When the swallows return…

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Primula ‘Wanda’

Those masters of the sky, with their unparalleled aeronautical brilliance, the swallows have returned. How these tiny, light-as-a-feather birds make it all the way from Africa amazes me, but they do, and here they are, albeit a little later than usual. Wheeling and screaming round the house, they re-familiarise themselves with their mud nests of previous years, which they will lovingly repair before the first clutch of eggs appears. They will be joined in the next few days by the House Martins, who nest on the East and West sides of the house.

The bumble bees, the Lancaster bombers of the insect world with their low, comforting hum have more to choose from on their menu now, as every few days new plants come into bloom.

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Spring has finally arrived!

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Magnolia ‘Susan’

All the daffodils are now in bloom, to be joined by the first of the photo 16flowering trees, the cherries in the Policies. Our Magnolia soulangiana ‘Susan’ (we think), in the south-facing border, is pushing out its purple candles which will in time open into large goblets, all before the leaves start to appear. We have planted a new, lighter pink, Magnolia soulangiana further down this border, so hopefully it will provide a welcome contrast.

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early Plum blossom

Behind the north wall, the shelter belt of larch, Scots Pine and broadleaves has come to life, now joined by the first of the fruit trees in the walled garden. On lifeless twigs, the delicate snow-white blossom of the plums has been joined by the first of the pears.photo 14photo 1

There’s been quite a lot of activity in the garden this weekend. We’ve given the new grass we sowed last summer its first cut, which will help thicken it up. It’s looking good, though, and a lovely shade of emerald, helped by the showery weather we’ve had recently. In the east- and south-facing borders, we’ve been trying to fork out the more tenacious weeds – creeping buttercup, nettle and willow-herb, which I hope will reap dividends later in the season. Good to see plenty seedlings that we would wish to keep coming through, though, including foxglove, golden feverfew and honesty – all good cottage-garden favourites.photo 12

photo 2 - CopyIn the greenhouse, most of the perennial seeds we planted a few weeks ago are at least starting to come through, which is encouraging! The first of these to emerge, the Pyrethrums I have now pricked out into modules. In the hardy annual department, I’ve also been pricking out the cosmos, french marigolds and Californian poppies. Last year, we had quite a lot of root-rot with the Californian poppies while we were growing them on, so I’m using more perlite in their compost as an experiment to see if we can avoid this.

I’ve also started off some Verbena bonariensis from seed as it looks as if few, if any, of last year’s plants have made it through the winter. It’s at the limit of its territory for winter hardiness here – some times it gets through, sometimes it doesn’t.

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Forsythia

The Good Lady has been refurbishing the herb bed; unfortunately our elderly curry plant and lavenders didn’t make it through the winter, but we have planted some new lavenders which we grew from seed last year. She’s also been planting spinach and rocket in short lines, with spring onions, basil, parsley and a second sowing of lettuce started off in the greenhouse.

Earlier in the week, The Good Lady potted up small handfuls of wildflowers into 5 inch pots to get them really well established before we plant them out, and the speed they are growing is incredible, even in the space of a few days. We’ve also started off a second tray of ‘Bee Mix’ which we found in the seed box, photo 15which should help out the insect population later in the summer. Meanwhile we’re giving last year’s perennial seedlings a really good feed each week to really push them on as I’m keen to get at least some of them into the open ground and established such that they will flower next year.

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Seasonal notes…

HonestyHaving finished all the winter work on the fruit trees and bushes, this last couple of weekends we’ve been pushing on with tidying the herbaceous borders in the Walled Garden.

I’ve been removing the fallen leaves that have wedged themselves in under shrubs, and been cutting back the stems of old perennials that have been pushed down by the wind and rain. The aim has been to try to keep some interest in the seedheads and stems that remain, rather than ‘clear-fell’ the borders. I’ve left seedheads from things like Phlomiswpid-20121118_122125.jpg, foxgloves, lupin and astilbe. They look quite good now that we’ve removed the rather ‘sad’ material.

One of my best value purchases a couple of years ago was a packet of Honesty (Lunaria) seeds. I grew up with this cottage garden biennial with its mass of cheery early spring purple and white flowers but we’ve never had it here. Flowering in its second year, we had an excellent show last summer but it’s at this time of the year, mid-winter, that it really comes into its own. The Good Lady took a picture of  its tranlucent, penny-shaped seed heads a couple of weeks ago and it positively glows on sunny days. When I was clearing the fallen leaves round the old Honesty plants last week, I was pleased to note a rash of new seedlings under each one, perpetuating their existance here in the garden.

At the end of February or March, I’ll revisit the borders and cut back the remainder of the old stems, so that they don’t detract from the flush of new herbaceous green that we’ll start to see then. It’s quite a while, though, until the spring and it’s nice to have some form and structureimage to look at when wandering round. This really comes into its own if we get some really hard frosts, where each stem and seedhead becomes ‘sugar-coated’ with hoar-frost, bringing a whole new dimension to the garden in winter.

As you’ll have gathered now from my fellow UK bloggers, last weekend saw a real touch of spring in the garden, with temperatures in the double figures Celsius – most unusual for early January. With high overnight temperatures too, there’s been quite a lot of growth with polyanthus, primulas and tree paeonies showing early buds, and a flush of fresh green on the grass. While I was working outside last Saturday, I noticed the first Winter Aconite (Eranthis) flowering – a real harbinger of spring, and then during the course of 3 hours or so, a whole host of these cheerful yellow flowers started pinging up – one moment, there’s nothing; the next an instant flower! Are these the fastest growing flowers in the world, I wonder?

wpid-20121201_103753-1.jpgThis week, the temperatures have returned to normal (low degrees Celsius) and, in the cold light of dawn, I see white frost on the lawn and the greenhouse roof. Some snow is forecast for the early part of next week, and the sky looks threatening…