Scent in the Garden

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Tulipa 'Verona'

Tulipa ‘Verona’

I remembered it was time for the latest instalment in the ‘Scent in the Garden’ meme on Saturday afternoon whilst I was crouched in a very uncomfortable position sawing at the base of my Viburnum x bodnantense. I’m not sure why it came to me then, I’ve somewhat lost track of the days in recent weeks; perhaps it was the scent of the narcissi which jogged my memory. I’m a bit late to the post but it’s that time of year where a couple of extra hours each day would be useful in order to fit everything in – like pruning shrubs and writing blog posts. Anyway better late than never. Blog posts like this are a useful exercise in getting me to stop and actually look at my garden rather than letting the spring garden pass by in a blur. Spring for a gardener is a bit like the spin cycle on a washing machine – lots of frantic activity – before things then slow down. In between my seed sowing, pricking out, potting on and watering (who’d have though April would be so bereft of the synonymous showers) it would be a pity to miss these scented spring delights.

Narcissus 'Geranium'

Narcissus ‘Geranium’

There are so many forms of narcissi it would be impossible to have one favourite, but for me Narcissus ‘Geranium’ is certainly in my top ten. It has tall stems but smaller, more refined flowers than many varieties, with a dainty, snub-nose trumpet in vibrant orange. Most of all though I love its potent perfume – a real ‘knock your socks off’ whiff. Unfortunately my resident slugs and snails seem to be attracted to all my narcissi, including ‘Geranium’. So much so, many of them have been chomped to a raggedy mess. After the briefest of rain showers one night last week I went out on the first mollusc patrol of the year. After weeks of dry weather they were out in force and it was a real heart-sinking experience. Buoyed by the glorious weather and spring bursting forth I have been feeling quite perky and full of the proverbial joys, but having to pick big fat slugs and snails off the trumpets of daffodil blooms rather burst the bubble. Why do they slither and slime their way past weeds and leaf litter, crawl all the way up the daffodil stem to eat the flower? It seems like they are taunting us gardeners, it’s almost like they know how to wound us the most. There’s that point in a spring garden where everything looks fresh and new, untouched by the weather and pests, and I just want to keep everything looking so pristine and beautiful that I wish I could press pause. Then there’s the tipping point where spring perfection morphs into doily-like hosta leaves, tattered narcissi flowers and frost-induced mushy, brown magnolias and I sigh with resignation. Perhaps the slugs and snails might have a penchant for Chanel No. 5 and I could spray weeds to distract them from the daffs … It would be an expensive means of control, not quite as expensive as nematoding my garden for the summer though!

Tulipa 'Verona'

Tulipa ‘Verona’

Tulips aren’t generally thought of as being scented. I didn’t think so until I was researching The Cut Flower Patch. I’m eagerly anticipating the opening of Tulipa ‘Ballerina’ with it’s orange jelly-scented blooms but it’s ‘Verona’ which has been the first tulip to flower in the garden. A fabulously voluptuous variety with ruffled peony-like flowers in a deliciously buttery-cream colour. It doesn’t have a powerful ‘fill the air’ type perfume but, if you get up close, it does have a delicate sweet aroma. It lasts for ages too – providing a good four weeks of flower power. If you’re going to grow one tulip I can highly recommend this one.

Crab apple blossom

Crab apple blossom

At last the crab apple has come into blossom; it’s later than it has been in past years. For the last week the tree has been studded with rose-pink buds. From the vantage point of the kitchen sink I thought something reddish-pink had become caught in the branches until I realised it was simply a huge cluster of flower buds. This weekend delicate white petals have started to unfurl, and with them a wonderful, underrated perfume. Underrated perhaps because it isn’t an overt aroma, the sort typically used in the perfume industry. For me, crab apple blossom perfectly captures spring in its scent – clean, crisp and fresh, like washing which has been dried outdoors in a gentle breeze. My crab apple in full bloom on a warm, sunny day fills the air with its scent, appreciated not just by me but also the bees which descend en masse to devour the nectar.

Syringa meyeri 'Josee'

Syringa meyeri ‘Josee’

My mission to add more scent to the garden was helped somewhat by a visit to the RHS Great London Plant Fair last week. It was a coincidence (honestly) that I happened to be in London that day anyway. It was my first visit to a London plant fair and I was impressed. I would have liked there to be more nurseries in the Lindley Hall but overall there was a good selection of plants and at reasonable prices. The big dilemma was how much I could safely carry and keep alive on the long journey home. Among my quarry were Syringa meyeri ‘Josee’  and Viola cornuta ‘Victoria’s Blush’. I adore lilacs. There are several ways I can get to my allotment but I deliberately walk the route which takes me past a huge unkempt lilac, just so I can have a quick smell of the intoxicating aroma. I’ve always wanted one of my own but I have been a bit put off by the size of many of the varieties. So the smaller, more compact variety Syringa meyeri ‘Josee’ took my eye. A height and spread of 1.5m will make it ideal for my already cramped garden. I’m a huge fan of violas, particularly the perennial varieties. These trouble-free plants have a long flowering season. A purple Viola cornuta lines my borders producing a low-growing carpet of foliage and for several months delicate scented flowers. Cut back hard in mid-summer it gives a second showing into autumn. It does self-sow in cracks and crevices but I don’t hold that against it. For such a little flower Viola cornuta produces a heady fragrance, best on a still balmy evening.

