Scarlet Elfcup, Sarcoscypha austriaca / Ruby Elfcup, Sarcoscypha coccinea

Scarlet or Ruby Elfcup

“Oh good”, I thought. “A nice and easy fungus to identify.”

We were walking through the woods at Strumpshaw Fen RSPB Reserve on Tuesday when we spotted a beautiful red cup fungus, growing on pieces of dead, moss covered Rhododendron wood.

I was pretty certain that this was the Scarlet Elfcup, Sarcoscypha austriaca, and I thought I’d confirmed this when I consulted my copy of “Collins Complete Guide To British Mushrooms & Toadstools” by Paul Sterry and Barry Hughes (one of the best general fungi identification guides at the moment).

It was only when I looked on the internet when researching this blog post that I found out that, as so often with fungi, life isn’t quite so simple. As well as the Scarlet Elfcup, Sarcoscypha austriaca, there is the Ruby Elfcup, Sarcoscypha coccinea. Both species can be found on dead logs and twigs in damp, shady places, usually partly buried in moss. They can be found from early winter into early spring: a real treat to discover when various shades of brown are the norm.

In the species accounts on the First Nature website, Pat O’Reilly describes the two species as “macroscopically almost identical”. The colour of both species can vary from pale orange to deep red and although Scarlet Elfcups are sometimes bigger than Ruby Elfcups, there is a great deal of overlap in size, so neither of these characteristics is a reliable way to separate the two species. But help is at hand

If I had examined the outer surface of the cups, I might have been able to tell which Elfcup I had found. The Ruby Elfcup (S. coccinea) is covered in a matted felt of tiny uncoiled hairs, while the Scarlet Elfcup (S. austriaca) has hairs that are coiled, rather like a corkscrew. Under a microscope, the spores of both species are elongated ellipsoids but some of the spores of the Ruby Elfcup (S. coccinea) have a hammerhead appearance at the ends (the conidial buds). As with many groups of fungi, DNA sequencing has been used in recent years to reveal previously unknown relationships between members of the genus Sarcoscypha [see note 1, below]. 

Elfcups are Ascomycete fungi – part of the family Sarcoscyphaceae in the Order Pezizales, the Cup Fungi. Other well-known Cup Fungi include the Orange Peel Fungus, Aleuria aurantia, which grows on disturbed ground and bears an uncanny resemblance to a piece of discarded orange peel.

Both the Scarlet Elfcup and Ruby Elfcup are generally reckoned to be edible, though they must be cooked first. I haven’t tried them (and, if they are growing in a nature reserve, neither should you).

WildFoodUK describes the taste as “mild, mushroomy”, which is only a faint recommendation, but the colour would add drama to the plate. There are several recipes on the internet, including Roast turbot with garlic shoots and scarlet elf cups, Fillet of sea bass with scarlet elf cup, wild garlic and spring herbs and Elf Cups Stuffed with Egg and Three Cornered Leek. (All three use other seasonal ingredients and use either Wild Garlic or Three-cornered Leek to give a bit of Allium flavour.)

The colour of Elfcups is due to five different carotenoid pigments, including betacarotene (also found in carrots and many plants) and plectaniaxanthin. It is the latter compound that is mainly responsible for the red colour.

Elfcups have sometimes been used to make table decorations. The fungus was also used as a traditional medicine by Native Americans, ground up into a powder and used as a styptic to heal the navels of unborn children.

Or you can just leave them where they are, to brighten up woodland and bring cheer to the darkest months of the year.


Note 1 – See, for example, “Relationships among Sarcoscypha Species: Evidence from Molecular and Morphological Characters” (Francis A. Harrington, Mycologia Vol. 90, No. 2 (Mar. – Apr., 1998), pp. 235-243) and “Phylogenetic Relationships within Sarcoscypha Based upon Nucleotide Sequences of the Internal Transcribed Spacer of Nuclear Ribosomal DNA” (Francis A. Harrington and Daniel Potter, Mycologia Vol. 89, No. 2 (Mar. – Apr., 1997), pp. 258-267).

