Daffodils for Dewi Sant

That’s it, it’s officially almost spring. It’s bitterly cold, there’s a sneaky wind off Cardigan Bay, but I can see the hills, an improvement on the last few days, and it’s not raining. And it’s Saint David’s Day, so it really is nearly spring.

Daffs

Rather than break into a loud chorus of Hen Wlad (too much coughing would be involved, due to the arrival of the jolly end-of-winter bronchitis), I thought I’d celebrate my daffodils.

But why daffs and Wales? Actually, nobody seems quite sure. Some commentators think it’s the confusion between the Welsh names for leek (cehinen, pl. cennin) and daffodil (cehinen Bedr, literally St Peter’s leek). Leeks, according to legend, were selected as an identifying symbol for Welsh troops – they were fighting the Saxons, no surprise there – by St David. What is surprising is that St David should be associated with a military context, though – a saint noted for his aceticism and restraint. Budge the legend on a few centuries, though, and leeks are supposedly used to identify troops, notably Welsh archers, fighting in France under Henry V (thanks, Shakespeare).

Leeks dropped out of favour as a national symbol because they came to be associated with odious stereotypes of the ‘Taffy was a Welshman / Taffy was a thief’ variety. So what could work? Well, daffs appear around the same time as St David’s Day – indeed, I’ve just picked my first fifteen and started the annual count – and Lloyd George (a local lad) wore the daff on this day and encouraged others to do so. It’s a recent tradition, and it’s pretty common. Unlike the general wearing of leeks, though several US commentators, including Wikipedia, insist we’re all going around today wearing leeks. Just consider practicalities. And smell. I know which I go for.

And here are some of my finest, from the meadow and previous years – natch; they need a couple more weeks to really get going (and, yes, of course some of them are narcissi… but then strictly speaking, they all are):

The winter list (and a spring surprise)

Every year (OK, for the last few), I get organised. After the great meadow strim P and I walk round the garden working out what needs doing, and draw up the winter list.

winter gardening

It’s all those jobs which have probably needed doing since the previous Christmas, but which have ‘somehow’ not quite been done. It inevitably includes things which didn’t quite get done last year (‘paint trellis’), or indeed the year before that, and things which are, frankly, optimistic (‘bramble remove’) or somewhat vague (‘move slates’  – which slates? – and ‘repair pigsty: ???’).

It’s divided into the three areas of the garden, and is followed by a list of plants. That’s because winter’s a good time to sort out what needs moving and work out where it can possibly go (quite apart from to the dustbin / compost / neighbours), and then there’s the problem of remembering exactly what ‘get rid of that horrible thing by the hedge’ meant. But it’s mainly the structural jobs which get done in winter, apart from weeding of course. We’ve rebuilt steps, dug new beds, erected standing stones and laid paths. This year it was repair time.

The rowan, which had to come down after the January storms last year, ripped apart the wall above which it grew. But we never quite got round to sorting it out – partly because there was a heck of a lot to do at the time, partly because the storms didn’t let up, and partly because once they did finally stop all the bulbs came up and started flowering. So all of last year I lived with a wall leaning outwards at a dangerous angle, entirely held in place by ivy – except when it wasn’t and stones came crashing to the ground.

Now I have this:

new wallwhich comes complete with a convenient shelf for a cup of tea or a pair of secateurs. And, yes, that is the rowan stump – it’s staying put. I can’t get a digger into the garden.

There was a heck of a lot of rubble, some of the little double daffs had to be replanted and I doubt that my chionodoxas will be as spectacular as normal this year, but it’s done. At last. And we found an old bakelite top for a Pan Yan pickle bottle (c. 1920), but that was the extent of the archaeology.

I’ve also now got  a dug-out greenhouse. I should explain – there is virtually no flat ground in either the top or the bottom garden, and the middle one is iffy. The greenhouse had to go in the bottom one, so P had to dig a base into the slope, which he did. The high side was held up with a mini dry-stone (OK, dry-sort-of-stone-brick) wall, which over the years has gradually slumped against the glass. At the back of the greenhouse a prostrate rosemary was so determined to get in that it broke the glass. It needed tackling…

greenhouse wall

So P demolished the old wall, cut the bank back, rebuilt it as a stepped wall – that should be much better – and dug out the back. I’ve now got what remains of the prostrate rosemary in a  pot, but it’s looking seedy. What a shame. Oh dear. Bechod.

