Title Photo – Dune Helleborine (Epipactis dunensis)
Dear Readers, on 16th April it was International Orchid Appreciation Day. Who knew? There are 26,000 species worldwide, but for this quiz I am going to concentrate on the European ones. Many of them are named after their physical features, although with some of them I fear that you’d have to squint to see the resemblance. However, I have every confidence that you will be able to match the photo to the species without TOO much trouble.
As usual, answers in the comments by 5 p.m. (UK time) on Thursday 22nd April, and as usual the answers will pop up on Friday. I will ‘disappear’ your answers as soon as I see them, but do write them down first if you are easily influenced (like me). Have fun! I was amazed at how many of these beautiful plants we have in the UK, nearly all of them scarce or rare. How I would love it if some of them popped up in my garden, but as it is I think I’ll have to make do with the green alkanet.
Just match the name to the photo. So, if you think the orchid in Photo 1 is a Military Orchid, your answer is 1)A.
A – Military Orchid (Orchis militaris)
B – Lizard Orchid (Himantoglossum hircinum)
C – Burnt Orchid (Neotinea ustulata)
D – Dark Red Helleborine (Epipactis atrorubens)
E – Lady Orchid (Orchis purpurea)
F – Heath Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata(
G – Autumn Lady’s-Tresses (Spiranthes spiralis)
H – Frog Orchid (Coeloglossum viride)
I – Greater Butterfly Orchid (Platanthera chlorantha)
My goodness, lovely readers, this was a close run thing this week! Everyone did exceptionally well. If you remember, I was giving one point for selecting the correct country, and a second point for identifying the breed. On this basis, we have Anne and Fran and Bobby Freelove with 26 out of 30, but our winners this week are Claire, Sylvie and Mike from Alittlebitoutoffocus with 28 out of 30 – well done to all of you! Let’s see what I can come up with for tomorrow…
Dear Readers, we’re into my ‘busy week’ at work, which means lots of reports have to be written and lots of project managers need to be talked to. Some days I plonk down at 7.30 a.m. and suddenly realise it’s 5.30 p.m. and I’ve only broken for a twenty-minute lunch. So it feels even more important to schedule in a quick walk around the garden, even if it’s only for ten minutes. It’s astonishing what you can find!
For example, I had never really noticed the snakeskin pattern on the fritillary before (even though one of its names is ‘snakeshead fritillary). This was a very fine example, especially against the bright leaves of the mock orange. Let me tell you now that half an hour spent popping in the bulbs in October provides an excess of joy in spring. You can never have too many bulbs!
I’ve grown some very pale blue grape hyacinths this year, but as usual the ‘ordinary’ blue ones seem to be doing best.
The marsh marigolds are just coming into bud, and when did the flag irises start to get so tall?
I pop into the shed to dig out some bird seed (mainly for the squirrel it has to be said, if he gets any chubbier he won’t be able to walk) and I noticed this stunning cobweb behind the door. We have so many spiders that I honestly think the shed will be listed as a Site of Special Scientific Interest soon. This web was probably made by a cellar spider (one of those very skinny chaps who vibrate up and down when disturbed). Strangely enough, these etiolated-looking spiders, who wouldn’t appear to be strong enough to say boo to the proverbial waterfowl, are themselves spider-killers, finishing off all manner of other species.
And finally, the flowering currant is still going strong, and is now attracting female hairy-footed flower bees. These are tricky to photograph, being fast and flighty, but I did manage to one satisfactory photo. If you look closely you can see the ‘hairy’ ginger legs, used as a pollen basket by the female.
And finally, I was sitting back at my desk, just about to tackle my most imposing project, when there was a fluttering outside and this butterfly landed on the windowsill. This is a female small white (Pieris rapae), described in my Garden Wildlife book as being often the first butterfly of the year to emerge from its chrysalis. No doubt she will be off to find a) a male and b) a cabbage to lay her eggs on as we speak.