Corncockle, Agrostemma githago

Corncockle, Agrostemma githago

Our annual wild flower patch, including Corncockle (left and centre: pinky-purple flowers)

Corncockle, Agrostemma githago, is one of my favourite wild flowers. We grow it in the garden, in our annual wild flower patch and at the allotment. It’s also suitable for growing in a pot with other cornfield annuals.

Corncockle is a hardy annual in the Carnation family, the Caryophyllaceae, whose members include carnations and pinks (Dianthus), campions, catchflies (Lychnis) and Chickweeds (Stellaria). It has an upright growth habit with long, narrow and softly hairy leaves and single pinky-purple flowers from June until August. These are followed by a seed capsule full of heavy, black seeds. These are very easy to collect in late summer, to sow elsewhere, or you can leave them to fall. They tend to stay around the site of the original plant, meaning you can have a patch of Corncockle in the same place year after year. You can simply let seed drop onto the soil, or give it a bit more care, as described in this article: “Grow Corncockle From Seed” Ideally, sow the seed in spring.

Corncockle

Corncockle flower

Corncockle was once common in wheat fields and is thought to have been introduced into Britain from Southern Europe along with crops, in the Iron Age. It is one of a number of plants introduced long ago, known as archaeophytes. (If you want to read more, I recommend “Alien Plants” by Stace and Crawley, 2015, one of the New Naturalist series. A complete list of British archeophytes is in Appendix 2.) Corncockle occurs as a weed in the United States but in the British Isles it is extinct as an agricultural weed, where it has been reintroduced in wild flower seed mixtures.

You can buy Corncockle seeds on their own from Emorsgate Seeds and they are often available in annual wild flower mixes, such as the free packets of seeds supplied by Kew Gardens’ Grow Wild project for several years. We planted this seed mix in Wensum View Park in Norwich a couple of years ago, where it made a very pretty display.

Corncockle seeds and leaves are poisonous but as writer John Robertson puts it: “It is only poisonous if you eat it and there’s absolutely nothing about the corncockle that’s going to encourage you to eat it.”

Corncockle contain a variety of compounds, including the saponins githagin and agrostemmic acid. However, these compounds are poorly absorbed by the body and most will pass through the gut without causing harm. The leaves can be cooked and eaten, according to the Plants For A Future website – thorough cooking, with a change of cooking water, is thought to remove most of the saponins. However, I haven’t tried eating Corncockle leaves and the Plants For A Future website describes them as “a famine food – used when all else fails“. The plant has several medicinal uses and is a diuretic, expectorant and vermifuge.

Until modern methods of farming and food preparation were developed, Corncockle seeds were difficult to separate from harvested grains and would have been eaten accidentally as a food contaminant. York Archaeological Trust has published a fascinating article about Corncockle, entitled ‘The COCKLE of Rebellion, Insolence, Sedition…’ – The Corncockle, by Allan Hall. This mentions that Corncockle seeds were found in excavations in York and in a late 13th / early 14th century cesspit in Chester, having passed through the human gut. The article records that Gerarde, the 17th Century herbalist, wrote “‘what hurt it (cockle) doth among come, the spoyle unto bread, as well as in colour, taste, and wholesomeness… is better knowne than desired’. The quote is also used in “The Running Hare: The Secret Life of Farmland“, by John Lewis-Stempel (Doubleday 2016). There is at least one known case of someone dying from eating bread contaminated with large quantities of Corncockle seed. However, mild poisoning was more likely, where symptoms included “nausea, belching, headache, dyspepsia, and unpleasant taste in the mouth, a tickle in the throat, hoarseness and coughing, with increased mucous secretion. Stronger doses led to dizziness, restlessness, delirium and eventually convulsions and injury to the circulatory system“.

