Speckled and dappled

April has been enchanting, perhaps made all the more so by the fact that we have only been able to steal precious moments here and there. Times when the spring sunshine has played through the ash copse at the back of the house, and glinted through the unfurling leaves below. Light and dark at play, as though mimicking the tussle between winter and spring.

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A little warmth and light has a magical effect, causing buds to open and birds to sing; bees to emerge from hibernation, and butterflies to flit across the lawn. Pairs of small, dark Speckled Woods danced for days in crazy spiralling flights, and then disappeared.

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The top of the garden has become our place of solace; its dappled light a balm for the senses.

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It’s where garden longs to become part of the copse beyond, and we let it stray in that direction.

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The plants are shade-loving, woodland types. Many, such as the violets, cowslips, primroses, and forget-me-nots, have self-seeded and are happy to spread at will.

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To these we’ve added ferns, fritillaries, hostas and hellebores; and, from the honesty box at No 92, solomon’s seal and a white-flowered lungwort, its leaves flecked with white splashes.

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Mottled, dappled, sunshine and shade.

 

 

Fritillaries

We spent a magical Sunday morning wandering through Iffley Meadows in search of snake’s-head fritillaries.

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As we entered the nature reserve, managed by Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust, we spied, in the distance, patches of the meadowland that were dotted with purple and white, and made our way over to admire the blooms close up.

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Delicate, dangling flowerheads, blotched with their distinctive chequered pattern, nodded in the spring breeze, and lit up like lanterns when the sun caught their petals.

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We watched as hungry bees buffeted the blooms and scrambled in, busily responding to the flowers’ promises of pollen and nectar within.

There were white-tailed and red-tailed bumblebees, common carder bumblebees, and tawny mining bees; all enjoying the most elegantly served feast.

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The thickening grey clouds of an April sky provided the perfect backdrop to this trio of pure white flowers.

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The clouds moved on, revealing the particular blue of a spring sky. The bees buzzed. And there, for a moment, all was right with the world.

Down among the daffodils

The garden is dancing with daffodils. Every year I’m taken aback by the sheer number of different flower types. There are big trumpets and small trumpets, showy doubles, and delicate narcissi.

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Under the old apple tree grows this white petalled variety with pale, peachy trumpets.

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Elsewhere, the bright frilled edges of these lemon yellow flowers catch my eye.

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In truth, there are many that I wouldn’t have chosen (the flouncy, fancy, interfered with ones). But together they provide plenty of interest, and a ready supply of blooms to cheer the kitchen table.

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In the April sunshine they capture the light and nod sagely in the breeze. And the scent is, well, the scent of Spring.

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Blooms for bees: March

There is marked change in the garden this month compared to February. Where before the only blooms were snowdrops, hellebores, winter aconites, viburnum and bergenia, March has seen the starry blossoms on the cherry plums come and go and welcomed a profusion of spring flowers.

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There are daffodils of all kinds, hyacinths, and tiny blue scillas. The pulmonaria is flowering along with self-seeded primroses and cowslips, and violets that peep out from under shrubs.

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The white comfrey flowers are unfurling, the summer snowflakes are breaking out of their papery cases, and the kerria is covered in cheery pom-poms.

The winter flowering clematis dangles with speckled bells, and the clematis armandii is covered in a profusion of starry flowers. To crown it all, yesterday the magnolia buds burst into bloom.

The first bees have emerged. Fat, fuzzy queen buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris); smaller, speedy early bumblebees (Bombus pratorum); and today, on the lawn, my first sighting of a common carder bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum).

The buff-tailed queens frequent the hellebore patch, at first feeding on nectar, but now collecting pollen too, a sign that nests are being established.

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The early bumblebees, so called because they tend to be the earliest to establish their nests, have been spotted feeding on and collecting nectar from the white comfrey and hellebores.

So of all the flowers in the garden this month, these are the two I love best, for its here I’m most likely to encounter my buzzy friends.

 

 

 

Simple ways to brighten dark days

Spring and winter have begun their annual tussle. And although yesterday’s initial frostiness was quickly followed by sunlight and bright skies, there are still days when it’s perpetually grey outside and the house is gloomy.

I wrote some posts about simple ways to cheer dark days a couple of years ago, and although spring is on its way, there have been times this month when a few simple and inexpensive ideas have made all the difference. It may be nearly the end of February but today’s grey skies prove that the dull weather isn’t over yet.

Tiny posies

Flowers may be scant at this year, but even a couple of sprigs of viburnum, a single hellebore or primrose, or a few snowdrops will bring light and life into the house. And if you have witch hazel or wintersweet growing in your garden so much the better!

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Candlelight

An obvious one, but there is something special about lighting a candle during the day. Candlelight can be a magical addition to the breakfast table on dark mornings. And on dull days I like to have a tealight burning beside me on my desk as I work.

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 Hot chocolate

Everyone deserves a treat on a cold, grey day. Having an excuse to curl up for five minutes with a mug of chocolatey goodness is one of the best things about a wintery day. Whenever we visit the Eden Project I treat us to a block of Hasslacher’s hot drinking chocolate which I sweeten with a dribble of maple syrup.

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It’s these little comforts, and stolen moments, that I will miss when winter finally gives way to spring.

Slow snowdrop Sundays

Here and there around the garden the snowdrops are at varying stages of opening. Many still hang in droplet form, nodding gently to themselves in the February breeze. Others have opened up to resemble goats’ ears or helicopter blades.

