May is such a glorious month. Most plants have woken up and now they are having a real stretch! If you stand still for long enough I swear you could watch them grow. And it is breathtakingly beautiful. From the cow parsley along the verges to the Irises in the garden and the fresh new leaves on the trees, it all looks so healthy, so energetic and so pleased to be strutting it’s stuff once again. How many of us would like to feel when we finally see an end to this lockdown!
For gardeners it is a time to enjoy the perfection of the garden before all the nasty things start happening – pests and diseases arrive, plants grow too tall and need propping up, early flowerers go over and need cutting back. Most of that is yet to come and we are enjoying the moment and eagerly anticipating the peak, sometime around mid summer in a month’s time.
We are spoilt for choice in what to talk about this week. The walled garden is looking superb, as it always does at this time of year.
It has had an extra smart lockdown haircut, courtesy of Pete and his hedgetrimmer and Paula and her mower (I don’t recommend you try either for your own lockdown haircuts!).
How Pete gets the hedges so straight and level just by eye beats me! A very skilful job.
As a formal garden open to the public (in normal circumstances) we need to keep our hedges neatly trimmed all through the growing season but for the sake of wildlife and particularly nesting birds it is best to cut your hedges in early spring or later in the summer. The RSPB recommend not cutting hedges and trees between March and August as this is the main breeding season for nesting birds so if you are happy to have a less formal look to your hedges and shrubs it may be worth leaving that hedgetrimmer in the shed! Using hand shears to lightly tidy up shouldn’t be a problem but if you are aware of birds nesting it is better to leave until later.
The Cullen garden is also looking smart with the tub of tulips just about hanging on and giving a splash of colour, the grass nicely cut and the borders weeded.
Paula has been busy helping us with various jobs around the gardens and has found that even weeding can bring a few surprises and new learning. Lockdown presents opportunities as well as restrictions.
Paula’s lessons from Lockdown
One benefit of the slower pace of life that we are currently experiencing is that we become more aware of our surroundings and can take time to study and appreciate things that we have either taken for granted or completely overlooked.
My recent discovery was a beautiful and rather delicate looking ‘wildflower’ found while weeding the community garden at Cressing Temple. Fumitory, which according to Richard Mabey in his book Weeds, was named from its wispy, grey green leaves thought to resemble mist: fumus terrae or smoke of the earth. Excavations of Neolithic sites have shown evidence that fumitory could be found in Britain from around 3500 BCE, having arrived with Mediterranean settlers before the English Channel existed.
Although new to me, fumitory was well known to Shakespeare who included it as part of King Lear’s wreath, using the Tudor vernacular of fumiter. It was also well known to the poet John Clare who wrote of it in his poem The Shepherds Calendar (1827) describing the weeding gangs whose maids would gather the fumitory to use as a beauty aid after boiling it in milk and water. Historically the common fumitory was used by herbalists to treat conjunctivitis, skin diseases and to cleanse the kidneys. Alas it suffered the fate of many wildflowers, by wandering into the vegetable patch at Cressing and it became a weed and had to go. It does not possess the power of the Rampling Fumitory, a protected species on the Isle of Wight, that prevented development of an area once it had been discovered on it.
There is still an abundance of fumitory dotted around the rest of the site, which is good news for the Turtle Dove (Streptopelia Turtur), so named because its wing colouring and pattern resembles that of a turtle. Fumitory forms part of the diet of this Africa wintering bird whose population has unfortunately dropped by 98% since the 1970’s due to loss of habitat and the perils of being shot at and trapped as they make their way up through Europe each year. A sad note to end with perhaps but discovering the fumitory lead me to the plight of the beautiful Turtle Dove, there are many such lessons to be learned and we all have time to do so at the moment.
There has been plenty of other bird life spotted around the Cressing site this week. A swift was swooping over the community garden and I have heard a cuckoo a couple of times. It took several attempts to get this shot of our busy residents in the community garden bird box. They don’t hang about!
The vegetables are coming on really well in the community garden. I was very excited to find the first cauliflower. They are a notoriously shy vegetable until all of a sudden they appear, all creamy white and begging for cheese sauce!
As Paul grew this one, he had first dibs but there are others coming along nicely so watch out for more on the produce list if you are a cauliflower fan.
The broad beans, onions, beetroot, potatoes and carrots are doing really well and it is good to see the plot filling up.
The peas have suffered bird attack so we added some netting around the base to protect them until they are big enough to fight their own battles.
News from the cutting patch
The cut flower patch finally got some attention this week and is now almost full (or will be once these plants grow a bit!). Last year we experimented with growing some flowers which are good for cutting and drying, such as strawflower (Helichrysum). Dried flowers have apparently become fashionable again, so we are very ‘on-trend’! These types of flowers are a useful addition to the patch because we get two opportunities to use them: as fresh flowers or dried for later use in posies.
Last year’s dried flower selection came mainly from a mixed packet of seeds, so this year we have chosen some specific varieties/colours which we hope will give us a nice selection, including Limonium sinuatum ‘Pastel Shades’ (statice), Helichrysum bracteatum (strawflower) mixed and ‘Silvery Rose’
We are also growing some flowers which have interesting seed heads to add to bunches of dried flowers, such as Nigella damacena and Scabiosa stellata ‘Sternkugel‘.
The walled garden should also offer some opportunities to cut and dry more flowers/seed heads, including opium poppy, larkspur and honesty.
