Big Brother and Bokeh

So it’s Week Five in the Big Brother house.

What am I saying…? I’m not in the Big Brother house. I don’t watch the Big Brother house. I have no interest in the Big Brother house. But, since I started these weekly posts, whenever I start to think about the next one I hear a booming voice in my head saying ‘Week Five (or four or three or whatever week it happens to be) in the Big Brother garden.’ And I know it’s time to get writing.

Maybe it’s the weather that’s making me hear voices. This week it feels colder and greyer than ever and I’m beginning to feel a little bit stir crazy. I’m looking out at the garden, and I have absolutely no desire to go out there. Which is making it something of a challenge to come up with what to write.

But, luckily for me, there was a day this week that the Great Garden God smiled. And the day he did was Tuesday, which happened to be the day that Chris, the Rose Pruner, was coming to help me with pruning the roses on the pergola that are too high for me to get to on my own. It was the day that the wind dropped and the the sun shone, and we were able to get on with pruning, and I tidied up the apple trees which have been nagging me  for weeks. And apart from discovering that the pergola that holds up the roses and wisteria is rotting away, which is one of those one step forward, two steps back moments that go hand in hand with being a gardener, it was a really good garden day.

One of the best things about it was that I got to use my new Niwaki telescopic pruner for cutting stuff that is very high up. I bought it for myself in January after last year’s purchase of Niwaki shears changed the box shaping/pittosporum sculpting task forever. (I find it hard to believe that I am the woman who gets excited over a garden tool. But hey ho.)

So I was too busy wielding my new toy to have much time to take photos for this post. Which is not such a bad thing because as much as I love my roses they are not at their photogenic best when they’ve just had a short back and sides. But I did manage to stop and take some shots of the seedheads of the Hydrangea Annabelle to send in for the last assignment of my online photography course.

img_5889
Bokeh!

This was my attempt at achieving/creating Bokeh. Have you heard of Bokeh? Me neither. (Or maybe you have heard of Bokeh, and it’s just me.) For the uninitiated let me tell you that Bokeh is ‘the visual quality of the out-of-focus areas of a photographic image, especially as rendered by a particular lens.’ It means ‘blur’ in Japanese.

I used to think blur was a bad thing in photography. Which just goes to show how much you can learn in a short space of time.

Each of the four assignments I have had to complete for the course have required me to send in two to three photos. With the lack of flower action in the garden and the inclement weather I had to resort to sending a photo I took last year of Amelanchier blossom shot against Tulip Apricot Beauty as an example of using a contrasting background.

img_2991

I was worried it might be cheating to use last year’s material. But I’ve just heard back from Clive (did I mention how much I love Clive!) and he loved the combination of white and apricot. And said it was an ‘attractive flower study’. And he thought the ‘Bokeh’ shot was the best one I’ve sent him.

So I’m happy. In spite of the weather it’s been another good week. And who knows what next week will bring!

The Garden Shuffle

It’s been another damp and drizzly week in the garden. Until yesterday, when there were proper blue patches between the clouds, a bit of proper sunshine. And for the first time this year I was able to go outside and do a proper shuffle.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the garden shuffle? It’s one of my favourite things: the slow meander around the garden, usually with cup of tea in hand, not doing, just seeing. It’s when I take the time to properly look at what is happening out there, without feeling I have to do anything about it. (Apart from pulling up the odd weed!) My favourite time to shuffle is first thing in the morning. Ideally the temperature is warm enough for me to go out in my dressing gown. Although we’ve got a while to go before that happens!

Yesterday the sunshine didn’t appear until the afternoon, so a dressing gown would have been entirely inappropriate. But still it was warm enough to wander, and within minutes of being out there, cup of tea and me were shuffling in perfect harmony.

There’s more to see than you might imagine. Snowdrops are opening, yellow aconites are bright against the brown earth under the ash tree by the drive, the unfolding heads of the hellebores are rising up out of the leaf mould.

img_6021
Snowdrops are opening

And yesterday the low sun of afternoon was playing wonderful tricks with the leaves of the Asplenium scolopendrium fern.

img_6035
Asplenium scolopendrium

This is the week that the green shoots have really started to get going, pushing up all over the place, and as I shuffle I’m thinking about all the bulbs I planted last autumn. (One of the great joys of bulb planting when your memory isn’t what it used to be is the element of surprise!) It’s coming back to me that I crammed the recently re-edited centre bed with tulips, choosing my selection after reading an article in Country Life by Tom Coward at Gravetye Manor… but what were they? I can’t remember and I can’t find the article.

