Monthly Archives: September 2013

Autumn fires

An afternoon at the allotment, and a long-overdue bonfire. There was a huge pile of stuff that had been growing since early summer, and every time I’d tried to have a bonfire over the past three months it seems to to have rained. Either the pile was sodden and inflammable, or the day itself was wet and I didn’t fancy hanging about getting soaked even if the fire got started. 

But today, a light shower this morning notwithstanding, the big burn got under way. Whoosh! Nothing burns like a pile of cuttings and clippings which has essentially been seasoned all summer. Once I’d got things going, on went some of the end-of-season debris too. 

The sweetcorn has been attacked by what I can only presume are badgers – what else would be (a) interested in eating corn cobs, and (b) hefty enough to push over plants which are well-rooted and over 6 feet tall? Anyway, whether it was Brock or someone else, the crop was mangled – so up came what was left, and onto the bonfire it went.

While the blaze carried on I did some ‘bastard digging’ – not an expression of my dislike, but a ‘technical’ term much-loved of my Horticultural College tutor. Essentially it means – according to him, at any rate – single-spit digging to turn over and loosen the earth, as opposed to double-digging. Anyway, it did the job in turning the large open part of the plot – where there are no raised beds – from a weedy and unsightly thing into a nice, freshly-dug patch of good soil. And it is good soil. Regular additions of organic material over the years have made that patch the best on the plot – far better than the raised beds, even though they are topped-up with new matter every season, and fed throughout the growing season too.

And digging frees the mind to contemplate other things. Aside from turning-over some of the more arcane plot details from John le Carre’s ‘The Honourable Schoolboy’, which I have just finished re-reading for the fourth or fifth time (and enjoyed more than ever), I gave thought to the future of the allotment. 

Ironically, given that I spend my working days gardening for other people, the allotment has – as I have mentioned before – had to take a bit of a back seat over the past couple of seasons. To the extent, indeed, that I have thought about handing it back, and letting someone have it who can do it proper justice. But then, I think, just one more year. And that is where I am now. One more season to really get it how I want it to be, and if I fail, then that will be it. I want the allotment to be a place where I can do the gardening jobs I don’t get to do so much elsewhere – growing food, trying out new things and experimenting a bit, and putting in some old-fashioned graft with spade and fork. I also want it to be a place to take the children and their mother, where we can have picnics and pootle a summer weekend away every now and then.Most definitely not a place I dread going to, for fear of what I might find in the way of bedragglement and weedage. 

So, then, one more season. Put the hours in over the next few months and get everything properly sorted for the spring: but without spending money on it – there’s no need: the raised beds simply need a few running repairs, and the paths need sorting out – but essentially the structure, and a shed and a fruit-cage, is all there.

There are half a dozen fruit trees that were – if I am honest – only temporarily planted earlier in the year: they need properly planting in the places kept free for them – apples, pears, cherries. And soft fruit too – raspberry canes and gooseberries hastily heeled-in on arrival from the nursery, for which I need to create room in the fruit cage. The shed needs a coat of paint as well. There is no shortage of work to keep me at the allotment over the next few weeks, even if the produce is down to a few runner beans and the odd root of potatoes.

And then – come the spring – spend as much time there as it takes, and as much as I can manage, to grow good vegetables and lovely flowers to bring home and enjoy. The allotment is on the way to/from the children’s schools – so there is really no reason why I ought not to be able to carve out 30 minutes or so a day, every day, to call in and keep things going. I shall call on Lia Leendertz’s ‘The 30 Minute Allotment’ to guide me: little and often, little and often…

Getting the orchard ready

Yesterday was a working day of two halves. 

In the morning I was carrying on with autumn cutting-back for a client with a large rural garden. Lots of shrubs, many of them quite elderly, needed a good trim to keep them in some sort of shape, and to take them back from windows and gutters: viburnum, osmanthus, climbing roses – all were unruly and needed taming. Others were also starting to flop over onto the lawn in places, interfering with mowing, and eventually shading out the grass beneath. Fortunately the client has a more-or-less permanent bonfire spot, so disposing of cuttings is never a problem. There’s also a good source of wood ash for mulching, as long as it stays dry. 

After that it was on to the orchard. There are only a couple of apple trees, but the patch still has an ‘orchard’ feel to it. The owner’s plan is to reseed this area with grass, with plenty of bulbs to naturalise. The old grass had become weed-infested, with lots of tree suckers and roots, as well as swathes of Cow Parsley (which looks pretty of course). Sadly, the soil – which is lovely and rich – is full of stones as well. So raking these off was a priority. There’s no way we can get rid of all of them, but the majority, and certainly all the larger (2" plus) ones can be taken off. These will be used as hardcore under the new path which will run down one side of the orchard to the gate at the bottom. Amongst the stones, each rake-over produced a handful of flower bulbs – narcissi, galanthus, and fritillaries – which can be rescued and replanted in due course. There were also the inevitable bits of broken glass, and what looked like a sheep’s jawbone…

Then it was a case of going back over the ground pulling out roots and shoots which had survived the rotavator’s earlier attentions. Most came away with a good tug, the soil being soft and crumbly after some heavy overnight rain. Another rake-over – and all should be set for sowing grass seed (a shade-tolerant mix) next time.

After many recent days of pruning and clipping – quite hard on the secateur-wielding hand, but not likely to induce a sweat – it was a pleasant change to have some more physical work to get stuck in to. My after-work bath was more welcome than ever as my aching muscles warmed up and relaxed… There is no feeling like it.

Autumn day

Today has been a lovely day. I visited three gardens, each of them quite different, but each equally rewarding to work in.

Firstly, a suburban garden with lawns and flower beds, shrubs and hedges. Getting the grass cut I noticed how thick and well it looked: obviously some of the feeding it’s been getting has paid off. You’d never know, to look at it now, that we’d had weeks and weeks without rain. A tangled and gnarly old Berberis needs serious attention to remove dead growth – but, there at the roots, new growth is coming through and with luck will grow to replace the aged parent bush. I slipped a handful of Winter Aconite bulbs into the bare spaces in the flower borders as I weeded. I often do this ‘guerilla’ planting as I work on people’s gardens – I’ll find a spare packet of seed, or an overlooked bag of bulbs, in my shed and take them with me when I am working, looking for a likely spot to pop them. 

Then on to my longest-standing client. Another suburban garden, but bigger and more unruly. Most of my time was spent tackling a mass of growth which had erupted in a hidden corner behind a rockery – hidden, that is, until now when it has emerged into the unforgiving daylight. No more excuses, then, and out with the Felcos: climbing roses, bindweed, an enormous Cornus – all felt the force of my cutting-back. And, two hours later, a rather neat and tidy picture presented itself. A lovely old Fig tree became the focal point it deserves to be, and late-flowering Sedums had access to the autumn sunlight (and bees had access to them).

FInally, my afternoon was spent working on a big, mature rural garden. A thoroughly enjoyable drive out got me off to a good start, and then it was back to work. Lavender to trim – I have lost count of how much lavender I have cut back the past week or two – and then deadheading Heleniums and Rudbeckias to keep the late flowers coming. One thing I particularly love about this place is that to reach the compost heap one needs to cross a medieval – possibly even older – ditch-and-bank which runs the length of the garden. It’s overgrown and no kind of obstacle, but it does give a wonderful sense of the length of human habitation here as I trundle back and forth with armfuls of autumnal debris…