A little while ago I moved on from the garden which, for the most part, provided the recurring inspiration for this blog. As a near full-time gardener employed by its owner, this small yet indomitable and humbling landscape stimulated within me observations of a certain variety; reflections that would sit comfortably together on a page. This is one of the factors which made the act of updating and maintaining this blog relatively effortless, and something of an enjoyable process. Since my departure from the garden however, it has been difficult to continue at the same pace, having yet to settle on any particular focal point or muse.
I thought for a while that I might instead turn my attention to ‘weeds’. Living in a dense city, when your feet experience little besides concrete, tarmac and mortar, the rosettes and protruding stems which unfurl along the surface have become a new novelty to me. Their contrasting green against the pavement and my insatiable need to identify and familiarise myself with any unknown plant variety combine to form an inquisitiveness that regularly stops me in the street. During the winter months it was the thought and visualisation of what flowers would soon spring from the green that most interested and excited me. Recognising leaves beneath their coating of dirt (kicked up by the street-cleaning vehicles and passing pedestrians); knowing, but often not knowing, what colours and forms they would provide if left to flourish or simply survive, this was to me a kind of secret thrill, an escapism or even refuge perhaps. So I began to take photographs and to log the details, with the intention of beginning a new chapter on this blog.
Sadly both time and preoccupation got in the way, and in place of the garden I’ve been absorbed in a couple of garden designs and a book commission. However the photographs remained on my phone and having spotted a particularly colourful curb-side display this morning, I felt compelled to make use of them.
‘The more we seem effortlessly – but temporarily – to eradicate weeds, the less we bother to understand them. They were regarded as powerful medicines, and more pragmatically as important contributors to domestic economy. Their appearance now sparks reflexes, not reasoning. They are regarded as inexplicable and impertinent intruders, quite unconnected with the way we live our lives’.
Richard Mabey writes this in his popular 2010 book, Weeds. It’s a fine observation of the cultural shift in the association between man and weed. To write much more on this subject would be to power-phrase Mabey’s fantastic work. So I wont. But the question that most often reoccurs in my mind when I stumble upon these unexpected ‘conquerers of the concrete’, is one relating to ornamental quality. To me this is the most interesting; what is it in us that will allow some plants to thrive and others not. Why do we take pleasure in a roadside violet, but chemical spray a dandelion. Is it ignorance? Practicality? Taste? ..Or is it a far more complex response. I have always believed that in taking time to learn about the plants around us, we grow to appreciate and often cherish them. However I myself am guilty of overlooking a Shepherd’s Purse flower (Capsella bursa-pastoris) in favour of another, perhaps more showy plant.
Marsh Marigold flowering stoically in the pond. The more this area of the garden develops (now in its 6th year since filling and planting up) the more I’m drawn to it. Garden ponds, no matter what the size or scale, are forever an eye witness source of evolution. You begin with a few periphery plants and before you know it you have all kinds of aquatic growth appearing from water mint and iris to frogs and damselflies. Marsh marigold however (Caltha palustris) is the true beacon in the bog, so to speak. It’s one of our oldest native wildflowers in fact, having pushed its little yellow light bulbs up through the thawing ice-age.
White fluff floating across the garden and in through the door of my shed – it’s only this year that, on opening one of the deep brown rush heads into my hand, I noticed how tiny each single seed is. Such a number cast into the wind. It’s no wonder enormous swathes of bulrush spring up in and around lakes and still shallows.
Back in the woods again. The paths have held quite well, edged with the fallen or cut branches from last year’s tree work. Although the boundaried areas of copse have subsequently been afforded uninhibited (and un-trampled) freedom of growth, it is now necessary to clear back the bramble before it has a chance to take over.
Splitting our little wood up into five sections, I’ve been slowly digging up the thorny blanket by the roots and amassing them at the centre of the copse, ready for a bonfire next week.
As with the work last winter, I’ve loved spending a solid block of time devoted to this section of the garden; probably my favourite place to be at this time of year. The birds in the canopy are a hive of constant activity, preparing new nests and scoping out material with which to construct them. On the copse floor, flowers of snowdrop and winter aconite are now in full flower, lighting up the ground as beacons for awakening bumble bees.
