Saturday, 31 March 2012

When is a medlar not a medlar?

Almost 7 years ago now, a friend gave me a garden token for a birthday present. I was delighted. (Few people buy me tokens, particularly book tokens.  I believe they think that after a lifetime working with books the last thing I want as a present is more books, but they couldn’t be more wrong. I really enjoy deliberating what to chose and often have the token for quite some while before deciding. (A pleasant dilemma!)

Garden tokens similarly. In this particular case, however, I decided quite quickly that I’d prefer to buy something a bit different to remind me of my friend. I hit upon a medlar tree. They are out of fashion these days but I believe they were well known in Elizabethan times. The Victorians used the fruit as an after-dinner dessert, usually enjoyed with a glass of port. I’m not partial to port but liked the idea of growing an unusual fruit tree and duly chose a tree labelled, Medlar Nottingham, from a nearby nursery.

According to the Readers’ Digest's Food from Your Garden, the flowers are borne in early summer and the brown fruits are not to be harvested until late autumn after which they are to be left to ripen further until they become soft to the touch – a process known as ‘bletting’. They can be eaten raw, mixing the pulp with sugar and cream, or blended with cream and cider to make a medlar fool. Medlars can also be roasted in the oven and sweetened before eating, or made into a jelly in the same way that crab apple jelly is made.

I resigned myself to having to wait some time before the tree would come to fruition, as it were, so imagine my delight when, during the extremely mild April last year, I noticed that the tree was covered in delicate white flowers with just a hint of pink. When the weather suddenly changed for the worse the flowers seemed to vanish overnight and I thought no more about the tree, believing that the flowers wouldn’t have had an opportunity to be pollinated.

How wrong could I be? I was almost ecstatic when, late that summer, miraculously I noticed that what looked like a profusion of small green plums had appeared on the tree. Aware that the fruit of the medlar was not to be harvested until autumn, I took little further notice of them until late August when I realised that they had turned a lovely golden, almost ochre, colour. I gently touched one and it dropped into my hand. Puzzled, for it felt very soft, I took a bite – of an apricot! Sadly, most of the fruit was by this time too ripe to eat and over the next few days the  fruit fell to the ground, a treat for the sugar-seeking wasps.

 Not only did my tree produce apricots last year but magically, once again, my tree is in bloom! Learning from last year, I intend to be more vigilant this time and will harvest the fruit by the beginning of August. It will be amazing to be able to make jam and pies using my own home-grown apricots.

Apricots, natives of China, are notoriously difficult to grow in this country - other than in the south where they are usually grown as fan trees, trained against a south-facing wall in a sheltered position. In the north of England where I live they are only ever grown under glass.

Proof that there really are fairies at the bottom of Pablo’s garden?
I wonder!

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Spring's jewels

Pulmonaria, commonly known as lungwort because the leaves with their peculiar marking are said to represent a person’s lungs, were literally believed to be a cure for lung disease. It might well be a native plant as it is mentioned in the earliest herbals.

Roy Genders, in his book ‘The Cottage Garden’, tells that there was an old country superstition that the white markings on the leaves were made by drops of our Lady’s Milk for the plant grows wild in Palestine and around the shores of the Mediterranean.

It is one of the earliest and most reliable flowers of spring. Content with dry shade, its clusters of pink and blue flowers blend beautifully with hellebores and, as the flowers fade, the bold, oval leaves, splashed with grey, take their place.

Another of spring's jewels is the humble primrose  of which Coleridge wrote,
'In dewy glades, 
The peering primrose, like sudden gladness,
Gleams on the soul…’

The plant takes its name from primaverola, meaning the first flower of springtime. In Shakespeare's time the plant was held in such esteem as to be the word most often used to denote excellence as in,

'She is the pride and primrose of the rest'.

Once the Christmas season is over and the fresh flower swag and Christmas tree have gone over, I buy pots of cheap, brightly coloured primulas from the local supermarket, (which is often cheaper than local nurseries), and place the plants, still in their pots, in wicker baskets around the house. They are such good value and help counter the post-Christmas blues. They flower for weeks and, once the flowers have finished they can be planted outside in a shady spot to flower again later in the year.

Highly recommended to lift the spirits

Friday, 23 March 2012

There are fairies at the bottom of my garden

There are fairies at the bottom of my garden peeping out between the remains of the old ash tree, their faces hidden during high summer by the pale blue bell-like flowers of the trailing campanula.

Forced rhubarb

They’ve already begun to weave their magic and made the rhubarb sprout early. Forced rhubarb has a more delicate, less acidic flavour than the thicker and coarser main-crop stalks. Its clean taste makes rhubarb an ideal dessert to have after fatty or stodgy food and its acidity can be diminished by adding ginger, cinnamon and the juice of an orange. Soon we’ll be enjoying the first of the rhubarb pies, flavoured with ginger syrup and topped with tiny pieces of finely chopped stem ginger and demerara  sugar – delicious.

The upturned plastic pots I use to force rhubarb in my garden

I keep on hoping that the little people will wave their wands and transform the plastic plant pots I have to use into the wonderful terracotta forcing pots like those originally used in Victorian kitchen gardens.

 Maybe next year if I wish hard enough miracles will happen.
 (Husband please note!)

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Put a spring in your step

Put a spring in your step!

