Cornwall should thank the Mexicans

3 horticultural happenings I noticed in Cornwall

I was recently lucky enough to spend just short of  a week with my wife and daughters in Cornwall, a “staycation” where we crammed in as much as possible whilst in this beautiful part of England (more about geopolitics later!).  The fact that Cornwall sits out on a limb wrapped in the warm waters of the gulf stream means it has a different climate to most of the rest of the UK – a climate which is fantastic for growing plants in.  By the time the warm sea water has found its way up to England’s shores from Mexico via that phenomenal gulf stream, it’s temperature is more “Winterfell” than “Kings Landing”, but there’s still enough warmth in it to give Cornwall a different feel and look to most other parts of the country.  Some people from Cornwall (or Kernow) might say that Cornwall is a separate country to the rest of England, but I’m not clever enough or know enough about all that to mix nationalist and geopolitics with gardening in the same blog piece, so I won’t.  I know a bit about plants though, and the gardens and plants I saw down there benefit greatly from that gulf stream induced climate – here are three garden related things I found most noticeable.

Cordyline

This architectural plant was seen in many a front garden whilst driving to different parts of Cornwall, in the form of very tall trunked “trees” with the spiky leaves sitting on the top, teasing us Northerners with their tropical exotic splendour.  I live near the seaside town of Morecambe in the North West, and there are a few cordylines that are bravely trying to “trunk up” in certain public planting displays but these are mere saplings compared to the tree-like specimens we spotted in Cornwall. I like the look of these plants, but I think that having some Cordyline this tall in my own back garden would give it a tropical beach feel that would be out of place with the rest of my garden’s theme.  However, to enjoy looking at them and how big they were in Cornwall was very striking and great, so thank you, you gulf stream wallowing, tropical style gardening county of Cornwall.

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Hydrangea

I fell in love big time with the hydrangeas I saw down there.  Actually in love and in lust.  If hydrangeas were another woman, my wife would now be searching a price comparison website for divorce solicitors and I would be thinking about weekend activities to do with my children on access visits.  Yes, I know they’re not exclusively grown in Cornwall and even my own Lancashire garden has a hydrangea in it, they’re not really affected by any Lancashire / Cornwall climate differences.

However, the aspect about hydrangeas that really caught my eye was that they were everywhere, and nothing says “yes, I am gorgeous and I really don’t mind if you stare at me, in fact I enjoy knowing that you are enjoying feasting your eyes upon my beautiful form whilst thinking impure thoughts” in a bigger way than an abundance of hydrangeas with their soft pastels of blue, pink, white and sometimes purple big and sexy round heads of blooms in almost every place where you would expect to see plants growing.

They grabbed my attention in the same way that noticing a beautiful woman is giving you the eye does (although to be fair, I’ve been married for that long now and only have eyes for my wife so would probably think this hypothetical “other woman” might have a nervous tic or problems with a contact lens). They really were beautiful, truly gorgeous and I enjoyed every second of feasting my eyes on them.  I now need to find a way of cramming more sexy hydrangeas into our back yard – every back yard should be a bit more sexy, life’s too short not to be, and I feel no shame in having a voyeuristic pleasure from ogling these stunning blooms. So there.

Crocosmia

Seeing the crocosmia growing in Cornwall has changed my firmly held conviction that they are a damn nuisance and a curse to have in a garden.  We once lived in a house that had a sea of crocosmia in both the front and back gardens, and they were a nightmare to control in order to make space for other plants.  They were already in the garden when we moved in. I didn’t appreciate their beauty when planted en-masse in my garden as I could only see them as a weed, unwanted and crowding out the plants I did want.  I must have dug out enough crocosmia bulbs to be able to reach the moon and back if they were placed in a line next to each other, and no matter how many I dug up, they would return the next year and once more crowd out any other plants I was trying to grow. That was then though, and now after seeing how profuse they are in Cornwall I have changed my opinion about them and only see their beauty.  Just like in my old garden, they literally grow as a weed down there, by roadsides next to hedges, next to paths and also more deliberately in formally planted arrangements like the ones I saw in Trenance Gardens, Newquay.  I hope some of the pictures I’ve attached do them justice, I most enjoyed the carpet or sea effect they had when planted in long drifts.

If you’ve never been to Cornwall, or like seeing plants at their best in the most beautiful of surroundings, I can highly recommend you pay a visit. After visiting Lancashire first, of course.

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Music in my nose

My first daily prompt challenge – Fragrance.

Fragrance

Some say you can track key moments in your life by the music you heard at that time, that songs and memories are linked.  For example “You do something to me” by Paul Weller – the first time I kissed my wife.  I say I can do the same with smells – certain smells instantly take me back to places, times spent with people, events happening around me either mundane or extraordinary – all these memories are triggered by certain smells.

