Thursday, 29 April 2010

Spring flush

This spring has been so sudden that nature is in high speed mode.

From frost at night 5 weeks ago, we have gone to summer weather: hot and dry. Everything is in bloom at once and the speed of growth is incredible.

In the young wood, saplings are putting on leaves.

In the old wood, the flowers are all out: hellebores, violets, a wild pear tree, a wild cherry, the violets and bluebells, the stellar flower and geranium robertianum and the latree (a parasite of willows and alders which forms bizarre purple flowers attached to the ground. It normally flowers in February and March here. What a strange year, almost a Canadian spring.

You probably wonder why I am showing you a picture of a mixture of grass and nettle; well it is simply because this is a small victory. Until last year, this zone was the sole realm of nettles and the arrival of other species shows that  cutting and removing the hay slowly gets the nettles out. The photograph above shows an area which also benefits from the shade of a tree. The nettles need sun do do their best. The grass is extremely fine and light.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Good videos on meadow management & identification

One from the Calderdale Seeds Project which gives simple general knowledge:

High Weald Area of Outstanding Beauty has produced a number of good and clear videos (here) that shows you how to identify the type of meadow & its plants as well as maintenance .

I learned in this one about management that hay cut is best done mid July to mid August to allow for the wildflower seeds to mature and fall. The agricultural time is usually late June.

This hugely helpful video on weed control (here) giving information I haven't found anywhere else, particularly a tool to unroot weeds easily.

The Wild Meadows website is also full of information on flora, fauna, management and creation; a gold mine.

For information about what plants, their communities and the re-creation, Flora Locale website

For wild butterflies information including habitat and food look at Butterfly Conservation website

Here our meadow last June

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

La Devaltiere in the city

Sadly we can't always be at La Devaltiere so our roof garden in London keeps me entertained the rest of the time.

When we arrived here, the terrace had already been established with a cottage garden style planting. This was a nightmare to maintain as cottage gardening needs moisture and a roof garden, even in England, is closer to desert conditions in a heat wave. After a summer of frustrating battle with draught, I drastically decided to simply remove - or let die - any plant that couldn't cope and spend much time reading Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden (which is currently on sale on Amazon here).

Originally, I planned to be strict and never water; the first long spell of heat brought me back to reason, there is just not a thick enough layer of soil for the plants to survive. My approach is now a compromise, I generally don't water at all until plants that cope with draught show worrying signs of struggling. This means that watering is very occasional (a maximum of once a week during hot and dry spells) and in particular is not needed in Winter (which it used to).

The second major change is to remove - in sections - the anti weed sheet which has been laid under the slate chipping so that plants can self seed and develop naturally. This type of sheet is such a soil killer; the soil underneath cannot gain organic matter and ends up looking like rock. Removing the sheet, spreading some compost and planting has very quickly changed all that. There is still a way to go but the "ground" is becoming friable. As I am not looking for a very rich soil, another year will bring it to the right texture.

My aim is to trial my own iconoclastic version of a prairie/meadow plantation. By this I mean a varied selection of plants mixing annuals, biennials, bulbs and perennials which will be maintained like a meadow (i.e. cutting once a year although here by hand). All and especially the first two should be of a self seeding type that will ensure they come back. It is a lasy mode of gardening. Once established, I wish to let it do its own thing with gentle prodding. This mode of growing reminds me of my grand mothers gardening of the - true - cottage garden in front of her farm.

The original perennials have been kept. For example the sedum, hellebores and the geraniums showing here.  I have added a poppy, euphorbias. Some annuals were already present and and I seeded some nigella and Californian poppies which did quite well last year and are coming back profusely.

My latest addition was last autumn with a large amount of botanic bulbs.

Fritillaria Uva Vulpis was the first starting blooming in late March/early April. You can see it below. They are from Iran, Irac & Turkey (info here)

Tulipa clusiana chrysantha (or Lady Tulip?), from Iran to the Himalayas, was second starting early/mid April. This is an amazing flower that looks red when it is closed from evening to late morning to becomes bright yellow during the day as it reveals its inside. The photos show it at varying degrees of openness. (good info here)

A garlic is getting ready (can't remember which I am afraid - should always write things down).

The gladioli bysantheum have very healthy leaves; I am not expecting them to bloom until July.

How it was after removal of the sheet a year ago:

Friday, 16 April 2010

Cornfield annual wildflowers management

Here is an excellent video showing how to maintain a cornfield full of wild flowers year on year (from Not to be missed are their excellent advice on sowing wild seeds found here. And their channel on you tube here that shows much about using a scythe.

The High Line

This is an amazing project in New York. An abandoned above ground railway has been made into a park. It has been planted to a design by Piet Oudolf, the famous Dutch designer who produces natural looking landscapes. Don't be fooled though, the planting is as regimented as any. This is a manicured wild garden.

The design is by landscape architects James Corner Field Operations, with architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

Official High Line website here

Various videos here

This video about maintenance is particularly interesting as it shows how labour intensive it is: this is no natural environment but a traditional way of landscaping that looks like nature.

Our main influence: Gilles Clement's La Vallee

If there is one individual who has influenced us, it is Gilles Clement, a french landscape designer.

His concept of the Garden in Movement (Jardin en Mouvement) has redefined the relationship of the gardener with nature. His main idea is to be open to the whims of nature, of the plants desire to move in the land. The gardener changes the structure of the garden from year to year in accordance with movement of the plants on the land.

