25 January 2020
I am always slightly reluctant to feed the birds each winter as I don’t want them to become dependent on humans for food. I have been trying to build up hedgerows around the perimeter of the garden to provide both food and shelter for them all year round. However, there is not a berry to be seen in the garden and we have had more frosty nights than usual. The final straw was when I came upon a male pheasant on my driveway looking rather thin and wan. I caved in and put out some food. As you can see, within a couple of weeks of feeding he is looking as plump and proud as he should be. His female counterpart looks equally healthy. The feeders are also attracting a range of smaller birds including robins, chaffinches, blue tits and goldfinches who all provide hours of entertainment. Even better a second male pheasant is now joining the ranks and two females make occasional visits.
All the birds that visit my garden seem to live in the dense thicket of gorse and brambles that cover the land to the north side of the drive and garden and which you can see in the background to the photo. I have been known to rail against the invasion of these plants into my property as they are very difficult to eradicate. In fact, twice a year I have to work my way along the boundary cutting back brambles which seem to have grown miles in six months and rooted themselves firmly in my garden. I also have to try and remove all the new small gorse plants that have crept in. Not to mention the ferns. Anyone watching would hear my mutterings about the fickleness of gardening. How can brambles do so well when other plants don’t? why are the roots so difficult to remove when my favourite plants can blow over at the slightest provocation? I will have to carry out this task at least twice year as long as I live here but my attitude to it is changing. The thicket obviously provides perfect shelter for the birds in such a windy spot where tree nests would not last a moment. Now if only I could get the birds to do a bit of weeding for me in return.
Today I decided to take some realistic photographs of the garden so that everyone could see how bleak it all looks. The hydrangeas look particularly untidy as they retain their blossoms which have turned a dull brown. I am always tempted to start dead heading them when they look like this but know that a frost will descend on them as soon as I do and that will be the end of the new buds hiding beneath. I got side tracked from my original task when I saw this specimen as I thought it rather beautiful despite it being the same black and brown colour combination throughout the rest of the garden.
The more I focused on them the more I realised that almost every hydrangea had a striking feature about it if you looked closely enough even at this time of the year. I soon lost interest in taking a photo of the dullness of the garden and concentrated on these instead.
A solitary hydrangea blossom that has survived all that this winter has thrown at it so far.
I also could not omit this solitary flower on a bedraggled looking Hebe x Franciscana ‘variegata’.
After weeks of storms and rain we have had a few days when it was possible to do some gardening. Although I usually enjoy this task, I was distracted by something but could not put my finger on it. It was only when I went to bed and I heard the wind in the trees by the house that I realised that it was the silence that had bothered me. ‘Silent’ days are rare here. Roaringwater Bay lives up to it’s name and has a full repertoire or sounds even on days when it looks flat and calm. One of the most captivating sounds occurs when the sea is at its loudest but is twinned with the gentle lapping of the water in the bay below the house. It is almost hypnotic and I can listen to it for hours. In addition to the sound of the water the wind blows, howls, shrieks, and whistles around the house and deserves as many descriptive names as the native Innuit have for snow. I now realise that I have come to take these sounds for granted and even find them relaxing although I could do without the gales.
I have been trying to have as much winter colour in the garden and there are some particularly tough plants even in this location. Phormiums have to come close to the top of the list. These plants are particularly robust in this salt laden, windy climate and are perfect for winter colour. In this area you often see them planted in a row as an initial windbreaker particularly on properties close to the sea. Although this is a useful way of growing them and providing an initial low wall of shelter, I have never particularly liked them in this formation. In fact, I find them rather ugly. I think they look best planted with other shrubs with a contrasting colour where each can complement the other as below.
This young phormium ‘evening glow’ looks well with the deep green Eleagnus in a relatively new shrubbery on my hillside and will look even better when it has reached its full height. In addition, for some reason the Eleagnus turn the underside of their leaves up during storms to reveal a lovely cream colour. I am seeing a lot of this at the moment!
