Monthly Archives: February 2013

‘Tis bitter cold and I am (not) sick at heart…

Siberian winds have been blowing in these past few days, bringing finger-numbing cold with them. Wyndham Park Infants’ School song begins “There’s a school at the top of the hill/Where the wind blows…” and this is true on virtually every day of the year. The garden I look after there is exposed on all sides, which makes the work especially chilly on days like these. Yesterday I did a major spring clean of the main flower borders and the herb garden, getting rid of all the weeds which were coming through, and cutting back the last of the tatty growth from last year’s perennials. Already there are plenty of signs of life coming through from the likes of Sedum, Alcea and Monarda – all  of which established themselves well last season. The only casualties over the winter appear to have been a couple of Thymus and a Lavendula which I imagine just got too wet and cold. The soil is not good – a combination of chalk downland, overlaid with builders’ rubble and clayey muck from when the school (and more recently the Library) were built.

The apple trees were given a good feed and a mulch. The two new apples – bought with money raised by one of the pupils – appear to have settled in alright.

Despite the cold, I enjoyed the session working up there – accompanied by the singing and shouting of 100 5 year olds! Generally I much prefer gardening on my own – with just my own thoughts, and my own voice for company. I am a great believer in the value of talking to oneself, especially when pruning: something I was pleased to discover Christopher Lloyd advocated. However, the background noise of children is an exception to this rule. It is always uplifting, even when interrupted by the regular wails of  a grazed knee or a (briefly) broken friendship.

I am looking forward to the growing season, when, I hope, I will be able to do some actual gardening with the pupils. We had a bulb-planting session in the autumn, and a good many of their bulbs are coming through in the grass banks as well as in pots and containers.

This morning I was up at the allotment. But the bitter easterly wind did for me after about an hour: the wind whistles over the downs and straight onto the plot. My hands became clumsy and unwieldy, my head ached with the cold, and my attempts at a warming bonfire failed to get going very well. I did, however, manage to plan out where my new compost bays are going to go: the pallets are all up there, and I just need to prepare the ground and fasten them all together. A three-bay compost ‘factory’ will enable me to substantially increase the amount of compost I can create, and reduce the need to take stuff to the recycling centre.

Raised beds have now all been cleared, fed and given a first or second top-up of manure. Half the lavenders I planted up there in the autumn have survived – but the rest have succumbed to cold and wet. It looks as though ‘Munstead’ has proved hardier than ‘Hidcote’ in this winter’s conditions.The lavenders had been massing in my garden as I potted them up, so taking them to the allotment was just a question of creating some space at home. There are still a lot in pots at home too: I need a client who wants a Provencal garden and can take a few dozen off my hands! If they end up staying at the allotment, I will plant other flowers in between the rows, and watch the bees and other pollinators swarm in.

There are plenty of strawberry plants – which I just popped into an empty raised bed last October when they arrived – which will shortly be moved into the fruit tunnel, when I have cleared and prepared the ground. And there are more currant bushes to accompany them, as well as the existing summer and autumn raspberries.

The remaining bugbear at the allotment remains the paths. Over the years they have been covered with, variously, straw, weed fabric, carpet, gravel (in places). Currently they are mostly weeds and mud. I firmly believe that tidy paths make a huge difference to the feel of an allotment. They set-off the growing areas, even when there is little growing, as well as making it pleasanter and easier to move around. My thinking is to get a load of wood chippings delivered and use those, on top of weed-suppressant fabric, to make some pleasing and sustainable paths.

Richard Briers RIP

Twitter told me about half an hour ago that Richard Briers had died, aged 79. I am surprisingly sad about this. I suppose he was just always there, from watching ‘The Good Life’ as a child, to seeing him play King Lear in Kenneth Branagh’s production in Manchester in the 1980s, to just being around in this or that on television.

Losing him feels like losing a favourite uncle – engaging, slightly mischievous – or so I imagine, not having any uncles myself.

It was, of course, ‘The Good Life’ that made him (for me at least) such a familiar figure. How I love that programme. It is sobering to think that I am now several years older than Tom Good was in the series – but the story of a middle-aged man, fed-up with office life, and hankering after something more satisfying resonates ever more. I may not be self-sufficient, but gardening in an old sweater with a cheeky quip and a wheelbarrow will for ever remind me of Richard Briers.

I will head out now into the garden and enjoy the spring sunshine, and try to enjoy the shadow that has just fallen across the afternoon.

