Monthly Archives: October 2013

Battening down the hatches

As a gardener I watch the weather with an obsessive attention known to few others. The advent of weather apps for my mobile phone – I use the BBC Weather app at the moment – as well as forecast updates every 15 minutes on the BBC News Channel – means that it’s possible to track every twist and turn of the weather as it develops.

Whether this is wise, I am unsure: too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing. As I have commented before, sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. The British weather is a notoriously fickle mistress, and I have sometimes fallen foul of planning too far ahead. Cancelling everything outdoors because of impending rain, only to find it’s a lovely day in the event, can be deeply frustrating (not to say, a little costly).

So, what to make of the warnings, which have been getting louder and fiercer all week, about the next 24 hours’ weather? Will the promised/threatened storm materialise? Or will it fizzle out like a damp Catherine Wheel? 

First off, it’s clearly serious enough for all the met people to agree – and the warnings have been fairly consistent as regards location and timing of the storm. So I think it’s worth paying attention. Sometime between now and tomorrow morning there will be some high winds and rain in these parts. How high the wind, and how much rain, remains to be seen – but the principle of the thing is clear.

So, what better incentive to get out in the garden to put away anything that (a) probably needs to go away anyway as the summer is well and truly behind us, and (b) might just get blown away or damaged? I am thinking about patio furniture, outdoor lighting, parasols, hammocks… Into the shed they go, to emerge next May perhaps. A melancholy admission of the seasons’ turning, but better than having to retrieve them from three gardens away on Monday morning.

On the plant front, I have to admit that my own garden is still waiting for anything approaching an autumn tidy. One reason has been time and other priorities – namely getting clients’ gardens tidied. Another reason is that I am not too much of a ‘neat freak’ in my own garden, when it comes to cutting down the summer’s growth. Wildlife of all sorts values some untidiness – it’s what occurs naturally after all. Dead stems, soggy leaves, seedheads: as long as there’s no risk to the health of other plants, they’re all best left. Clear fallen leaves from the crowns of perennials, where they might rot and cause problems: but leave them on the borders in between, where they will harbour insects and worms – and provide both nutrition for the soil, and a happy hunting ground for insect-eating birds such as robins and blackbirds. 

So, the wind will doubtless take a toll of some things if it is as strong as forecast. But we lost our most vulnerable tree – a 60 year old apple – last winter in the heavy snow, so I am fairly optimistic that nothing substantial will come down. Fingers crossed.

As to the house, as a neighbour said of his own house a couple of days ago, it will no doubt have seen worse in its 120-odd years. I’ll let you know in the morning.

Take care all.

Retirement, gardening and keeping well

A few days ago I was taking part in a discussion on the Gardeners’ Guild forum about plans for retirement. My own feeling was that retirement was  probably not something to think about for two reasons. Firstly, the chances of being able to think about stopping working seem to recede with every year that passes. If I do retire, I am probably going to be at least 70. And, secondly – more importantly, perhaps – having come to gardening as a job quite late in the day, I don’t really want to give it up too soon. As long as my knees and fingers don’t let me down, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t keep going: I love it, and it is good for me – and I get paid for doing it: what, as they say, is not to like?

This seemed to be a common pattern among others joining the on-line discussion – a degree of scepticism about the likelihood of ever being able to give up working, coupled with a love of the work we do.

One thread which did emerge was the desire of many, myself included, to ‘settle down’ with one garden – to be able to concentrate one’s energies into a single plot and to think about the future. A garden which could occupy all of our working time, large enough to support us financially and keep us busy all year round. As gardeners we are unlikely to be able to afford such a garden ourselves – though we can all dream… But to be the steward of a single garden, working with its owner (providing he or she is appreciative, and sees the value of the investment of time and some money), is surely the next best thing?

It has to be said, though, that even this may be wishful thinking: as the salaries offered to many gardeners are notoriously small, not to say insulting (to those with hard-earned experience and qualifications) – even when the employers are wealthy individuals and institutions. The idea that gardening is somehow ‘its own reward’, and that consequently remuneration does not need to be realistic, is surprisingly prevalent it seems.This will possibly always afflict those doing for a job an activity which others regard as a hobby or a pastime… 

So – we’re looking for an interesting, fulfilling garden to work in – with an enlightened and generous owner – that’s not too much to ask is it? If that is where I see my gardening (second) career taking me, perhaps I had best start looking now? There might be a queue.

