Wonder Walls

A colourful slate hedge adorned with navel wort and ivy-leaved toadflax

Cornish hedges are a defining part of the landscape on Britain’s most south-westerly peninsula. From a wildlife point of view they are like Noah’s ark, supporting hundreds of species that might otherwise not have survived modern farming practices. But for motorists they can be a challenge, literally hedging-in the narrow lanes that spread like fine lace across the Cornish countryside. By early summer, a good reversing technique and frequent use of a horn are essential when navigating the county.

An example of a coastal Cornish hedge with stile

An example of a coastal Cornish hedge with stone stile

A Cornish hedge is a vernacular boundary constructed from local stone and soil. Apart from clearly dividing parcels of land and preventing livestock from escaping, their purpose is to provide shelter in a windswept landscape. It’s believed that over 30,000 miles of Cornish hedge remain, three-quarters of which have endured from ancient times. During their long lifetime each hedge is likely to have been broken down and rebuilt many times: typically a hedge will need to be repaired every 150 years or so, having suffered the ravages of tree roots, animals, humans and harsh weather. Building them is a skilled craft, taking a professional hedger about a day to complete a length of one metre. No mortar is used.

When built using slate, stones are laid in a herringbone pattern known as "cursy-wavy"

When built using slate, stones are laid in a herringbone pattern known as “cursy-wavy”

Although they are referred to as ‘hedges’, Cornish hedges are essentially double-skinned walls filled with compacted earth and topped with turf or thorny shrubs for added impenetrability. They are crossed using stiles, which are constructed in ingenious ways so as to allow farmers and walkers through, but keep livestock in. It’s only when nature takes its course, taking up residence in every nook and cranny, that they transform into hedges. At maturity the population of wild flowers often becomes so dense that nary a stone can be seen.

Sprouting from a Cornish hedge, sea campions are easily appreciated

Sprouting from a Cornish hedge, sea campions are easily appreciated

Common early colonisers of a Cornish hedge are navel wort (Umbilicus rupestris), fumitory (Fumaria officinalis) and ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis), which are later replaced by foxgloves, cow parsley, red campion and lady ferns. In shady areas one might find hart’s tongue fern and wild garlic; and by the sea thrift (Armeria maritima) and sea campion (Silene uniflora).

Penny wort or Navel wort (Umbilicus rupestris) is often the first plant to colonise a newly constructed Cornish hedge

Penny wort or navel wort (Umbilicus rupestris) is often the first plant to colonise a newly constructed Cornish hedge

All these wildflowers attract a wide spectrum of attendant birds, mammals, reptiles and insects, making Cornish hedges one of Cornwall’s most important wildlife habitats. That will be little consolation to the drivers who routinely bump and scrape their cars as they squeeze down the county’s winding lanes, but without them Cornwall’s ancient fabric would not be the same.

A colourful slate hedge adorned with navel wort and ivy-leaved toadflax

A colourful slate hedge adorned with navel wort and ivy-leaved toadflax

 

Daffodil Week: Going Public

Daffodils, Green Park, London, March 2015

Nothing is more cheering on a sunny spring day than a broad swathe of daffodils emerging from lengthening grass, or a delicate cloud of cherry blossom hovering in the air. Driving out of Canterbury towards Harbledown yesterday I was greeted by verges and roundabouts thronged with narcissi. It was as if a magician had pulled a million bunches of flowers from his hat and public spiritedly plonked them in every inch of sward he could find. The effect was uplifting; a little bit of the unnecessary in a world where the beautification of things ‘just because’ seems very far down the list of priorities.

