Saturday, 16 June 2012

London 2012: a garden city

It’s already been a busy old year for gardening in London, and promises to continue in the same vein.  A couple of weeks ago we all had a 4 day weekend to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee: including of course the river pageant, which I popped down to Wapping to see pass by.  The boats and bells were pretty impressive: and of course a long weekend isn’t really a proper holiday in the UK unless you’ve spent at least a couple of hours standing around in the rain!

The pageant wasn't purely nautical, but also had an important floral element: anybody who saw the pageant on TV will have noticed the beautiful floral arrangements on the royal barge by Rachel de Thame.  And of course the river pageant isn’t the only celebration going on in London this summer: there are only a few weeks to go now until the Olympic and Paralympic Games: hosted in my very own borough of Hackney!  I’m really looking forward to it: the sport and spectacle of course, but also seeing the Olympic Park itself, which will boast over 120,000 plants representing Europe, the Americas, Asia and the Southern Hemisphere, designed by Sarah Price and with wild flower meadows by Nigel Dunett.  If the practice plantings from the last couple of years are anything to go by it should be stunning.  

2012 has also been a special year in marking the birth of the Chelsea Fringe festival.  The Fringe is the brain child of Tim Richardson, who was inspired by the Edinburgh Fringe festival, and thought that the Chelsea Flower Show should have its gardening equivalent.  And so in May and June we had 3 weeks of community gardening projects springing up all over London. 

My local community gardens at the Dalston Eastern Curve and King Henry’s Walk were both very involved (with the Eastern Curve enjoying a visit from the Duchess of Cornwall in true Jubilee style), and our local gardening club grouped together to pimp our pavements by sprucing up some of our local tree pits.  You can read more about my street-gardening experience on the project blog here.  Since they were planted it’s continued to be warm(ish) and wet, which seems to have suited the plants very well: they are really filling out the tree pits quite handsomely now!

Despite hard times for many people, London 2012 really is a city of celebration: with gardens and gardeners right at its core!

Friday, 15 June 2012

Feed the birds, tuppence a bag

Feeding the birds costs a bit more than tuppence a bag these days: and that’s if the birds can even get to what you give them.  If you're not careful you find yourself feeding the squirrels at great expense instead.  

Now, I am quite fond of squirrels (particularly at this time of year, when they bring their slightly incompetent young in tow: there is not much cuter than a tiny squirrel trying but failing to follow its parent up a wall and having to find a less challenging way round).  But they do seem to be able to look after themselves, so I prefer to reserve my bird seed for the birds.

So recently I’ve upgraded my bird feeder.  I have always had “squirrel-proof” feeders, but my old one wasn’t very effective in our tiny garden.  It has a metal sheath that will cover the feeder if the squirrel tries to descend to it down its hanging wire: but if the squirrel just jumps on from the side or the ground it can feast happily.  In theory if you can hang it far enough from the ground and from any walls/tree trunks, it should work – but in a garden my size that is simply not going to happen!

So here is my new "squirrel buster", next to the rather more elegant feeder it is replacing.

It is a big green beast.  But it works (well, it repels squirrels, rather than actually busting them).  The entire feeding tube is covered in a cage, which moves down slightly to block the feeding holes if anything heavier than a small bird lands on it.  Combined with the shelter provided by my neighbour’s pyrocanthus our little garden is very popular with the local wildlife.

Perhaps my most exciting garden visitor though has been this Jay, which I’m sure is too heavy to get past the squirrel buster, but has nonetheless appeared several times in recent weeks – enticed by the fat balls that also hang in the tree.  There is something so glamorous about the Jay, it really doesn’t look like it can be a native bird – I particularly love the blue flash from its wing as it flies away.

Indeed, while hardly rare, Jays are not that common a sight in London gardens (and weren’t in the top 20 spots in the Big Garden Birdwatch), so I feel particularly lucky whenever we get a visit.

Friday, 4 May 2012

April showers: why are we still in a drought?

