Thursday, 31 March 2016

march bouquet - cheating for colour

Happy March - not that it's been a happy March, particularly. More like a forced march, edging into a deathmarch. All month the February flowers have been dying on the kitchen windowsill. I was ill most of the bank holiday weekend, but on Monday dragged myself out into a patch of hectic sun between showers and picked some flowers.

March bouquet

Eagle eyes among you may have spotted that my colour pops appear to be unseasonal Petunias. Earlier that day I had cracked and gone to the garden centre, for was it not bank holiday weekend? And while nominally I needed a proper heavy pot for the Pierises that kept falling over, actually I had my mind on the plugs of bedding plants, which I was betting would include the hot new varieties and indeed Petunias Night Sky and Cremissimo were waiting for me. I took two plants with forced flowers and pinched them out as soon as I got them home.

March bouquet  March bouquet

Night Sky looks as impressive as I thought it would. Blotch-pattern petals are having a bit of a moment this year. I've got two plants and will be interested to see what variation we get, between flowers on the same plant and different plants.

March bouquet

The rest of the bouquet is a stem of Hellbore I knocked off in error, a ruffled Daff I found face-down in the mud with a bent stem, and some glossy leaves from my gorgeous Black Celandine. My camera's preview screen isn't working any more at all. Can you tell?

Friday, 25 March 2016

saving the morning glory seeds

I've just been clearing away the last of last year's Morning Glory Seeds. Over the last five years, my self-seeded plants have mostly reverted to a compact hot pink variety (though last year I had two or three delicate, tiny, baby-pink, deeply frilled flowers - let's hope they come back), quite a long way from where they started - which was with the classic Heavenly Blue, a Carnivale mix and Grandpa Ott's.

Heavenly Blue never seems to come back at all, but the occasional flower comes up Gramps, which is an old variety, one of the ones which inspired Seed Savers, the biodiversity preservation seed bankers in the US. In the UK, the Heritage Seed Library does a similar job - veg focussed, holding onto the old varieties. There are some seed swaps close to me (I just missed one at Barracks Lane Community Gardens) but this year (every year!) I have more seeds than I have space or time to plant them; even having knocked half the morning glory seeds down into cracks where they can grow themselves (semi self-seeding?) I'll still have far more than I need.

morning glory silenced windchime
heavenly blue what's the story?
morning glory butt and shed

That's Grandpa Ott's. top left. Heavenly Blue in a steamed up greenhouse, and a Carnivale flower, bottom left, growing up my Tatlin Tower frame. On the right is the cheerful pink variety which has emerged victorious from this mix of flowers, and which this year I am sure will be growing all over everything once again.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

the joy of seedlings

At first I kept telling myself; I don't have time, I'll sort them at the weekend. But there is a point in time when the seedlings are not going to wait, and so it is that I find myself on Monday-Friday-Wednesday fitting in a frantic half hour of potting on between coffee and the walk to work.

seedling city

Look at their little faces, though; they need it and they're so grateful when they have a little pot of their own. The old Jiffy 7 propagator bequeathed to me by my mother when she downsized from a Scottish forestry house to a first floor flat is still, improbably, bringing on the germination, even though I often forget the water and end up desiccating things; at some point, all the water comes up out of the soil and sits on the inside of the cover, as above, and that's the start of the countdown to dry roots and wet leaves and damping off.

seedling city seedling city

Really small seedlings are such a colossal pain to pot on that I often don't bother (see two wasted cells of Lobelia for further details) but this year I have some treasured fancy Snapdragons. They've had their interim pot-on into vegetable trays. For the ones in a Portobello Mushroom box, I had an old comic bag over them to keep them warm and wet. But in the interior dim, the seedlings are lunging for the lid, so I found these little tropic traces (left) in the moisture on the underside of the lid. I found it a tomato box which gives the seedlings a little more vheight, but it keeps dropping onto the seedlings. I've had very good germination this year from most things (left: yellow tomato seeds harvested from a fruit that went rotten on the vine last year) which I think is down to even heat. Leave the Jiffy running; it doesn't use much electricity - just a trickle.