Orange scented bubblegum – the memory of thinking I had stood in bubblegum whilst walking down a path at RHS Wisley only to discover it was actually a Philadelphus “Belle Etoile” shrub creating that smell.  I bought a plant of my own about four years ago but as yet it hasn’t recreated the same strength of smell for me. This smell means patience to me – as a gardener we have to have lots of it.

Slightly aging carpets, Warburtons white bread crumbs and salty homemade stew – a unique blend of smells which puts me straight back into my Grandma’s house. A very happy place for me so of course a smell I am keen to remember. I miss you Grandma, and I also miss your “fistful of salt” stews, even if my kidneys don’t!

Hot wet dust, made wet by a sudden downpour in a usually very arid land.  A smell which conjures up memories I haven’t yet fully processed, of time spent in a country with a job I had that wouldn’t be on my list of “top ten holiday destinations”.  Say no more, it’s probably for the best.

A certain chemical / plastic smell – Starwars toys as a boy. A very happy memory and how I wish I could recreate the excitement I used to feel when opening a new Starwars toy.

Blankets and flowers – straight away I’m in the hospital where both my daughters were born.

Incense, dust and “funny vimto” – a memory of going to church as a boy, the funny vimto was the smell of communion wine on the adults’ breath, the incense was because the Priest had a funny metal handbag thing he swung around and the dust was down to the fact that the Priest was far too busy well, Priesting rather than having the time to go round with a can of Mr Sheen and a yellow duster.

Tepid milk, poster paint and wet clothes – Reception Class at the Primary School I went too.  I remember the milk used to have pictures of dinosaurs on the cartons and was never what you’d call “fresh”, also the wet clothing smell was because it seems to me it was always raining.

WD40, old leather and mechanical grease – the inside of the 1980s long wheelbase Landrover Safari that I first kissed my wife in.  Oh fragrances, You do something to me.

 

 

 

 

 

One less chicken in the back yard

We’ve been lucky enough to have ex battery hens for about five years now.  We get them as rescued hens, which always puts an image in my mind of a crazy chicken lady (yes, there is such a type of person!) wearing a balaclava breaking into a factory at night on an SAS style raid to release some chickens from their cages to ‘give it to the man’ and set free some beautiful hens in the process.

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The reality is slightly less James Bond – a not so crazy chicken lady (or man, rescue hens attract a very varied fan club!) will arrange very politely over the telephone for the collection of some battery hens from a factory style poultry farm for free and then arrange to re-home them.  This arrangement benefits all parties – the rescuer gets to save some hens from an untimely and ungrateful death (commercial egg layers are normally killed at about 18 months old as their egg production rate drops off and it’s no longer financially viable for these large “factory farms” to keep them alive), the factory farm saves some money on not having to hire in a gang of dispatchers (a euphemism for those paid to kill and remove the no longer required hens) and members of the public, like me, who have a bit of space in a garden, a secure shed / coop for them to sleep in and the will to love and look after some previously unloved beautiful animals – with the added benefit of some eggs for the fridge. Kind of a like a ‘friends with benefits’ arrangement, but with chickens, and without the ‘benefits’ usually associated with ‘that’ kind of arrangement. Let’s not go there.

I was the main instigator behind getting our original batch of rescued hens, and to be honest I shamelessly used the tactic of showing my wife a photograph of what a caged hen looks like – very few feathers, skinny, barely able to walk (they spend nearly all of their lives unable to walk as they are in a cage) and generally looking and being in a zombie like state. I didn’t just tug at her heart strings, I twanged them and tried to play the tune “Born Free” with the resulting resonating notes. Only a person with a total inability to show compassion for the helpless would say no after that (well, she did marry me so I knew she had a caring side!). If more people knew what being in a cage does to these hens, they would be very careful about which eggs they chose to buy and may even consider owning some rescued hens themselves.

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Sometimes rescued hens have led very traumatic lives before their salvation comes in the form of re-homing and it can be too much for them – we have had a couple who were in such a state after rescue that they died before they could properly recover – they just don’t seem to be able to cope with their new found freedom. Among that very first batch of rescued caged hens was one for whom we didn’t have much hope of survival, and held off giving her a name as we didn’t think she would live through the first few days. This particular hen was very lethargic, her eyes didn’t shine and barely opened, she had a bust leg so struggled to walk and only had feathers growing in the places where she hadn’t been able to pull them out in sheer boredom – if that’s what living in a cage does then I choose freedom. This particularly runty runt of a litter of runts went on to be named Poppy, and became my youngest daughter Ruby’s best friend, a source of lots of happiness and both the receiver and giver of lots of love.