In most of the South of England and the Midlands we are in a drought: water stocks are low, and in many water supply areas the use of hosepipes has been banned since the end of a very dry March.

Luckily, during April this hasn’t been much of a problem for the gardener: it rained almost every day, and in was the wettest April on record in England and Wales (which means the wettest in more than 100 years).

Of course, we all understand that one month’s rain can’t compensate for two or three unusually dry years in a row: but there seemed to be more to it than that.  I started to see reports suggesting that this was “the wrong sort of rain” to even start to resolve our drought problems: we needed winter rain, not spring/summer, but why?

Luckily, we British are obsessed with the weather, and data on rainfall is not at all difficult to come by from the Met Office.  So here is a chart showing rainfall at Heathrow Airport: the shaded area shows the highest and lowest monthly averages across each of the last five decades, while the orange line shows the monthly average over the last three years.

You can see that winter rainfall really has been low over the last few years compared with what we would normally expect: and particularly in the critical October to December winter period: but why is winter rain so important?  Why didn’t the heavy rains of recent Augusts make more of a difference?

There are a few things going on that make summer rain less useful than winter:
  • Warm air can carry more water than cold: so when it rains in summer a lot more of the rain will simply evaporate into the air than in winter when it is cold, and the water will tend to sit on the ground.  At 20c air can hold almost twice as much water as at 10c.
  • In summer the ground tends to be baked hard, which also limits the extent to which the water can soak into the ground – rather than running off into streams and rivers, and then to the seas.
  • In spring and summer plants are growing and sucking up large quantities of water from the soil: water that the plants largely “breathe out” into the air through transpiration – so that even once rainwater makes it into the soil, it’s far from certain that it percolates through to groundwater.
  • Other rain water simply sits on the leaves of these plants, and evaporates from there – effectively the foliage “intercepts” the rain before it can hit the ground and soak through to replenish groundwater.
This makes a particularly large difference in the South East, because we get a lot of our water from groundwater wells.  While much of Northern England is less reliant on underground stores (with ground water in some areas accounting for less than 10% of supply), much of the South East’s water is supplied from wells (up to 72% in the Southern water region).  Water that falls in London itself tends to run off into the Thames, as London is built on clay, which is pretty impervious.  However, the hills to the north (the Chilterns) and the South (the North Downs) are chalk, and come from the same seam of chalk which sits underneath the London clay.  When it rains on the hills, some of that rain does soak into the ground water under London, from where it can be pumped up from a number of bore holes in and around the City.  So if the groundwater level is low, much of the South East will struggle.

The other great website for understanding the UK water situation is the Environment Agency.  The data in the weekly reports allow you to really see how differently the different types of water resource respond.  While river levels and reservoir levels rise quite quickly after heavy rain, and the soil moisture deficit falls equally fast, the groundwater level is a much slower moving beast.  While many of our reservoirs and rivers are practically overflowing (with flood warnings in many parts of the country), ground water levels remain unusually low.  April did raise ground water levels in some aquifers already – but not all, and not by much.
So, what we really need is a wet winter.   

But I’m not sniffing at the April showers.  The soil is wet, it’s about to get warmer, and my water butt is full – if somebody had offered me that in March I would have bitten their hand off!

Monday, 30 April 2012

A match made in heaven: pulmonaria and the hairy footed flower bee

During these last few wild wet weekends I’ve been sorting through some of my photos from March, trying to remember what sunshine and warmth felt like!  One of the joys of our garden in March is the flowering of the pulmonaria (still going strong despite the drenching), and with that the arrival of the hairy footed flower bees.

