Monthly Archives: February 2012

Quick Sunday morning thoughts before heading off to Marwell Wildlife for the day. Clear sky and sun: lovely (not least as Marwell can be a bit – actually, a lot – chilly on a day with any wind). 
Had a good afternoon at the allotment yesterday. Having done a lot of weeding of the raised beds last November, they remain remarkably weed-free, and the soil is in great shape. Still not warm enough to pass the bare-bottom test (I didn’t actually try, but used my palm as a buttock-substitute) but getting there. Got any remainding groundsel, couch grass and dandelions out, but otherwise the weed front was not too bad at all. The last of the Jerusalem Artichokes came out too, but they were fairly wormy – so into the compost they went.

Sadly, there was no opportunity to get any over-winter crops in last autumn, so nothing to harvest, but it does mean there’s a blank canvas for this season. I need to attend to this  in the autumn this year, as a dearth of home-grown veg sits unhappily with the annual New Year/Lenten commitment to more greens and less protein. 

Also dug in the bag-ends of fb&b uncovered when we cleared and reordered the shed (lovely job – no, I mean it). 
Some of the raised beds are showing their age and need some patching-up: and the shed has lost its felting – so  the most pressing jobs are distinctly non-horticultural, nor very child-friendly, so will have to wait until a day without wee daughter in tow. The raised beds have done a good few seasons, and the oldest ones were not built from the most robust of timber. The wee daughter – and the not-so-wee boy – love the allotment, and left Mrs Gardener and me to get on yesterday very happily, collecting worms in the wheelbarrow, digging up artichokes, making ‘molehills’, and looking for frogspawn, slow worms, and lizards around the place. 
All this for less than £20 a year: thank you, Salisbury City Council.

Mrs G and a well-earned snack

Saturday morning. Mrs Gardener is still asleep bless her, the childerwigs are breakfasted and playing happily – something to do with going on a boat journey, which has taken over the sitting room with blankets and cuddly toys: what fun! So I can sneak to the laptop with a cup of coffee and catch up on the past few days’ goings-on.
Outside in the slowly-lightening garden one of the robins is singing with great gusto. They know, don’t they, that spring is here. They’ve moved their nest site slightly, just around the corner of the house into another bit of the doomed ivy: maybe this time the nest will be used? It’s been a poor winter for birds in the garden – good for them, of course, as they’ve clearly not been all that reliant on our feeders – but poor for sightings. Three blackcaps have been present through most of the winter, two males and a female, which is good: I wonder if one of the males was born here, and has hung around with his parents. But, as with so many so-called ‘resident’ birds, the likelihood is that these are migrants, and not the ‘summer’ birds at all. Maybe our garden has a reputation all across western Europe in the blackcap community!
Worrying stuff in the news about water shortages. I do agree with Adam Pasco on the Gardeners’ World blog, that gardeners are generally (these days) highly water-conscious, and much less likely to waste water than many other people. I haven’t  used a hosepipe in our garden for ages (thanks, Monty Don for the encouragement there), and they are absolutely verboten at the allotment of course. And yet ‘hosepipe ban’ is synonymous with ‘drought’ in this country. Having said this, my own garden’s capacity to capture, store and use rainwater is severely limited: something I need to attend to. Maybe these early warnings of a dry year will spur me on at last. I’ll also need to talk to clients about how we deal with water restrictions in their gardens.
Speaking of which, I may have picked-up a nice piece of work through Mrs G’s yoga teacher, who wants her new garden planted-up. It would be nice to create a ‘yoga garden’ – I am thinking of a mixture of meditative and contemplative space, with physicality and strength, shape and control. Watch this space.
I finally got the new shrubs planted in my front garden on Wednesday, finishing off just as it started to rain, so they at least got underway with a decent drink. Sambuca Black Beauty, Cornus Alba, and Prunus Ko-Jo No Mai are all new to my garden. But the best of them has to be Lonicera Fragrantissima, which has a fantastic scent: I look forward to many deep lungfuls of it as I walk up to the front door after a hard day’s work. Lovely. 
Nothing can beat the scent of ‘Old Man’ though, with the added joy of knowing that Edward Thomas had just such a plant next to his front door in Steep a hundred years ago, inspiring one of the greatest of plant poems:
Old Man, or Lads-Love, – in the name there’s nothing
To one that knows not Lads-Love, or Old Man,
The hoar green feathery herb, almost a tree,
Growing with rosemary and lavender.
Even to one that knows it well, the names
Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is:
At least, what that is clings not to the names
In spite of time. And yet I like the names.