At last, some dry days

At last, some dry days, and the opportunity to get on with work unimpeded by the rain. Yes, the ground has been made very wet and muddy by overnight downpours, but at least the days have brought nothing worse than the odd shower.

And the wet earth makes weeding so much easier. Even quite hefty dandelions and brambles have been happy to ‘come quietly’ with a good tug. Warm, damp weather such as we’ve had of late is, of course, a weed’s best friend – so there are plenty of them, but they are not putting up such a fight.

Which is more than can be said for the enormous rose bush I spent the afternoon dealing with today. I have no idea what variety it is, but it was a complete brute – huge thick stems, covered in brutish thorns, arching in an undisciplined web from an immense central trunk. If you know Edward Burne-Jones’ painting “The Briar Rose”, you will get some idea of what I was up against – though for me, there was no sleeping beauty within. The first task was to create enough space under the bush to be able to get in and work – then to trace which stems were dead, or so old and woody as to be unproductive, and cut those out with the pruning saw. Gradually, over the course of almost four hours, something emerged which looked like a rose bush – rather than a monster.

A clear and healthy framework was established, and enough dead wood removed to burn until Bonfire Night and beyond. Once all the leaves are off, I will do a bit more shaping, but the back of the job has been broken.

I did have a shock when I looked in my rear view mirror, as I turned the car round to leave the client’s garden – blood pouring over my forehead, congealed and vivid as Halloween face paint. Thank goodness I spotted it before I went to the petrol station. A large thorn even emerged from my scalp as I had a bath later in the evening. Those roses are a force to be reckoned with.

That said, there are dozens and dozens of roses in this client’s lovely garden – ramblers, climbers and shrubs countless varieties. Almost all of them need some thinning out and dead wood removing – work which will keep me going through the winter months: and which will reward my client, and myself, with a burst of floral magnificence over next summer.

Managing the weather

It must have been blowy in the night, as our 9yo son, who is billeted in the bedroom right at the top of the house, came down to complain about the gale in the small hours. Although things have dried up and calmed down since, it still has a properly autumnal feel this morning: bright, low sunshine picking out the increasing flush of red and yellow leaves.

A frustrating week just gone. My working time was limited as Mrs Gardener was over in France with her ‘gels’, and I was left in sole charge of matters domestic. Coupled with that, the weather was completely unreliable – such that, whenever I had the time to work, the weather was poor, and vice versa. For five days on the trot. Now things are back to normal, and we are all reconvened in one country, the weather looks dire for the next few days…

I am not a fair weather gardener, and don’t mind at all getting wet in the course of work. However, there are times when gardens are simply too wet to be able to do anything useful, and when there is too great a risk of damaging soaked lawns and claggy borders with one’s boots, just by walking to and fro. I don’t like working on ladders either when it is wet, as they easily become slippy and dangerous – so even some of the ‘off the ground’ jobs, like tying-in mature climbers and fixing supports, become problematic.

My work shed needs a good tidy and a few bits of repair ahead of the winter, but that requires emptying its contents more or less completely – not a good idea when they would simply get drenched. That, at least, is a job that can be done in the depths of winter on a cold dry day. The greenhouse is already quite full, so there were not even many jobs I could do in there…

So, it was a week for sitting at my desk, leafing through the plant books and catalogues, and working on planting plans for clients: which will, of course, reward me in due course.

One job I am working on is finding some perennials to go in a very narrow strip of earth which runs round three sides of client’s conservatory, between the foot of the wall and a paved path. The conservatory is only a few years old, and sits slightly awkwardly with the main house, which is a much older cottage – the whole garden being mature, and herbaceous in the main. The border is about 8" wide and dead straight – so I really want to soften it up, horizontally – with some plants to spill a little onto the paving – and vertically – with a bit of height to cover some of the brickwork. Possibilities at the moment include – and with, as yet, no real thought about colour, but an emphasis on size and habit: Sedum ‘Ruby Glow’, Golden Marjoram, Arabis alpinaLinaria alpina, Limnanthes (an annual), and Delosperma nubigenum.

I think that this week, rather than trying to be organised and planning on the basis of the forecast, I shall adopt a ‘guerilla’ approach – poised at all times to get out and garden whenever there is a break in the (promised) rain. Given that nearly all my clients didn’t get a visit last week at all, they are less likely to complain if I turn up at short notice when the sun does shine. 

