Thursday, January 28, 2010

Phenomenon and on and on

With (hopefully) a little more time on my hands this year, I've decided to have a go at recording when natural events occur - phenology.

Phenology is the study of recurring natural phenomena*, such as those that occur with the changing of the seasons. The study of these phenomena has been going on for hundreds of years, to a greater or lesser extent. I doubt that I will have the tenacity of Gilbert White or Robert Marsham but it will hopefully make me more aware of the changing seasons and act as a good excuse to get out and about a bit more.

The Woodland Trust have set up Nature's Calendar, for budding (geddit?) phenologists to gather information and submit it to a central point for collation. You can also view data collected over previous seasons, overlaid on a map of the UK. You can join on line and they will send you a guide with handy illustrations to help you identify species.

The sorts of seasonal changes that you can report include bud burst of common trees, the first flowers, nest building of birds, fruit ripening, frog spawn appearing, and so on. All the sorts of things that people out in the garden or walking in the countryside can note.

Kew gardens started a new initiative in 2000, gathering information on the flowering times of 100 plants in the gardens. But it is the long term historical data supplied by Marsham and other keen amateur phenologists that shows gradual changes in the times of first leaf and other signs of spring, a sign of climate change.

So, get out in the fresh air and start gathering data - it could be the start of a life-long obsession with phenology.

* I can't say or type the word 'phenomenon' without thinking of the Muppets sketch below**. Please do not blame me if it gets stuck in your head.

**apparently the music was composed for an Italian documentary about life in Sweden, called 'Sweden, heaven and hell' (except in italian, obviously).

Monday, January 18, 2010

Dirty Hands - existentialism and garden happiness

Jean Paul Sartre might not strike one as the type to enjoy getting soil under his fingernails. He probably didn't. But one lasting memory of 'A' level French was studying Sartre's 'Les Mains Sales' (Dirty Hands). It contains the quote:

"Moi, j'ai les mains sales. Jusqu'aux coudes."
(Me, I have dirty hands. Right up to the elbows)

Suffice to say that the character wasn't talking about compost. And the story didn't have a happy ending. But, aside from people dirtying their hands in political assassinations, there is something blissful about getting dirt under your fingernails.

Now that the landscape has been returned to greens and browns, I have finally got round to planting the tulip bulbs that I received in October. Not being an existentialist, I didn't get on with DOING, but instead just did some thinking.

Ah, I thought when I received the bulbs, October's a bit early for tulip planting, I'll leave it until November.

Oh, I thought in November, November's a bit busy - I seem to be working lots of weekends. I'll get them planted in December

Argh, I thought in December, the ground has gone from mud to frozen in just one week. I'll get them planted over Christmas.

Grrr, I thought at Christmas, somewhere under that white is the ground, still frozen. I shall pelt the frozen ground with tulip bulbs and wail.

And so, half way through January, I've now planted them in pots. The tulips will come up. A little late, perhaps, but up they will come. That's what they do. They act. Existentialist tulips. And I got my hands dirty with soil for the first time in nearly two months.

And so, to paraphrase Sartre: Me, I've got dirty hands. I've plunged them into soil and into compost. And wow, it felt good.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A floral trail across the years

Lucy Corrander asked a great question on a post on Silvertreedaze recently. Plant Mad Nige had listed 50 desert island plants. Lucy asked how much of the list was logical and how much associated with memories.

Plants are uniquely easy to associate with memories. Their perfume, flavour, appearance, and sometimes even touch and sounds can instantly tranport you back in time. Many of these will have emotional links to the past, and cultivating these plants is one way of maintaining these links.

The taste of raspberries fresh off the canes reminds me of my grandfather, as does the smell of wallflowers. So many flowers remind me of my mother, and my previous (second) garden was full of plants grown from her cuttings. Below is a photo after we'd been in our second garden for a couple of years. We were only there three years.

Being on our third garden now, I look back and see a trail of the plants I've grown in each garden. The trail starts from memories, and passes through all three of my gardens. Not necessarily anything exotic, rare or wondrous, but plants that have done well for me, plants that remind me of a time of my life.

One plant that trails through all three of our gardens is Clematis 'Black Prince'. It's not showy, it's not rare, but I plant it wherever we live for reasons that might seem inconsequential to anyone else.

I plant Rudbeckia 'Rustic Dwarves' for the same reason. Here it is, again in our second garden, adding colour to what was a bare bank when we moved in six months before. Nor rare, not subtle, but bright and fun.

Other plants that I have left as a trail across the country include Solomon's Seal, pittosporum, Allium christophii, Rose 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' and Rodgersias.
Hopefully we won't be moving again for a while, but when we do, it will be another link in the trail of flowers across the country and through time.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Pearly snowdrops drops

In my post last week on garden art, I bemoaned the unsuitability of the snow we'd had for making any sort of "art". We've now had some sticky snow and I've been out making ephemeral art.*

It was my first attempt and I made one or two beginner's mistakes.