The herb itself I like not, but for certain
I love it, as someday the child will love it
Who plucks a feather from the door-side bush
Whenever she goes in or out of the house.
Often she waits there, snipping the tips and shrivelling
The shreds at last on to the path,
Thinking perhaps of nothing, till she sniffs
Her fingers and runs off. The bush is still
But half as tall as she, though it is not old;
So well she clips it. Not a word she says;
And I can only wonder how much hereafter
She will remember, with that bitter scent,
Of garden rows, and ancient damson trees
Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door
A low thick bush beside the door, and me
Forbidding her to pick.
As for myself,
Where first I met the bitter scent is lost.
I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds,
Sniff them and think and sniff again and try
Once more to think what it is I am remembering,
Always in vain. I cannot like the scent,
Yet I would rather give up others more sweet,
With no meaning, than this bitter one.
I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray
And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing;
Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait
For what I should, yet never can, remember;
No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush
Of Lad’s-love, or Old Man, no child beside,
Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;
Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.

(Edward Thomas)

Here in Wiltshire we are still awaiting the mini-heatwave that is apparently due any hour now…this morning is still chilly and, for the first time in a while, quite breezy, which keeps it feeling cooler still. 
I have a day to myself, and a list of jobs as long as both my arms. I also have a stinking headache. This may be the product of a late evening glass of red wine, my last before commencing Lent. Or could it be Bay poisoning – there were a lot in the stew I cooked last night? I think Bay poisoning is unlikely, and will keep reminding myself of the way my head feels if I get any yearning for a crafty pint during the next forty days and nights.
The accumulation of pot-grown shrubs which has carried on over the past weeks is getting ridiculous, so one major job today is to get them planted while the soil is warmer, and there is rain forecast. That will finish off the redesigned front garden for now, until (home-grown) perennials start to go in a bit later – most are in the greenhouse and will need a bit of exposure to the outside world before I put them in. I have to say that the laying-out of plants in pots, and fiddling around with the arrangement, is a great pleasure – even though first instincts generally prove right, however many subsequent permutations one goes through.
The robin in our ivy persists with its (I think his) nesting activity, which started before Christmas. Unless part of the nest has collapsed during the past two months and needed rebuilding, it ought to be huge by now, as he’s been making very regular flights to deliver nest material. Sadly it can’t be seen properly from inside or outside the house – sadly for us, that is, not for the robin who’s clearly found a nice secluded spot tucked in behind the ivy. What the robin does not know is that the ivy is due to be removed, and is already pretty dead since I cut through its main trunk in the autumn. With luck the robins will nest early and then I can get on with taking it down completely – obviously, while they’re there it can’t be touched. 
More garden magazines have arrived this week – all full of what to do in March already…we risk wishing the year away so soon if we’re not careful.

Right, I need to get on and can’t stay at the laptop all morning: jobs to do!

Saturday evening….

Having enjoyed a pint of Shepherd Neame’s delicious Christmas Ale with my supper, I have spent the rest of  the evening footling about on Twitter. How strangely compulsive it is. My thought was to use it alongside this blog, as a way of supplementing the content and, in particular, of documenting some of the more trivial (yet interesting) bits of the day. But I fear I may end up spending far longer on it than I can afford. After all, this stuff is meant to be an adjunct to my daily work, not the daily work itself. No-one pays me for tweeting.
The main problem is the WILF phenomenon (‘While I am Looking For’ or ‘What was I Looking For?’) which afflicts all web activity. The threads take you off in all kinds of compelling directions, leaving you stranded several  minutes later with no idea of how you got where you are, nor of where you thought you wanted to be  in the first place. Which would be dreadful – were it not so enjoyable.

Lovely morning here in Salisbury. A happy couple of hours pottering, literally: cleaning-up and tidying some of the over-wintered pots. Quite a few of last summer’s annuals had finally succumbed to the freezing weather of the past couple of weeks, and went in the compost. But elsewhere, more excitingly, green shoots start to appear. Several outdoor pots of chives are poking through and, when the dead leaves of last season are cleared away, cranesbills, Alchemilla mollis and others are showing signs of new life: all this together with some sunshine on your back, and vigorous robin’s song from the silver birch tree, makes for a real sense that spring is arriving.

Had a fairly robust go at the very rambly privet in the back garden, which – when I look closely – has shifted its centre of growth about a yard from the main stem. I think too severe a cut-back might be too risky so am bringing it back towards the vertical, and reducing its height by the recommended 1/3. We will see how it does. What it certainly has done is to open up the surrounding bed, so there is room for some more interesting planting. It is quite a dark, north-facing bed though, so options will be rather limited – the ‘far’ end away from the house is quite damp, and Angelica archangelica sets itself freely there every year. A lovely plant, angelica, which I first grew next to the pond in my parents’ garden thirty years ago, and of which I am very fond.The advice is always to stop it seeding if you want to keep the plant, but it seeds so well that I just let it get on with things, and there are always a good number of new plants to carry on the succession.

