So I guess I’ve telegraphed the punchline there, calling my blog post “orchids underfoot”. Well who cares, I’m in a big hurry to show you what I found today so I’m cutting to the chase. Walking toward a huge bramble thicket on Tottenham marshes, and marvelling at the unidentified warblers who nest there I noticed something small and colourful beside my boot. Crouching down I found a bee orchid, just inches away from where I had ploughed a little path through the grass. And there were two more. And they were beautiful.
Deep in woods loud with birdsong an elegant spike of white flowers glows, a tiny constellation. This is platanthera chlorantha, the Greater Butterfly Orchid. Night scented (it smells of vanilla) I wonder if its brightness also acts to help lure the moths that pollinate it.
Most orchids I’ve seen in the UK have been relatively small and often rather inconspicuous, but this stately plant was nearly a foot tall and vivid against the woodland gloom. We only saw two of these unearthly beauties on our walk, which made them seem very special.
And although there were almost certainly more of these orchis mascular or Early Purple orchids, we found just one bedraggled flower spike pushing up gamely through the ivy and leaf litter.
I was lucky enough to attend a conference in the Wye valley this weekend, which meant a chance to walk in the woods beside Offas Dyke for an hour or two. I found these lovely plants during that short walk. It’s only right for this blog to celebrate what we have here in the UK right now alongside my Nepali show and tell.
There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but sometimes gardening is so rewarding you have to question that old cliché. We’ve been growing potatoes in tyre stacks for a couple of years now – last year we didn’t do so well, mainly because the seed potatoes we used were no good. We cracked it this year though, and yesterday we harvested heaps of lovely yellow spuds from our stack. All you need is a square metre of ground, three tyres, some seed potatoes and a compost heap or other source of compost. Anyone with a tiny garden can do this, so here’s how to get an (almost) free crop with very little effort.
Growing potatoes in a tyre stack
- First, you’ll need some old tyres, about three is standard for this growing technique, but you could use more if you have vigorous plants. Most garages will be overjoyed if you ask them if they have any bald tyres they need to get rid of; these are such an annoyance to the trade that your request will get a very warm welcome and you’ll be offered as many as you can handle, so don’t be shy – you are doing someone a favour. And once you have them, they can be used year after year.
- Next, you’ll need your seed potatoes. Get them fresh from a reputable source, be sure that they are firm and healthy. If you have a friend with an allotment or kitchen garden they may well have bulk bought more seed potato than they can plant and will be happy to give you a handful. We had about five or six planted in our stack. You could probably use less.
- Lay just one tyre out to start with, upon well drained earth in a sunny or well lit spot. Our tyre stack is on concrete and works fine, but ideally earth is better for drainage. Fill it with mature compost from your compost heap (and if you don’t have one, you’ll have to make a trip to the garden centre for some compost. This is the bit that will cost you, you will need lots!) and plant the potatoes. Water well. Water daily. And wait…
- If all goes well the potatoes will sprout and grow quickly, so that eventually their leaves are well above the hight of the first tyre. This is when you place the next tyre on top of the stack. Heap compost up all over the growing plants, leaving just a bit of leaf showing. The plants will continue to grow, pushing through the new layer of earth. The parts of the plant that are buried are the parts that will produce potatoes, so basically the taller the stack, the more potatoes you will get. Keep the stack watered, let the plants grow through thoroughly before adding each new tyre and compost… and that’s it.
- The plants should be allowed a decent amount of growing time after you put the final tyre on the stack, so that all those leaves get the chance to convert the sun’s energy into potatoes. The plants should look green and vigorous. Eventually though, the leaves will become yellow and sickly looking. That’s when your potatoes are done!
- To harvest, simply knock over or dismantle the tyre stack and the potatoes will be very easy to find among the compost. One advantage of growing in a stack is that unlike growing in a trench, you will easily find every single one. Then shovel up the compost and put it on your flower beds.
We made a three tyre stack this year, but the plants were so strong we probably could have used an extra tyre and got even more potatoes. As it is we got two large bags of potatoes from the six we planted. We were given the tyres and the seed potatoes and made our own compost, so this crop was absolutely free – all we needed to do was add water.
For May eve we camped out in a little East Sussex wood; we wanted to be out in the fresh new green and jump over our own mini Beltane fire to bring in summer. Also, the area is renowned for its bluebells, of which I am something of a connoisseur.
The weather was cool and damp, the humidity intensifying the depth of the colours and general sense of lushness and rampant growth. Birdsong seemed astonishingly loud, the only other sounds a constant dripping and the babble of running water. I felt I could almost be in a high altitude cloud forest anywhere in the world if it were not for the familiarity of the trees and vegetation around me.
There are so many wildflowers all blooming together right now, the harsh winter having telescoped the seasons down until the first late winter flowers stand shoulder to shoulder with summer blooms. And everything is giving it’s best after that winter, including the bluebells.
If you are lucky enough to have been in a bluebell wood in full flower you will know well the extraordinary sensual overload that this can provoke. You walk along thinking that you’ve already seen it all, it couldn’t possibly get any bluer. Then the trees open out a little more and they are swimming in an astonishing violet mist of overwhelming voluptuousness. This, I can tell you, you have to experience for yourself.
It’s not just the colour, the scent is vivid too – heady and exotic for something so British, but with a coolness that makes it bearable, like lilies crossed with violets. Sometimes you can smell the flowers long before you see them.
I remember my first sighting of bluebells as a child, and the wonder I felt at their unexpected beauty. My mother wisely told me not to pick a single one, they could never look better in my hand than standing exactly where they were and I understood and did as I was told. Coming back from our walk we saw a family who had not been so wise; they had greedily picked as many as they could carry and were already making disappointed sounds at how swiftly they had wilted. They bore my mothers rage with baffled indifference, but if they learned nothing that day, I had learned plenty.
To read more Nature Notes, why not visit Rambling Woods – in fact, why not write a Nature Notes post of your own?
Could it really be that two months and indeed a whole season have passed me by since I last wrote here? This morning on the way to the shops I was jolted awake by yet another sign of time passing – the rowdy screeching of swifts overhead, the first I’ve heard this year. Despite the cold, it must be summer.
With every passing sign of spring – the first snowdrop, the first lesser celendine, the first wood anemone, bluebell, swallow sighting… I’ve been wanting to write and celebrate. There hasn’t been the time though, so even though I note these changes and absorb their import they have passed here in silence. It’s felt so wrong, and now that I’ve started writing again I can barely collect the discipline together to figure out what I have to say. There are the swallows, and bluebells, and Beltane woods, and a feeling of the headlong rush of life that has broken the banks of spring and flooded into summer already. I feel knocked over and swept away by the flow of it all of it all… and then I have to go and do the chores.