In the garden with the children

This past week has been a joy, some lovely sunny weather at last, a real feeling of spring in the air, and the children (and Mrs Gardener) on Half Term holiday.

One evening I spent a happy hour or more sorting through my seed packets with the help of W (8) and M (3) – while their mum was at yoga. Each of them had a pile of packets, and handed them to me so that I could make a list: flowers, vegetables, and a few oddities like ornamental grasses. M enjoyed guessing the names of the plants – most flowers are poppies (red) or lavender (blue), and most veg were lettuces, courgettes or beetroot. It is my hope that, if I get her involved in growing some of these veggies, she might become more inquistive about eating them. At the moment her repertoire consists of carrots (raw) and cucumber (peeled): and that is all. W, on the other hand, has always been an avid herbivore, freely eating all manner of green stuff – his favourite being buckler-leaved sorrel, which he used to eat by the fistful as a toddler.

As well as having great fun looking at the seed packets, and discussing where we might sow them, I also learned a valuable lesson: do not buy any seeds this year! With over 100 packets in stock – and that is after throwing away any which were past their ‘sow by’ date – I can keep the garden and allotment supplied all season and beyond.

That reminds me of James Fenton’s terrific little book “A Garden from a hundred packets of seeds” – some pages of which are virtually illegible due to the weird type/background colour combinations of the design – but which has always inspired me.

Some of the seeds which I cannot use will find their way to the school I garden for, and maybe even a spot of guerrilla gardening on the school run…

M and I planted a batch of early Broad Beans a few days ago – some of which are already coming up in their loo roll root trainers, warmed by the recent sunshine in the conservatory.

And on Saturday, both children – and their sainted grandparents – were helping to shift logs and debris from our fallen apple tree. Both scuttled around keenly, scooping up armfuls of twigs and small stuff, to be put in the car and taken either for recycling, or to be burned at the allotment. There are still a large number of big chunks of wood to be turned into firewood – Michael, our neighbourhood tree surgeon, is coming to deal with those shortly. The rest has been stacked in our log store, and an improvised ‘reserve’ log pile behind the sheds. W was enormously helpful, carrying logs from the wheelbarrow and handing them to me while I performed the three-dimensional jigsaw trick of stacking irregular objects into a regular and stable pile. I have to say that – like dry-stone walling – this is a task I thoroughly enjoy. The satisfaction of creating a well-stacked log pile is enormous.

So, spring is with us. Dry days, weekends of sunshine – and every opportunity to see the children outside, getting their hands dirty, and getting the world growing again.

Snowy Monday

Half Term holiday has arrived in Wiltshire – though not in most of the rest of the country. Mrs G and the two children are ready for their break: but it does mean a change in routine for us all. As often happens, the weather is against us too, so days out may be hard to do when it’s cold and grey – not the kind of weather to encourage trips to the zoo and such.

Out in the garden yesterday morning I started clearing away a mass of material that had accumulated between the two garden sheds. There were lots of offcuts of laminated flooring from the nursery, all of which had been stacked ‘in case they might come in handy’ (and of course they haven’t): into the recycling with them. However, under and around these, and some bags of sharp sand (which might yet ‘come in handy’), was a lovely thick layer of leaf mould. Leaves from the mature trees which overhang the bottom of the garden fall in profusion on this area each autumn, and it must be four years since I cleared between the sheds. So the resulting leaf mould is lovely, rich and crumbly stuff: an unexpected bonus, which I have dug out, bagged up and will use as a mulch over the next few weeks.

The sheds themselves, though, are looking a bit the worse for wear. Some remedial work is needed to patch up and keep them waterproof. The past six months’ rain has clearly affected their roofs, which need to be repaired inside and out. We inherited the two sheds when we moved here nearly 17 years ago, and they have served well – one is a ‘garden’ shed for my tools and garden supplies; the other is for bikes, barbecues and other (mostly summer) stuff.

My ambition is to take both down and replace them with a single larger outbuilding, which would give more space, better storage, and look nicer. But that remains just a plan for the moment…

I took a trip up to the allotment too, in the midst of a quite unexpected fall of snow. Everything is alright up there, and looked lovely as the huge soft flakes drifted down. We had a shed break-in (along with four others) a couple of weeks ago – but nothing was taken, and the shed was not even damaged: not sure how they even got in – so we got off lightly there.

