Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Rhubarb, broccoli, beans and a special daffodil ...

rhubarb flourishing in the walled garden
It's rhubarb season again, and ours is flourishing in the walled garden. Look out for it in the seasonal treats on offer in the Potting Shed Cafe: rhubarb scones baked freshly every day, and the lovely Rhubarb and Almond Cake too. Rhubarb is best known for its role in the ultimate comfort food, the crumble, but it can also be used in chutneys and jams.

It's ridiculously easy to grow in your own garden, clumps can be divided and split in the autumn to maintain vigour, or you can leave them to do their own thing for years and years. They will be grateful for a little mulch of compost or well-rotted manure around their crowns in late winter.

purple sprouting broccoli is at its best now
Purple sprouting broccoli is also at its best now, and tastes wonderful in a stir fry, or as a vegetable just steamed for a few minutes and tossed in some butter with a little salt and black pepper.

You can sow purple sprouting broccoli outdoors from the end of April and it will offer up a bountiful harvest in the following spring. Some varieties, such as Kabuki, may even give you an autumn picking. Wood pigeons and caterpillars might prove problematic, and many people will net their crops to protect them. Our plants were left to fend for themselves, and were certainly munched, but seem to have come through with a nice crop all the same.
baby broad bean plants emerging
Broad beans can be sown directly into the ground at this time of year, or if you were sneaky and started them off in a greenhouse earlier, they can be hardened off and planted out. Harvesting the pods when they're young and tender means you get lovely sweet beans that taste delicious pan fried; or you could be a little more adventurous and use them in a broad bean hummus. If you have a glut of broad beans, simply blanche them and pop them in the freezer.
Narcissus poeticus looking to the skies
And whilst you might not be able to eat this daffodil, Narcissus poeticus is one of my favourite things in the garden at the moment. Poetic indeed, its pristine white petals and small red-edged cups make it stand out from the crowd, but what's really special is the sweet scent each flower exudes. It has an RHS AGM (Award of Garden Merit) and if you're thinking of adding one more daffodil to your garden then let it be this.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Restoration Work in Snipes Dene

Wednesday 26th March 2014

Several years ago much of Snipes Dene was cleared of conifer trees. The conservation team’s remit today was to help get the restoration process underway. A group of 10 volunteers headed off to one end of Snipes Dene to plant out 150 oak saplings (whips). Three small areas were each to receive 50 saplings.

After selecting a suitable spot to plant a sapling, a small area of ground was screefed ( a process of scraping away vegetation to expose a bare patch of earth, thus removing any competition from the newly planted sapling). The saplings were notch planted:  two deep notches into the ground at right angles, to form a "T" shape and a flap of earth was lifted so that the tree could be inserted into the gap. The notch was then closed by treading around the tree at the same time keeping the stem vertical. A protective plastic tube was then placed around the sapling and held in place by a wooden stake.

Preparation Work

Fitting Protective Tube

The Right Way up! Notice the flared edge
which prevents damage tot the growing sapling.
By lunchtime the task was complete, so 5 of us headed off to another part Snipes Dene to thin out silver birch trees as we had done last week in West Wood.
One of the planting sites
At a later date there will be more tree planting in Snipes Dene, including alder and other native species.
Further signs of spring abound with lesser celandine, dog’s violet, coltsfoot and cowslip. It will soon be time to start some survey work.
Phil Coyne


Sunday, 23 March 2014

What we joined for

19 March 2014

This time last year the lambs at Gibside got their picture in the national newspapers wearing little orange jackets to protect them from the relentless wintry weather. Today, they looked just as lambs should look, though, if the weather forecasters have got it right, they may need that extra layer yet.
2 young lambs with their mother Parkfields

Your Gibside Wednesday Conservation Team was on its way for another round of destruction. This time we were in an area of West Wood which had been felled about nine or ten years ago. An assortment of native species in plastic protective tubes had partially replaced the alien conifers; the rest had been left to nature. Nature – in the shape of silver birch and downy birch and some holly –now covered the area densely. We were there to give nature a helping hand by clearing around the planted trees and substantially thinning out the birch to allow the remaining plants to thrive, though leaving some protection for the odd other native species that had taken root.
A well built logpile

