27 April 2010

St George's Party

For some years the St George's day event conversation has been running, ranging across the board from the rabidly jingoistic to the simply bunting loving.  There is no great tradition for celebrating the day  so when we decided to give it a go this year the choice was entirely ours.  Being rather prone to bunting the theme for our party was easy to choose - a bunting pavilion, tea, cakes, hot dogs and, with a nod to the war-mongerers amongst us (we aim to be inclusive) a home made weaponry workshop.  
Some rather dashing posters up on the railings, 
themed cakes,

and a bunting pavilion
brought in the crowds.

The weaponry workshop was popular,
with personal interpretations of the St George cross decorating tabards,
and a frightening array of multi-pronged, jagged edged,
death dealing weapons were developed.

Watch out Dragons!

A big thank you to the garden committee and other volunteers for making the day a success.

(There is something to be learnt from every event we hold and from this one I now know that;
- someone will always decide that the garden, mid-event and full of small children, is the most appropriate place to cook up heroin. 
- acrylic paint whilst non-toxic and quick drying does not come out of party dresses)  

15 April 2010

non-bird nesting

Today I had the willies.  Ever since I uncovered a man in the compost bins who awoke fisticuffs a-whirling I am wary of concealed pugilists, so on unlocking the garden and coming upon this carefully constructed nest I hurried for a long cane. I know from experience that arms length may not always be long enough.  Happily a few wary prods showed that the bird had flown and I could unpin the orange box splinter fixings, clear away the rubbish, mourn the crushed and broken plants and mutter "bloody nuisance!".  I don't think Ray Mears would have been overly impressed - Im sure like me he would prefer they just slept on a bench!

the last polys

The last trays of polyanthus have finally gone, passed to two local communal gardens where I'm told they will be a cheerful splash of colour. The range of colours had reduced to mostly disturbingly frilly pinks so I hope they are.  Before they went some regular visitors had their pick of the best.  This is Percy and Henry visiting with their mum.  They have been coming to the garden since the wheels on the pram could turn and they were both very decisive. 
Percy wanted "RRRED!"
Henry wanted "PINK!"
Not what I'd have chosen but what do I know?

cross section

I know I regularly infuriate conservative gardeners with my stock answer to the question "what do you do about snails?", much to my amusement.  I am honest when I say "I don't worry about them" as I can usually find something much more important to be upset about.  This laissez faire approach does take into account that growing conditions here are generally rather dry and any damage is minor and seasonal, the worst of the rampages being in the moist warm weeks of early spring when new shoots are soft and succulent.  Of course I keep quiet the heart sinking moments when I find they have cut something special and young to the ground overnight but these moments of humility are few, far between - and private.  

In studies it has been shown that most slug species mainly eat dead and decaying plants and are even more important than worms in recycling nutrients.  Plants are less vulnerable to damage when grown hard, with basic rations of food and water, so stems mature tough and fibrous.  Over-fed well watered things, lush as lettuce, would not last long in this natural garden and notorious slug favourites like delphiniums and hostas don't even warrant a try ( I can live with this).  Plant palatability seems to vary from year to year as does rainfall and what gets eaten one year will probably be back up and successful the next.  For our purposes, we are not producing crops, molluscs are part and parcel of reaching a natural balance of predators and prey so I will not be reaching for the pellets anytime soon - I'd rather not find dead birds fattened on poisoned slugs and snails. 

This year for some reason young snails have a taste to cross section white daffodils.

14 April 2010

jelly babies?

There has been a lot going on since this muppet faced mother dropped her goodies in the middle pond in mid-March.  The grand total of three clumps of spawn laid this year were not fished out to decorate classroom jam jars so I am relieved, they do not do well in jam jars, and with the frog population being so low every bit of egg filled jelly counts.  The two fat goldfish living in this pond have greedy eyes that seemed to be watching for an early spring snack of tadpoles, instead they were wide open and alert to predators and they led me on a merry, curse-filled dance before I could manage to net them out.  They will spend the summer with company in the office pond.

I never get bored of watching the textbook-drawing-come-to-life transformation of spawn to tadpoles and I am always amazed at its speed.

The round full-stop centers soon begin to distort as the eggs develop.  
Within days they have turned into recognisable embryos with head, tail and yolk-filled bellies.

A few days on and the gills can be seen, looking like frilly ears.
Almost ready to hatch the tadpoles get increasingly wiggly and the protective jelly finally collapses.
The external gills disappear under a layer of skin, the tail strengthens and all of a sudden the pond is full of tadpoles swimming and feeding.

Watch them go!

10 April 2010

the start of the silly season

The first really warm day has brought everybody out.  I can't blame them, it's lovely, but my heart sinks as I see soft young shoots disappear under handbags and behinds.  It all seems especially vulnerable this year as everything is out so late due to the long winter.  Usually the garden has grown past this point when everyone is still out of harms reach indoors but now, rushing to catch up, the sappy growth is delicate as beansprouts.  It will all be fine I'm sure but in the meantime there is lots of silliness to make my blood boil.
As the lunchtime crowd arrive I leave off laying the brick stepping stone path once someone sits immovable on the pile of bricks I am working from - I know, would you? - and retreat to the office to sort out the new plants to go in (special lovelies from the RHS show).  A few can be planted in the new south end beds once trespassers are decanted - you would think that this area being fenced off would be clue enough that it is CLOSED - but I am waylaid halfway through when I notice a group happily settling down for lunch to sit along the low wall by the digby jones bench.  This wall is mid-bed so trampled under foot are ferns. clematis and ceratostigma.  I am direct with my "get out of the flower bed please" and leave them to do just that.  Of course five minutes later they are unmoved and I try a different approach.  

