Thoughts of spring…

As we enter November my garden is looking a little drab. There’s lots to do to ‘put it to bed’ for the winter but it’s all somewhat uninspiring. So, to cheer myself up I am already thinking about next spring when the first green shoots start to push their way up through the soil.

I always buy far too many spring bulbs and end up running around like a demented squirrel trying to find empty patches of soil to plant them in. I just can’t resist the thought of all those delicate, pretty early bulbs announcing the arrival of another growing year.

As I was planning this blog, I sat and thought about my favourite spring bulbs. Of course the list is huge, but narrowing it down, I came up with the following top five:

  1. Snowdrops (Galanthus) in a drift are just gorgeous. The moment I see their delicate little flower heads pushing up, even through snow, I know that spring is on its way!
  2. Tiny daffodils, or narcissi (Poeticus recurvus) – so delicate and more subtle than the rather lumbering yellow trumpet daffs we get later on.
  3. Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) I am a sucker for bluebells. Loved them as a child and still do. A Devon wood carpeted in bluebells is a sight to behold.
  4. Runuculus – great for cutting and bringing indoors, these pretty bright blooms are guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
  5. Aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) This little plant is only about 10cm (4in) tall and looks best grown in a group, preferably somewhere that gets the morning sun.

It’s a bit soggy in the garden just at the moment, but the bulbs need planting. The worst thing that can happen is to not get on with it and then find the ground is frozen – disaster! Here are a few tips to help you get a lovely display this spring.

  • Always plant bulbs in ‘informal’ groups, or drifts – don’t plant ones or twos or in regimented lines! Actually throwing a handful of bulbs across the ground and planting them where they land is a simple way of doing it.
  • When buying bulbs, reject any that are soft or showing signs of mould. Small bulbs may not flower in their first year.
  • Bulbs should be planted in holes three to four times as deep as the bulb itself. So, for example, a 1in crocus bulb needs to be planted in a hole 3-4in deep.
  • Fill large plastic pots with your favourite bulbs and, just before they are about to flower, use them to plug holes in the border. Plastic pots can also be slipped inside more elegant terracotta ones and whipped out when the bulbs are over. Clever! 
  • Finally, do read the packaging on your bulbs to ensure you plant them at the right time. Lots of garden centres sell them from July onwards and they want them sold and out the way before the stock up on Christmas baubles, but July is way too early to plant spring bulbs.

 

Good luck!

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Autumnal Hydrangeas and work in the garden…

One of my favourite tasks of the year is picking autumnal hydrangea heads to dry them. They are spectacular in dried arrangements and if you’re thinking – ‘I don’t do dried arrangements’ – then just fill a basket with them on their own and you’ll instantly see how gorgeous they look!

Once they have been on display for a month or three … simply whip out the gold spray and spray them gold for Christmas and – hey presto – you’ll have a new display all over again! If your hydrangeas are already looking spotted and not so beautiful, then you can jump straight to the gold sprayed version once they have dried off.

When you cut them, allow a fair bit of stem – remove any leaves and bundle three heads together with an elastic band. It’s very important to use an elastic band for this rather than string. Now hang your little bunch of hydrangeas upside down in a warm place… and wait!

Then fill a basket with dried flower (grey) Oasis foam and fill it as full as you can with dried heads. Wow, I love the effect and all for free!

I am just hoping it’s nearly time for the last cut of the lawn this year and now that’s all tidy, and quite a bit of the pruning has been done, maybe the garden can think about going to sleep for the winter. I wonder what is in store for us all weather–wise? Will we get snow here in Devon? Will you have snow wherever you are, and how soon will the first frost come along and help everything look even more past its best than many of my plants are already looking now!

Maybe we should have a competition – first one of us to have snow…! Anyone reading this in Scotland, I bet you would win. But then, if you are reading in Sweden or Norway… OK, maybe I need to rethink this idea!

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An autumnal treat…

My field mushroom collection from last Saturday. Very nice on buttered toast!Hen pal and partner in crime writing, Julia Wherrell, has been enjoying an autumn harvest for free – so I thought I would get her to tell the story…           

During the last week it has suddenly got very autumnal here on Dartmoor, lots of mist and rain, but still pleasantly warm. This is great news for mushroom hunters like me!