Chickens can be affected if they eat Corncockle seed: they can “present a generally listless and unkempt appearance with rough feathering and diarrhea”, according to the United States Food & Drug Administration.  The Illinois Noxious / Invasive Species factsheet states that “The green parts of corn cockle contain so little poison that animals can browse them freely without showing any ill effects. But the seeds are so poisonous that any animal may die from eating ¼ to 1 pound ground cockle seed per 100 pounds of body weight.”

Corncockle seed and its potential use as a poison features in “The Accusers” by Lindsey Davis, which I have just finished reading.  It is one of twenty very entertaining books featuring Marcus Didius Falco, a laid-back Roman informer, set between 69 and 77AD.

Kew Gardens’ Grow Wild project is a “the UK’s biggest-ever wild flower campaign, bringing people together to transform local spaces with native, pollinator-friendly wild flowers and plants“. Communities are encouraged to grow our native wild flowers and, by doing so, provide homes and sustenance for insects such as solitary bees.

During 2014 the BBC’s “Countryfile” programme helped to publicise the excellent work being done by the Grow Wild project but The Telegraph, rather than give its blessing to this attempt to make our landscape more beautiful and diverse, decided to use corncockle (figuratively) as a club to hit the BBC: “Project promoted by BBC spreads poisonous wild flowers across Britain“. The Express did nothing to soothe nerves, with “Look but don’t touch! Pretty flower so poisonous that it could KILL returns to the UK” when the plant was found growing in the Sunderland area. “Residents are urged that if they do see the corncockle, they should not disturb it in any way“. In Wootton Bassett, Corncockle plants were fenced off and the flowers were cut to stop the plants from seeding.

If I believed what I read in certain newspapers, I would probably be wearing a biohazard suit by now. Fortunately  Patrick Barkham, writing in The Guardian, gave a much more balanced view, as did John Robertson on his The Poison Garden website.

I encourage you to grow this lovely plant and to beware of dubious news stories. The Finnish website NatureGate has some lovely photos of Corncockle, which amply demonstrate why you should grow what is sometimes called the “crown of the field“.

Ivy, Hedera helix

Happy New Year! Since we have a few days to go until Twelfth Night, there is time to shoehorn in a festive reference:

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.”

I do like Holly, Ilex aquifoilum, but I prefer Ivy, Hedera helix. And Ivy isn’t just for Christmas – it provides a year-round habitat and food source for wildlife.

Small Tortoiseshell on Ivy flowers

Small Tortoiseshell butterfly feeding on Ivy flowers

Ivy is an evergreen climber and is native to western, central and southern Europe but it has been introduced into Australia, New Zealand and the western United States. It is Britain’s only evergreen liana. It belongs to the family Araliaceae, a family of around 250 species found in the Americas, Eurasia, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia and Pacific islands. Other well-known members of the family include Ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, whose roots are used in herbal medicine, the British wild flower Marsh Pennywort, Hydrocotyle vulgaris (which was considered to be a member of the Umbelliferae when I did Botany), the widely grown ornamental shrub Fatsia japonica and the Rice-paper Plant, Tetrapanax papyrifer, which I wrote about in October 2013.

Six pages of Richard Mabey’s ‘Flora Britannica’ are devoted to Ivy. It has a rich folklore, some of which is documented by the Owlcation website. I like Ivy’s association with the sale of alcohol – in medieval times ivy-covered poles were used to advertise taverns. (This led to the expression “Good wine needs no bush“.) Goblets were sometimes made out of Ivy wood and Ivy berries were supposed to overcome the bad effects of alcohol, although trying this is not a good idea because the plant is mildly poisonous. The Plants For A Future website describes Ivy as a bitter aromatic herb with a nauseating taste, so possibly it is better to stick with that hangover.

Various other uses for Ivy include making a brown dye from the twigs, using the leaves to wash clothes or restore black fabrics and, under the supervision of a qualified practitioner, as a folk medicine. The last point is important, as Ivy leaves and berries contain a saponin known as hederagenin, which can cause breathing difficulties and coma if ingested in sufficient quantities. Ivy sap can also cause dermatitis with blistering and inflammation, possibly due to the presence of polyacetylene compounds.