I had never come across pulmonaria until we moved here, and it was one of the few plants that was really enjoying the garden and had obviously spread itself about a bit (along with the hellebores and hypericum).  To begin with I wasn’t that impressed, but it’s really grown on me.  Other than a couple of tatty weeks in late winter, and a couple more immediately after flowering, it is really fantastic all year round – with pretty green spotted leaves and sweet pink and blue flowers in spring (earning it the nickname “soldiers and sailors”), followed by large dark green spotty leaves the rest of the year (giving rise to another common name, "spotted dog").
Even better, it doesn’t seem very fussy about where it grows.  We had a big bunch in front of the pond, so I thought I would see if it would be happy to replace the hypericum in the rather dark dry area behind the pond too.  So I transplanted some waifs and strays from around the garden in the autumn, and they’ve settled in beautifully and look utterly content in their new home.  I’ve moved a few more seedlings over this spring, and hope in a couple of years we might have a quite lush backdrop of pulmonaria and ferns in this area.

But the real crowning glory comes with the spring, and the hairy footed flower bees (Anthophora Plumipes).  It turns out that these solitary bees like two things: crumbling walls, and pulmonaria.  As we have plenty of both in our garden, it’s their dream home, and on a warm spring day the first insects to be seen (and heard!) are these sweet darting bees with their jolly buzz and long proboscis.

Their “hairy footed” name comes from the males, which have very hairy middle feet.  The females’ feet are less obviously hairy, but they’re even more striking: while the males are a gingery buff colour, the females are perfectly black, with the exception of bright orange hairs on their hind legs.
Really beautiful.  They’ve been rather less apparent during the cold rainy weather of the last few weeks (and to be fair I have also been less apparent in the garden, probably for the same reasons) – although if we get a few hours of sunshine in an afternoon they do still appear and bring their merry buzz to the garden again.  Almost like Spring.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Choosing climbers for a north facing fence

If you look carefully at the photos in my previous post, you will see an exciting new addition to the garden – planting holes!  OK, so maybe it's odd to be so excited about holes: but where there was concrete, now there is the potential for greenery, which is what counts for excitement in my day.  However, the fence is north facing (albeit very sheltered, and facing a white wall, so not too dark): so not everything would be happy there.

After a bit of research we focused on five options (if you click on the plant names you’ll get a link to a webpage showing the plant “in situ” in other gardens).  Clematis are also a good option for a North facing fence (e.g. “Nelly Moser” is often recommended): but as we already have an armandii and a montana romping around the general area, we felt that adding more clematis to the party might be a bit much.

Golden Hop (Humulus lupulus 'Aureus').  
Quite a few people advised me to plant a golden hop and I can see why.  The leaves and the hops themselves are beautiful, and it’s a prodigious grower, putting up shoots in spring and covering a huge amount of space in a single season.  As an added bonus (if you’re not feeling up to making beer), the shoots are edible, and taste like asparagus.  I was sceptical of this, but actually tried it using my Uncle’s hop shoots, and they are really very asparagussy!  They only need cooking for a very short time (just 2-3 minutes).  We had them as a vegetable with chicken, but I think they’d also be really nice mixed in with pasta and garlic.  However, despite their many talents, we thought a hop might be a bit too vigorous for our tiny space, and were worried it would look tatty in winter – so on to the next option.

Climbing Hydrangea (Hydrangea Anomala Petiolaris). 
Another frequent recommendation, this is a beautiful plant.  Apparently it can take a couple of years to get going, but once it is established it is very little trouble: we have one in our front garden which hugs the wall very neatly.  It isn’t evergreen, but the new leaf buds form in the winter and the flower heads dry naturally, so it’s attractive all year round.  But we do already have one in the front garden, and I seem to be incapable of signing up for more of a good thing, so on again.

Cotoneaster Horizontalis. 
Despite its name, Cotoneaster Horizontalis is apparently the type of Cotoneaster best suited to a vertical surface.  I really think they are beautiful grown vertically: with a lovely fishbone structure even in the winter, plus blossom and berries.  However, although I love them in pictures, I realised I had never actually seen one in real life growing vertically, so it seemed a bit high risk.  I was umming and aahing when a friend suggested ... 