I was walking the dog last Saturday morning and, as I strolled through some fields where sheep had been grazing, I spotted some bright white blobs among the green grass. Aha – field mushrooms I thought! Luckily, I had a plastic bag with me and picked some, which we duly ate for breakfast – lovely! When picking mushrooms, you want to look for nice clean, firm specimens – hence usually gathering mushrooms early in the day before they have been nibbled by insects, rained on or, most likely here, trampled on by a passing ewe!

I have been foraging for fungi for about 25 years now and it is a really interesting and rewarding thing to do when you are out in the countryside, strolling in a park, or just walking along a grassy verge. Scaremongers will tell horror stories about people poisoning themselves but this happens very rarely and, if you are sensible, learn from an expert and follow a couple of simple rules, you won’t go wrong.

If you are starting from scratch, I’d suggest you go on a fungi forage. You’ll find lots of these foraging walks arranged locally, often by National Trust properties, or other local nature organisations. This is a great way to pick up tips from someone who really knows their stuff, get to see the type of habitats that are good for mushrooms, and ultimately, discover if you enjoy foraging or not.

Despite knowing roughly what I am looking for, I am no expert, and I always refer to my trusty reference book – Roger Phillips ‘Common and important mushrooms’. I would recommend everyone starting out on this hobby buys this book.

Shaggy Inkcap – looks bad, tastes good!The first maxim I was taught on day one was: ‘If in doubt, leave it out!’ So if you pick anything you are not 100% sure about, DON’T try it, leave it out of your collection. The majority of mushrooms are not edible – but they aren’t poisonous either – they just don’t taste very nice. Quite a few are mildly poisonous and a few are lethal. Some are decidedly contrary and are poisonous raw, but edible when cooked… I confess I’ve never felt inclined to try any of these! 

One of the most common edible mushrooms you will see, often standing defiantly up in the middle of someone’s neat lawn, are shaggy ink caps. These are pretty unmistakeable, looking like judges’ wigs and, provided you pick them before they get to the ‘shaggy’ stage, they are lovely quickly browned in butter and served on toast.

Fly Agaric – looks good… but is deadly poisonous!Another mushroom that most of us are familiar with is the one with a red cap and white spots usually drawn with a fairy or pixie sitting neatly on the top. But don’t be fooled by its cheery looks – it is the deadly poisonous Fly Agaric and you shouldn’t even risk touching it. Which brings me to maxim number two: Always wash your hands thoroughly if you have been handling any fungi.

Fungi foraging is great fun and, like many things in the natural world, if you are sensible, and follow the rules, it is hugely rewarding.

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Green & white – a restful combination

This lovely green and white flower arrangement gave me a lot of pleasure during the week or so that it graced my desk. I have a bit of a ‘thing’ about unusual colour combinations with flowers. Indeed my first wedding flowers were green and white with green and white bridesmaids (their dresses, there were no green bridesmaids!).

The roses are old-fashioned English roses, mixed with cow parsley, buddleia and beautiful scented stocks making it a feast for the nose as well as the eyes. Most of the supermarkets have been selling stocks lately and I do so love their scent.

Green and white is a very restful combination and it always reminds me of the white garden at Sissinghurst near Tunbridge Wells. Vita Sackville West called it her grey, green and white garden, and the combination is amazing!

You can make beautiful arrangements that are almost completely green if you can source interesting green flowers. There are lovely green hellebores and of course green orchids to name just two. Another attractive and less run of the mill option is to have an arrangement that is entirely made up of foliage – if you have grey, green, variegated and other interesting leaves in your garden, why not give it a go!

 

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Chillies & strawberries this year!

I don’t have much space in the garden for growing vegetables (nor the time!) as pretty much all the growing space is taken up with flowers and shrubs. However I have got round this by planting some veggies in mid air this year!

I have an old feed basket from the days when Victoria Farm still had cattle, back in the 1960s I believe. There were actually quite a few feed baskets left in the stables and barns that are now the studios. There is one just outside my kitchen window which I lined with moss and plastic and then filled with compost. Now I have a mix, as you can see, of foodie and decorative plants growing together.

The chillies (Aurora (Capsicum annuum)) are just an annual but if I dry all the chillies that come from this plant I reckon I should have enough for months. I am fascinated by the colours of the chillies – the purple ones are beautiful and then they change to reds and oranges – just gorgeous.

I planted some strawberries next to them, partly for the fruit but I also loved the bright and colourful hot pink flowers, which make a nice change from the normal white flowers.

I don’t think I’m going to save any money on the grocery bill, but I am getting a lot of pleasure looking at the plants hanging half way up the wall just outside my kitchen!

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