26 February 2012

Friends and fungi

A balmy week, for February - low to mid teens. We had the good sense to spend some of it with friends in the countryside in Kilkenny. So on Saturday morning I found myself happily planting rhubarb and tying in raspberry canes in the welcome warmth of spring sunshine. It's lovely to work alongside someone in the garden, sometimes chatting, sometimes just working away in silence. Silence being a relative term of course: the hedgerows were full of whirring and chirruping wrens and the flowing song of robins. In the tall trees a couple of fields away, wheeling rooks created their own particular cawcophany -- a sound I love, it's so evocative and redolent of bare earth, just ploughed, or bright cold autumn days or, as it was this weekend, a gathering of a squabbling 'parliament' fighting for position as the days get longer and prime nesting sites are at a premium.

Walking in nearby woods, all the signs of spring were there: the bright celandine, the moonlight-pale primrose glimmer, the almost-missed-it violet.

I'm reading 'A Bigger Message' at the moment (lent to me by my son, thanks DM!), dipping into it, bit by bit, prolonging the pleasure. Here's my quote of the week from it:
"Looking is a very positive act. You have to do it deliberately" 
And of course that's what artists like Hockney do supremely well. If we're lucky, they then transpose what they've seen into something that makes the rest of us see differently and look more deliberately. (Honestly, I see lemons differently since coming face to face with one lying carelessly in a corner of a Gauguin canvas about seven or eight years ago in an exhibition in Paris.) Art does this for us, when it's working well; so does science: once you know how, say, quartzites and granites react differently to erosion, you begin to look at landscape in a more informed way and enjoy it more (think of the Sugar Loaf vs Kippure; think of Slieve Tooey vs Ardara).  Observing more closely the world we live in is surely a good thing? As we engage more with our world, with the precious moments we spend in it, we become the richer.

Anyway, enough of that for now. Coming across signs of spring in a Kilkenny woodland was a joy. Along the way I also spotted, not quite where squirrels hide their nuts in grass (one of those poems learnt in childhood that never completely goes away), but certainly where they dine on beech masts.

In the same wood, CE spotted this exquisite bracket fungus and BVG recorded it (thanks for the photo B).

Many thanks for a lovely weekend CE.

At home in the garden, as I was moving some pots of strawberries around, I discovered mushrooms growing at the bottom of one of the pots. I'm fairly sure they were coming from old bark chips in the soil. Before the greenhouse went in, only two years ago, there were bark chips there on and off for years as we used to have a playhouse for the boys there. Work in my own garden included sowing seeds of tomatoes (Gardener's Delight, Ailsa Craig and Shirley F1), which are now on a south-facing windowsill in the house. Tomato seeds need a temperature of about 20C or so to germinate, which they won't get in the greenhouse at this time of year, no matter how balmy a February it is.

Finally, the warm weather means the frogs are continuing their orgies in the ponds. I notice that Jane Powers was trying to catch them in the act in her garden but it was proving a bit tricky. Here they are in mine, looking a bit startled, at about seven in the morning at the side of the pond near the house. The stone they're 'resting' on is put there only for frogs, to help them in an out of the pool; otherwise the hard edges would be a tad awkward.

19 February 2012

Elf Caps and Squills

Look at that red - it caught my eye in the woods the other day. Walking with friends who were home from Holland for a visit, we ambled through the woods, inhaling the fresh and pungent smell of the wild garlic, chatting, watching Izzy tear through the dead leaves and then, bang! this shouty red on a prostrate tree trunk. So bright, so brash. I think it may be a Scarlet Elf Cap (Sarcoscypha sp., either S. coccinea or S. austriaca?), but fungi are notoriously tricky to identify... Beautiful though, regardless of its identification, and I love its common name. And doesn't it look just like an upside-down elf cap when you see it from the side?

Later in the week, Izzy and I took a very slight detour on the normal morning walk and I was delighted to spot this tiny gathering of wild squills (Scilla verna). I love the garden varieties, but to see them in the (semi-)wild is lovely. Nearby where these are growing I know there'll be anemones later in the spring. And all of this in a very normal suburban park. Great...
When you think of spring colours - do you think yellows? Blues? I tend to think of yellows first, the primroses, the narcissi, the daffs. But blue is such a spring colour too - the wild squills here, and at home in the garden, one of my pots has started to do its thing: the irises are up, such an azure blue.

