Whenever I see an article discussing trees with interesting bark Acer griseum usually comes top of the list. I am not sure I have ever seen one that even so much as mentions Polylepis australis. Although I think it is sad that it does not have a more sexy reputation in the U.K. I am not at all surprised, as I have found it extremely difficult to find any examples of it here at all. To date I have noted one well established specimen at Marwood Hill Gardens a couple of years ago and one very dead example at the back of the gravel garden at Special Plants. The best example I have seen of it so far is in my Wiltshire back garden.
A few years ago when I first moved into my small Wiltshire townhouse I eagerly plodded around the garden quickly identifying all I had inherited, except for one thing. I knew at first sight that it was love. It was the most unusual, quirky and unkempt tree I had ever met. If a tree could be a character it is without doubt the Afghan hound from Frank Muir's What-a-mess books. But what the heck was it? "It has amazing bark," I thought to myself. "It can't be that hard to find out what it is." So off I went to look up trees with interesting peeling paper bark and all I could find was Acer griseum. My tree wasn't Acer griseum; it was Acer griseum on acid! My search went on for some time. I gave up trying to find similar trees through Google searches. Wafting pictures of it at friends and family provided no useful comments either. So in blind desperation I decided to ask Kew. Well I got as far as their website anyway. It was there that they recommended asking for help with identifications on the BBC gardening message boards. Until then I had never ventured onto a message board or investigated any online gardening communities. So I politely asked for help and posted a few pictures and after much humming and haring one wonderful lady came back with the answer: Polylepis australis. It all went down hill from there; I started chatting to other gardeners and excitedly running around taking pictures of everything to show them. Before I knew it I was hooked on gardening and had made some wonderful friends who shared their experience, seeds and plants with me. And then they went and encouraged me to start a blog...but enough of that let's get back to the tree!
Despite its name Polylepis australis does not come from Australia. It originates from the Andean forests of eastern South America. It holds the title of the woody plant capable of growing at higher altitudes than any other plant in the world. So quite what this little record breaker is doing in a suburban Wiltshire garden I have no idea! Even in South America these trees are considered special, as Polylepis is one of the most threatened trees in the Andean highlands.
The tree has deliciously rich cinnamon coloured, peeling paper bark. Birds absolutely adore it. Not only is it their favourite place to sit and chatter, but it also provides them with some rather snazzy nesting material. I was amazed to watch them all when spring came, busily flitting back and forth to collect pieces of the bark to line their nests. The tree produces tiny green flowers that are not very significant, however their abundant seeds are a real hit with the birds too.
The bark is not the only appealing feature of this tree for me. It has deliciously attractive evergreen foliage with very delicate, pinnate, blue-green leaves. This tree really does look like it has escaped out of some mystical setting (infact if I didn't know better I'd say it was an extra for the Lord of the Rings movies), especially first thing in the morning when it is covered in dew. Water droplets look like hundreds and thousands of tiny jewels on the leaves and never cease to amaze me with their beauty. So if you are looking for a tree with year round interest and unusual bark, and have a sheltered spot, why not be different and give Polylepis australis a try?
So January is nearly over; I cannot say I am sorry. As the snow receded it left behind a sea of brown mush and boggy land. My Aeoniums have had it. I am not holding out much hope for the Echeveriaeither. As for the rest, the jury is still out.
I started off the year with flu and a side order of chest infection. I’m almost over it now.
Did I mention I hate January?
The month has almost passed and I have not even done a January at Tumbledown post yet. I suppose I better get on with it and tell you what is new here. You may have picked up from my previous posts that I have not been feeling particularly content of late. You could say that the thrill has gone out of my life. I have fallen out of love with almost everything. I’ve spent the last four years either commuting between North Wiltshire and Oxford or South Lincolnshire and Oxford. The hours of my life wasted sat in a traffic jams have stacked up. The recession hit archaeology hard. Months of stress from worrying whether I would be made redundant and then having to see extremely dedicated friends and colleagues lose their jobs has taken its toll. Last month after months of working long hours doing a job far removed from the archaeology that made me passionate to enough to become a Dr of Environmental Archaeology, I handed in, with a heavy heart, my notice.
