A new one for me; water unlike anywhere I’ve been & wild rosemary fresh from the sea.
A new one for me; water unlike anywhere I’ve been & wild rosemary fresh from the sea.
Last autumn I spent a day with Cindy Blaney, a warden at Highgate Wood in North London, as she surveyed the resident bat population. Cindy is employed by the City of London, caring for, documenting and conserving the wood, which amazingly for London, can be traced back to a form of ancient woodland. Each year Cindy conducts a bat census, recording species and numbers, and I was fortunate enough to tag along. It was very cool to get up so close to the bats, typically such illusive creatures, which we found huddled in nest boxes, settling in for the winter.
You can listen to my time in the wood with Cindy over on the Podcast page in the header.
A recent written commission took me across the water to the cities of Toronto and Detroit. Although the two occupy separate countries, they share their regional territory with an ancient woodland: the Carolinian forest. Much of this once sprawling and prolific disiduous wood has sadly been lost, 90% in fact. Originally spreading across America, climbing North-West from the Carolinas into southern Ontario, Canada, sadly now only pockets can be found: those baring the original broadleafed footprint of the true Carolinian forest.
Having undertaken the otherwise strictly-urban commission in prime-time, fully swung, brightly glowing autumn, making a few dashed escapades into the surrounding woods was something I couldn’t have resisted. More images on the AWAY page.
During the first two months of the year I spent some time away from the garden indulging my long held interest in woodland management. Although most of the work I’m currently engaged with tends to align more closely with flowers, my first love has always been trees.
When studying at the botanical gardens of Wales some years ago I used to spend the hours before and after class shivering in the hillside Towy valley woods, doing my best to read branches for buds; learning my ash from sycamore in their exposed winter simplicity.
Trees of our more or less native, deciduous woodlands were, and still are, to me the most interesting and intriguing of all the multi-floral habitats; so much so for their repetition in coalition. For any inexperienced horticulturist the wood is a good place to begin learning as reoccurring identification material is so helpfully repeated; you quickly build up a reliable basis of character recognition in order to accurately differentiate between the species.
I have, therefore, a great envy of those who are fortunate enough to be able to give much of their attention to working in woodlands. During those months I spent time both reading up (Edward Thomas, John Collis, Richard Jefferies as well as a re-read of the hailed practical handbook by Cris Starr) and in the woods themselves with a handful of people to whom they are a livelihood or devoted hobby. Within woodland work in general, a particular dimension I was keen to experience more of was coppice management.
Iain Loasby is a coppice worker based in London. For some years now he has been spending his winters relieving borough councils of their public woodland ‘clearance’ responsibilities through managing hazel copses. Where good material, once cut, would usually have been chipped or burned, Iain is putting it to use, converting it into anything from fence poles and pea sticks to charcoal and firewood. Not only does this mean product in place of waste, but also a restoration of the ecologically supportive cycle that used to be carried out in woodlands for centuries.
I met Iain in Furzefield wood up near Potters Bar for a day’s coppicing in January. He showed me the process (in the most basic terms) from cutting to product sorting and cleaning. We were working in a sectioned-off corner of the wood; 1 part of a 7-section rotation Iain had mapped out. Hazel stools are coppiced once every 7 years and therefore once established and carefully managed, a rotation like this will supply a decent haul each year.
Now in spring and with vigorously shooting sweet peas and runner beans in the garden needing supporting, I went back to Furzefield to see how Iain had got on with the rest of the area. The timing couldn’t have been better; the bluebells were approaching their peak and everywhere above new leaves were emerging in light yellows and greens. You couldn’t doubt the positive ecological effect that the coppicing process brings to this particular environment. Removing the dense understory of hazel poles lets much needed light down onto the wood floor, allowing the exposed flora to once again proliferate. Rotating this action through the woodland therefore creates a diversity in habitat; moving from one area to the next over a slow succession of winters, new shoots re-growing from old stools. It’s an exciting and invigorating experience to have witnessed both ends of the spectrum on the same site, and to see first-hand how productive, above all else, this old practice still remains. Driving back down to the garden with my bean poles and pea sticks in the back of the truck I felt a great admiration for past generations of coppice workers. Much like farmers of the old wheat field meadows; their back-breaking practices often so entwined within nature as to forget the conservational qualities that result.
Iain’s coppice products are available from his website at: www.rivenwoodcoppice.com
With the four days of our long Jubilee weekend in hand I made for the hills of Carmarthenshire, along with nearest and dearest, to stay with my parents. They live off the winding path of the river Towy, at the base of the valley in South, West Wales. The setting is beautiful, saturated (literally) in green, and is where I spent a year learning how to be a gardener, and building my first garden.
Although the cottage had been our family holiday camp for over a decade, it was only then being extended into the full house it is now, and so fresh out of University, with debts and a degree, I came home and got stuck into the exterior. During the build, which essentially saw the house gutted out and put back together, the surrounding garden was flattened and spread to mud. Deciding that gardening sounded like a ‘sensible’ career move, I took up a course at the Royal Botanical Gardens of Wales (conveniently a half hour’s cycle up the road) and spent any remaining time having a go at creating a new garden for my parents.
It was also very much an open book in terms of design, and is therefore full of mistakes and first attempts; it was a great experience and an opportunity to smash things together, on a relatively small scale, learning in the process. My uncle showed me the basics of cement and concrete mixing, so I began with a wall, and things went from there, ideas slowly forming into a vague structure.
Three years on and it’s great to see how the little garden has settled. The initial perennial planting now dominates, while shrubs are still just getting established. The climbers are making their way up and the stone is dulling into deeper greens and purples. I love returning to see it whenever I can, and be reminded of all my naive and simple ideas, carved out while getting to grips with a new and daunting medium. The place will always feel more special than any other garden I live or work in, in the same way, I would imagine, that every first garden experiment is to a gardener. And although it’s in very good and capable hands (who have done lots more too, I should add) I can’t stop myself getting out the spade and fussing over it a little whenever I come home.
An ambitious example of my then newly attained wall-constructing experience was to put a fire place into the far corner of the decked area in the right angle of the wall. The idea was for it to be used for bbq’s and general fires for long Summer evenings. It’s definitely a fire hazard, and will most likely be the undoing of the decking, but we put it to good use during the one warm evening of the weekend.
Came across a long stream of butterbur running down the hill to the garden on a thin strip of woodland glade. It is Petesites, but not certain of the species. It’s early flowering too, particularly for this time of year, but a great sight along the roadside, straddling the equatorial divide. It almost acts as a lure, or a promise of things to be discovered and stumbled upon deeper in the woods. Butterbur is more than an enchantment too, herbally speaking. The plant has a long history as an all-round revitaliser, used to treat migraines, muscle pain and fever. Its scent is enticing at first, quickly becoming sickly, like that of a sweet shop.
Walking with family through the wind on the arbitrary post-Christmas (yet always enjoyed) march over the beach. An unexpected joy to see nothing but rolling sea-buckthorn, in full profusion of berry, and at it’s peak in soft winter colour. The shrub offers a huge amount in terms of coastal habitat formation and support; with its protective thorny network of low intertwining branches and extensive fruit larder.
Sea buckthorn has been widely planted around beeches due to the way in which its roots spread, enabling it to hold together the shifting dunes, much like alders and willows do with our river banks.