Musings from the garden: 2021-22

Through the months of 2021, I posted here various observations from my garden, with some accompanying photographs. I have now distilled this material, added some more, and turned it into a book – From a Dumfriesshire Garden It is the first publication from Pennyland Press, an imprint I have created to disseminate aspects of my current work. For a free pdf download of the book, just click here: https://davidgrahamclark.files.wordpress.com/2022/01/from-a-dumfriesshire-garden-1.pdf

Meanwhile, the garden notes for 2022 continue here:

Garden note #25

18 June 2022

Garlic Harvest

Over the years I have grown leeks, onions, shallots, alliums and chives but it is only recently that I have started to cultivate another member of that bulbous and pungent family. Like so many things it started with Gardener’s World on the BBC and a demonstration of how to grow this nowadays ubiquitous kitchen necessity: garlic.

The method looked simple, so in October 2020 I decided to have a go myself. When no one was looking I filched a couple of healthy looking bulbs from the vegetable basket and divided them into separate cloves. In a nicely raked section at the end of a raised bed I planted two rows, placing the cloves about three inches down and covering them over. Quite simple.

Within a few weeks fine green shoots began to appear from each clove. Having reached about 6-7 inches in length before the colder weather began to arrive, there they sat all Winter.

When Spring came, they demanded no more than light weeding, and gradually the stems grew quite thick and reached a height of about 18 inches. By June some were beginning to flower and I decided it was time to lift them. An exploratory enquiry, raising the plant as gently as I could with a small fork to my delight revealed a beautiful garlic bulb, shining white as it emerged from the light, dry soil. A week, later and on the longest day as it happened, I lifted the remainder of the crop. They proved to be of excellent quality and the final few cloves have been used only in recent days.

Little wonder that come October 2021 my sights were set on bigger ambitions. Enthused by this endlessly useful and many would say, health giving plant, I decided to devote an entire raised bed to its cultivation. This time I had to buy-in ‘seed’ from a reliable organic food store. From this I duly planted 10 rows of garlic, six  cloves to a row.

Gradually and over an extended period of weeks, every single clove produced a shoot, standing bright green and alert at the very gates of Winter. I took a lot of pleasure from these fresh shoots, some of it anticipatory as I thought about the crop to come.

The plants seemed unperturbed by snow and frost and with the arrival of Spring 2022 they soon began to bulk up. When a flush of weeds came in May, I carefully removed them. But beyond that there was little to do but let the plants run their course. By the first week in June I could see that they had ceased to grow, some were starting to yellow, though none hinted at flowering. I dug one up and found a beautiful, firm purple bulb. It appeared the crop was ready for harvest.

Now I scanned the weather forecast and looked for a rare spell of dry weather. Although here in Dumfriesshire we have missed the southern mid-June heatwave, a couple of days of sunny, breezy conditions gave me my window of opportunity. I quickly dug up all 59 remaining plants and hung them out to dry in the open-sided potting shed.

Cleaning up each garlic bulb is a pleasant task. First I knock off any surplus soil, then trim off the roots.  Finally, when the whole stem is dry it can be cut off at the top of the bulb. Having so many this year we may well try to plait some into bunches. The final cosmetic task is to remove the discoloured outer papery skin of the bulb to expose the clean layer below.

Garlic has a long growing season, but is undemanding to cultivate. It also has the benefit of putting part of the Winter vegetable garden to good use when it might otherwise be dormant. Likewise the harvest comes at a time when other things are ready to plant out. This year, within hours of lifting the bulbs, I had replanted the entire bed with Cos lettuce and dwarf French beans.

I hope all this is not sounding too virtuous! In the coming months those around me may be less enthusiastic about my new found garlic passion. One word of caution, home grown garlic seems to be far stronger than the shop bought product. So whenever using it in cooking, do be sure your nearest and dearest partakes of the meal with you!

Garden note #24

26 May 2022 in

The Camassia: from Pacific North West to Scottish South West

As a student of anthropology in the early 1970s. I still remember some classes we had on the phenomenon known as Potlatch. Part of the culture of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific North West, it relates to large gatherings in which alongside story telling and feasting, a special emphasis is placed on the conspicuous display of wealth and largesse, in some cases even the destruction of valuable possessions in order to demonstrate one’s high status in the community.

I have often thought of the parallels between these practices and the ‘conspicuous consumption’ so prevalent in Western culture. But until now I had no idea there was a link between the Potlatch and the world of horticulture, and in particular my own Dumfriesshire garden.

Here’s some background.

I have written before about my enthusiasm for the Camassia plant. I first stumbled across it on BBC Gardener’s World and with the assistance of my expert horticultural neighbour, acquired a stock of Camassia bulbs about six years ago. There were two variants one with plain leaves and a deep, dark blue flower, the other with  a variegated leaf and a paler bloom.

The first I planted among grass in a circle of nine mop head beech trees. The second were given a home in a slightly smaller circle of nine hazels. 

Both have thrived, the flowers increasing each year and this year reaching an intensity of colour never before seen. They have proved easy to look after among old meadow grass and in the last few years I have gathered copious amounts of seed and scattered it in other parts of the garden. Apparently it can take a quinquennium for seed thus sown to come to flower.

The Camassia has been variously grouped and classified over the years. For a while it was seen as a form of lily, then it migrated into the hyacinth family, but it’s now classed as part of the asparagus group.  The two sets of Camassias in the Dumfriesshire garden flower in sequence. Depending on the year, the deep blue variety starts to bloom around the first week in May and has a couple of weeks of spectacular glory.  As that fades, the paler form comes into its own and is probably at its peak around the beginning of June.  The Camassia is another one of those plants that just keeps on giving.

But what, you are no doubt asking, does this have to do with the Pacific North West and the Potlatch? Well, this is what I have learned.

The ‘Blue Camas’  or ‘Quamash’ seems to originate in damp meadows in those North Western regions, where it can grow in abundance in the wild. Over several millenia this has been enhanced by the stewardship of local tribal groups that have a long history of tending defined areas of Camassia, sometimes with specific boundaries between them. These people employed various cultivation methods, including burning sections of ground,  splitting and transplanting clumps of bulbs and attaching responsibilities for different areas to specific kinship groups. Place names provide further evidence of where all this took place, such as Camas Valley in Oregon.

The bulbs were an important food source to indigenous tribes and were eaten roasted or boiled. They were lifted in large quantities in the carefully tended Camas lands. There was also a trade in these bulbs and this was linked in turn to the gatherings where overt displays of Camas wealth were placed on display. I am picturing huge piles of these slow growing bulbs which were of high food value and had good keeping qualities through the Winter. The anthropological record includes detailed accounts of cultivation methods, trading practices and the nutritional use of Camas bulbs in the North West Pacific regions, with botanical and archaeological evidence indicating such activity began as early as 7,000 BP and was significantly intensified by 3,000 BP.

How these wonderful plants came to be cultivated in European gardens is not a story I can tell. As they say, more research is needed. What I can say however, and as these pictures and the short video demonstrate, Camassia bulbs are well worth contemplating if you have a damp grassy area of the garden where they can be left undisturbed, catching some sunshine and gradually expanding into a mini prairie of colour that nods and shimmers in the late Spring breeze.

So I am showing off the Dumfriesshire garden Camassias in a miniature Potlatch of my own. Not to enhance horticultural status, but rather to spread the word about these somewhat unrecognised, but most wonderful of plants. All the while celebrating of course the fact that somehow they have made the journey from the Pacific North West to the Scottish South West!



Garden note #23

22nd April 2022

The epimedium – understated elegance for all seasons

One of the hallmarks of my plant choosing habits is an attraction to anything that has what I consider to be an ‘old fashioned’ look about it. I shy away from sappy, gaudy overly hybridized and commercially tampered with plants of all kinds. By contrast I am drawn to things that look like they have always been there, plants with a quiet appeal, an element of toughness, and in particular those which will give interest over the longue durée.

About 10 years ago whilst browsing in the plant section of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, I came across something that met my criteria exactly. Glossy, spear-shaped leaves on thin, wiry stems, with what looked like a spreading habit and just a hint that rich green might turn a warmer colour come the autumn. As I waited to pay, my friend and I looked at the label and immediately lapsed into schoolboy humour. The lovely horticultural specimen I was just about to buy was called an epimedium, something we found inexplicably funny, and still recall with some affection to this day.

