Monday, 27 February 2012

Smiling crocus, scouting bees, and how to rustle up rustic willow obelisks

Last week gave us an early taste of spring: on Thursday larks sang all day over the fields surrounding the pottery and one of the local buzzards could be heard gliding overhead, shouting "Wheeee!"

Crocus tommasinianus var. roseus

Crocus 'Whitewell Purple' and bee
in an Olive Pot
Woggle Dance
Crocuses have been jumping up and stretching their arms out wide in the sun to welcome grateful emergent bees. There is a row of hives in a field above Whichford, I suspect their bee scout brigade (motto "Bee Prepared") has identified us as a good source of pollen and nectar. They have been visiting us since January in mild spells and last summer the place was knee-deep in them, plus assorted bumblebees.

Crocus sieberi subsp. sublimis 'Tricolor'
plus bee

Nowadays, when I wheel a barrowful to the bonfire or the compost heap I am greeted by inquisitive lambs, who tiptoe towards me and then boing away. What could be more springy than that?

Lambs at Whichford Pottery

Lathyrus 'Goldmine' emerging last week

Sowing for summits
Of course the biggest treat for gardeners at this time of year is the orgy of seed sowing. I like to sow plenty of climbers, and tend to do most of these relatively early so that they are well-developed before planting out. In addition to the obligatory sweet peas I have Asarina 'Blue Yonder' emerging, Cobaea scandens should be next, and there will be more after that.

Luckily I have recently finished giving the willow arbour its yearly haircut and I now have three good heaps of willow prunings of various calibres.

The freshly pruned willow arbour at Whichford Pottery
Obelisks and Asterisks
It makes sense, then, to cobble together a few obelisks for all these climbers while the withies are still relatively bendy. This is a vigorous willow more suited to large structures than to small-scale weaving, so my creations are never neat and tidy but they look pleasantly rustic, they serve a purpose, and they are free!

Here is a step-by-step guide to willow obelisks, Harriet-style:
1*To fit a pot approx 18 to 22" in diameter, select six sturdy uprights. I have used a pot within a pot to hold them steady, but you could just insert them into a pot that is full of compost.
Insert them, as evenly spaced as possible, and tie them together at the desired height (mine will have a finished height of about 6 feet/2m).

2* Take two smaller withies and, with one either side of the base of one of the uprights, hold them near the fatter end and twist them around each other a couple of times. You will find that once twisted together it is easy to make them grip the base of the next upright. I'm sorry this is hard to describe without diagrams or videos, but you'll just have to experiment!
*@! There may be some swearing at this point.
3* Working from the fat end towards the thin end, twist the pair of withies together and work upwards in a gentle spiral, twisting them around two or three times between each pair of uprights and incorporating the uprights as you go.

You may need to push and pull a bit to make them curve (depending how flexible your willow supply is) and you may need to pull uprights back or forth to keep them relatively evenly spaced.

4* If a withy snaps half way, you can just start another pair of withies immediately above it and wind the ends of the first pair around the second pair.

The same goes for when you are getting towards the thinnest end of the first pair, just start another pair right on top of it and wind the thin ends of the lower pair around the upper pair. From a distance you'll hardly see the join because later on you will trim off any untidy bits that stick out. 

5* Every time you select a new pair of withies try to get a pair that matches in thickness and length otherwise you will get a twist that looks like this:

...This is much stronger and looks neater:

6* Stand back every now and then to check that the spiral is progressing smoothly. On an obelisk this size I try to keep the layers about 4-6" (10-15cm) apart. Making them closer together is not necessary for strength and will cut out a lot of light to the young plants.
Select thinner, more pliant withies as you reach the narrow top, you may find at this point that it is not possible to incorporate every upright. This is fine, because by now the structure is strong and rigid.

7* Now trim the whippy ends off the top of the obelisk

I usually wrap a small withy vertically around the join at the top, it helps to keep the uprights spaced. You can add several and make a wicker ball at the top.

8* Tuck in any thin ends that are loose and trim off any ends that stick out of the obelisk. Don't cut them too close to the obelisk in case they come loose as the structure dries and shrinks slightly.
9* Admire your handiwork then extract the obelisk from the pot (if you are using the 'empty pot method') and trim the bases of the uprights at an angle so that they are all the same length and nice and sharp for easy insertion in compost.

Right, now go and sow some more seeds!