I especially enjoy these splashes of colour now as otherwise things are looking rather drab in the garden at the moment... lots of beiges and browns still - the soil, the cutback grasses, the frost-burnt Asplenium, the very sporey Hart's tongue ferns. But  I got a wonderful dose of colour on Thursday night when I went to an AGS talk by Deborah Begley who has created an amazing garden down in Co. Limerick: Terra Nova. Such an abundance of colour, such variety of plants, and such an entertaining speaker. She lit up a dark Thursday night and even the cycle home past abandoned, half-built apartment blocks didn't dull the colours in my head.

And today, the spring sunshine cheered us all up. Only 10 minutes drive from the house, we parked the car and went walking in the Dublin hills for almost two hours. The views of the Irish Sea and the Wicklow hills were lovely as always: from the pointed peaks of the Bray Series Quartzites (Bray Head, the little Sugar Loaf and the very pointy Sugar Loaf that many Dubliners still think is an extinct volcano - it's not: ancient marine sands in fact!) to the more rounded domes of the Leinster granite.

Met lots of happy walkers and cyclists, and of course dogs! It was windy (see pic of schnauzer as wind vane), but we didn't care! Spring sunshine is the *best* kind - it always feels like a gift.

11 February 2012

Midwifery and manure

You can't tell the exact date it'll happen, but happen it does, every year. It depends on how the season has been - a cold or warm winter? An early or late spring? But the moment arrives. The sun slants into the garden at just that right angle, finding its way into niches and nooks it hasn't shone on for months. After weeks of persuading yourself that "there's a grand stretch in the evenings" you suddenly realise there is still light in the sky at close to six pm! It's the moment when you just have to get out there to do some real gardening, or at least prepare for it. By real gardening I mean something that has to do with actually growing stuff as opposed to simply tidying up: the only comfort available mid-winter. Anyway, this year it happened me this week. And so I've happily been out there, even if 'out' meant mostly in the greenhouse.

But first, imagine if you can a bemused mini-schnauzer staring into the pond: the surface of the water heaving curiously, ripples moving across and down the pond. Definitely a stirring of some sort... I saw this going on from the comfort of the kitchen the other morning and went to have a look. Two frogs, in flagrante delicto. It didn't look like a lot of fun, to be honest. And I gather it isn't for the female, held in a rather fierce embrace for a l-o-n-g time, at least as frogs might measure it. Anyway, it worked. I found her spawn joined with another bundle  already in our other tiny pond up the garden. I'd be interested to know why the tiny pond is a better choice for this season's discerning frog: is it the depth? It's very shallow. Is it the cover of duckweed for the spawn, hiding it from potential predators? Is it the temperature? It's in a part of the garden that gets more light and perhaps that combined with shallower water may mean it's a tiny bit warmer - but can a frog tell? I may never know, although I may try to find out. But one thing I did decide to do was act as a sort of midwife and I moved some of the fresh spawn (almost a pint's worth, as you can see) back into the bigger pond (all these terms are relative, it's still a tiny body of water, only about 2.5m by 0.7m or so in area). I placed it in the middle of the water hawthorn and pondweed so that there's some cover. And now, we'll have to wait and see.

Away from all the amphibian romance, in the quiet of the greenhouse, I started a bit of re-organising. This year I'll grow the tomatoes in a border that wasn't used last year. So I moved the benches (tables really, they seem to be called the 'greenhouse bench' or the 'staging' in books) from one side to another, dug a trench in the border and filled it with well-rotted FYM (farmhouse manure to the uninitiated) and my own compost. The latter smelled a lot sweeter than the former, I can tell you...  And compost really does smell sweet you know - it's amazing: it's messy and mucky and looks as though it should smell foul, but it has a lovely earthy and sweet smell when it's ready. I'm not the queen of compost, my approach is rather haphazard: lash on the raw kitchen leavings and the garden waste, turn it when you think of it and hope for the best. And the thing is, this works! There's no doubt it would work more quickly if I had two piles on the go and used the right mix of nitrogen-rich waste to other waste or whatever, but even being less than rigorous about it, you can still end up with some rich, dark, crumbly goodness. It's science, it's life, it happens almost in spite of me, but I still feel like an alchemist when I dig out the good stuff from the bottom of the pile.