More important though, was the ‘discovery’ of a new plant, which would come to be much enjoyed and in time have a more prominent place in the Dumfriesshire garden.

If its Latin descriptor gives opportunities for punning, its other ‘common’ names are even more curious: ‘barrenwort’, ‘bishop’s hat’, ‘fairy wings’, ‘long spur’, and not least the extremely improbable ‘horny goat weed’,  being just some examples. I won’t dwell on the explanations and etymologies.

I brought my one plant home, already wishing I had purchased three or even five, and placed it on the edge of a border in an area of particularly thin soil. I’d read that this was a species that could thrive in a measure of shade and was drought tolerant.  Over the years, as I have bought or been given more, I have stuck to this formula, planting in poor-ish soil and where sun and moisture are in limited supply. More recently, I’ll admit to spreading into richer terrain in the ‘damp border’ where a rill runs into the pond and reasonable light is available.

Both positionings seems to have worked. Slow to settle in, albeit with no losses to date, the epimediums gradually bulk up, smother any weeds and over time emerge as handsome features at the front of the border.

This year they seem to have been exceptional, an interpretation readily confirmed by my expert horticultural neighbour. For now the new leaves are pushing through, a delicate soft bronze at first that turns bright, shining green as the weeks go by. Topping them off are flowers of yellow, blue, purple and lilac with shapes that find an echo in their common names – hat-like, wing-like, horn-like, spur-like. Before opening out they hang from delicate claret or golden coloured  stems, in tiny buds like raindrops.

So what of cultivation methods?   In my early epimedium days, by March the plants would look scruffy after the ravages of Winter. I took advice and decided to give them an uncompromising haircut, right back to ground level. Within a week or two the flower stems would emerge, followed by the foliage. I liked the delicate effect. Then one nurseryperson told me that this could weaken some plants and cautioned against the practice. In a fit of enlightened self-interest, I took the advice and this year left the plants to themselves, thereby avoiding one task in the busy Spring period.

The result has been billowing clouds of new growth on top of the existing – seemingly more flowers than before and more fresh leaf growth.  I am content, and will resort only to a bit of tidying up when the flowers are finished.

So ‘barrenwort’ is in vogue in the Dumfriesshire garden. My original Chatsworth purchase is now nearly a metre wide. I look for any opportunity to acquire more examples at plant sales and in nurseries. There are over 60 accepted species and multiple hybrids. Originating in China, Japan and Korea, they have found a welcoming  home in the Scottish garden context. They are tough, resilient, elegant and understated. For a balance between foliage and flower, they are indeed the perfect happy medium!


Garden note #22

29th March 2022

The intensity of yellow and blue

In the garden world no year is quite the same as the last, or the next. Whatever the weather, something or other does well in each of the seasons.

Daffodils are in that category this Spring. Compared to previous years, they seem more abundant, healthier and above all, deeper and richer in colour. Huge clumps of them shine out across the garden, and in the labyrinth especially their blooms circle round as the day goes on, following the sun.

Likewise the sky above them has been a deep azure, sharp and bright in the early Spring air. Pale white in the post-dawn morning, the mists burn off to reveal a firmament of deepening blue that lasts through until dusk.

The combination of yellow and blue is everywhere this month, as countless numbers of people display the Ukrainian flag in solidarity with its war-torn people.

Last week I lay on the ground and gazed up at some deep yellow daffodils with the blue sky behind them. Such purity of colour, such beauty, such harmony in nature were all far away indeed from the situation of the Ukrainian people. I tried, but failed, to make some sort of connection in my mind with their plight. To attempt to do so seemed a mere contrivance.

Then on an errand I found myself on the driveway of Dalswinton House. The steep bank to the right was a mass of daffodils. I stopped the car to look in detail. As I raised my eyes upward, the yellow of the flowers gave way to the blue of the sky. The flag of Ukraine was in front of me.

When I showed a photograph of it to others, their curiosity about where and how gave way to a single response. Each one saw the connection and reacted with feeling and a sense of compassion in a what was a spontaneous moment of reflection.

There are times when our gardens are transcendent spaces that signify things above and beyond the botanical quotidian. May peace prevail in Ukraine.

Garden note #21

14th March 2022

The hellebores keep on giving

I first came across the allure of the hellebore nearly 20 years ago when watching the BBC programme Gardener’s World.  Inspired, I  went off in search but found them scarce in mainstream garden centres, where they were rarely sold to advantage or at their best.

In those days I was naïve to specialist nurseries and mail order services. Nor had online shopping become a commonplace. But one weekend, I think in 2006, I was visiting a small plant centre near Great Ayton in North Yorkshire with my elderly mother, when I came across a beautiful hellebore plant with fresh green yet leathery leaves and five white petals flecked with a paint splash of purple surrounding a heart of creamy coloured nectaries. It was pricey and I bought it with some trepidation, wondering if it would survive long in the Dumfriesshire garden.

For a few years it lived on a sloping bank with a path running below it. The position made it possible to look up from the path and gaze into its mass of elegantly drooping blooms. The idea was good, but the path in question was one rarely taken, and so I moved it to a spot I pass at least once every day. There is has stayed and seems content, though it has bulked up very slowly and I have not had the courage to spilt and divide it to create more plants.  

Another early hellebore acquisition was from a different branch of the family. Also evergreen and tough, this type has a lower, more spreading habit and its flowers tend to look up rather than droop. The ones I have are off-white,  in some instances tinged with pink, and without any notable markings. In general these hellebores seem to be the earliest to appear, though I have noticed you can’t set the calendar by them. One particular specimen has been known to flower in November, but this year didn’t come into bloom until March.

Over time, and as the ease of buying hellebores has increased, I have added more, dotted around the garden in places they seem to like – among shrubs and under trees. My preferred colour-palette broadly divides into creamy-white-pink, and deeper purple. I tend not to go for the fussily fancy forms. I usually buy a couple of plants at Christmas each year and have them by the front door or just inside the house, depending on conditions. As they begin to fade, and the festive season passes, they are given a permanent home in the borders.

I have read about hellebores and quickly got lost in the naming, categorisation and terminology. This has been made more challenging by a recent reclassification process. The plant is also a magnet for hybridisers, who have come up with countless variants.

Broadly I think of them in two groups. First, the feisty spreaders, that seem almost indestructible, low growing, serrated leaves and with light coloured flowers that shine out on the gloomiest winter day. Second, the elegant clumpers that push up long flower-bearing stems which nod gracefully, even when recovering from a heavy frost and look terrific in full light.

Helleborus Niger and Helleborus Orientalis are categories that are often seen – the Christmas Rose and the Lenten Rose, respectively. As the names imply they are going to bring you winter and early spring flowering, spanning several months in the gardening year. This is further enhanced by the way in which the plant’s petals don’t drop, but gradually fade, becoming delicate and papery, with the seed pod prominent at their centre.

This year the hellebores seem to have had a slightly slow start, but are now getting fully into their stride.  They have maintained my interest from the first signs of movement to the gradual arrival of new stems and flowers. They require little attention, other than the clearing away of dying or blackening leaves. I do this just as they show signs of new growth and find that it works very well.

Each plant has something to offer for several months. After that it can be allowed to fade into the background, as summer plants and shrubs come into their own. I’m so pleased with the hellebores this year that I am resolved to acquire more. In a new border we see from the kitchen window I have got my first drift of half a dozen plants of the same species and form. Tall stemmed and elegant, they have been attracting interest since early in the year and seem to have plenty appeal in them yet.

The passing of the years sees me not at all bored with hellebores. Indeed, these most generous of plants just keep on giving.

Garden note #20

22nd February 2022

Dogwood delights

As I have noted before, a nurseryman who shall be nameless, once told me, with casual dismissiveness, that dogwoods belong only in carparks and on roundabouts. Like most gardeners I too have my botanical aversions, but I do object to this wanton demonisation of the dogwood.

I say this with particular force just now, as the Winter is coming to its end. For without doubt during these past months in the arboretum field adjacent to the main Dumfriesshire garden, it is dogwoods that have been the star performers, whatever the weather conditions.

