Saturday, 28 March 2009

Lucky Spot returns to Belsay - through the garden to see the stunning crystal horse

This week I went to Belsay Hall for a local tourism meeting and we were given a preview of Stella McCartney's stunningly beautiful crystal horse 'Lucky Spot'. I saw it several times at Belsay in 2004; it was created specifically for the space in which it leaps, in the 14th century ruined castle and was made as part of 'Fashion at Belsay'. It was so much loved that English Heritage wanted to bring it back and it will be on show to the public from Easter.

We walked through first the Winter Garden with its white-stemmed birches, March flowering heaths, hellebores and rhodies, then along the twisting paths of the Quarry Garden, deep below the sandstone cliff faces of the quarry that provided stone for the Hall. Then to the squat, strong castle and up onto the first floor room where 'Lucky Spot' was lit by a high window, shattering multicoloured lights all over the stone walls through its many crystals. There are over 8,000 Swarovski crystals and we marvelled at how this delicate chandelier had been taken down, cleaned, packed away and then re-installed. As you walk slowly round it, it drifts in and out between solidity and transience, sometimes forming, sometimes dissolving and scattering rainbow patterns over the floor. Its on view from 10th April until spring 2010.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Spring pruning jobs

In the north of England there are some pruning jobs that are best left til spring to protect the plants from cold weather and I usually carry these out towards the end of March. This week I pruned the hardy fuschias, Fuschia magellenica and its pretty white form, which makes large shrubs by the end of a season. They do best if all those woody stems are cut back hard to about eight inches so that all the growth is fresh each year and it then flowers very well in late summer. We also cut down all the Verbena bonariensis, (see previous posts) having left the stems on over winter to protect them. Rue is another plant that I have only just pruned back, cutting this down to about half its size at 18 inches, because it too can suffer up here in the north if cut back in the autumn. The same goes for the later flowering lavenders and these hedges have just been run over with the hedgetrimmers.

Yesterday we pruned our long line of buddleias, grown in the garden for the major attraction of massed butterflies as well as their heady scent. I always cut the buddleias back in the autumn to about five foot for a number of reasons; it tidies them up and prevents root rock if it is very windy, it stops them seeding all over the place and it means less to cart away in spring. I then prune them again in March. It may seem cruel but they grow fast and it means that when they do flower in late summer the blooms are at a good height for enjoying their colour, scent and butterfly visitors. If you leave buddleias unpruned, the flowers end up far too high above your head to be able to properly enjoy them.

You can see how it is done in this picture and with a bit of warm weather they will have disguised the woody stems very quickly with fresh foliage. The pruners are a new lightweight pair made by Oxo (I suppose they have gone logically from Good Grips kitchenware to ergonomic garden tools). Having gardened all my life, I am very aware of the importance of avoiding repetitive strain and am always looking for tools that are easy to use. Long handled pruners have all their weight on the end and after an hour of use can be pretty tiring, so these light handles are great. The hand grips are much more comfortable than my old pair and the blades easily sliced through the tough buddleia stems. I could then go over all the narrow stems with my trusty Felcos which I had serviced over the winter (they came back good as new!) and the whole buddleia hedge looks neat and tidy. It was a lovely sunny day, with the odd bumble bee in the chinodoxas and a comma butterfly in the greenhouse, brought out of hibernation by the heat through the glass.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Bird count tops 70! Garden opens tomorrow

The garden opens for the season tomorrow so we are rushing round doing some last minute things to get ready - but there is still time for me to post on my blog and to include this lovely picture from yesterday of drifts of chinodoxas in the border in front of the old espalier apple tree. These pretty little blue flowers self seed amongst the herbaceous plants and spend the rest of the summer dormant whilst the borders fill out with greenery and flowers. Then when everything is just starting to emerge after winter, they are cheerfully there, spreading across the border and providing nectar for early bumble bees.

Each year the amazing bird count creeps up and with two new species recorded by Alan Todd over the winter, it has just topped 70!! One of the new birds was a crossbill which is exciting - I think it is quite incredible that a small piece of ground, given all the right conditions of shelter, nest sites, food and water, can attract such a range of birds. Birders bring your binoculars!