Shady dealings, deer and wildlife gardening

I have just discovered the wonderful Long Acre Plants – a nursery which specialises in plants for shade, and which is only just down the road (actually the A303) at Wincanton on the Somerset/Wiltshire/Dorset border. As I seem to have a lot of shade to deal with, both in my own garden, and in clients’ gardens, this is a real find. I have just had a quick browse of their website, and there appear to be lots of interesting and different plants to choose from. They do mail-order too. Thanks to the Enduring Gardener blog for the tip-off.

A brief conversation with a neighbour from the allotment reveals that deer have been spotted – bold as brass, in broad daylight – on the plot. It may well be the deer, and not badgers as I first thought, which attacked (nay, destroyed) the sweetcorn crop. I am not sure how they are getting in as the fences are good and high – but my neighbour has alerted Salisbury City Council, so we’ll see what happens. I assume they are roe deer, which are fairly often seen in the fields around Salisbury, and do occasionally wander closer to the centre at least as far as our dreadful ringroad. They perhaps use the railway line, and the embankments alongside it as it enters the city, as a thoroughfare – from there it is a short deer-leap to the allotments, which actually sit on top of the railway tunnel carrying the main line to the station from the east. 

Speaking of urban wildlife, I am really enjoying Ken Thompson’s ‘No Nettles Required’ which I picked up yesterday in a 2nd-hand bookshop. I was hooked before I had read past the introduction, and nearly completed it in a single sitting once the children had gone to bed last night. It is not a new book, and I had read Thompson’s equally excellent ‘An Ear to the Ground’ some time ago – but I’m glad to have finally got round to it. Essentially, the author tackles a whole series of myths, preconceptions and sloppy science around the subject of ‘wildlife gardening’ – and exposes those which need exposing, all based on detailed (if inevitably limited) scientific research. So, he argues, lots of what we are advised to do by wildlife garden experts is essentially fairly useless – not detrimental in any way, but unlikely to make a real difference on the big scale. He also addresses the – again, inevitable – focus on larger fauna such as birds, butterflies and mammals: most of which are too big, and range over too big an area (like my wretched deer) to be affected by any one gardener’s activity. On the other hand, we can make a difference to invertebrates – unglamorous, unlikely to feature on ‘Springwatch’ – but fundamental to the biodiversity of our environment. There are also helpful reminders of some key facts – slug pellets are bad, especially for snails rather than slugs; nettle patches are probably a waste of time as they are too small and nettles are so common; ponds of any size are good; most ‘native’ plants are neither native at all, nor are they better than ‘foreign’ plants; gardens of any size are good, as they add to the total of green space where creatures might live… I enjoy Thompson’s iconoclastic approach, his wry self-deprecating humour, and his insistence that we examine things level-headedly. He is also right to remind us that large quantities of advice – about gardening in general, and wildlife gardening in particular – are commercially motivated, deisgned to sell us products which are at best unnecessary, and at worst completely useless. If we garden well, sensibly and sensitively, looking after the soil, planting to foster as long a flowering period as possible each year – then nature will mostly find its way well enough.

Nice morning’s work

This morning was bulb-planting time for one of my clients. The garden is a neat and tidy corner plot, wrapped around three sides of a detached house. Although my client has not lived there more than a year, it is clear that the previous owners knew what they were about in the garden. There is some nice planting, with good shrubs and herbaceous perennials, as well as a couple of nice trees. The most impressive tree is a mighty Horse Chestnut, which is in the adjacent garden, but looms large over this plot: a lovely tree, but rather too big for its position. Leaves had been falling thick and fast, and needed clearing from the lawns and also from the tops of some shrubs – particularly Ceanothus – which were covered in a good layer of them. Horse Chestnut leaves, being hand-shaped – get wrapped around other plants and their branches very securely, and need some diligent attention. Where possible I raked them up to use as a mulch on bare borders, or gathered them into a heap to make leaf mould for next year – rather than simply consigning them to the ‘green’ recycling bin. In the borders they will not only help to suppress weeds, but will – as they rot-down – harbour lots of minibeasts, which will in turn provide food for garden birds. Blackbirds are especially fond of rummaging vigorously through a leaf-strewn border, like so many old ladies at a church jumble sale.

There is quite a lot of Muscari already planted in the borders, so I wanted to add both yellows and some height with the first lot of bulbs to go in. Given the preponderance of shrubs and the big Horse Chestnut, I planted Narcissus ‘Quail’, N. Poetica, Camassia ‘Quamash’, Ornithogalum ‘Nutans’ and Erythronium ‘Pagoda’ – all of which seem not to mind a bit of shade. Some mixed Chionodoxa were liberally planted too, in among the Muscari.  I will go back with some tulips for the more open borders once we get into November. It is sobering how even a fairly modest plot can absorb large numbers of bulbs very easily – I must have put 120+ in this morning, without running out of space. There are some ornamental planters too, which I will fill with some ‘choice’ tulips in due course for special effect and show.