Viola cornuta 'Victoria's Blush'

Viola cornuta ‘Victoria’s Blush’

This little beauty was on the Victorian Violas stand. Its pale pink flowers caught my eye but it was the scent that won me over. I could have left with more if I’d had another pair of hands, luckily though it’ll self-sow once established. As ever, it would be fantastic if you would join in this meme – posting on your own blog (leave a link here) or leaving a comment about what its scented in your garden this month. I’m really loving discovering new scented plants and celebrating all that is fabulously fragrant.

Out with the old – learning to be ruthless

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Blackberries

Blackberries

I’m not sure why I have persevered with certain plants but this is the year I devote my energies elsewhere. I’m currently reading the wittily written book Outwitting Squirrels by Anne Wareham (review to follow in the next few weeks). Two of Anne’s tips which I have taken to heart are ‘to be ruthless enough to throw out miserable plants’ and ‘to be brave enough to change course if something is turning into far too much trouble’. It seems simple advice but one many gardeners find hard to follow, including myself. For years I have admired the tightly rolled, spear-like leaves of hostas emerge in spring. For a short time their new leaves unfurl, pristine and beautiful, but this stage is fleeting. As spring merges into summer they become increasingly studded with holes, looking increasingly like lace doilies, devoured by the mouths of slugs and snails. My hostas have been grown in pots, hostas in the border would be like treating them as sacrificial lambs. I tried copper tape last year around the pots. It didn’t work. As it was sold specifically for that purpose perhaps I should have made a complaint under the Trade Descriptions Act. I noted with interest that Monty Don on last week’s Gardeners’ World suggested hostas which are attacked by slugs are stressed plants. There’s certainly something in a slug’s homing instinct for the runt of the litter and the weakest plant in the row, and perhaps my pot-grown hostas didn’t have enough food and water. I did look on with envy at his pristine, hole-free hostas just as I did when I visited Prince Charles’ garden at Highgrove and saw his immaculate hostas.

Hosta doilies

Hosta doilies

I have used organic slug pellets and they work to some degree, but I have seen slugs climbing onto hosta leaves from a nearby fence or from another plant, and it’s hard when my attention is on the more pressing needs of my young flower and vegetable plants to devote time to hand-picking slugs and snails off my hostas. So this year the hostas are going … well, they’ve already gone. No longer will I wince at doily-like leaves or feel the need to hide them when a garden photographer comes to the house. Oh the shame! The gooseberry has gone the same way. Not because it is beloved by pests but because it was the pest. I inherited it when I took on the plot along with at least four other gooseberry bushes. Doing the maths and coming to the conclusion there were only so many gooseberries the two of us could eat I decided to keep just one, and it was one too many. It’s the thorniest plant I’ve had the dubious pleasure of gardening around and this is someone who just removed a pyracantha from her parents’ garden. Every year I would curse as I tried to harvest the berries and weeding underneath it was impossible. There was such a heavy crop a few years ago coupled with a deluge of rain that the branches all sagged and the plant hugged the floor like an octopus spreading out its tentacles. Underneath it a carpet of wild strawberries had established itself which I could neither weed out nor eat because of the vicious thorns that were in the way. I could be tending another bed and bend down absent-mindedly forgetting what was behind me only to be spiked in the bum. I’d been mulling over getting rid of the damn thing for a year or so but after the latest encounter with a thorn in the finger its days were numbered. I made the most of a dry spell last week and out it came. It was odd though. As I made the first few cuts with the loppers I wondered if I’d done the right thing. Seems it’s hard for a gardener to kill a plant. Well, until it spiked me again…

Blackberry 'Waldo' waiting to be planted

Blackberry ‘Waldo’ waiting to be planted

Its neighbour the blackcurrant has gone too. There were two blackcurrant bushes but it’s too much for us. We don’t make jams and blackcurrants need so much sugar to make them palatable that they tend to languish in our freezer rather than being eaten. Instead a blackberry bush will fit nicely into the space now created by the absence of the gooseberry and blackcurrant. I prefer fruit I can eat without the need for extra sugar – anything that I can scatter on my porridge is ideal. The tayberry, blueberries and strawberries are perfect for this and I think a cultivated form of blackberry will make an excellent accompaniment. Why grow a blackberry when there tend to be plenty to pick from the hedgerows? Foraged blackberries are often quite small and their quality is very dependent on the weather we have. A dry summer tends to produce small fruits with very little juice and a wet summer often results in watery fruits with little flavour. The benefits of growing a cultivar are bigger, juicier fruits and a stronger blackberry flavour. Hedgerow brambles are incredibly vigorous plants, as anyone who has tried to get rid of a patch of them will know. Many of the cultivated versions though are much better-behaved, and some can be grown in a relatively small space, especially if they are trained up against a fence or wall. We’ve chosen the variety ‘Waldo’. Choosing a thornless variety was essential after the problem with the gooseberry and the online reviews all suggest this is a heavy yielding cultivar with great flavoured berries. It takes a certain leap of faith to buy a pot with one unpromising looking stick planted in it and it’ll be next year before we get any fruit as a blackberry fruits on two-year-old canes. We managed one tayberry fruit in the first year of planting. The excitement at this one fruit was enormous and it was halved for us to both try. Perhaps we’ll get a tantalising taste this year too, if not this impatient gardener will have to wait until next summer for the taste of home-grown blackberries. I’d love to know if there are any plants you’ve decided aren’t worth the trouble or you’ve persisted in growing even though you don’t really eat them.