I’ve called time out. Enough is enough. I want to fall in love with life again instead of feeling constantly tired and pulled in fifteen directions. I need a challenge, I need to be creative and feel alive again. So here I am, at Tumbledown, full time. Will I go back to archaeology? The answer is I really do not know. I am going to take a year out. Perhaps after that I will. Or should I re-train and turn one of my other passions of photography or gardening into more than just a hobby? Time will tell (although if one more person tells me I would make a really good teacher I may just punch them).
On Tuesday the sun came out. To feel its warmth on my face again was incredibly uplifting, I could not have handled another grey and grisly day. I had several errands to do and decided to drive across the Lincolnshire border into Cambridgeshire to Wisbech. As I made my way across the big empty flatlands I smiled to myself as I drove past the familiar farms and smallholdings; ducks eggs for sale at the gate, a sneaky band of free-range chickens scratching in the neighbouring farmers field and a field of sheep cleaning up brussel sprout stems all caught my eye. They made me think of Monty Don’s new TV adventure My Dream Farm. Sickly sweet, sentimental “dream farms” do not exist out here. This is a harsh landscape; living in this area is no bed of roses. After a quick trip to the bank, a brief stroll around Wisbech for the first time in more than ten years confirmed that nothing has changed, it is still an utter grot hole; a glorious crumbling Georgian town whose prosperity has long gone. There is no trace of it save the ghostly outlines of beautiful crescents and lonely town houses. There is no work in this area; there are core jobs for Nurses, Teachers, and so on but no real industry except the land. Twenty years ago the gang vans used to drive the unemployed out of London to work in the fields picking fruit, veg and flowers, now that role is filled by large numbers of Eastern Europeans in search of a better life in the U.K. Wisbech is crammed with pound shops, charity shops and take-aways. There is little else. Farm shops with coffee shops, expensive organic deli ranges and yummy mummies “doing lunch” do not exist here.
My parents did dream of living a self sufficient life, of having a smallholding with animals 30 years ago when they moved out of London to The Fens. They never kidded themselves that they would make a thriving business out of it, but they achieved pretty near self sufficiency for many years until they realised that their offspring wanted to go to University and that it was going to be a costly affair. They went back to work and cared for the land less and less. The chickens were slowly phased out along with the pigs (large blacks) and calves for fattening with their big eyes and licking tongues. The goats have remained. My mother has successfully bred a herd of Anglo-Nubian dairy goats for 27 years now. She has achieved great success with them and is now one of the most respected breeders in the U.K. Young stock are ordered and sold before they are even born, people travel from across Europe to buy them with the aim of improving the stock in their own countries. She has achieved this with years of hard work, blood, sweat and tears. No dreamy landscapes, yurts or softly spoken garden presenters and their television crews were involved.
This year I hope to get the smallholding going again with more force. My parents are ready for it, and the least I can do is give them a hand. Actually I am enjoying being outside again, even if it is January and my hands are so cold I can barely feel them. It is good to feel I have a purpose again and the chance to achieve something. I know it is not going to be an idyllic dream; I spent the first 18 years of my life on the smallholding, I have a fair idea of its ups and downs. When I was growing up it was a struggle financially, I never had the latest pair of trendy jeans or faddy toy that all the other kids had, peers often thought I was weird wearing home made clothes and charity shop bargains. We were however growing our own food, rearing our own meat, producing eggs, milk and cheese. Today we are still producing our own milk, cheese and yoghurt. This year I would like to have a go at making butter too. Chickens are a must. I really miss them (although an effective way of keeping them out of the garden area’s will have to be found) and if we have the time pigs. I would be lying if I said I did not have other hopes and plans for what could be achieved here, there is a lot of potential. For now I am just happy to get on with the reclamation of Tumbledown and hope this blog will to some extent become a diary of my efforts as the year progresses.
When I lived in The Fens in my teens I found the landscape bleak. It certainly has an acquired, somewhat gritty taste to it, but as I look out into the fields that stretch out before me, a sea of dark brown with scarcely a tree or building staying afloat, I do not see a bleak landscape anymore, merely a blank page waiting to be written.
I have been on something of a garden visiting odyssey over the past year. I have delighted in discovering a whole range of gardens across the England. Garden visits have been my way of escaping the stresses of real world. Whenever I have needed to chill out and relax a little or fancied an adventure and the chance to play with the camera I have visited a garden. This year I hope to continue to be able to do that and have already managed an afternoon's stroll around Rousham.
