The Orange Tip

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Category: winter

Hortus: Gardening in Winter

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I was recently asked to contribute to the theme of ‘Winter Gardening’ for an issue of the quarterly gardening journal, Hortus. Lovely subject, of course, but particularly as it gave reason to reflect back on the Garden at Richmond, which now only exists in memory. I included the following extract, taken from the notebooks written while head gardener there, which were compiled for the publication ‘Ivy Cities’, some years ago:

‘I’m up on the shed roof again, sat beside the chimney I fitted two autumns ago. There’s warmth in the pipe from the last smouldering of this morning’s fire. I haven’t been up here to sit in quite a while, only climbing up on occasion to clean the flue of soot. The sun is low over the golf course to my right and the stark winter shine, at 11am, has only just reached across the roofline, casting a shadow of my figure right across to other side of the log pile. The logs are disintegrating a little more each day. Teeming underneath must be a great wealth of creatures, all working at the slow demise of the pile, chewing wood to mulch. Nettles and alkanet have rooted inside the composted crevices of the logs then spread on across the wild garden floor. A pair of squirrels chase through the sycamore above where long-tailed tits dart between branches and feed among the leafless twigs. A blue tit has already begun work on one of the nest boxes in an adjacent tree, excavating the remains of last year’s nest. In time each of the remaining boxes will be claimed, cleaned and renovated, ready for the spring clutch and the exhausting demands of incubation and parenthood.

Beyond the sycamores the pond is layered with a thin sheet of ice. Yellow iris and browned reedmace have begun to fold and collapse into the water, the latter’s seed long since carried up on the wind. Outside the wild garden, along the fence line, bare stems of ash, lilac and snowberry all merge in hue; a soft grey brown, dark at the tips, green in bud. Berries hang from the tops of last year’s shoots – bulging puVs of white, like little ping- pong balls. The beech tree at the back of the house stands in a pool of its own nut-brown leaves, a thick mulch returning to the soil. From here I can see the terrace beds, each cut to the ground, bare and simple. Rosettes of perennials remain however; the structural backbone of the long border still marked out by aconitum, echinops, knautia and veronicastrum. A nuthatch bobs its swooping flight over the top meadow and a blackbird flutters with less grace in the opposite direction. There are hips on the roses, hung like chandeliers from vertical stems that reach out from the tangled leaders tied flat to the house. I’ve worked hard at the climber beside the kitchen window, however it will soon require a second prune and some careful consideration. Mahonia is in flower along the walkway, less in number this winter following decimation under the fallen beech limb a couple of months ago. At the garden wall bordering the park, the walnut tree bark shines silver in the bright sunshine.’

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Hortus is a fantastic gardening journal, which I have written for on occasion over the last few years. More info here: HORTUS.

Weeds

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Viola odorata

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.

Forget me not

Forget me not

‘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.

Primrose seeded into the wall of Highgate Cemetary

Primrose seeded into the wall of Highgate Cemetery

Shepherd's Purse flowering with forget me not in the background

Shepherd’s Purse flowering with forget me not in the background

Working in the Wood

Wintering-snail in a fissure of a robina trunk

Wintering-snail in a fissure of a robina trunk

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.

South path of the wood, lined with sycamore boughs

South path of the wood, lined with sycamore boughs

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.

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Bramble pile for burning

Bramble pile for burning

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.

Snowdrops in flower (

Snowdrops in flower (Galanthus nivalis)

Winter Aconite (Eranthus hymalis)

Winter Aconite (Eranthus hymalis)

Arum leaves under large English oak

Arum leaves under large English oak

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.

Burdock seed heads (Arctium sp.)

Burdock seed heads (Arctium minus)

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Burdock seeds released

Burdock seeds released from capsule

'Flora Britannica', by renowned nature-writer, Richard Mabey

Flora Britannica by renowned nature-writer, Richard Mabey

Robin’s House In the Country

Robin Nest
Camouflaged in the garden copse.

Hornet

Hornet
I found a hornet, crawled into the letter box for its final days on earth. Five pence for scale..

