When the snow melts, the countryside looks flattened . There are tide marks of green along the wet ploughed brown shine of fields and not much else. But along the little stream between the rocks, the moss is in its element.
In the deep valley the moss is plump and luminously green. It covers the rocks and the base of the trees and where water drips down the face of the gully, it makes silent soft waterfalls of damp vegetation. In February, when nothing much else is growing, I am drawn to this wonderful moss, to the few ferns that cling amongst it and to the sound that is swallowed by the myriad fronds.
The Easter Island face of the rock looks down on this miraculous pulse of green in such a dead month and seems to be protecting it . Spring will come and the green will cover the little valley and the fields and the gardens. Until then it waits in this quiet waterfall of thick, thick moss.
The weather has finally turned cool and I have brought the last ones in to dry on top of the wood burning stove.
What I cannot share with you is their wonderful and unexpected scent of vanilla! After being toasted on the stove, the remaining sugars release a real smell of caramel and I can understand where the idea of chili chocolate must have come from. Cooked, they are pungent and spicy enough to make your eyes sting, but before cooking they are innocently sweet.
I like growing chilies because you have to start them so early on the window sill in spring. When the weather is still drear out side but my fingers are itching to start gardening again, they germinate faithfully in their trays and the sturdy little green plants grow slowly but surely until it is frost free and safe to plant them out. They need a good summer to flower and for the seed pods to ripen, but I have only had one disastrous year and generally they do very well in our warming world.
Chopped and stored in a jar, they will heat curries and many other dishes in the drear time before I can plant some seeds again!
This article has really set me thinking again about my own flat garage roof, which could be home to more wild life. The bus shelter roof idea is really taking off and this is the way to go across the world !
It has been brutally hot and it is going to get worse, so while we wait and pray for our leaders to wake up to the reality of climate change, what can we do personally to stay cool?
1. Wear light clothes. Loose cotton dresses are much cooler than shorts as the air can move around your waist. Men look great in kaftans, which are what men wear in the hottest countries, for good reason!
3. Get up EARLY when it is cool and open every window to get the cool morning air in. Use a room fan to blow cool air into the room from the window. Warm air rises, so open any window that you can up high and suck cool air in from the basement or lower rooms. As soon as the temperature outside is warmer than inside, close and shutter to keep the cooled air in.
2. Close your windows and keep your shutters or curtains closed, when the sun is out. Open the windows only when the temperature outside is cooler than inside. Buy a little indoor outdoor thermometer to check.
4. Don’t put the oven on! Don’t cook anything that needs a long time. When you have cooked put the hot pan outside to stop it heating up the kitchen. Couscous is brilliant, as it needs just a small kettle of boiling water to cook it and left over couscous is great spiced up and eaten cold.
5. The simplest way to get cool is to wet your arms and face and sit in front of the fan. Soaking a t-shirt, wringing it out and then wearing it will keep you cool for ages. Wetted top sheet will help you sleep if it is really bad. Sitting with your feet in a basin of cold water helps swollen ankles .
5. Air conditioning is the obvious choice for many, but it eats electricity and that drives the problems that make the world hotter, so if you can: avoid.
Long term cooling solutions involve planting many many more shady trees . Trees can drop the temperature by 10 degrees and are of course beautiful. Painting roofs white make a big difference and not laying black tarmac everywhere makes urban areas more liveable. Fountains that people can splash in and walk through are wonderful.
Homes and offices need to lose all that glass that makes living in them literally like living in a green house. The fashion for endless glass is insane. Every new home I see with huge glass windows, has to quickly spend a fortune on blinds and curtains that are never never opened. A wall, is much cooler!!
A) a bottle of water left over night in the freezer and then sat in your lap.
B) a gel neck scarf. The gel swells up in water over night and then cools your neck all day as you wear it. It isn’t wet on the skin, you can get all sorts of attractive patterns and it is definitely the best cheap cooling device.
C) a snap towel. I don’t know how these little towels work, but they certainly do. You wet the little towel a bit, shake it to make it snap and put it on your head or neck – very cool!
D) a neck fan. This is my latest acquisition. It looks like a pair of hipster ear phones around your neck. It charges with a usb lead and works for hours blowing air round your face. It is very light and brilliant when you are moving around.