What with all of this (most of which has been done with me watching due to bronchitis, but hey ho), I almost forget to look out for lovely things as well. Just round the corner, I have the first wallflower:

wallflower

Right, that’s it. It’s clearly spring; I can put the winter list away!

(Plus the garden is suddenly full of snowdrops and crocuses – watch this space…)

Following my new tree: a hawthorn

I’ve finally decided, and I went for a tree that isn’t monumental, isn’t a classic hardwood, that doesn’t leap out and bite you in the leg because it’s so magnificent. It’s a hawthorn, and an old one (according some of the older residents, it’s been there for time out of mind).

Or maybe it does bite you in the leg. It’s the setting for this tree that is so unusual:

dolmen tree

That pile of stones on the right isn’t any old pile of stones. It’s a neolithic chambered tomb, or rather the remains of one; the big slanting stone was the capstone for the chamber.

This is another tree I have just accepted as part of the landscape for years. When I eventually decided to follow it for Lucy’s meme over at Loose and Leafy, I went back through all my photographs thinking that it would feature in very many of them (I’m an archaeologist by training), but it didn’t. A few odd branches do, and there’s the occasional glimpse of the trunk, but by and large it’s only on the periphery. I’d done something similar with my birch last year – picked a tree I’d been almost ignoring – and I found the result absorbing and fascinating. So now I’m going for another tree which has been in the background of my life, if not in my garden, for ages.

It’s exposed – it grows on the 190m contour line, and the lands drops away quite steeply towards the sea. As a result the tree. like most of the others here, has a distinctively windblown shape:

windblown tree

So there’s the sea (just visible in the photo above) to the west – Cardigan Bay. Inland to the east is the curved dome of Moelfre (cropping up in the last photograph a couple of posts ago), which rather dominates this area. Winds rip down the flanks of Moelfre sometimes, but the dominant wind is from the south-west, hence the hawthorn’s angle. North, a way north, is Snowdon, and south the hills rise and then drop down to the Mawddach estuary.

This particular area has been much more inhabited in the past than it is today. Now there are a couple of big farms (and an interesting micro-hydro scheme), but in the Middle Ages and right back into the Iron Age, there were lots of settlements, still quite obvious – from the remains of rectangular Medieval longhouses to some very well-preserved Iron Age hut circles. And then of course there’s that dolmen, which would have made the place remarkable for thousands of years. It’s on a drovers’ route – in fact, the small road that runs past the tree leads to a house called ‘the England sheter’, which once offered hospitality to the drovers.

This is a tree which sits firmly in its landscape, and has its feet in history – every day history, not kings and queens, but farmers and drovers. How old it might be, I have no idea – just the preserved memory that it was already ‘old’ in the time of some of the older residents’ grandparents.

hawthorn

It is just one tree – right down at the base, that’s easier to see. It’s clearly been affected by the wind, and that may have kept it deceptively smaller than it might otherwise be – but it’s not tiny. The weather has also clearly affected the growth of the branches, as – I suspect – has the attention of livestock. The branches, even ones which are now among the largest, tangle about each other, sometimes almost growing together:

branches

and are covered in the most beautiful lichens and mosses, about which I am clearly going to have to learn a whole lot more.

lichens

Hawthorns were loaded with meaning – I clearly remember my mother’s reaction when I once tried to bring some hawthorn blossom into the house when I was about seven – and I look forward to learning more about that, as well as about its natural history. And they still are. I know of some which have rags hung from them (they’re often near springs), and someone’s been posting round stones in this one:

stone

It could have been a child, I suppose, but this one is quite high and not immediately apparent, and it’s also clearly a rounded beach stone. Maybe it’s the same person who sometimes leaves flowers by the big double chambered tomb in the village itself?