Scent in the Garden

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It’s the vernal equinox this week. Not that it has felt especially spring-like, thanks to a chilly blast of weather from Scandinavia. There was a dusting of snow on the North Pennines and an icy wind coming in off the North Sea this weekend, so I was glad of the winter woollies I’d packed for the trip to visit family in the north-east. And it hasn’t felt much warmer now I’m back at home. Despite this the garden is taking on the appearance of spring, and the birds are singing and foraging for nest material. It’s worth not being too thorough in your spring tidy of the garden as dried leaves, grasses and small twigs will come in handy for garden birds building their spring homes. I watched a blackbird this morning gathering leaves from my path and flying off with them, which is much more preferable than the decimation of a Stipa tenuissima plant by house sparrows a few years ago. They pulled out the bleached blonde grass and flew off with their bounty in their beaks. I consoled myself with the knowledge that they would have a softly-furnished nest.

As for scent in my garden. Well, it’s that cross-over period between seasons, so the winter-flowering honeysuckle, sarcococca and viburnums are still flowering and filling the air with scent. In fact, March is perhaps the best time of the year to appreciate their perfume as those first warm days of spring mean their fragrance carries much further.

Narcissus 'Grand Soleil d'Or'

Narcissus ‘Grand Soleil d’Or’

Daffodils have now taken centre stage as the snowdrops fade. Most narcissi have a fragrance but some are stronger than others. Several years ago whilst on a break in Cornwall we came across a field of daffodils. I hadn’t seen such a sight before, with so many planted en masse. The sight of golden fields was spectacular, but it was the scent which was so surprising. I’d never really given any thought to how the daffodil fields would smell. The aroma was so strong it drifted across the road to the car. I’d wound down the window to get a better glimpse of the field but it was the perfume that took my breath away.

Picking a bunch of daffodils and bringing them indoors is the best way to appreciate their scent, particularly if it’s a cold spring. Most people are understandably reluctant to pick flowers from their garden, not wanting to denude it of any beauty. Devoting an area especially to spring bulbs for cutting is a real treat and worth doing if you can free up some space. Plant small rows of at least six varieties of daffodils – choose ones which flower at different times and you’ll have a good spread of blooms for picking. I didn’t plan for this last autumn because I wasn’t sure whether I’d be keeping the allotment and now I’m really missing having some daffs to pick for the house.

However there is a good show in the garden. ‘February Gold’ should really be renamed ‘March Gold’ as now is the month when it seems to reliably reach its peak. I tend to prefer the smaller flowering varieties such as ‘Jack Snipe’ and ‘Tête-à-Tête’ in a garden setting rather than the bigger, bolder flowers commonly planted in large drifts by councils. ‘Ice Follies’ however has made its way into the garden via the allotment cut flower patch. It’s very pretty with its ivory petals and pale lemon trumpet and has a fabulous perfume.

Scented narcissi are the ones which really pack a punch with their perfume and these are my true favourites. They tend to produce flowers on quite tall stems so maybe aren’t everyone’s cup of tea for the garden but if you’re after spring scent they are hard to beat. The first to open in the garden is ‘Grand Soleil d’Or’.

Hyacinth 'L'Innocence'

Hyacinth ‘L’Innocence’

I have only ever grown hyacinths as forced bulbs for late winter/early spring flowers indoors. It’s taken me a while to learn to love their perfume. I found it too powerful when I was a child and used to avoid the room where my mum kept her hyacinth displays. As for outdoors, I’ve never really been convinced that the stubby form of hyacinths lends itself to the garden border. However last spring I shoved a few of the forced bulbs in the ground once they had finished flowering. Mainly this was because I was intrigued as to whether they would actually come back – it’s often suggested they won’t because of the special treatment they need for forcing. Well they have reappeared and I rather like the white flowers of ‘L’Innocence’ in the garden. Many years ago I visited Upton House in Oxfordshire and in a narrow alleyway on the way into the gardens was a large stone planter packed with hyacinths. The impact of the fragrance was quite incredible and something I’m now thinking I’d like to replicate next spring.

For more scented inspiration for spring take a look at my piece on sweet violets in The Guardian. A traditional cut flower, both here and in France, they’ve sadly fallen out of favour, but there are some fabulous varieties out there. I’m hoping a small patch of these will be another addition to my scented garden in the future.

It would be lovely if you would join in this meme and share the plants which are delighting your nose at the moment.

Wasabi – the real deal

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Wasabi from The Wasabi Company

Wasabi from The Wasabi Company

In a world where the way we shop, cook and eat is changing a growing number of innovative farmers are looking at unusual crops which can be grown in our climate. The Wasabi Company, based in Dorset, is a fascinating example of this.