1. Long grass and poorly raked up leaves tend to collect in the snow as you roll it around the lawn, giving your piece of art a ragged appearance;
2. Using gardening gloves to keep your hands dry is a great idea. However, if you're working with snow, clean all the mud off your gardening gloves first.

I have entitled the work "Snowdrop". I don't think I'll be worrying the Andy Goldworthys and Richard Shillings of this world. However, I like a challenge, so I am going to try and produce one seasonal piece of ephemeral art each month this year. Hopefully I'll have improved by December. The only way is up.

*It was very ephemeral - I looked out of the window a couple of hours later to discover that it had fallen over. I blame Bill the cat - he was hanging around looking shifty.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Going back to my (snow) roots

Snow - arntcha sick of it? Apologies to those living in climes where 6 months of snow is de rigeur. Us Brits are whining about the weather again. Soon it will start melting, and plants will (mostly) start growing. Spring is almost around the corner.

In a couple of months time, we'll have a good idea of what has survived the cold snap and what has succumbed to the hardest winter we've had for a while. I think we might have a few gaps developing in our borders, but I like to see them as opportunites to shoehorn yet more plants into the garden. Nigel over at Silvertreedaze is to blame for this, with his list of must-haves.

Some plants, however, relish the snow. It can act as insulation against the harshness of alpine living, protecting the plant from the fluctuations of temperature and extreme cold above the snow.

Scientists have recently discovered that some specialist alpine plants can gain more than insulation from the snow - they can gain nutrients. It took a while for anyone to realise that these snow roots existed, as they die off in the summer when the snow disappears, but during the snow season they form a network running through the snow. As most botanists probably tend to go out once the snow melts, I suppose it's understandable that they've been missed until now. The roots take up nitrogen from the snow, giving the plants a head start over other species in the area which have to wait for the snow to melt to take advantage of the nitrogen.

No pictures of snow will accompany this post. I have become a snow denier - if I cease to acknowledge its existence, it will cease to exist. (I'm still having to work a little on this philosophy, as it is snowing persistently here at the moment). Instead, a photograph of something to look forward to.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Nature -> Art <- Gardens

Land art. Sounds a bit industrial. Indeed, it can be - if you search the internet for land art, it covers landscaping on a massive scale, through sculpting gardens, right down to works of art made out of a few fallen leaves.

On the large scale, you have something like the Effigy Tumuli by Michael Heizer. The pond skater is perhaps the easiest thing to see in Google Maps. Great big pieces of art made out of the landscape.

You can't get much more massive as a work of art than an extinct volcano. The Roden Crater is a work of art in progress. It has been in progress since the later 1970s. It will allegedly be completed in 2011. It is not yet open to the public, but some people have been lucky enough to see inside this huge piece of land art.

Very few of us happen to own an extinct volcano. So, some more realistic examples of land art might give us ideas of how it can be adapted to a (slightly) smaller stage. Charles Jenks has produced a host of landscapes based on forming the land into art. His own Garden of Cosmic Speculation is something I would like to see, but it is rarely open, and so I will have to make do with photographs, and this review on ThinkinGardens.

On a smaller scale again, Tony Smith's Quilted Velvet garden at Tatton Park gives an idea of what can be done in a garden. Land-forming but in a more realistic way.

It might make mowing the lawn a little difficult, but it adds shape to the garden and would look fantastic with the covering of snow we have at the moment.

Another form of land art is that practiced by the likes of Andy Goldsworthy. These land artworks can be permanent or ephemeral, but are born of their environment and enhance that environment.
Another brilliant example of a land artist I came across on the internet last night is Richard Shilling. He has recently been busy in the snow. His works filled me with so much enthusiasm that I thought I would go out into the garden to make my own ephemeral art in the snow today, but I discovered that there really is such a thing as the wrong sort of snow. It wouldn't hold together at all - I couldn't even make a snowball! Secretly, I am rather glad, as I don't think my efforts and imagination would ever compare with his.
However, I'm up for a challenge and in 2010 I think I will have a go at creating some land art. SomeBeans need not worry - I won't be hiring a digger to re-contour the garden, but one or two attempts at ephemeral art may be forthcoming. Just wish I had the right sort of snow.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Snowy lazy photo blogging

The snowy view in our street yesterday. With temperatures of -8C last night, it looks the same this morning.

A porcupine stuck in the snow. Or perhaps the old head of an Allium schubertii

A camellia bud, patiently waiting for warmer weather and longer days.

The dead flower head of a Japanese anemone, sporting a rather attractive hat.

More dead plant bits - this time a cardoon head.


Poor Myrtle, stuck outside wearing a turban of snow.

Right. I'm bored of snow now. When's it going to be warm?

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Triumph over adversity?

The desire to grow is overwhelming in these Nigella seeds. I wouldn't have noticed them except for going out to play in the snow with the camera. Inside the seedhead are tiny green seedlings. A sign of spring?