Sunday 26 February 2006

Ongoing projects: Somme poppies

In 1996 I spent a week trawling round the battlefields of the Somme in northern France. I was writing a play about the First World War, and was doing a lot of thinking about those times and what people went through. One of the places I visited was a memorial to the Ulster Division, who had a terrible time at the Battle of the Somme. The British Army were imperialist bastards in those days and considered provincial and colonial soldiers to be more expendable than full-blooded Englishmen, so they were given all the worst jobs. (Maybe things haven't changed that much ... ever noticed how many soldiers killed in Iraq are from Scottish regiments?) Northern Ireland was not really considered a part of Britain at that time so its regiments were sent into battle on the bloodiest parts of the line. The Ulster Division were given the impossible task of attacking and capturing a major German fortification, and were fully expected to fail. But remarkably they did capture it ... mainly by just running straight at it and frightening the Germans off. But having pushed so far forward over the German line they were exposed on three sides and needed back-up troops to follow up and consolidate their position. Unhappily for them, there were no back-up troops. The British command had expected them all to be massacred and hadn't bothered to lay on reinforcements. So the Ulster Division waited, and held their ground and waited, until the Germans came back and recaptured the land and killed them all.

The site where all this happened is a weird place. All picturesque farmland now. An Irish-style tower has been built there as a memorial, and many of the trenches have been left untouched since the Ulster Division occupied them. And there are plenty of reminders. While I was driving up the road to the tower I saw something slip down the steep grass verge into the road in front of me. It was an unexploded Mills bomb.

As it was June when I visited, some of the trenches were filled with poppies, and I collected some seeds.

Just a few months later I got a chance to go over to Northern Ireland, so I took the Ulster poppy seeds with me and sowed them on a grass verge in Co. Armagh, near Lough Neagh, which seemed about as close as I could get to the heart of Ulster.

Then there were the Wilfred Owen poppies.

The Sentry
We'd found an old Boche dug-out, and he knew,
And gave us hell, for shell on frantic shell
Hammered on top, but never quite burst through.
Rain, guttering down in waterfalls of slime,
Kept slush waist-high and rising hour by hour,
And choked the steps too thick with clay to climb.
What murk of air remained stank old, and sour
With fumes of whizz-bangs, and the smell of men
Who'd lived there years, and left their curse in the den,
If not their corpses...

                                    There we herded from the blast
Of whizz-bangs, but one found our door at last,
Buffeting eyes and breath, snuffing the candles,
And thud! flump! thud! down the steep steps came thumping
And sploshing in the flood, deluging muck -
The sentry's body; then his rifle, handles
Of old Boche bombs, and mud in ruck on ruck.
We dredged him up, for killed, until he whined
'O sir, my eyes - I'm blind, - I'm blind, I'm blind!'
Coaxing, I held a flame against his lids
And said if he could see the least blurred light
He was not blind; in time he'd get all right.
'I can't' he sobbed. Eyeballs, huge-bulged like squids',
Watch my dreams still; but I forgot him there
In posting Next for duty, and sending a scout
To beg a stretcher somewhere, and flound'ring about
To other posts under the shrieking air.
                       *            *            *
Those other wretches, how they bled and spewed,
And one who would have drowned himself for good, -
I try not to remember these things now.
Let dread hark back for one word only: how
Half-listening to that sentry's moans and jumps,
And the wild chattering of his broken teeth,
Renewed most horribly whenever crumps
Pummelled the roof and slogged the air beneath, -
Through the dense din, I say, we heard him shout
'I see your lights!' But ours had long died out.

Wilfred Owen 1918

On the same trip I decided to try to locate the site of the dug-out occupied by Owen when he served on the Somme in January 1917, where the incident in The Sentry occurred. I had a book which gave a pretty good indication where it was, based on Owen's description of it in letters to his mum and army records of where he was posted at the time, near the village of Serre. The dug-out has since been excavated and restored, but at the time I visited there was nothing visible except a slight dip in the ground in a cornfield. For the most part, the relics of the First World War are hidden unless you know where to look. In the early 1920s most of the trenches were hastily filled in because people just wanted to forget about it.

