SWG004 Early-mid-March in a Scottish cottage garden


Magic portal in the garden - through the fireplace surround

Welcome to another episode of the Stopwatch Gardener podcast, where this week I’m rushing about the garden like a mad thing, getting excited about every early-spring plant and the very first humming bumblebee of the season.

I also take a minute to remember my lovely, much-missed dog Lizzy as I look at the place in the garden where she was buried a few years ago.

I’m delighted that Crug Farm has joined Beth Chatto, Vanessa Mann and Frank Kirwan to donate plants to my Rare Plants for Rare Disease fundraiser for neuroacanthocytosis research on 24 May 2014. If you run a nursery, especially if you trade in rare or unusual plants, I’d love to ask you for a donation to this worthy cause. Contact me here if you can help with a rare plant donation.
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SWG002 Early February in a Scottish cottage garden


Galanthus Nivalis flore pleno

Welcome to the latest Stopwatch Gardener podcast, where I take a sunny February walk around the garden. If you use iTunes, there’s a link to subscribe at the bottom of this blog, or you can sign up in the margin here to get an e-mail alert whenever I publish a new episode.

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Veg: It’s gardening, but not as I know it


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The very last of the snowdrops have just gone over. Delayed flowering has made for the loveliest and unlikeliest of bedfellows: snowdrops on crocus, daffodils and tulips emerging together with the hyacinths, and delphinium foliage that’s now growing like a rocket. With so much noisy life finally breaking the winter silence, I’ll be free of all the planning and the purchasing — mostly bulbs, mostly unnecessary, but what else was I supposed to do in January? — and can start planting.

My enthusiasm for the Eatin’ Project is growing — just. After all the faff with early vegetable seedlings and sorting the raised bed, I’m feeling protective towards these baby plants. That said, I have turfed them into the bed already — heavily protected winter cos lettuce, with a pot of carrot seedlings at the middle — both to see if they’re made of strong stuff and because the lettuce, for one, really did look ready. The carrot container is raised that extra bit above carrot fly altitude, and the seedlings are inter-planted with spring onions to throw any highfliers off the scent.

It just doesn’t feel like gardening. In my greenhouse are glossy hellebore seedlings, hair-like snakeshead fritillary seedlings that have just emerged after a year in pots, and white cosmos planted just weeks ago which is already pushing up its first leaves. I look at them and I feel actual joy. They’re all sharing the greenhouse with the newer cos lettuce seedlings — but I look at them and I feel nothing.

I think it’s because the lettuce has no prospect of being beautiful. This afternoon I let out a yelp when I saw my first morning glory “Grandpa Otts” seedling raise its heart-shaped head. I consider this the most beautiful seed-grown plant in my garden, with violet flowers so intense they make me feel my vision is being pulled to the end the spectrum. My passion for roses, too, is down to the aesthetics: the first time I saw the David Austin Roses catalog, I couldn’t believe anything could be so beautiful.
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I do like the ferny carrot foliage, and the strawberries I’ve edged the bed with (thanks for the idea, Grace) are pleasingly pleated. But the aesthetic aspect of the vegetables I’m growing is pretty rubbish. The two pear trees I’ve put in are a different story: I love the progress of their lengthening, pointy buds and I know blossom is on the way.

I need to persist with this project. And last weekend it was a bit thrilling to plant some vegetable seeds with my three-year-old daughter. “I’m a gardener!” she said. That’s my girl.

What’s your feeling about the beauty of vegetables? Do you need beauty in the plants you care for? Can you give plants the love they need if you don’t admire them?


The small mercy of snowdrops and other survivors


Click for larger imageMassive snow melt and rising rivers have come with the big thaw, now that our deep snowfall has turned liquid. Watching our local river rise 5 feet, it made me think about how snow locks up water the way trees lock up carbon dioxide. Gardening hard, as I’ve done the last few seasons, has done this to me — make me watch every aspect of the changing seasons and think about what it might mean for my garden. My poor, pummelled garden, now free of that heavy snow but looking squashed, like a flower flattened between the pages of an encyclopedia.

Which is why I felt my mouth fall open today when I saw a single snowdrop — Galanthus elwesii — white and perfect and definitely alive. I took a walk around and checked on the other signs of life which have been thrilling me out of all proportion to their size. A tuft of striped crocus leaves, 2 inches high? A few battered narcissus leaves breaking through the soil? I’ll take it — it’s January, and my standards and expectations for the garden are at their lowest.

The desk where I write gets sun for two hours in summer, and much less in winter when the sun can’t be bothered to rise very high. This time last year I wrote this poem during one of the sun’s rare appearances at my desk. Do you ever get poetic about your garden? If so, I’d love to hear some.


The winter sun doesn’t mean it;
it cracks an eye over sodden ground –
the damp remains of brightest days,
the ceaseless hunt of birds,
the lilacs’ empty grasp –
and is unmoved.

It cannot be enough.
But braver things are in the earth
and they rise, swords first,
to take back the day
and call forth the legions
that come after.


Garden snow – blanket or shroud?


Click for larger imageThe last time I saw 14 inches of snow out my window, I was an undergraduate in university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So yes, seeing as I’ve just turned 40, it’s been a long time.

But hard winters were my normal throughout childhood, so why do I find the sudden Siberian conditions in Scotland so uncomfortable? These past weeks it almost felt good to exercise old knowledge — newspapers on the windshield overnight to avoid scraping the car in the morning, or rushing to clear snow off the steps before it turns to iron.

The problem is that this weather, to my mind, doesn’t belong in southern Scotland, it belongs in New England — or Antarctica — and I wonder if my garden can cope. Growing up, I witnessed the annual miracle of Boston crocus, rhododendrons and roses emerging from the deep-freeze. But on moving to Europe, I adapted to something kinder and gentler. If you garden in a climate that’s not the one you grew up with, you’ll know how rapidly you acclimatise. One mild winter in Ireland was enough for me: years ago, on my first trip home, I was startled to see what looked like total devastation as I came in to land at Boston in March – a brown, crumpled, dead landscape.

Today my adaptation to the British Isles climate is complete: I expect only frosts in winter, daffodil shoots at New Year and emerging snowdrops by Valentine’s Day. The backyard of my 1970s childhood — lofty pine trees, rough grass, crushing winters — is long gone, and seeing a flavour of it here is unsettling.

As I write, the magnificent snowman the kids made at Christmastime has become a smothered blob following another eight inches of snow. My sleeping garden is a bit the same: a creation I’ve taken much trouble over, now pinned beneath snow that is less blanket than shroud. Will it, will it come back to me? Logically, I know snow insulates — the apples I threw to the birds the other day remained unfrozen for hours where they landed in deep snow. And when I’m being rational, I know the snow shroud is probably protecting my shrubs and my hundreds of bulbs from the killing hand of our recent -11 Celsius temperatures.

And yet…will it come back to me? We had daffodil shoots at New Year’s, I know we did, but they were well buried. Here’s hoping that when spring surfaces, it’s as Scottish as it should be.

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