Once we have all this flowery bounty we just have to get creative with our flower arranging skills! Do we have any budding (so, no pun intended) flower arrangers out there?
Blossom of the week
This week I was really spoilt for choice and could not decide between the hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) or the horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) which is also looking glorious, but I think the hawthorn is the quintessential tree for May so we will go with that. The blossom on the hawthorns has been better this year than I can ever remember it. Just look at this specimen by the moat behind the Cullen garden. Every scrap is covered in blossom and the heady bitter-sweet hawthorn smell catches you from quite a distance.
In the sixteenth century, the May-tree, as it was known, was the ancestor of the Maypole and the source of May day garlands and decorations. It was also a popular choice of leaf for wreathing the faces of Green Men carved in churches and inns. They are the most frequent trees mentioned in Anglo-Saxon boundary charters and heads the list of trees mentioned in English place names. As a species it has received more attention historically than just about any other tree – not bad for species normally associated with scrubland! Perhaps its combination of thorns and red berries explains its religious significance and the fact that it made such a perfect hedgerow specimen explains why its importance rose dramatically after the parliamentary enclosures Acts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries meant that over 200,000 miles of hawthorn hedge were planted.
It is not just the common hawthorn that has assumed such iconic significance. There is the most celebrated hawthorn, the Holy Thorn at Glastonbury, which produces flowers and foliage in winter as well as the normal time in May, giving it the botanical name Crataegus biflora. Local legend had it that Joseph of Arimathea, an uncle of the Virgin Mary, came to Britain with 11 other disciples some time between AD 30 and 63. He travelled to Glastonbury where he thrust his staff in the ground, where it took root and grew to become the original Christmas flowering thorn. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries pieces of the thorn were repeatedly cut off, either as souvenirs or cuttings to grow on. This was a good thing because the original tree was eventually hacked down by Puritans in the Civil War, who couldn’t stand any kind of idolatry, particularly of trees. But the cuttings grew and offspring of the Glastonbury thorn were spread all around England.
Then there is the woodland hawthorn, also known as the Midland hawthorn, Crataegus laevigata, which was much more common in the Middle Ages than the common hawthorn and was probably the original May-flower. This is the one I have growing in my own garden, a cultivar called ‘Crimson Cloud’ which makes a beautiful tree for a small garden and is a top choice for inviting wildlife in. It makes a valuable winter bird food for migrant thrushes such as redwing and fieldfare.
Edible of the week
Common sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
I have often tasted common sorrel by picking a leaf and munching on it raw when weeding in that part of the garden. When taking tours around the gardens it is a good plant to encourage people to try, due to its surprise factor. Perhaps the common names Sour docks, Vinegar leaves or Green sauce give you the idea, although sour doesn’t really express the experience. The taste of young sorrel leaves is sharp and astringent like lemon or green apple but it is surprisingly fresh and refreshing. It can be used in salads, soups and sauces and makes a very good accompaniment to fish. A friend of mine recommended sorrel pesto and said she preferred it to the more classic basil variety, so I thought I would give it a go this weekend.
Here is the result, with a decorative garnish of Cressing lettuce and radishes. I made the cardinal error of ‘too much garlic’ according to my husband but other than that I it was a pretty decent alternative, especially for these early months when the basil hasn’t even been planted out yet.
Plant of the Week
This week the choice really couldn’t be anything other than the gorgeous irises in the pool garden.
The dried root provides the valuable ‘orris‘ root, scented of violet and used in perfumes, cosmetic powders, toothpastes and breath fresheners. Orris root can be obtained from Iris germanica and Iris pallida, both of which are native to Europe. Fresh roots have an earthy aroma. The smell of violets gradually develops as the roots are dried, taking about two years to attain its maximum aroma. The main constituent of orris root is oil of orris which contains a ketone called irone, which gives orris the odour of violets and has led to it being used extensively in perfumes. Orris has the power of strengthening and fixing the aromas of other fragrances. In Medieval times orris root was mixed with anise and used to perfume linen as early as 1480. Pieces of iris root were used to trim the edges of clothes to make them ‘sweete and pleasnt’. This was known as ‘swete cloth’ and was very popular in Elizabethan times.
Jobs for the Week
Last week’s welcome rain is starting to feel like a distant memory, so remember to keep newly planted plants well-watered until they are properly established.
Primroses and polyanthus can be divided either immediately after flowering or in early autumn. Dividing in May has the advantage of giving a longer growing season, but the divisions will need to be kept well-watered during the summer. Lift the plant with a fork, taking enough soil to avoid damaging the roots. Shake off as much soil as possible, washing it off if necessary. Tease the roots apart and cut out large well-rooted crowns for replanting. Discard the old woody centre of the plant.
Many of us may be trying some vegetable growing for the first time this year. One ‘top tip’ is to do successional sowing of quick-maturing crops such as carrots, salads and spinach. Sowing small batches on a regular basis will produce a continuous, fresh supply of these highly perishable vegetables.
Last week’s answers
- Corn bunting
For this week’s quiz we have a set of pictures representing familiar objects at Cressing. Can you identify them?
With a bit of a shock to our systems in terms of outside temperatures this week it is probably a good reminder not to be too hasty putting out our tender bedding plants (if you have any!) or tender vegetables such as tomato plants. As the old saying goes ‘Cast ne’er a clout ere May is out’ which may feel very relevant in the week ahead!