Ruby instantly took a shine to Poppy, and when after those first few days it looked like Poppy would make it we asked our daughters to choose a hen each that they would be responsible for and also get to name – without hesitating Ruby chose Poppy. When asked why, I remember her saying it was because Poppy needed lots of cuddles as she wasn’t very well and that she would give her those cuddles and help her to get better. Ruby’s care plan for Poppy involved giving lots of those aforementioned cuddles, feeding her on the plumpest of worms found by Ruby lifting up all the plant pots in the back yard and generally being the most pampered hen in Lancashire.  Yes, hair clips have been sported on Poppy’s wings and even though chickens can poo unexpectedly so therefore should be left outside, Poppy has graced our living room couch whilst snuggled up with Ruby watching various childrens’ TV shows!

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Poppy thrived, and for a while was even the top hen in the pecking order.  Her wonky legs became strong after the chance to exercise in our yard and before long Poppy could outrun Ussein Bolt if the chance of an earthworm, strawberry top or a handful of corn scattered on the floor was at stake!  I have watched over the last five years or so my daughter spend many happy hours playing with, talking to and looking after Poppy and her “sisters”, but mainly Poppy as that’s who the choicest of treats went to first! My daughter found happiness by giving an animal from a very bad background lots of attention, which in turn made Poppy the hen happy.  Happy daughter, happy chicken – I personally found this deeply satisfying to be an observer of, it’s a beautiful thing.

Fast forward to autumn last year – an Avian Influenza outbreak started about 20 miles from where we live and although our hens didn’t catch it, they were subject to the DEFRA instruction to keep all flocks, even “back yard” flocks of small sizes under cover / indoors.  This meant that our hens spent the full winter in our shed, with outside access only being allowed towards spring and only then if under a netted off area – this was to prevent cross contamination from wild birds who were thought to be spreading the disease.  We complied with the DEFRA instructions, but the hens didn’t fare well under being inside for a few months. On letting them out properly for the first time, they weren’t the confident and inquisitive, food orientated feathered bags of fun they used to be.  They had regressed to a state with echoes of the state we first got them in – skinny, bald patches (not from molting, but from boredom pecking) and lethargic.  The hen who looked the worse was Poppy – old age had found her in the dark winter months of being confined to the shed and had visibly taken a toll.

Poppy got older quite quickly from spring until a couple of weeks ago when after a very upsetting 24 hours, she died in her sleep on a bed of straw we had prepared in the shed – we didn’t think she would be able to make it up onto the perch to sleep that night and sadly she didn’t.  I’d encouraged Ruby to spend some time with Poppy and say goodbye before the end came, and as I type now my eyes are leaking a bit whilst I remember it. In the morning, we brought Poppy out of the shed and after lots of tears and goodbye cuddles we buried Poppy in a large raised brick planter in our back yard.  She was laid on a bed of fresh straw in the grave and we put flowers, a handful of corn and some letters into her grave with her.

Can the heart ache and torment that Poppy’s death caused Ruby be justified? I’ll try to.   One of a parent’s many responsibilities to their children is to prepare them for the rest of their lives.  Through her friendship with Poppy, Ruby has learned to show compassion, to care for those who can’t care for themselves, to be responsible for an animal, to love unreservedly, and has experienced many, many happy times as a direct result of being with Poppy. These are qualities I want my children to display and be conversant with both now and as adults.  She has also been given an opportunity to know what it’s like to lose someone you love – never a pleasurable experience but an inevitable part of life.  I feel that all these experiences with Poppy will help Ruby to grow into the loving person she is already becoming.  I also strongly suspect that mainly due to five years of being Poppy’s ‘mum’, Ruby will go on to work with animals in some sort of capacity – please don’t be a Vet though Ruby, your mother and I would struggle to support you through all those years of University!

It’s not all about Ruby though, I feel that it’s important that we have also given Poppy a shot at a good life after she was freed from a cage  – had she stayed in that cage she was destined to live for no longer than 18 months until some people in wellington boots and overalls came with their strong hands and wrung her neck.  Thanks to Alison at Lucky Hens NorthWest in Wigan for giving the gift of freedom to Poppy by allowing Poppy to live with us where we gave her love.  And thank you to Poppy, for everything, we miss you in our back yard.

Rumour has it, although I didn’t see it happen, that Poppy even got to be held going down a very small (and hopefully safe) childrens’ slide in our back yard whilst being held firmly by Ruby and supervised by her mum.  Who said chickens couldn’t fly?

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Videos about our chickens can be found in this playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLCw-UoMo0fIAlXnnpuODQcgdSI4gNAebz

And our YouTube channel, Petals on the Paving Slabs can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCJFVV-qsYBR4dghsHx5quhg