Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Monday, March 19, 2012

A walk on the wild side: Primrose

'Do not, as some ungracious pastors do
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
while, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
and reaks not his own rede.'
    - Ophelia, Act I Scene III, Hamlet
In Shakespeare's time a path strewn with primroses was a common metaphor: it signified the easy option, the choice that was alluring, the least challenging and most self-indulgent.

There's a note of rebuke in Ophelia's words – as also in Macbeth, where a porter speaks about 'treading the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire'. The implication is that following the beckoning of the pretty little primrose is to disregard the right and proper, but more difficult course: primroses, in other words, mean temptation.

It's an interesting dark note to what's generally seen as a symbol of youth, happiness, spring and innocence: a reminder that youth can be impetuous, happiness a shallow goal and innocence corrupted.

I find primroses a temptation that's very hard to resist at this time of year. We're lucky enough to have banks of them here: tumbling down the grass in cheeky froths of palest yellow, shrugging off the coarsest of grasses, peeping out from among hedgerow plants and at the feet of roses: if you plant them on purpose they often fail to thrive, yet they'll seed themselves into the oddest of corners and seemingly love it.

Primroses were among the first flowers ever to be grown. They were brought in from the fields by mediaeval peasants at the time of the Domesday Book alongside cowslips, verbascums and mallows to be planted among the cabbages and onions, and cared for with as much love as any modern gardener.

Of course these days that's illegal: primroses are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act and you can't pick them, let alone dig them up wholesale. Luckily they're not too difficult to raise from seed, as long as you sow them on the surface of the compost – don't cover – and leave them outdoors and exposed for the frost to get to them.

And quite apart from their sheer prettiness – and the joy they bring as the 'first rose' of spring – they are extraordinarily useful (one of the reasons they earned their place in those mediaeval cottage gardens).

Every part is useful: you can infuse the plant and its leaves to make a tea (one part primrose to 10 parts hot water) which will calm and soothe the nerves. It's also said to ease coughs and rheumatism.

Culpeper wrote in the 17th century about making an ointment out of the leaves to heal wounds, and also recommends an extract the juice of the roots (packed with essential oils and also good in pot pourri) taken 'snuffed up the nose' for nervous disorders. He warns that it 'occasions violent sneezing' and should only be taken in small doses. I wouldn't try it at home.

The fresh flowers are edible and can be used in salads or to add a pleasantly fragrant flavour to desserts: I like the sound of 'primrose pottage', or perhaps rice pudding with almonds, honey, saffron and ground primrose flowers. You can also crystallise them like violets. The leaves, too, can be eaten in salads (pick them young) and also boiled to eat as a vegetable. I haven't tried this myself – must have a go - but if anyone has I'd be very interested to know what they taste like.

Primroses are no longer as common as they once were; the dryness of the east of the country has all but driven them out, as they thrive only in damp conditions (one of the reasons why they do so well in the West Country: they are the county flower of Devon).

But they remain woven through the history of the country quite as closely as any quintessentially English flower.  Primrose Day, held each year on April 19, is the anniversary of the death of former Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Apparently primroses were his favourite flower, and Queen Victoria regularly sent him posies from Osborne House (or he sent them to her: accounts vary). To this day a posy of primroses is laid at Disraeli's statue by Westminster Abbey each year.

Incidentally – next time you look into a clump of primroses, see if you can tell whether they're pin-eyed or thrum-eyed. This genetic diversification helps promote cross-pollination: pin-eyed flowers hold the female stigma well above the male anthers, like a green pinhead, while in thrum-eyed flowers the male anthers are to the fore and appear as an orange ring, with no central knob.

PS: I am here entirely ignoring the benighted race of hybrids about which Mr Colborn has ranted with much aptness and fluency here. Wildings only in this garden. 'Nuff said.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

March flowers

Not much happening - and most of it yellow.

That's been my general verdict on this month's flowers: though tinged with a great deal of relief that our 'false spring' in the unseasonable warmth of a couple of months ago hasn't, after all, kiboshed the real one.