There are the narcissus I planted under the new hornbeams in the field garden, selected following advice from The Cut Flower Patch by Louise Curley that was my bible last year and will be again in 2017. There are more alliums in the front garden, a row of muscari under the espaliered apples in the vegetable garden. Probably other stuff that I’ve forgotten about. I can’t wait to see what comes up!

And this week I’ve been writing lists of plants to buy to fill the gaps I didn’t get round to last year, and I’ve ordered my dahlias, (one of my choices is Otto’s Thrill after seeing it at Petersham Nurseries), and I’m sorting through my seed packets, and watering my pelargonium cuttings. And next week there are roses and wisteria to be pruned, and I’m hoping for another dry day so that I can tidy up the apple trees.

img_3501
Dahlia Otto’s Thrill

And finally, I’ve been getting on with Assignment 3 for the Photography course I’m doing with mygardenschool. One of the topics set for us was still life sequences, shooting the same subject from different angles. This is a shot of a moth orchid I submitted – now I’m waiting for feedback.

img_5945
Moth Orchid still life

Hope Clive likes it!

All in all it’s been a good week. This weekly challenge I’ve set myself for this blog is forcing me to pay attention. And I’m looking forward to seeing what I can find for next week’s post.

Bad Timing

It’s beginning to dawn on me that my timing may be a little out, it being January, and here I am committed to weekly posts about my garden, which at the moment is grey and gloomy and perishingly cold, and reluctant to offer up too many good stories.

So it’s a challenge.

But January feels like a good time for a challenge. And I’m telling myself that if I can come up with something to write about for a post at this miserable time of year, and if I can come up with subject matter to shoot for the online plant and flower photography course I’m doing at the moment with the great Clive Nichols at mygardenschool, then it’s going to seem like a piece of cake when things warm up.

At least that’s what I’m telling myself!

And when I’m really struggling it helps to remind myself of the damp and dismal winter we had last year, when it didn’t get cold, it just got murky. This year we have had more than our fair share of frosty mornings when the the sun shines and the world is ice encrusted and glistening. The silhouettes of the trees stand like sculptures against the winter skies, the sunsets take my breath away. And why is it that on these glorious days I don’t have time to get outside with my camera and only have spare time on days like today when it’s perishing and grey and…

Oh stop moaning woman and get on with the job in hand.

Because the truth is there’s still so much to enjoy in the garden. I just have to brave the elements, whatever the elements happen to be. And even though it’s freezing degrees fahrenheit outside and the ground is rock hard, the plants know that spring is around the corner and they are getting themselves in shape for it.

First the Galanthus nivalis, the snowdrops. Never ones to be put off by the cold they are getting ready to flower any day now.

img_5839
Snowdrops getting ready for action

Then there’s the Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ I planted in the autumn. It’s clustering beautifully and getting ready to put on a show at any moment.

img_5876
Enough buds

One of my all time favourite plants, the Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii, which has delivered its structural elegance to the winter garden, is limbering up and preparing to put on it’s lime green loveliness for the benefit of contrast, so that when the tulips and the daffodils and the scillas and the muscari come into flower they have something to work with. I have several strategically placed around the garden. Last year’s mild winter saw it flowering from November. This year we have to wait. But it’s so worth it.

img_5636
Euphorbia with rain

The hellebores are getting ready by the driveway. The Sarcococca confusa is wafting occasional bursts of scent, but really wants it to warm up a couple of degrees in order for it to release the full strength of its sweetness. The Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ is laden with buds whose scent is one of the most exquisite of any I know, so that people who rarely notice such things comment as they walk past it to the kitchen door.

img_5845
Euphorbia with Daphne and red stemmed Cornus

In the front garden buds are showing on the Amalanchier and the guelder rose and the Prunus. Once you start paying attention it’s amazing how much is happening out there.