In this case, I’m talking specifically about  Cornus Alba Siberica and Cornus Sericea Flaviramea. Both are members of the maligned dogwood family. About five years ago, I planted the first of these as a three metre circle of nine small bright red plants. A couple of years later I added nine of the yellow-green form, as a circular clump inside the ring. Then I left them to get established. In Spring 2021 both sets of shrubs were pruned hard for the first time, right back to their strengthening stool. A kind of small scale pollarding.

From this they quickly recovered, sending out numerous whippy shoots that soon burst into sharp green leaves with elegant curving veins. As the stems grew tall and slender, and the summer advanced, beautiful bracts of creamy-white flowers appeared, grouped in clusters, each flower with four petals. The plant then self-pollinated to produce small black fruits, known as dog berries.

In autumn the leaves of Siberica turned fiery red and then faded to the colour of parchment. But it was when the last leaves dropped, that the dogwood’s most important season was upon us.

As the Winter progressed the shrubs paid back many times over, the modest effort that had been required in their cultivation. The low sunlight shone through them, its rays slanting almost horizontal across the dogwood circle. Now the sanguinous outer stems deepened to the colour of young claret, whilst the inner plants took on the colour of fresh celery, newly bought from the organic farm shop.

Each day in the Winter months, I’ve made a point of walking the mown path that encircles these humble yet striking shrubs. In the dullest conditions they draw you towards them. Examined close up on a frosty morning, the red and green are set off by white crystals of ice that seem to sugar the stems in an ephemeral dusting. From a distance, when the sun is shining low and sharp, the whole ensemble calls out across the field, bright, optimistic and a celebration of complementary colour in the darkest months. As I drive home and glance over the drystone wall, the dogwoods seem to greet me, eye-catching and perfectly situated in the old meadow, surrounded by growing oaks, beeches, and birch.

Which is why I have decided to create two new circles, slightly smaller, of different sizes and adjacent to the original. I intend to plant them in the same way, recognising that the plants will be happy quite close together. In an attempt to replicate the colour scheme exactly, I plan to take hardwood cuttings from the original shrubs in a few weeks’ time when they get their spring haircut. By such means the dogwood delights will, I hope, come ‘full circle’.

Garden Note #19

22nd January 2022

New book announcement!

From a Dumfriesshire Garden

It is with great pleasure that I make available this book, free to download, in pdf format. Through the passing months of 2021, I posted here various observations from my garden, with some accompanying photographs. I have now distilled this material, added some more, and turned it into book format. It is the first publication from Pennyland Press, an imprint I have created to disseminate aspects of my current work. To get a free pdf download of the new book, just click below.

Click here to download From a Dumfriesshire Garden

The book is also available in print form, and I must say does look rather nice! Production costs are somewhat high on small print runs, but if I get enough interest from people wishing to buy print copies, I will do my best to make them available. Please email enquiries to me at: david.graham.clark53@gmail.com

David Graham Clark

(25 January 2022)

Garden note #18

2nd December 2021

The waning moon and the labyrinth

Photograph courtesy of Dr Dave Borthwick

Seven o’clock in the morning

The waning moon cuts a sharp white arc from its own mottled shadow.  I’m walking with a five foot staff, taken from an ash coppice. It’s for utility, not affectation. In any case there is no one to see me. A cold north-west wind is blowing, and the grass is glutted with frost. Out from the garden, to the rising drumlin ground. Should I walk the whole arboretum field and meet up with my fossicking dog as I return? Or choose the adjacent labyrinth, where he will lay at the boundary, patiently awaiting my next move? I decide for the labyrinth. It’s ‘as good a place as any to begin’. Two external co-ordinates shape the reverie. By turns, the biting north-wester sears my face and back; whilst the morning moon patrols the eastern sky, just above the treetops. In the almost-dark I can’t see the tiny Cedar of Lebanon at the labyrinth’s centre. Looping round where I know it to be, I continue the unicursal path to the labyrinth mouth. The place of entering and leaving.  

Now I am saying goodbye to the night, and limping towards the new day.

(quote from Robin Williamson. The Barley, Ten of Songs, 1988).

Garden note #17

Late November 2021

Autumn’s bounty

The season of mellow fruitfulness is now at an end. It has brought unusually mild conditions, heavy rain, then serious frosts and the imminent promise of wintry weather.

The apples are gathered in, and I go into my writing shed each day to be greeted by complex notes of Galloway Pippin, Melrose White and Bramley. The garlic is planted, and already poking through into the shortening daylight. The autumn haul of pickles and preserves awaits the feasting of winter. Beautiful parsley literally shines in the raised bed but is also in pots in the greenhouse for when the cold grips us for days at a time.

Amongst all this is the pleasant and perhaps unexpected bounty of living right next to that inspiring watercourse, the Pennyland Burn. At various times these past weeks, the heavy rains have transformed the placid summer burbling of the burn into a raging torrent. Care is needed when walking the dog. We keep clear of the rushing current as it hurtles down to the weir and then drops a good 10 feet to the pool below. The water is brown, strewn with leaves and debris and speeding downstream faster than you can walk. On and below the surface it is carrying flotsam from the woods and hills upstream.

As the flood fines down, the burn has much to reveal. A new deep pool has emerged here and looks a favourable lie for migratory fish. A ridge of shingle has formed there which might be a new fishing spot for the heron. Among the stones I see splendid blue-green Scots slates, irregular in size and thickness. They are marked with beautifully punched holes, where sat the nails that once held them to a steading roof. I spot twelve bore cartidges of plastic and metal, a fertilizer sack, a broken bucket and other desiderata. Here and there are pieces of Locharbriggs sandstone, washed down from the collapsed mill lade wall, a few hundred yards upstream. A rotting pheasant carcass lays at the water’s edge. More attractive is an Andy Goldsworthy-like serpentine of bronze leaves at the tide mark where the burn has flooded onto the garden.

Beyond these multiple curiosities is something of immediate practical worth. Smooth, blackened branches of alder, their bark washed off some time ago, one looking like a big conger eel. Limbs of pine, cracked and ripped in the wind and then blown into the water, one sitting improbably wedged between a rock and the wall head of the weir. Here and there is a sawn log of ash, escaped from someone’s wood pile. As thick as your wrist, there are branches of beech, perhaps cast off in the late summer drop and then washed into the burn. Old fence posts and stobs are wedged among burnside trees, ready for clearing out as soon as the water subsides further and is wade-able.

The Pennyland Burn runs round the perimeter of the Dumfriesshire garden. A watery boundary that provides constant movement and a varied spectrum of ambient sound. I delight in what more than one person has called this magical stretch of water, sweeping round from the north, falling sharply at the weir into a steep gorge before reaching the flood plain, disappearing three miles down in a mini delta, and then disgorging into the River Nith. So the burn brings interest and pleasure all year round, and at this particular season, following heavy rain, it also provides a delightful bounty of changing aspect, curious flotsam and the material bonus, once it is sawn, stacked and dried – of wood for the winter fire.

Garden note #16

19th October 2021

The year of the courgette

I am not quite sure when I first ate courgette. My guess is sometime in the 1970s when my older brother turned vegetarian. In those days that could simply mean omitting meat from the convert’s plate. New items were therefore needed to gradually expand the ‘two veg’ element of our local cuisine. Enter the courgette. Bitter tasting even when (exotically) steamed with frozen peas, the result was not appetizing and seemed unlikely to catch on. Curious therefore that griddled courgettes are now sometimes referred to as my own ‘signature dish’.

This may be fortuitous, since the hot summer, punctuated with pulses of heavy rain, seems in these parts to have made 2021 the year of the courgette, or zucchini, or maarroo, or small marrow – depending on where in the world you live.

Monty Don opines that three courgette plants are sufficient to supply a family.  But this year I got ahead of the curve. The proud owner of a new greenhouse, I made an early sowing in late March and watched with pleasure as the first broad cotyledons appeared, glossy and in good condition. When a few true leaves arrived I took the bold step of planting them into large pots, or in one case an old tin watering can, which I thought would bring a trendy look to the greenhouse staging. The method seemed to work. By early June, flowers began to appear and by the middle of the month, my greenhouse courgettes were arriving in all their ribald glory.