Was there ever such a spring-like colour as yellow? It shines out at you wherever you look: gleams and sparkles and cheers the soul. Perhaps that's why it's so much more welcome at this time of year than, say, in mid-summer when yellow flowers just seem brash: after all, we all need a bit of cheering up after the winter.

So now is the time of the spring bulb: there isn't much else peeping out just yet. But bulbs, above all, should have the place more or less to themselves anyway: that way you can admire them without distraction, to your heart's content.

Some of the hosts of golden daffodils
cheering up the slope at the back of the garden at the moment

Ranunculus ficaria

Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn'

Another mystery daffodil: could be 'Jetfire'?

Chionodoxa forbesiae (I think: lost the label. Again.)

...and the flower buds of the same:
almost as exquisite as the flowers themselves

Primula vulgaris

Mahonia japonica

Leucojum vernum

Narcissus 'February Gold'

Viola odorata

Eranthis hyemalis

Muscari armeniacum

Crocus tommasinianus
Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day is hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens - thanks Carol!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Gardens of Somerset: Forde Abbey

A landscape that's remained much the same
for over a thousand years
Some gardens are known for their topiary; others for their cloud-pruned hedges, or monumental cascades, or ranges of spectacular Victorian glasshouses.

Forde Abbey, not technically in Somerset but near as dammit being just a few miles over the Dorset border from Chard in south Somerset, is known for something altogether smaller, more modest and natural: it is covered, at this time of year, with swathes, rivers, and cascades of crocus.

This is how crocus should be grown: not as little clumps of specimens without context, floating lonely in a sea of mulched garden soil, but as rivers of purple and violet and white running down hillsides and cascading across fields, witness to the generosity of the natural world.

When you see crocus in this number you realise what spectacular plants they are: a sheet of colour from a distance, when you get up close you see how not a single one is the same as the next. Some have slender, papery petals, others are blowsy and generous; some petals are deeply striated in violet or fade from deep purple at the tips to translucent white in the centre as though someone had been along and turned the flower upside down to dip it in paint.

Most of the crocus at Forde Abbey are Crocus vernus and C. tommasinianus – both perfect for naturalising in grass as they seed freely and grow vigorously. The huge variations within each species is part of their charm, of course. They're also delicate enough to meld in and look natural: imagine large-flowered 'Snow Bunting' here and you realise it would just look plain wrong.

If you can tear yourself away from the crocus for long enough (don't worry: there are bound to be more just around the corner) there are other delights to be seen at Forde: not least the Abbey itself, a wonderfully mellow 12th century Cistercian monastery owned and run privately by the Roper family for over a century.

I love the fact that both house and garden are still in private hands: it avoids that corporate too-perfect National Trust look entirely, and though it is undeniably a little woolly around the edges, that's part of the attraction (and rather reassures you, since when a stately home has a few weeds in the borders it somehow gives you permission to, as well).

It's the only place I've ever been which leads you to the house through the veg garden: I approve enormously, as this is a real testament to the fact that edible gardens needn't be tucked away out of sight. This bit of the garden is ably managed by Charlotte Roper, who was kind enough to let me have a nose round the peach house – usually closed to visitors – in exchange for a photo of her Peach 'Peregrine' in full and sumptuous flower.

Peach 'Peregrine' in the lean-to greenhouse looking sublime
against the mellow stone of the Abbey walls
The lumpy-bumpy cloud-pruned hedges that greet you on the other side of a monastic archway are echoed in the quirky and deliciously tactile dollops of clipped yew hedgery that line the pathways. Forde does long framed views extremely well – the legacy of its 17th-century landscape roots - both down the Lime Avenue and across the Mermaid Pond to the waterfall beyond.

Yews like big green dollops of cake mix:
I just wanted to stroke them
Water is a big thing at Forde: as well as the Mermaid Pond and its accompanying Long Pond, running the length of the double herbaceous borders, there is a huge bog garden full of burgeoning skunk cabbage, a canal pond and a Great Pond, too – the only surviving bit of the landscape the monks left behind.

It is a peaceful, absorbing place: one of those gardens where you find little surprises in odd corners. You may come to see the crocuses, but you stay to teeter along the ha-ha, explore the Blacksmith Hill and meander along the Stone Path. I ended with a happy half-hour rummaging among the extremely good selection of plants in the well-laid-out nursery alongside the garden. The perfect end to a perfect day.
  • The gardens of Forde Abbey, Dorset, are open every day from 10am. You can also look around the house if you go in the afternoon between April and the end of October.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Adding a little spice to life

RHS Garden Rosemoor, in an out-of-the-way corner of Devon, is the most modest of the four RHS gardens, rarely shouting about its look-at-me attractions, preferring just to let people come and find out for themselves.

But oh, do make the effort: it's a little gem. Winter gardens with forests of brilliant scarlet cornus and dazzling Betula utilis var jacquemontii, trunks scrubbed to a whiteness that glows; sheets of purple crocuses; craggy oaks and the intoxicating scent of Christmas box and witch hazels floating on the early spring air.

I was entirely distracted, though, by their exceptionally fine fruit and vegetable garden. One day I too will train my redcurrants in double cordons and grow sprouts as big as golfballs. And in particular, my eye was caught by one little glasshouse, packed with quite the finest selection of oriental greens I've ever seen in one place.

Mustard 'Golden Streaks'

This was a revelation. We're used to oriental mizuna, mibuna and mustard spicing up our salads in winter. But they're also excellent as mature leafy greens, a vegetable in their own right, cooked lightly – a little like spinach – or stir-fried, or used in soups. The flavour takes a little getting used to, as it's spicier than our tastebuds usually allow (with a few exceptions).

They're strikingly good-looking – I hadn't appreciated quite how handsome until I saw them en masse at Rosemoor. And being cool-weather plants, you can grow them through winter, releasing you from endless cabbages with a fresh, crisp flavour that sings on your tongue.

With some, you just eat the leaves; others yield crisp, water-filled stems or flowerbuds. Some, all three, so you can pick them at three different stages of growth. The varieties I spotted at Rosemoor were:

Red Komatsuna (Mustard Spinach): big, beefy red-tinged leaves. They had the green version too. Sue Stickland says this has a mild taste, 'like a slightly peppery cabbage'.

Mustard 'Golden Streaks': like curly endive with deeply-cut, almost frizzy leaves. Often described as having a 'sweet mustard flavour' – whatever that means. A testing panel from the RHS found it had a 'powerful peppery flavour' but also said it was piquant, earthy and sweet.

Shungiku: leaves like chrysanthemums: not surprising, really, as that's what they are. Its other name is chrysanthemum greens (chop suey greens is another alter ego). Sarah Raven describes the flavour as 'strange, fragrant, slightly sweet and slightly peppery, with a good crunch'. You can eat leaves, the tight yellow flowerbuds and flowers – though petals only, not the bitter centres.

Mustard 'Green-in-Snow': brilliant green, serrated-edged leaves; and Mustard 'Red Giant': the only one I've grown, a familiar ingredient in salads with its reddish bronze tinted leaves. Both are getting towards the hotter end of the scale. According to Sue Stickland, 'if you like watercress, you'll love this'.

Mustard 'Osaka Purple': leaves so big they look like a loose cabbage: the purple is in the veining. The leaves are very hot and spicy in the raw – but once cooked they lose much of their bite and become richly-flavoured but mild.

Tatsoi 'Yukina Savoy'
Tatsoi 'Yukina Savoy': big, puckered leaves of a deep, rumpled, velvety grey-green held up on strong, creamy stems. 'Savoy' describes the texture well: the leaves are thick, firm and meaty. Tatsoi and pak choi are often confused, and tatsoi is also known, just to be more confusing, as rosette pak choi: it has a similar combination of thick stem and leaves but grows in a rosette rather than that very distinctive pak choi fluted vase shape. The flavour is described as 'strong', but I think not peppery.

Cooking: recipes are – cautiously - finding their way into cookbooks. Pick the growth tips and dip in batter before deep-frying for tempura, or wilt large leaves in a tiny bit of water like spinach. Stir-fry in oil with spring onions, ginger and garlic; and cut thick stems into 10cm pieces, blanch in fast-boiling water for a minute or two, then stir-fry with a little sugar, ginger, rice wine vinegar and oyster sauce.

Joy Larkcom brought Asian greens to the UK and has written an excellent book on the subject (recently updated). But we all seem to have stopped at the baby-leaf stage. Oriental greens have so much more to offer: this year, I'm going to let them grow up.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Wordless Wednesday

Tulipa 'Love Song'
spotted at RHS Garden Rosemoor, Devon

Monday, March 05, 2012

In search of the perfect glove

Some time ago, at a press event somewhere, I picked up one of those bags of gardening-related products you get when people who sell things want you to write about what they're selling.

Now, normally I treat this with great scepticism as it is sometimes laughably un-targeted: I have little use for chemicals to treat rose blackspot when I'm a (mostly) organic fruit and veg specialist.

However, in this particular bag was a pair of bright yellow and black gardening gloves.

Now I am something of a connoisseur of gardening gloves, due to the fact that I am, with a piquant irony, allergic to soil, so if I garden without gloves my hands erupt into something not unlike the surface of Mars. Apart from fiddly jobs, like potting on seedlings, I always have a pair of gloves on.

This has made me very picky. Gloves have to be thin: unless I'm dealing with brambles, I want to feel what I'm doing. Yet they also have to be tear-proof and tough.

They have to be waterproof – nothing worse than gardening with hands wrapped in soggy canvas – and made to last: I wear them for anything from half an hour (on a bad day) to six or seven hours (heaven) every single day.

It's a lot to ask. As a result, I have been through a lot of brands in my time.

A year or two ago I'd run out - again - and while I was hunting for an old pair that might still be serviceable, and failing to find one, I stumbled across my freebie pair.

At first I wasn't convinced. They had a fiddly bit of velcro across the wrist which got muddy almost immediately and failed to stick, so started flapping about irritatingly (I cut them off). But as I wore them over, and over again, and they still looked (nearly) as good as when they started, I was gradually but completely won over.

Waterproof to heroic proportions, they're as thin as a second skin. I can do anything in them; they even keep out a commendable proportion of thorns (though I still don gauntlets – over the top – for the hated brambles).

And best of all: they last. Boy, do they last. I wore my gloves – and wore them, and wore them – for over a year before they started to show signs of wear and tear. I had never had a pair that lasted that long. Admittedly, once they did start going, they went very rapidly; huge holes in the fingers within a day or two. But that's fine; that's more than fine. That's admirable endurance.

I went to buy a new pair, but there was no label sewn into the gloves, and I'd long since lost the publicity blurb. Note to manufacturers: there is such a thing as too discreet. My newly-found perfect gloves were lost again.

And then...

In one of those serendipitous moments, I walked round the corner in the Garden Press Event last month slap-bang into a rack of bright yellow and black gloves. The mourning was over: I'd found my perfect gloves once again.

They turned out to be Weedmaster Plus, by Town & Country. It's not often I harangue a PR lady for a pair of the product they're trying to sell - in fact I don't think I've ever done it before - but on this occasion I hope she was pleasantly surprised by my refusal to go anywhere without at least one pair safely stowed in my bag. The relief of having them back again is wonderful.

I'm told the waterproofness comes from a nitrile coating on the palm and fingers – yeah, right, means nothing to me. All I know is they don't go soggy. There is a version without the fiddly velcro strap – which was the version they were trying to sell at the show – but they also happen to be the result of some technical development which means you can produce a pattern on the waterproof nitrile bit. Result: I'm sure they're lovely to garden in, but you wouldn't want anyone to actually see you doing it.

My yellow-and-black Weedmasters are now my glove of choice, and now I've found them I won't be letting them go again. Just don't let them take them off the market for some 'new, improved' version: you can't improve on something this good, and I shall be inconsolable.
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