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!

1 comment:

  1. Loved the willow tutorial, Harriet! Thank you! It's clear I have a lot of practicing to do. Oh, and it goes without saying...also loved those lambs. But, who wouldn't?