I have been trying to decide what my favourite garden visits of 2008 were. Some gardens I adored, others were a surprising let down. A few gardens really stood out for me as places I could visit again and again. Infact one of them I did, it was my regular haunt. It is a garden bursting at the seams with character and a tantalising range of plants throughout the seasons. The Courts is just a few miles down the road from my Wiltshire home. I first visited it about 18 months ago with my non-garden loving partner. I was amazed that even on a very hot summers day he managed to make it around this gorgeous little garden without too much complaint, and as we sat on the lawn slurping our ice creams we decided that it really was an excellent way to spend a summers afternoon (I have yet to do a blog about my visits but may just slip one in soon to add a bit of colour to a very slushy brown January).
Hidcote Manor, Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire.
Knowing how much I adored The Courts I made it my mission to take in a few more "Arts and Crafts" style gardens. Last summer I lapped up the picturesque gardens of the eccentric Snowshill Manor and merrily trotted around Great Chalfield Manor but thought I better make a concerted effort to visit the "Holy Grail" of Arts and Crafts style gardens: Hidcote Manor. Again this is a garden I have not yet blogged about even though I went to visit it last May. I think I have probably delayed the task, as my first impressions of it were rather disappointing. Perhaps some of that is my own fault, as I visited it on a very hot bank holiday Sunday and the garden was packed. It was also quite early in the year. However, I must confess I was completely unexcited by it, after hearing so much about this garden and the echoed "Oh, you must visit Hidcote" I was expecting to be wowed. I wasn't. The planting was uninspiring; swathes of sweet rocket lounged around smelling rather good, acres of alliums were their usual fuzzy purple selves, there were great drifts of blue forget-me-nots with jolly yellow poppies poking through them, lots of pink cow parsley and clouds frothy wisteria dribbling all over twee barns and arches. I kept telling myself I should like it but I didn't. I think perhaps it was all just too Barbara Cartland obvious. Hidcote to me was trying to scream "look at me, aren't I beautiful?" whereas The Courts and Snowshill were a little more earnest, politely charming without the need to be brash. I know I will probably get shot down in flames for admitting this, infact it has taken me nine months to finally make this confession to you, but I needed to get it off of my chest. However, I am not adverse to giving Hidcote a second chance and will perhaps add it to my list of places to visit again this year to see if my impression of it is still the same.
The Old Vicarage, East Ruston, Norfolk.
Right at the top of the list of places I fell in love with last year is The Old Vicarage at East Ruston. This for me truly was a WOW! garden. A veritable banquet of plants and gardens I just did not expect to find in the middle of rural Norfolk. It is one I shall without doubt be re-visiting !
The Peto Garden, Iford Manor, Bradford on Avon.
The Peto Garden at Iford Manor is another real gem of a garden. I was surprised just how much I enjoyed it. I had not considered myself a fan of formal gardens until my visit to Iford, but I really did bond with this garden. Perhaps it was the archaeologist in me that enjoyed the eccentric collection of antiquities dotted all around the garden. But I think it was more than that, this place was special, it was alive with butterflies and wildlife, the planting kept me on my toes and the design was clever and exquisitely beautiful. Iford deserves it's tag as one of Britain's most "iconic gardens."
Special Plants, Cold Ashton, Chippenham.
There will always be a special place in my heart for Derry Watkins' garden as it is partly responsible for kick starting my obsession with plants. It is also a garden I return to again and again for pleasure and inspiration.
I am not committed to visiting just one type of garden; I have taken a great deal of pleasure over the past year from getting the opportunity, whenever possible, to discover for myself a number of gardens with very different styles and planting schemes.
So my dilemma is where should I go this year? I have two absolute must sees that I am itching to visit, one, having heard Fergus Garrett talk about it with such passion a couple of months ago is Great Dixter and the other is The Beth Chatto Gardens. I have also pencilled in a visit to The Exotic Garden after hearing some Mutterings in the Shrubbery and a visit to Laskett after The Galloping Gardener recommended it to me. I am very fond of Potager gardens, my copy of Joy Larkcom's Creative Vegetable Gardening hasn't been far from me this year when I have been working on the veg plot, so perhaps I should try and visit some inspiring veg gardens too?