Dear Readers, I know that some of you gardeners might disagree, but I was charmed by this little plant, growing on one of the grassy banks in a sunny part of the cemetery on Saturday. Look at those lovely hairy leaves! These are a distinctive feature of the wood rush family, who all belong to the genus Luzula. Luzula might come from the Italian word lucciola, meaning ‘to sparkle’, probably a description of how the plant looks when it’s wet with dew. Another derivation could be the Latin word ‘luculus’, meaning a summer field, or a small place. Whatever the original meaning of the word, I have rather fallen in love with this plant, hiding in plain sight as it is. My photos are good enough for identification, but to see the full prettiness of the
Flowers of Field Wood-Rush (Photo by By Leo Michels Own work, Public Domain)
I note that the plant is also called ‘Good Friday Grass’, from its habit of springing into flower at Easter (it was pretty close this year, but as the date moves by several weeks I am not totally convinced). It is also known as ‘sweep’s broom’, for obvious reasons. It is found right across temperate Europe and into the Caucasus. North American readers might recognise its very close relative Heath Wood-Rush (Luzula multiflora) – indeed, some botanists think that it might be the same species. To add to the complications, Heath Wood-Rush is also found in Europe, including the UK, and looks very similar. Both species like short, unimproved grassland, with Field Wood-Rush being particularly fond of acidic conditions: the RHS suggests that build up of ‘thatch’ (the dead stems and leaves of grass and other plants) acidifies the soil, and helps the wood-rush to thrive. Both species are also described as ‘pests’ in ornamental turf such as golf courses, and the RHS suggests using lime to change the pH of the soil to get rid of it. On the Pitchcare website, the author has a historical perspective, relating how Field Wood-Rush became a problem when poor pastureland was ploughed over to grow crops during the World Wars. Personally, I think that a grassy area is much more interesting with a variety of plants in it, and lots of other creatures would agree, though possibly not golfers, bowlers and golfers.
Heath Wood-Rush (Luzula multiflora) (Photo One)
All of the wood-rushes provide food for moths. The Smokey Wainscot (Mythimnia impura) is one species whose larvae will munch their way through the leaves, hairs and all, before overwintering as a tiny caterpillar. I love the very marked veins on the wings of this moth, and the fringes around the edges – it looks rather like upholstery fabric!
Smoky Wainscot (Mythimnia impura) (Photo Two)
And how about this little chap, with his ridiculously long antennae? Coleophora otidipennella is a micro moth without a common name, and the larvae feed only on the seeds of the wood-rush.
Coleophora otidipennela (Photo Three)
You might sometimes find yet another Luzula, Greater Wood-Rush (Luzula sylvatica) in woodland, and there are several ornamental varieties. I think it could be a fine choice in a particularly shady spot where nothing else will grow.
Great Wood-Rush in an oak wood with wood anemones in the background (Photo Four)
Flower heads of Great Wood Rush (Luzula sylvatica) (Photo Five)
I keep seeing references Field Wood-Rush as being ‘one of our commonest grassland plants (and for some rather lovely photos of the plant in situ, have a look here). I am astonished that I’ve never noticed it before, and I love that even after seven years of a more-or-less weekly ‘Wednesday Weed’ I am still finding new plants. I also love that the Lorn Natural History Group website refers to it as ‘a happy little plant’ as this was exactly the impression that I got. I know that anthropomorphism is deeply unfashionable, and for sure most of the time I am projecting: this plant makes me feel happy, so how could it not be happy itself, flowering away on a sunny spot? There is a deep satisfaction from both finding out what on earth a plant ‘is’ according to our classification, and also noticing our own reactions, and being curious.
And so, to a poem. As you might expect, finding a poem about ‘Field Wood-Rush’ proved to be impossible, but looking for ‘Good Friday Grass’ brought up this vignette by Edwin Morgan. Morgan was a wonderful poet who wrote extensively about the poor and dispossessed of Glasgow, but I think this poem can be read on many levels – it’s about an incident that I’m sure will feel familiar to many of us, but it’s about lots of other things too. See what you think!