But it was time to go. It was clear, though clouds were coming up from the north west and snow had been forecast, and it was very very cold, and I needed to keep my fingers.

bye bye tree

Bye, tree, and see you later – regularly, in fact. And how small it looks from this angle!

Other eyes

I know my garden; I’ve worked in it for time out of mind and I’ve photographed it a lot, and I mean A LOT. But last weekend two friends came round for afternoon tea and a walk (which we gave up on, due to the weather), and one of them is a professional photographer.

I’ve worked in mist myself, and I love the effect it gives – but mist and persistent drizzle? When there’s a stove to be lit and crumpets to be toasted? Hmmm. The weather did not, however, deter my friend. When I saw his shots I was surprised at what he had photographed, and delighted. So here, with his permission, are three looks at my garden through someone else’s eyes.

First, the old pigsty. You could call it a potting shed but you can’t actually stand up in it. It’s a pigsty. Or was, literally. Now it’s a metaphorical pigsty – a general dumping ground.

pigsty

I would never have drawn attention to the wheelbarrow. I prefer to forget it’s there, and that it needs replacing. I’ll get round to it soon.

Now for the garden’s tutelary deity:

budgie

Yes, that’s right, it’s a concrete budgie.

It was here when I arrived in 2002, propped up in the roots of the rowan where they scrabbled over one of the retaining walls. The rowan has since gone, brought down by last winter’s storms, but the budgie remains. His eyes are bright amber, his beak is chipped and I can’t think of the garden without his slightly cheeky presence. He’s only about seven inches long, so he doesnt take up much room. At present he lives in the gnarled remains of the rowan’s trunk, and will soon need a new home when we get round to dealing with that too. After the wheelbarrow.

(The wall just below here has some horseshoes built into it; in fact the whole house is ringed with iron. This is possibly due to the fact that the small hill diagonally opposite me was traditionally supposed to be one where the Tylwyth Teg – the Fair Folk – met. So there.)

This last shot I would never have taken – too much reflection, I’d have thought. But I like it and should evidently not be so narrow.

stones

It’s an old stone sink which provides a bird bath (and disguises an inspection trap over a place where several pipes meet on their way to the soakaway). It’s not particularly picturesque, but the birds love it, and the stones enable anything which falls in to climb out. I sometimes find toads nearby, as well, but I’ve not had frogs. Yet.

(Probably just as well, given what Next Door’s Cat can do when she sets her mind to it.)

All photographs courtesy Malcolm J. Murgatroyd

Tree auditions, 2015

I’ve decided to follow a new tree for a new year and, in accordance with my pledge to myself to get out of the garden more, I have been into the woods and fields and conducting auditions. I think I have decided, but I’m not entirely sure (I seldom am).

There wasn’t any snow – in fact, the sun was shining, though it was freezing – and I had to complete my tax return, so the only thing to do was leave the house and take a walk. Eighty-five layers of clothing later, and I was up the hill, looking down over the sea. A handy position, because you can – generally – see the weather coming.

looking west

(See that grey line over the sea? Weather. Brr.)

Plus, of course, there are plenty of trees. My first possibility was next to the lane; handy, I thought, for access in dodgy weather – and then I slipped on what appeared to be water but which was actually ice. So I went over the stile and took a closer look from a position of greater safety, as they say.

oak

It’s an oak. It really is AN oak – it’s got a split trunk – and was easily identified from the fallen leaves around it, and from the fact that most of the trees in this area are either beeches or ashes or oaks, and it ain’t the first two. Good lichens, good interest (click on an image for a slideshow):

but there’s a disadvantage: something’s been chewing it at the base. Rabbits, maybe; sheep, possibly. Its position close to the lane (and the telephone and electricity wires) means that if there is anything fatally wrong with it, it would be a prime candidate for felling. I don’t think I could take the sort of trauma that Michelle at Veg Plotting had to endure when her followed tree was chopped down.