I have always prided myself on my good memory so it is a great disappointment that age is catching up with me. I can still remember certain things but am fascinated by the fact that it is usually the most irrelevant or quirky ones that stay in my mind. This is difficult when you have started a garden from scratch and are planting hundreds of plants. Plant labels are very handy but fade remarkably quickly. I do keep a catalogue of what I have planted but often have difficulty keeping it up to date or matching up the description with the mature plant. This is also the case with plant finders on the internet. It is amazing how many totally different photos come up when you search for a particular plant. The willow in the photo below is a perfect example. This is a cutting from the one of six willow trees that were uprooted by Storm Darwin. As it was planted by the previous owner, I had no idea what it is. Following extensive research, I have narrowed it down to is Salix alba, Vitellina Britzenus, Salix Alba Chermesina Yelverton, Coral Bark Willow, Scarlet Willow, all of the above or something else entirely. To make things more difficult none of the photographs closely match the colours of my plant. I have now stopped trying to identify it. I tell myself that this because I will never need to buy another as just sticking a cutting in the ground is enough to produce a new plant. In reality I have simply run out of patience and ‘orange willow’ does just as well as anything.
Phormium ‘Pink Stripe’ which makes a good contrast with my ‘orange willow’
One of the most frustrating aspects of trying to identify an unknown plant is the contradictory nature of the descriptions available. I recognise that this is due to the contradictory nature of the plant but it does not make me feel any better. ‘leaves may be smooth or serrated’ is one of my favourite descriptions. I presume that this means that there will be both types of leaves on the plants. But what if the plant decides to produce only serrated leaves? And what about ‘colour blue to dark green’ or ‘pink to deep red’. Despite my difficulties I still try to keep my catalogue up to date and spend hours on wet days searching for the definitive description of my unlabelled plants. So far, the only result has been an increase in my blood pressure.
Some trusted winter shrubs
A number of plants never cease to amaze me as I try to work out what will grow in this exposed site. These are the plants that not only do well but appear to flower throughout the year. I say’ appear’ as they are unlikely to do so but are always covered in flowers whenever I look at them. Two of the most consistent are Correa ‘Backhauseana’ and its relative Correa ‘Marion’s Marvel’. I added the latter plant to my collection this summer to see if it would be as prolific as it’s relative. It was in flower when I bought it. The photograph was taken today over six months later.
Correa Marion’s Marvel
This Rosemary ‘Fota Blue’ has also been in flower since I bought it over a year and a half ago and seems indestructible.
The wind is howling around the house today, I squelched my way through the garden on my morning round but there are a few signs that spring is on the way.
Forget the last comment about the onset of spring. It seems as if it was only a short while ago that I was preparing for storm Brendan and Storm Ciara is now on the way. The website ‘windy’ provides very colourful pictures of the weather which make them very easy to interpret. At the moment Ciara stretches from Newfoundland to a point just west of Ireland. It looks daunting and threatens to last for days if it stays on course. The buds on all of my camellias are just about to open. I suspect that the flowers will be short lived. The grass needs cutting but I can’t imagine wielding a lawn mower in the predicted winds not to mention the rain. Any way I have to go into storm preparation mode so I am unlikely to have any time. Fingers crossed as my poor garden (and the birds) face into another severe storm.
Storm Ciara has now been huffing and puffing for four days. She has bombarded us with sleet, hail and rain and the wind has been relentless. It looks as if we will have some respite on Thursday but another large storm system (Dennis) is on its way. All of my gardening plans have had to be put on hold although I have done a little unplanned gardening. The dogs need to spend some time outside for obvious reasons despite the severe gales. I have tried to let them out in the few brief lulls that we have had over the last few days. I would dearly love to put them out and retire to the warmth of the stove but they are having none of it. Collies in theory should be used to bad weather. They are also known for their intelligence. As usual they can’t be fooled. I have tried every trick in the book to get them to go outside alone for example by pretending to go out for a few seconds and sneaking back indoors. However, they know perfectly well that I would put on a coat if I was serious and stick very close to me watching my every move. In fact, they are back inside the house before me. I have tried leaving them outside on their own. Their response to this manoeuvre is to huddle by the door looking pathetic and barking to be let back in. Now I just accept that we are all going out and staying out until they are finished. I have used the time to try and do some weeding in the vegetable beds that are far from trees and the possibility of falling branches. Since Saturday, the weather has consisted of rain, sleet, hail and gale force winds so it is cold work. On the positive side I have only lost electricity for an hour. So, it is easy to get warm when I return indoors. In the past he presence or absence of electricity has determined whether I ‘weather’ the storm with equanimity or make plans to move to a ‘storm free’ country. Storm Dennis is likely to provide a further test of my resolve.