Soon they were brought into the kitchen for griddling. Fashionably marked on each side with charred bars, the sliced pieces were dressed with olive oil and lemon, salt and pepper. Then with fresh herbs added, brought to the table to delight us all.  After a week or two, pieces of feta cheese were added to the ensemble, to give extra appeal. By mid-July, cherry tomatoes became another key ingredient, along with beautiful fresh basil and garlic – all grown on the domain.

But as the summer advanced our appetite for courgettes waned. No longer quite so in-demand in the kitchen, I composted the early greenhouse plants and turned my attention to the three I’d planted out (slightly later) in the vegetable patch. They were wonderfully healthy, and in perfect growing conditions, determined to do their best. Courgette soup quickly followed, then courgette ‘farcie’, and eventually courgette cake. At this point a truce was called.

In the vegetable garden, I became like one of Pavlov’s dogs, studiously avoiding ‘courgette corner’. Denial continued into late August, when I chanced to look into that raised bed of fecundity. There it appeared that not one, not two but a dozen over-sized courgettes, now fully fledged marrows, were lying among the foliage like green hump back whales or even unexploded World War Two ordinance. I was in a state of shock. Making a bee line for the potting shed I returned with a Hori Hori knife, given to me some Christmases back. It proved the perfect tool for the marrow harvest, a sort of vegetal ‘grind’ where hapless victims were dispatched en masse.

I laid out the magnificent specimens and photographed them immediately, for posterity. Being no admirer of stuffed marrow (made once and once only during my student days) I contemplated putting them straight into the compost bin. Holding back, I emailed a neighbour who keeps chickens. Perhaps the hens would like to peck away at the split marrows, providing both nutrition and distraction in the long summer days? My offer was politely declined, the neighbour explaining that she too was experiencing courgette over supply and the hens were already complaining.

I duly brought the lovely marrow specimens down to the potting shed, placing them artistically and enjoying their changing texture and surface patterns, as they evolved from deep green to wonderful yellows, with orange hints. I thought the story might end there, or at least when the first frosts came and rendered them to sludge. But no.

Quite quickly new courgettes appeared on the three outdoor plants and these new offerings simply had to be taken to the kitchen. Some, sadly, withered in the fridge. But a brief awakening did take place in the pleasures of the griddled variety, particularly when mixed into pasta.

Then, in mid-October, leaving to visit friends in Lancashire, whilst en route to a half term holiday, I put together a haul of home grown produce. I found a few slightly over-sized courgettes that were later transformed by my expert friends into culinary delights and displayed on Facebook. But in the process of harvesting, I had seen that we now had a second marrow crop of prize winning proportions. I was running out of space in the potting shed.

Fortunately, a breakthrough came. My vacation reading included a gardening column in a weekend paper. There I was led to believe that unwanted pumpkins could be cut in half and turned into attractive bird feeders. Simply scoop out and add seeds, windfall apples or any other attractive pecking material and the garden birds will feast. Could it work for my green monsters at home?

Now back from holiday, my Japanese garden knife is about to be put to a new use. I’ll soon be slicing marrows roughly into the shape of a Thames barge, and then filling their hulls with autumn garden bounty – to delight blackbird, robin, blue tit and finch. In an act of supreme charity I may even lay some ‘barges’ on the ground for the benefit of the pheasants …

The year of the courgette is coming to an end. It may not pass this way again for a while. But who knows what gardening bonanza 2022 may bring? Imagine a surfeit of radish, or kohl rabi? Or (far more threatening) a superabundance of ridge cucumbers – an unthinkable gherkin glut! For now I note the courgette patch is frost free and still looking healthy. More than that I cannot say. Since coming back from holiday, I haven’t dared to look closely!

Garden note #15

28 September 2021

The pineapple lily

Staying at a relative’s home during the holidays I had the pleasure of leafing through a set of garden magazines that I don’t normally see.  One article left an impression on me. It was about a beautiful garden created on the side of a steep hill overlooking Lyme Bay, on the famous Jurassic coast of Dorset in the south of England. A setting less like my own verdant, rain washed and shaded Scottish garden could scarcely be imagined.

Nevertheless one thing jumped out at me from the photo montage of seaside, salt-resistant plants. It was something called the Eucomis and it appeared to be growing out in the open, and flowering in the late summer. I reached for my ‘phone and began to search for more information. There was plenty of it.

Eucomis is part of a sub-family of asparagus, but clearly has hyacinth characteristics as well. A native of several countries in southern Africa, in its natural habitat it favours moist settings, alongside streams and swamps, but can also grow in more exposed hilly areas as well.

Many of the Eucomis photographs I looked at were close ups. From these it was difficult to get a sense of scale, but what struck me was the lush and exotic look of these plants. Gorgeous wide leaves, suggestive of gentle climes and wonderfully restful to the eye, then the remarkably elegant creamy-white flower rising up from the centre of the basal rosette and topped with a spiky green fringe, like a miniature pineapple. First described in the late 18th century, the name comes from the Greek eu (good or pleasing) and kome (hair of the head). I’ve subsequently learned that there are taller and shorter varieties.

It wasn’t difficult to be tempted by them. Yet the more I read, the less confident I was that such a plant would survive beyond a single season in the Dumfriesshire garden. I imagined one hopeful display, followed by abortive searches the following year and the gradual realization that on this terrain, the bulbous specimen perennial was merely an annual.

Then a thought struck me. Earlier this year, and for the first time in my fairly long gardening history, I became the owner of  a rather splendid greenhouse.  I had already put a few ailing houseplants inside among the tomatoes, salads and herbs and found the new setting had remarkably restorative properties. Looking beyond the summer, I had started to muse on which plants may thrive and give pleasure in the glass house as the cooler weather and shorter days drew nigh.

Eucomis would be a step in the direction of this ‘plant house’ experiment. In the month of August however, I wasn’t sure if I had missed the boat for this particular plant. But finding Eucomis bulbs still available for sale, I decided to take a punt. I ordered two packs of six bulbs each, and then rashly bought a rather more expensive single bulb. The packs were billed as Eucomis Autumnalis and the single specimen as a two-colour pineapple lily. The latter was also described as a ‘perfect buy for an amateur gardener just getting started, or an experienced gardener looking to grow something new’. I felt I met both categories

The bulbs soon arrived and were unpacked with care and anticipation. On Saturday 22 August my daughter and I gathered in the potting shed, where I encouraged her to carefully plant them into pots and label them up. I thought it would be a nice thing to do on the first weekend after she had started senior school. It was one of those rather therapeutic moments when we took our time, laid out our materials in advance and made a thorough and careful job of things (just like the presenters on Gardener’s World!). It was a lovely father-daughter interlude and a brief reminder of my own grammar school motto – aut nuquam tentes, aut perfice.

To our delight, in about 10 days green shoots were appearing in the pots. By 15 September the flower stems were emerging  and for well over a week now (late September)  they have been reaching a slow crescendo of delight.  I think the bi-coloured form with its waxy off-white flowers etched with purple, may be Eucomis Montana. It also has speckled leaves and stem and is slighter taller than the others. It looks very elegant as a singleton in a tall pot.  Autumnalis, has frothier white flowers and looks good in a group.

Exotic plants in the greenhouse! I feel like a new venture has opened up.

The tomatoes are now cleared out, an ancient Benares table and a couple of chairs have been installed. It’s the perfect spot to take a cup of coffee and enjoy a close up look at my new friends from the Eucomis family. Now I just need to work out how to store them safely over the winter in hopes of a return visit next September!

Garden note #14

8 August 2021

Patterns in the turf

Maze or labyrinth? Until recently I thought they were interchangeable, synonymous even. But not so.

I talked to my brother Peter, who knows about these things. He explained the key distinction. A labyrinth is unicursal. What an evocative word. A single enclosed line, space or path, from the Latin cursus, meaning course.

By contrast a maze is multi-cursal, following no single course, with enclosed spaces and blocked exits. The labyrinth that contained the Minotaur was really a maze. 

Last year on a whim, my friend Artur, just before he returned to Poland, cut a pattern in the grass within an ovoid space enclosed by young hornbeams. It looked pretty handsome and I enjoyed photographing it in low winter lights, as well as in frosts and snow. 

