Celia Hart's blog about what's going on in and around her studio.
Art, printmaking, inspirations, gardening, vegetables, hens, landscapes, wild flowers, East Anglia, adventure, travel.

Friday 30 April 2010

Sculptors in residence

In the shallow part of the Dragonfly Pond I spied some intriguing constructions in the water . . .

. . . was an elfin Andy Goldsworthy at work in our pond?

I remembered seeing tiny constructions, in a stream, that were made by caddis fly larvae – they build little underwater houses to live in. I looked on my bookshelf for an insect book for information . . .

Mmmm? This wasn't going to be easy! Nothing on the page looked exactly like the things in our pond.

I decided to ask BBC Springwatch, they had liked my newt photos when I added them to the Springwatch Flickr page. In a very short time an insect expert had pointed me in the direction of this book . . .

. . . and when it arrived in the post after a couple of days, I quickly found the name of our clever creative builders, Limnephilus flavicornis.

Another amazing creature living in our garden, eating our Duck Weed (they're welcome - chomp away L. flavicornis) and in due course emerging as delicate buff flying insects. Maybe some will lay eggs in the pond edge to start the life-cycle over again? Others might fly higher and become a night-time snack for the local bats? Their lives are part of the biodiversity of our little patch – and that makes me very happy.

Monday 26 April 2010

Purple patches on the Devil's Dyke

On Saturday evening we strolled along the Devil's Dyke, you may have seen Silverpebble's post about the morning stroll from her cottage to the western end of the Dyke. We live nearer to the eastern end of the 7.5 mile Saxon ditch and bank, near the precious site where the Pasqueflowers (pulsatilla vulgaris) grow. Were they blooming once again? I blogged about them last year on 19th April, then there were many healthy plants; this year the plants are smaller from lack of moisture and many flowers are yet to open.

On the south facing chalk bank, in little scrapes made by the local bunnies, there were clusters of the purple flowers, they looked as if they were sheltering from the cold evening breeze.

Up close you can see the petals, sepals and stalk are covered with soft downy hairs.

The Pasqueflower wasn't the only purple patch on the grassy bank. Here is another special flower that is rare in our part of the world, the Hairy Violet (viola hirta). It is unscented and flowers slightly later than the Sweet Violet, it also likes to grow in open grassy places rather than shady hedgerows. The Hairy Violet makes beautiful tuffets of bright green leaves and blue-mauve flowers.

Ground Ivy (glechoma hederacea) is a common plant, we have lots in our lawn! On the Devil's Dyke the plants are stunted and nestle in the turf. It is a potent (and toxic) herb and over the centuries has been used to treat many conditions, it was used to curdle milk for cheese making and in Saxon times Ground Ivy leaves were used to add a bitter note to beer – that's a good a reason as any to find it growing on a Saxon defensive earthwork. The flowers have beautiful speckled throats and the leaves take on a rusty redness when they grow on the thin dry chalk soil.

This final purple splash is tiny, so teeny weeny you need to be very observant to spot it . . . Milkwort (glaux vulgaris). I had to crawl down the precipitous bank and cling on with my toes to take this photo! It's an exquisitely pretty flower that has a clean fresh appearance, the colour varies from white, pink and mauve to blue. This one reminded me of the pure blue pigments use on medieval illuminated manuscript pages.

Saturday 24 April 2010


Ruby, one of our senior under-gardeners passed away this morning. You may remember that I wrote about Tarragon the Lavender Araucana cockerel's bullying of Ruby; for the past couple of months Ruby lived in her retirement bungalow (aka rabbit hutch) in our porch. She had access to the courtyard outside my studio's office window and to keep her company, Phoebe – one of the other senior hens, moved in with her.

It isn't unusual for a cockerel, or even a senior ranking hen, to ruthlessly bully another bird, but there is often method in their madness, and I suspected that Tarragon had the interests of his flock at heart and that Ruby wasn't a healthy hen. She hasn't laid eggs since October last year, in fact most of Ruby's eggs were a little strange . . . rough shelled, elongated and sometimes bent, once she laid a conjoined double egg with a twisted middle! Her diet was always verging on carnivorous, she loved catching and eating frogs, toads and snails. She learned to ambush the cats and steal the mice they had caught and often sneaked into the kitchen to eat the cat food. In fact Iam's cat biscuits were the only thing she would eat in her final weeks. Hens self medicate if there is a nutritional imbalance due to illness – inside Ruby something wasn't right.