Sizing up the problem

There is always a satisfaction in visiting this area, for it is the site of a number of well-constructed log piles built in October 2006 as the first task of the then newly formed Nature Conservation Volunteer Team.  As we worked, a pair of buzzards called and circled; nearby are a couple of old nesting sites for them to reconsider. Blue tits and great tits twittered through the day and a tawny owl called. Amongst the undergrowth we came across the redundant nest of a song thrush – beautifully crafted and mud lined, with tiny fragments of blue shell.
Song Thrush Nest

Along the woodland fringe, dogs mercury is in flower. In the woods, leaves of wood sorrel are poking through, and leaf buds are coming out on birch, hawthorn and honeysuckle. There are patches of frogspawn in the woodland ponds. We sat out of the wind for lunch in the sunshine, sheltered by more mature trees, and watched a pair of treecreepers spiral their way up a nearby sycamore; a ladybird wandered across an idle hand, and the tits kept up their song.

Scanning the woods for signs of the Buzzards
Pond in Parkfileds
Frog spawn
At the end of the day, we passed the lambs again on our way back to our base. We found another large patch of frogspawn in the field pond, and a pair of mallards took flight; a moorhen hid itself away among the brown leaves of last year’s marsh vegetation. Chickweed has started to flower and, as we climbed the field fence, a red kite swooped not more than twenty feet above us. Ah, this is what we joined for.
Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

Monday, 10 March 2014

Beautiful bulbs ...

Crocus angustifolia in the orangery
Today was one of the most beautiful days in the world.

Gibside sparkled like new under the blue sky and warming light that seem to have been borrowed from a dream of the perfect spring day. Our plants have responded in kind, opening their buds that had been tightly pursed for the last week, to revel in the warmth. Crocus in particular have been stretching their petals into goblets tailor-made to fill up with the liquid light.

Spring, perhaps, belongs to bulbs, and who would argue against Crocus angustifolia stealing the show with its golden glow?

Crocus Whitewell Purple in the walled garden
Crocus "Whitewell Purple" is currently livening up the herbaceous border in the walled garden; look out for its feathered orange stigma and the silvery sheen that coats the inside of its petals reflecting the sun in a white haze.

our first daffodils
The first daffodils are also in flower in the orangery. They grow through the mat of ground cover formed by Pachysandra terminalis, whose understated white flowers are the perfect foil for these showy narcissus heads.

Chionodoxa luciliae in the orangery
The sweet blue of Chionodoxa luciliae mirrored the sky this afternoon, and though their flowers only sit a few centimetres from the soil--or the gravel where they've happily seeded themselves--they pack a vibrant punch of colour.

the vagrant Anemone blanda
Finally, here's Anemone blanda, a woodland wanderer tucked in by the yew hedges en route to the orangery. It may look a little dishevelled, lacking in grace and finesse even, but that's all just a part of its charm.

This week's predicted run of halcyon days is sure to stir even more of our beautiful bulbs into bloom ... why not come and enjoy them in the sunshine.

stars of Scilla siberica

Monday, 3 March 2014

Quite childish and not very amusing

26 February 2014

The Ha-ha full of autumn leaves
Toiling in the Ha-ha has its moments, but standing in mud and water shovelling out load after load of sodden leaves is certainly not funny. As a distraction, we did give some time to pondering the origin of the word which, if you care to look it up, is strangely disappointing. The other strange thing about this Gibside Avenue Ha-ha is that it serves little amusing purpose; it’s a bit of an oddity – offering, as it does for much of its length, only an uninterrupted view of the adjacent grassy bank when viewed from the Hall. It serves the Chapel better, but a wall might have done. The livestock are kept at bay, of course, but you might otherwise wonder why it’s there. Well, clearly, it gives a distinct edge to the Avenue, but it is, perhaps, just as much a product of changing fashion in landscape design.

Clearing the Ha-ha

What the Ha-ha most certainly does do is gather vast quantities of autumn leaves, creating a drainage problem for its ditch, and a great deal of hard work for the Wednesday Conservation Volunteers. We seem to have done a lot of leaf clearing in the wet of recent weeks. But these last two weeks have found us doing more satisfying conservation work, looking after nature.