Rhubarb is starting to show, as is some Fennel. Buckler-leaved Sorrel – a lovely, lemony/vinegary-tasting salad leaf – is pushing up too. But there are no over-wintering vegetables, as last season was such a wash-out. One complete failure is a bed I sowed with a mixed green manure last autumn – there is nothing to show for it at all. Presumably the conditions were too wet and gloomy for it to germinate.

Sadly Couch Grass has made an aggressive comeback, so my first job next visit is to get that rooted out of the raised beds. If I get them cleared early, I will have time to manure them and cover them with plastic – which I might even leave and plant through with larger crops that don’t need direct sowing. Lots for a bonfire lying around too, so that will be pleasurable on a chilly day – nothing like a bonfire!

The snow didn’t settle though, and by teatime we were back to grey drizzle again. Let’s hope it bucks up a bit, for the rest of the family’s sake.

This week in the garden

A couple of breaks in the dreary, cold and wet weather have allowed some forays into the garden this past week. Impatient to get on with the new season’s work, but thwarted by the climate, these were invaluable and soul-lightening sessions.

I embarked on a major ‘spring clean’ of Mrs P’s garden. This is my favourite client’s garden, the first one I took on, and the one where I feel most at home. Last summer I made a small ‘Shakespeare garden’ on behalf of Mrs P’s colleagues, as a retirement present. I remember planting it up on a miserable wet July day, when the storm scene in ‘King Lear’ was more appropriate than ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ – but it has overwintered reasonably well. A number of Thymus have suffered in the rain, and may need replacing, but otherwise all is well, It did need a good weed and hoe though. I am hopeful that it will flourish this spring and summer.

In the rest of the garden I took a fairly no-nonsense approach to a number of shrubs that have been getting unruly. Buddleia davidii was taken right down to its base, to promote (all being well) some new flowering stems – with flowers at head height, rather than 12ft in the air. Given that one of Buddleia’s redeeming features is its attractiveness to butterflies, it seems a shame for them to be way up high. A very large Cornus also needed a good prune – leaving enough of the red stems to play off against the bright lime green of a neighbouring Fatsia japonica for the moment – but bringing the overall size in by about half, and allowing the underplanted spring bulbs some space. I will take the rest back when more colour appears elsewhere, and this will promote new, brighter coloured shoots next winter.

One of the things I have learned, belatedly, as gardening has come to play an ever large part in my life, is that timidity is no use when it comes to most plants. Few are the plants which will not benefit from being taken firmly in hand; fiddly, fossicky pruning is no good at all; plants in the wrong place need to be moved and found a new, better home. For many years I allowed the plants to dictate too much: they still dictate some things, by virtue of their different needs and habits, but it is only a garden if the gardener has the final say.

At home, I did a final clear-up of the herbaceous perennials in the borders – Scabious, Verbascum ‘Clementine’, Acanthus, Sedum spectabile amongst others – all of which had nothing left to offer. And doing so revealed any number of new shoots pushing through as the days lengthen. Clematis ‘Freckles’ had passed unnoticed where it grows against a trellis at the far end of the garden – but, there it is, with delicate white and purple spotted flowers hanging discreetly: what a nice surprise. The cold frame has finally given up the ghost and needs replacing this year: I might take it to the allotment if its crumbling wood will survive the (albeit short) journey… A few strawberry plants have been in the frame over winter, and will soon be heading for the allotment themselves.

Finally, my 3yo girl and I sowed some Broad Beans – ‘The Sutton’, a dwarf growing variety – in toilet roll tubes. They will be brought on in the relative warmth of the conservatory before heading up to the allotment to kick-start the growing season there.

Then there are the plans – which wet weather allows to flourish indoors. The decked area at the top of the garden is going to go ‘tropical’ this year – I want some hot colours and some exotic foliage to create the feeling of a Caribbean or African verandah when we are eating there in summer. Cannas, hardy Banana plants, masses of trailing Nasturtiums, Passiflora – this is what I have in mind.

The tale of an apple tree

Just after Christmas, when the snow fell suddenly and thickly, we lost a large apple tree that stood in our front garden. It was massive, ill-kempt, covered in ivy, and fairly unproductive. It was usually smothered in blossom for a few days in spring, when it looked its best, but the few fruit it bore were small, yellow and pitted – and virtually inedible for humans.

The birds loved the tree, though. One winter, about four years ago, a single Fieldfare took up residence in the tree and stayed there for weeks, slowly working its way through the apples which still remained. Woe betide any other bird who tried to get at the fruit: that Fieldfare was the boss.