Over the weeks Ruby put on weight but her breast bone stuck out and she was wasting away. She waddled like a duck and spent time just sitting still. One day I found her under a bush cold and almost lifeless – but after a day or so she was perkier. I suspected egg peritonitis, a very serious condition which is difficult to treat. Ruby was very, very poorly this week and we had to make a very difficult decision . . . but we knew it was the right one. So RIP Ruby, in the shade of an apple tree and under a carpet of primroses.

Thursday 22 April 2010

The power of four

Cruciferae (or Brassicaceae)
"A family of mostly annual or perennial herbs with alternate leaves and racemes of 4-sepalled, 4-petalled flowers, the petals being arranged in a cross. There are usually 2 outer stamens plus 4 larger, inner ones. The ovary consists of 2 carpels but produces dry fruits of various forms, either capsules or indehiscent. Crucifers provide many valuable vegetables and are sources of useful oils. No members of the family are poisonous. There are 390 genera, with nearly 3000 species, mainly northern temperate."
A Dictionary of Plant Sciences by M Allaby 1998

No! Don't run away!
A little botanical knowledge is a useful garden tool . . .

You sow your seeds in the garden, you water them and little teeny weeny leaves appear. But – are they the seed you sowed or are they weeds? Or are they seeds that got muddled about when the junior gardener 'helped'? Being able to ID your beets from your lettuces and your beans from your brassicas is a useful skill.

Here's my guide to Crucifers. Think cross-shaped, four-lobed and you'll soon get the idea. This group of plants (also known as Brassicas) includes cabbage, kale, radish, horseradish, mustard, rape, cress, swede, cauliflower, turnip and pak choi to name just a few. And the clever thing is, when all these plants first germinate, the seed leaves all look very similar – like this . . .

these are French Breakfast Radish seedlings

and these are Purple Sprouting Broccoli

See! Easy peasy botany!

While we're looking for Crucifers, here are some that I found flowering in the garden today . . .

Hairy Bitter Cress
it's an annoying weed, but like all Crucifers it is edible
and it actually tastes nice and peppery

You may have noticed that the Hairy Bitter Cress flower has four petals – and that's true for all Crucifers. A lot of Crucifer flowers have white petals (Crambe, Arabis, Rocket) probably most of them have yellow flowers (Oil Seed Rape, Mustard, Land Cress). But some have been selected for their richly vibrant coloured petals . . .

remember to leave the seed heads so you can dry the papery 'moons'
and scatter the seeds for another year

not only beautiful colours, but a lovely warm peppery scent too,
these survived the winter and are flowering for a second year

Sunday 18 April 2010

From the earth came spears

It's no secret that I love asparagus, I've written before on PPPs about why this may be. So, you can imagine my excitement when I see this happening on my asparagus bed . . .

Oh yes! Forget the Party Leader debates and Icelandic volcanic ash closing most UK and European airports – this was the weekend I cut the first asparagus. Just a few modest sized spears, but enough to turn our lunchtime salad with poached eggs into a gourmet meal eaten outside in the sunshine, the sky a perfect blue with not a vapour trail or Stansted bound plane in sight.

Wednesday 14 April 2010

Sing a song of Spring

"During 2010 I will record the seasons as I take time out to eat my lunch and read inspiring books as I sit on the seat made from Yew branches, overlooking the neighbouring farmland."

I have to confess to failing to keep to the plan since Easter, partly because I've been working hard to fulfill illustration deadlines and partly because there has been a bitingly chill wind blowing. The large part of our garden is within a high brick wall, originally a vegetable garden for an eighteenth century squire with grand designs, we can now appreciate his sensible construction. The sky may be blue, the sun may be shining, but outside the wall in The Wild Wood the wind chills the bones and sitting on the rustic bench (even wearing warm clothes) is not much fun.