Narcissus actaea, St James' Park, London, March 2014

Public displays of daffodils are relatively commonplace in England, but I wish they were more so. Some of my favourites are in London’s Royal Parks. In St James’ Park, choice varieties such as Narcissus actaea are planted beneath cherry trees to create little cameos of paradise in the heart of the city. In these days of council cutbacks there’s little hope of more displays like those at Pegwell Bay in Kent being created at the tax payer’s expense. Yet this particular spectacle, around the Danish longboat replica ‘Horsa‘, attracts hundreds of visitors to East Kent every spring. In Thriplow, Cambridgeshire, the village’s 450 residents have worked together to plant thousands of daffodils in private gardens and public spaces. They stage a special Daffodil Weekend each year, raising huge sums for charity and bringing enormous pleasure to all those that take part in the event. Wouldn’t it be great if more villages followed Thriplow’s example, and not just with daffodils? A rose festival or a dahlia derby would surely be crowd pleasers.

Pegwell Bay daffodils

Whilst researching public displays of daffodils I stumbled upon a moving story in last week’s Telegraph newspaper. Having been told he only had eight weeks to live, retired RAF pilot Keith Owen decided to leave his £2.3m fortune to the resort of Sidmouth in Devon. The interest was to be spent on schemes to brighten up the seaside town and its neighbouring villages. One of Keith’s wishes was that a “valley of a million bulbs” should be planted at Park Head, on the cliffs above Sidmouth (see below). Since 2013, 400,000 daffodils have been planted by volunteers and groups, ranging in age from 2 to 90. Their reward is nothing more than being able to enjoy the ‘flowers’ of their labour every March and April, along with the town’s many visitors.

Whilst Mr Owen could have left his legacy to any number of worthy causes, he chose to invest in a place that he loved, for the benefit of thousands of others. Just occasionally we should all afford ourselves the opportunity to do something because it’s a beautiful gesture, not because it’s a necessary one. I’m certainly going to put aside a little ‘daffodil money’ from now on.

Do you know of any good public displays of daffodils? And if you could leave a horticultural legacy, what would it be?

Wishing you all a lovely weekend.

Sidmouth daffodilsPhoto credit: Sidmouth In Bloom

 

Daily Flower Candy: Narcissus ‘Toto’ AGM

Narcissus 'Toto', The Watch House, April 2015

When I set out to post daily on the subject of daffodils, little did I know how distracting this week’s almost perfect gardening weather would be. The opportunity to spend two unbroken days outside rarely comes along and I have gardened from dawn to dusk. In the course of the last 48 hours, planting bulbs and rejuvenating borders, I have been enveloped by the scent of hyacinths, serenaded by bees and danced for by a solitary butterfly. This I have enjoyed in the company of our resident doves, Daphne and Dudley. They are becoming tamer and tamer by the day, almost eating out of my hand. If only they would build a decent nest there could be a whole family of them at The Watch House.

Narcissus 'Toto', The Watch House, April 2015

Narcissus ‘Toto’ began flowering when it was just 4 inches tall, but has experienced a dramatic growth spurt this week. The bulbs have come into their own in the warm sunshine, throwing up stems bearing two, three or four flowers. The blooms deserve a companion planting of blue scilla, chinodoxa or muscari to bring out their curds and whey colouring, not the sugary pink cyclamen I foolishly paired them with. I will know better next time. Their fragrance is not as intoxicating as Narcissus ‘Cragford’ or Narcissus ‘Minnow’, but is pleasing enough if you get your nose in there. Honoured with an Award of Garden Merit by the RHS, Narcissus ‘Toto’ ticks all my boxes and will definitely be on my bulb order again this summer.

Narcissus 'Toto', The Watch House, April 2015

Daily Flower Candy: Smyrnium olusatrum

Smyrnium olusatrum, Alexanders, Broadstairs, April 2015

We have much to thank the Romans for – libraries, hot baths, straight roads, aqueducts and stinging nettles among them – but over time we have forgotten the delights of Smyrnium olusatrum, otherwise known as Alexanders. A native of the Mediterranean, Alexanders arrived on our shores with the Romans. The invaders used this versatile plant, with a flavour hovering somewhere between parsley and celery, as a vegetable. Some describe the taste as similar to myrrh, the precious resin which lends the ‘myr’ to Smyrnium. (To complete the translation, ‘olus’, means pot herb or cooking vegetable, whilst ‘atrum’ means as black, in reference to the ripened seed.) Alexanders must have been very happy with the British climate as it soon escaped cultivation and found a home in coastal hedgerows and on clifftops, especially here in Kent.

