managed area for walking in and enjoying, often with statues in central areas called ‘cabinets’. 

The area at Chipley described to us as the ‘bowling green’ ( alongside the walled garden) could in fact be a wilderness area for walking in. Such areas were characterised by having very high hedges, often of yew, and often focused on a beautiful view. Our 20-foot yew hedge has a gap which frames an idyllic view to Langford Budville, the hills and church.


In trying to fashion a future for our gardens at Chipley Park, I’m not sure if an understanding of the history of them helps or hinders. I would like to think that excruciating considerations of taste and class do not mean much to me, but the fact I find them excruciating hints that they do. 


Further reading: Polite Landscapes: Garden and Society in 18th Century England.Professor Tom Williamson, UEA.