The beauty of blossom

Blossom – it’s a lovely full, rounded, blousy word (or onomatopoeic if you want to be fancy!) – and at this time of year, there’s a lot of it about.

I absolutely adore seeing trees and hedgerows in bloom and can’t wait until things bursting out, usually in March. The best blossom occurs after cold snaps, so a good chilly winter should mean billowing blossom. Each blossom flower lasts for one or two weeks, weather permitting – so fingers crossed this year’s don’t all get blown or washed away too soon.

First up in the countryside in early March are the blackthorn hedges. Devon, where I live, is blessed with wonderful hedgerows and up on Dartmoor the frothy blackthorn blossom is really striking against the stark moorland. Blackthorn really makes the most of its blossom as it emerges before the leaves, so the white flowers contrast beautifully against the bare branches.

In domestic gardens, the wonderfully showy magnolia should also be out by this time and Cornwall is a great spot to see magnolias in bloom early.

Once things start to warm up, ideally by April (fingers crossed!), we can look forward to the gorgeous sight of cherry blossom. I love seeing its pretty pink and white blooms, so cheering. I have been fortunate enough to visit Japan several times through work, and if you can time it to coincide with the cherry blossom, it is a wonderful sight to behold. They have over 200 varieties of ornamental cherry and it is such an important part of Japanese life that they have a daily ‘Cherry Blossom Forecast’ to tell people where the best blossom can be found as ‘The Cherry Blossom Front’ sweeps slowly north.

Unsurprisingly, the month of May sees the arrival of may blossom, or hawthorn. Again, Dartmoor is a great place to see may blossom where hawthorn is widely used to produce tough stock-proof hedges.

Apple blossom, so delicate and pretty, will start to appear in May. Apple orchards are wonderful things and it is great to see how much work has been put into saving old apple varieties, or ‘heritage’ apples as we are supposed to call them. Just the names make me feel all nostalgic – Worcester Pearmain, Orange Pippin and Egremont Russet – like characters from a Wodehouse novel!

June sees pretty much the end of blossom in this country and the last one to make a showing is the enchanting elder, its frothy blossoms being wonderful in cordial and wine. While many other parts of the world have exotic and technicolour blooms, I remain immensely fond of our delicate and slightly restrained spring blossom.

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Thomas Kinkade for a relaxing cardmaking session

I enjoy crafting and cardmaking most of the time, even the most complex designs, but just occasionally I think how nice it would be to have a pretty card made without too much effort or angst going into it – just a relaxed few minutes at your craft spot, whether it be the kitchen table or a desk.

This Thomas Kinkade project is so simple, hopefully you should find it a great way to chill and craft! The ingredients are all fairly simple and, of course, you can tweak which main design you use, and change the backing paper to use something you may have in your stash.

I think crafting can be compared to cooking – sometimes I want to make my own stock and sauces from scratch – and at other times I just want to get on, and an Oxo cube will do nicely thank you! I hope you enjoy this one.

Ingredients:

Method:

  1. Mat some of the backing paper on grey card – add that to the card blank. I use double sided tape, but use whatever you like to use.
  2. Cut the border from the sheet in the Thomas Kinkade pad, add two-thirds or so of the way down (as in photo).
  3. Die cut the Sabrina border and make sure it is the same width as the grey card. Stick on with whatever glue you enjoy using – I use either glossy accents or a quickie glue pen.
  4. Mat the main image onto white card and attach that to your design and then cut out the little sentiment also on the sheet and add that – hey presto …. done!

 

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Divide and rule!

David Perry demonstrates how to divide a clump of Miscanthus.

This week, I’m handing over to my partner in crime writing, Julia, to tell us about her latest trip to RHS garden Rosemoor where she received some seasonal advice.

It is such a treat to visit Rosemoor on a regular basis, as I am doing this year attending a series of talks, and to see the garden evolving with the seasons. Last week, I went on a garden talk entitled ‘What now? Spring’

The course notes said: ‘Let the RHS experts help you through the gardening year providing a whistle-stop tour of techniques, tips, tricks and advice on seasonal tasks so that you know what you could be doing when. Spring topics covered – dividing and planting herbaceous perennials, spring shrub pruning, cutting back of ornamental grasses, plus other topics of seasonal interest.’

This was exactly what I needed as I am never entirely sure what I should be doing when especially when it comes to pruning. Somehow, I had it firmly in my brain that I had to cut everything back in the Autumn… and was then surprised how many plants I manage to kill off every year! There really is no excuse for such ignorance as there are tutorials online and thousands of excellent gardening books but, somehow, it is always better to be shown how to do something first hand.