What others should I add to my list I wonder?
Is there somewhere you think I should see on my odyssey?
What are your favourite gardens and why? What's top of your list to visit this year?
Do let me know, I am really keen to know what you think.
Part III of our series of special guest blogs by wildlife gardener and writer Aspidistra.
The blackbird sits somewhere in the middle of the garden pecking order.
The snow, I find, has been messing with social etiquette. People you would rather not hear from have been ringing and there can be no escape, no pretence of being out or doing unfeasibly interesting things. You are in, and a sitting target for unwanted calls. Denial is useless. I too, have unashamedly used the snow as an excuse for a spot of social beavering. I thought it would be the ideal opportunity to re-kindle my friendship with the owner of a grand estate and garden. No stoops are too low for me to fall to on this occasion, as I engage in a spot of snow-call harassment. It seems to me that I should have been to the manor born and it has been a great disappointment in my life that I am not somehow attached either via marriage or good fortune to some huge garden with a pleasing aspect and acre-age, where people use words like verily and forsooth in everyday conversation. Failing that, I thought perhaps that by mere telephonic communication such a friend I might somehow elevate me into the world of House and Gardens.
But my calls have gone unanswered and partly, I suspect, this is due to the Great Pecking Order of People. I am a person of no importance in the world, whilst the owner of a Great Estate is not. In this harsh weather it is cruel indeed to see how the birds act out the pecking order with fierce aggression. In my world, the seagull reigns supreme, then the magpie, followed by Mr Jackdaw, then the blackbirds. The starlings are partial to mob rule, as are the anarchic invading fieldfares, leaving the robins to take out their aggression on each other and everyone to bully the small brown jobbies and the pretty tits, whose brave colours and jolly flitterings belie the dangers of freezing to death because the big boys won't let them near the bird feeders.
Brave Mahonia flowers pushing through the snow.
So where am I in this great pecking order of life? Somewhere in the middle, neither a teeny weeny thing but not an eagle either, I am probably a bit of a blackbird at heart although I'd rather like to be on the rare birds list. But one of the joys of gardening is that all sorts of us gather around the bird feeder of our enthusiasm, as it were, from the stately home owner to the allotment gardener, we are as one when talking about our gardening. Well nearly. I am often delighted, when going around a charity opening for a grand garden, how it often turns out that the old boy taking the money at the entrance, with the battered straw hat, twinkly eyes and kind smile, will often turn out to be Lord So and So, the owner. His wife will be somewhere fussing about helping to serve teas or chatting about the roses. This type of owner, for whom a certain wealth and lifestyle was often inherited are a delight to encounter. They are often very generous and one is glad that a beautiful garden is tended in their hands. While they are high up in the pecking order, they will happily allow the little birds to feed around them.
Last year I met another kind of owner at an NGS open garden. Instead of the usual assortment of faithful oldie volunteers plucked from the local village, she had her own staff at the entrance and the household maids serving the tea. As I arrived, a pleasant young Polish gardener was taking the money and directing us into the garden. But apparently not directing us exactly correctly. The owner, one of those handsome, middle-aged women who has married into money, strode up barking instructions to him, ending in a fine telling off for the poor chap. It was excruciating to witness such bad people management and public humiliation at what was meant to be a lovely charity garden opening. But Mrs Posh Big Garden Owner was completely oblivious to us. We, the little brown jobbies were waiting for her to finish berating her staff before we were to be allowed to profer our pounds and put one horribly uncouth foot forward into her charming garden. Here was the vicious bird in the pecking order, just like the fieldfare who nearly killed a blackbird in my garden the other day, wounding it where a mere warning flick of the wings might have been just as effective.
Rosehips waiting for dispersal by our feathered friends.
And so I went around one of the finest rose gardens in the south of England with something stuck in my throat. Even more so when we got to the teas, where instead of the welcoming mob of incompetent locals serving their strange home-made cakes, lovingly baked from recipes circa Mrs Beeton, we were confronted with tiny slivers of fat-free sponges cooked up by the Phillipino maids. These were offered at twice the price of the normal NGS garden cakes, by the unhappy servants, making the whole experience deeply unpleasant.