The building of the aerial walkway from the new car park to walled-garden and café area laid blight to the ground beneath. With some difficulty, digging down through builders’ rubble and soil-stabilizing netting, the team worked with Head Gardener Keith to plant an assortment of shrubs and trees including holly, yew, hazel and rose. Much of the timber that had been felled to make way for the walkway had already been used to build log piles back in the autumn. Log piles encourage invertebrates, and invertebrates attract anything that likes to eat them.
Whist some of the team were working under the walkway, others supervised visitors in cutting back the rhododendron in the woods by the Hollow Walk which constantly threatens to blanket the woodland floor and smother native plant life. In all one hundred and twenty visitors joined in – sixty-nine children and fifty-one bigger people; that would have been half-term week. This week the not-so-young Conservation Volunteers took great pleasure in burning the cuttings on three bonfires in the woods; quite childish really. 
The Team at Work Burning Rhododendron Cuttings

As well as being rampant, rhododendron can be quite substantial, so we used the larger bits to build another log pile in the woods. Across the track we removed rhododendron the size of trees to uncover an ageing sweet chestnut: a visible reward for our efforts.

Building the log pile
Column to Liberty and Sweet Chestnut now visible
after cutting back the rhododendrons
The Team head for home after another fruitful day.

Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Ranger Phil's Nature Diary - In search of Gibside's elusive mammals

Gibside is home to twenty-nine (or thereabouts) species of mammal.  Most of these are largely nocturnal so are seldom seen and those that are active during daylight hours tend to be elusive hiding away in the quiet, less disturbed areas.  One way of observing and recording these is with the use of motion sensored cameras which can be programmed to take still photos or short video clips.  I have recently tried to capture footage of our resident otters and, after several attempts when all I caught was a blurred flash of one, I was lucky to record the following footage.


 Below is some footage of a couple of roe deer which were also captured recently using the same camera.


Wednesday, 19 February 2014

A novelist in our midst ... meet Val Boyle

Val, and the December edition of her novel
Garden volunteer Val Boyle has just published her first novel; she was kind enough to answer a few questions about her work and how Gibside and her sister property Cherryburn have played a role in its creation ...

Val, would you tell me a little bit about yourself? 

I’m a Lancastrian and my husband Kev’s a Yorkshireman:  I taught English and he was a railway civil engineer.  We’ve lived in a few different places but as soon as we came to the north-east in 1988, we put down roots.  I was Head of English at La Sagesse until I was 45; I decided I needed a change, so I did a masters in Library Management and spent 10 years as school librarian at Ryton Comprehensive.  I’ve always wanted to write but didn’t find the creative energy until I finally left work at 55.  I published Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree in December, and in January made a new edition with the photo of Cherryburn on the cover.

I know you (and Kev) as part of our wonderful volunteer team here at Gibside. Can you explain how your volunteering work came about? 

We knew and loved Gibside but it wasn’t until we looked on the Do-It website that we realized we could actually get involved here!  I do some volunteering at the Lit & Phil and the Mining Institute too, but I love being outside and getting muddy, so being part of the garden's Shrubbery Team is perfect for me!
January 2014 edition
Was there an initial impulse or event that made you decide to write Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree?

I knew I wanted to write but didn’t know where to start.  I’m interested in the therapeutic benefits of writing so I went to a taster day with Pen & Tonic.  One of the exercises we did woke up all kinds of memories of my childhood summers on a Lancashire farm, it was like a dam-burst: all sorts of ideas flowed from that.

How did Gibside and Cherryburn influence your novel?

Both places are so evocative, so full of echoes and so soothing to the soul.  There’s something about Gibside that powerfully affects my imagination in the same way as the lost Gardens of Heligan.  For such a place to have been neglected for so long, and to be part of the team bringing it back to life – it’s a privilege.  In Cherryburn, I found the farm where the story is set:  everything about the gardens, the sandstone buildings, the period and the interior was perfect – I could see my characters going about their business.  While I was writing it, I was often to be found in the farmyard communing with my muse!

I know your next project also has a Gibside connection … would you explain a little more about this?

Gibside's Orangery ... inspirational
Working around the Orangery and in the walled garden, especially when we uncovered the planting plates, I felt an imaginative connection with the eighteenth century gardeners and began to think about how Gibside’s fate had been so bound up in the fate of Mary Eleanor Bowes. It was only a short step to empathizing with her and imagining how it must have felt to witness her father’s work coming to its fruition only to have so much of it destroyed in her lifetime.  It’s not only her story, but also that of the estate workers – one in particular.  I’m using real people and events, but with added imagination.  It’s told by Mary Eleanor towards the end of her life, and it’s entirely focused on Gibside.

Many thanks Val, for taking the time to answer my questions, and I know we all wish you every success with your writing.

   *   *   *   *   * 
If you'd like to read Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree for yourself, then it's available from Gibside's shop and also on Amazon as an e-book and a paperback.  

For more details and information, please visit the novel's website: