Saturday, 31 May 2008

"A swarm of bees in June ...."

I've just got back from the garden in late evening where we have been collecting a bee swarm that arrived in a rose bush this afternoon. Of course it just happened to be one of my favourite roses, rich, darkly scented, purple red, and to collect the bees some of the top growth would have to be cut off ... My son, Tom, who is a beekeeper (and has his own website of photographs at put our old straw skep on top of the rose branches where the swarm was clustering so that the bees would go up into it - they climb upwards naturally and into the dark skep balanced on the branch where the queen was. Left like that til dusk, the bees should all end up in the skep ready to be scooped up - a free prize to a beekeeper.

Using a smoker to encourage the bees to move up the branches, they carefully snipped bits off the rose until the ball of bees was hopefully mostly in the skep and then - this is the difficult bit - tipped the skep into a hessian sack. It's a dramatic moment when the combined buzzing of thousands of bees is heard! You always hope that somewhere in the mass, the queen is there. With the sack tied up (it has to be breathable so hessian is good) the bees were put in the landrover and taken off to a hive that Tom had prepared ready to take them. The old saying of 'a swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay, a swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon, a swarm of bees in July is not worth a fly' means that the earlier a swarm is collected the more valuable it is - well, to get one on May 31st is pretty good!

The other thing that has happened this week has been that is was week 4 of the Poetry Workshop run by poet Linda France. It has been wonderful to see the people on the course quietly taking in the garden in a very deep way - really looking and having the time to reflect (which I envy them as I am always looking for the next job to do!) This is a photograph of the group meeting up at the beginning of the morning.

The workshops are leading up to the event on Midsummer's Day, June 21st, when there will be the world premier of the collaboration between Linda France and world renowned sound recordist, Chris Watson (recently seen on Springwatch). Throughout the day there will be timed presentations of this extraordinary work with live presentations of Linda's beautiful cycle of poems that she wrote from visiting Chesters Walled Garden once a month on the day of the full moon for a calendar year. Chris recorded the sounds of the garden as the birds went to bed and work in the morning (4 am I think it was!). There will also be elderflower champagne, strawberries and music from Northumbrian piper, Sue Dunne. Look out for details on

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Biodynamic compost at Brantwood

Last Thursday we were in the Lake District at Brantwood, Ruskin's house on a hillside by Coniston Water, a garden that we love and have visited many times. Sally Beamish is the Head Gardener at Brantwood and they have just held the 2nd Northern Biodynamic Spring Conference there. As well as trialling biodynamic methods at the garden, the Conferance enabled Brantwood to become a conduit for linking hill shepherds, gardeners, farmers and anyone interested in biodynamic culture. Sally is following the 2008 Northern Hemisphere Astro Calendar of Brian Keats and Stefan Mager - we hadnt come across this one, using the Thun's calendar ourselves (see my other posts) but it did seem to have a nice clarity in its layout, a more pictorial approach.

The photo above is of Sally's compost heap which is in the pretty orchard below the house. It was more than twice as high when made and has sunk to this level, topped by sheep's wool and incorporating biodynamic preparations. Around the orchard are examples of the six major plants used in some of the preparations - yarrow, chamomile, nettle, dandelion, valerian and oak bark. We havent so far experimented with these preparations at Chesters Walled Garden but think we will in future to see how they work. Sally is doing an agricultural trial at Brantwood with chromatography soil testing to measure the effects from biodynamic preparations against untreated turf.

This picture is of the woven lattice fence in the herb garden at Brantwood, beautifully made of thin layers of locally harvested wood.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb.... and sweet cicely

Our terracotta rhubarb forcer, handmade at The Potting Shed in Hexham, has produced some wonderful, delicate stems, vivid in colour, delicious in taste. We cook them with chunks of stem ginger, using a little of the ginger's sticky syrup, and a couple of large leaves of sweet cicely; its aniseed flavour and natural sweetening happen to grow at the perfect time to be used with the rhubarb. As a wildflower, sweet cicely grows particularly well in Northumberland because it likes the cool river banks and road verges, being the first umbellifer to flower in the spring. We have it on display in the main herb border, growing in the sun, though it does especially well in semi-shade.

The last few days of warmth have brought the garden on in a tremendous burst - it was just waiting for the end of the cold weather, poised in energy. I find it hard to believe that it happens so quickly, when I look at a verdant fern that I last saw (surely only a week ago) as tiny croziers. The daffodils and tulips are colouring the beds and this picture is of the centre of the formal beds which later will be a fuzz of acid green from lady's mantle.

The formal beds are planned not just for colour but to be attractive to insects from early spring to late autumn; tulips and daffodils followed by two different salvias, 'Blue Queen' and 'Rose Queen', and the lady's mantle, then Verbena bonariensis following for several months and Sedum spectabile as a final banquet. The formality contrasts nicely with the naturalistic planting of the rest of the garden and the lawns are a welcome green space to sit - or lie, as I found last year when seeing a man flat on his back, gazing up at the sky through the massed purple heads of the verbena!