I pondered on this beautiful garden for many months after visiting it. Yes, it was beautiful and future plans were wonderful and ambitious. But that simple lack of a smile and lack of generosity of spirit by the owner means it is a garden I can never, ever love. For perhaps a gardener without generosity creates a garden without soul.
I must away. The big boys have gone and I think it is time for me to get my five minutes at the bird feeder. Thank you all for tolerating my guest blogs.
The second part of our special guest blog series by wildlife gardener, writer and jam collector Aspidistra.
Snowed in in the village.
Its not just the wildlife that finds the snow a bit of a challenge, the humans are up to interesting things too. Internet dating sites have gone bananas, as singletons seek new ways to keep warm, supermarket shelves have been cleared and up in the city there are dark mummerings about the new Ice Age. I have had a seige mentality for years, so no need to worry about lack of provisions. It is something to do with my wartime parents who instilled in me the need to always have things in order 'for emergencies' and so I do.
We lucky gardeners may still have freezers groaning with the fruits of our summer labour and I have a dark cupboard that glistens full of berried jams in deep purples and ruby hues. However, when I gaze upon my crisis-proof collection, I am reminded of a friend whose mother died of dementia, who discovered her wardrobe to be filled with jars and jars of jam. One day, possibly not that far off, I will be that mad old lady but for now, one can never have too much jam.
There are those who can't bear to be holed in indoors for an inordinate amount of time, who are neurotically snow-shovelling to release pent up energy. Others are enthusiastically pro-creating, rather like in black-outs, we can expect a fine crop of Snow Babies around September this year. As I have the get up and go of a low energy lightbulb I rather like this enforced isolation. Normally, my world is full of too many choices. Suddenly, it has all been honed down to the small matter of whether or not to eat another piece of cake.
The ramifications of not being able to meet up with anyone because of the weather are wonderful. The mascara was the first casualty, then it started to seem perfectly normal to wear two pairs of trousers together, then I thought I could give my armpits a rest from the chemical horrors of deodorants and now I have given up entirely on any sense of dignity or personal hygiene. I am finding even the telephone rather wearing and it has all set me wondering. Perhaps we need to learn to communicate less, not more. I am wondering if it would be possible to exist contentedly only communicating by the written word?
A challenge which perhaps I should reserve for when I have a wardrobe full of jars of jam. For now, time to go. I shall go out into the snow in search of Seville oranges for the marmalade season is fast upon us and my jam collection is really incomplete if there are not at least a dozen jars of sunset orange shining out from the cupboard like miniature winter suns.
If cabin fever sets in, it is easy enough to make new friends in the snow.
I am very excited today as we have our first ever guest blogger at Wisteria and Cow Parsley. Stilton is giving her a suspicious look, but I think you'll like her! Today's post is by our dear friend, wildlife gardener and writer, Aspidistra. Photo's are from her Sussex garden.
The fabulous Mr Fox.
It is finally changing from the serene scene of the last few days to a gritty, grubby mess underfoot. The Big Thaw begins. During recent times, I, however, have been more interested in The Big Paw. One of the great joys for a wildlife gardener of all this snow business is that The Wildlife cannot trot around undetected anymore. I woke one morning to what I imagined would be the perfect blanket of snow in the back garden the other day, only to discover that The Wildlife had already been up and about for several hours, kicking up the place, having snowball fights and generally messing up what I had hoped would be a pristine scene.
The birds put out delicate prints, many of which ended pitifully at the open porch, where they must have sought shelter and warmth from the worst excesses of the weather. There are some slightly strange and worrying prints that look like a snake had gone through the snow, but I suspect may have been something unspeakable, small and furry, so I shall just pretend I didn't see them, they are a tad too close to the back door for my liking. But the great delight are the foxes' footprints. At last, a full account of what they get up to after I have gone to bed at night. And they get up to a lot. Back and forth around the garden, right up to the cat flap, probably sticking a nose in to see what's what indoors, a bit of digging here and there, then along the pavement (well they wouldn't want to get run over in the road) to next door.