seedling city seedling city

There's a lot of variation in homegrown seedlings, and even more so when the seeds are also home harvest. It's out of focus, but there's a pretty mutant at the front there, with three seed leaves. Tricotyledon, no less. I wonder if it will do better than its more conventional seedmates in the interior gloom? This is a (slightly mysterious) tomato that performed particularly well in low light, and had well developed, large "potato" type leaves. Will that characteristic imrpove in this year's generation? I'm excited to see.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

intervention/unintervention willow saplings

When I'm walking into work, I'm always on the look out for signs of animals that passed in the night; footprints in the mud, feathers in the grass, little paths through the dew, that kind of thing. Some animals animals leave rather more dramatic signs:

twisted trees

twisted trees  twisted trees

twisted trees  twisted trees

Willow saplings are fantastically pliant, and the East Oxford primary schools often have little arches and arbours made of prettily twisted sprouting willow. It's easy, you just have to chop your willow branches and shove them into the ground. Willows are tough. Tough enough to shrug off this kind of treatment. Wood grows into itself, however; I wonder if the person who did this had in mind seeing if the willows would form solid hoops in the fast growth process of the summer?

Not that they would ever find out. The willows were untwisted, at first a few at a time, few enough I thought maybe the willows were snapping themselves out of their unnatural hoops, but then, one night, all at once:

willows unintervened

willows unintervened   willows unintervened

Since then, there has been a little back-and-forth. One morning, a few willows hooped, the next, them set free once again, the litter of the landscape artist tidied up by the naturalist of the morning.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

the ineffable melancholy of the lock-keeper's garden in march

TS Eliot was wrong, it's not April we should fear. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, March is the cruellest month, a long steady slog towards sun you can rely on, evenings that won't become night by the time you've made it outside to look at them, light that will warm as well as shine, and end to the thinness and fragility of winter. Plants and insects, warmed by the sun, finger up into the light with the reckless rush of spring; only to be slapped down by sudden frosts, clammy mists and weeks where no sun shines at all.

At Iffley Lock

At the lock-keeper's garden in Iffley we paused to watch the gulls whirling over the rough water downstream of the weirs. The memorial photograph smiled faintly at us from among the daffodils, and all the buds were swelling on the pretty pink cherry tree. Later, spring might seems heartless around the memories of the dear and departed (Iffley is now a self service lock) but daffodils are such tenuous things  they seem the perfect reminders of impermanence and mortality. Today they are bright and upright; tomorrow they may be smashed flat in the mud by a late winter storm; and in a few weeks time they will be slumped, brown and attracting flies, and spring will be really here, but the daffodils will be gone.

At Iffley Lock At Iffley Lock

Saturday, 12 March 2016

pioneers of spring

Every flower seems like an achievement in the early days of spring. A clump of pioneer Daffodils in the nature park gets a cheer, the first Coltsfoot on the towpath a fistpump:

naturalistic planting coltsfoot

The planted-up town flower beds are no less worthy of celebration, surrounded as they are with cold stone and the bitter tang of diesel fumes:

spring is sproinged

This Primula and Tulip mix is installed outside the Ashmolean. Short little Tulips that hug the ground, Primulas to shrug off the hard winds in pale and breathtaking blue.

But here are my two favourite treasures of the first week of spring:

first celandine pioneer

The first Celandine, a little wind-burned and barely half open, but there shining like a tiny sun in the tired  winter grass; and a self-seeded Grape Hyacinth that found a cosy crack in sun-warmed concrete and tarmac, come out early to charm the dozy bees.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

other people's gardens: andrew wiles and his penrose tiles

We ended up eating oysters in Jericho on Valentine's Day this year (lesson learned - tempura oysters are amazing) and on the way home noted that there seemed to be a lot less building work going on around the old observatory, and decided to see if the old cut-through route to Woodstock Road was open again.