Other English names for Ivy include Cat’s foot, Me Hoofe, Robin-run-in-the-edge, True Ivy and Tun-hoof. Our Ivy, Hedera helix, is not related to the American species known as Poison Ivy, Toxicodendron radicans (Eastern Poison Ivy) and the related Toxicodendron rydbergii (Western Poison Ivy).

As the tough stems of Ivy creep along the ground, they root into the soil at intervals and produce lovely deep green leaves with three to five lobes and contrasting pale veins. These are known as shade leaves and the plant produces them as it grows over the ground and then first starts to climb up trees or walls. This growth can be very dense and will smother out other plants which is why it is often planted in gardens as a groundcover plant and especially as it happily grows in dense shade and dry conditions on poor soils. There are many garden cultivars, with different leaf shapes and colours.

Ivy - shade leaves

Ivy – shade leaves

Once the Ivy has scrambled its way up a tree or building and is growing in full bright sunlight it will it produce what are known as sun leaves. These are a lighter shade of green with less prominent veins and are a pointed oval in shape. It is only when the plant has put on a good growth of these leaves that it will then produce its lovely delicate flowers. An interesting fact about Ivy is that if you cut a stem of sun leaves and root it, it will grow into a self supporting free standing Ivy Bush.

Ivy - sun leaves and berries

Ivy – sun leaves and berries

Ivy is a very divisive plant, loved by some but loathed by many – including some foresters and custodians of ruinous buildings. It has a reputation for strangling or smothering trees and is sometimes assumed to be parasitic, sucking the life out of its host tree. But this is untrue – Ivy makes all its own food through photosynthesis and has its own root system for drawing up water and nutrients from the soil.

Ivy uses trees and walls as a support to scramble up and it can eventually clothe an entire tree in an evergreen mantle. This can deprive the tree’s leaves of light and, on dry soils, Ivy’s roots will compete with the tree for available water. Eventually the lush growth of Ivy at the top of the tree can make it top-heavy and vulnerable in strong winds or heavy snow fall, when the extra weight can bring branches down or even topple the tree. Because of this, foresters will regularly hack through the thick stems of Ivy enveloping trees near their base, cutting out a foot or so and then leaving the whole lot on the tree to wither and die, leaving an unsightly mess.

Ivy on walls and buildings can sometimes do damage too, but it can also protect walls. As the Ivy scrambles up any structure, it clings to it with little rootlets coming off the main stems. When the rootlets find crevices in walls, the plant will then send out proper roots into the structure and as these grow they can split any cracks further open. Often the main problem with ivy on old walls is when you try and pull it off – it clings so tenaciously that you can end up pulling off bits of wall with it. Because of this, on many old ruins it is now left in place, indeed sometimes it is the Ivy that is actually holding the structure together and keeping it upright. In cemeteries Ivy will cover gravestones, making them unreadable and potentially damaging some memorials, so it is often removed before it puts on too much growth.

However, if Ivy is allowed to climb up a dead or moribund tree, it can extend its wildlife habitat value beyond the life of the tree. Dead and decaying trees are of supreme wildlife importance to a variety of rare and vulnerable creatures, from beetle and moth larvae to roosting bats and nesting birds. Unfortunately such trees often end up being felled as they can pose a threat to people and property when they eventually come down. There is also a tendency amongst some to constantly ‘tidy-up’ the countryside by removing ‘dangerous’ trees even in the middle of woods.

Provided Ivy is given the occasional trim, it is a very beneficial plant, as it forms a kind of high-rise hotel for wildlife. Being evergreen, it provides shelter for invertebrates all year round, nesting sites for birds in the spring and summer and food for much of the year.

On woodland floors and hedge banks, a thick covering of Ivy leaves will conceal the entrances to mice and vole holes as well as bumblebee nests. Higher up, on old walls, Wrens, Blackbirds, Robins, Thrushes and other birds will nest in its dense cover. Ivy’s dense evergreen foliage provides ideal places for hibernating insects to securely sit out the winter, including butterflies like the Small Tortoiseshell (pictured above), Brimstone and Comma, as well as hoverflies and ladybirds. In spring a big clump of Ivy in a sunny position is a good spot to to look for emerging hoverflies and ladybirds as they crawl out of the dense cover to warm themselves before flying off to forage.