And inside I’m playing around with reflectors and backgrounds and apertures. And  I’m breaking my resolution not to buy flowers because at the moment I have no option.

img_5729
Tulip against black velvet

img_5758
Ranunculus from above

img_5745
Don’t know what this is but I like it!

img_5804
Inner tulip

I can’t wait until the cutting garden starts delivering because this year I’m hoping that I will have much more of a clue about how to take photos of what comes out of it.

So… I’ve written myself into a good mood. This week’s post has delivered a whole lot more than I imagined it would. And there’s next week to look forward to.

Bare bones and skeletons

So it begins.

With snow.

2017-01-13-12-56-43

Not very much snow. But still a chance to see the bare bones of the garden. Which is as good a place to start this year of weekly posts as any.

But before I embark let me fill you in on a bit of background.

For those who may not know the history of this garden, I should explain that sixteen years ago it wasn’t… a garden that is. What it was was an awkward triangle of about half an acre of sloping lawn surrounded by stock fencing. The kind of space you look over and out of rather than into. It was the garden developers leave for you when they’ve finished. Need I say more!

The garden at Little Court House 2
Room for improvement….

And this is how it stayed for a couple of years. Until the time came to ask for help from my mate Judes; who happens to be a garden designer of the very best kind. One of that rare breed who understand space and function and form.

Under Judy’s expert eye the contractors got going and the garden began its transformation. Once the landscaping was done it was time to get on with the planting. In a haphazard, unplanned, suck it and see kind of way that taught me a great deal about what goes where and what doesn’t, I bought plants I liked and put them in the ground. Which gave me an unimagined amount of pleasure, along with a fair amount of pain, as things outgrew their allotted spaces, self seeded, spread, grew this way when I wanted them to grow that, looked wrong, failed to thrive, died; in fact did all those things that plants do when you add a bit of sun and rain, and wait to see what happens.

Because when I started out as a novice gardener I was under the impression that you just planted things and left them to get on with it. I had no idea that shoving a drought loving plant into my heavy clay soil was like uprooting a camel from the Sahara and expecting it to thrive in Greenland. Plants know what they like and I learned that trying to force them to do anything different is an expensive mistake.

As for leaving them to get on with it. I realise now that this is akin to believing that the hair on your head should be left to grow as nature intended. Without interference. Now there may be many who are completely fine with this approach, but I’ve always been a seek out a good hairdresser and visit them regularly kind of girl. Plants need to be shaped, fed, nurtured. They need to be re-assessed and re-styled every now and then. It’s not that I don’t love natural. I just think it needs some help along the way.

Two years ago, with the benefit of all the years of hard work in my own garden, along with garden visits, trips to flower shows, books read, garden magazines thumbed, catalogues poured over, conversations had, and my garden design course under my belt, I took a step back, looked at what was in front of me, and realised that it was time for a major re-edit.

I went through the garden bed by bed, plant by plant, getting rid of any that didn’t please me. I drew up proper planting plans for the main beds. I reworked the area on the other side of the hedge which had been field, and was now home to a very uneven lawn, greenhouse and vegetable garden.

2017-01-13-13-11-35
Work in progress!

Over the past couple of years I’ve rejected, replanted, moved, cut back and generally overhauled the entire space. This year I hope to see the fruits of my labours start to deliver. Which is another reason I want to keep this blog/diary.

This week the garden is resting, for a couple of days slumbering under a light blanket of snow, with the odd downpour thrown in for good measure, and today a burst of winter sunshine. I’ve been out there with my camera. This is the time when the structure of the garden is revealed. Now is when I can see if it’s working. And I’m pleased to report that the skeleton is looking pretty good.

2017-01-13-12-56-04
Snowy garden

At this time of year it’s easy to believe that there’s nothing going on in the garden. But when it seems that there isn’t much to look at, you just have to look a little harder!

There’s beauty to be found in the bones.

My Gardening Year

I gave up on New Year resolutions a long time ago. Too easy to make; too hard to keep.