Wasabi has been grown and eaten in Japan for thousands of years but it has only really come to our attention in Britain as the popularity of sushi has grown. It’s a member of the Brassica family with a flavour similar to horseradish, although the two are not related. In fact, most people in Britain who think they have tried wasabi probably haven’t. Many of the ‘wasabi’ products for sale or those used in pre-prepared foods contain only a very tiny amount of wasabi and are actually made up of horseradish and mustard powder. I had never tasted wasabi, real or otherwise, in fact I’ve never even eaten horseradish, so when I was asked if I would like to try some from The Wasabi Company I thought, why not!

It’s the chunky rhizomes which the plant forms just above ground that are grated to make the wasabi paste. I’ll admit I was a little dubious. I had heard of its reputation to be quite potent and for someone who is a self-confessed chilli wimp I was a little trepidatious. Well, it turns out it’s not as hot as I thought it would be, which in my opinion is a good thing. I’ve never really understood why people love super hot chillies which overwhelm your taste buds and render the rest of a meal virtually tasteless. The heat of wasabi is much more akin to a mustard rather than a chilli and I really liked it.

Would it be actually be a useful product was my next question? I love to cook but I’m becoming a little weary of recipes which require a whole gamut of weird and wonderful ingredients. They are all generally  very tasty, but once opened they often have such a short shelf-life which means you need to eat the same ingredients every other night for a month to use them up, or gain an increasingly eclectic bunch of jars, bottles and tubs in the fridge which are never finished. I imagined it only working with sushi but it turns out it’s actually very versatile. We had it mixed into puréed peas with crème fraîche served with scallops which was delicious, but I was intrigued as to whether it could be used in more day-to-day food. I loved it added to mayonnaise which tasted fantastic with cray fish and it even worked in my humble egg mayo sandwiches. So rather than the rhizomes festering in the fridge they were actually a quick and easy way to add flavour. Apparently you can add it to mashed potato too.

Fresh wasabi needs to be finely grated into a paste to release the flavour (this is not the time to use the cheese grater). The Wasabi Company sell special wasabi graters, (although a microplane would be fine) and a little brush is used to remove the paste from the grater. The flavour lessens within 15 to 20 minutes so it’s best to prepare wasabi just before you want to eat it rather than in advance. It’ll look much paler in colour – a pale green – than any shop-bought wasabi which has colourings added to it.

My young wasabi plant

My young wasabi plant

As for growing my own. Well it’ll take some time to tell whether it’s a suitable plant for home-growing. It seems it can be a tricky plant to cultivate, particularly on a large-scale. In Japan it grows beside cool mountain streams where it is flushed with clear, nutrient-rich water, similar to watercress. This type of growing is known as sawa wasabi and is the most sought after. It’s taken several years of research and trials for The Wasabi Company to get the growing conditions right and as they have over 120 years of experience growing watercress they are certainly well-placed to make commercial cultivation a success. These aren’t conditions I can replicate at home, so I’ll have to make do with growing oka wasabi (soil-grown). It needs lots of shade, doesn’t like extremes in temperature and is hardy down to -5°C. The young wasabi plant came wrapped in hessian and was the size of a good-sized plug plant. Advice is to pot up into a 9cm pot initially so that it can establish a healthy root system. I’m in garden limbo at the moment so mine will have to live in a large pot for the foreseeable future but I’ll have to make sure it’s kept moist and given a regular feed.

An attractive plant in its own right with pretty heart-shaped leaves and delicate white flowers (apparently they’re scented) it could make an excellent addition to a forest garden where shade-loving crops are hard to find. Wasabi will grow to about 60cm tall and it’ll take a few years at least for the plant to form good-sized rhizomes which are ready to lift and eat, but the leaves and stems are also edible. Sounds like a fantastic crop for cooks and growers. Fingers crossed it’s happy growing in Wales.

Thank you to Sophie at Pam LLoyd PR.

For more information, recipes, how to buy the rhizomes and your own wasabi plants go to The Wasabi Company.

 

Are you bored with snowdrops yet?

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A sea of snowdrops at Colesbourne Park

A sea of snowdrops at Colesbourne Park

If the answer to the title of this post is yes then you probably won’t want to continue reading. I know, I know, you can’t get stirred for galanthomania at this time of year. But lets face it, flowery delights in February are a little thin on the ground, we’ve all had enough of winter and are a bit desperate to see some signs of life in the garden. That’s not to take anything away from the beauty of snowdrops but I do think they owe a certain degree of their popularity to the fact that they bloom so early in the year and there is little else to compete for our attention. For a period of about four weeks from mid-February to mid-March gardens with collections of snowdrops are at their peak and it’s hard to not be blown away by the spectacular sight of carpets of these nodding white flowers as far as the eye can see. In fact it can trick you at first glance into thinking it has snowed and that it’s not actually thousands of flowers. Colesbourne Park in the Cotswolds is our nearest snowdrop heaven. Our last visit, a few years ago, was marred by the discovery the camera battery had barely any charge left and, at the time, we didn’t have a spare. But I’m always happy for an excuse to return to a great garden.

