Harvesting Oddities

As I celebrated the autumn equinox this week, I was reflecting on what a strange growing year it has been. Alternating wet and dry, most fruit has done very well and so have lettuces. The peas were okay, the climbing beans are finally getting going after a very slow start, but courgettes, sweetcorn, tomatoes sulked in the cold, and brassicas seemed to get eaten by everything. So I let the nasturtiums run wild and fill all the spaces – they look pretty and have the bonus of being edible by me as well as a favourite of caterpillars, blackfly, etc.

In a spirit of celebrating all life, no matter what form it comes in, here is my harvest of oddities I have spotted this month.

Double Victoria Plum

Double Hazelnut

Twins – most common on my raspberries, one stem threw out several early on, but something I’ve not seen before is a double plum or a double hazelnut, from a wild tree nearby. The plum had two misshapened stones, like a raspberry with two stalks, the hazelnut hasn’t been opened yet.

Confused Sweetcorn ‘Incredible’ (Click to enlarge)

Sweetcorn has male flowers at the top, and females lower down where the cobs form. This happened last year on a larger stalk but I didn’t get a picture, and now I’m seeing it again on this stunted specimen.

Fasciated Lettuce Heart

Fasciation (a flattened stem) is something I have seen occasionally in foxgloves or purple loosestrife, but this year I found it in my lettuces. They look normal before being picked, but the stem is oval instead of circular and while leaves at the edges (the curved sections) are normal, the many central leaves (on the flattened sections) are narrow with no side branches.

Lupin Leaf-flower tower

And finally, a lupin stem that has forgotten to flower and instead created a pyramid of leaves.

Pleasures of Summer!

I hope you all enjoyed the solstice yesterday. Here are some of my favourite things of early summer, when the sun is warm and the evenings are long.

    Picking strawberries and raspberries for breakfast while listening to the evening birdsong.

    Making ice cream out of berries from the garden.

    Walking barefoot on the grass.

    Watching the sun set clear of any houses.

    Seeing all the different types of grasses in flower, waving gently in the breeze.

    Looking through an open doorway at torrential rain.

    The colours of the roses, campanulas, geraniums and foxgloves that fill my garden right now.

    Trees in full leaf with dappled shade below them.

    Morris dancing in the late evening sun, not to any audience but just because we want to.

A poor life this, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare. (WH Davies)

My garden in June

A Quilt For A Summerhouse

The Summerhouse Quilt, covering three walls of the octagon.

Here is a project started some time ago, and finally finished this week. It hangs in a little octagonal cedar summerhouse which was built in my favourite spot in the garden – it is a great sanctuary space where we are able to sit out all year, and I have had many moon ceremonies in there especially in winter evenings when it would be too cold or wet to just be outside in the garden. The full moon is usually visible on clear nights through the window, or sometimes through an open door when my timing and its position is just right. I have sat and listened to frogs mating in the pond a couple of feet away. The floor is just big enough for me to lie down across it should I ever want to spend a whole night out there. However it has one slight problem that it echoes so loud it can be uncomfortable when drumming, playing recorder, or even just having a conversation. Hence the need for something to damp down the sound!

I used cotton flannel for greater sound absorbency, my first experience of making a quilt with this type of fabric. (I later used the same type of fabric for a comfort quilt, see here.) The design is fairly simple, but if it has a name I have forgotten it. It has a harmonious feel, and as the eye is drawn to the spaces as well as the blocks all sorts of patterns seem to appear out of it.

Quilting on the front.

I wanted a ‘tree’ theme, which I managed to find enough flannel fabrics to fit – not only are these all the colours of leaves through the year, but several of the fabrics feature trees or leaves in their design. However I wanted something fairly light for the background colour; probably not so important now the cedar has bleached to the colour of pine, but when the wood was new it was fairly dark. Hopefully the fabric will fade well with a timeless look, rather than if I had used dark green for the background which tends to go blue, and cream flannel also has the advantage of being easily available in large quantities.

Back of the quilt showing how I used the design as a quilting template.

On the back is a fun, cheap patterned flannel fabric I found. While unsuitable for the front having such a large design, the branches carried the tree theme nicely. I decided to use it as a back-to-front quilting template, which turned out to be great fun to sew. The front thread colour, used in the bobbin, is a variable green based on shades of Oak. I used a simple light brown on the back that I could see while sewing. Some leaves had to be added freehand, as well as the ones already there.

Normally my projects get started, finished, and put into service reasonably quickly, but occasionally that doesn’t happen… Those who have followed my blog for a while may recognise it as the finished work from this post from 2016! No circumstances changed, simply that the quilting took ages and had some breaks, so it only got finished at the end of the summer when I was ready to bring the chairs and other things into our house for the winter. Somehow the actual fitting then kept slipping down the priority list and the quilt was put in the loft for ‘safekeeping’. One spring and summer passed when we were really busy and I had no time to think about it. Then another when it was easier not to think about it, and finally a third when I realised I would be upset if I didn’t get it sorted out! I considered what the problem was and realised I was relying on help to shape some wood wedges, yet giving only verbal instructions which meant a lot of thought was required on the part of the helper. Since I knew how I wanted it, I made a cardboard template (we do a lot of CAD-work in our household!) and the wood wedges were fitted within a week ready for me to staple some Velcro onto. I then checked the quilt measurements, sewed Velcro onto some spare fabric using my sewing machine, before hand sewing that onto the back of the quilt.

I originally had a plan to make eight triangles for the ceiling as well, but haven’t worked out how to fit them without damaging the cedar wood. I might make them one day, or the fabric may get re-purposed; having tried it out, this wall covering may be enough to make the sound levels comfortable, and the hut feels much more ‘homely’ to be in now that it is decorated. Now for a replacement table to the one that was needed in the house and never returned after the first winter…

Happy Beltane!

Fairy Maypole

I have had a bit of fun realising I could put some of my recently edged grass (see Edges, April) in a pot and make a ‘fairy garden’ for May Day. This was the widest, shallow pot I could find and is a lovely old terracotta one, but I may look out for something larger if I do this again. It is a little dwarfed by the maypole and the ribbons – I am trusting fairies can fly to weave them in and out, they don’t need a huge garden!