But with the Christmas decorations back in the attic, the pine needles swept away with the Christmas tree, the Christmas cards sent off for recycling, I’m beginning to feel the shiver of anticipation that is one of the joys of being a gardener at this time of year. It comes from spotting the silver green shoots of the snowdrops pushing up through the cold bare soil, from catching a waft of scent from the Sarcococca by the back door when I put out the rubbish, from seeing the spiky fronds of the Muscari assembling along the edges of the pathways. I sit in my kitchen and look out at the bare bones of the outdoor space that I’ve made for myself and I’m full of excitement for the year ahead.

So I know we’ve got Trump and Brexit and melting ice caps and all manner of scary things going on in the world. But – right here, right now – deep in the brown earth of my garden things are gathering strength and energy and getting ready to put on a show. Whatever else happens the garden will do it’s thing for better or worse. And I’m going to be right there with it.

Because this year I’m going to do what I’ve been promising myself for years and keep a regular record. This January of 2017 my resolution is to write a weekly post about whatever is happening in my garden that captures my attention, so that one day I can look back and be reminded of what a year in my garden really feels like. One of my birthday presents at the beginning of December was a subscription to Clive Nichols’ online photography course with The English Gardening School. (Which I’m about to start!) So hopefully, as the year progresses, the photos that go with my posts will have that extra edge. But whatever happens I will do my best to post something, anything to give you, me, and anybody else who is interested, an account of the ups and downs of my gardening year.

So…

Watch this space.

 

The Curious Behaviour of the Cycad on the Terrace

So I know that paraphrasing someone else’s title in order to attract attention is a cheap trick. But I have a sneaky feeling that if I called this post something like ‘The Life Cycle of the Cycad’ people not so interested in cycads (of which I recognise there may be many) might not read it. And I’d hate for you to be missing out!

Because who would have thought that a garden terrace in downtown Puerto Pollenca would see so much action? We’re not just talking sightings two days running of a Pine Marten, (see Pinch Me post) which is one of the creatures that David Attenborough has never seen in the wild but wishes he had. There’s another extraordinary thing happening out there which I simply have to tell you about.

A couple of years back, when I arrived in Majorca after a winter at home, it was to find that the cycad (for those cycad novices that’s the frondy green plant in the black planter) on the terrace was behaving rather strangely.

Hmmmm?
Hmmmm?

A cycad with a head the size of a football. Is that normal?

Cycad
…???????

I kept a close eye on developments. The head grew bigger. It was unnerving.

Then the following year this…

........?
Alien eggs?

Even more unnerving.

Then…

Nothing.

By the beginning of this year the weird eggy looking things had gone a bit flaccid. When we arrived from the UK in June the few remaining leaves had began to go brown. I prepared myself for the worst. Clearly this was a cycad on its last legs.

So imagine my surprise when I returned at the end of August

to this…

Cycad explodes on terrace
Cycad explodes on terrace

And it’s not just one cycad. Now there are four!!! Three little baby cycads are battling it out for space in a very crowded planter.

Now if you happen to be an expert on this kind of thing, you will probably tell me that this is entirely normal behaviour for a cycad and only to be expected. But to me it’s… well, quite frankly, it’s very curious.

Better late than never…

This morning I came home to this blog. It’s been quite a while. Other people have been visiting. Just not me.

But now I’m back. And the first thing I’m doing is having a tidy up. Because you know how it is when you’ve been away. You see things with a fresh eye. So I’m updating my image and giving this blog a new look. I hope you like it.

If you’ve been with me from the start, you might remember that in the early days I wrote a post about William Robinson. Until I embarked on my garden design course I had never heard of William Robinson. So I had no idea that he was one of the founding fathers of the ‘right plant, right place’ philosophy which has had such an impact on the way we garden today. And I had no idea that the place where he put his philosophy into practice was Gravetye Manor.

Gravetye Manor
Glorious Gravetye

Gravetye Manor happens to be just up the road from where I live. It happens to be where I spent the first night of my honeymoon. It happens to be where Tom Coward presides over the garden. Tom Coward happens to have come from Great Dixter. Which happens to be one of my favourite gardens.

So loads of reasons to visit. And I can’t for the life of me think why it’s taken so long  to get round to going back there.

I finally went last week. And you know what I discovered? Big mistake leaving it so long.