Every year I wish I knew which varieties we have. Most are no doubt the standard Galanthus nivalis, but there are others with similar but larger blooms, (like the clump at the bottom of the garden which is always the first to open), or which seem to stand taller, or which are decidedly different (like the ones that grow beneath the Deutzia, with their broad grey-green leaves and huge blooms). Then there are the “doubles” whose frills, while pretty, are too fussy for my liking. I much prefer the simple elegance of the single-flowered varieties.

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Yesterday we spent a couple of happy, calming hours wandering among the snowdrops in the grounds of Kingston Bagpuize House. There are rare varieties to admire in the borders, swathes of large, white blooms in the shrubbery, and carpets of flowers like snowfall in Church Copse and Courtclose Copse.

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It was a much-needed slow Sunday afternoon; the delicate beauty of the snowdrops causing us to stop and be present.

And while it is still snowdrop season (for as long as they continue to bloom) I plan to devote the coming Sundays to snowdrop appreciation. If you would like to join me I’ll be posting images on Instagram using the hashtag #snowdropsundays

 

 

 

 

Blooms for bees: February

It has been cold and grey, the damp bringing with it a persistent chill. But the garden is slowly awakening, and already there are flowers to welcome the first buzzy visitors of the year when they arrive. It’s good to know that the garden is ready.

Winter aconites spangle the lawn like bright yellow suns; opening each morning in defiance of the cold; each bloom, surrounded by a pretty green ruff, providing an easily accessible banquet for those in search of nectar.

The real stars of the garden at this time of year, however, are the snowdrops. Swathes of them provide early nectar for any honey bees brave enough to venture out from their hives on warmer days. The delicate, pendulous blooms pose no problem for these small agile bees.

But it’s the patch of hellebores that I like to sit by most. It’s here that I often spot the first hungry queen bumblebees of the year. Usually heard before seen, the unmistakable deep buzz will belong to a buff-tailed (Bombus terrestris) queen, newly-emerged from hibernation and in desperate need of sustenance before beginning her characteristic low, zig-zagging flights which signal her search for a nest site.

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These queens feed on the bergenias too, which are already beginning to flower in the border on the west side of the house.

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I would love to know if you have spotted any bees yet this year, and what they are feeding on. Do leave a comment to let me know.

Spears of hope

The garden has been enveloped in white mist most days. It rolls up the hill from the valley below.

It’s no surprise that the snowdrops, so often in bud by now, prefer to remain hidden under their blankets of moss. All but one clump at the bottom of the garden, that is, whose white buds hang like droplets, soon to open and release their delicate, honey-like scent. This clump is always the first to flower, whether because of its position, or because it’s a different variety, I don’t know.

But even seeing the first protruding grey-green spears of the remaining clumps is a sign that winter is waning and spring approaches. For tomorrow is a cross-quarter day, the mid point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox; and the day that follows, Candlemas.

I love these markers in the year. They become moments to stop and reflect, to cherish each particular season, and to think about what lies ahead. And this year, perhaps more than most, will be one for holding on to the hope that the snowdrops so bravely symbolize.

 

 

 

 

Farewell to the Lord of Misrule

After the merry days of Christmas, and the quietly celebrated cosy days that follow, January with its-back-to-work associations can feel a flat and dismal month. And so as I start to pack up the baubles, throw out the greenery, and take down the paper chains, I’m plotting and planning some moments of cheer. After all, it may be time to bid farewell to the Lord of Misrule, but in these cold, dark nights Venus shines, and there hangs the bright crescent of a waxing moon.

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There are many ways to bring cheer into the days that follow. A meal to celebrate Twelfth Night, all candle lit – with homemade paper crowns, and a cake concealing a dried pea and a dried bean, so we might become a King and a Queen for the evening. A wassail with the magic of the morris, or a simpler version of our own, with a fire lit and a mug of mulled cider with which to drink the health of our single apple tree. And a final fling at the end of the month to celebrate Burns Night.

Throughout the month a few simple ways to brighten dark days keep up our spirits. There are favourite walks to savour, and small adventures exploring neighbouring villages. There are treasures to seek in hedgerows, the first buds and shoots, and Jack Frost’s wintery trace.

The cold brings a flock of redwings that fling the fallen birch leaves on the front lawn, and the flitting flights of long-tailed tits from tree heights to hedge and back again. The robins never miss a movement from within the house, cocking their heads each time we appear at the kitchen window to wash the dishes or fill a glass. The wrens are alert and chirpy, and the blackbird with one white wing feather sings as, just for a moment, the sky behind the copse catches fire before the sun goes down.

And in the long, dark evenings, there are plans to make for the year ahead. Dreams to dream in the firelight, and wishes to cast. January is full of promise, and there is much to be grateful for.

 

Merry and bright, solemn and still

December: a month of contrasts.

I love the merry days of Christmas: bright colours on the Christmas tree, cheerful songs, and the sparkle of fairy lights. But I also love those quiet days, when the air is still, and magic hangs around the house in an altogether different way.

Late in the afternoon the clouds that streak the sky behind the ash copse turn a fiery pink and orange. Blackbirds call, and darkness descends. By the glow of candlelight, I look out at the dark silhouettes of the trees across the lawn and enjoy a moment of quiet and reflection. The Winter Solstice brings with it a distant feeling, some strange connection with the past; sharpened by the scent of winter greenery, the resonance of the more sombre carols, a slight chill in the air, and the flickering of flames.

Winter is here, both merry and bright, and solemn and still.