But with the help of a 1917 trench map I found what I thought must be the site of part of the trench occupied by Owen at that time (not the dug-out, which was stuck out in No Man's Land, but the British front line a short distance behind it). Quite a weird feeling to be sauntering about in the sunshine on the same spot where Owen floundered under the shrieking air. I worked out the point at which the site of the trench intersected the modern day road, and when I looked ... there was a cross section of the trench wall faintly but distinctly visible in the bank and ditch at the side of the road, including some upright wooden boards with traces of green paint (probably used to line the front wall of the trench) and chunks of rusty shell casing. And a few live shells, some still with their fuses.

Also in the trench were the most beautiful wild poppies (Papaver rhoeas) I've ever seen.

They were an incredibly intense deep red with a strong black spot at the base of each petal forming a cross shape, sometimes with a flash of white, and they were bigger and taller than usual. I've never seen anything like them growing wild in England, although botanically they're the same species we get over here. There weren't any ripe seedheads, so I had to collect some unripe ones and hope for the best.

When I did sow them they came up lovely. The flowers aren't quite as spectacular as the ones I originally saw (they miss the French soil and climate) but I love them and have been growing them ever since. Most wild flowers grow best in poor soil, but the Somme poppies like to grow in rich soil and be nurtured. If they're not fed sufficiently they revert to a smaller flower form with no basal blotch.

That's what I find so interesting about poppies, and no doubt the reason they've survived so robustly in the wild: they are incredibly adaptable. If a plant finds itself growing in less than ideal conditions it simply produces smaller and less exciting flowers ... and can adjust itself continually over the course of a single season. Poppies are cornfield weeds and have adapted to patterns of agriculture, germinating as soon as the ground has been ploughed so that they get a headstart on the corn. The seeds are sensitive to soil disturbance, and can lie dormant for 100 years until conditions are right. This is of course the real reason the First World War battlefields were so spectacularly colonised by poppies when hostilities ended: four years of pounding the earth with high explosives stimulated a mass-germination of dormant seeds.

The direct offspring of the poppies from Owen's trench growing in my garden

Ongoing projects: Local wildflowers

It's very trendy to have your own miniature wildflower meadow these days, and I've got my small patch set aside at the bottom of the garden for nature to do its stuff. It comprises a scruffy bit of lawn full of ribwort which was always a bugger to mow anyway because it's all lumpy-bumpy, a thick cluster of old damson, pear, elder and lilac trees, and a shady patch behind them which the previous owners used as a log store (now occupied by a luxurious crop of nettles). Which is perfect, because it's got three habitats in one: a sunny meadow, something resembling a hedgerow, and a shady woodland edge, all of which should support different species of wildflower.

This year I'm expanding the range of habitats even further, donating an adjacent chunk of garden for a 'soggy patch' (can't really give it the glamorous title of bog garden, it ain't exotic or squishy enough) and digging over a small strip of the meadow to make a tiny cornfield. Because the soil here is so dry it's difficult for me to grow any of the native wildflowers that thrive in British sogginess. I'm hoping that by digging out a bed and lining it at the bottom with a lightly perforated polythene sheet, I might just slow down the drainage enough for some of them to thrive. The bed is laid out with a border of large logs (the last relics of the previous owners' firewood stash) which are untreated, so they'll gradually dissolve into the garden and provide a nice habitat for interesting fungus. The cornfield bit will be sown with wheat or barley and should provide a home for those plants which prefer richer soil and don't thrive in grass, like poppies and cornflowers.

It's a bit ambitious to have five contrasting habitats in an area about 20ft square, but what the hell.