Galanthus 'Rosemary Burnham'

Galanthus ‘Rosemary Burnham’

I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea to have plant labels dotted about and it does make photography a little difficult.  At somewhere like Colesbourne, which is displaying a collection of different varieties, it’s incredibly useful. In fact I’m increasingly finding myself scrabbling around in gardens hoping there’s a label somewhere so I can find out what a particular plant is called. It’s even more important with a plant where the distinctions between some varieties are not that obvious at first glance and perhaps, in the case of snowdrops, even after a few glances. I did hear several ‘they all look the same to me’ comments whispered among visitors as they passed by. I was of this thinking a few years ago when I was just happy to see clumps of snowdrops, but recently I have been slightly bitten by the galanthus bug. When I say slightly I mean I can spot and appreciate the differences between a collection of snowdrops now, but I’m not yet prepared to spend £25 on a tiny pot with one flower and a few leaves in it, let alone the £1390 plus £4 postage paid yesterday for one bulb of Galanthus plicatus ‘Golden Fleece’. My new-found interest has been ignited partly from some of the blogs I read, and partly from Naomi Slade’s book The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops and the recent talk she gave at the Botanic Gardens in Wales. It was fascinating to wander around Colesbourne on Saturday with my newly appreciative eyes spotting varieties I now recognized and tuning my eyes into the subtle and not so subtle differences between the various varieties.

Galanthus 'Jaquenetta'

Galanthus ‘Jaquenetta’

When you first enter Colesbourne the gentle slope and woodland area is a sea of white. These areas are planted with the common snowdrop Galanthus nivalis, the scented variety ‘S. Arnott’, ‘Hippolyta’, ‘Ophelia’ and ‘James Backhouse’. All have formed substantial clumps and are divided in the summer to increase their populations. The initial snowdrop collection was started by Henry John Elwes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but it was largely forgotten about until the current owners of Colesbourne, Sir Henry Elwes (the great-grandson of Henry John) and his wife Carolyn, started to uncover plants and build up the collection. We were lucky enough to have a quick chat with Sir Henry and glean a little bit of his expert knowledge. Apparently the best time to divide your snowdrops is in July. At this point in the year there is nothing to be seen of the snowdrops above ground as all the foliage has died back, so at Colesbourne they employ a basic system using coloured sticks. Yellow sticks are placed near the clumps as the leaves die back and white sticks are used to mark areas where there are, as yet, no snowdrops. Then in July they lift the clumps, divide them and replant. When I asked him what was the best method to introduce snowdrops into a garden he said it was with potted bulbs at this time of year.

A charming spring planter

A charming spring planter

Small groups of the rarer varieties are planted closer to the house, in borders, raised beds and planters. Displayed this way it’s easier to appreciate what makes them so special. My own favourites were the unusual ivory, green-tinged variety Galanthus ‘Rosemary Burnham’ and the green, frilly petticoated ‘Jaquenetta’ (see above photos). I loved the stone troughs that were dotted about with snowdrops planted alongside iris and cyclamen. Snowdrops can be tricky in containers but large ones like this trough would be worth trying.

Cyclamen coum

Cyclamen coum

Snowdrops aren’t the only attraction to Colesbourne. They have incorporated other winter and early spring-flowering plants. I don’t think I’ve seen such large vibrant clusters of Cyclamen coum, the shocking pink flowers shouting out at you. There’s a growing collection of hellebores, gloriously scented winter honeysuckles and viburnum. It’s a magical spot. Apart from the gentle hum of visitors chatting, the valley in which the estate sits is incredibly peaceful and there’s a real feeling of modern life not intruding. This is an old estate with classic parkland, mossy stone balustrades and urns, and a tiny church. The lake, created to provide hydro-electric power for the house, is stunningly and ethereally blue. It’s believed the colour is due to the colloidal clay in the water.

Colesbourne lake

Colesbourne lake

There’s still time to kick off the garden visiting season with some fantastic displays across the country of snowdrops and early spring flowers. I’d love to hear about your favourite gardens to visit at this time of year.

Scent in the Garden

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Scented narcissi

Scented narcissi

I didn’t inherit any fragrant plants when I took on my garden and I’ll admit scent hasn’t been given enough priority when I’ve been out plant buying. My tastes and ideas have changed from the fairly inexperienced gardener I was eight years ago and I’ve learnt a huge amount in that time, not just about plants but also my own tastes and the type of garden I want to create. Up until we moved here I had gardened mainly in pots to accommodate our frequent moves and the fact that we were renting. Container gardening was a brilliant way to assuage my need to grow, but it’s quite a different discipline to growing in soil and planting with a sense of permanence. Many of my ideas now are driven by my love of cutting plant material to bring indoors to fill vases, and scent is playing an increasing role in these choices. Along with Sue at Backlane Notebook I’m hoping that a ‘Scent in the Garden’ meme will encourage a focus on scented plants, will make me look at this extra dimension to my garden and will uncover some fantastically fragrant plants over the coming months.

For the February instalment of the ‘Scent in the Garden’ I have both Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ and Viburnum tinus flowering, as they have been since the end of November. The freezing temperatures haven’t been enough to discourage the winter-flowering honeysuckle from blooming. It has a tendency in very cold weather to retreat and withhold new flowers until the weather warms up. A few stems have provided a lovely addition to some stunning Cornish scented narcissi, which are a far superior Valentine’s Day gift than any red rose.