I had the idea about a week after finishing the edging, so there wasn’t that much grass left from my weeding and tidying efforts, and the violets have now finished flowering, but the forgetmenots are doing brilliantly and it has been a very cheerful indoor arrangement for about three weeks. I notice some aquilegia seedlings have appeared as well. The grass has had to be cut every few days…

Edges

Edging is usually a low priority for me in the garden – but higher for my kind husband who does the grass cutting! The last time any borders got edged was probably when I put the pond in and turned most of the lawn into flowerbeds a few years ago. At the same time, some new paths were added which never had edges at all while they established themselves. Now it is time for me to decide which bits of grass count as path, and which have to be reclassified as weeds.

It is not a job I am particularly comfortable with. Easy enough physically: stand vertically, push the half moon into the soil with a foot, use foot to protect new edge and lever soil away, let soil fall higher into the flower bed, and repeat many times over. Then go back and weed all the bits of unwanted grass, dandelions, daisies, primulas, phlomis and everything else I have chopped out so that they may be composted and returned to the garden in due course. However, I find it strange looking out to see crisp, sharp edges. The boundaries between wild and mown strictly delineated. The flowers will spill over wherever they please later in the season, but for now they are contained within their spaces.

I consider how I am not a person who likes to compartmentalise my life. When I did, I was two people, neither of which were the complete ‘me’. I cannot divide myself like that. Nor do I always stay behind recognised boundaries. To be a witch is always crossing borders, physical or on other planes. Being not on the outside looking in, but frequently on the edges, almost part of things but with a foot in both worlds. I cannot shut nature out, it is part of me and I like to keep the boundaries blurred.

Animals, too, like transition zones. Wavy, soft edges give them a much greater choice of habitat as they combine the search for food with the need for some warming sun or protection from predators. These tend to be from mown to unmown areas, not from grass to flowers, but I worry that I have created an obstacle that they didn’t have before.

The alternative would of course be a wildflower meadow; grass covering the whole and growing between plants that are happy in that environment. Yet this still needs management to be successful and avoid a monoculture. Unless it is grazed, or cut yearly as hay meadows were, trees will eventually take over. And the wildlife supported would be far lower than the range currently found in my ‘cottage’ style garden.

I am reminded that the job of the gardener is to make these decisions. To decide for each plant where its boundaries should be and set limits. To create a design and hold it in my mind as a picture I want to make. So I carry on, following the natural shapes as far as I can.

Then I look down on my work from the upstairs window. While all the paths I simply re-edged are fine, I really don’t like the newly shaped path at all! What was I thinking? Finding my plans, I realise how far out some of my other edges are from what is drawn on paper. I wait for a day or two, hoping it will somehow look better; it doesn’t.

Two days later I have had time to work out what needs to be done. I find our long building rope, and lay it over the edges, moving it to where I think the path should go. I check again from upstairs, then find my edging moon again. Suddenly I am enjoying myself, being creative, making a shape that is graceful to look at and easy to walk (and to mow). Harmony restored. Even better, it has created extra space for flowers – which will flop over the grass in due course, returning the edges to their blurred state.

Getting the line of the path, and being covered with blossom at the same time.

Imbolc

I love this time of year with its increasing light, and snowdrops. I love Spring more, and early Summer is even better, but Imbolc holds promise. As a gardener, and being connected to the land, that is special.

Hazel Catkins lengthening

Maybe it is because I am an eternal optimist, always looking forwards, wanting to see what is coming and believing that it will be even better than the present. Ever hopeful. I like the planning for a holiday and the dreaming. I like the preparing for events. The pregnancy. I become part of it then, not just presented with someone else’s finished masterpiece.

Imbolc is even more special than a promise, though. It is the beginnings of light, and life, and putting plans into action that have been incubating all winter. They may have been planned since Samhain or slightly earlier, or they may be unconscious desires that have been there for a while. Whichever, at Imbolc they suddenly burst into the light and make us aware of them, and what needs doing.

My first Pagan initiation was at Imbolc, definitely a case of an unconscious longing and then bursting out into the light in a wave of illuminations where all made sense to me and fell into place. I have been a Pagan all my life, in my spiritual outlook, in the things I celebrate, and suddenly discovered there were others like me. On Imbolc I found out what I was, the reasons for everything – and within a few days made a promise to myself that changed my life.

A hardy cyclamen withstands a flurry of snow

As I celebrate this personal anniversary, I am struck by how many changes in my life have been initiated in February, and then been ‘harvested’ or have taken full effect in the autumn. Not all, but a disproportionately high number. Which makes me wonder as I approach this festival what change might be initiated this February? I’ll maybe let you know next autumn!

[This post was written two days ago, but an unexpected lack of internet connection delayed things…]

Thank You David Austin

Hips of Rosa Graham Thomas, photographed earlier today.

Thank you for the 240+ roses you created, that bloom from May until November. That cope with whatever the weather gives them. That smell beautiful. That combine with every possible style of planting. That grow so profusely in sun or in shade. That when they have finished still look wonderful through the winter with their hips. That attract all manner of insects. My garden and so many others would not be the same without them.

December buds of Rosa Graham Thomas, picked for the Winter Solstice.

Thank you for the rosebuds of Rosa ‘Graham Thomas’ I was unexpectedly able to pick today ready for our Winter Solstice table. An unexpected gift.

May you live on with joy in Spirit, as your roses live on in my garden, and all around the world.
b. 16 Feb 1926. d. 18 Dec 2018.

Autumn Flowers

Late October Cranesbill Geraniums

It is hard to believe that Samhain is next week when my garden is full of flowers that normally bloom in May or June.

Potentilla Miss Willmott still going

Several died back to ground level during the drought, put on growth in the rains of August, and the Campanulas started flowering again in September. They were joined by a Leucanthemum, giant scabious, candytuft, sweet cicely, sweet rocket, and now even the geraniums which I thought I had lost are having a good go. Along with the usual autumn flowers of course!

Sweet Cicely enjoying a second flush of flowers

Eucryphia x nymansensis ‘Nymansay’ still flowering in late October

Hazelnuts were so early that I missed most of them. Yet the Eucryphia tree in our garden which usually flowers in August did so at the normal time, and has carried on, and on…

Unfortunately the recent warm spell also brought a new generation of pests, including many flies which get in my face while cycling and whiteflies which have invaded my kale. I am sending the lacewings out from sheltering in my bedroom windows (not a very sensible place for the winter, I open them too often) on the next warm day to have a feast.

And one that flowered at the normal time, a Paeonia mlokoseiwitschii I grew from seed and now producing the first of the next generation. The flies seem to like this too.

The Hidden Gifts of Drought

England is usually a damp country. I can expect it to rain at least once a week, very rarely do I even need to consider watering the plants outside. However, after a wet spring and snow in April, we had a dryish May and a totally dry June. July has so far managed one short shower, which showed little evidence in the empty water butts.

I usually feel very connected to our weather, and help to balance it in my area. However, this summer has been something I haven’t experienced before. A completely stuck weather system, that has no interest in moving anywhere. The only messages I have received are that it would rather we took note of what we are doing to the Earth and how we use the resources available to us, and doesn’t want to change until we notice.

This has raised many issues for me, both in terms of my connection to the weather and rainfall, and in how I use water myself.

First the weather, I always remind myself that I only ask, and while most of the time my requests are answered, sometimes they are not for various reasons. The main reason I have noticed my requests having no effect is when the weather pattern is much greater than my little area. A lack of wind can be tricky as well, although this can be built into any request. But I also noticed early on how hard it is to be single minded in wanting to change the weather when everyone around me is just enjoying the long sunny summer days and clear blue skies, and when there are all sorts of practical reasons such as house building work that the sun is aiding. It is also hard to want wind when it would only fan the flames of the various moorland fires that are raging further north in Derbyshire and nearby. Meanwhile on the other side of the world there are floods, as you might expect to bring balance to the Earth. As time goes on however, I just pray for rain with no reservations – and try to enjoy whatever weather arrives here.

The second aspect is my garden. I am aware that over the past few years, with having a pre-school child with me most of the time, I have had to simply let a lot go. This year I wanted to be much more proactive, sowing and re-sowing vegetable seeds, and watering the growing plants during dry periods.

First I appreciated ‘indicator’ plants like those pansies mentioned earlier being fast to wilt and letting me know that water was required. I duly watered the vegetables and the strawberries, plus the few flowers in pots – one with pansies and one with pelargoniums. After a while I grew bored of watering every day and considered getting a sprinkler that would cover just the area of my vegetables, four small raised beds. Then there was talk of water shortages. Instead I stopped watering the fruit, leaving it to finish, and just water the vegetables three times a week. They are not exactly thriving, but they are still growing and producing courgettes and lettuces and peas with tomatoes, beans, brassicas and sweetcorn well on their way. But as each area comes to a finish, I shall cease watering and not plant anything else until the weather changes.

What amazes me however, is how much I have learned about my garden by doing this, and some of the other small changes I have made recently. To thoroughly inspect crops every day or every other day has been a valuable experience to see how they are growing, what is ready for picking, and what pests arrive and need dealing with. As is doing my hip physio while I stand with the hosepipe! Fruit has been very early and small, yet the strawberries scarcely got eaten and the raspberries had a massive crop given there was no rain damage to the smaller fruit. Alpine strawberries are very small, yet are still going much longer than usual – so many tiny fruits I made a pot of jam from them. Flowers have few leaves and haven’t filled their usual spaces, but many are managing a great display, and there are a lot more seeds than usual. Even if they don’t all survive, I’m hoping I will be able to replace them from fresh stock – after all, plants die in hard winters, this is just a hard summer. There are far fewer weeds, although there is no way I can do weeding in our solid clay soil. The pond still has water in it and is going down slower than I might have anticipated – it may need some kind of a top-up soon although I am resisting for as long as possible and just watching to see how it does. All the sunshine is of course helping the waterlilies to their best display ever. Meanwhile our grass is about the greenest of any around which has really puzzled me. I can only put this down to more shade than in other gardens nearby, and a more suitable variety of grass since I deliberately went for ‘hardwearing’ rather than the more beautiful lawn options. And the clover is still green!

Finally, an interesting ‘message’ I got this Spring about my front garden was that the gravel we had inherited in the area wasn’t doing it any good – too sterile, and too reflective of light and heat combined with the bare brick house. It faces due south, and gets very warm – or else I wouldn’t be able to grow sweetcorn there! So after much thought, I decided to leave any low growing ‘weeds’ in the gravel, and see how it developed from there. The main one is self-heal, with yarrow, pink geraniums, lavender, centranthus, sisyrinchiums and lots of early chionodoxa all having seeded themselves. Just the grass, dandelions, American willowherb and spurge I still try and weed out, when it isn’t baked too solid. Not only am I happier with it now, but so are the other plants.

Rhubarb

Rhubarb in flower, seen in the evening sunlight

I have had a wonderful rhubarb plant for almost twenty years. It was an offshoot from the rhubarb which grows in my mother’s allotment, which in turn came from my father’s father’s garden. I have no idea what variety it is, but it can usually be picked in early March through to July, has red stems and tastes delicious. Every so often I try to make it a bit smaller by shopping some off, but I haven’t done this for a few years so it has grown huge.

Normally I do what everyone tells me to and remove any flower shoots as soon as they are seen. However, given the size of the plant, I couldn’t see why I needed to do that – there were plenty of stalks the other side, and if that bit did die off for any reason it would save me the trouble of dividing the plant next winter. So I decided that it didn’t matter. I let the flowers come – and now they are an absolute delight. Over five foot high and fluffy creamy-white. Rhubarb in its fullest glory.

It feels like the whole front garden is celebrating in response.

Rhubarb flowers

Pansies … and Pigeons!

