The merry merry month of May!

Forgive me if I am repeating myself… but I LOVE May! It is the month when spring reaches its zenith and summer just starts to sneak in with (hopefully!) some extra warmth…

This year has been very odd with a horribly cold and wet early spring meaning the poor trees and plants seem to have gone into overdrive to get established and then produce their blossom over a very short period of time in an attempt to catch up. Not only does this show the adaptability of Mother Nature, it has also resulted in some spectacular amounts of blossom. As the saintly Monty Don said on Gardener’s World last week, he has never seen so much blossom in his lifetime – and he is in his early 60s. Amazing – the blossom I mean, not his age!

Wisterias are looking as if they will swamp entire buildings and the scent is just amazing! Fruit trees burst into a great froth of blooms – and then seemed over in a flash. All sorts of wildflowers have been flowering together, resulting in some gorgeous colour mixes and amazing vistas. Bluebells, while prolific this year, have run into the emergence of the ferns. The new bright green ferns shooting up among them are diluting their magnificent purple/blue colour somewhat. Different – but no less stunning.

Not knowing much about it, I can only assume the effect on insects and wildlife will be equally ‘rearranged’ by this topsy-turvy weather. I’ve heard more cuckoos this year than I have before and there seem to be a great many swallows about… which I guess must mean more insects thanks to the masses of blossom! And so it goes around.

As long as mankind doesn’t interfere too much with its chemicals and denuding of the countryside, we can rely on Mother Nature to sort it all out for herself. If only other problems in the world could be managed in the same way

PS. Just had to add that I thought the flowers at the royal wedding were absolutely stunning! The entrance to St George’s Chapel was fantastic! What did you think?

 

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“Rhubarb rhubarb!”

I do enjoy Gardener’s World – an hour of delightful diversion, relaxing and thoroughly good for you. Whenever Monty Don so much as mentions a plant that I have in my garden I instantly feel as if this makes me a Proper Gardener. So, imagine my excitement last Friday when he was talking about picking your first rhubarb of the year and went on to say how a breakfast of stewed rhubarb and yoghurt was one of the most delicious breakfasts you could eat… that was just what I had tucked into myself earlier in the day! The combination is so yummy (a top culinary term!) the creamy yoghurt and tart rhubarb – and what’s more, it makes you feel virtuous as a healthy breakfast choice.

I think rhubarb is a bit like beetroot or avocado, a very distinct taste and you either love it or hate it. I love it, and it is so easy to grow! Our rhubarb is only about three years old (you shouldn’t harvest from it in the first year), but it is huge! Wrestling the stalks off the plant can be quite hard work (you have to carefully pull and not cut) and the enormous leaves need to be cut off and put straight in the compost bin, as they are poisonous. Unfortunately, people have been poisoned after eating the leaves. This was a particular problem during the First World War when the leaves were mistakenly recommended as a food source!

Rhubarb is such an easy thing to grow and you get so much back from it and I, for one, like its rather exuberant appearance. Botanically, rhubarb is a vegetable but it is treated as a fruit, despite its tart flavour, you really can’t eat it raw and must add sugar. It goes well with ginger and strawberries… as well as custard and cream! And let’s be honest – is there anything more wonderful than a rhubarb crumble? Do you like rhubarb? If so, what do you make with it? Do share!

Rhubarb grows in two crops, the first arrives early in the year and is ‘forced’, or grown under pots, or those lovely tall terracotta forcers made especially for the job. The ‘rhubarb triangle’ around Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford is renowned for its production of delicate forced rhubarb, grown by candlelight inside sheds… I saw a TV programme on it once – fascinating!  You can read more about it here.

Forced rhubarb is a lovely pale pink, with lime green leaves, and it is the more tender and delicately flavoured of the two crops. The second, called main crop rhubarb, arrives in the spring and is grown outdoors and is what most of us have sprouting in our gardens. Its stalks are a deeper red, tinged with green, and its leaves a brighter green. It has a more intense flavour and a more robust texture than the forced crop.

Rhubarb is a fruit (or vegetable!) that has many health claims attributed to it. As ever, I think we have to take some of these with a pinch of salt – or spoonful of sugar in this case! Rhubarb is packed with minerals, vitamins, organic compounds, and other nutrients that make it a good healthy option. Some of these components include dietary fibre, protein, vitamin C, vitamin K, B complex vitamins, calcium, potassium, manganese, and magnesium. Every serving of rhubarb provides 45% of the daily value in vitamin K, which supports healthy bone growth and can limit neuronal damage in the brain.

And if you’ve ever wondered why we use the term ‘Rhubarb rhubarb’… it goes back to 1852, when the theatre company of English actor Charles at the Princess’s Theatre, London would say the word rhubarb repetitively to mimic the sound of indistinct conversation in any crowd scenes, the word having been chosen because it does not have harsh-sounding consonants or clear vowels. So there you have it!

 

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Grace goes gardening!

We have a sad little 4-year old here that has been so poorly with scarlet fever, but I am happy to say she is recovering well. I rather thought scarlet fever had disappeared and was an illness from my childhood era, but it seems not and several of her friends at the nursery have had it as well.

So despite being definitely on the mend, she is still fragile and not up for the usual high jinks with Grandpa down by the swing or any rough and tumble. So one of the things Richard organised with her was some gardening and the early planting of vegetable seeds ready for summer.