This defines the design of the garden as something which radically changes from year to year and the design as something that is done day to day. The gardener does not only design at the beginning but constantly. Although there is a structure of permanent elements (trees and shrubs), the design is ephemeral.

For those of you who would like to know more, here is a link to his website showing various interviews and recording of a lecture or two (All in french I am afraid...). There also are links to his books in the right hand side column.
And a fantastic video showing La Vallee, his experimental garden in France where he developed his concepts:
We will use the concept of the Garden in Movement particularly in the meadow where it will be at its most spectacular with the giant biennial and perennials growing within a few months to form hedges at time as high as 1.8 metres.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The power of nature

When we first saw the property in 2005, it had just been completely mowed after decades of abandon. It gave an impression of being under control, but really things had only been calmed down, the roots underground were ready to catch up.

As it turned up, it is only two years later and after another buyer fell through, that we managed to complete on the property. During which time nature did what it wished to do on our land, cover the whole property with trees. In its usual way, the process started with grasses and other meadow plants followed by nettles and brambles with tree saplings.

When we completed on the property in September 2007, brambles were already almost as tall as me in some areas. The last 2 years have been spend clearing the areas we wish to develop as meadow which are mostly around the house to open the view. Originally we only cut the nettles when we had the opportunity and left them in place. From the last year, we have been moving towards some sort of a hay cutting regime where we also remove the cuttings on the areas we cut and use it as mulch around the trunks of trees. Due to a lack of adequate equipment and time, this has only been done on the most problematic areas.

We have purposefully left large bramble bushes in different parts of the land for wild life to shelter in or feed from.

This year, we will invest in a motorised scythe and a solid ride on lawnmower (with collecting hood) to start a proper meadow management. We will do this at different times of the year depending on growth and visits. All clippings will be removed to make compost or mulch trees and shrubs.
  • The areas with nettles will be mowed all year.
  • The areas where tougher grasses are growing with two much energy will be cut first late June (the traditional hay season here) and then mowed (clippings removed).
  • The areas with gentler species will be cut at the end of the summer or early autumn to allow wild life to reproduce and because a dried meadow is beautiful tall but very sad short.
Here are a few pictures of the progress so far taken from the back of the house looking North towards the river.

In 2005, just after the large scale mowing. Nettles can already be seen.

In 2006, the bramble is coming back and nettles are in full swing below.

In 2007, the bramble has formed shrubs again and a sea of nettles has established lower down.

In 2008 we have taken the brambles out and mowed a few times.

Last week, we tried cutting the nettles with a manual scythe; highly recommended, it is very efficient on young shoots and virtually silent. It makes it much more enjoyable than a motorised system. 
The mud tracks have been created by the equipment of the builders renovating the house this year. You can follow the construction here.

Letting nature do all the work

As much as we have been spending a lot of energy to fight back the incredible power of nature to develop a forest on most of our land, we have very much used it to our advantage in the third field: we have decided to let it happen.

There were many reasons for this. Aesthetically, we wished a larger wooded area on the land. Practically, by using a third of the land as woodland, we reduced the maintenance needed; woodland is less effort to keep under control then meadow when the conditions are ideal for it. The last advantage is that it will produce the wood for our stove.

The land has not been touched since 2005 apart from a strip running along three hedges: South, North-East and South-West. This was cleared in 2007 to be able to define the boundary of the land with the neighbour just before we bought. 

Our approach was to let it do what it wanted. We expected that year after year, the trees around the field will seed onto it. And seed it did.
Our only interventions have been to mow paths so that we can enjoy walking through it and save a few trees from brambles and climbing weeds where they were damaging the tree.

We didn't expect how fast it would happen. The land that hasn't been touched for 5 years is covered with saplings apart from a few naturally occurring clearings which we wish to maintain. Some trees are even 5 metres tall. There is a majority of hash with a large number of oak, a few willows, hazel, spindle trees and other shrubs can also be found. We will have to thin the forest in a year or so as the saplings are far two dense in many areas.

September 2005
May 2009
This year is going to be very exciting as it is the first when most trees will be higher than the eye. The perception of the original room formed by the hedges will be replaced by one of total immersion in a young forest.

There you have it, a forest that wasn't planted.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Bulb trial

I planted a selection of wild bulbs from various parts of the Mediterranean last autumn which are coming up. This is to test which species will multiply here.

I have tried two areas, the dry edge of the plateau and the orchard. They are doing better on the first.

The fritillaries are first in bloom. Apart from minor nibbling of the flowers, they are doing very well.

The tulips are getting ready. Leaves can be seen of the Gladioli Bysantheum.

And here is our sole orchid found on the property that was just missed by the wheels of the digger.
It has bulked up a bit from previous years. It did two flowers last year and might do a third this year. We hope, probably overly optimistically, that it will colonise the whole plateaux.

Spring in the woods

The woods are stunning this spring. Carpets of wood anemones, violets, butter cups, wild strawberries cover all areas that were not overgrown with bracken or brambles last summer.

The strange and unknown bulb is coming back in abundance. You can see the leaves on the photo below. Each does a 40cm high stem with small green flowers. It will probably be in bloom at my next visit. (Since original posting, I have found a potential species: Ornithogalum Pyrenaicum, common name are Wild Asparagus, Spiked/Pyrenees Star of Bethlehem)

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