First it was flowering cherries, then bluebells and now it is the turn of wisteria, queen of the climbers, to reign supreme over social media. Enter #wisteria and you will see thousands of images of voluptuous blooms hanging from Georgian facades. But, I won’t be adding any images. For I am the owner of the wrong sort of wisteria aka Wisteria floribunda ‘alba’, the Japanese wisteria which twines clockwise and flowers at the same time as its leaves appear and which as I have reliably been told is quite simply the wrong sort of wisteria – i.e. it is very NON-U. I really should have known better and sought out the Chinese Wisteria, Wisteria sinensis which twines anti-clockwise and flowers before the appearance of the leaves. To make matters worse, I chose white. Wisteria must always be purple.
The UK is a world leader in class distinctions and the garden is a minefield. Pelargoniums are fine as long as they are scented and not the big blowsy red flowers sometimes incorrectly called geraniums. Japanese maples and laburnums are very borderline and grasses are fine avoiding pampas grass obviously. And don’t get me started on pines. The only really acceptable conifers are yew and cedar of Lebanon both of which require a considerable acreage. Last week, we learnt that the monkey puzzle tree, that long forgotten stalwart of suburbia is under threat in its native Chile and now needs our help.
In Hampshire, it is very easy to fall foul of the rules – wrong car, house, wellies etc etc. My husband once turned up at a smart shoot in a rather battered Barbour and was mistaken for a beater. Luckily my rhododendron is not visible from the road – it’s just a reminder of my Northern roots!
Sheep are having a bit of a moment in case you hadn’t noticed. This week sees the release of ‘Shaun the Sheep’ from the Wallace & Gromit stable and on 19th February, the Chinese New Year of the Sheep will begin. My own ovine connections began a year ago when I became a community shepherd for the National Trust and, once a week, I set forth through the mud to find and count a herd of Wiltshire Horn sheep that have been brought in as part of a conservation grazing initiative on Stockbridge Down.
The flock of 28 arrived in November 2013 and consists of 27 ewes and a wether known as Walter who is fond of leading groups of ladies into forbidden territories. Apart from a few dramas involving fallen trees, legs becoming stuck in branches and various escapes the project has been largely successful. I know many of the sheep by character and I think they know me too. (In a recent study, sheep were found to be able to remember 50 sheep faces as well as familiar human ones). The sheep have chomped through the dominant grass allowing for a much wider plant diversity. In order to count them, the shepherds have to lure the flock into the corral by shaking a bucket of nuts. There’s no need to use the ancient shepherd’s vocabulary which mixes Latin with pre-Roman British – a few loud calls will usually suffice. The schoolgirl error is leaving the box open whereupon the shepherd is pushed and shoved while ten greedy heads delve in. As soon as you pull one set of horns out, another goes in and it’s a bit like losing control at a children’s party except these guests weigh 70kg each and have horns.
The Wiltshire Horn is an attractive, hardy and self sufficient breed. It is particularly popular with smallholders due to its ability to shed its own winter fleece – they look very comical with their fleeces half on and half off. In the winter their white wool turns a dirty dishcloth grey which they accessorise with dirty noses. Similar schemes are running at Reigate Hill in Surrey and at Plantlife’s Ranscome Farm and it’s not just rural areas. Urban shepherds have been tending a flock of Herdwick sheep since 2009 on the downs outside Brighton where they are employed as environmentally friendly mowing machines and where there is a permanent waiting list for shepherds.
On one of the most sweltering days of the year, after weeks of mowing, pruning, watering and weeding, we opened our garden as part of the annual village open gardens event. Balloons were attached to the gate, cars removed from the driveway and a few minutes after the opening time of 1.30pm, a small cohort of sixty somethings with backpacks arrived. Half an hour later, they had turned into a legion and, by the end of the afternoon, 600 visitors had tramped in and out. As they huffed and puffed their way up our wooden staircase to the cliff top terrace, it was hard to tell who was wilting the most – the plants or the visitors. Many were local on a day out but some had travelled far. One couple had come from Christchurch, an hour away, and an Austrian mother and daughter were on holiday on the Isle of Wight and had seen the event on the Open Gardens website. There were also several people who had come 2 years ago.
Our garden is acres away from the hallowed NGS Yellow Book Scheme standard. They would certainly not tolerate the rather beautiful Hemp Agrimony which has self seeded by the water butt. Like all the other gardens in these Open Gardens schemes, ours is a living garden complete with the odd willowherb, bramble and nettle and the money raised goes to local charities – in this case the church.
Garden visiting has been named as one the most popular British leisure activities which is not surprising with its irresistible mix of cake, tea and nosing around other people’s gardens. Even with our curtains closed, some eagle -eyed visitors managed to spot and comment on some of our kitchen accessories. Fortunately, as far as being nosy goes, it was a two way window, and we derived as much pleasure from meeting the visitors as they got from seeing the garden.
Everyone wondered how we coped with the steps up to our cliff garden and, rather too often to be funny, suggested that we build a lift for the gin and tonic. One man left his wife behind on a shady bench and came back to get her later and another family left the granny sitting by the door so she was constantly being shown tickets by new arrivals. There were no horticultural thefts of cuttings which apparently can be a problem, and all marvelled at how different 11 gardens with the same soil can be.
As the last visitors wended their way out, the lawn was showing distinct signs of heavy footfall. We took the balloons down, watered the plants and closed the gates for another two years.
Rosebay willowherb has begun its magenta march over the countryside which must mean that the school holidays are about to start. No plant is so synonymous with high summer, but it hasn’t always been so. Named after its long narrow willow like leaves, Chamerion angustifolium, was once a rare native species until it suddenly began to expand around 1860 for reasons which are still not entirely understood.
A century ago, during World War 1, the plant exploded in areas where trees were felled for the war effort and later, in World War 11, Rosebay willowherb renewed its invasion by colonising the areas after bombing raids where it came to be known as fireweed. However, its expansion really began when it was spread along the railway line rather like buddleia. Unlike other members of the willowherb family e.g. Great Willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum) and the smaller Broad Leaved Willowherb (Epilobium montanum) which readily cross breed, Rosebay Willowherb hybridises with nothing. There is also a rather lovely white form, Chamerion angustifolium ‘Album’, which is described as slowly invasive but not troublesome, and both types are important food plants for the beautiful elephant hawk moth.
In September, as a new term starts, the long pink seed pods will open from the top like a banana to release 20,000 parachuted seeds from every plant. Flying off to pastures new, the fluffy storms are known as ‘sugar fairies’ in the north which is perhaps a link to the sugary edible pith which can be extracted from the ripe stems.
The cow parsley is over and the roadsides are filling up with hogweed, Heracleum spondylium This wild herb competes well with docks and thistles and from midsummer is by far the most common roadside umbellifer. Its tall ridged stems rise up like doric columns above the grasses and the umbrella stalks bearing the familiar creamy white flowers are so familiar, it is easy to dismiss them.
The young leaves are actually edible as are the seeds and, as its name suggests, it was once used as fodder for pigs. But it is as an insect haven that hogweed really comes into its own. The individual flowers are tiny and when massed into a large flat head provide the perfect landing platform for pollinators which can luxuriate among the scented pink and white blossoms. In July and August, the heads of hogweed are like an insect aerodrome buzzing with soldier beetles (in their red tops and black trousers) as well as bumble bees, honey bees, hover flies and yellow-striped longhorned wasp beetles.
Hogweed grows to a height of 1-2.5 metres but is dwarfed by its alien cousin, Heracleum mantegazzianum, which has been known to reach 7 metres and is dangerously toxic.