Hole amongst Ivy

On woodland floors and hedge banks, a thick covering of Ivy leaves will conceal the entrances to mice and vole holes as well as bumblebee nests.

Ivy flowers in autumn are perhaps its greatest gift to wildlife. Ivy flowers are produced in small, dense umbels and are pale yellow-green in colour. They are produced in September and will carry on flowering through October and well into November. Ivy is one of our latest flowering native plants and is an extremely important source of nectar for honeybees, wasps, hoverflies and butterflies. The flowers have a distinctive scent – a heady smell of honey – and some beekeepers harvest Ivy flower honey from their hives. It has a very distinctive taste, which I personally find a bit too overpowering.

On a sunny autumn day Ivy flowers will be covered in honeybees, so much so that you can actually hear the hum of their wings. If you search amongst the honeybees you will hopefully find some hoverflies, usually Eristalis species (Drone Flies) which mimic the honeybee in coloration but also sometimes something a bit more exotic like Volucella zonaria, a very large migrant hoverfly that is a perfect hornet mimic.

Drone Fly on Ivy flowers

Drone Fly on Ivy flowers

Ivy flowers are also a magnet for wasps, including the males, with their long antennae. There were good numbers of wasps on Ivy flowers this autumn, but numbers have plummeted in the last few years. Although they can be a nuisance at picnics, wasps form a vital part of the web of life. They are important pollinators and pest controllers, collecting and killing numerous caterpillars, whitefly and other nuisances to the kitchen gardener.

Another beneficiary of Ivy’s rich nectar is the Red Admiral butterfly which can often be found feasting on the flowers. In milder winters the butterfly may well hibernate in the dense leaves but they can be killed off by heavy frosts and long cold spells.

Red Admiral butterfly

Red Admiral butterfly on Ivy flowers

Holly Blue butterflies lay their eggs on the infant buds of the Ivy, their caterpillars feeding on them as they develop. Once the flowers are pollinated, the small green berries start to swell, turning brown and then ripening a lovely deep blue-black. These will persist right through the winter, surviving frosts and snow. They are beloved of Wood Pigeons and are a saviour to Blackbirds and Thrushes as well as overwintering Blackcaps.

When I wrote about Sea Aster last month, I mentioned the Sea Aster Bee, Colletes halophilus. Since 2001 the related Ivy Bee, Colletes hederae, has been spreading northwards in the British Isles. It reached Norfolk in 2014 and by the end of last year it had reached North Yorkshire and Lancashire. It is a very distinctive species, emerging late in the summer ready to feed on Ivy flowers. We found it in several parts of North Norfolk in our week staying at Wells-next-the-Sea, and there is a large colony on the outskirts of Costessey, only a few miles away from home. It is likely to continue its spread in 2017, so keep a look out on Ivy flowers this autumn.

Ivy Bee, Colletes hederae, on Ivy flowers

Ivy Bee, Colletes hederae, on Ivy flowers

Some plants benefit directly from Ivy too. Ivy Broomrape, which I wrote about in June 2016, is a parasite that grows on Ivy.

Sea Aster, Aster tripolium (a.k.a. Tripolium pannonicum)

At the end of September we spent another week in Wells-next-the-Sea in North Norfolk, staying in a holiday cottage not very far from the quay. Our stay coincided with the last week of warm summer weather and we spent every day walking or cycling, looking at flowers and insects.

Our day trips took us past several areas of salt marsh. Here, the Sea Lavender had more or less finished flowering, but the Sea Aster was still in bloom.

Sea Aster, Aster tripolium

Sea Aster, Aster tripolium, at Brancaster, North Norfolk, growing with Shrubby Seablite and Sea Purslane.