Because it’s fabulous.

Gravetye Manor
Hidden Spaces

The day was overcast. But this didn’t stop the garden from looking completely stunning. In fact if anything it helped. The textures, the form, the colours – all appeared at their spectacular best in the gentle light.

Grasses and perovskia at Gravetye
Stunning mix of grasses, salvia and perovskia

Stunning texture and form using euphorbias and grasses
How to do texture and Form

The Garden at Gravetye Manor
Another stunning combination

It was a masterclass in how to combine plants for stunning late summer effect. And all I can say is go there. Now. It’s nothing short of inspirational.

Aliens….

I don’t want to worry you….

But you know that scene in the first Alien film – the gut busting, stomach wrenching, ohmygodwhatthehelljusthappenedtoJohn Hurt moment – that had me scraping myself off the ceiling of the cinema the first time I saw it. Do you remember the way poor John had no idea that anything was wrong until his belly exploded….?

Well I’m sitting on my sofa nursing a vastly expanded waistline. And I’ve got a worrying feeling that I too may be about to explode. And while it might be all the chocolate I’ve eaten this weekend, I’m a little bit scared that there might be another more sinister explanation….

Because I was out in Puerto Pollenca for a few days last week. And there is something weird going on out there at the moment.

First off there’s the alien on our terrace….

I knew something was up last year. The Cycad, which has dutifully put on new growth each year, was behaving very strangely. Cycad

It appeared to be growing a head.

Cycad

I told myself that it would all be fine by the time I came back after the winter. All that wierdness would have settled down and we would be the proud owners of a perky Cycad with a lovely new set of leaves.

…. But I was wrong.

........?
……..?

Alien eggs?
Alien eggs?

What’s that all about……? I lay awake in the night and wondered about aliens invading my inner space.

Because it wasn’t just the Cycad….

There was also the spooky beeping….

We heard it the first night as we were going to bed. Sounded like the battery on someone’s fire alarm had gone flat. So piercing beep every few seconds for half an hour or so. And I’m beginning to wonder if earplugs might be the answer, because the owner of the house with the dodgy fire alarm is clearly not there. And we could be in for a long night.

But then the beeping stopped.

Ok – owner must be back, batteries replaced – we can all relax. I turn out the light and prepare for a good night’s sleep. And the beeping starts again. And then a while later it stops. And then starts again. And continues onning and offing throughout the night.

The next morning I heard it joining in with the dawn chorus. What was going on?

On our walk home from dinner in the port the following night, as we walked beside the water’s edge along Pine Walk, we heard the beeping again. And that was when we discovered that it was coming from somewhere above our heads, in a tall pine behind the villa on the corner as we turned away from the bay towards our house.

So we went straight home and we looked up ‘weird beeping in Puerto Pollenca’ on the internet. And you know what….

…. it’s a Scops Owl. Only eight inches high. It’s sitting up there in that tree. And it’s beeping. If you want to know what it sounds like click here

At first we thought it was calling to a mate. Because in the distance we could hear a faint reply. But then it hit us. It wasn’t another Scops Owl…. It was an echo….

So ok – the beeping is a lonely owl story. And the waist expansion is probably just down to overindulgence. But I’m keeping an eye on that Cycad….

 

The downside….

Ok….

Bit of a bummer….

I’ve discovered an unexpected downside to doing a garden design course. Which is that my critical eye has got more critical…. Now when I look at my own garden I’m seeing what’s wrong with it, rather than what’s right. And I’ve got a worrying feeling that the only answer is a bed by bed overhaul. I think I might have rather a lot of work ahead of me.

The good news is that the basic structure looks as good as ever. How lucky was I that before I properly appreciated what a really good garden designer could achieve I had a really good garden designer as a friend. Thanks to my mate Judes there is absolutely nothing wrong and absolutely everything right with the way the garden is laid out so the backbone is there. And luckily, thanks to her, I realised pretty quickly how important it is to provide a framework of trees and shrubs. So the structure is all there too.

It’s the bits in between that I’m thinking could do with a bit of reworking. And I’m starting with the front garden. To be fair my front garden has been work in progress for the past – shameful to admit it – over two years. Which is when we moved our front door from the side of the house to the middle.