Unschooled in the detail, as we were, it was really neither labyrinth nor maze. One path led to the centre with concentric circles leading out from it. After the terrible explosion in Beirut in August 2020, I planted a small Cedar of Lebanon in the middle, as an homage.  

Visiting friends liked this piece of ‘turf art’ but there was a complication. A few years earlier I had filled the ovoid space with daffodil bulbs, an early variety, nothing special, but welcome colour in the earliest days of pre-Spring. 

This meant that the mowing could not be done this year until all the daffodils had died back, and the place had become a clover meadow. 

Two weeks ago we strimmed it down in preparation for cutting a new path.

Informed by my brother, this time  I opted for a true unicursal labyrinth. But this had to be something our hefty mower could cope with, whilst allowing for the limitations of the space. Labyrinths are ideally seven or nine circles, but ours would have to be fewer. 

I found a drawing of a classical form with just three paths and a central circle. I sent it to Jules, who has been working with me in the garden since last August, and suggested we try to mark it out on her next visit. 

I’m not great at spatial thinking.  Thankfully, Jules proved to be better. Between us, aided by some rope, a piece of bamboo and some marker spray, we set to work. 

At first there was quite a bit of head scratching and a couple of false starts. The main challenge was turning the line on the diagram into a raised band in the grass, interspersed with a low mown path. 

Whilst I was making the coffee, Jules made a start. On my return she was beaming. Following a eureka moment, it had all fallen into place.

We had our first labyrinth, slightly ragged to be sure, but nothing that mowings in the coming weeks will not sharpen up. 

Here’s how it looked after that first cut. 

In the week since, I have ‘walked the labyrinth’ every morning and evening. On each circumlocution my social science scepticism falls away. 

First, although quite a small area, walking into and then out of the labyrinth takes a few minutes. Precious time to set aside  for uncluttering the mind and focussing on the moment. Second, there is something uplifting about unwittingly retracing one’s steps, without making a sharp about turn in order to do so. You simply circumnavigate the Cedar of Lebanon. Walking in and walking out of the labyrinth therefore becomes a single process. Third, I have found that as I concentrate more on my steps and my thoughts, arrival at the exit to the labyrinth brings a surprising sense of release and freedom. 

Call this the pointless musing of a recovering academic if you will, but I find myself literally and metaphorically drawn into the labyrinth experience. I intend to explore it more.

In the meantime my thanks to Peter and to Jules – for getting me to this point. I will report further in due course, no pun intended!

Garden note #13
21 June 2021

‘All shall be well’

The field stone, a former gate post, was delivered to me about the time of the Winter Solstice last year. I first wrote about it here on the 14th of January. Sensing its potential, I contacted a stone carver who came to see it in situ, at a point close to what he told me was the ancient festival of Embolc. How fitting then, that the lettering work we agreed upon at that time was completed on the very day of the Summer Solstice, 2021.  

Max Nowell is a man of many skills: dry stone dyker, small holder, artist and cider maker, to name just a few. He is well known in these parts for his ability to carve rope patterns into our local Locharbriggs Sandstone. I figured that a small piece of lettering would not task him unduly. On the first visit he examined the stone with interest, tapped and scratched and declared it fit to be carved. We then agreed what I considered a very modest rate for each letter in the inscription.

I had thought for some time about some words I would like to see in the garden. It wasn’t hard to settle on an epithet from the medieval English mystic, Julian of Norwich. I came to know about her from the late Cicely Saunders, whose biography I published in 2018. Julian’s book Revelations of Divine Love, formed at the end of the fourteenth century, is thought to be the first book in the English language to be written by a woman.

After being desperately ill and experiencing a set of visions, Julian, became a hermit or anchoress and had a little cell built on the side of St Julian’s Church in Norwich. There she struggled with the existence of sorrow and bad things in the world. I thought about her during the pandemic as we sought to question why such a thing can happen and what might follow from it. I don’t think it is necessary to be a believer to accept her injunction, made in the face of suffering and a vision of what might follow. It seems perfectly acceptable to a secular optimist such as myself: All shall be well.

I explained the text to Max and he immediately went away to find out more about Julian and the sort of calligraphy that would have been used in her day and in her book. I like the idea of mixing fonts together, and so we settled on a combination of Gothic and Times Roman. Returning in the summer, and over a couple of visits, with just a small hammer and chisel, he etched the text into the stone, working around the existing fleck marks that had been made by the mason who formed it – who knows how many years before.

Now, on my regular walks through the garden each day,  I stop at the stone, ponder on the portal it must once have occupied, and give myself time to  reflect on Julian’s words and the sense of hope they contain.

Garden note #12
19-20 June 2021

Garden exotica

I readily admit that I am no plantsman. I frequently blank when talking about some flower or shrub in the garden, or when asked for the name of a particular specimen. These lacunae apply to the common as well as the Latin names, though just a few of the latter do stick. I use these as frequently as possible to imply a measure of horticultural wisdom.

In general my approach to the garden is to create an emotional effect that stirs the spirit. I’m interested in the full symphony rather more than its constituent parts.

But on a June weekend it was a real pleasure to have a close encounter with two particular plants, for which I not only know the names, but which also have a distinctly exotic air. Examining them close up enhanced my appreciation of their beauty, but also piqued my interest in their particular botanical features.  And as it turned out, each of them had its own story of origins, associations and idiosyncrasies. Both are forms of lily.

The first, photographed here looking settled in the Dumfriesshire garden rain, is Arisaema Candidissimum.

I bought three of these plants last year at the Kirkudbright nursery of the excellent Elizabeth MacGregor. Its common names include the Chinese Cobra Lily and the Striped Cobra Lily. Given its delicate and esoteric look, I decided to plant mine in an old salt glazed agricultural trough, fairly close to the house. But seeing them now, I am inclined at the end of the season to move my three specimens into a damp and dappled-shade border, where they might sit happily, perhaps with other favourites, like Colocasia, Meconposis and Foxgloves.

I came across a much more knowledgeable blog about Arisaema Candidissimum here – in which it is explained that the plant was first introduced into Britain from Yunnan (the most south-western province in China) by George Forrest, in 1914. Well done him, I say. It is now safely ensconced with me and other gardeners, in the most south-western region of Scotland, Dumfries and Galloway – though not so close to the Tropic of Cancer.

My second example is the Voodoo Lily, or Devil’s Tongue. Either way it sounds quite scary. Its Latin name is Amorphophallus Titanum. Not to be confused with Amorphophallus Konjac, which I first discovered at the Logan Botanical Garden, but have been unsuccessful in growing further east in Dumfriesshire.  

With A. Titanum, we get into seriously strange territory. For one day only it gives off the smell of rotting meat, attracting associated flies that buzz around and inside the plant,  in what when I saw it, looked like a frenzy of destruction. Rushing indoors I sought an explanation on the internet and found several, mainly from the USA.  The flies apparently pollinate the plant. You can watch it happening here is a short video (not for the squeamish!).

On the whole, I think I would stick with bees and butterflies as my favoured pollinators, but the Devil’s Tongue does seem to have found an ecological niche. Sadly a few days after this treatment, my three plants, also growing in an old trough, looked anything but happy. Apparently this may be a passing phase, and before too long another shoot will emerge and produce an umbrella of attractive foliage. Either way, I think I will move them elsewhere too and away from the house – if they survive the tubers can become quite large (and even useful in cooking!) and also the fly-blown rotting flesh image is not one I wish to cultivate in my mind.

8 August – additional note.
The resurgence of the Voodoo Lily some weeks after it’s first bewildering appearance and disappearance did in fact come to pass. Here are the three plants in early August, looking handsome and content, with underplanted native ferns taken from a garden wall. Gorgeous spreading leaves and beautifully patterned stems.

Such is the seductive detail of exotic plants. They draw you in to their botanic narratives and surprise you with their oddities. Perhaps I should start looking more closely at the individual movements of the garden symphony and studying the constituent parts in more detail. I begin to see the endless possibilities of getting closer to my plants – and even remembering their names!

Garden note #11
4 June 2021

Camassia magic

Twenty seconds of camassia magic, with birdsong. Filmed in the ‘arboretum’ next to the main garden. I planted the camassias in a circle of nine hazels, in which from time to time they get new botanical neighbours that blow in from around the plot. In the middle of the circle is an (imaginary) well. This is the well, surrounded by the nine hazels from which the Irish giant Finn McCool took the salmon of wisdom. It’s said that if a day goes by without Finn’s name being mentioned, then the world will come to an end. So I’m glad I thought of him today.

Garden note #10

25 May 2021

The big border

When visiting large gardens, I’m often inspired by the long border that is so frequently to be found running in front of a massive hedge or impressive stone wall. Crammed with herbaceous plants and shrubs, sometimes sprinkled with topiary or elevated by decorative trees, it is often a thing of splendour that stirs the horticultural ambition. Such a border can unfold its bounty in phase after phase of forms, colours and movements, revealed through the rhythms of the year.

Which is why, when I began to rent the field next to my garden in 2015, I quickly decided to start something like it myself. Six years on, it has come to be known, rather prosaically as ‘the big border’. Please excuse this extravagant gallery of pictures, and then read on!

Roughly 24 metres long and 8 metres wide, the big border runs more or less east-west, and has a southerly aspect. But with no protecting wall or hedge it can be prone to cold blasts that sear in, especially from the north east, as well as the wet volleys from our prevailing south westerlies. Add in the fact that the entire border sits on a drumlin and is also at the edge of a field where ploughed out stones have been dumped since Patrick Miller began his improvements here in 1785, and you can quickly see some of the challenges.

All that said, I have been more and more pleased with the big border as each year goes by, and love to watch it springing into life, especially from about this time onwards (though to be sure, this year things are rather late).

I’d originally thought the big border could be divided into four sections, each one showcasing a particular season. But this soon broke down as a concept when opportunistic purchases or random gifts of plants, including welcome donations of others’ cast-offs, were all readily accepted and assimilated. ‘Beware gardeners bearing plants’, I was once told by a nurseryman. They are certainly the enemy of design, but I still rather like the mash-up of things that occur when breaking free from the original plan and giving way to playful planting.

Of course, it’s always possible to re-design along the way, and this I did a few years ago in creating a square of roses, demarcated by four ferrous obelisks made by Russell Goodrourn of New Abbey. The flowers and the ironmongery give a sense of order to an otherwise shaggy border and I have tried not to mix in other things with the roses, though I know this is fashionable.

From the early daffodils, hellebores and arums, to the Jacob’s ladder, then the azaleas and on to the coppery red Great Dixter euphorbias, and the bronze elders – the big border cranks into gear and doesn’t let up. After these come the geraniums, the self-seeded white foxgloves, the irises, lupins and lavender, Indian love grass, eryngium, oxeye daisies, the day lilies and the colocasia. By mid-summer there are countless plants I’m struggling to name, their labels lost or never present, and of course the David Austins and their companions are blooming at full-tilt. Soon we have the crocosmias – orange, yellow and deep red – and then a little later, the Japanese anenomes, verbena, sedum, asters and heleniums. Some of these, along with late flowering roses, can keep a worthwhile display going until late November and right up to the gates of Winter, frosts permitting. When all flowers are gone, the clipped box, juniper, cryptomeria and western red cedar gradually appear to the eye and make for real interest in the shortest days, slowly disappearing from view again when spring returns.

I’m lucky to have the big border, I see it each time I leave and return to my home. It’s a haven for bees and birds. Yes, it needs ‘deep weeding’ a couple of times a year and a robust haircut in January. But beyond that it looks after itself for much of the year and at its height, offers up a daily menu of perennial favourites and the occasional blow-in or gifted surprise. It provides interest of some kind for 12 months of the year: a perfect garden almanac.

Garden note #9

16 May 2021

Meconopsis

The Himalayan Blue Poppy, Meconopsis, has a special place in my gardening affections. Over the years I have bought the occasional one, alive and vigorous from the garden centre, only to see it disappear in the autumn, never to return. 

A couple of years back, I made progress and got a small clump established, the product of gifts from two or three successive Father’s Days. They vary in shade. Some are an informal  pale water-colourish blue that makes an excellent foil for the yellow centre. Others are a deep China blue and are simply jaw dropping in their dignified presence. 

So in the autumn of 2019, with the poppy seed heads nice and ripe and in the nick of time as a visiting deer started to nip them off for a tasty snack, I collected a paper bagful. I then cracked out the fine black seed before storing it carefully in a labelled envelope. 

In March 2020 I filled several trays with scattered seed on damp compost and then sprinkled fine grit over the top. Having no greenhouse at that time, I left the trays on a low wall where they would attract some sunshine, but not dry out. 

By May I had a patchy but gratifying array of seedlings. By July I was pricking them out and re-planting in four-inch pots. Some grew faster than others. Some poorer specimens struggled and died. 

But by mid August, when a sense of early autumn pervades the morning air in these parts I felt confident they could be planted out.  There they sat for a few months, in their new location near a rill that runs from the burn into the pond.

Over Winter they slumbered beneath the leaf mould. Returning hesitantly in March, they were un-phased by the frosts of the late Spring. If they took a knock in the early hours when the April chill descended, they were soon back in business and giving me hope of a return on my efforts.

Today, to my delight, I have my first two flowers, their blooms not quite fully unfolded but looking majestic in a porcelain deep blue. I feel ridiculously pleased about it. 

I gather that the Meconopsis has many named varieties and that these are often shrouded in debate as to provenance. I’ve read that the blue poppy was first cultivated by the French botanist Viguier in 1814. Privately, of course, I intend to call my new arrivals Meconopsis Pennylandis, after the lovely burn that runs by them. 

Unlike last year, I now have a rather splendid greenhouse. I suspect it will be packed with Meconopsis seed trays next Spring. Assuming of course that I’ve not been thwarted by the deer. 

Garden note #8

21st April 2021

Late frosts

During these past few weeks and up to the 19th of the month, perhaps the most memorable feature in the garden has been the heavy frosts we encounter each morning. Following a cloudless night and usually just before light is about to break, the sharp sub-zero air has descended, so that by the 7am dog walk, a white carpet awaits us, already set off by the sun’s slanting rays – and with them – the promise of warmth later in the day.

The early morning scene, though beautiful, brings a sense of disappointment. Many flowering plants are dipping their heads in mourning. Narcissi of all persuasions, short and tall, look funereal in their stooped posture. Hellebores lay in flat fans on the frosty ground, awaiting the sun’s CPR. Ceanothus, magnolias and early azaleas suffer most, their leaves blackened and emergent blooms cut down before their time. 

A thin layer of ice sits on the pond. In shady spots it is unbudging the whole day through. We wonder when the cold will end and we search for signs of new growth to mitigate the chill. And then, as the month of April turns into its final stages, the air suddenly warms, scything winds moderate, and the garden breathes its relief. We look ahead with hope, perhaps to six frost-free months?

Postscript 23 April 2021

I am afraid that as Rafiki said in the Lion King, I was ‘wrong again!


Garden note #7

4th April 2021

Hidcote

This note is exactly five years old and was written in Chipping Camden, during a stay in the Cotswolds in April 2016. It concerns a visit to the garden at Hidcote Manor, now under the stewardship of the National Trust, but originally the creation of Lawrence Johnston, who worked on it for some 40 years. 

A delightful morning. Rain clearing and sun emerging. We breakfast early and are among the first to arrive at Hidcote, just a short drive away.

My six year old daughter enjoys walking around the garden with a map. Having previously been here only in summer, I also see the garden in a new way. The bare bones are revealed.

There is much restoration in progress near the house, so some of the beds look messy, though there are spring bulbs and some blossom. But the overall effect remains completely inspiring. 

It becomes possible  to see that the ‘rooms’ are often not on the flat at all, or even on levelled ground. Rather, ingenious uses of terracing can be seen here and there, and in some places paths cut through and across the slopes, to make enclosed spaces possible. 

There is a lot of rectilinear in the hedging but it is somehow superimposed on the ululations and varied camber of the ground. 

Johnston’s  principle, inherited from others, is also worth remembering. Form and structure close to the house – including parterre, terracing, paving and tiled areas – gradually gives way to more informal and then wilder planting. But from most vantage points  there are vistas, enhanced by framing in archways or with gates as a distinct focal point.

These things are all worth remembering, whatever scale of garden we have.