High temperatures generally mean a lack of rain and water shortages. To keep your plants alive, reuse your washing water!!
Bowls of water, that have washed dishes or hands, can be collected in a pail and used to water everything. Plants do not mind a bit of detergent/soap – in fact they love it!
Collecting shower water is difficult, but bath water is easy to collect if your bathroom is upstairs. Every evening, after a bath , I lower a pump connected to a hose pipe into the bath and pump the water straight out onto the vegetable patch or into a water butt for use later. I use bubble bath and the veg are fine! You need one person to keep an eye on the pump upstairs to turn off the electricity when the bath is empty.
I am sure many of you know all of these tricks, but this blog might just contain a new idea to keep you cool and keep your garden blooming in the dry and the heat.
This month has roared by. The start was so beautiful it took my breath away .
Peonies and sweet peas, rose gardens laden with perfume and delphiniums the colours of Greek seas.
Mornings absolutely crammed with astounding moths and then such heat that we had to close the shutters and imagine there was no outside and read scratchy novels inside.
Then the storms cleared the polluted air and we cracked open the windows again. Suddenly the lawn was fissured and brown, the peonies were long gone and the roses were fried, but the everlasting Sweetpea explosively scrambling over everything. The red currants and gooseberries were ripe to falling and the little fig tree, I was sure had died, put out green leaves.
The month isn’t over . The rain has revived so much, and June flames on !
We once rented part of a very old bake house that belonged to Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire. We were responsible for a dank patch of grass next to the village pond. In the first no mow spring, early purple orchids came up.
We moved to Wales and eventually put down a deposit on a bungalow on the edge of a venerable town. Masses of ox- eye daisies came up along with red campion and dandelions . We were not yet brave enough to let them all grow, but soon learnt that you could mow paths through your “meadow” and this semblance of order kept the neighbours happy.
In the tropical countries in which we subsequently lived, lawns were rare and generally composed of tough mat grasses that had never been meadowlands, but not cutting the grass still allowed bigger ant hills to flourish and ant loving birds to feed.
In France we bought a flat slab of lawn surrounded by low maintenance evergreens and chicken wire. Our cat was deeply unimpressed, as there was no where to hide and absolutely no life to hunt. We agreed with him and took to diligent neglect or re-wilding, as it is more fashionably called.
Birch trees, ash, dogwood, spindle and wild privet self seeded and in a corner we let them all grow. In the grass; hawks bit, eye bright, ladies smock, bugle, daisies and dandelions, sedges and plantains, fox and cubs, primroses and cowslips, teasels, evening primroses and mulleins appeared in their seasons. We collected local wild seeds and threw them in for good measure. The ox eye daisies and the hay rattle never took, like wise the foxgloves, but then it all depends of what type of soil you have and when you eventually do cut the grass.
If you never cut the grass, then bushes and finally trees will take over. We allowed this happen in a part of the garden and now that part is full of nesting birds and mice and hedgehogs. The cats now have so many places to hunt, sun and to hide that they are happy to stay safe in our garden away from the traffic and the thundering computer driven tractors.
There is no down side to not mowing your lawn. You have more time to enjoy your garden, the garden is infinitely quieter and the difference to the amount of life that will live with you in your garden, is absolutely staggering .
No Mow May, No Mow June and a bit of mowing if you don’t want a forest glade. What could be easier!???
These beautiful ferns stay green all through the darkest months of winter and when they make new leaves in the spring, the slowly uncurling fronds look like the soft tongue of a female deer – a hart.
I decided that the world had gone to hell in a hand basket when I saw a venerable old pub in the Cotswolds had changed its sign from that of a deer, to that of a cheesy looking gold heart and of course the spelling of the name was changed from the Golden Hart to the Golden Heart.
I have since realised that there are other things more worthy of getting angry about in the world and so I enjoy watching the ferns unfurl in the late spring and imagining that a real deer might even lick the rain from their glossy surface.
This uninspiring orchid may not be colourful, but it is extraordinary.
The bird’s nest orchid Neottia nidus – avis gets its name from the tatty shape of the root ball that looks like a bird’s nest . It gets all its nutrients from a fungal association with the soil and it needs no green chlorophyll at all. It makes no leaves and the flower comes straight up out of the earth in the late spring.