Pansy

I’ve never grown pansies in my garden before, except occasionally the wild Johnny Jump Up from seed, but my daughter is fascinated by them. The rich depth of colours, the softness, the fact they flower when little else does. So over the holidays I took her with me to buy some plants and allowed her to choose which ones she liked. I ended up buying twenty four mixed pansy plants covering just about every shade between them – which earned me some very strange looks from my prize-winning horticulturalist neighbour, and also ex-boss, that I happened to meet with my trolley-full! (His garden is a little different to mine…)

Actually there was some logic in my apparent madness. The unpredictable winter with its late snows (by local standards) has left many gaps in my borders, and as I haven’t been growing so many flowers from seed over the past few years, I do not have a ready supply of new stock with which to fill the gaps. I figured the pansies would bring happiness, especially to M, and would hopefully last all summer. If most are gone by next year then at least I will have more time to plan something else new!

But as I started to get them out of their pots for planting, I had a revelation. I realised that if regrouped them into their approximate colours, I could reduce the crazy mixture to approximately four colours: dark red, mostly yellow, purple-blue, and white with a bit of dark purple.

I have a vague colour theme going on, inspired by John Fothergill and his writings about his pub garden in the 1920s, (An Innkeeper’s Diary, published 1931), placing hotter colours near the house and fading out to white at the furthest distance to make it look further away. It works well in my small garden, as there are fields beyond, and helps me decide where to put a plant – although some seeds don’t read their labels like ‘yellow’ hollyhocks turning out to be pink, or Welsh poppies seeding everywhere they can, so I’m not too strict about it! So I mostly followed my usual scheme with the pansies, M helping me to place them around the garden in colour groups, mostly three or four at a time with me helping to show where geraniums or campanulas or giant scabious were about to be, and suddenly they looked amazing. Blending in tastefully, yet full of cheer. I really enjoyed the sight.

However, trying to take photos of them to go with this post revealed another problem that I hadn’t considered: several of the flowers were being eaten. Being edible to humans, and also freshly grown, they must have appeared to be a new delicacy in my garden compared to all the hardy plants that had survived outside all winter. I have never liked to use poisons in the garden, preferring to find natural solutions and letting the garden balance itself over time; copper rings made out of an old hot water tank are one of my best against slugs, but I didn’t think that was the problem here, since it was the flowers being eaten rather than the stalks. A few days observation finally revealed the truth. Pigeons.

Immediately another incident in the holidays with M came to mind, when I had to wait at a zebra crossing because a pigeon was using it. I had watched as the bird looked both ways at the side of the road, in the way pigeons do, then walked very fast all the way across, exactly in the middle of the crossing. I didn’t want to run it over, so I ended up having to stop while it completed its journey to the other side and then over to investigate the gutter. My daughter of course found all this hilarious. Given the Highway Code says drivers must stop when a ‘pedestrian’ is on the crossing, rather than specifying a ‘person’, I presume this was what I was required to do. I now wonder whether I should have reduced the pigeon count slightly, as I am getting a little fed up with them.

Cock pheasant seen from my window. (There is a layer of ice below the surface.)

One more possibility springs to mind however, before I curse the fat grey birds, as we had an even more unexpected garden visitor recently that makes a pigeon look tiny…

Bringing Plants Indoors

I was given a very lovely, anonymous gift of flowers from a local florist at the end of last term. Pink Stargazer lilies, dark pink miniature roses, grey-blue sea holly, dark purple alstroemerias, light purple crysanthemums, rosemary, pussy willows, fatsia and wide green flax leaves, and the whole thing was beautiful. Over two weeks later, many of them are still looking good. So a huge thank you to whoever gave them to me for making me smile and brightening my days, when I was having a particularly hard time!

I now see it as a once in a lifetime gift that I shall probably pass on one day. But trying to figure out who they were from made me think first about my friends (who all denied any knowledge) and then about the various plant-related things I do for which I expect nothing in return, which might have somehow ‘earned’ me some flowers. Rubbish collecting around the village. Giving plants or fruit away from my garden. Secretly sowing appropriate wildflower seeds in barren places. Shifting energies or sending healing – to the Earth or its inhabitants. I rarely see the full effects of my actions, just like the kind donor of these flowers will never see how they brightened my kitchen and left the house smelling amazing, or how they made me feel loved and wanting to do more.

There has been one immediate impact on me however: they have helped me to understand that I need greenery inside the house again, and to do something about it. I used to have a few houseplants, ones I had been given that didn’t really like the conditions in our house, and that mostly felt stiff and spiky to me. Eventually I got fed up with them always looking slightly ill, and wanted the limited windowsill space for seedlings of perennial flowers or vegetable plants each Spring.

So now I am trying to be more creative about where I put plants, considering Winter (near window) and Summer (eg in front of fireplace) positions. I look at a book from the library and see what might be suitable, but dowsing comes up with very little that looks like a guaranteed success.

Then I visit my nearest garden centre. Outside first, I can’t resist a look, and in the back corner find some wildflower plants that are being sold off at rock bottom price, just in perfect condition with the roots starting to show through the bottom. I choose several, two of which I have been looking for for some time – Herb Robert and Red Campion, each nicely labelled with their history and planting requirements. We also choose some pansies in flower, of which more later.

Back inside, near the tills I find the houseplants. Lots of showy orchids in flower, along with a few large foliage plants. Too big for what I want at the moment. Small Dragon trees, with a picture of a dragon and basic care instructions but no clue that they will reach 5′. Then almost hidden away, small plants of the size and price I thought might be reasonable – but labelled mostly as ‘fern’, or ‘foliage plant’ with no care instructions at all. I choose four plants whose shapes combine well, and which intuition and basic plant knowledge suggest may survive where I want to put them. Even looking later, I cannot positively identify three of them from the library book I have; my list of questions fails to get much shorter.

I could just hope for the best, but being a witch I am now asking the plants what they need. So far they seem happy, and have brightened up my shady kitchen windowsill brilliantly giving me something green to look at when I wash-up instead of tiles, cleaning products and the temporarily bare brick wall opposite. It may be possible to live a fulfilling life without plants and greenery around me, but I’m glad I don’t have to.