Sea Aster, Aster tripolium (a.k.a. Tripolium pannonicum), is a short-lived perennial that grows on salt marshes, on muddy sea-banks, tidal river banks and in brackish ditches. In the west of the British Isles, where the coast is rockier, it can be found growing on exposed sea cliffs and among rocks. Because of its adaptability, Sea Aster can be found around most of the coast of the British Isles. It is a halophyte – a plant that will grow happily in soils or waters containing high concentrations of salt. Like Danish Scurvygrass, Sea Aster has recently colonised the edges of roads that have been treated with salt, although to a much lesser extent.

Sea Aster has semi-succulent, strap-like leaves and stems. The plant is a member of the Daisy Family, the Asteraceae. It flowers from July to October and each flower head is a composite flower, made up of many individual, tiny flowers known as florets.

There are two varieties of Sea Aster in the British Isles, separated by their flower structure. Flowers of Aster tripolium var. tripolium have a central group of yellow disc florets surrounded by pale mauve or white ray florets, while Aster tripolium var. discoideus lacks the ray florets. My photograph above shows the rayless (discoideus) variety, which predominates in many parts of East Anglia, though the rayed form (shown in my photo at the end of this post and also here and here) is the commoner form in much of the British Isles.

Outside the British Isles, Sea Aster grows around most of the coasts of Northern Europe, north to North Norway (where it is rare), in Finland and south to Portugal and the Mediterranean. It occurs as far east as Japan, but it is an endangered plant in the Tokyo area, threatened by coastal development, encroachment of saline habitats by reed, and inappropriate management of flood defences. Because of this, Professor Noboru Kuramoto from Meiji University in Japan is investigating the distribution and ecology of Sea Aster in Britain and Japan, with the assistance of The Essex Field Club.

Sea Aster is edible, though I haven’t tried it yet. The leaves can be cooked or pickled and the BBC Food website has a recipe for Pan-fried Salmon with Aster tripolium and Scallop Broth, which sounds good, as do Sea Aster Fish Bake and the even simpler Buttered Sea Aster, on the Eatweeds website. The Galloway Wild Foods website suggests pickling Sea Aster in slightly sweetened white wine vinegar with herbs, such as Coriander leaves, Wild Thyme and green (unripe) Alexanders seeds. If you live near the coast, it is possible to forage for Sea Aster. You may be able to grow the plant in your garden as well. In his book “Around The World In 80 Plants” Stephen Barstow relates how managed to grow Sea Aster in his garden in Norway, in bed of sand and also in a bucket of fresh water.

Sea Aster flowers are attractive to butterflies such as the Red Admiral. But they are particularly associated with the Sea Aster Mining Bee, Colletes halophilus. In the UK, this charismatic insect is restricted to the coast of Southern and Eastern England, from the Humber Estuary down to Dorset, with most colonies on the East Anglia coast and the Thames Estuary. The bee emerges in August when Sea Aster is in full flower and flies until the end of September.

Although we were at the end of the flight period, we were able to see several female Sea Aster Mining Bees and we followed them as they flew from one flower head to another, wrapping their bodies around the Sea Aster flowers as they gathered pollen. We were also lucky enough to find a nest site, with lots of individual nest holes in a bank. However, we were too late in the season to witness a mating ball, where a female bee emerges from its nest hole and is surrounded by a cluster of males.

Sea Aster Mining Bee, Colletes halophilus

Sea Aster Mining Bee, Colletes halophilus, on (rayless) Sea Aster

Rayed form of Sea Aster

Sea Aster Mining Bee, Colletes halophilus, and (rayed) Sea Aster

The Raised Bed Is Dead… Long Live The Raised Bed

We spent early November altering our front garden and replacing the big raised bed we built in October 2013 with a larger, lower flower bed. In just over a week we moved tens of plants and around thirteen tonnes of soil. It was hard work but we are pleased with the end result.