Friday, 17 February 2012

On the move again - some succulent signs of spring

I can see spring peeping over the horizon.

Pansy 'Aquarelle' and the shoots of Crocus 'Blue Pearl' peep out of a
straight-sided Basket Pot at Whichford Pottery

Iris 'Harmony'
On Monday the compost in the pots was still frozen solid and I began to worry about plants drying out as there was a brisk breeze, but by Tuesday it had almost completely defrosted and the plants quickly began to perk up.

 Iris 'Harmony' has been living in a Highgrove pot at the foot of a cloud-pruned Osmanthus delavayi for a few years now and is usually one of the first to show its face.

Iris 'J.S.Dijt' has also been unfurling this week, combining rich purple with a cheeky flash of orange on its falls. 

Iris 'JS Dijt' unfurling

 Tulipa 'Princesse Charmante' breaching.
Whale watching
The first tulip shoots are beginning to appear. They always remind me of lunge-feeding humpback whales. You'll see what I mean if you click here. The tulip emerging in the picture on the right is 'Princesse Charmante', which is a greigii tulip, these are early flowerers and have beautiful  bluish leaves with maroon markings.

Even though it was still pretty cold on Valentine's Day we were all warmed at lunchtime by Kazuya's cooking. Kazuya is from Bizen in Japan, which is famous for its distinctive ceramics, and he is at Whichford for a while as part of a visit to study British ceramics. He is already a skilled potter, but very keen to learn more about his craft - and his english is improving rapidly, especially as Chris, who usually works in the same room has been trying to teach him plenty of rude words!

Gohan!  Kazu cooks rice in the staff room

Feel the love
We all admire his beautifully prepared lunches of noodles or rice with meat and vegetables every day - so much more exciting than a cheese sandwich and a packet of crisps, and much more healthy. So we were delighted when he bravely offered to cook for us all. Everybody piled into the staff room and made short work of the delicious stew and curry he produced. Thank you Kazu!

The Chippy Yarnbomber spreads the love

While on the subject of Valentine's I just have to throw in this picture of the latest offering by the Yarnbombers in nearby Chipping Norton, they have decorated practically every signpost and tree in the centre of town with their crocheted craziness and I love them for it.

Succulent love
Back to gardening: the milder, brighter weather is making a difference in the greenhouse too. Lots of my succulents are beginning to yawn, stretch, and reach for the glass of water on their bedside table. During the winter I keep them almost completely dry until I can see either that they are shrivelling badly or that they are trying to grow. I have now watered the entire collection - this takes a long time as it involves taking each pot and standing it in a few inches of water for up to an hour. This way the fine roots can take up water without the risk of water splash causing rots in these xerophytes.

The aeoniums are usually among the first to show signs of distress. Here are three of mine looking happier after a drink:

Aeonium arboreum 'Zwartkop'
Aeonium arboreum 'Zwartkop' doesn't look as black as during the summer, the lower light levels of winter in a dirty greenhouse make it go a bit green about the gills but it'll soon recover.

Aeonium tabuliforme (below) is one of my favourites but I have failed to propagate it so far. This rosette is currently about 40cm in diameter and likely to get bigger. If it flowers it'll die so I really need to try harder with the leaf cuttings.

Aeonium tabuliforme
 Aeonium decorum 'Sunburst' is always a cheery sight and much admired by our customers when it has its summer holidays in the courtyard garden.

Aeonium decorum 'Sunburst'

Echeveria decora

My many and various Echeveria have also perked up after their first proper drink of the year and many of them are starting to flower. Echeveria decora and Echeveria agavoides both have plenty of colour in their foliage but the delicately unfurling spikes of flowers are an extra late-winter treat for me in the greenhouse.
Echeveria agavoides

Seeds of summer
Right, I must stop gawping at the flowers and get on with the seed sowing. This week I have been sowing lots of sweet peas from Pennards, I'm looking forward to 'Leominster Boy', 'Painted Lady', 'America', 'Cupani', and, in this patriotic year, 'William and Catherine'.

From now on I'll be keeping my propagator full and loving the stealthy arrival of spring!

Friday, 10 February 2012

Unsung heroes - I abandon the garden to visit our clay room

Shrammed! This is the word my mother uses to describe how you feel in this weather. Not unreasonably I have taken refuge in the greenhouse most of this week as the temperature has failed to exceed 0C. It is now looking unusually tidy: all the plants have been picked over, turned, pinched out where necessary, and watered if they really need it, the propagating bench has been cleaned out and the floor is well swept.