Not only was it open again (well, we got stopped by barriers twice, but that was just betting on the wrong route) but we also ended up here:

Andrew Wiles Building Andrew Wiles Building
Andrew Wiles Building Andrew Wiles Building

This is the front garden of the Oxford Mathematical Institute's Andrew Wiles Building. It was a little dark for most of the planting, but the hellebores did look very pretty in the garden lights; and the metal curves on the Penrose tiles were fairly gleaming. We sat on the garden borders briefly, contemplating the tiles and the glass beyond. It is a beautiful garden; very rational, very tidy, very satisfying.

I would highly recommend coming upon this garden unexpectedly, at night, and with no idea what you will find around the next corner. The thrill of discovery tempers the discipline of line; and glories loom out of the darkness, glistening.

But, you can of course see it much better and more clearly by day; and on the Mathematics Institute website you can see more of the building by drone flight, and an epic timelapse of the laying of the Penrose Tiles.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

other people's gardens: roof garden at gunwharf

I was up Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth, using their fancy new tablet posts to find out the names of all the ships (like you do) when I glanced inland and saw this on top of part of Gunwharf, the floating shopping centre:

roof garden, gunwharf

It's a little indistinct in the grey of the winter day, but distinctly a garden, next to a glasshouse, on top of luxury flats, on top of a shopping centre, like a wedding cake of endstate capitalism. Curious about whether it was public or private I zoomed in a little closer:

roof garden zoom

I spy with my little eye, a statue; a single large table; sad palms browned by winter rains; a double lounger; rough attempts at symmetrical placement interrupted by roof venting; and the classic mixture of semi-thrive and decline that characterises the absentee container gardener. I am guessing private; and that that glass-fronted half-floor it abuts onto is one fantastically huge penthouse suite flat. The mind boggles, but back to the garden.

It's a tough proposition, roof-gardening in the UK, and this garden says exactly why; wind-blasted, sprayed with brackish onshore rain laced with city particulate soup, and always fighting the fight between no light and far too exposed. Windbreaks cut out the sun, and turn into sails in storms. Containers get flooded and freeze or dry through and won't re-irrigate. Frost finds the rooftops first; the leaves brown and the roots wither or rot. The plants prefer more greenery around them, but the tonnage racks up fast, especially when the pots are soaked with winter rain.

Nevertheless, I'm currently (always) engaged in attempts to turn every flat garden roof I'm in contact with into a garden. The only way forward for our cities is to green every surface we can; and it's good to see this roof doing its bit.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

victorian studio gardens

Posting the pictures of Nathan the model in his studio garden reminded me of my books of early photography, which are full of studio gardens - a world of painted backgrounds and paper roses, occasionally swagged with a real item, if such were available, but as often as not - 100% fake.

As you often do, I feel down a rabbit-hole into the extraordinary and slightly eerie world of early studio gardens and the dapper ladies and gentlemen who inhabited them:

The Young Man in a Flowered Suit is a mystery. Is he a Wildesque dandy? Allegorical springtime? Or merely advertising curtains? Speculations continue in the comments section. The Beautiful Woman at a Prop Window has a swag of greenery on her firmly-buttoned bodice, hinting at the delights within; and there is a hint of suppressed laughter in her expression, as if she cannot help but be amused by her drooping paper vines.

One could clearly request the hammock, as these two louche young gentlemen demonstrate. Note how Dandy #2 is using the opportunity to show off his extraordinary socks.


Where the images are children, the fantastical backdrops lose their playfulness and take on an air of menace. That expression of a child waiting, surrounded by a garden on adult scale and some mysterious narrative that may or may not have your best interests in mind, speaks to the child in every adult.

The garden is the space for love, and Young Lady Swinging and Young Man with Flowers might be dreaming wistfully of each other. Certainly her smart curls and his natty hat seem a suitable match; maybe his painted flowers could fill her ornamental basket?