February scent

February scent

As for new appearances, there’s sarcococca, or winter box, which smells fabulous. It was just coming into flower in mid-January, but now it is in full bloom. It’s planted by the path which leads from the gate to the front door, so wafts of scent fill the air as you pass by. It’s a relatively new addition to the garden at just two years old and it is still quite small, so at the moment the air needs to be still and relatively warm for the fragrance to come to the attention of your nostrils, otherwise you need to bend down. A garden in the village has two sarcococca plants about a metre high which I covet. They are currently pumping out their heady perfume which means you can smell them well before they come into sight. One day that will be the scene in my own front garden.

In terms of scent, one of the biggest revelations for me in recent years has been the discovery that certain varieties of snowdrops are deliciously fragrant. Most of the snowdrops in my garden are the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis. It’s a great variety – easy to come by, fairly inexpensive and it bulks up readily to form good-sized clumps, the one thing it lacks is scent. I had heard of snowdrops which smelt of honey, but it was only this year, when I attended a talk by the author and snowdrop connoisseur Naomi Slade, that I had the opportunity to sniff a selection of snowdrops. Naomi had brought with her a collection of snowdrops in pots to illustrate the different forms – those with short, strap-like leaves, flowers with layers of petals like a ballerina’s tutu and tall-stemmed blooms with large, nodding heads. As the pots were passed around I smelt each one and made a note of those with the surprisingly potent perfume. ‘S. Arnott’ was the variety which stood out and it immediately went to the top of my must-have plant list.

I probably shouldn’t be making plant purchases until we’re settled in a new garden and I was about to resist the temptation of the plant stand at a recent visit to Colesbourne (more of which in a later post) when Wellyman encouraged me to make a cheeky purchase. He can be quite a persuasive influence when it comes to plant nurseries, but, to be honest, it doesn’t take much to break down my resistance. So here is the latest addition to the scented garden. It’s an exquisite flower and hopefully one day, in the not too distant future, I’ll have enough of clumps of ‘S. Arnott’ so I can pick a few tiny nosegays of snowdrops to bring indoors.

Galanthus 'S. Arnott'

Galanthus ‘S. Arnott’ (copyright Ian Curley)

If you’d like to join in with ‘Scent in the Garden’ just post about what’s perfuming the air in your garden/growing space and leave a comment here or at Sue’s blog Backlane Notebook with a link to your post.

Happy sniffing!

 

Reawakening

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A shy hellebore

A shy hellebore

Slowly but surely the garden is emerging from its winter slumber. On gloomy, grey days the nodding heads of snowdrops glow; on gin-clear days they sparkle and glisten. Hellebores hang their flower heads as if they are too shy to display their beauty. The slender green shoots of crocus bulbs are appearing. One lone crocus is ahead of the pack, its buttermilk-coloured petals opening to the first hints of warm sunshine.

I, too, am experiencing a reawakening. I feel a bit like a bear poking its head out of its winter hibernation home, sniffing the air, rubbing its eyes and deciding whether it’s warm enough to emerge yet. Up until Sunday I would have said no. If I was a bear I’d have retreated inside, had a good scratch and eaten lots of marmalade. That’s what bears do, isn’t it? As I’m not, I put more logs on the fire, I read, I crocheted, I wrote and I ordered seeds. Too many seeds, as usual.

Then it was if that first tantalizing hint of spring arrived. Sunday was a stunner. Crystal clear skies and warm sunshine. Well, when I say warm it was 8⁰C, but that felt positively tropical now there was no north wind to add windchill to the freezing temperatures of the previous week. After weeks of wondering whether my garden mojo would return I was outside filling seed trays with compost and preparing for the first seed to be sown. The compost was cold. Cold enough to make my fingers numb. No seed would be encouraged into life in this, so the seed trays and modules have spent the last few days warming up on the heated propagator and near a radiator. It’s imparted an interesting smell to the kitchen, but hopefully it has created a much more welcoming place to sow my seeds this week.

There’s a lot written at this time of year about whether to sow or not. Most of us are so eager to start growing. The conditions aren’t ideal yet for many seeds and sowing too early can lead to problems later on with a backlog of plants too big to look after indoors but it’s not quite warm enough for them to be planted outdside. Some plants however do need an early start. They can be slow to germinate or just need a long growing season to do their thing. For me this includes flowers for my cutting patch such as ageratum, statice and antirrhinums. Any plants which say on the packet they will flower in their first year from an early start are worth sowing in the coming weeks. They’ll need a bit of warmth in order to germinate and as much daylight as you can give them. But, as we’re only six weeks away from the spring equinox and seven weeks from the clocks going forward, light levels are definitely improving. I also like to get sowing now as I know how frantic March can be. I have limited space so starting off some plants now is one way of staggering the seed sowing demands on the horizon.