I love Alexanders because it’s one of the very first umbels to appear in spring, throwing up luscious clumps of glossy lime green foliage topped by chartreuse flower heads. The bees appear to adore it just as much as I do. Alexanders shout summer when everything else is harking back to winter. The contrast between leaves, sea and sky along the clifftops of Broadstairs is enough to send a shock-wave of energy through my system. Throw in a few wild-grown wallflowers with their heavily-scented yellow flowers and you have a life-affirming cocktail of fragrance, form and colour.

Smyrnium olusatrum, Alexanders, Broadstairs, April 2015

Thankfully not everyone has overlooked Alexanders since since it broke free from the monastic gardens that sheltered it after the Romans departed. That great champion of seasonal food, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, describes Alexanders as one of the best wild vegetables of spring. The Romans ate all parts of the plant (they referred to it as the ‘pot herb of Alexandria’), but the most straight-forward bits for modern-day cooking are the fleshy young stems. Cut close to the ground they should be trimmed and stripped of any stringy fibres, just like celery. They can then be steamed for a few minutes, drained and smothered with lashings of salted butter and pepper. Hugh describes the flavour as ‘a little musky, a touch juniper-ish’.

Emma Gunn, a foraging expert at The Eden Project in Cornwall, goes further, suggesting candying the stems like angelica, deep frying the flower heads in tempura batter, using the dried seeds as a substitute for pepper, and roasting the parsnip-like roots. I am no forager, and likely not of Roman descent, but I am already converted. Given the plant tastes of myrrh, I imagine it might also make a good flavouring for my favourite tipple, gin.

Whether or not you’re brave enough to try cooking with it (and make sure you are certain what you are putting in the pot before you do) Alexanders is a wonderful plant for a wild spot in the open garden. On our chalk clifftops it grows shoulder to shoulder with violets, Cineraria maritima, wallflowers and clusters of abandoned daffodils. As always, we can rely on Mother Nature for the best planting suggestions.

Seeds of Smyrnium olusatrum are available from Chiltern Seeds.

Smyrnium olusatrum, Alexanders, Broadstairs, April 2015

Daffodils By Royal Appointment

Buckingham Palace from Green Park, March 2014

At this time of year London’s Royal Parks are carpeted with vast swathes of daffodils. If the weather is fine I leave the tube one stop early and walk through Green Park, past Buckingham Palace to work in Victoria. The park’s daffodils create serpentine rivers of gold, primrose and white between the naked plane trees. I like to imagine Her Majesty sitting in bed with a lightly boiled egg, hot buttered soldiers and a cup of tea, gazing out of her bedroom window at her subjects, busying themselves like ants below. I am sure she does nothing of the sort, but it pleases me to think she’s enjoying the colourful scene.

Daffodils, Green Park, London, March 2015

Royalty have a great fondness for daffodils, particularly the Prince of Wales. Last week His Royal Highness asked the new leaseholder of an historic quarry on his Duchy of Cornwall land to pay one daffodil each year as rent. The 999-year lease on the site in Tintagel, Cornwall, cost its new owner £81,000, despite having no commercial potential. In a wry twist on the nominal ‘peppercorn’ rent, The Prince of Wales decided to accept just a single daffodil, the national flower of Wales, as payment.