How delightful to look out of the window at the spring garden.
spring border with hellebores
The apparent trick of the light in the early morning sunshine is no sleight of hand and one’s spirits soar at the promise of the garden magic yet to come.

euphorbia purpurea

Miraculously, almost overnight, the euphorbia purpurea has begun to unfurl, in contrast to the more common wood spurge which has been a glorious presence for some weeks. 
 Even so, the morning sunshine transforms its bracts into lime 
green sparklers. This is nature’s firework display, unsurpassed by any man-made New Year spectacular.
daphne odorata just beginning to show colour

Socrates, my chain-saw owl, stands guard at the entrance to the garden, keeping watch over a colourful spring basket.

Socrates - the wise old owl


'A wise old owl sat on an oak,
The more he heard the less he spoke.
The less he spoke the more he heard
I would that we could be like that wise old bird!’

Thought for the day

Friday, 16 March 2012

A cure for melancholia?

A cure for melancholia
The hellebores are performing really well throughout the garden – both in dry shade and full sunshine. One of the oldest cultivated plants, Pliny said that the daughters of Proteus, King of Argos, were cured of a mental disease by drinking the milk of goats fed on hellebore. In the seventeenth century, the roots were dried and ground to a powder, to be taken like snuff for the relief of headaches and moods of melancholia.

Rather than such drastic measures, I recommend ensuring that last season’s leaves have been removed to allow the full beauty of the flower heads to shine through and the new leaves to unfurl. We cannot but fail to be uplifted by the unassuming glory of these plants. They lower their heads modestly but, by merely tipping these demure flowers on the chin, intense pleasure can be gained, once their magnificence is revealed.

I often snip two or three stems to bring into the house. (Dipping the stalks in boiling water for a few seconds clears the stem and ensures that they can absorb water freely). The elegance of the flowers is best enjoyed by placing the vase at eye level for the flower heads obstinately remain standing shyly downwards.

Self-healing horticultural medication at its best!

Enjoy. Gillian

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

If I could plant one tiny little seed...

‘If I could plant one tiny little seed in the garden of your life’
The wonderful weather at the weekend encouraged me to clean out the greenhouse at the bottom of the garden. I loathe the smell of Jeyes Fluid but it is recommended for getting rid of over-wintering bugs. The worst task is removing all the assorted pots and general rubbish that has accumulated the previous summer. Then I had to control my husband, Glynn, from lighting the sulphur candle. Pointing out that the automatic window opener was working in the sunshine, thus ensuring that the cleansing smoke would drift straight out of the window if lit! He managed to restrain himself until dusk.

All done and dusted
The next morning, all duly disinfected, I began the task of replacing pots and seed trays – all also now clean and ready for the new growing season.

If I could plant one tiny little seed
Then the exciting task begins of choosing which flowers and vegetables to grow. I order seeds via the allotment association but am always tempted into buying more flower seeds whenever I visit the University Botanic Gardens on the outskirts of Durham City – which I do regularly. There, a dedicated of team of ‘Friends’ spend time each week methodically counting out seeds into tiny brown packets which are then neatly labelled, ready to be bought by seed-aholics like myself, for a small donation. The ‘Friends’ do a great job in supporting events and funding developments at the garden which are always a joy to visit, even in the depths of winter. Tubs of delicious crocus greet the visitor on arrival and thousands of daffodils are beginning to show colour amongst the grass.
Purple crocus in my border

Friday, 9 March 2012

Perchance Next Spring...

It is always a time for sadness when the early snowdrops – such a longed-for sign of hope after the dark winter days – begin to fade. I usually take consolation in re-reading a verse poem entitled ‘In the Garden’ contained within an old volume,  ‘Our Book of Poetry’, which must have been published in the 1930s as it was originally owned by my two older cousins who delighted in reading aloud to me from it.
Image from my old volume of poetry

I eventually became the proud possessor of the crumbling volume and it has pride of place on my bookshelves to this day, despite its pages being yellowed and splattered with my dirty fingerprints. 

‘In the Garden’ is very much of its time as it tells of a meeting between the last snowdrop(female) and the first crocus (male)  who, despite being the newcomer, takes centre stage and insists on telling his own story.

C Good morning, pretty lady!
S Good morning, gentle sir!
C ‘Tis very sweet that we should meet
    When springtime is astir!

S I watched you peeping upward,
   I watched you as you grew.

C Did you my dear? Upon my word
    I call that kind of you.
   You seem a gentle creature with beauty all your own.
   Pray tell me how it comes that you
   Are growing here alone?

S  I am the latest snowdrop.
    My sisters all are fled.

C  And I the earliest crocus bulb
     To blossom in this bed.
    Then shall we not be friends, my dear?
    And, as I love to talk
    I’ll tell you how I came to shine
   So gaily on my stalk.

S Do, sir!

And so on he goes, full of his own importance, until he finally comes to the end of his tale and suddenly realises his new friend looks most unhappy.

The last snowdrops
C  Nay, wherefore droop your dainty head?

S  Sir, you have come too late!

   My star is set, my day is done,
   My beauty on the wane:
   Yet, who can tell? Perchance, next spring
   We two may meet again!
                                                           Marie Bayne

Happy gardening!


Saturday, 3 March 2012

Pablo's Garden Diary

I live in an Edwardian house with a large garden. The garden was 100 years old in 2011 and although the layout remains much as it was in 1911 I have tried to impose my own style in the garden without destroying its historical design.

Pablo is a much more recent addition although, at 17, he is very much the elderly statesman who supervises and approves, or not, changes he has overseen in the garden.

This garden diary will record changes and developments, in words and images, during the next twelve months as I work on improving the herbaceous borders and introduce more colour and variety throughout the year.

I also grow various vegetables and fruit in my allotment garden which is half a mile away. I hope to share allotment gardening and favourite recipes with you throughout the year.

I hope you enjoy visiting my garden.