Warming up the compost

Warming up the compost

Obviously a few sunny days in February doesn’t mean we can shake off winter just yet – as I’m writing this post, the gloom of winter has returned, with an impenetrable grey sky looming over head. But I’m going to embrace the last few weeks (hopefully) of winter and savour any time in front of the fire. My winter project – a crocheted granny square blanket – is nearly completed. It’s been an epic. All 208 squares are finished and I’m in the process of stitching them together. Then I just need to edge it with a border. The aim is to complete it for the start of March. I hate having unfinished projects lying around, so I know it needs to be completed before the garden grabs my attention.

Granny square blanket

Granny square blanket coming together

One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to read in my lunch break. As work has been a bit crazy over the last few weeks (the pattern of freelance work is very much like the frequency of buses) my utopian idea of reading every day hasn’t come to fruition. But my resolution hasn’t been a complete right-off and I have managed to devote some time to this gem of a gardening book.

Michael Pollan - Second Nature

Michael Pollan – Second Nature

Second Nature by Michael Pollan is a fascinating and wittily written book by this American author. It’s worth reading simply for the hilarious description of his war with a woodchuck which sets up home in his garden – I laughed so much I snorted my tea. One of the benefits of working from home is that nobody saw that moment of inelegance. The book is full of deeper, thought-provoking ideas too – our love of roses, a gardener’s relationship with trees and man’s desire to tame nature – with each chapter following the creation of his own garden. I would heartily recommend reading it. Stop drinking your tea though when it comes to the woodchuck bit.

 

Scent in the Garden

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Winter-flowering honeysuckle

Winter-flowering honeysuckle

A few months ago Sue at the blog Backlane Notebook suggested we start a monthly ‘Scent in the Garden’ meme. Being a bit of a fragrant plant lover myself I thought it was a fantastic idea.

For centuries scent was the most important characteristic of a plant. In the days before bathrooms and a plethora of lotions and potions to make us and the world around us smell good, the fragrance of plants was an essential way to combat the many whiffs and pongs that would have been a constant onslaught to our olfactory organs. Nosegays – small posies of scented flowers and foliage – would have been pinned to your dress or coat or simply held under your nose in an attempt to mask whatever unpleasant aroma was in the vicinity. I just love that term ‘nosegay’ – in medieval Britain it meant an ornament to please the nose. Nowadays we have Glade plug-ins.

Now I certainly don’t want to return to the days when the contents of chamber pots were flung out of windows but I do love the idea of embracing fragrant plants and natural perfumes rather than the artificial chemical air fresheners we have today. But, ever since plant breeders started crossing varieties to create fancier flowers and supposedly ‘better’ plants scent has been the feature most likely to be lost in the process. Perhaps as we have become cleaner our interest in fragrant plants has waned. Certainly many shop-bought cut flowers are scentless, and for a period in the mid to late 20th century flower form and disease resistance were higher on the list of priorities for plant breeders, particularly when it came to that classic of all fragrant plants, the rose. Why you would want a rose with no scent is a mystery to me.

I have been enjoying the Great British Garden Revival series of programmes on TV and it has been fantastic to see scent playing a big part, with Toby Buckland championing scented plants and Christine Walkden campaigning for people to rediscover the carnation, a plant which has suffered more than most as a result of the global trade in flowers. So it seems like a great opportunity to seek out, to share and to celebrate all that is scented in our gardens. Sue and I hope you’ll join us each month throughout the coming year by posting about what’s filling your garden or allotment with fragrance. It doesn’t just have to be in your garden though, if you spot a deliciously perfumed plant whilst on your travels, you sniff out something in the hedgerows or you have an indoor plant filling your home with scent please feel free to share them too.

Viburnum tinus 'Gwellian'

Viburnum tinus ‘Gwellian’

Winter might seem like an unlikely time of the year to be able to talk about scented plants but it’s surprising how many shrubs have evolved to flower at this time of year. It’s not easy attracting the small number of pollinating insects which might be flying around in winter, so to maximize their chances of grabbing the attention of a passing bee many winter flowering shrubs have incredible, intoxicating fragrances which will knock your socks off. One of my favourites is the winter-flowering honeysuckle. It’s a scruffy, unkempt plant for much of the year. It doesn’t have much structure other than looking like an unruly twiggy clump. Every year I debate whether to dig it out. Then it had a stay of execution when we started to think about moving as I didn’t want to have to replant the gaping hole it would leave behind. I’m also a bit sentimental about it. My winter honeysuckle was taken from a larger plant in the grounds of the college where I studied horticulture. A fellow student, Peter spotted a stem which had bent down and where it had touched the ground it had rooted. He dug it up and gave it to me. It’s all the more sentimental as Peter died a few years later.

Then, of course, every winter the plant does its thing and I’m smitten all over again. Tiny, delicate ivory flowers with strikingly yellow stamens appear along the woody stems, looking like miniature summer-flowering honeysuckle flowers. And the fragrance is just beautiful. I spent Sunday afternoon in the garden tidying up dying and soggy foliage to reveal the spring bulbs poking through and the honeysuckle perfume which hung in the air was such a treat.

Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn'

Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’

You might say, ‘What’s the point of fragrant flowers in winter, it’s too cold, too wet or snowy to venture outdoors and appreciate them’, but a front garden filled with scented flowers will greet you every time your return home. Even a container planted with Christmas box (sarcoccocca) placed by your front door will raise the spirits on a January day. And, of course, you can always pick a few stems and bring them indoors to enjoy the perfume in the warmth.