If the spike is obstructed when it is about to emerge, it can apparently flower and set seed underground, which is not fully understood and all the more disturbing for it!
It can be pollinated by a range of insects including very small creatures that can crawl over the flowers and carry away the pollen.
It is often found ( as this one was) close to the flowering stems of the large white helleborine Cephalanthera damasonium which also grow under beech trees in leaf litter.
The bird’s nest orchid and the large white helleborine both need nutrients from fungus that can only grow in deep humous rich leaf litter and so can sometimes be found in the same beech woods. The helleborine has green leaves and stem, but can tolerate deep shade, because of the extra food it’s fungal association gives it. The pure white flowers seem not open fully, but that is an illusion . Once one starts to look for them, at this time of year, their white petals flare up under the dark canopy of the beech trees and they can be surprisingly common.
I spent the day in a meadow which flowers above a roaring Swiss motorway and the grass was studded with orchids. Only rich countries can divert a motorway under such a wonderful habitat; but the wealth that paid for the diversion has been created by the very trade and the traffic beneath it and so one is struck once again by the seesaw of destruction and construction that is modern life.
So I ignored the sound of the traffic and revelled in the orchids above. The wonderful military orchids were just over and their seed spears showed where they had flowered just weeks before. However, the grass was now jewelled with the lipstick pink spikes of pyramid orchids, so bright they fluoresced in the sunshine. The first painted lady butterflies flew amongst them but refused to settle for a photograph.
We knew there were other orchids here, but missed them in the riot of colour of the red bartsia and the blue spiked speedwell. Just when we weren’t looking, or our eyes were turned to the side, we saw the little bee orchids.
Their flowers imitate the female bees to which the male bees are irresistibly drawn. Instead of bee copulation, the bee gets an undignified deelybopper of orchid pollen stuck on his head, which he then unwittingly carries to the next bee impersonating orchid and pollination takes place.
These orchids are small but beautiful and remarkably formed: a bit like Switzerland really!
The wild columbines in my garden are in their full glory.
I collected a few handfuls of seeds from plants in the forest on the ridge between my village and the border with Switzerland, some years ago. I chose a variety of colours, but they are all on the wild pallet of purple and pink.
Over the years they have self seeded in the shady parts of the garden and the variety of colours is amazing. Every year I try and photograph them and am always dissatisfied with the result. The flowers are down ward pointing and it seems impossible to capture their beauty and delicacy.
Some of the flowers have double and triple whorls of petals and I think their variation would have inspired Gregor Mendel to unlock the secrets of genetic variation in his famous monastic garden.
All types of bees visit the flowers . Here is a fat carpenter bee looking for nectar.
The bumble bees bite into the spurs of the flowers to reach the nectar faster and the next bees use the easy access too. You can see the bite holes in this picture.
The name columbine come from the Latin for dove and the shy down turned flower is supposed to look like a ring of doves’ heads.
Like all of the most beautiful things in life, they are transient. The warm weather will see them pollinated quickly and soon the patio will be painted with the bright confetti of their multicoloured, fallen petals.
The hedgerows are still bare: a few colts foot and celandines have nosed out above the soil and in the woods there are tiny oxslips and lungwort flowers, easily overlooked amongst the dead leaves.
The spring migrants are here!
The chiffchaff is throwing his voice like confetti up into the leafless trees. The secretive dunnock has slipped in on the warm air and the electric crackle of the black redstart is fizzing from the barn tops. Every storks’ nest has two gigantic birds stood aloft and they throw back their heads and rattle and clack to one another with insane glee.
In the ploughed fields there are still a few bramblings and in my garden the feeders are covered with siskins, who don’t seem to know that winter is over yet. The cold weather seed eaters are still cautious, but the warm weather insect eaters are already here. They are ready to risk the changing of the guard and for a few days yet they meet in the neutral territory of the early spring.
This stellar photo is not Jupiter, but the view down my microscope of a humble tradescantia leaf. The green and purple bands are the variegations and the pigmentation glitters like rubies in mesmeric glory. I am still learning to use this amazing , inexpensive microscope and during a wet afternoon I just looked at the leaves from house plants and the few plants in leaf in the garden. I was struck particularly by leaf hairs.
The thick hairs on a woolly Stachys leaf looked like spun glass and the hairs on a herb Robert leaf look like icicles about to melt in sunshine.