Three o’clock. The bus lurches round into the sun. ‘D’s this go –‘ he flops beside me – ‘right along Bath Street? – Oh tha’s, tha’s all right, see I’ve got to get some Easter eggs for the kiddies. I’ve had a wee drink, ye understand – ye’ll maybe think it’s a – funny day to be celebrating – well, no, but ye see I wasny working, and I like to celebrate when I’m no working – I don’t say it’s right I’m no saying it’s right, ye understand – ye understand? But anyway tha’s the way I look at it – I’m no boring you, eh? – ye see today, take today, I don’t know what today’s in aid of, whether Christ was – crucified or was he – rose fae the dead like, see what I mean? You’re an educatit man, you can tell me – – Aye, well. There ye are. It’s been seen time and again, the working man has nae education, he jist canny – jist hasny got it, know what I mean, he’s jist bliddy ignorant – Christ aye, bliddy ignorant. Well –’ The bus brakes violently, he lunges for the stair, swings down – off, into the sun for his Easter eggs, on very nearly steady legs.
Dear Readers, as you will know I am a great fan of our urban foxes, and so I was looking forward to this talk very much. Prof. Scott did one of the earliest and most extensive studies of urban foxes in Bristol, and much of what she found has greatly informed our understanding of these animals.
Prof. Scott is very interested in how animals adapt to urban landscapes, and why some do better than others. She describes cities as ‘landscapes of fear and opportunity’. The opportunities include that cities are warmer, there are less predators, more food (especially as people deliberately feed year-round), lots of niches for refuge, and consistent water supplies. There is, however, less natural food, more competition, a higher risk of disease as territories tend to be smaller, danger from the roads, from some pets, and also, of course, a high risk of conflict with people. The animals that tend to do best are enterprising generalists – this includes foxes, but also badgers (who are increasingly being seen in the suburbs) and hedgehogs (who are now commoner in urban areas than in many places in the countryside).
Prof. Scott described how adaptation to city life for an animal usually includes an increased density of animals (as there are more food resources), higher aggression (because of competition for those resources) and much less fear of humans – this is known as ‘synurbanisation’. She considers that the extraordinary ability of the fox to navigate the 3-dimensional structures of the city to be one of its key skills in making the city its home – she tells of finding foxes living on roofs and in trees. Anyone who has seen a fox effortlessly bound over a six-foot fence will be nodding their heads in agreement.
Prof. Scott believes that an understanding of the fox would help to offset some of the hostility that people feel towards the animal. Socially, foxes tend to live in groups of 3 or 4 – typically a small ‘family’. However, foxes forage for food on their own once they’re into adolescence. They communicate mainly by smell, which explains the piles of poo and that heavy ‘foxy’ smell that they produce – it’s thought that the scent messages might include sex, breeding status and even dominance. As anyone who has been woken up in the night also knows, foxes communicate by sound too – there are over 28 different calls, including the screaming of vixens, the barking of dog foxes and the various bouts of yipping that can enliven many an early morning. However, the screaming is only likely to be heard in December – February, when the vixens are in heat and, apart from a lot of chaos when the cubs leave the den in May, foxes are generally fairly quiet for the rest of the year. Females will have a natal den where the cubs are born (frequently under a garden shed it seems), but they will move the cubs if disturbed, and adult foxes will have several rest sites in their territory where they hide during the day. They are largely, but not exclusively, nocturnal, as the foxes who turn up in my garden will attest.
Only one in five foxes will live to be two years old, with roads claiming the majority of victims. In captivity, foxes can live ten to fourteen years on average.
On the vexed question of whether we were becoming ‘overrun’ with urban foxes, Prof. Scott looked back through the records, and had done several scientific studies of her own. Her view was that urban foxes had certainly spread – in the 1980’s, 91% of cities had no urban foxes, but now most of them did, with the foxes spreading north and west. Her study in Bristol showed that there were approximately 36 foxes per square kilometre. However, in 2010 a devastating outbreak of mange killed 95% of the foxes in the city.
Prof. Scott showed several photos of foxes, some with mange, some who were simply shedding their winter coats. One way of telling is obviously bare, sore flesh, but a real giveaway seems to be if the tails are looking scratty – this is a clear sign of mange. Healthier foxes seem to be able to just shrug it off, but for foxes already weakened by bad nutrition it can be a death sentence. Furthermore, there’s no easy solution: the jury is out on the homeopathic solution that can be given without harm (and possibly without any positive effects either) but the normal veterinary treatment can only be given under controlled circumstances. Furthermore, Prof. Scott found that foxes who were taken into sanctuaries for treatment and then released back into their old territories nearly always found that a new fox had taken over their old home, and the original incumbents were usually driven out, with all the concomitant dangers of being run over as they searched for a new territory. Prof. Scott’s opinion was that, hard as it seems, mange is something that limits the numbers of foxes in an area when they get too high – it thrives in conditions where there are lots of foxes in close proximity. A more ‘usual’ population of foxes seems to be about 12 foxes per square kilometre, something seen in more recent studies in Bristol (post mange) and London.
High concentrations of foxes are often supported by feeding. In a recent study, Prof. Scott found that 36% of the people in her study fed foxes, mostly either by hand or at the back door. One fox in the study spent his whole time waiting outside the house where he was fed at 8 p.m. and then moving to house number two where he was fed at 10 p.m. There are issues around what was fed (foxes definitely like jam sandwiches but are unlikely to make them for themselves), and the danger of allowing foxes to associate people with food. Some of the more lurid headlines seem to feature foxes who feel perfectly comfortable going into people’s houses and making themselves at home, often biting people when cornered. Prof. Scott’s advice is to feed little, feed something appropriate (like dog food) and not to feed too close to the house, and certainly never by hand.
And finally, one of the questions that Prof. Scott is frequently asked is ‘do foxes kill cats?’ Well, we’ll never know for sure that there isn’t a rogue fox out there with a taste for felines, but judging by the trail camera evidence, a solitary cat can see off two foxes who attempt to snaffle her tea. Apparently in all the filmed incidents, the cat beat up the fox. Badgers trump foxes and cats, however, although there was no evidence that badgers actually hurt cats. One film clip showed a hedgehog feeding, at which point a fox picked it up and deposited it elsewhere before coming back to eat the food. It’s easy to see that that’s a situation that could lead to the fox predating the hedgehog.
So, this was a very interesting talk, with a lot of thought given to how people and foxes can live together more harmoniously. Prof. Scott thinks that understanding the fox is key, and I agree – as with everything, knowing the reason for something (such as night time screaming or piles of poo) can make it a lot more bearable. I for one love to see the touch of wildness that the fox brings, and am happy to put up with a little inconvenience for the pleasure of their company.
You can watch the whole of the talk here. Highly recommended.
A young vixen in St Pancras and Islington cemetery. My favourite British wild mammal.
Dear Readers, we all love a good tree, but what about when it’s felled or trimmed or comes to the end of its life? I took a walk in Coldfall Wood on Friday with my good friend A, as people generally don’t seem to appreciate how important dead wood is to the ecology of woodland. Just look, for example, at the moss growing on these logs. There will be all kinds of invertebrates living under the bark, and no doubt mice and beetles and all sorts of other creatures will be living in the interstices. In time the whole lot will rot down (with the aid of a whole army of fungi, insects, bacteria and other detritivores) and return to feed the new trees that will grow up in the space that the tree once occupied.
There are wood piles from when some of the trees were coppiced a few years ago, and, whilst you can only see the fungal fruiting bodies later in the year, they host a whole range of different species.
Black bulgar fungus
Hairy Curtain Crust
Standing dead trees can provide roosting holes not only for the obvious candidates, such as woodpeckers and nuthatches, but also for birds such as this stock dove. These are shy little birds, smaller than a wood pigeon, with what I always think of as ‘kind’ dark eyes.
Dead trees often have a kind of grandeur and beauty all of their own. I love the peeling bark on this one, and the variety of colours on its trunk.
The Conservation Volunteers are an organisation who do a lot of work in the wood, including creating these dead hedges to protect areas from trampling. 95% of people recognise that these are meant to be a barrier. 5% take it as a challenge, and the hedges are sometimes dismantled, with the branches ending up in ‘dens’. Part of the reason for taking these photos with Friend A was to design some signage so that people know what the dead hedges are there for, so maybe we can get them left alone for longer. Getting the balance right between people exploring and experiencing the wood and its long-term survival so that future generations can also enjoy it sometimes feels like a real uphill battle, but it’s important to remember that most people do respect the woods, and that many of those who don’t are doing so out of ignorance rather than malice. Many of us seem to have become so divorced from nature and its patterns that we really don’t have the first idea about how to treat a ‘wild’ place.
A rather lovely dead hedge
And to cheer me up, the marsh marigold in the woods is in flower a good week before the one in my garden pond. There’s nothing more heartening than that glimpse of gold amidst all the green.
And hidden away, almost below the bridge, there are some enormous violets, definitely ‘blushing unseen’.
And of course some forget-me-nots.
So, let’s see where we get to with our ‘dead wood is good wood’ posters. Will they all end up in the stream? It’s possible, but I do hope that at least some people will realise that the hedges are there for a purpose, not just to be annoying. I will keep you posted!
Dear Readers, on a rather chilly blustery April day it was no surprise to see that most of the blossom on the cherry plums in the cemetery had given up for the year, to be replaced by the familiar magenta-brown leaves. Such are the pleasures of spring – blink and you’ll miss them, so speedily do the changes come at this time of year. But fortunately, as one plant ‘goes over’ so another takes its place.
Wood forget-me-knots and Herb Robert
The forget-me-nots in the woodland grave area are in full swing, but if you look very carefully you’ll see a tiny rose-red flower nearly in the centre, which I think is the first herb Robert flower that I’ve seen this year. Soon they will be everywhere, but as herb Robert was the first ever Wednesday Weed back in 2014 I will always have a soft spot for it, even if it does smell of rubber tyres. No one is perfect after all. And what is this popping up? A euphorbia for sure, and I suspect wood spurge but a ‘domesticated’ variety (Euphorbia amygdaloides var robbiae). Let me know what you think, readers.
Some cuckooflowers are in full flower further along the walk through this part of the cemetery. I say hello to the swamp cypress but it is still in its winter sleep, so I have spared you yet another photo of twigs. However, I do point out to my long-suffering husband that the cuckooflower (otherwise known as lady’s smock) is a member of the cabbage family and I know that my work is done when he sighs and says ‘I know’.
Cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis)
I notice this rather strange hairy plant growing alongside some of the graves in the open area next to the main road. I have not the faintest idea what it is, but my pals over on the Wildflowers of Britain and Ireland Facebook page come back with the news that it is field wood-rush (Luzula campestris) within about 30 seconds. I shall say little about it now, but I feel a Wednesday Weed coming on…
Field wood-rush (Luzula campestris)
The red deadnettle and ground elder is having a right old time of it under some of the horse chestnuts. It’s hard to do justice to these pretty little plants from a distance, but if I lay on my stomach to photograph them I fear that I’ll need a hoist to get me back up again.
And speaking of the horse chestnut, isn’t it coming on well?
The primroses have taken over from the lesser celandine in the more exposed parts of the cemetery
I think these are the female catkins of goat willow, but feel free to correct me! I find catkins rather confusing.
What I told you all was feverfew a few weeks ago turns out to be (ahem) Oxford ragwort (Senecio squalidus) – not quite sure how I can have mistaken the leaves are clearly very different.
And look at the cherry laurel, just coming into full flower! Once it warms up a bit the bees will be delighted, especially the queen buff-tailed bumblebee that I saw earlier who was attempting to feed from a bunch of artificial flowers. There are quite a few real plants in flower, as we’ve seen, so hopefully she’ll spot them soon. I sometimes wonder if the super-sized and coloured plastic flowers act as a kind of ‘super-stimulus’, enticing bees away from things that will actually feed them. I hope not.
Cherry laurel flowers
I was delighted to see that my mallard mènage a trois were back on the bank of the stream.
The male mallards really are in spectacular condition, even though one of them appears to have no head :-). I have a special fondness for those little curly feathers just above the tail, which appear to be called the ‘sex feathers’ because only the drakes have them. I’m sure they should be called something cuter than that.
And look, the first flowers are appearing on the cow parsley/Queen Anne’s Lace (Anthriscus sylvestris).
For a final treat this week, here are some violets, coming into bloom just as the lesser celandine are finishing. For the next few months it’s just one thing after another, but in a good way for a change. Now if only I could replicate that changing cast of characters in the garden, without any weeks when everything looks a bit ugh, I would be very happy.
Dear Readers, Saturday 10th April is National Farm Animal Appreciation Day. Who knew there was such a thing? And considering what farm animals have done for human beings over the millenia, it’s well overdue. This week’s quiz is simply a question of looking at the photos, and deciding which country the breed came from: there are fifteen in all, three from each country. An extra point if you can name the breed, so that’s a maximum of 30 points.
So, if you think the animal in Photo 1 is from France, and the breed is ‘Stripey Cow’ your answer is 1)A – Stripey Cow.
As usual, pop your answers into the comments by 5 p.m. UK time on Thursday 15th April – as soon as I see them, I shall acknowledge them and then disappear them as if by magic. I’m not always the quickest on the draw though (especially as I’m working for most of next week), so write your answers down before you put them in the comments if you’re easily influenced.
Dear Readers, excellent performances all round this week! We had Mike with 16 out of 20, Andrea with 18 out of 20 and at the top were Fran and Bobby Freelove with 20 out of 20. Thank you all for taking part, and let’s see what I can come up with for tomorrow…
1. E. Snail. These eggs always remind me of polystyrene when I find them!
2. H. Grass Snake
3. G. Blackbird
4. J. Robin. The American Robin’s eggs are ‘Robin-egg blue’, but the UK bird has these speckledy eggs.
5. B Black Guillemot. The eggs have evolved this special elongated shape to stop them from rolling off of cliff edges!
6. C. Great Crested Newt
7. D. Curlew
8. I. Wren. The nest is started by the male and then completed by the female, who also does all the incubating and feeding.
Dear Readers, this book has a number of my very favourite features. It’s divided into 125 sections mapping a composite gardening year, and I do love a book that serves up bite-sized pieces of daily life. Secondly, it is intensely personal, dealing as it does with the development of a garden in Ontario, Canada over many years. Thirdly it has introduced me to many plants that I had never considered for my own tiny garden – I found myself considering small-flowered clematis to twine through my hedge, and was intrigued by the illustrations of a lesser celandine cultivar that I’d never come across in the UK. But finally what I loved most was the connections that Brian Bixley makes between the arts and the creation of a garden. It made me consider all kinds of things that I hadn’t thought about before.
But first, to the gardening itself. When I first visited my husband’s aunts in Ontario, I remember thinking that it must be hard to grow plants in such a climate, with freezing conditions for a big chunk of the year, blazing sun for another chunk and hail, wind, ice storms, drought and flood all possible for the rest of the time. Bixley likes to live on the edge and to coax all manner of plants into surviving in what might be considered borderline conditions. This is a source of both joy and despair. Like gardeners the world over, Bixley listens to the weather forecast, often with a sense of impending doom:
“What kind of weirdo gets out of bed, goes to the window, pulls up the blind to see the first rays of sunlight slicing through the morning mists as they rise from the green valley below and says, “Darn it, it’s going to be relentlessly sunny today”? Or as he watched the serene Jane gazing into the teleprompter and reading, “No precipitation to worry about,” shrieks in despair? ”
I love that Bixley has a list of tasks that ‘absolutely must be done today’, even if they aren’t always accomplished. I enjoyed the story of him pruning the hedge, which involves all manner of tools, ladders and other accoutrements, standing back in satisfaction, putting everything away for another year and then remembering that he has some more plants to prune. That sense of the constant labour of a garden, especially an extensive one like Lilactree Farm, is I’m sure familiar to those of us with much smaller plots as we steel ourselves for another bout of hard physical work, especially as we get older. But the rewards! He grows some foxgloves from seed, as I am doing this year.
“I‘m not sure if we have grown anything quite as beautiful for a long time. They are what they essentially should be: tall, majestic, flowers opening creamily, gradually becoming a pure white. I have cut away branches from some of the surrounding shrubs so that it is possible to see the foxgloves from a distance, pale fire in the heart of darkness“.
I love that sense that a plant is ‘essentially what it should be’ – that seems to me to sum up the quintessence of gardening. When a plant is thriving happily in the perfect spot and has reached that moment when it is in full flower, before it starts to fade, I always feel my heart lift, all the more so if there is a drowsy drone of bees popping by for some nectar. The happiness is worth all the back ache and broken fingernails, and it makes up for the failed experiments, for the plants that we loved and yet lost.
Throughout the book, though, there is an underlying question. In what ways is gardening an ‘art’, like writing or painting or composing a symphony? There are many answers, of course. As Bixley points out, if you have the resources, designing (or getting someone else to design) a handsome garden is not hard. What is hard is the maintenance, the constantly changing conditions, the adjustments as some plants ‘work’ and others don’t. A book is published, a painting is hung in a gallery, but a garden is and always will be a work in progress. While we might reinterpret a novel or a play, the words don’t normally change, but the plants in a garden will flourish and die and be replaced.
On the other hand, whether we like it or not, ‘making’ a garden is just as much a creative act as any of the other arts (and you could argue that it’s much more complex). Bixley compares it to poetry – in a garden created by the gardener, we can get a clear sense of the unmediated ‘voice’ of the person who designed it, unlike with a novelist or playwright who is speaking through the voices of his characters. I think this is true, but I also know that, as in many other arts, the vision in our heads may not be what actually happens, especially in a garden, where nature has thoughts and desires of her own. I sometimes think that all I can do it try to find what works best in my own conditions of soil and shade, and point the garden in that general direction. Every so often there is what i will forever think of now as one of Bixley’s ‘foxglove moments’ to make up for the failures.
And having made a garden, Bixley considers the role of the garden critic. In the UK there are ‘Open Garden’ schemes, whereby for a few pounds (often donated to charity) you can have a look at what other people are up to in their back gardens. Cake is often involved too, which is a great incentive. And of course the National Trust has open gardens, which are considerably more expensive. I have never visited a garden that didn’t give me some inspiration, though I have a preference for those that are filled with plants and heavy with scent rather than some of the more formal hedge and fountain designs that are sometimes favoured. It seems rather churlish to criticise someone’s garden when it’s essentially private for most of the year: the owner has been kind enough to let you in for a look, so it seems to me the height of rudeness to then castigate it. I can see a little more reason for a review if you’ve paid hard-earned dosh to look around a public garden and discover that it’s half-dead or filled with litter, but not just because it doesn’t meet with your taste. Alas, I think this attitude would put critics of all of the arts out of business within a few weeks. Bixley’s view is that there is nothing wrong with a reasoned commentary on a garden, but that (I am paraphrasing) so often the review is about the commentator and their need to attract attention to themselves rather than the garden itself. He quotes from one particular review (of Sir Roy Strong’s garden The Laskett) where the critic, Anne Wareham, complains that
“Wherever you turn, there is a new space delineated by hedges; there is no space to breathe and no escape. There is no clear sense of where to go next, creating a build-up of tension and disorientation until panic begins to seep in”.
Wareham then goes on to describe the group of people that she took to the garden as ‘angry’ and ‘savage’. Like Bixley, I find it hard to believe that a group of folk out for a nice look around a garden would be more than slightly irritated or mildly disappointed. It seems clear that the review is all about the critic and their desire to be dramatic, rather than the garden itself.
There is so much to savour in this book: thanks to Bixley I am thinking of planting some autumn-flowering crocuses under my geraniums this year. I have acquired an interest in garden history, something which had never previously crossed my mind. I am even more in awe of people who try to create magic in the gardens of Ontario than I was before. The photographs, by Des Townshend, are a delight. And I am aware that there is much in this book that I will need to read again in order to consider it properly. Fortunately, re-reading ‘Minding the Garden- Lilactree Farm’ will be an absolute pleasure.
You can buy the book, published by Friesen Press, here.