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.

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.

The Rain Pond – Part 2

The rain pond is now a pond at last… just! By doing the work slowly over a few weeks it has meant we have had plenty of thinking and reading time as plans have needed adjusting.

Rain Pond Levels

Rain Pond Levels


Here is the hole at its most visible, which has various levels for planting as well as some deep water and a shallow concrete area we plan to cover with cobbles. The concrete path luckily turned out to be not as thick or hard as feared, although being laid on top of concrete pavement slabs meant that it broke where the joints were rather than exactly where we planned. There was more concrete at a depth of 2’6”, which we considered leaving in place; however after a few days of looking at it, I decided the hole was not deep enough so a hole was punched through part of it leaving a small shelf for deep plants or for standing on if needing to climb out of the pond.

I did not plan to have the shelf along the side, wanting a greater volume of water if possible, but after reading suggestions that marginal plants would cope better with a pumped pond than deep water plants, I left the soil in place. Not as large a shelf as I first made it – again, time played a role in allowing me to feel where it was right and where more soil removal was needed. (The pump won’t be installed until a second pond is in place further up the garden.)

Many books seem to suggest that it is very hard to dig a pond and the hire of a digger is almost an essential tool for the job. I didn’t want to use a digger, I wanted to do it myself. Besides the damage a digger would cause to the surrounding garden would take months to restore. As it was, the digging turned out to be the easy bit, whereas carting bucket after bucket after bucket of soil to spread in the garden, and finding enough places to put it where I was only covering weeds not valued plants, proved a far bigger challenge!

All the soil dug out was eventually transferred to other areas of the garden. You may be able to see by the colour of the sides that most of it is good, usable topsoil. However at one end of the pond we were into stones and clay; the stones have been kept for later use while the remaining clay and gravel was spread by the side of the garage where it unlikely to support too many weeds.

Yesterday we spent the day leveling the edges, spreading sand on flat areas and smoothing out some of the lumps and bumps,laying out the underlay and finally lining the pond and filling it with water. A canoeing drysuit came in useful as the many pleats in the liner needed easing into flatness! So the pond is now ready for some edging stones, and then I finally get to put some plants in, by which time the water should have de-chlorinated itself. All future top-ups should be rainwater, either directly from the sky or via roofs and waterbutts.

The Rain Pond – Part 1

I have mentioned a few times here that I have great plans for bringing water into the garden. This weekend has finally seen the first of two ponds started…

It is impossible (for me anyway!) to make accurate plans for our garden. Every thing is curved, or at a funny angle, or non-definite in its placement such as the hedge boundaries. Instead I sketch out ideas roughly to scale, and then try to translate them onto what looks right on the ground by laying ropes on the grass. So it was with the pond. We now have an outline of the bed it will sit in, an outline of the water area, and some kind of a plan for depths. However it is only with a lot of head-scratching that we have managed the last part.

The first test trench was dug about a month ago, straight across the middle of where we thought we wanted the pond, which will be roughly kidney-shaped. It was dug a spade’s width at the top, down to two foot six or so which I understand is the minimum depth for a wildlife pond. The good news was that it was topsoil all the way down, so it will be very easy to use what we dig out elsewhere in the garden. (Unexpected, given other areas are sandstone and clay within a spade’s depth or less; plants there will be glad of some more decent soil.) Also it has sufficient clay to hold the sides together even if they are cut steep – meaning we should be able to reach our required depth despite the small size. On the bad side however, digging was made easier by the extraction of eight or nine bricks at the bottom of the trench – the removal of which turned the hole into an old-fashioned lightbulb shape. Since we have already dug out 4,500 bricks in our garden, which is only the size of a singles tennis court, we really didn’t feel the need for any more! (They proved very useful for our extension as they match exactly…) Worse, we found the edge of an old path about a foot down, made of modern slippery pavers laid onto a very thick (8-10”) bed of concrete. Not so helpful when its line threatens to cut right across the proposed pond. It did, however, explain why the grass down the middle of the garden always went brown in summer.

This weekend the plan was to decide where the two ends of the pond would be within the ‘pond bed’, so that I could measure up and order such things as liner, edging, cobbles etc. Marking out with the aid of a rope laid on the ground, no problem even with M’s help. Second test hole to check the buried path, not so great. The path sloped upwards towards ground level, rapidly becoming too shallow to use as a marginals shelf at barely six inches below anticipated water level, and the concrete base turned out to be three foot wide. In four foot wide water this wasn’t too helpful.

So after some more thinking, we have finally decided to: use the first section of the path we discovered as a marginals shelf somewhere in the middle of the pond; make the far end of the pond deep instead of shallow; use the shallowest bit of concrete as base for the cobbled area; and cut a hole across the middle of the path where it really can’t be avoided in order to give a second deep area.

Exploratory trenches for rain pond

Exploratory trenches for rain pond

The photo shows the deep trench in the foreground with some of the bricks and other rubble we dug out, a row of pavers forming the edge of the path, and a wide area of concrete, pavers removed. There are a few bits of grass and soil left to remove within the pond area… Top right is the corner of the base for my new sanctuary space, from where I plan to watch the rain bouncing up from the surface of the pond, frogs diving amongst the plants, and a pourover gently keeping the pond topped up with rainwater.

Did I mention there will eventually be a stream running into this pond? Meaning that the water also needs to be deep enough at the top end for a pump for when it isn’t raining? Raising the pond would have been an alternative solution – but then it would be too high for the stream to actually flow into it!

I am continuing to trust that my crazy, ambitious plans are all capable of being realised and will work!

Creating a Circle

Grass Circle with paths to the four directions.

Grass Circle with paths to the four directions.

I am really excited to have a new circle space in the garden, done in time for Samhain last weekend. It is 13′ across, and has four access paths positioned North, South, East and West.

It looks a little unfinished at the moment – I haven’t actually planned shape of the pond yet, just where it is going to go (about where I am standing), so I simply dug out the final side of the circle to mark the edge. I now need to do some measuring, thinking and drawing before any more digging, but I have been really pleased to get this far. Having a break for a couple weeks will hopefully allow the shifted ground to settle enough so I can see where to put the soil from the pond. Then in another month or two I can start moving those plants that are in the middle of the “East” path (to the left in the picture, a very large and very lovely Geranium ‘Patricia’) – giving easier access to the hedge on that side. Eventually the plants should signify the four elements: Windflowers already grow in the East for Air (those tall floppy Anemone hupehensis var. japonica plants), hot colours to the South for Fire, there will be Water in the West, so it is only Earth in the North that will need careful consideration.

There is no permanent marker for the centre of my circle of grass, but at present the paint mark is just visible. I would put a flat stone there, which would serve many purposes, but if anyone ever wants to camp in that space it might be a little uncomfortable! At some point in the future I hope to create a bulb spiral which will also mark the centre (leaving a space), but with my present record on doing anything with spirals I’m not rushing anything!