The leaf of scented geranium is downy and irregularly studded with brown globules, which I took to be the oils that give the plant its distinctive perfume. This was confirmed when I looked at the leaf of a thyme plant. This leaf was scurffy with tiny hairs and plastered with brown oil globes where the secret of its much prized flavour lie.
The most surprising of all was the leaf of a wall flower, that has survived all winter in the partial shelter of a lean to. I have never considered them hairy at all, but the leaf was covered in long parallel hairs lying flat to the surface. They did not seem useful to keep it warm , or to hold in oils , or defensive spikes, maybe they were to speed water down from the leaf that might otherwise freeze in winter or to focus water onto the roots in dry times.
This picture is the underside of a Victoriaamazonica leaf that had just been hauled out of the water at the botanic gardens in Basel. It was so huge and so extraordinarily spiny it had to be photographed .
Last night I watched the incomparable Green Planet from the BBC with the similarly unequalled David Attenborough. He showed the aquatic battles for light that go on in clean rivers and wetlands between the plants that float and fight so slowly in this apparently peaceful world . The most memorable Timelapse shots were of the gigantic shoots of the Amazon waterlilly sweeping the water clear of other plants to make space for the titanic unfolding of a new leaf. The leaf was armored with the fiercest dagger spines which I well remember gingerly touching in the sunshine outside of the hot house, as the Basel trams rumbled on by . The spines could crush and pierce anything that got in its way as the leaf covered the water in its metre wide plate of photosynthesising aggression.
Ironic that the flower is seen as symbolizing peaceful serenity.
This article from the Guardian news paper describes the astounding new species of plants that have been found across the world this year.
It also shows how many are endangered and how often it is deforestation to make space for palm oil plantations that is to blame.
I just checked the ingredients on my goat’s cheese pastry parcels that we had just eaten for lunch and sure enough , there was palm oil in the pastry. It is a cheap, almost ubiquitous ingredient and I am determined not to buy a single thing that contains it ever again.
My New year resolution is always wear my glasses in the supermarket and check more carefully in future!
As Covid rears it’s ugly head again in this part of the world, plan B is definitely in place and we find the wonders of the woods as absorbing as vin chaud or tinsel at a Christmas market.
Now all the leaves have been whirled away by wind and rain, there is much more light in the forest . On the floor, some plants positively gleam with fresh growth in the winter sun.
Oddities like hazelwort show fat green pennies of leaves against the moss.
Hart’s tongue ferns have such a wonderfully evocative name as their leaves curl out like the tongue of an amorous male deer .
The hard shield fern is almost invisible except in the winter, when it shines out fresh and vivid amongst the fallen leaves.
Maidenhair spleenwort sounds at odds with itself. Maidenhair sounds delicate but spleenwort sounds positively painful. However, the fern itself is beautiful and it falls by steps from the wet rocks.
This young male fern is flourishing in the winter light.
And finally, with the promise of a Christmas flower is this stinking hellebore. The name is harsh as I have never actually smelt it’s apparently bad smell and it is the wild relative of the Hellebores that grace our gardens and decorate tables at Christmas time.
The whole plant is now locked away in the tiniest of seeds.
Sometimes they will germinate in Autumn rains and survive the winter, but most often the seed will just wait it out until the spring comes and conditions are right to explode into life.
Seeds are so tiny in comparison to the plant they may become. All that complex information for life is locked away safely in the dry seed and it’s survival is so improbable that it makes collecting the autumn seeds seem like the most important thing I can do . I know seed catalogs are full of technicolor promise for the spring, but these are seeds that I know will grow again. I collect nasturtiums, sweet William, dames violet, wall flowers and lettuce. Some things will just seed without needing to be collected like roucoula , columbine and marigolds. Some will need the lure of the seed catalogue like chard and pumpkin and fennel, but all will be an astounding testimony to what can grow out from the locked away life!
The circle of purple flowers opens both up and down the flower heads and they remind me of the wonderful lines about the candle burning at both ends.
“My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –
It gives a lovely light.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay
When the brief firework of flowers are over, the seed heads will ripen and the dried heads will stand all winter long to feed the meticulous goldfinches when there seems nothing left to eat in the world.
The prickly, unpromising Teasels really are a “lovely light” at both ends of the year.
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