Our tutor at Rosemoor was Garden Manager, David Perry. Pruning is always a thorny topic, but within the first minute, David had explained two pruning terms that I had followed but did not know why – prune back to two buds and cut on an angle. Why two buds? If the top one gets frosted and dies, you still have the second one. Why cut on an angle? To provide a difficult surface for water, dust or parasites to settle on. Obvious, really!

The ‘bare bones’ at Rosemoor, beautiful in their own right.

Shrubs grown for their colourful stems or foliage, such as dogwood, need to be cut down in the spring to encourage new growth, known as coppicing. No wonder they hadn’t done well for me before, as I had chopped them off in November! He also demonstrated how to prune shrubs and roses into a ‘goblet’ shape, cutting out shoots that cross over, or were growing inward, to allow free airflow and a general rather lovely shape.

Buying plants can be expensive, so it is really useful be able to identify ones that can be divided to create more. All clump-forming herbaceous perennials, including ornamental grasses, can be divided and, when done regularly, helps ensure healthy plants that will continue to perform year after year. While perennials can be divided at almost any time if they are kept well-watered afterwards, David said it is best to do it when the plants aren’t in active growth. He demonstrated how to divide a substantial clump of Miscanthus using two garden forks back-to-back as levers to loosen and break the root mass into two sections. He made it look easy!

It was interesting to see the ‘bare bones’ of the garden at this time of year. The shape of espaliered and step-over fruit trees were art forms in themselves and it was also great to see the wooden supports staff were creating with coppiced sticks – so much more natural than bamboo poles!

How to divide perennials

Here are simple tips for dividing perennials from the RHS website:

  • Lift plants gently with a garden fork, working outwards from the crown’s centre to limit root damage. Shake off excess soil so that roots are clearly visible
  • Some plants, such as Ajuga (bugle), produce individual plantlets which can simply be teased out and replanted
  • Small, fibrous-rooted plants such as Heuchera, Hosta and Epimedium can be lifted and pulled apart gently. This should produce small clumps for replanting
  • Large, fibrous-rooted perennials, such as Hemerocallis (daylily), require two garden forks inserted into the crown back-to-back. Use these as levers to loosen and break the root mass into two sections. Further division can then take place
  • In some cases, a sharp knife, axe or lawn edging iron may be needed to cleave the clump in two
  • Plants with woody crowns (e.g. Helleborus) or fleshy roots (e.g. Delphinium) require cutting with a spade or knife. Aim to produce clumps containing three to five healthy shoots.

Top photo: Lovely pair of pottery chickens by Somerset artist George Hider.

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Surprise pies…

This week has been British Pie Week – the list of ‘national awareness days’ just keeps on growing! The past week has also been ‘National Conversation Week’ (and I do mean conversation and not conservation!) and the whole month of March is designated ‘National Bed Month’! But let’s focus on the all important Pie Week… I decided to do some Googling about pies and it was quite a surprise!

Pies have been around a very, very long time. Technically, everything used to be a pie. The pastry shell was originally nothing more than a baking dish and storage container for the filling. The Romans would use meats, oysters and fish in their fillings while a mixture of flour, oil and water made a sturdy shell, or case, to keep the filling in place. Not surprisingly, the pastry was tough and inedible and designed to be thrown away. Our wonderful west country pasty’s distinctive ‘D’ shape was apparently designed to enable hardworking miners and labourers, with grubby hands, to eat their meal more easily using the thick crimped crust as a handle.

It’s hard to believe a culinary dish can have a sinister side to it, but the pie does. As someone always on the look out for an ‘interesting’ way of finishing people off for murder mystery purposes (literary, not literally!), I was amazed at how often the pie has been used as a way of killing characters.

The evil Sweeney Todd has to be the most famous pie-killer. He and Mrs Lovett baked their victims in pies and sold them. A fictional character who first appeared in a Victorian ‘penny dreadful’, it has long been speculated that it was based on true events, but I couldn’t find any clear evidence. Even the bard himself, William Shakespeare, has turned to the pie as a weapon and killed off two characters with a pie! In Titus Andronicus, Titus wreaks revenge on Queen Tamora and her family for their evil deeds by baking her sons into a pie and serving it to her. Ugh!

That king of killjoys, Oliver Cromwell, virtually banned the pie in 1644, when he decided it was a ‘pagan form of pleasure’. It wasn’t a complete ban on pies though, just a ban on Christmas celebrations and foods that were associated with the ‘pagan’ holiday, such as mince pies and turkey pies. Fortunately, the ban was lifted, but not until 1660.