Morello Cherry (Prunus cerasus Morello). It hadn’t initially occurred to me that I would be able to grow something productive in such a small space (and particularly a north facing space), but sour cherries apparently don’t need direct sun to sweeten them.  I love Morello cherry jam (and of course Maraschino liqueur, which is made from a type of Morello, but that is probably beyond my skills!)  Plus, (attempting to) fan train a Morello against the fence will give me a project, and I do love a project.  And so only the final space is left to be filled, hopefully with:

Rosa Madame Alfred Carriere.
The Man of the House was very keen on trying a rose, and the idea appealed to me too, though I’m still a bit nervous that the planting hole may not be big enough for the rose to get enough nutrients and water.  However, hopefully with a bit of care she will survive.  I was originally thinking of Zepherine Drouhin, which seems to be the most frequent suggestion for a shady spot.  However, the MOTH wasn’t too hot on the pink, so instead we went for MAC, which is a beautiful off white, is nearly thornless, and is supposed to have a lovely scent, and is a repeat flowerer – so if she agrees to grow here she should really be a lovely addition. 

There are actually even more options for north facing climbers if you’ve got a bit more room, or don’t mind something prickly, for example – but even in a small garden where every inch matters, there are plenty of options to choose from!

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Paving the way to a bigger garden

If you've read this blog before, you'll probably know our garden is not the biggest.  The “main part” of the garden is only 5m by 7m (around 16ft by 23ft). If you’ve ever been to Chelsea or Hampton Court Flower Shows, that’s the same size as their urban gardens and artisan garden categories.  So it’s definitely possible to do something beautiful in a garden that size: but of course those show gardens don’t tend to have to find space for storing seating or tools or for a compost heap or water butt!

However, because we have a very very long single storey extension at the back of the house, we also have a very long side return.  This is pretty much a corridor, about 10m long and 2m wide (or around 32ft by 6ft): so in total it’s nearly 2/3 the size of the “main” garden!  What’s more it’s south facing, and as our neighbours don’t have an extension it’s one of the sunniest spots in the garden.

Here’s a picture.  As you can see, the previous owners had quite a few plants here (including a stunning Pieris Japonica ‘mountain fire’ along with a slightly sickly fig and a lot of scruffy honeysuckle and ivy) – but it always felt more like a corridor than part of the garden.  We repainted the fence from a grungy yellow to a fresh pale green, but it didn't really solve the problem.

Specifically, we thought it needed a bit of brightening from below.
I don’t want to put too many plants here because the space is already quite narrow, and because it points West it its also the part of the garden that gets the last evening sun on those long summer evenings, so it needs to have enough room to sit with a G&T :o).  However, I am keen to soften up the fence (north facing) with some climbers, and to grow some fruit and veg in the raised container under the kitchen window (where you can already see some optimistically placed pea sticks, even though my peas are resolutely refusing to germinate).  

As you can see, there won’t be space to grow a huge amount of veg, but I have some tomato seedlings on the go on a windowsill, and have planted a couple of strawberry plants and some salad, spring onions, garlic and spinach (yes, it is potentially quite full!), so we’ll see how we go.  This area only gets around 5-6 hours of sun a day even in high summer, which may be stretching it for tomatoes.  But it is very sheltered and warm and will get reflected warmth and light from the white wall behind, so I hope that I can get my small “Gardener’s Delight” variety to ripen (otherwise chuntney here I come...)   

I'm happy with the change.  This area already feels more like part of the garden, rather than just a corridor to the garden "proper".  Hopefully if my climbers will agree to grow here, it will only feel more integrated into the rest of the space over time.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Enjoying the casualties of a garden tidy

Lots of gardening last weekend (and lots of posts to catch up on when the weather worsens!) - but in the mean time here are some casualties: a piece of clematis armandii and a piece of pieris japonica "forest flame" that were lost to some clumsy tub shifting.  However, their sacrifice was not in vain: they are brightening up my kitchen windowsill (and the clematis is still flooding the kitchen with a gorgeous almond scent nearly a week later!)