Garden note #6

18 March 2021

Frog season

The tell tale signs began to emerge a few weeks ago. Shifting a pile of newly delivered logs, a couple of semi-comatose puddocks required relocation to a safe damp spot. Then one wet late evening as I left the house for a dog walk, an inquisitive member of the family Ranidae, hopped straight towards me in the porch before making an abrupt right turn and then dissolving quickly behind a green Wellington boot. Next day the builder rescued a couple of Rana Temporaria from a watering can. 

The accumulating evidence was clear. Frog season was upon us. 

According to my records, this very short annual event has in recent years usually taken place on a Saturday in March. Presumably the weekend leaves more time for the participants – their quotidian tasks complete and out of the way – to concentrate unidisturbed on the new matter at hand. But this year the important event began on a Wednesday,  the 10th of the month, in the afternoon to be precise. Maybe  those involved had been given the time off for games. 

At any rate, the players went about their sport with considerable enthusiasm. Urged on, rather than deterred, by gusting winds and heavy rain, they set alive a shallow rather scruffy spot on the edge of the garden pond with their urgent need to reproduce.

 


Gurgling with energy, sending pulsing ripples in concentric bursts across the surface of the water, the frogs were now vibrantly alive after their winter sleep. The water became a cauldron of energy, back legs producing improbable, almost caricatured leaps. Heads like little basalt pebbles in the water, bulging eyes staying alert for predatory dangers. However slowly I walked up to them, however urgent their task, sensing my presence or that of the inquisitive spaniel, they would dive for cover, suddenly lost in the dark water, indistinguishable from vegetal detritus, bits of twig, or a sunken oak leaf.

Next day, in a spot of March-bright sunshine between downpours, I could capture the results of their leap-frogging. A fecund hubble-bubble of spawn brimmed at the surface of the water. I gazed on it to a sound track of watery grunts, croaks and sloshes as the frogs, with ballooning yellow-white throats, continued their mandate to mate. 

‘Frog he would a wooing go’ is said to be a Scottish verse from the 16th century, found along with well known border ballads like Tam Lin and the Battle  of Chevy Chase. It first appears in The Complaynt of Scotland of 1549, as a satirical rejoinder to the ‘rough wooing’ by which Henry VIII sought to break the auld alliance and have Mary, Queen of Scots, marry his son Edward. In that version it is entitled ‘The frog cam to the myl dur’. It may well have become more popular still in 1579 when the Duke of Anjou sought the hand of Elizabeth I. 

In the song,  Frog wants to marry Miss Mouse, but needs the permission of Uncle Rat. After various versifications, each with some repeating refrain or other, consent is duly given, albeit with numerous diversionary circumlocutions along the way. But then – check for yourself – despite the anticipated ceremony and the accompanying celebrations, in most versions things end badly and by predation. As the great Dick Gaughan once said, whilst introducing one of the bloodier border ballads, ‘this is the one where the guy gets killed’.

Meanwhile, two days after the rough wooing in the pond, all was calm. The tapioca spawn lay exposed, protein rich and vulnerable. The frogs lolled in the shallows in numbers I had previously never seen. The progeny of bygone frog seasons was everywhere, with much more to come judging by the extent of the spawn.

Then, as I gazed across the water from the house, a movement caught my eye to the right. A prehistoric-like winged creature flew in, head hunched in its grey-blue plumage, its beak like an awl. It landed in the shallow littoral with crazy backdrafting wings hard at work. Then took up position right next to the largest and most bulbous batch of eggs in their glutinous caul.

Froggy did a wooing go, but now the heron was here – and seemed to have supper in mind …

Postscript 21 April 2021

Perhaps I shouldn’t have worried. As you can see from this short film taken today.

Garden note #5

4 March 2021

Time to act

Derek Jarman, film maker and horticultural improviser, once said ‘if a garden’s not shaggy, forget it’. His view is one to which I mainly subscribe. Untrained and untutored I developed the Dumfriesshire garden from a mixture of bog, nettle beds, dead ash trees, thin stony soil and rough pasture. It was never going to be a garden of formality.

That said I do have a rather fine clipped yew along with some smaller box specimens. But their smooth outlines are really there to enhance the general unshorn look of things that surround them.

Until this month. 

Now, at the beginning of March, it’s time to get going and bring the garden into a state of readiness that will facilitate the splendour of spring. I don’t believe in ‘putting the garden to bed for winter’. Who would not take pleasure in fragile bracts dusted with frost, towering stems of rheum spikes turning hollow, dying grasses that rustle and sway in the westerly wind? Or birds feeding on meconopsis poppy heads and finding countless bugs among iris fronds, now spread like the fingers of your hand,  across the cold earth. 

All these things enhance our experience of the garden in winter, beautifully set off by a modicum of structure like the yew and box. But now it is all change. Out with secateurs and loppers, we are ready to say a sad farewell to last year’s growth as it makes way for the new. 

Herbaceous foliage, brown and damp, is the first to go. That quickly shows up the perennial weeds that soon must make their exit. Now we see the scattered bounty of the thieving blackbird, as raspberry stems poke up where they are least wanted. It is at this point that I vow to push in new birch twigs and then mulch round where the peonies still lay dormant. Perhaps I will get it done before the new growth comes through, something I have never achieved before.

Elsewhere spring bulbs are appearing in droves, nudging through the leaf mould raked over them last autumn. A few more days and it will be reckless to tread in these borders. 

Just one task remains. It’s one that I love but which also brings a bitter sweet sense of sorrow. Cornus stems – sanguinous, black stemmed, green stemmed – they all must go. Enjoyed for months in the winter light, in frost and in snow, now they must yield to the loppers. They are cut down into great bundles, bigger than your arms can hold.

I love dogwoods. Never mind that someone once told me they belong only in car parks and on roundabouts. They are welcome in my garden. Their gorgeous cut stems will continue to bring pleasure in the coming weeks. They will give an artistic air to the dead hedge. I’ll strike cuttings from a few of my favourites. Some I’ll bring into the house to sit in a large glass jar filled with water and pebbles, where they will open out in sharp green blades and be ready for decoration at Easter. 

And of course soon our Cornus friends will be breaking into new growth out in the garden, and the whole cycle will begin again. Standing at the gates of Spring, it’s time to act …


Garden note #4

Stacking wood
18 February 2021


Robert Frost’s evocative poem, The Wood-Pile, mourns a beautiful ‘cord’ of maple: cut, carefully stacked in the forest, and then abandoned. It is leaning precariously, sinking, long past its best and ‘far from a useful fireplace’. 

Discovered by the poet, on a wintry walk, Frost considers the apparent quitclaim of such an impressive wood-pile. Surely, this must be the action of someone who flits from one thing  to another, abandoning and forgetting past achievements – to leave so carelessly such a useful stockpile? 

To the contrary, my own thinking settles on a more likely interpretation. Surely  the person is dead. For what woodcutter would relinquish such a carefully assembled horde, other than through death?

I’ve long been a devotee of well constructed woodpiles, spotting them on walks, train journeys, from the passenger seat of the car, or occasionally in a film or something on television. As Lars Mitting showed in his book Norwegian Wood, his countrymen have huge expertise in this department, you might say elevating it to an art form.

My own efforts are more humble. No attempts at a wood-pile in the form of a leaping salmon, a perfect sphere, or a collection of small houses. My main goal is simply to get the firewood undercover, drying out  and ready for a subsequent cold snap. But even that, I know, should be done with respect and diligence. I feel this increasingly as I grow older. Knowing from whence the wood comes, how long it has been cut, and the provenance of the trees becomes important. So too is attention to the stacking.

Which is why this week I was curious to receive a delivery of firewood (for next winter) where as part of the service, the logs would be stacked for me. I watched in admiration as barrow load after barrow load was tipped in front of a young man who then stowed them to perfection. Like a dry stone dyker, he selected each piece of wood with care and then placed it with confidence in such a way that the log sat snug and neat with its neighbours, eased into an almost pre-ordained position.  In every case he was right first time. His spatial economy created an end-grain jigsaw of satisfying complexity, with never a need for a second try.

Why should such things matter, I ask myself? I am not by temperament a perfectionist or an obsessive compulsive. But the perfect order in a wood shed full of beech, sycamore, birch and ash brings an inner pleasure. It is not for abandoning. 