It only took a few demonstrations for her to catch on how to plant them and as she explained to me later, it was a bit like putting the seeds to bed! So we now have runner beans (Scarlet Emperor and Guinness Record), radishes and cos lettuce. Several varieties of tomato, including one that promises faithfully to be blight resistant – the jury is still out on that one – and Grace’s favourite… Nasturtiums using last year’s seeds from the plants which she had kept in an envelope over the winter.

I love the fact that she understands where vegetables come from, as she and I stood in the conservatory and watched Grandpa plant out the first early potatoes, she chattered away about how she hoped the rabbits wouldn’t steal our crops this year – too many episodes of Peter Rabbit and Mr McGregor on the TV there I think!

It is such a privilege to be able to spend time with a little mind, we heard today which primary school she has been allocated (her parents first choice – yay!) and I just have to wonder where the past few years have gone – but a lovely time to share with my family.

 

 

 

 

 

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Here’s to a blooming good summer of flowers!

I’m sitting here writing this blog with glorious sunshine streaming through my workroom window – at last, Spring really does seem to have arrived! I strolled around the garden earlier and picked all the daffodils with broken stems, something I often do as the lovely blooms will only spoil if left flopped on the grass and, as they have already fallen it makes me feel less guilty for picking them! I always think a bunch of daffs is like a little ray of sunshine brought indoors, they cheer up my desk and their subtle fragrance is lovely.

I was thinking about cut flowers when scrolling through Sarah Raven’s glorious website during a quiet moment over Easter. Like so many gardening websites, they make life easy for us by grouping plants by colour, or growing conditions, ideal aspect and so on. Sarah seems to be particularly good on flowers for cutting and she does the loveliest selection of seeds for cut flowers. The current fashion for much more relaxed and wildlife inspired arrangements – bringing the outdoors indoors, so to speak – is just gorgeous and these seed collections are ideal for producing this look.

I also came across a company called ‘Meadow in my Garden’ who have lovely meadow seed mixes that will produce flowers all summer long. Growing from seed is the cheapest way to grow your flowers and will give you a wide choice of blooms – and also a clear conscience, as you won’t be contributing to air or road miles by buying your flowers from a shop.

You don’t need a great deal of space to grow flowers for cutting, as little as a metre square will do, although a bit more would be good. Find somewhere sunny, part of a neglected flowerbed or perhaps a tatty area of lawn that you’d love to see the back of. If you have raised beds, you don’t only have to grow veg in them – try flowers as well! When you sow seeds, there are two choices – neat rows or patches. Rows will give you better quality flowers on longer stems, whereas a patch looks less regimented and you don’t get obvious gaps when you cut your blooms.

For most of these seed mixes, you scatter them in a prepared bed and cover with a little more spoil, water… and wait! Provided your seeds aren’t old or out of date, you really can’t go wrong. One of my most favourite cutting flowers, sweet peas, can be sown direct, but I find I get the best results if I sow them in pots and then plant out. This year’s batch is already shooting and I’m getting excited just thinking about their heavenly scent!

 

 

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The beauty of birdsong

The magical song of a blackbird at dusk…

Is there anything more beautiful than birdsong? From the first trills of the dawn chorus to the solo blackbird singing as dusk falls, it is the most magical thing.

I read recently about some musicians holding concerts in woodland in the hope that a nightingale would join in the music – how magical that would be. Sadly, not many people have ever heard a nightingale as they have declined greatly over the past few years. The RSPB says there are fewer than 5,500 now, down from 60,000 a few decades ago. Isn’t that sad? It is only the male bird that sings and what makes the nightingale unique is that they sing many different notes and appear to respond to music made by humans.

A song thrush singing early on a summer’s morning.

The nightingale is the bird widely regarded as the star performer, but I can think of several others that frequently wow me with their musical skills. Many times up on Dartmoor I have listened to the beautiful trills and twitters of a skylark – only visible as a tiny dot, high up in the sky. A song thrush, again a bird in major decline, is also lovely to sit and listen to, it’s song so varied and clear. The gardener’s friend and surely one of our cheekiest birds, the robin, also has a delightful song and a blackbird’s solo at dusk is the perfect end to a day.

Birds use their voices to communicate with other birds. A bird ‘call’ says something definite about the caller – for example, “I’m a robin and I’m worried about that cat down there”. Bird ‘song’ is a specialised form of bird call that is designed to ensure the breeding success of the singer, to indicate clearly that he is healthy and fit and ready to breed.

And yes, as is so often the way, it’s largely a boy thing, designed so that other females of the same species are attracted and males of the same species are repelled.

A cheeky robin serenading us as we work in the garden!

Birdsong is most highly developed in a group of birds called ‘passeriformes’ which include wrens, robins, blackbirds and song thrushes. Basically, it means ‘perching bird’ and it’s an enormous group – around 5,400 of the world’s 8,000 to 9,000 species are ‘perching birds’ and all of them sing differently.

Each species has its own signature song. Some are basic, chiff-chaffs just go ‘chiff chaff’, but many are complex and never fail to lift the spirit – the blackbird being possibly the best example. Each song is different. It has to identify the singer’s species and also say something about the health of the singer. Many species even mimic other birds’ songs just to increase their repertoire, and it’s not unknown for other sounds, such as cats’ calls, to be included as well!

Birdsong is an integral part of the soundtrack in our everyday lives (well, for we lucky country dwellers at least) and when the singing stops – it is quite unsettling. I recall when we had an eclipse about 10 years ago and, as we stood outside, marvelling as the light quickly faded as the sun disappeared… the birdsong ceased. I found that silence along with the sudden gloom, very unsettling. A world without birdsong would be a barren place indeed.

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