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Wildflower wonderland

After a pretty fraught day, it was lovely to go for an evening stroll yesterday and to feel the warmth of the sun, listen to the birds singing and enjoy the fabulous wildflowers.

I think we all know Devon is a beautiful county but, in the month of May, it really comes into its own. The hedgerows, banks and woodlands are full of wildflowers – bluebells, red campion, stitchwort, wild garlic… the list is endless.

My own garden is starting to look pretty good, but there is something so magical about the display nature can produce all on her own. Yes, I know you can see tropical blooms and exotic birds in other parts of the world but for me, there is nothing to beat the English countryside in May.

What’s your favourite wildflower?

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Quirky museums for Easter holiday fun

The year seems to be galloping by and, tomorrow, it will be April! If you find yourself looking for a way to entertain youngsters during the school holidays, why not try some of the country’s more quirky museums? There are some amazing ones around – have a Google and you’ll see. I’ve picked out a few ‘interesting’ ones that you might like to visit…

(Click on the museum names to visit their websites).

The Dog Collar Museum

Copyright: Leeds Castle.

I absolutely had to include this museum! Leeds Castle (which is in Kent, not Leeds) has a unique collection of historic and fascinating dog collars that is now the largest of its kind on public display anywhere in the world.

The colossal collection of canine neckwear, spanning five centuries, is fun for children and adults alike. There are over 130 rare and valuable collars with the earliest dating back to the late 15th century – a Spanish iron herd mastiff’s collar, which would have been worn for protection against wolves and bears roaming Europe at the time.

Other collars range from 16th-century German iron collars with fearsome spikes to ornate gilt collars of the Baroque period, through to finely-chased nineteenth century silver collars and twentieth century examples fashioned from tyres, beads and plastic.

Museum of Witchcraft and Magic

Copyright: Museum of Witchcraft and Magic.

Located in the picturesque Cornish harbour of Boscastle, this museum was started in 1960 and is now one of the most visited museums in the Westcountry. It claims to have the world’s largest collection of items relating to witchcraft, magic and the occult. Exhibitions change regularly so there’s always something new to see. 2017 boasts an exhibition of ‘poppets, pins and power: the craft of cursing’, which sounds well worth a visit! Being in such a lovely coastal setting, there’s plenty to see and do as well as explore this mysterious museum.

The Bakelite Museum

Copyright: The Bakelite Museum, above, and main header.

Anyone who has clocked up their half century will have come across Bakelite! The first proper plastic, Bakelite was a revolutionary material. It enabled mass-production and was known as ‘the material of a thousand uses’ and, in various guises, was used by everybody. The museum is an enormous collection of vintage plastics, from the earliest experimental materials to 1970s kitsch. It includes Bakelite objects in a huge variety of shapes, colours and functions – radios, telephones, eggcups, musical instruments, toys, tie-presses and even a coffin. There are also domestic and work related things from the Bakelite era, mainly the 1920s to the 1950s, and the whole collection is a nostalgic treat, a vintage wonderland and an educational eye-opener.

The exhibits are displayed in an atmospheric 18th-century watermill, in the heart of the beautiful Somerset countryside between Taunton, Minehead and Bridgewater. Williton Station, on the West Somerset Railway, the longest stretch of restored steam railway in the country, is just a 20-minute walk away. They also serve Somerset cream teas – so what’s not to love about this museum as a great day out!

Gnome World

Copyright: Gnome Reserve.

Yes, really! This north Devon attraction promises ‘a completely unique 100% fun experience, simultaneously 100% ecologically interesting, with an extra 100% wonder and magic mixed in’.

Set between Bideford and Bude, the 1000+ gnomes and pixies reside in a lovely 4 acre-reserve, with woodland, stream, pond, meadow and garden. Visitors will be delighted to learn that gnome hats are loaned free of charge together with fishing rods and you are encouraged to embarrass the family with some truly memorable photos for the family album!

The House of Marbles

Copyright: House of Marbles.

I don’t know why most of these museums are in the Westcountry, I was looking nationwide… goodness knows what it says about those of us that live down here! Anyway, I absolutely must give a final mention to The House of Marbles, here in Bovey Tracey, Devon, owned by some old friends of mine. Whenever you look up unusual museums or great places to visit – the House of Marbles is up there at the top of the list. No less than three museums, an enormous marble run and the chance to see glass being blown, it’s a great place to visit whatever your age. Oh, and it also has a very popular restaurant and great shops!

Have fun!

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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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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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Tree-mendous!

Trees are such a familiar part of our countryside that I think we often take them for granted. Not only are trees ‘the lungs’ of our world they are also incredibly beautiful, varied and inspiring. People write poetry about them, paint them and hug them.

I am lucky in that I live quite a rural life and Devon has a reasonable amount of woodland. However, I was somewhat surprised to read that the UK has one of the lowest tree cover rates in Europe, just 13% compared to a European average of 37%.

The Woodland Trust has launched an ambitious plan to plant 64 million trees by 2025 and they want us all to help. They are offering a free pack of seeds containing rowan, dog rose, alder, buckthorn and holly, and it comes with full planting instructions and care advice. What a great idea! They will also offer help and advice as your seedlings germinate and grow.

The seeds they send you will be kept moist with compost to help them germinate. This means it will be harder to tell the different seeds apart when they arrive. If you would like to try and identify the seeds you’re planting you can wash the compost off but then the seeds must be sown immediately. It will be much easier to identify your seedling once it has germinated. To claim your free seed pack click on the link here.

I think this is an absolutely brilliant scheme and the more of us that get involved the better. I will be claiming my pack today.

If you are lucky enough to already have trees in your garden, have you ever considered collecting seeds from them, propagating the seedlings and then either planting more yourself or perhaps giving them away as gifts?

The top four methods for seed collection used on the UK National Tree Seed Project (UKNTSP) are easily remembered through the handy acronym SEED:

Shake tree over a large laid out tarpaulin

Extra-long pole to prune off seeds clusters

Encase branch ends in a cotton fine-meshed bag to collect small wind-dispersed seed

Delicately hand-pick fleshy berries

When collecting seeds it’s best not to collect from the ground, to avoid collecting old seeds from previous years. Never take more than 20% of the seed crop, remember seeds create the next generation of plants and sustain wildlife. There are lots of good reasons to collect seeds and you can read all about it here.

So, the next time you’re out collecting seeds or growing them in your garden, just think of the extraordinary journey their counterparts are on. Heading towards the ultimate goal of ensuring your great-great grandchildren can have the same experience you’re having. The simple yet irreplaceable delights of planting and watching your own seed grow from a tiny speck into a monumental tree.

The Woodland Trust is well worth supporting, and its website is full of interesting facts. Do have a look if you have a moment…

All photos copyright Julia Wherrell. Top illustration – The Woodland Trust.

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