White campion (Silene alba) which I grew from seeds collected on a local railway line

In addition to the usual flowering weeds (speedwell, chickweed, dandelion, plantain, great willowherb, cat's-ear, hairy bittercress, Canadian fleabane, daisies and buttercups) there were some wildflowers already growing here when I took over the garden:
Black medick
Wood avens
White deadnettle
Red deadnettle
Ivy-leaved toadflax
Cut-leaved cranesbill
Herb robert
Lesser celandine
An as-yet-unidentified vetch

Most interesting of all, I have a mauve-flowered scarlet pimpernel. I found two of them growing in the lawn when we moved here, and avoided mowing them. I collected some seeds and let the rest self-sow. The following year there were quite a few of them ... so they may be coming true from seed. That'd be nice.

Having set aside my meadow, I have to go about sowing it with something more interesting than ribwort. I like the idea of making it a microcosm of the surrounding area by growing species native to Gloucestershire. So rather than buying a commercial seed mix I've been collecting seeds locally, which means I'm only growing plants that belong around here, and helping to preserve any local variants into the bargain. I hasten to add I'm meticulously careful about what I collect and where from, because plundering stuff from the wild to stock your own garden is not generally something to be encouraged. I only collect from good sized colonies and only take as many seeds (not plants) as I need to propagate a handful ... because I can build up my own stock over successive years. Anything that's rare or delicate I don't touch. They're collected from various places in the immediate vicinity of Cheltenham, the main sources being the disused Honeybourne railway line and the crescent of hills surrounding the town. Some of the seeds are sown in plugs of sterile compost, labelled, and cultivated like garden plants (most respond well to it, as long as the compost is low in nutrients). The rest are chucked straight into the meadow and given a good trampling.

These are the species I've collected in the Cheltenham area so far (not all are growing here yet, but I'm working on it):
Small scabious
Field scabious
Common knapweed
Greater knapweed
Rock rose
Lady's bedstraw
Yellow rattle
Autumn gentian
Kidney vetch
Salad burnet
Red clover
Wild thyme
Wild marjoram
Slender St John's wort
Dwarf thistle
Woolly thistle
Common hemp nettle
Wood sage
Pineapple weed
Hemp agrimony
Ox-eye daisy
White campion
Red Campion
Bladder campion
Hedge woundwort

Not bad, I reckon.

An intro to my garden

This is my garden. It's approximately 100ft by 26ft, faces west, and is usually a bit of a mess. It's been a garden since 1936 ... before that it was an orchard, and the soil is very, VERY sandy.

I only moved here in 2004, at which time the whole thing was almost completely turfed over with several overgrown fruit trees and bushes. I'm still in the process of bringing everything back into cultivation, digging up turf and rejuvenating the fruit bushes. Although the garden has been much loved by previous owners over the years it's also been dosed with all kinds of toxic gunk (I found some of the bottles in the shed when I moved in) so I'm in the process of restoring a balanced ecosystem. Unfortunately this takes a few years, can't be hurried, and often involves watching your precious plants being massacred by pests and diseases while nature sorts itself out. I'm also having to chuck stupendous amounts of organic matter onto the soil to get it into decent condition again ... it's so sandy that water and nutrients just drain straight through it.

I've got various projects on the go, which are described in separate posts and will be updated from time to time.

Daughter of the Soil

OK, so why start another blog when there's masses of information for gardeners on the net already? Why start another blog at all, since I've already got one for my musical activities, which I post to most days?

Well, I grow a lot of unusual stuff in my garden - rare herbs and Victorian vegetables - and I do a bit of experimentation with growing methods and plant breeding. So there's just a chance that somebody, somewhere, might find it useful and interesting.

The other day I bought some heritage apple trees from a specialist grower. I hadn't been able to find out much about these varieties on the internet, so I asked him about them ... and he shrugged and explained that some of them are so rare nobody knows anything about them yet. It's only when a few interested individuals have taken the trouble to grow them and share their experiences that any info will become available. And that made me realise that even small-scale ill-disciplined amateurs like me have an important role to play in building up this specialist knowledge.

I've been making written notes for two years already, because I always forget things if I don't. So I may as well make my notes publicly available.

I have to thank my husband Ian for supporting me while I indulge my interests and spend his money on plants, and my esteemed friend William Shaw for calling me a horny-handed daughter of the soil in the first place.