Today the wind has dropped a little, during a break in the clouds I nipped out to The Wild Wood to update my record of the journey through the year . . .

The wild 'Cherry Plum' prunus cerasifera, is covered with white blossom. Plums seem to benefit from a period of cold weather before they break the winter dormancy, the coldest winter for more than thirty years has preceded a stunning burst of blossom. Fingers crossed for warmth and sun to bring out the pollinating insects.

The woodland floor is greening up – here is Dog's Mercury mercurialis perennis, in Suffolk it's presence in hedge bottoms and on road verges indicates the sites of ancient woodland. A botanical thread linking The Wild Wood with a wilder past.

But stand a while and listen . . . Spring has come to The Wild Wood in the chorus of birdsong. Listen carefully, some of you may be clever enough to identify the different bird species. About 11 seconds in, see if you can hear the Tawny Owl hoot – unusual to hear at mid-day but maybe he has young to feed?

Sunday 11 April 2010

In the sunshine

On Friday it was, once again, my turn to look after The Riverslade Gallery and Shop in Saffron Walden. Over the past six months on the days when I've been in charge of the gallery, the weather has been cold and grim and I've always driven home in rain, sleet or snow! What a difference a ray of sunshine makes! I opened the huge vintage wooden shutters to reveal the newly revamped Jubilee Gardens - they aren't re-opened to the public yet but the smart new path and flower borders look spick and span, just waiting for a lovely concert at the traditional bandstand and people chilling out on the lawn.

I thought I'd share with you some of my favourite things by a few of the other artist/makers at The Riverslade:

Here is the sunlight casting coloured patterns through one of Carole Gray's glass panels onto the wooden shutters . . .

Gill Howe creates beautiful mosaics, I love her colour combinations and how she incorporates vintage crockery into the designs . . .

A row of luxurious scarves and wraps in the richest of jewel colours, made from hand-dyed velvet by Lin Patterson . . .

The display of restrained white domestic ware by Susan Cupitt, all her ceramics have an air of simple calm beauty . . .

And finally, an irresistible row of pencils covered with marbled papers by Victoria Hall . . .

The Riverslade Gallery and Shop is open Wednesday to Saturday, look for the signs by the walkway to Waitrose just off Hill Street in Saffron Walden. Oh, and my prints and cards are for sale there too.

Wednesday 7 April 2010

Night-time newt safari

Our Dragonfly Pond was originally created as an extended home for the resident Common or Smooth Newts in our garden as well as attracting dragonflies to breed. The newts have thrived and each spring they congregate in the pond to flirt, mate and lay eggs on their favourite plant – the water forget-me-not.

I've always failed to capture the newts with the camera . . . until tonight! I had a cunning plan and it worked. I feel as if I've been on a safari and bagged close-ups of the big-five :-)

There's a narrow channel joining the deep pond to the shallow gravel and weed filled pond where the newts lay their eggs. At night the newts become more active, they swim and dive and do their flirty tail wiggling dances in the deep pond. This evening I went down to the pond, there was a queue of newts making there way along the channel – I set the camera on fast shutter speed, macro and flash and aimed using a torch as a guide, then I turned off the torch and took the photo. When I downloaded the photos this is what I'd got (you can click on the photos to enlarge them).

Friday 2 April 2010

Happy Easter!

What with one thing and another and some very cold, wet and windy weather, there will be very little gardening or creativity going on this weekend.

But right at the end of today, there was a reminder of what a lovely English Easter can look like. Here are the daffs on the roadside bank opposite our front gate . . . now, that's more like it!

One little challenge I had to fit in today was finding enough flowers in the garden to make a flower arrangement for the village church. I'm determined to do my arrangement without buying flowers, I never fail but this Easter was a real challenge as there are very few white and yellow flowers and fresh green foliage to choose from. After scouting around the whole garden I came up with this . . . which I was quite chuffed with :-)

While in the church this evening, the sunlight suddenly streamed in through one of the beautiful newly re-leaded windows. The branches against the blue sky made a design of intricate complexity and beautiful colour, it took my breath away.

Wherever you spend the Easter weekend, I hope you
find little happy moments too!