Daffodils, Green Park, London, March 2015

A longer tradition was established thirty years ago when The Queen began sending daffodils from her Sandringham estate to patients and staff at hospitals across London – a typically charming gesture from a monarch who frequently receives posies and bouquets of narcissi from well-wishers. Here she is, outside Fortum and Mason in 2012, with The Duchess of Cornwall and The Duchess of Cambridge, giving the flowers her royal seal of approval. Let’s hope that there is still a smattering of daffodils in bloom on April 21st when she celebrates her 89th birthday. If this cool weather continues we can be sure of it!

1 March 2012 - LONDON - UK  HRH THE QUEEN,CAMILA DUCHESS OF CORNWALL, CATHERINE DUCHESS OF CAMBRIDGE VISIT FORNUM AND MASON,PICCADILLY,LONDON

Image: XPOSUREPHOTOS.COM

Daily Flower Candy: Narcissus tazetta ‘Cragford’

Narcissus 'Cragford', The Watch House, April 2015

Daffodils are a wonderfully diverse group of bulbs thanks to years of careful hybridisation and selection. A scion of the narcissus family that is less often seen in British gardens is the tazettas, also known as Chinese sacred lillies, joss flowers or polyanthus narcissus. The reason for their relative scarcity is their alleged tenderness, a trait of their Mediterranean heritage which renders the plants slightly less tolerant of our cold, damp winters. Tazettas are extremely tall, up to 80cm, carrying blooms in bunches of up to eight atop their long stems. Whilst they are hopeless in a windy garden, they are ideal as cut flowers, blooming from the dawn of the year in clement spots such as the Isles of Scilly.

Narcissus 'Cragford', The Watch House, April 2015

For fragrance, the tazetta narcissi are legendary. If you search a little you’ll discover there are several varieties commercially available. The Kim Kardashian of the family, known to all, is Narcissus tazetta ‘Paperwhite’, cultivated across the Northern Hemisphere to bloom at Christmas. Hybrids such as N. ‘Grand Soleil d’Or’ (yellow), N. ‘Ziva’ (pure white) and N. ‘Geranium’ (white with orange trumpets) are often used for forcing indoors. A new find for me this year was N. tazetta ‘Cragford’, which shares similar colouring to N. ‘Geranium’. Rather than grow them indoors I planted my bulbs tightly in pots outside and left them in the shelter at the base of a wall. Here they have come on slowly, flowering not at Christmas but in succession from mid March. The huge bulbs are now pumping out stem after stem of flowers, filling the air outside our front door with their potent fragrance (tazettas are grown commercially in Southern France to produce essential oils for the perfume industry).

Narcissus 'Cragford', The Watch House, April 2015

The benefit of growing tazettas outside is that they do not become drawn and floppy like they do indoors, plus the flowers last much longer. Bought bulbs are typically large and will produce a generous number of stems provided they are planted in a gritty, well-drained compost. Give them a little protection from cold and excessive wet and they will perform as well as hardier types. Around town there are many gardeners who have successfully cultivated these beautiful bulbs in the ground, so they are well worth experimenting with if you have a warm, south-facing border. Just three or four stems are enough to bring the scent of spring into the house, so plant generously this autumn and you can expect to enjoy fragrant flowers for many weeks.

Narcissus 'Cragford', The Watch House, April 2015

 

Daffodil Week: Symbols of Easter

Mixed naricissi, The Watch House, April 2015

Happy Easter one and all! For the whole of Easter week I will be writing about the most lauded of spring flowers, the daffodil. Spring is dragging its feet, which means many daffodils are still in fine form the festivities. Mine (pictured above) have survived a week of rain and high winds, looking much fresher and brighter than I do. Let me introduce you, from left to right, to Narcissus ‘Rip Van Winkle’, N. ‘Toto’ AGM, N. ‘Minnow’, N. ‘Jetfire’, N. ‘Cragford’ and N. ‘Oxford Gold’, representing a broad spectrum of the smaller cultivars available to gardeners.

Mixed naricissi, The Watch House, April 2015

In our coastal garden, we grow daffodils in pots, mainly from fresh bulbs each season. I have found that N. ‘Jetfire’ and N. ‘Tete-a-Tete’ come back reliably year after year if replanted in fresh compost in August. Others tend to fade away and would be better planted in the ground to bulk up again. I always choose smaller varieties that will not be toppled by the gales but bounce playfully in a stiff breeze. By the front door, strongly perfumed varieties such as N. ‘Chagford’ are a must. In our London garden we should grow more daffodils, but they don’t appreciate the heavy shade in some corners of the plot. I have had greatest success with N. ‘Jack Snipe’, which is a trouper, and N. ‘W.P. Milner’, but I need to plant lots more bulbs next year to achieve the tapestry of colour I am hankering after.

Over the coming week I’d love to hear about your favourite daffodils, tips for putting on a great spring display, and any folklore surrounding these symbolic Easter flowers. Wishing you all a peaceful and relaxing weekend, accompanied by good gardening weather.

Mixed naricissi, The Watch House, April 2015

Daily Flower Candy: Canarina canariensis

Canarina canariensis, Chelsea Physic Garden, February 2015

Regular readers may already have noticed that I am sucker for a subtropical plant. On a cold Sunday in February, whilst visiting London’s Chelsea Physic Garden, I found myself drawn in by the the scented warmth of one particular glasshouse, that which holds the garden’s collection of rare and threatened species from the Canary Islands and Madeira.

Scrambling towards the rafters in the centre of a fine display was a climber that I was completely unfamiliar with. The label read Canarina canariensis, the Canary bell flower. Research reveals that this elegant climber is an endangered member of the campanula family that carves out a fragile existence in the diminishing laurel forests of Tenerife, La Palma, Gran Canaria and La Gomera. Unusually for a campanula, the Canary bell flower regenerates from summer-dormant tubers which send up long, scrambling shoots in autumn. These can reach 6′-8′ in length, wandering along leaf-littered ground or through supporting shrubs. The soft leaves resemble those of a thunbergia. It’s in the winter that the bell-shaped flowers start to appear, divine but faintly reminiscent of a human organ with their fleshy tones and strongly contrasting venation, especially when back-lit.

Canarina canariensis, Chelsea Physic Garden, February 2015

After flowering the foliage dies down and the tubers preserve the plants’ energy until growth resumes again in autumn. This is how Canarina canariensis has adapted to survive summer drought in its natural habitat. In the UK we don’t concern ourselves greatly with water shortages, but the Canary bell flower makes a wonderful winter flowering subject for a cool, semi-shaded conservatory. In summer the tubers can be stored in a dark, dry place until they are ready to burst into life again. Naturally, I felt compelled to track down my new discovery. I found that seeds were available from Jungle Seeds priced at £3.95 for 10. I will let you know how I get on with cultivating my island beauty later in the year.

Canarina canariensis, Chelsea Physic Garden, February 2015

 

Bravery

Pittosporum tobira 'Nanum'

I had ideas about going to the Great Dixter Spring Plant Fair this weekend, but it dawned on me that I should spend more time worrying about the plants I already have rather than acquiring new ones. This was something of an revelation for a confirmed plantaholic like myself, and one which I hope doesn’t occur too often.

Our raised beds, the main growing space in our coastal garden, were planted up almost nine years ago and are starting to look overgrown and tired. Many of the plants that we selected were never intended to achieve the proportions they have. A warm microclimate and slightly more sunshine that the rest of the UK has meant that in many years the garden has grown for a full 12 months. I saw the writing on the wall two or three seasons ago, but lacked the guts to take action. Enjoying the leafy exuberance, I let nature take its course. In that time Pittosporum tobira ‘Nanum’ (Japanese mock orange) has become rather less ‘Namum’ and a little more ‘Giganteum’ thanks to its sheltered spot in a warm corner. A wiser gardener would have pinched out the new shoots to encourage bushiness, but The Frustrated Gardener favoured ‘jungly’ over ‘groomed’ and has ended up with what an old university lecturer of mine would have described as ‘green custard’.

On arrival my pittosporums (second plants from the bottom) were neat, well groomed little bushes

On arrival my pittosporums (second plants from the bottom) were neat, well-groomed little bushes

It’s not often acknowledged, but one of the essential qualities of a good gardener is bravery. It’s all well and good letting plants do their thing – that’s the relaxed impression many of us want to portray in our gardens – but the reality is that gardening is about control and discipline. No gardener worth his or her salt will just let a garden ‘go’. Inevitably plants will outstay their welcome, become too large or simply die after a period of time. Unless one is happy to preside over inevitable decline, then intervention cannot be avoided. Bravery, however, should not be confused with brutality. One is about doing the right thing, being courageous; the other about cruelty and savagery. Our local parks department, who seem to think indiscriminately hacking swathes of venerable shrubs down to tabletop level, would do well to heed the distinction.

The task of hard-pruning my pittosporums begins

The task of hard-pruning my pittosporums begins

Having noted in the past that P. tobira ‘Nanum’ will shoot generously from old wood when a branch is cut, I took the plunge and pruned both bushes back to about 10 inches high. Despite having formed a dense mound of evergreen foliage I discovered numerous straggly green shoots close to ground level and am hoping they will thicken up before garden opening weekend in August. It’s a risk, but one worth taking when the alternative is ripping both plants out and starting again. The space that’s opened up will be planted with echiums, just as it was in the early days. These will not cast too much shade over the recovering pittosporums, allowing them to form back into the neat, glossy bushes they started out as.

The thing about being brave in the garden is that the outcome is rarely as terrible as you might imagine. Should the pittosporums not recover, what I have gained is a light, bright corner, room to circulate around the garden table and space to indulge in something new. Before taking decisive action with any plant or shrub it’s worth seeking advice in a good gardening book or on the Internet. The RHS website is about as comprehensive as it gets (although in this instance hard pruning was not recommended). A little bit of research can make the difference between bravery and brutality, success and failure.

If you have a story about being brave (or brutal) in your garden, please share!

Down, but hopefully not out, Pittosporum tobira 'Nanum' after the chop

Down, but hopefully not out, Pittosporum tobira ‘Nanum’ after the chop

Primrose Blue

Blue primroses, London, March 2015

You’ve all heard of primrose yellow, but let me introduce you to primrose blue. As a flower colour blue is something of acquired taste, especially when it doesn’t come naturally. Could there be anything more abhorrent than a blue rose, a turquoise chrysanthemum (please note Tesco cut flower buyer) or, worse still, a sapphire orchid? And yet few blooms are as rich or vibrant as those of delphiniums, campanulas or gentians, which are blue through and through.

In part it’s about what we are accustomed to. This may be why I am not quite sure about the pot of marbled, lavender-blue primroses I currently have on my deck, purchased on a whim at the garden centre. They just about get away with their curious colouring on account of veering towards mauve but, like many bedding plants, they have that slightly too processed look about them. Too many flowers, not enough leaves.

Blue primroses, London, March 2015

Blue is not uncommon in primroses, although rarely could one describe the colour as true blue. Among the doubles, P. ‘Blue Ice’ is a deliciously chintzy powder blue, whilst old favourite P. ‘Blue Sapphire’ is a kind of faded indigo. Last year at the RHS Plant and Design Show I ran into P. ‘Blue Zebra’ for the first time; a flower that looks too much like cheap Chinese crockery for my liking, but the novelty of which will doubtless win fans. Perhaps the prettiest of the lot are the violet blue singles, including P. ‘Blue Riband’ and P. ‘Hall Barn Blue’, which sport masses of delicate golden-eyed flowers. Positioning them alongside other blue and yellow flowers is probably the best bet.

As for these chaps they’ll be straight on the compost heap once they finish flowering. Give me a primrose primrose any day.

Blue primroses, London, March 2015