In other news from the garden, I paid my first visit of the year to Mount Venus nursery. I'd been wanting to get another witch hazel for a while - Hamemelis intermedia 'Jelena', the flowers of which are a warm orange with almost an apricot tint. On a misty morning, we went up to the walled garden and it was great to see Paul and Oliver again--got the new gardening year off to a good start. Mount Venus have a gorgeous selection of witch hazels this winter and my only problem was showing some restraint - my tiny garden doesn't have room for the number and variety that I'd love to have in it. Jelena is now in her new home, in the front garden, and I hope she'll settle in and be very happy with us. 'Pallida', in the back garden, is slowly coming into flower. I was wondering if it's the lack of light, which it may well be, and Oliver--whom I asked about it--said it may also be that if it flowered well in the pot last year (before I got it and planted it), it may not flower as well in its first year in open ground, taking a little longer to settle. Whatever the reason, I'm delighted to see its flowers anyway and look forward to even more of them next year.

Finally, from Wicklow, first some glinting mica in the sands of the edge of the Dargle river. Second, a reminder to me of something that Oliver said a while ago: there's so much to see all around us in Ireland that can inspire us as to how things might look in our own gardens. Here are Hart's Tongue and Dryopteris ferns, looking splendid with ne'er a designer nor a gardener in sight.

03 February 2012

Rain and Brigid

On a rainy Sunday, I got to thinking about colour. We were walking in some woods--now truly winter-bare--and the rain on the bark of the trees made the colours glow, as rain so often does. You know how as kids when we were drawing trees, the bark was always brown (and the sky always blue)? Not this day. The beeches were silvery grey, the lower parts of the ash trees an astonishingly warm orangey amber (I think this may be due to a particular alga, which is one of those that partners with a fungus to create lichen). The bright green mosses--so happy in the rain--the newly growing wild garlic and the evergreen ferns shone out on the floor of the woods. Back home, the raindrops beaded the branches of the Japanese maples and the silver birches (I have three Betula utilis var. jacquemontii) and the Himalayan cherry (Prunus serrula) were glowing pure white and deep red/mahogany. Gorgeous. 

The Jacquemontii birches were the first trees I planted when I moved to this house. There had been a "hedge" of Lawson's cypress (ghastly) along the front wall which we had pulled out (with a lot of effort) within a few months and a tiny stand of three birches went in instead. On a garden visit a while ago, I overheard a more experienced gardener than me exclaim sniffily  that Jacquemontiis are not great as they carry too much coarse foliage and get to be top heavy. I came home, looked at mine with a more critical eye and I saw what he meant. Compared to, say, the Young's Weeping Birch, the Jacquemontii is a little (whisper it) vulgar. There are other varieties available now that marry a more delicate top with the beautiful bark, but 15 years ago when I planted mine, I was delighted with them. I still enjoy them as they light up with the low winter sun. And yes, I have been known to get out there with a brush and warm soapy water to clean off the gathering algae so the white shows all the better... There's always an element of artifice in gardening, you know. By the way, one of those less common but very beautiful birches is the Chinese Red Birch (Betula albosinensis var. septentrionalis).

But the main important event last week was the first day of Spring! (Thanks for the Luka Bloom song BK). Never mind the meteorologists who tell us that the meteorological spring starts on the equinox on 21 March - here in Ireland it's 1 February, St Brigid's Day.

And to celebrate, here are signs of Spring from my garden.There's an early tulip that I really didn't expect, still coming through in a pot I planted with bulbs a few autumns ago. This year's pots are on the way and will no doubt feature here anon.

One of the small daffs in the front garden will open soon, and of course the Japanese quince (a garden-warming gift from dear Da 16 years ago) has been gracing a wall with its startling red flowers for some time now.

Finally, some unfurling rhubarb: Spring isn't just about flowers. New growth can delight too, just for its own sake, but this is delightful for other reasons. I love its appearance: who'd guess that those intricate folds wrestling out of fat pink buds will turn into such a large leaf? And with such tasty stems. Let's pause this week and silently thank whomever it was who first did such a daft thing as eat the pink stems of an ungainly plant.

Oh! And belated happy name day to the two lovely Brigids I know.