One plant I’ve always ensured gets a good footing in the wood is burdock. Around four years ago I found a small clump, having presumably made its way over the park wall via wind or wing (or more likely, attached to a squirrel), in full spread beside one of our ash trees. Ever fond of its shrub-like form and broad, rhubarb-esque leaves, I’ve made sure each year to gather and redistribute the seed, collecting directly from the dried heads that remain at the top of dead stems over winter. Taking note of the plant’s edible qualities from the wildflower bible that is Richard Mabey’s, Flora Britannica, I even once dug up some of the burdock’s roots and had a go at stir frying them. Nothing special..I’m not going to lie. Flora Britannica is very much a book worth having to prop up anyone’s interest in the history of our British wild flowers though.
Given the success of last year’s annual meadow, despite sowing so late, I decided to repeat the process, however this time sowing either side of the central path up to the house.
The annual strips form new edges to the native and already-established perennial meadow through which the path cuts. My hope is that the annual flowers will add an extra dimension of interest, both by way of colour and the insects they will ideally attract.
To do this I began by measuring a 50cm death away from the path using a tape measure and scaffold plank, and then cut away the turf with a half moon. I then used a spade to lift the turf strips and stacked them over by the wild garden hedge.
Once again I used ‘Pictorial Meadows’ for wildflower seed. The quality was excellent last year so they are very much tried and tested. I went for their ‘standard mix’, incorporating a few handfuls of additional seed I’d collected such as poppy, musk mallow and cornflower. As with last year’s process, I mixed the seed with sand in a bucket and sowed as evenly as I could, having soaked the ground first. Rather than rolling this time however, I just trod the seed in by foot. Hopefully the timing of the sowing; early in the season and with good weather, will deliver some decent results by mid Summer.
It might be slightly late in the year for an annual meadow review, but while the sky is grey and the leaves are coming down by the boat load it’s nice to be reminded of the colour that already seems a lifetime ago..
Back in April I decided to sow a stretch of annual meadow using a Pictorial Meadows seed mix. I’ve wanted to do this since arriving at the garden years ago, however the task never made it to the top of my things-to-do list quickly enough in Spring each year and so the opportunity was always missed. The length of ground I chose was roughly 16m x 2m and of the fairly free-draining, light soil indicative of this area of South West London.
Pictorial Meadows have built a reputation on providing high quality meadow seed and key advice services in a fairly new field of horticulture. Founded by leading naturalist garden designer and professor at Sheffield University, Nigel Dunnett, their client and project list is now extensive, including the stunning meadows commissioned for the London 2012 Olympic Park.
I chose a seed mix that would maximise colour and impact while providing a food source for insects in a fairly quiet and otherwise infrequently visited area of the garden. The mix was listed on the Pictorial Meadows website (www.pictorialmeadows.co.uk) as ‘Standard Annual’, which includes poppy, cornflower, toadflax, Atriplex and Coreopsis flowers.
The first step was to remove the top layer of grass and weed. As the garden houses probably the largest population of Alkanet residents I have ever encountered, there was some additional deep-root digging required in order to prepare the ground for rotorvation. Once rotorvated, I then trampled the soil and raked over.
The seed was then mixed with sand; this enables both a more even distribution when sowing, and a visible contrast with un-sown ground so as to indicate where you have scattered seed. I sowed my meadow in early June, which was far later than intended and consequently the strip only began to reach decent flowering around mid September. The ideal would be to sow around mid April, which I will be doing next year for certain. Regardless, however, the results were fantastic; nothing beats the sight of an annual meadow in sunshine. It draws you in and the colours absorb you to distraction. I think we must have some innate, deep-set connection with the cornflower meadow, perhaps reaching back to the cornfields of our ancestry. To stand and watch it seems to chime with something within; I would highly recommend having a go, even if you only have space for a meter or two.
This year I have to admit to up-scaling the mechanics of my meadow cutting process in a bid to save a bit of time and labour. I stretched to a power scythe (courtesy of the ever-frustrating eBay) which has made all the difference this year.
A power scythe or, ‘sickle mower’, cuts grass low at the base, pushing the sword through two crossing blades along a wide bar. The cut is very clean and surprisingly much less destructive to meadow dwellers (frogs, toads, nice etc) than other commonly used machines like strimmers and ride on mowers.
Although I was only able to get both the meadows cut by the time Autumn was settling in, we were lucky enough to have a few days sunshine to give the impression of a late Summer afternoon as I finished off the stacks.