New Raised Bed

The new raised bed, 27th November 2016

We built the original raised bed on top of concrete, as we didn’t have the funds to break up the drive. In spite of this, the bed was a success and after a year the plants were thriving. After three years the plants growing in it, including an Olive tree, a Salvia ‘Hotlips’, a Broom, a Rosemary bush, Lavender, Mexican Fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus) and a Giant Feather Grass (Stipa gigantea), had knitted together to form a small patch of Mediterranean scrub. When I watered in hot dry spells in the summer, the scented shrubs released delicious wafts of perfume and reminded me of holidays in Corsica, Majorca, Provence and Greece.

So why did we decide to replace the raised bed? There were several reasons, including:

  1. The bulbs I had planted in the raised bed didn’t do very well. The daffodils which looked so good in the first spring were soon crowded out by the growth of the shrubs and the  tulips, Anemone blanda and white Muscari didn’t have enough moisture to thrive.
  2. We wanted to water as little as possible. The new bed is lower and will allow plant roots to reach far down into the sub-soil to gather water and nutrients.
  3. The double red Midland Hawthorn trees on our road (Crataegus laevigata ‘Paul’s Scarlet’) are lovely but they are ninety years old and trees of similar age on nearby roads have been condemned by Norwich City Council and are in the process of being removed. We wanted to plant a medium sized tree in our front garden as an eventual replacement for the street trees at the front of our house, but the raised bed wasn’t deep enough to do this.
  4. We wanted more space. The raised bed had a wide slab path around its perimeter, which we wanted to replace with a bigger growing area.

Key to our plans was hiring a contractor to break up the concrete. In April 2016 I asked my friend Sue Bell, who is a garden designer, for a recommendation and she suggested Ian Cooper of IFC Landscapes Ltd. We arranged for the work to be done at the start of November, when the plants could be moved easily in a semi-dormant state and Ian would have time to do the job.

With a week to go until the work was done, we dug out the plants and moved them onto the patio in the back garden. The following day we moved at least five tonnes of soil from the raised bed to the front drive and dismantled the edges of the raised bed. We put the sleepers to one side and rescued the nail plates.

Ian ordered a skip to hold the broken up concrete, which arrived on the Monday. He and a workmate arrived the next day and broke up the concrete. They did a very neat job and lifted and cut the slabs so that most could be reused. By lunchtime they had finished and we loosened the sub-soil, put the sleepers back as an edging to the new bed and shovelled the raised bed soil back. We ordered another two and a half tonnes of soil to top up the new bed, using a mix of topsoil and compost from G. Nicholls of Oaks Farm, Great Plumstead (01603 720224).

On the Friday the soil was delivered onto the drive and we shovelled it into the new bed. In the late morning and afternoon we replanted, spacing plants further apart and using some of the slabs to make a stepping stone path through the middle of the bed.

In the following week we planted a large, bare-rooted Oriental Hawthorn tree, Crataegus laciniata (also known as C. orientalis). It will provide a similar effect to the double red Midland Hawthorns but will also have edible and ornamental fruits. The leaves should provide food for any Hawthorn-eating insects and some of these will provide food for the birds.

Other newcomers to the front garden include three plants I bought at Norfolk Plant Heritage‘s Hethersett Plant Fair in August: a Honey Bush (Melianthus major), with lovely glaucous foliage and a mouth-watering whiff of peanut butter when bruised, Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca ‘Citrina’, with scented lemon-yellow pea flowers from late winter to spring, and Angels’ Fishing Rods (Dierama igneum), with arching wands of reddish pink flowers in summer.

I’ve also planted some more bulbs (Tulipa saxatilis ‘Lilac Wonder’ and Crocus chrysanthus  ‘Blue Pearl’) for early spring colour. I couldn’t resist adding a couple of Giant Echiums (Echium pininana). I may need to cover them with fleece to protect them from frosts. I have some spare plants in an unheated greenhouse, along with some Geranium maderense plants that I raised from seed this summer (from Ventnor Botanic Garden). I will plant these out in spring.

Work in progress

Work in progress (5th November 2016): the old raised bed has been removed and the concrete is ready to break up.

The Raised Bed Is Dead… Long Live The Raised Bed.