So, further on. These particular woods are close to the village, and form a perfect playground during the summer…

tree with swings

and I must admit that I’ve enjoyed a covert swing here several times myself, after checking to make sure I was unobserved by anything other than a sheep or two. Quite exhilarating, and definitely puts you in touch with your inner 8-year-old (if my inner 8-year old needed any encouragement, that is). But a tree that’s used for such exuberant playing is unlikely to have much surviving underneath; time to look elsewhere.

Nearby is another large beech. It’s surrounded by bluebells in the spring which would be lovely to write about, so I went and took a closer look at that too.

beech

Definitely a possibility. It’s a lived-in tree (quite literally; something has left an untidy nest), but I’m still not sure.

It’s possibly a little too lived-in. Maybe this area is just too close to the village; the track was covered in footprints, there’d evidently been a lot of sheep around (one of which was no more – just plenty of fleece scattered about, happily no sign or scent of the rest) and in the summer it’s a great place for quad bikes until you get caught charging about the landscape. Well, not me personally, but you know what I mean. I decide to walk a little further in – avoiding sheep remains – and see if I changed my mind.

The old field walls, which have tumbled down in places, are great locations for tree seedlings to take root and grow, with more of a chance of life than they would have if they germinated on open ground. By the time they are big enough to be sheeped, they’re also big enough for some of them to survive the experience.

walls and trees

(I have a shot of sheep standing on this wall in the snowy winter of 2010-11.)

Access, though – hmm. Once the bracken and the brambles grow up, it’s going to be difficult to get close to some of these. So, with reluctance, I think I’ve decided: not in these woods, or at least not for this year. I heard the unmistakeable sound of ravens calling – cranking, really, crronking, prrunking? – on my landward side, and turned round.

I saw another candidate, as well as a few ravens:

tree and hill

Now that is a possibility. It’s a shame that the photograph gives no idea of scale, really, because the bald hill behind is much more impressive than it appears (it’s called Moelfre which means, essentially, the bald place). I think it needs a closer look, but by this time I was feeling LFSEP -late-filing self-employed panic – setting in. Time to go back. And think about where else to go…

Brooding on Beangenie…

Bear with me. No pics. Well, maybe a couple. At the end… oh, OK, here’s one to be going on with, of the gorse which has suddenly gone mad and made the air smell strongly of coconut:

gorse

Very cheerful, and a good start to the year.

Now, when I started Beangenie and Woolwinding, almost exactly four years ago, I had decided that I would split my blogs up. I felt that the gardeners might be bored by the constant wittering about wool and sheep – never a friend to a gardener, especially when they are wall-climbing, mountaineering sheep, like the ones we have here – and that the woolly people might not be interested in the trials and tribulations of making something grow in the teeth of Irish Sea gales. Of course there’s a crossover (I’m one myself), but I knew from reading many, many blogs that too many posts which fail to grip just make readers go away. Or maybe that is just me… but I still feel this was the right decision.

Over the past few years some of the garden blogs I used to read before I started blogging myself have fallen by the wayside. Life, it seems, has taken over. Or possibly slugs and the need to eliminate them have taken up more time (I know that’s not just me, even if I do choose to serenade mine, which probably is just me) .

Some – blogs, not slugs – spring gloriously into life now and then, and some have vanished completely or are frozen in 2011. I was talking about this with a friend last year, and she felt that she had lost her mojo, that she was doing the same thing on her blog year after year – reporting on the same but different changes to the same but different borders, talking about the same, not-so-different plants. I know I can be guilty of that (hey, it’s October so let’s have a post about a bonfire), and there is a tendency for a garden blog to turn into an online version of a gardener’s notebook. Interestingly, this is also tendency with woolly blogs, and many of the ‘look what I’ve knitted’ blogs, also chronicling projects undertaken and completed, have also vanished. They seem to have a natural lifespan.

There’s nothing wrong with a gardener’s diary, of course (pictures of pother people’s plants being much more interesting than pictures of other people’s pullovers), but I’m not entirely sure that’s what I want to do all the time, even though I like reading about how other people’s gardens adapt and change. That’s part of the reason why I’ve not posted as much in 2014. The other reason is the silly online stalker, but SOS isn’t, after all, worth considering and has finally stopped creeping me out. So what am I going to do in 2015?

I’m not stopping, that I do know.

I’m a writer first and foremost, before I’m a knitter or a spinner or a gardener or an archaeologist, and I’ve been writing since I was six and am not stopping now (though I have moved on a little from stories about cake-baking dinosaurs living in a shed). I just need to find out what path I want to go down. Woolwinding was never a ‘look what I’ve knitted’ blog, but I went through this debate over there some time ago and resolved it. Now Beangenie has caught up. But I also think I have an answer, sort of, partly inspired by the ‘tree following’ posts I’ve been doing.

I’m going to branch out a bit.
(Sorry, just noticed the ‘branch out’ – ouch. But that’s what I have in mind, pun or no pun.)

A garden isn’t an isolated thing, a square – or rectangle, in my case – cut out of the landscape in which it sits. It is most emphatically part of its environment, whether the garden is a 10m x 70m rectangle behind a Victorian terrace in south London or half an acre up a Welsh hillside. The sea below me, the mountains to my back, the woods more immediately behind the house, even the village – they’re all part of my garden, directly (thanks for the bracken, wildy bit next door) or more indirectly (the impact of Next Door’s Cat, er, Cats). The village, especially in the form of escaping sheep, over-assertive felines and garden shows, already makes an appearance. The landscape tends to take more of a back seat. I think I’ve been taking it for granted, a bit.

So I’m going to be getting out into it, and featuring it here, a little more than I already have. Yes, there’ll still be updates on the garden, lots of pictures of primroses and irises and dahlias and marigolds and tomatoes; debates about what do to do and whether/when/how to murder the Hell Hound of Harlech, let alone the cats who think they live here too.

But there’ll also be more posts about the plant life around me, whether that’s the local woods or the Plantlife Wildflower Survey I hope to be doing in the dunes near Harlech. I’m also going to carry on tree following – I learned so much about my birch, and close observation is, by itself, fascinating – but I’m choosing another tree for the rest of 2015, and one outside the garden this time. That means I’ve got a dilemma, though I have narrowed it down to – oh, about sixty.

Or possibly more:

trees

Maybe in here, somewhere? I can’t follow a whole wood…

Or maybe this one – it really is one and not three – which is slightly easier to access in bad weather?

hawthorn

Let’s see where this goes…

Tree following – January, and a year of birch watching

So here we are, a new year, and almost a whole year since I started following my baby birch. It’s been wonderful; I have learned so much. It seems a good idea to have a round up, because next time I will be moving on to a different tree. Which one, though…

When I began, I didn’t even know what sort of birch I had, other than it was a free sapling given to me by the library as some sort of promotion with, I think, the Snowdonia National Park. Now I know it’s a downy birch, and that it’s growing up – its bark is changing colour.

birch trunksIt’s the little one at the back, and this time last year its trunk was really orange. It’s shedding all that now on the main trunk:

trunk

though the branches and growing tip are still orange, and will be for ever.  It will still have a slightly golden tint to the bark, and I don’t think it will ever be as white as the elegant left-hand birch, but who cares? This isn’t Anglesey Abbey, with a glorious grove of white birches – they’re Betula utilis var Jaquemontii, and, beautiful though they may be, they look rather artificial – or so I think. Lovely but deliberate.

So I thought I’d have a look back at a year – OK, almost a year – of my downy birch. To the setting it’s in – in the meadow and straight in line for the south-westerly gales off the sea – and to the changes, to the insects, to the weather. A quick photographic tour, before I move on to another tree for 2015. I wonder what that will be? One of my apples, perhaps? I was initially envious of people who chose trees with more obvious flowers and fruit, though as I came to understand more about the birch that feeling diminished. Not a native tree, perhaps my ginkgo? But I think I’ve found the answer, though I’m still doing reccies. Watch this space.

And in the meantime, here’s a year of a downy birch. Click on an image for a slideshow.

Thanks so much to Lucy at Loose and Leafy for organising this brilliant meme.