We’ve lived in this house for coming up for fourteen years, and the thing that never worked terribly well for most of that time was the front entrance.

Fourteen years ago we moved in….

It was tacked onto a corner, from the days before we moved in when the house was smaller, with the porch leading through a front door into a narrow corridor. So that people came in and were surprised that there was more house than they expected.

The dining room window is the one in the middle....
In those days the front garden left a lot to be desired….

And it’s going to sound really sad, but I spent years trying to come up with a solution. Move walls here, put doors there, make this room smaller, that room bigger. Nothing seemed to work and I ended up thinking that we would just have to live with it the way it was. Until Christmas three years ago when I had one of my Eureka moments (they come if you wait for them) and realised that the thing to do was to lose the dining room, because it was never a very nice dining room, and we were always happier in the kitchen; turn what was the dining room into an entrance hall; turn the existing entrance ‘corridor’ into a downstairs loo; turn the existing downstairs loo (never great because of a difficult sloping ceiling) into a rather wonderful cupboard/walk in larder. And hey presto. A reworked house that worked the way it should have always worked, but just never did. Hurrah!

Except that when you move a front door from the side of the house to the front, the front garden needs reworking too. And it coincided with me being tied up with family stuff, and then I started the garden design course…. And time got taken over. And it slipped away the way it does.

So suddenly it’s two and a half years later, and the front garden still looks like it did when the builders left but a bit tidier.

Except for now I’m a garden designer. So that’s not great…..

But finally, a couple of weeks ago, I get round to looking at it. And it’s my first chance to put some of the stuff I’ve learned into practice.

Posh huh....
Posh huh….

Box balls in waiting....
Box balls in waiting….

So I did. And although you might not be able to see it yet, I think its going to work. I actually did some sketching to help me work it out. And I planned it properly. When I walk through it now I’m really pleased with it. More than pleased with it. I’m really excited about it. Because when it’s all grown up I think it’s got the potential to be a front garden I can be proud of.

Give it some time....
Just give it some time….

And these days that matters.

The Bare Bones….

It’s easy to feel down in the dumps at this time of year.

The long dark nights, the cold, the fog, the feeling that summer is a long way off and it’s only going to get worse before it gets better….

But as always there’s a lesson to be learnt from what’s going on in the garden. Because out there things are settling themselves down, tucking themselves in, and taking the opportunity to renew themselves for next year. All the action and the noise, the colours, the scents, the hustle and bustle of the changing seasons has died away leaving the bare bones, the structure, the frame on which everything else relies.

So now is the time for contemplation and consideration, for taking stock and deciding what works and what doesn’t. Which is what I’ve been doing a fair bit of over the past few weeks.

Take this garden design course for example. You know those voices in your head that you don’t actually stop and listen to but are there egging you on in the background. The voices that whisper about what people are expecting from you, what hill you need to climb in order to be successful, how the last thing you did that you thought would count doesn’t anymore. Well this year those voices have been going into overdrive – don’t be boring, don’t stop, don’t rest, prove yourself, achieve, show people you’re not past it, you’ve got to be the best, nothing else is good enough. And I wound up tired and emotional and unable to carry on.

But now that I’ve had a bit of time to think about the course, about why I’m doing it and what I want to get out of it, I’ve discovered something rather surprising. I’ve discovered that I don’t have to prove myself to anybody else but me.

Which has been a gift. Because I’ve stopped and I’ve rested and I’ve taken stock. And you know what – when you take the time to stop and listen that’s when you realise that the voices aren’t real. The ‘people’ who have been driving you don’t exist anywhere else but in your head.

So hurrah for winter, for taking time out to consider and contemplate.

And don’t be fooled into thinking there’s nothing to enjoy in the garden at this time of year….

Tucked up for the winter....
Tucked up for the winter….

Gentle greens and subtle silvers....
Gentle greens and subtle silvers….

 

The view from my front door step....
The view from my front door step….

Winter colour

Winter colour doesn’t have to shout….

Although sometimes....
Although sometimes….

And my advice for what it’s worth is to take some time out, even if it’s only for a few minutes, to stop and settle and contemplate. You might be surprised by what you find.