I think most of you will remember the nursery rhyme ‘Sing a song of sixpence’ that contains the rather worrying line ‘Four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’. It seems that in 16th century England ‘surprise pies’ were all the range among the upper classes and live animals would jump out when a pie was cut open – extraordinary! All kinds of creatures were placed inside pies including frogs, squirrels, foxes and, as we know, large numbers of blackbirds. Some records even suggest that at a dinner attended by Charles I, a huge pie was put on the table and when the crust was removed, a dwarf jumped out! My goodness, we think there are some strange things on the internet these days, but it seems some people have always had a taste for the bizarre!

After discovering such a lurid background, I’m not entirely sure I shall ever be able to regard a pie as just a tasty thing to eat ever again!

Main photo: @britishpiesweek

 

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Winter garden inspiration

My partner in crime writing, Julia, moved house last autumn and is planning how she is going to design and plant up her new garden. I’ll let Julia tell you what she’s been up to…

One of the many Cornus to be seen at Rosemoor.

I am fortunate enough to live about half an hour away from RHS Garden Rosemoor, where they run talks and courses about all aspects of gardening. My new (new to me, anyway) garden is large, relatively empty, on a very slight incline and south facing… almost the complete opposite of my previous garden that was steep, terraced half in shade, and a frost pocket! My new house is also about 700ft above sea level so I am keen to try and ensure I buy the right plants for the garden.

As well as the right plants for the setting, I also want to try and ensure I have interest throughout the year. My old garden used to be at its best from May to July and pretty uninteresting the remainder of the time. So, my first session at Rosemoor was called ‘Winter colour for your garden’.

The amazing Acer griseum, the aptly named paper bark maple.

Their course brochure says: “Winter is often considered to be a closed season in the garden, but this definitely need not be the case. Colourful and fragrant flowers, striking barks and stems and a wide variety of evergreen plants all help to brighten up the garden and provide a wealth of interest throughout the winter. On this walk we will look at a good selection of plants, all of which are star performers during the winter months, and also discuss how to care for them.”

Luckily for me, the mid-February day was sunny and not too chilly. Rosemoor has a specific winter garden, and it was wonderful to see just how much colour and interest you can create. The thing that struck me most was the scent! I had no idea a winter garden could smell so wonderful. As the air was crisp, the mix of winter sun, birdsong and floral fragrance was just wonderful. Sarcococca is not a shrub I had encountered before, but I will definitely be buying some. Compact, evergreen shrubs with simple, leathery leaves and tiny, fragrant creamy-white flowers in winter or spring, followed by red, purple or black berries they smell divine. While I am familiar with Daphne, it’s another winter flowering plant whose fragrance I had not really appreciated.

Dramatic Camelia.

As well as scent, you need colour. While Camelias are a good bet for dramatic flowers, I was drawn more towards the coloured stems of Cornus, or dogwood as I have always called it, their bright red and yellow stems looking wonderful against a dark hedge or fence in deepest winter. Dogwoods is pretty wonderful all ways around, having blossoms, berries and, when you prune back the stems, providing beautifully coloured whips that you can use to make woven shapes and decorations.

I am lucky enough to have space to plant some trees. Witch hazels, or Hamamelis to use the proper name, are a delight with their fuzzy brightly coloured flowers and attractive scent. They also tend not to grow too large so they are definitely on my list. A tree that I fell instantly in love with at Rosemoor was a paper bark maple, Acer griseum, a beautiful tree with cinnamon-coloured peeling bark. I don’t think I’d ever seen anything quite like it.

Sarcococca confusa… I think!

At the end of our walk and talk, we were given a comprehensive plant list… this is, of course, fatal, as you feel you want to rush out and buy everything on it! I didn’t and am instead trying to draw out a proper plan of what to plant where as I won’t be able to do much in the garden until late summer anyway due building work going on. As an RHS member, I receive discounted rates on any walks or courses I go on. If you live near an RHS garden, it really is worth becoming a member… or get to know someone who is as they can also get you the discounted rate!

In lieu of a holiday this year, I have booked myself on a series of these events looking at what to grow throughout the seasons and, as I am now the proud owner of a greenhouse, how to manage cuttings and collecting seeds. Planting a new garden can be terribly expensive, but if you can grow from seed and take cuttings you can keep the cost down. If you don’t live near an RHS garden, there are hundreds of videos online and hints and tips to refer to. The RHS website, as Joanna has said before, is always worth looking at, as are the BBC Gardening sites. And apart from anything else, gardening is just so good for you!

 

 

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