New Life in Dead Wood

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This is a picture of the stag beetle I found sitting on my desk two years ago. When I came in from the garden he was upside down, clawing the air with his hooked legs; an enormous insect there on my notebook. It was a bizarre occurrence, not least because of how scarce a sighting of one of these beetles has become; I actually jumped a little at the sight of it, wondering if it might even be a children’s toy.

The truth is that I should have expected to see one, sooner or later. Since I arrived at the garden I’ve been very deliberately leaving piles of stacked wood in tucked away corners in the hope of attracting the various creatures which favour such a habitat. A couple years on I’d already begun to see evidence of field mice, over-wintering hornets, solitary bees, toads, slow worms and even grass snakes. With Richmond park so close by too (with it’s contingent of largely woodland areas), stag beetles were always a possibility.

These impressive, majestic and slightly ridiculous-looking beetles depend fully on the existence of dead and decaying wood. Before the days when woodland floor clearance and tidying was deemed good practice (and more recently thrown out following the development of ecological study and the realisation of the detriment this management strategy had caused), stag beetles were a common sight in the UK. The beetles actually have a surprisingly long life, with only a short amount of it – a few weeks – spent in their completed beetle form. Development rom egg-hatch to winged insect can take between 4-6 years; nearly all of it therefore spent buried inside rotting wood or underground as larvae. This is why it is so crucial that any nesting site must be left completely undisturbed for such a long period. In a natural ecology of time gone by, fallen trees slowly decaying on the wood floor allowed for exactly this environment, and the beetles flourished.

Going back to the garden then – there’s a very small collection of two or three logs that I’ve left alone and surrounded by lawn for about four years. It’s a tiny wooden island in a sea of grass. Accidentally knocking one of the stumps over while mowing last week I was amazed to find that the inside had completely rotted away AND it contained three little stag beetle larvae. They appeared to be at differing stages of development (known as ‘instar’s), with the largest at least a year away from pupation. It’s such a good sign of the changing times therefore, that even a very small collection of wood left alone can potentially provide a home for growing stag beetles – small enough to be included in any garden no matter what the size.

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I few years ago I wrote a post on the provision of habitat in a garden here.

Winter Shed

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Time In The Wood

LogsNine trees came down during the fierce winds of the last couple of months. All but one of them were robinia; a north American woodland tree of which we have a great number at the garden. The pros of robinia are that it’s a great, grand tree; stunning blossom in early summer, fantastic for wildlife (I’m forever stopping to watch nuthatches and woodpeckers scour their fissures for insects) and they grow very quickly. The problem with them however, as so many now frustrated London borough councils are experiencing, is that they are shallow rooted, weigh a great deal and are prone to snapping.

Having finally finished the never ending autumn and early winter jobs around the garden (mostly involving aggravating but useful machines like pressure washers and hedge trimmers) I’ve been at last able to get stuck into the woodland and begin returning it to form.

In early summer the fairly open canopy means lots of wildflowers; alkanet, cow parsley, greater celandine, campian etc all flourish to form a dense and beautiful lower story of up to 1.5 meters. With this in mind I’m aiming to create new paths that weave among them, clean and chop the trees that have come down, fell any leaning with intent to fall and then process the wood into lengths, habitat and firewood for next year.

Wood summer

Pathway summerAll brash wood I’m leaving in large piles to rot down and provide shelter for wildlife (also a much simpler option than shifting it all.. which there really isn’t any need for anyway). There isn’t yet a purpose in mind for the log lengths, however I didn’t want to convert all the good material into firewood and so they’ll remain in the wood until purpose arrives.

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Unravelled

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Cat’s tails, reed mace, bullrush; something inanely great in knocking a long-hardened winter stem and watching the seeds unravel, disappearing into sunlight.

photographs by Roo Lewis: http://www.roolewis.com

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Today feels like Spring. There’s a haze over the sky and all around birds are calling and moving as if all of a sudden taking nest building seriously. There’s a woodpecker tapping furiously in one of the robinias fifty yards away and I’m in a t-shirt. This time last year the magnolias had finished, every tulip was either in full show or going-over, and the garden was fast accelerating into mid spring vigour. This year however, the colour is still yet to arrive. No tulips out and even the early Iris’ haven’t finished flowering yet. Just shows how dramatically our climate can vary. Never been so thankful for hellebores before!

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