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December 2020: garden diary

It’s been very difficult to get out into our Cambridgeshire garden this month. We’ve suffered high winds, heavy rain, thick cloud cover (which masked the Jupiter/Saturn conjunction virtually every evening), and frost and even light snow towards the end of the month. 

Long spells of rain produced a flood in the field at the back. Our lawns were completely saturated and vegetable beds were reduced to a deep layer of claggy mud, which made the lifting of carrots and parsnips for our Christmas dinner a very unpleasant process!

Temperatures were very low from mid-month and frost often covered the borders, lawns and driveway.

I though I’d given all our roses their autumn pruning – but this specimen seems to have escaped, resulting in the strange sight of frozen rosebuds.

I’ve started work on pruning our buddleia. I’m avoiding taking the cuttings to the council tip because of the pandemic; and so I do it in stages, disposing of the pruned twigs and branches in our green bin which is collected every fortnight. I’ve found over the years in various gardens that it’s essential to keep buddleias under control with annual cutbacks, to prevent them from growing to unmanageable proportions. Severe pruning does spur them into vigorous early growth, however, and the sight of scores of butterflies descending on them and sipping their nectar in summer is a real pleasure to behold.

Another job on my Spring ‘to do’ list will be the pruning of our hydrangea. Hydrangeas are not everyone’s cup of tea but their large blooms do last for many months and they can add a major point of interest in the right position. I think ours works well as a means of rounding off the border.

It’s good to see heather in bloom in mid-winter. Our soil is not particularly acidic, so in a way it’s quite surprising that it can do so well in non-ericaceous earth.

These snowdrops need to be moved. They’re in the middle of a pathway – I’ll wait till they’ve gone over and then re-plant them in a more appropriate (and less dangerous!) position.

I’m continuing to prepare larger flower beds, ready for planting in the Spring. In this case I’ve chopped back the lower branches of this ivy bush to produce a much more substantial area. The only problem is the infestation of ivy growths that I’ve uncovered. But I learned a lot about dealing with that kind of issue when battling my way through the ivy and brambles that covered the area that is now our thriving vegetable plot (see earlier blogs), at the end of the garden.

This bigger bed should be quite a sun trap – I’m looking forward to seeing the end result in the summer.

The black berries of the ivy bush are gobbled up by wood pigeons and blackbirds. They have quite a feast. The only problem, of course, is that eventually they re-distribute some of the seeds to other parts of the garden …

Are petunias winter-hardy? Well, looking at this one, obviously not. But in fact it’s all about location …

… this one, in a comparatively warm, sheltered spot in the corner of the courtyard is doing really well. It’s even been producing flowers, in the middle of winter.

Another sheltered area, this time in the bay tree border, is home to nasturtiums and even still-flowering cosmos, both of which seem to be coming through the winter unscathed. They’ll be moved in the Spring, though, when I get underway with new plantings.

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October/November 2020 garden diary

Deadly danger in the garden! I watched as an amazing crop of mushrooms and toadstools sprang up over the past couple of months. But I was shocked when I identified this specimen …

Although I’m a complete novice in the field of fungi, I remembered seeing this one illustrated as being deadly. And I believe this video on the wildfooduk.com website (a really fascinating, well-produced site, by the way) confirms my suspicion.

October can be a strange month in the garden. Some plants continue to grow full pelt and produce fruit or flowers; others quickly lose their leaves, wither and die, succumbing to the first frost; and then there are the fungi …

Fungi seem to have appeared every year, in all our previous gardens too, often arranged in a whole or part circle: both annual and annular, as it were. But this year has been different: the more I looked, the more I discovered so many individual plants, groups, pairs, rings – and so many different types.

Well okay, they’re not plants. In fact, they’re neither vegetable nor animal, the experts tell us. They form a completely different Kingdom. So what should we say they are? Planimals? Vegetals? Coincidentally, scrolling through our TV’s programme guide, I just happened to come across a discussion show on Al Jazeira, which featured a revealing interview with mycologist Paul Stamets. He confirmed that many fungi do indeed appear suddenly, in “cellular explosions”. Incidentally, Stamets is a cast member in a 2019 movie called Fantastic Fungi.

He believes that fungi are extremely under-exploited. With their largely-untapped uses in the fields of pharmacology, agriculture and environmental improvement, research into fungi should be funded as much as the computer industry, he suggests. Fungi produce water, hydrating the environment and sweating out enzymes, he says, and spores of mushrooms often become nuclei for raindrops, potentially a game-changing benefit in arid areas of the planet.

I think the unseasonably warm and moist atmosphere during this period must have been an important factor in prompting the appearance of so many. In fact, I didn’t realise quite how many were on display until I did a kind of “audit”. Searching in the grass, under trees, along the sides of concrete paths, in undergrowth, on wood piles and hidden away in crowded borders, I discovered some specimens I’d never have known were there. It all started with this lot …

I can’t say with any certainty what type of mushroom (toadstool?) these are.

Looking at my copy of The Observer’s Book of Mushrooms and Toadstools, I’m in awe of experts on fungi – mycologists – who can distinguish between the vast array of individual fungi types. It turns out that there are four main divisions in the world of fungi: Chytridiomycota (chytrids), Zygomycota (bread molds), Ascomycota (yeasts and sac fungi) and Basidiomycota (club fungi). The divisions are based on the way in which different fungi reproduce sexually.

But of course in the large majority of cases I haven’t a clue as to the names of the individual types that I came across. Having said that, realising that there are so many examples in and on our modest garden does make me want to find out more.

Ah yes, the gills. Also known as lamella, apparently, and the place where spores are formed and ejected. I wondered whether mushrooms and toadstools all had gills. Well, just hold on. I’ve searched in vain for information on the distinction between mushrooms and toadstools and it turns out there isn’t one. The Observer’s Book says: “The name commonly used for the cap fungi, other than mushrooms, is toadstools”. Elsewhere I read that they’re non-scientific terms, most often used to distinguish edible from non-edible fungi, and shorthand names for differentiating a fungus with a more ‘conventional’ shape (stalk and cap) – mushroom – from one with some other shape (toadstool). Though not always. Okay?

Anyway, back to the audit. Here are some more pics of the fungi I found.

Did you know, by the way, that for sheer size the largest living land organism is a honey fungus that makes a blue whale look like a mouse in comparison. Back to the audit …

Fungal spores are so light they are easily blown around by even the lightest of winds. The thought occurred to me that they might well fly so high that they could reach the exosphere and be conveyed to other planets – or even to other solar systems – by the effects of gravity and solar winds. Well, from what I’ve read of the weighty debate about this topic, it does seem unlikely. But the argument in favour of panspermia, in opposition to abiogenesis, is one that seems likely to run for many years to come.

After a few weeks, most were gone, cringing and shrinking into the cold of the night air. By the time of the first November frost, they’d vanished.

Vanished but not died: what I’d seen was each fungus’s “fruiting body”. Below the surface, the mycelium lives on, often lending assistance to other plants, as I mentioned in my blog about planting bare root roses. Fungi act as an internet of the soil, allowing plants to communicate with each other. I wonder if we’ll ever be able to join in their conversations? It seems that mushrooms have a great deal to offer us.

And, of course, they do provide a key ingredient in a mushroom omelette; though make sure you choose the right variety …



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