I decided, in best old-fashioned tracker style, to follow the prints and see where they went. So, strapping two tennis racquets to my boots, donning my best faux beaver hat, I tracked up and down the road. Then the next road. And the next. The footprints were sometimes delicate and sometimes the foxes appeared to be perfecting their downhill ski movements. But of course I have to admit that eventually I was foxed. I hit a brick wall which the fox had apparently somehow managed to get through or over or something. I could merely wonder at how large a territory these creatures of the night move across.
As I have been merrily blogging about various summer garden visits for a while now, I thought I better at least try and go around a garden in winter. Last year I visited Anglesey Abbey and thoroughly enjoyed its winter garden. This week I decided to try somewhere different. I have been driving close by Rousham on a weekly basis for some months now, so a visit seemed to be long overdue. I pulled up late in the afternoon and was instantly greeted by one of the residents (left). It was refreshing to get out of the house after a week of snoozing on the couch festive activities.
Pigeon house garden.
The walled garden.
I knew almost nothing about the garden before I arrived. I like it that way. For me part of the fun of visiting a garden is discovering it for myself, to enjoy its quirks, planting and design elements without being told what it is that I should be appreciating. I did chose to visit Rousham as I was aware that it is considered to be an 'iconic' garden, but beyond that I had no idea what to expect. I had the garden to myself. Leaving the peacocks and the car park behind me, I set off in search of the ticket office. After following the signs, I found the ticket machine and offerd up my £5 to it.
Rousham has no coffee shop, no gift shop and no attendants. There's no frills, no pressure to spend £10 on a cup of tea and half a shortbread biscuit; there is just the house, the garden and the rolling countryside beyond.
A light powdering of snow lay on the ground, which gave an added crunch underfoot. I was in the final hour of afternoon sunshine and the grounds were eerily quiet. There was little plant life to see in the walled garden area save for the espalier fruit trees whose gnarly trunks were covered in moss and lichen and had a certain air of distinction like much of the garden. Seeing a garden in January like this showed me its bare bones, allowed me to see the skeleton of the garden and the landscape laying beyond it. It was much easier to appreciate features such as the wrought iron gate to the walled garden and the beautiful pigeon house flanked on one side by a sea of box hedging. Basic, formal, and very elegant. For once I did not feel disappointed that the borders were not spilling out plants.
Wrought iron gate to walled garden.
Rear view of Rousham House.
Rousham is an imposing Jacobean house. It was built in 1635 by Sir Robert Dormer and still remains in the possession of the Dormer family today. Charles Bridgeman laid out the framework of the garden in the 1720's but Rousham is most famous for William Kent's classically influenced designs introduced into the gardens in 1737. The gardens surviving at Rousham today represent an almost untouched example of the first phase of English landscape design.
View of River Cherwell from the Praeneste Terrace.
The grounds were full of classical sculptures. On the upper terrace a rather savage lion attacks a horse and as you leave the lawns and head towards the river Cherwell the woodland area is filled with figures such as Mercury the winged messenger of the gods. Surprisingly the statutory seemed to rest with ease in the landscape. The failing light and cold weather made the wooded areas feel mysterious, with figures resting on the edge of the woodland. The statue of Apollo at the end of the long walk was particularly impressive with mist rising behind him. The use of limited light to make a statue appear enigmatic reminded me of my undergraduate studies and visits to ancient Egyptian temples where statues of deities were kept in darkened sanctums and lit only by the smallest rays of light. It felt as if Kent was trying to achieve the same effects in the garden at Rousham as the ancient Egyptians except he was using the landscape as a sanctum rather than architecture.
Classical statue in woods.
The long walk and Apollo.
I very much enjoyed my time in the gardens at Rousham. It was a pleasant and peaceful way to pass an hour or two. The surrounding landscape and snaking river Cherwell were stunning and Kent's use of classical features in the garden was intriguing. The Vale of Venus was the most visually striking in the winter landscape with its bare trees and snow dusted grass
Left: Vale of Venus, lower cascade.
The Vale of Venus upper cascade and octagon pond.
The land surrounding the house was also home to some incredibly beautiful rare breed longhorn cattle. Close to the house was a small family group with a cow and her young calf and a very large bull. I stood and watched him for a while; he was busily sinking his horns into the field and digging up great clods of earth and grass. I'm not quite sure what he was hoping to find but he certainly seemed to be enjoying himself!