Imbolc Flowers

Snowdrop flowering at Imbolc

I have been enjoying the flowers of early Spring, which being generally very small, decided it was a good opportunity to experiment taking some ‘close-up’ pictures. I love seeing macro shots, probably because I have poor eyesight and pictures can often show more detail than I can see with my eyes. Taking them is a different matter however – my poor eyesight makes it difficult for me to focus accurately, and it has been very windy all week, adding an additional element of luck to whether the flower stays where I have focused. A tripod wouldn’t necessarily help!

Snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis

Snowdrops seem to have become very closely associated with Imbolc, and Brigid in particular. They are green and white – the freshness of Spring combined with the purity of the Goddess, and of course the colour of milk which this festival celebrates. (After the lambs or calves are born, there is milk to drink again.)

Rosemary flower

While watching for snowdrops, I found many Viburnum flowers as well as Hazel catkins swinging in the wind. More surprising however were a few purple Anemone blanda just opening up, as well as Rosemary in flower.

Anemone blanda flower just opening for Imbolc

I also found a lone cyclamen flower, which was fun to take from almost underneath, and an Iris reticulata being battered by the wind.

Iris reticulata flower


Cyclamen flower

Finally, I noticed some teasels which are long past their flowers but were backlit by the sun and I couldn’t resist.

Iris reticulata being blown by the wind.

Teasel, Dispsacus fullonum seedhead.

The pictures were all taken with the same Pentax DSLR camera body but two different lenses – a Sigma 70-300mm telephoto on macro setting, giving me a working distance of 1-2m, and a 50-year-old Pentax 50mm lens with a reversing ring and converter ring giving me a working distance of 10cm and almost no depth of field. I’m still exploring its potential now that digital gives me instant results.

Moles … Again!

There are grass verges in front of most houses at the outskirts of our village, a legacy of Edwardian planning, setting the houses back from the road. Most of the verges are neat, mown regularly by the council, though occasionally covered in wheel tracks or removed altogether where space is needed for parking. Ours currently is not neat or tidy. Ours is completely covered in little brown molehills, where a small, black creature has evidently been digging in circles.

When I started this blog, I asked which animals would like to help me and offer their support. The result is the sketch I made at the top of the page. One of these animals was the mole, who made himself known to me in the same way as he is now, by making molehills all over the place. And then disappeared as silently and completely as he had appeared.

So now he is back, I felt he had a message for me.

Unfortunately with the holidays my meditation time was massively reduced, my focus has been elsewhere, and I never made the time to simply ask Mole what he had to say. Instead I spent three weeks being puzzled. Not annoyed with the destruction of the otherwise perfect lawn – it is winter and no one is harmed by a few molehills, but it is so extreme as to be very odd. And then suddenly the penny dropped.

Molehills on the grass verge.

I have been working with the elements individually, something I do every so often in a cyclical way, deepening my connections each time, and this time started with Earth knowing I find that element hardest. It is also the element of the North, and of Winter. A good time of year for working with rocks, crystals and other gemstones indoors, and going for (short) walks on Derbyshire gritstone, but not for gardening and connecting directly to soil with my hands. The ground in my garden has alternated between frozen or waterlogged for the past three weeks and certainly wouldn’t be helped by digging or compacting right now. But then I looked again at the molehills. Perfect soil, not frozen, not waterlogged, already loosened for me. Created by an animal of the Earth. So obvious in retrospect.

My original intention had been to try meditating with some soil indoors, just as I had done with different types of rock – one from my pond, another I brought back from Wales last summer, etc. Soil is after all the basis for trees, which I have never had a problem connecting with! But when I got outside I realised I had already done all the indoor work I needed to, exploring loam, sand, silt, clay etc. and how they relate to different types of trees growing, and if I did any more was in danger of becoming so Earthed that all would reach a standstill. I needed to be active, practical. So instead I had a really enjoyable time raking all the little heaps level, seeing the various qualities and ingredients in the soil that help plants to grow and moles to feed, and marveling at how much the soil can vary in colour and texture even over quite a small area. Not only that, but I managed to do it in the only hour of sunshine for about three days. A really lovely working meditation. So thank you mole, and I expect it is goodbye again for now.

Dragons and Trees

Thanks to the changes I made to the shape of my garden last year, it turns out that I now have a place where I can contact or meet with dragons easily. It is my circular grass lawn with paths in from each of the cardinal directions. The first time I tried meeting a dragon there (at their suggestion) it was very easy and felt positive. However for various other reasons, a lot of trees have been arriving in and around my garden over the past month or so, also making the circular lawn their central focus point. This has made it much more difficult for the dragons who, although they are not solid matter and can therefore ignore many material obstructions like walls and trees, found it more difficult against the trees in my own mind! But it worked okay, the trees stepped back and let my normal companion through. But the next time I went out there in a journey, it wasn’t my usual companion who arrived (who is small and bright blue) but a huge, dark green, forest dragon. And I mean huge. I had met him once before over a year ago, and now he was arriving to assist me with a project concerning tree planting.

In a July post I was saying good bye to a large part of my life (Leaving, 14 July) and suggested I would soon be looking forward again. Just two days later a chance conversation has led to a project of trying to get permission to plant a small woodland in a field near me. Spirit moves fast sometimes! It is a bit of a sad field at the moment; a football pitch that is never used, some swings that were taken out last winter when the land they were sited on was sold for a car park, and a footpath that cuts across the middle leaving the bottom end unused by almost anyone. (I say almost, as it is my best picking place locally for hazelnuts and blackberries, but I find so many that I may be alone in doing this.)

At the moment I have just the seed of an idea and a willingness from a parish council member to support my ideas if properly funded and thought through – one of my seeds mentioned in my Lughnasadh post. So I have been spending every spare minute reading up on woodland planting and management, surveying the field for tree species already present around the margins, and drawing plans with the help of Google mapping (although unfortunately the new car park is not shown, involving much pacing and measuring.)

It may all end in nothing. But very fact that a forest dragon showed up gives me hope that a woodland has already been created on the etheric level; I just need to sort the physical out. Flying from my house to the field showed woodland growing strongly, with a tree circle at the centre connected to the grass circle in my garden. There seems to be a common energy line connecting the two. And on the return, the space in between (currently farmland) was also filled with trees. Wishful thinking, or can I make this a reality one day? Meanwhile any pagans locally who can help support this project in any way now or in the future, please get in touch. A tree is for life, not just for Yule…

Fleeting Beauty

I enjoy the changing of the seasons, and with each season its special flowers. I have very few evergreen plants in my garden, even flowering types, because I find them stiff and dull for so much of the year – with never that promise of a fine show when it is their turn. Roses are great for flowering from June to November, but even they would be too familiar if they didn’t take a break from time to time between each flush of new flowers. However, there is one flower which the books don’t tell you about, which I am finding is testing my patience in the opposite direction: the waterlily.

Until digging the pond last year, I had little experience of any water plants, and relied on best advice from the books I found. It has mostly been a wonderful journey of discovery and excitement, with a whole range of different shaped leaves and flowers and some interesting growth habits, and I enjoy discovering which wildlife can be found on which plants. Most have grown well, and flowered well, except for the waterlily. Last year it produced a few leaves and one flower bud, which as far as I could tell, sat sticking just out of the water for days and days, then fell over and died. I was disappointed, but as a new water gardener, not too worried as I thought it just hadn’t established yet and the weather conditions were wrong and the balance in the pond hadn’t quite sorted itself out yet. After all, not all peony buds make flowers if the weather is wrong, but there are always enough giant blooms to give a good show for a few weeks.

Waterlily 4, barely open

This year I have therefore been pleased to see a succession of buds come to the surface on my waterlily, approximately one a week. This is the fourth in the photograph. You will however see it is only half open. And there lies the problem. After spending well over a week as a bud, the waterlily finally decides it is time for the flower to open. If it is a warm sunny day, the flower opens up like the pictures in the book and looks beautiful. Truly stunning. I saw one. But if the weather is miserable and cloudy, or worse actually raining, then it half opens for two days, like this, before giving up and falling over sideways for a few days before disappearing back into the depths. I really wanted to take some pictures of a beautiful open flower; I didn’t realise that first one was going to be the only one to fully open!

Waterlily 5, mostly open

Luckily for my peace of mind, flower number five followed just a day later and did finally get three-quarters of the way open briefly this afternoon. Even more luckily I was here to photograph it at the right moment. Normally it is earlier or later in the day that I am outside, not 3pm on a week day.

The waterlily is not, of course, the only flower to spend most of its life half-open, and only open fully when the sun is shining. Tulips do this all the time. Some even look quite odd on a sunny day, with their petals wide; they were clearly bred for a Northern European climate. The little species tulips that grow naturally further south look great opened out, because the interest is on the inside of their petals, but most hybrids are bred to look good and be photographed half closed. But my fluted tulips often last 5 weeks for each flower, and even the fussy ones and the species last 2-3 weeks, with sometimes more than one flower per stem. Tulips would never have become a garden classic if they lasted a mere day or two!

Daylily

Daylilies (Hemerocallis) illustrate the other side of the picture – they do just last a day. But then they get out of the way so as not to spoil the show for tomorrow’s flower. My plants may be more leaf than flower, but there are always several flowers to be seen each day in the summer.

In Lisa Beskow’s ‘The Flowers’ Festival‘ the Rose and the Waterlily are both queens of equal rank; all the other flowers are below them. But while the rose presides over the festival, the waterlily is fussy and does not leave the water. Everyone else comes: other water flowers such as reeds, rushes, Miss Calla, Yellow Flag and the yellow water lily; even the hothouse flowers like the Miss Pelargoniums, Mrs Myrtle and the grand Lady Fuchsia, once their fears about cold have been allayed. Says it all really!

I think I have a choice. I can enjoy the challenge of growing something so fussy, doing my best to contact its Deva and find out what it wants and then struggle to meet its needs in my windswept Derbyshire garden, or when I next rearrange plants in the pond, I can reconsider whether it is happy here. And yet I can’t help but feel disappointed. If it was something really rare, I would be proud of my occasional flowers. Instead it is like a Camellia plant I removed a year ago because every year it was full of promise, covered with buds, and then every year it got frost on it at some point so the flowers went brown and I would have to go round pulling them off because I hate the sight of a plant smothered in dead flowers. I replaced it with Camellia ‘Debbie’, which has been far more successful – the flower shape is slightly unusual with larger petals around the outside and smaller in the centre, so the centre never gets frosted because it is protected. And when each flower is finished it falls off by itself. Add to that it is a stunning rich pink.

Meanwhile I planted another rose last month, completely the wrong time for rose planting, just because I found a gap in a flower border and it looked pretty. (I also had a voucher to use up at the garden centre near the school M has just left and it was my favourite of everything they had in stock.) I’m glad to say it seems very happy and has sent out new leaves.

Colours for Summer

I have been rather uncreative for a few weeks, since wearing myself out sewing Morris dancing clothes… and then suddenly realised that the lack of a project was why I was feeling unfocused and lost this month. Clearly I don’t know myself, and what makes me happy, that well yet! Luckily finding a new project is not something I have trouble with – just keeping them within bounds given time and space constraints. (Building work continues in the house, making dust and chaos as well as preventing wood or glass work.)

So a week ago I had an idea to make my temporary seasonal display area (half a mantleshelf) a proper cloth cover, by buying a strip of fabric, edging it, and putting it in place in time for the summer solstice on Wednesday. If I found enough suitable fabrics, I could even change the colour for each sabbat. However, not only did I fail to get near any shops, it being too hot, I also should never really have imagined I could stop at something so simple.

Having visitors all weekend required an empty sewing table in order to eat off it, and a lot of thinking time. By Monday morning I had a plan – to use up my scrap pile and make a simple quilt-style top. One for each sabbat of course, starting with midsummer. That gave me Monday to make it.

Suddenly a difficult question loomed. What colours to use for midsummer? All the other seven sabbats have colours I associate with them, but not midsummer! How could this be? So I wrote a list, to see what was left over. (It is slightly different to other people’s lists, but then in trying to write this after finishing, I discovered a lot of variations!)

Imbolc – Greens and white – holly, snowdrops
Ostara – Pastel shades – eggs, new shoots, pussy willows, daffodils
Beltane – Greens and light colours – forgetmenots, tulips, honesty and ribbons
Litha – ???
Lughnasa – bright yellows – hot sun, ripe corn, poppies
Mabon – Reds and purples – apples, plums, late harvests
Samhain – Orange, red, brown, black – pumpkins, autumn leaves, and descent into dark
Yule – Greens, Red, Gold – holly and yew

And what I decided on was blue skies, sunshine, and a garden absolutely full of flowers. Mine is full of roses, campanulas, hardy geraniums, foxgloves and peonies right now, so they have inspired the colour choices.

My method of construction was very simple – strip piecing with only a few triangles and rectangles to break up the squares. The colours were arranged fairly randomly, and for once I didn’t worry too much if I sewed the wrong pieces together from my initial plan. Some of it will be covered anyway. There is no wadding, so it was just sewn onto some plain cotton for backing. Quilting is also very simple, just sewing around the edges of a few pieces through both layers – this also sewed up the hole. Total time to be useable was about 4 hours including cutting and laying out time for which I had help, with an extra ¾ hour on Tuesday morning to quilt it.

Here’s how it came out. A bit crazy, but fun. You might notice by the length that I have now managed to purloin the whole of the mantleshelf for my display!

Quilted Summer Solstice display cloth (8″ x 52″)

Apple Blossom

Apple Cordons in full blossom

Following on from the Blackthorn blossom a couple of weeks ago, I am now seeing the best display of apple blossom ever in my garden! I had always believed apples needed sufficient cold to set flower buds, but clearly that isn’t the case. Having had warm winters two years in a row, and small crops for the last two years as well, I think the trees have gathered their energies into production. It is of course possible that my pruning has improved and had some effect, but I’m not aware of it. I think it is just a good year for fruit blossom around here.

Blossom from ‘Bountiful’ opening from dark pink to white.

I really enjoy the different colours from different plants, and the change as the petals open.

Anyway as apples are such a great Pagan fruit, I just wanted to share it this week. Pagan because they make a five-pointed star inside, and because anything regarded as totally sinful and at the same time the fount of all wisdom must be good… They are pretty good for promoting harmony and love as well!

Arthur Turner Blossom

Crabapple ‘Laura’ Blossom. The fruit is dark red all the way through.

Tadpole update

Mass of emerged tadpoles

I thought anyone who follows my blog might like to know that the tadpoles are all wriggling about the pond…

The first ones ‘hatched’ after 2 weeks, with more emerging each day over the next week and creating a very dark mass of wrigglers in the centre of the two clumps of frogspawn. Finally they seem to have eaten the remains of their ‘egg sacks’ and the first ones broke free to pastures new, being seen around the plants and nibbling algae of rocks – particularly later in the day as the sun warms them. I may have a cleaner, clearer pond very soon!

Tadpole off exploring

Frog Spawn

Frog spawn apparently ‘appears’ between January and February or March, in any pond where there are frogs. I have had various people asking if we had any over the past few weeks, but had to keep saying no, the pond was less than a year old and I didn’t know if we would this first year.

Frogspawn

First Frogspawn, a few hours old. (Click to enlarge.)

And then to our great excitement a large clump of spawn appeared last Sunday.

Given it was full moon that day, I spent some time in the garden in the evening and for the first time in my life had the joy of listening to the gentle sound of frogs croaking. After about 20 minutes there was a splash, then silence. A second clump of frogspawn had appeared – so close to the first I almost missed it in the dark.

Two clumps of frogspawn. (Click to enlarge.)

So now I am keeping an eye for changes, and making sure nothing damages the spawn. However, I was fascinated one morning to discover just how well it looks after itself. Some beech leaves had blown in from the nearby hedge, which I remove most days at this time of year, and one had landed on the spawn. I was surprised to find it was slightly stuck to the spawn and then worried about damaging them as I pulled it off – until I realised that it had a series of circular holes and arcs cut into it. (Afterwards I wished I had kept hold of the leaf, as I couldn’t find it again later to take a photograph.) I can only assume that the coating on the spawn had dissolved the leaf wherever it touched, so that it was no longer blocking the light. This seems to me some feat to achieve in less than a day on a crispy tough beech leaf!

Frogspawn photographed from underwater

Meanwhile my photography took a new turn as I began writing this post, as I managed to find the waterproof case we used to use with our old camera when canoeing. I have a lot to learn still about lighting and focal distances underwater – I obviously cannot see what is in the viewfinder, nor can I check the resulting images very well while they are in the waterproof case, and it needs to dry before I can open it giving little chance for a repeat attempt.

7 day old frogspawn, photographed from underwater.


Surprisingly for a camera that is rubbish at macro, it was the closest pictures that came out most in focus, just showing the start of tails developing. Hopefully with this knowledge and a bit more time to experiment, I will improve before the tadpoles emerge!

Spring Weeding

The sun come out, the soil warms up, and every year I am surprised by how the weeds always seem to launch into growth ahead of my preferred flowering plants…

I have spent the past three weeks weeding, whenever I have half an hour or an hour and it isn’t actually raining. Mainly just four perennial plants (it being too cold for the annuals to get going) – grass, dandelions, American willowherb and avens. Avens I unfortunately allowed to seed itself thinking it might be geum, and which now infiltrates from its base in the hawthorn hedge to wherever it can hide. The geums meanwhile seem to have given up the ghost; there were none last summer. Creeping buttercup used to be a problem, but I have only found a couple of areas this year that it has tried to cover pretending to be hardy geraniums. I am growing wise to the subtle differences there too.

I think only one plant was inadvertently weeded out this year, a phlox paniculata just emerging that looked like a Rosebay willowherb. (Had I realised immediately it could have been replanted, but unfortunately it had to wait for me to flick through a plant catalogue that arrived a week later.) I have never managed to grow tall phloxes, them being rather prone to mildew and other fungi, but like everything, try occasionally when I find a cheap plant that looks pretty in the hopes it will do better this time. Clearly it is partly my own fault I don’t have phlox!

But now I am left wondering what plants resemble grass that I need to be careful of? Dierama seedlings? Crocosmia? Hemerocallis? Luckily I don’t think the dandelions are in danger of confusion with anything else so at least I know I am safe weeding them out before they flower! However, dandelions are one plant I might just allow to grow – were it not for the fact there is usually a field full of them just over my back wall where they look stunning both in flower and later with their silvery seed clocks.

So I now have the near impossible task of filling the gaps (before they fill themselves) with other native wildflowers. Near impossible, because while I think plants such as Helleborus foetidus or Geranium robertianum or Silene dioica should be easy to obtain, they are generally eschewed at the garden centres in favour of new introductions that pay plant breeders rights and will ideally live for only a season or two, ensuring the purchaser returns to buy more plants next year. I’m sure the cottage gardeners of yesterday would have simply dug a bit up and transferred plants to their garden, or hedgewitches would simply have known where to find them locally when they were wanted. Today I must create my own garden, and that may even include importing the ‘weeds’ I want!

Happy Imbolc

The 1st/2nd February may be the start of Spring, but Imbolc was not a sunny day here this year!

Maybe I should be glad – it is said in Scottish folklore, that if the Cailleach wishes to make Winter last longer, she will ensure Imbolc is bright and sunny so she may gather lots of firewood. If the weather is foul that day, the Cailleach is fast asleep and Winter is nearly over. It was so windy that I had trouble taking any photographs at all, although at least our everlasting fog has been blown away. The poor snowdrops in my garden, pictured in snow at the start of February two years ago, have not had enough warmth or sun to open properly yet this year and are now looking ragged.

Rosemary flowering for Imbolc

Rosemary flowering for Imbolc

But an unexpected find: Rosemary just coming into flower. It is a wonderful Winter herb, full of flavour through the darkest months when nearly all the softer herbs have lost their leaves or disappeared below ground, as well as giving shape to the garden. Then just when I start thinking the ‘evergreen’ plants are looking stiff and tired they spring into new growth, or bring out these wonderful blue flowers. It makes a great herbal tea, full of robust energies – as well as being anti-bacterial anti-septic, and an antioxidant. I also like it mixed with my other winter herb, Thyme, which is great for coughs.

Frogs in the Rain Pond

Common Frog (Rana temporaria) on Brooklime (Veronica beccabunga) in our pond. (Click to enlarge)

Common Frog (Rana temporaria) on Brooklime (Veronica beccabunga) in our pond.
(Click to enlarge)

This is the first week that a frog has been spotted in our pond. Swimming, and looking happy.

There were two animals I really hoped to attract when building the pond – one was frogs, the other was dragonflies. From all I have read, importing animals or frogspawn is a bad idea; nature will usually turn up when conditions are right.

I have not written here about planting the pond, beyond designing a pot lifter to move the pots around in deep water. (See ‘Planting the Rain Pond’, 17 April 2016.) It has been an interesting learning curve for me, starting with the basics of understanding water plants, how many and what types are needed, what depths they like, and how to actually plant them when they arrive as bare-rooted specimens. General advice I could find was to avoid anything remotely invasive, put in more plants than you might expect, and allow time for a balance to be reached.

So I dowsed with my trusty pendulum to find out which plants would like to be in my pond, bought one of everything that said it would, three of each of the oxygenating plants that get planted in bunches, and then spent the best part of a day fitting the whole lot into pots. The weather promptly turned cold with snow, growth was at a minimum, and virtually nothing happened. It then got hot, algae grew and, with virtually no plant cover on the surface yet, the pond needed frequent topping up from water butts. Algae continued to grow, and most of the plants disappeared from view, and I feared would never be seen again…

There are probably more plants that absolutely necessary, but it has been fascinating to me to watch how they all grow so differently. Forgetmenots and brooklime have sprawled all over the place and leave trailing roots through the water that I suspect will attempt to invade their neighbours. Irises just sit there looking small. But the water hawthorn sent up flower stems very shortly after being planted, giving hope. Now all of the various plants seem to have recovered and are growing and flowering; even my waterlily, which I feared drowned for some months due to its disappearance into the depths, has sent up a flower bud. And the water soldiers have risen like a bunch of pineapples as the water suddenly cleared a couple of weeks ago.

So now I have a frog. I can’t help wondering if the fact I went swimming two days before for the first time in a few years, making new, deep connections with water and water elementals, had something to do with its arrival. I wanted to take a photograph of it, and of course couldn’t find it. Best evidence was rustling in some plants the other end of the garden, where frogs have occasionally been spotted before. I went back later at a similar time of day to when I had seen it before, mid to late afternoon, looked again in the branches of the scruffiest plant there, and this time found not one but two frogs in the pond! I guess the brooklime (Veronica beccabunga) will be staying…

Two frogs hiding in the brooklime.

Two frogs hiding in the brooklime.

Sunflowers

Yellow Sunflower

Yellow Sunflower

There is a patch of garden, next to the pond we created in Spring, that is going to be subject to quite a bit of earth moving. I didn’t want to fill it with perennial plants and shrubs that would establish themselves just at the point I needed to move them, nor did I want to leave it bare. So I decided to plant annuals there.

Not all that I planted has thrived, and not all the seeds have turned into plants. It is too shady, too dry, and too many plant predators were made homeless just before I created the bed – but there is one plant that has grown better than any previous attempts of mine: Sunflowers. Standing taller than almost anything around them, they haven’t needed staking or care and have produced several flowers each.

As we approach the festival of Lughnasadh (or Lammas if you prefer), it is always this colour that is in my mind. The hot sun, the ripening barley in the fields, summer holidays. They bring smiles to my face, reaching for the sky, as they flower for weeks. They are strong, bending in the wind, yet flexible enough to follow the sun in its path every day. Several religious or spiritual groups around the world have used sunflowers as a symbol for both reaching for the light and being or bringing light.

I will be leaving the flowerheads to ripen for the birds and look forward to seeing how long they last. Along with the teasels and the various tree berries (hawthorn, rowan) they should create a natural storecupboard for a few months to come.

Sunflowers on one stem

Sunflowers on one stem