"hello, where do you work"

"in a bureau"

"do you have a desk"


"how about I come to your office, throw everything off your desk and eat my sandwiches on it?"          


"that's what you are doing - GET OFF THE FLOWER BED!"

They move.  I am not calm.

Now, in the photo above, can you see what I see?  I have, so go and check.  Head and shoulders into the horse-head bed, right on top of the Transylvanian sage, is a collapsed, grubby, swollen-handed, shallow-breathing fellow.  There is no response to my repeated rousing "wakey-wakey" so I warily give him a bit of a shake for a minute or so to little effect.  Of course as I am watering can in hand the advice of the nearest garden wits is to douse him -  this they find very amusing (I am always surprised that people will just unconcernedly eat sandwiches not a cucumber length from an unconscious body).  Instead I call for an ambulance.  Two paramedics arrive lickety-split and finally get a response with an interesting technique (I won't be trying this anytime in the near future).  They recognise him from a similar pick up earlier, his hospital wristband is still on, and think he's probably been rather 'greedy' on release.   When the ambulance arrive they are ready to get him up, out and onboard.  Hooray!  No corpses today.             
I have the feeling it will be a silly summer season again but do still manage to notice how well paramedics go with the euphorbias.  But then euphorbias do go well with everything.

6 April 2010

max and the mighty worms

I have been at the Phoenix for good few years now, in fact for far longer than it feels, so the children that greeted my arrival have now grown up and some are now parents themselves.  Just like it says on one of the benches the next generation seem to agree that 'I like worms and woodlice' too.  

This is Max.  Out taking the air with Gran and Grandad and full of 'what is it?' curiosity.  As I  had just unearthed this whopping worm and wanted to show it off - well you would - the timing could not have been better so up to the railings on my hot hand it went.  Max is used to the tiger worms in his Gran's wormery but this one was much, much, bigger and so demanded some investigation.  

When I first came to the garden I was surprised to find very few worms when digging, in particular very few of the large deep tunneling species, probably because the thin dry soil held such little organic matter.  Now after years of soil improvements with tons of compost and leafmould added it is good to find their numbers have increased exponentially and worms are uncovered with every spadeful turned.  They are most apparent at this time of year when the soil is moist and they are near the surface (they go deep to avoid drought) busy dragging dead leaves below ground to be eaten and mixed with the soil.  It amazes me that all the autumn leaves heaped optimistically on the beds every year will have been pulled below ground with their tiny toothless mouths by midsummer   Their underground activity is clearly shown by the number of 'casts' that appear each night across the lawns.  This is worm poo, made up of indigestible soil particles, digested vegetable matter and magical worm excretions, and it is rich and fine and makes nutrients readily available to plants.  All the rough soil in the garden is continually processed in this way  and I know that eventually it will be perfection.   Continually extruded aboveground as casts it slowly builds up to create a new layer at the surface and this slowly buries things - the brick chessboard set into the lawn is disappearing steadily belowground as it is buried by worms.  I wonder, if I stood still long enough, how quickly I would go under too?  

californian gooseberries

Three years after being planted in the garden two Californian gooseberries have established and are in flower.  Both have intriguing, if not spectacular, hanging flowers and are protected by an array of particularly vicious spines so these don't get picked. 
The fuschia-flowered gooseberry, Ribes speciosum, will eventually make a 6ft mound of arching stems covered with typical green currant leaves much improved for being shiny.  Starting in February the length of each stem drips with glossy red flowers - if like a fuschia then they've been petal-plucked - and it will be in flower for two months.  It is adapted to summer drought, flowering and growing in the cooler months.  During very dry summer weather it will simply shed leaves to reduce its water demands.  The first rains of autumn will soon encourage a flush of fresh green leaves - if not too exposed to the worst of the weather these will stay looking fresh throughout winter.  It is normally recommended for sunny walls so as to ensure good flowering but seems happy and flowers reliably in dry shade under deciduous trees
The Sierra Gooseberry, Ribes roezlii, originates from moister places in the wild but this seems relative for it's garden use here, California being hotter and drier than we ever are. It is growing successfully here in thin soil that gets very dry in summer.  It is deciduous but comes into leaf early and opens it's short season of flowers in March.  The flowers are maroon and bright white, appearing singly or in pairs all along each branch - I think they look like dangling pulled teeth - and on sunny days the small points of white stand out from some distance.  It is definitely not a front row shrub but is unusual and interesting.  

The fruit of both are supposedly edible but none have appeared so far, bees visit the flowers of roezlii but I have seen none on speciosum.  In the wild both are visited by hummingbirds, we don't see many of those round here, and I am not expecting heavy crops.  Planning for pies, we have just planted two culinary varieties near the compost bins, which will no doubt please the blackbirds - but then I hear they are good in pies too.