Pelargonium sidoides 'Sloe Gin Fizz' in the greenhouse at Whichford Pottery

Wait for it
Aeonium arboreum 'Zwartkop' flowering
in the greenhouse this week
There is some colour in the greenhouse; stray flowers and the steady arrival of packets of seed have kept me happy but I have delayed sowing until the weather is less extreme, so that I can ensure comfy growing conditions for the seedlings.

Everything outdoors is frozen solid, so I have resisted the urge to pick shrivelled heads off pansies as the more you fiddle with frozen plants the more damage they are likely to sustain. For the same reason I have postponed the willow pruning.

Lines of desire in the courtyard garden

Lines of Desire
A thin layer of snow can be useful for reviewing the layout of a garden as lines of desire created by various users are clearly visible. In this case (see left) Puss-Puss and the blackbirds obviously have different priorities. Musing on this was not enough to keep me occupied, however, so I went to pay a visit to Richard and Brian in the clay room.

These two are the unsung heroes of the pottery: it is their job to ensure that the makers are provided with an unbroken supply (about five tons a week) of high quality clay, it's a mucky job with no creature comforts and if the consistency of the clay isn't to all the throwers' liking they soon hear about it!

The bat cave
Brian. Extra hairy version.
The clay room is almost as cold as the garden at this time of year, and the constant dark and damp can make it like Gollum's cave (in fact bats occasionally roost there). It's a tough place to work, and noisy too, full of large, ancient machinery, everything covered with clay. No wonder Brian has developed extravagant winter plumage in an effort to keep warm.

Brian and Richard manage to stay remarkably cheerful, they are often to be heard bickering like an old married couple but they work well together. They are always happy to come and help move pots or solve a practical problem elsewhere in the pottery - I suspect they like the change of scenery.

Clay story
The clay that we use at Whichford has been developed carefully over the years. Three different british clays, each a different colour, are blended so that we are left with a clay that is tough, malleable and, after firing, frostproof. I can plant pots and leave them outside with no extra protection for winter after winter; even after years of use and abuse lamination in the frost is extremely rare, so we can with confidence offer a 10 year guarantee against frost damage.

The frozen clay piles

The clay is stored outdoors as natural weathering is an important part of the process. Brian then uses the growly Bobcat to scoop up the required proportions of the clay.

Brian in the Bobcat
This raw clay and lots of water is put in the blunger, a thing a bit like a giant food processor. Here the clay is mixed thoroughly into a creamy slip. It's at this point that the stones, fossils and so-on settle out and are left behind.
Raw clays mixing with water in the blunger
The slip is then pumped through a pipe across the ceiling of the clay room to a sieving machine, where the last impurities are removed. The liquid clay then pours into a large, lidded vat, known as the 'ark'.

Richard with the 'ark'
Once enough slip has been sieved the liquid is then pumped into the filter press, which takes a few hours to squeeze out excess water.  For flowerpot throwing a moisture content of about 25% is required, so a sample is taken from the vat and weighed so that the amount of water to be removed can be calculated. A float switch stops the press when enough water has poured out into a tank.

The filter press
The heavy slabs of clay (two tons per press) are released and dropped onto a trolley, then moved to the first pugmill. This contraption is a bit like a giant corkscrew inside a cannon. The clay is fed in, mixed with grog; the pugmill chops and mixes it. Grog is fired clay ground into a fine grit, it's an important ingredient which helps to keep the body of the finished clay open, enabling large pots to dry evenly, more quickly and with minimal shrinkage, and to resist thermal shock in the firing process. The grog content is another element which contributes towards the frostproof nature of our pots, as the correct porosity is vital.

Lively discussion as Richard and Brian load clay and grog into the pugmill
Chunks of this clay, dusted with grog to stop them from sticking together are stacked on pallets, wrapped in plastic and then left to rest for a few weeks. This is a bit like leaving your pastry to rest, the result is more plastic and less short, so that it can be thrown without tearing and splitting. These chunks of clay are then pugged again before being loaded onto small trolleys to go to the makers.

Richard's beloved dog Willow comfy on a pallet of maturing clay
You can see the second pugmill on the left
The throwers then take the big chunks of clay and cut them into pieces, weighing the pieces carefully as a set amount of clay is required for each style of pot.