Just been reading Collected Poems by Frances Horovitz. Fantastic stuff. The sequence of poems about prehistoric sites is wonderful:but there is nothing less than good in this (all too brief) collection. I saw that it’s being reissued by Bloodaxe Books in their latest catalogue – and this prompted me to take another look.  
There is a brief selection of clips of Frances H reading here 

I remember being introduced to her by my mother, which must have been in the late 70s when FH was a frequent broadcaster and reader. I think she was probably the first living poet I was aware of, perhaps along with John Betjeman (in his late ‘cuddly national treasure’ phase, appearances on Parkinson et al). And I remember – and deeply regret – missing the opportunity to meet Ted Hughes, who did a reading at the girls’ school when I was in the 6th Form – and I was stuck in bed with a throat abcess…

“What a good use of life, to leave behind one beautiful book” (John Updike on Wallace Stevens)


After some bitterly cold days, culminating on Saturday morning with a low of -9 degrees in the garden here, it’s warmer today. We were in Oxford on Saturday, and spent most of the day in the Ashmolean Museum ( keeping warm and being enlightened at the same time. I’d not been since the huge new building and re-configuring of the exhibition spaces, and I have to say it was fantastic. The blend between the original building and the new space is virtually seamless, and one keeps coming across unexpected glimpses of other floors and galleries which is a total contrast to the ‘old’ museum. Slightly sad to see some well-loved displays have gone – all those pale wood glass cabinets full of prehistoric stone tools carefully hand-labelled – but overall a vast improvement, though there is (or seems to be) less material on display overall? One is frequently advised to spend a lot of time in a museum or gallery looking at just one painting or artefact, but that seems hard to do in practice, especially when one is an infrequent visitor. Even so, we spent a long time on a few rooms and did not even visit two whole floors, so plenty for the next visit. A dearth of garden-related material – though of course the museum has its roots in collections amassed by the John Tradescants (father and son), who were gardeners and plant collectors (everything-collectors, I fancy).

The snow did come. Overnight we had quite a covering. I peered out at about 2am and it looked fantastic, but by this morning it’s melted away from any hard surfaces like paths. Plenty remains on the grass and beds though. No sledging to school this morning unfortunately. Maybe we will have some more over the half-term holiday, and finally get the sledge out?
And the shops who have been displaying sledges since October might finally shift some. The drastic sale reductions in places like Blacks and Millets, which presage their closure (here we are losing one and keeping the other, apparently), are good news for stocking up on outdoor/gardening clothes. But it’s bad news for the high street and the local economy generally (even though those two stores are a chain – we also lost an independent outdoor shop a couple of weeks ago). I always feel a bit like a vulture when sniffing out bargains in shops that are having (genuine) closing down sales: when, I ask myself, did you last go in and buy something there at full price? And when will nurseries and independent garden centres start to go the same way…?

Well, we have finally had a few days that feel like ‘winter’. Long, cold nights followed by days either bright and sunny or (more frequently) drab and grey. Not a lot of activity in the garden, beyond ensuring that the bird feeders and water supply are kept topped-up. There’ve been more birds since it got colder, with blackcaps, redwings, jackdaws and carrion crows all cropping up in the garden.

I have had the greenhouse heater on solidly for the past nine days, and even that has not entirely prevented some very chilly nights. Nothing appears to have suffered terminal damage though. It is always interesting to observe outdoor plants in the frost, and to see how they go from seeming very bedraggled and limp in the early morning to looking fine again once they get a bit of warmth on their faces. 

More bulbs continue to poke their way up, even if they then regret it…

Offered to plant a large tree (a Malus) at DS’ school last week. The ground was not only very hard with the cold, but also impenetrable beyond about 4in of topsoil. I managed to get a hole dug with the mattock, and get the tree in – but it’s not had a very cosy start to life in its new home. I reckon that, as it is about 3m tall, it should be mature enough to cope:  and at least there’s been no wind. Last time I looked (Tuesday) it was still vertical.

All the March editions of gardening magazines have appeared, though I have scarcely had time to look at them properly.  It is a nuisance that they (a) all come at once, and (b) come so early – I don’t want to be reading tips about March jobs when it is early February (and feels like midwinter). I need to remember that light is as important as temperature in dictating when the seasons change, and even on the greyest of high pressure days there is still a lot more light now at both ends of the day. 

Forecast is for overnight snow…we’ll see. There was a fair dusting on last Saturday night, but it had all gone by morning. The opposite of the children’s story version: you go to bed with snow, and wake up to nothing, such a disappointment.