I have just cut down the Verbena bonariensis in the formal beds, saving this job til the last moment and leaving the dead sticks on all winter to protect them. Today I'll cut down the wall germander, rue and lavender - all left thankfully over the winter which turned out to be harder than the last few years. I find in Northumberland that these pruning jobs are best left til March, along with buddleias and hardy fuschias.

The greenhouse is full of young plants ready for sale and daffodils bloom under the glass. The rosemary 'Tuscan Blue' flowers prolifically next to the pale pink of nectarine flowers against the white wall. All just ready and poised waiting for visitors to come and enjoy.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

A freezing walk to find a very rare lichen!

This is a slight digression from the pampered confines of the walled garden to look
at what used to be known as one of the 'lower plants', that is lichens, liverworts, mosses and ferns. Today I joined a lichen walk organised by the Natural History Society of Northumbria to look for a very rare species that was last seen and photographed some 14 years ago. High up on the Allendale fells is a famous site, part of a triple SI, in a craggy limestone ravine in a bleakly beautiful landscape. You need permission of the landowner to visit as it is not access land. As we got out of our warm cars it began to snow, blown in striking wind into our faces as we set off on a long, uphill track. Brian Coppins had come down from the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh for this walk; he is senior lichenologist there, a past president of the British Lichen Society, and has been working on a new Lichen Flora for Britain. Also on the walk was Mike Sutcliffe, another leading expert, who works for Natural England and who has created a fabulous website of lichen photos, more of which later.

There are no records yet for some of the area we walked through, and there was much peering at the lichens on a typical sandstone, drystone wall - the sort of thing
people might easily walk past without a thought. It was seriously cold and as we started to descend into the ravine of Yew Crags on the Wellhope Burn, the snow was driving into my eyeballs like tiny splinters! I don't know why it should be called Yew Crags as there were no yew trees and it is a gorge rather than crags, but the limestone cliffs were unexpectedly dramatic. As well as being home to several rare types of lichen, there were two ferns, the green spleenwort and the hard shield fern. We stopped here for lunch and the snow came down prompting one of the members to tell us that the largest snowflake ever recorded was 38cms across and seen in Montana! When you really start looking, there is huge variety in the form and colours of these underrated plants - from the hairy, silver tresses growing on trees, the brittle miniature tree shapes of Cladonia portenosa, the favourite of model railway enthusiasts to the grey, orange or yellow of the rock hugging types.

Setting off down the gorge again we were hunting for the only place in England that
the rare Gyalecta ulmi grows. As it once grew on elm trees and all the elm trees have died, this sole survivor, the size of a handspan, has managed to live on the rockface but finding it among all the cliffs was the difficulty! It was eventually seen on the wrong side of the river and could only be seen close-to by getting wet feet or having wellies on... It formed a grey encrustation against the rock and someone irreverently commented that it looked like a handful of cement had been thrown against a wall! Luckily I was one of the two people wearing wellies and with one foot on either side of the burn and one hand supporting me against the rock, I was able to see it close to. It was too much to try and photograph at that angle, so this is the best picture I could manage from the safety of the other bank.

There are more beautiful lichens admittedly and I absolutely love Mike Sutcliffe's website, - you can scroll down his picture index which is laid
out in a grid of squares and be dazzled by the sheer decorative qualities of colour, shape and texture. For any artist, it is a fantastic resource for inspiration. I can imagine it being of use to textile artists, 'A' level and art school students, painters and printmakers. We left the gorge and climbed back up again, thankfully warming up with the uphill walk, and the sky cleared, the wide valley views leading the eye to patches of blue amongst clouds in the north. Someone commented that this was the most extreme of the Natural History Society's meetings, so if you want to join, their other events cannot be so cold! I lay in a hot bath with a cup of tea and looked at my 3 foot high bird's nest fern in its pot in the bathroom, glad that it was no longer called a 'lower plant'.