At various times Collared Doves and Woodpigeons have nested in the tree, and the ivy berries attracted not only crowds of Woodpigeons but also a pair of Blackcaps who have been over-wintering here for a decade or more. Though research tells me that they’re almost impossible to be the self-same birds, nor are they the ones that nest in the shrubs behind our house each summer.

Anyway, having resisted the deliberate felling of the tree for a few years, as it grew larger and cast deep shade over a large part of the front garden, it started to show signs of being less than well as autumn 2012 drew on. By Christmas it had developed a distinct list, and the snowfall finally finished it off. Overnight it came gently down across the fence between our garden and next door, blocking the path to their front door, and taking a chunk of fencing with it.

Subsequently, a long, cold day’s work by Michael, (our neighbour who happens to be a tree surgeon), and his chainsaw, got the whole thing cut into pieces and stacked in the gardens. Then another day saw much of it being sorted and recycled: logs for the fire, kindling, sticks for the garden, rubbish. There is still a sizeable pile to go at, and Monday was spent constructing a log store to house the impending glut of firewood. At least next winter we shall not go short of wood.

Our house was built in 1896, and before that, this area was orchards and market gardens. There is an apple tree in the back garden – a lovely one – which we believe was planted by the family of an old lady who lived here all her life: sometime in the 1920s. The tree in the front was even bigger: I think it must have been at least 60 years old.

The planting I recently re-did in the front garden, to make best use of the apple tree’s dry shade – hellebores, ferns, digitalis – will have to be rethought. The sudden removal of the shade will have interesting consequences, no doubt. I intend to plant another specimen tree in due course: though not an apple.

Some of the birds are looking a little confused – whilst dunnocks, wrens and robins enjoy fossicking about in the remaining piles of branches and twigs.

At least, though, we will appreciate the wood on cold winter evenings next year… Goodbye old tree.

Tidying up

I experienced a small revelation this week. Please don’t get too excited, but it seems significant to me.

Tidying the garden at the end of the season can be likened to clearing up after a good party. Everyone has left, having had a good time, and you the hosts are glowing in the knowledge that your friends have enjoyed their evening. But then there’s the realisation that there is a lot of mess to be tidied up. Do you do it there and then? or leave it until the morning?

If you do it straight away, on the positive side, it is done and dusted. But as you clear up you risk spoiling your own enjoyment of the evening. Resentment starts to bubble up, fed by the thought that all your lovely friends are tucked up in bed, while you are still extracting half-empty glasses from behind the sofa. And there is always the temptation to skimp – after all, you need sleep too. The job gets half-done, leaving work still to be done in the morning.

If you leave it completely, and simply trot off to bed as soon as the last guest has left, then you can at least awake refreshed and invigorated to get on with the tidy-up. Of course, it’s still a pig of a job, but it needs doing, and you can crack on in the light, with the radio on, and clear the decks for a new day.

On balance, I certainly favour the second option.

And so it is, I now realise, with the garden. In short, clearing away after the summer’s excitement and pleasure, ‘putting the garden to bed’ as we call it, is nowehere near as pleasurable as ‘waking it up’.

The big autumn tidy is always a chore. Everything you touch reminds you of the season just gone. Not that this is a bad thing, memories of the summer can fuel us into the dark months. But it does rather underline the point that the dark months are imminent. And the weather is often far from conducive to productive tidying. For every clear, dry, November day with the smoke from a bonfire making its wistful way across the blue sky, there are any number of dull, damp, drizzly, miserable days when everything is soaked and limp.

And that, of course, is when the shortcuts creep in – either because time necessitates them, or because the will is lacking. However much we tidy in late autumn, there will be stuff that gets left undone.

And, for the wildlife-minded gardener, that is how it should be anyway. We need to leave a good amount of old stalks and stems, windfalls and dead leaves, to harbour the wee beasties and their predators through the winter.

To say nothing of the sheer beauty of a frost-whitened fennel head.

Whereas, and this is what I really felt profoundly this week, going out in the first of the new year’s sunshine, and not ‘putting to bed’ but ‘awakening’ the garden, is a joyful experience. A job to relish rather than endure. Clearing the way for new growth, seeing the first signs of that growth – a few snowdrops here, the tiny but perfect early leaves of Alchemilla, bulbs reminding me where I put them by poking their shoots through the mulch – this is what gardening is really about.