Simon weighs out his clay balls for the next batch of pots
The clay is slapped about a bit to remove air bubbles but not too much 'knocking up' is needed as the second pugging takes most of the air out. Air bubbles would cause the pot to crack in the kiln. The clay is then centred and throwing begins...

Simon starts throwing

Come in!
Everyone enjoys seeing the making at the pottery, but if you visit us do please go and see Richard and Brian in the clay room as well, don't be intimidated by the loud rumblings and chuggings of the machinery! They enjoy having visitors and explaining the processes - and it is genuinely one of the most interesting and overlooked parts of the pottery.

Friday, 3 February 2012

The pots are frostproof but not all my plants are...

Pots by the entrance arch at Whichford Pottery this week
The weather this week has been crisp and beautiful, which is ideal for showing off the warm colour, decorative detail and frostproofness of our pots.
Not so ideal, however for gardeners, especially those who, like me, have a weakness for tender plants. The fact that my greenhouse heater seems to be on its last legs is making me jittery and I dread to think what's going on in the polytunnel.

Icy grip
As each clear night sends the temperature plummeting still further I arrive in the mornings to see compost clenched ever more tightly around the emerging bulb shoots. With a bit of luck they'll shrug off this tight embrace and emerge unharmed.

Iris Halkis has carried on regardless. I love the detail on the backs of the falls (outer/lower petals).

Iris 'Halkis'

Incompetent stalking
Most of the plant life shrinks and flattens in the cold, which makes it easy to spot birds. I tried to sneak up on a green woodpecker but my footsteps crunched in the frost and it was gone in a trice. Even the long-tailed tits weren't very co-operative. They turned their backs on me and flew off, muttering to each other as they went.

Long-tailed tit at Whichford Pottery

Lonicera fragrantissima with pollen-spattered
bumble bee this week
The Lonicera fragrantissima on the sunnier side of the courtyard garden was attracting early bumble bees on Monday but by Thursday the garden was stony quiet, even the voices of our hardy customers were muffled by woolly scarves.

A pattern of growth
Frost ferns grew on the inside of the polytunnel...

Frost patterns in the polytunnel
...reminding me of the frost on this little conifer in one of the pots in the stockyard:

Frosted conifer in the stockyard

I'm terrible at identifying conifers - I suppose it's a prostrate Chamaecyparis of some sort but I'd be glad if someone could identify it for me, it has been re-used so many times it has long since been separated from its label.

Many of the evergreens I use in the pots actually look better in the frost, a smattering of ice crystals seems to highlight colour such as the reds and yellows in this Leucothoe fontanesiana, and of course in pots the plants are raised up so such details are all the more noticeable. That's if you can bear to stand still long enough to study them.

Leucothoe fontanesiana with a light dusting of frost

Know when you're beaten
Puss-Puss waiting for me to finish pruning
the willow arbour
It's best to keep moving in weather like this and on Monday and Tuesday I spent some time pruning the willow arbour (helped by Puss-Puss as usual) but even with six layers of clothing this was only really possible while the sun reached it. I'll finish it next week.

I retreated to the staff tea-room and finished my seed orders; I have ordered a combination of old favourites and new varieties and am determined to plant more edible plants this year. With limited space available they will all have to earn their keep ornamentally.

Edible pots
Our friends at Pennard Plants have a great range of unusual and heirloom veg, so I have ordered plenty from them. We sell some of their seeds in the Octagon at the pottery and I love the quirky packaging.

Seeds for Whichford from Pennards

Mrs Peabody, a black Maran who gave her name to
the salad mix 'Mrs Peabody's Piece of Provence'
Photo courtesy of Chris Smith at Pennard
Pennard have put together a collection of sweet pea seeds and a collection of cut and come again salads for us at Whichford, these are already available from the Octagon and I shall be sowing some next week. The packets are full of interesting factoids and some varieties are even endorsed by Chris and Mike's hens!

Kale and farewell
Ordering the seeds allows me to dream of summer. I was doing this and tidying the greenhouse when I came across a bag of Allium sphaerocephalon that I had missed, as I potted them up (worth a try) I remembered a particularly satisfying combination of these with Kale 'Nero di Toscana' in large pots in the stockyard from 2010.
Blurring the boundaries between more edibles and ornamentals this year is going to be fun!

Allium sphaerocephalon and Kale 'Nero di Toscana' in the Whichford stockyard, summer 2010