In fact this woodstack pays a double dividend. It will warm my home when next winter comes, and it warms my spirit now, as I pass it each morning on my way to the garden.

Garden note #3 

Snowdrops at Candlemas

2 February 2021


For such diminutive plants, it was a Herculean feat. After something like a month of frost, with the ground as hard as bell metal, and then with fresh snow falling, our old friend galanthus nivalis made it through in the nick of time. I find snowdrops always take me by surprise. After days of watchful waiting, you turn your back, and there they are.

We are blessed with many snowdrops around where I live. 

From the kitchen window I have a wonderful view of an entire bank of them sweeping down to the Pennyland Burn. Across to the right I can see expanding clumps of what I understand to be more specialised varieties, ‘well worthy’ of any galanthophile. All these are in my neighbour’s garden. 

Under the stone dykes and hedgerows round the fields, along the farm tracks and loanings, snowdrops grow in abundance, and in sheltered spots these are often the first to appear. They are completely wild.

In my own garden I have a clump near the burn that catches a good bit of sun when it’s available, and I have more recently transplanted some ‘in the green’ to a couple of dogwood circles in the ‘arboretum’. I am patiently waiting for them to spread.

Beyond the common form, the only snowdrop name I can recall is ‘Three Ships’. It is prized for being in bloom on Christmas Day. But the snowdrop’s main association is with a different festival, Candlemas. 

Now I came to this by a diverse route.

In the late 1970s I got completely drawn into the BBC dramatisation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carre. Each episode ended with a beautiful choral rendition of what I came to know as the Nunc Dimittus. The haunting music matched wonderfully with Alec Guinness as the mournful George Smiley, brought out from retirement to find the ‘rotten apple in the barrel’. 

The Nunc Dimittus opens with the words ‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’. This is the utterance of Simeon when he observes the infant Jesus with Mary, together in the temple for the first time, and knows he has seen the light of the world and can now himself leave it. The scene was captured beautifully by Rembrandt in one of his final works, Simeon’s Song of Praise. The occasion was part of a ruling described in the book of Leviticus, nowadays one might say appropriately forgotten, of ‘purification’ 40 days after childbirth. 

A Christian tradition grew up around this particular day. It came to be known as Candlemas and is celebrated on 2nd of February. It marked the occasion described by Simeon but was also the end of the 40 day Christmas festival, a much more extended period than the 12 days we know today.

Yet its timing resonates with something far more ancient. The day in question is the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.   It is adjacent to Imbolc, the Irish festival that later became the day of St Brigid – one also associated with fertility. This day, the very middle of winter, was a time for light, for hope, for saying goodbye to the darkness and waiting for the harbingers of spring. It was undoubtedly important to the earliest people of these islands.

Later, it also became an element in the agrarian cycle – a time for hiring labour, for paying rent, and for settling debts. Candlemas is one of the Scottish ‘quarter days’, along with Whitsuntide (15 May) Lammas (1st August) and Martinmas (11 November), when such duties are similarly discharged. 

By the Middle Ages, Candlemas was fully established as a festival in the Christian calendar. Like others, it had been successfully grafted onto older stock, along with some added bells and whistles. There were candle lit processions, pageants, plays and municipal feasts. The white ‘Candlemas bells’, often planted in churchyards, were gathered into bright bunches for church decoration on the appointed day in February, and deemed unlucky to pick before it. 

The Reformation did much to dispel Candlemas. Secularisation did the rest. Yet the snowdrops remain, and this year they have taken on another significance for me. Eagerly awaited, delicate yet tough, they have arrived just when we needed them most. This year perhaps we see them in a new light, emerging through the iron-gripped cold of lockdown and leading us, we must hope, beyond it.

Garden note #2

The fieldstone

14 January 2021

During an intermission between lockdowns, I was picking up some bags of compost in the yard of a young gardener/chimney sweep/entrepreneur of my acquaintance, when I spotted a beautiful sandstone gatepost lurking in the back of his yard. 

It wasn’t hard to imagine a spot where this magnificent piece of stone might sit in my Dumfriesshire garden. I was thinking about an adjacent field, that I began renting and planting five years ago. It is known as the ‘arboretum’ by some, the ‘pagan garden’ by others, and ‘David’s crazy idea’ by the insightful few.

Seeing an opportunity, I immediately went into acquisitive mode. Without further ado, a price for the stone was agreed and the deal done – to include transportation.

A few weeks later my purchase arrived. Delivery was by something called a Manitou, a piece of expensive machinery that is commonly seen in these parts. I was given 10 minutes notice of its arrival (the Manitou, I suspect, having somehow become ‘available’ that morning). Its operator had no difficulty in deftly dropping his payload within inches of my chosen site, where it lay flat on a wooden pallet.

In the days that followed I got to inspect the sandstone gatepost more closely. It nudges towards seven feet in length and is a little under two feet at its widest point. Estimated weight (and here I go metric) 150-200kg. Its rounded top sweeps down elegantly to the base and the edges and two broad faces are flecked with markings at 45 degrees that I would guess are the product of a scutch hammer. One side is almost completely covered in these flecks, like snow in a blizzard. The other side finds them in small patches, between which the surface is smooth. 

The task was to secure the stone in an upright position. It seemed that improvised experimental archaeology methods would be required. Luckily I’ve read quite a bit about the construction of Stonehenge. The challenge would be to lift the stone sufficiently at the top to allow it to be pushed onto a round fence post. At this point it would be rolled forward and would drop into an 18 inch deep slot I had excavated for its foundation. From there, at an accommodating angle, it could (fairly easily, I thought) be pushed upright.

On St Stephen’s Day, aided by two pandemically rusticated students in our family, the placing-manoeuvre was duly accomplished, just as planned, and I’m glad to say without mishap. We then re-used the rounded ‘stob’ to pack the excavated earth and small water-worn pebbles around the base of the stone. Within a few days it stood safe, firm and solid. I was content. After all, as the Manitou driver had said, ‘it’s not as if any cattle are going to rub up against it’.

Now, of course, a single gatepost does not a portal make. Newly sited, it stands alone, the sandstone equivalent, you might say, of one hand clapping. A passing neighbour on seeing it for the first time even asked my wife if someone had died. But despite such mordant humour, this erstwhile gatepost is now a fieldstone-with-impact. Likely to disappear among surrounding foliage during Summer, in the leafless months it already has undoubted Winter presence.

I hope a local stonemason will carve some words for me in the smooth patches between the fleck marks on the stone. I have chosen a phrase from Julian of Norwich, the Medieval mystic, who despite all her multiple sorrows and tribulations, proclaimed repeatedly that ‘all shall be well’.

Her words can surely bring hope for 2021, and perhaps even for years to come?


Garden note #1

Winter pruning

4th January 2020

For over a week the garden ground has been frozen hard. Occasional light snowfall settles and turns to ice, carapacing a crusty thin layer that crunches beneath trudging feet. Along with sporadic sunshine that is almost warm in sheltered spots, this makes for a propitious time to undertake winter pruning. The rose arch is most in need of attention, but tangled in whippy stems and fierce thorns, it makes an uninviting prospect.

I demur and turn instead to easy-going hazel stems, Corylus Avellana, leathery barked and massing in vase-shaped clumps, topped with emergent catkins. Choosing the older specimens, I bring out my newly purchased pruning saw. It has come from Japan and sits snugly in a wooden sheath, hiding its tiny steel teeth and with its curved handle, looking for all the world like an 18th century pistol. 

I proceed respectfully, for the hazel is said to promote wisdom and inspiration. My saw makes light work of the task. After each cut I pull another stem free from the clump, letting in light and air. I set aside the best staves and the rest are quickly dispatched for kindling. 

Turning back to the long, elegant poles, clipping off the side shoots is easy and satisfying. Some thinner stems I weave into the top of the dead hedge, making an inexpert but satisfying trim. 

The longest and straightest stems are destined to form two wigwams in the kitchen garden. If my skills allow, they will give elegant height and a sense of order in the raised beds. When the snow and ice are long gone, I hope these hazel poles will support fresh green legumes – to grace a summer lunch.

Please enjoy these horticultural and related musings, but do be aware they don’t constitute advice in any way. All errors of practice here described are entirely my own.

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