My own January fragrant plant count includes Viburnumbodnantense ‘Dawn’, Viburnum tinus ‘Gwenllian’, Sarcoccocca and the winter-flowering honeysuckle, which isn’t too bad but I would love more. In particular, I covet a wintersweet (Chimonanthes), although I’m dismayed to hear it can take up to eight years from planting to flowering. One of my quests is to fill my garden with as many scented plants as possible, so I’m hoping that if you’ll join in this meme I’ll be able to uncover lots of perfumed gems to add too my plant wish list.

If you’d like to join in with ‘Scent in the Garden’ just post about what’s perfuming the air in your garden/growing space and leave a comment here or at Sue’s blog Backlane Notebook with a link to your post.

Happy sniffing!

Hopes and Aspirations

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Christmas Day walk in the Brecon Beacons.

Christmas Day walk in the Brecon Beacons.

For the first time in 16 years Wellyman and I had a whole 2 weeks off this Christmas and what a joy it was. Apart from my Christmas Eve blog post I didn’t touch the computer for the whole time. There were lots of frosty mountain walks, we met up with some lovely friends and caught up with family, ate more than enough dried fruit in all of its festive guises and snuggled in front of the fire watching films and reading books. But, as I’m realising, the longer the break that harder it is to return to the real world, and the fact that it is January, my nemesis, makes it all the more difficult. Oh to be like Anna Chancellor’s character Lucia in the fabulous TV adaptation of the Mapp and Lucia novels, wafting around in a kaftan, picking flowers from the garden, painting on the beach and practicing Beethoven. *whispers* Between you and me, I’d be fine at the first two but rubbish with the brush and the piano.

Instead I find myself ensconced once again in front of the computer, in my slightly bobbly cardigan clutching a cup of tea as the light fades. New Year’s resolutions might not be everyone’s cup of tea but for me they’re one way of motivating myself and giving me a sense of focus. I’ll be celebrating a significant birthday this year and I’m only too aware of how quickly time seems to pass. I know how easy it is once the routine of daily life takes over to forget to book those tickets for that play, or to sign up to that course that caught my eye. Probably the best bit about having a long break this Christmas meant I had a chance to clear my head. For the first time in months, maybe even a year, my brain didn’t feel like it was constantly whirring with thoughts about work, the house, moving, shopping lists etc.

For me New Year’s resolutions should be an encouragement to do the new and interesting or to pick up something I haven’t done for a while rather than a stick to beat myself with. They should be goals or aspirations but if they aren’t achieved I don’t feel as if I’ve failed. In fact we’re only 7 days into 2015 and I’ve already foundered with one of them. The great thing though is that there are another 358 days left to give that particular resolution a go.

So in 2015 I hope to:

– juggle more. Wellyman taught me to juggle when we first got married but in recent years I’ve let my practice slip so much so I can’t remember the last time I picked up the juggling balls. I was always in that forlorn group of kids left to the end when team sports were being picked. It was fair enough to be honest, I was pretty rubbish when it came to hand-eye coordination. I was always more concerned about self-preservation partly due to a rounders bat in the face on one occasion and being taken out by a basketball to the head on another. So it was a huge surprise when Wellyman showed me I wasn’t a lost cause when it came to throwing and catching. It’s fantastic exercise too, particularly when you’re learning as you spend most of your time picking up the balls that you keep dropping.

Christmas gardening books

– read more. This is one I haven’t had great success with so far this year. I was lucky enough to receive this fabulous stash of books for Christmas. Before Christmas I had developed the naughty habit of working through my lunch break, sandwich in hand showering the keyboard in crumbs, so my plan for 2015 is to spend 30 minutes at lunchtime reading. So far, after only 3 days back at work, the plan hasn’t worked but I’m hopeful that I’ll achieve it at least some of the time.

– make more. Rather than dwell on the number of years I’ll be celebrating this coming birthday I’ve decided to use it as a spur to try my hand at a few new crafts I’ve always wanted to learn. There’s book binding, willow weaving and how to navigate my way around a sewing machine for a start. Hopefully there will also be the completion of my winter project of a crocheted blanket. I’m at about the halfway stage at the moment and starting to think if I ever see another granny square it’ll be too soon.

Winter project - my granny square blanket

Winter project – my unfinished granny square blanket

So where does growing fit into my plans for 2015. Well, I have a feeling it’s going to be a year where my plans have to be very flexible. I’m keeping the allotment for the foreseeable future at least, and I’ll be trying to treat spring and the early part of summer as normal, after that, well, who knows. If I need to dig up and move a cut flower patch mid-growing season well so be it. My blog posts may be a bit less welly/garden based this year as a result of possibly moving so I hope you’ll bear with me. It’s been quite hard reading about everyone’s plans for the forthcoming gardening year on twitter and blogs when I feel in such a state of limbo myself. In some ways the resolutions I’ve picked are a way of distracting myself from this state of mind and forcing me to stay positive about the year ahead. I do have plans though for a series of blog posts entitled ‘Inspired by Nature’ so I’m looking forward to writing those, hopefully you’ll enjoy reading them.

Wishing you all a fabulous 2015. x

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