We also discussed what to do with a raised bed which has been – and there is no other word for it – ‘plonked’ into the front garden, apparently as a salad bed for the previous owners. Nicely constructed, and currently full of Calendula, this bed really doesn’t, however, belong. We concluded that I’d remove it, and re-seed the area with grass (it is surrounded by lawn on three sides) pending any other bright(er) ideas. 

My client is, by her own repeated admission, no gardener – but she does want colour, and to be able to enjoy the garden for as much of the year as possible. It is great to work with someone who is receptive to suggestions, and highly appreciative of what gets done. To be able to ‘fill the gaps’ in a garden which is already nicely laid-out and planted, and to develop it as time goes on, is a treat.

Autumn chill

A nippy morning or two these past couple of days. Children have been gloved-up for the walk to school, and I even resorted to a scarf myself. The days themselves have been glorious though: sunny and bright. There are hints of autumn colour coming through in the trees, and every gust of cold wind sends another confetti of leaves skittering to the floor.

I don’t know whether the summer weather means a good or a poor autumn for colour. We shall certainly be making our annual October visit to Stourhead as soon as the leaves turn en masse: the best place I know for autumn colour.

Thank you for your appreciative comments about my previous post: including a nice one from Monty Don himself. It was a pleasure to have a chance to write about poetry and gardens together – two things closest to my heart.

Work is involving a lot of tidying-up and pruning at the moment. As well as cutting lawns and preparing them for the winter. 

I tackled a client’s extensive ivy problem the other day. It had spilled over the back wall – which, when revealed, is actually a lovely old brick wall – and pushed its growth about 5 feet into the garden, leaving nothing underneath. The garden is not a very big one, so the loss of something approaching 100 square feet was a proportionately very significant one. Lo and behold, in amongst the ivy were the – very deceased – remains of a row of conifers which had simply been smothered. The house itself was a similarly ivy-clad affair, with the topmost growth getting under the eaves. My ladders would not get me that high, so a return trip with better equipment is required. I did, however, manage to clear most of the front and side walls, and get it away from the window frames – again, it was starting to insinuate itself into the house. Dusty, unappealing work, but once done it is done. Then there is the question of what to do with the area of garden – dry as a bone, full of conifer roots –  I have revealed…

I was also going to cut back a large Lonicera which has far outgrown its spot. Until I realised a pair of Woodpigeons were happily nesting in it, perched on top of the pergola.  Woodpigeons are, of course, protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981. As such it is an offence to disturb them when nesting – the same goes for all wild birds: and rightly so. There is a common misconception that common species such as Woodpigeons, Magpies and Carrion Crows are somehow exempt from legal protection: not so. These birds – so common now (and reasserting themselves against the newcomer Collared Doves in many areas) – will nest practically the whole year round. I found a dead squab in the garden at home a couple of weeks back: much appreciated by a handful of magpies, who made short work of the carcass.

The post brought lots and lots of spring bulbs this week: so I will be busy getting those in. Some are for clients, others for myself. Tulips, which have a few weeks’ grace yet, are my thing this year. I never really felt much for them in the past, put off by the regimented rows of bright scarlet which never seem pleasing to me. There are so many more varieties available now – at least, readily available – that I have fallen for the dark purples, pale yellows and creams which are elegance itself. Gorgeous crimson and gold ‘Abu Hassan’ is a particular favourite. Nicer, I now feel, than daffs- though I will be planting plenty of them too. I am trialling some Narcissus Poeticus bulbs for Thompson & Morgan this season, so will be keen to see how they turn out: one of the oldest varieties, and the Narcissus of classical mythology.

But spring is a long way away yet, and we will see what the winter has in store for us. If you subscribe to the folk adage that lots of berries mean a harsh winter, then we are in for another long, cold time of it judging by the Pyracantha, Cotoneaster and other berry-bearing shrubs I see each day. The first winter thrushes from Scandinavia are arriving, hastened by the cold northerly winds, as are the first Arctic geese and swans. I haven’t seen any Redwings or Fieldfares yet, but it won’t be long I reckon. That said, I saw a handful of Swallows earlier in the week – late summer and early winter in one.

Monty Don’s ‘The Road to Le Tholonet’: some thoughts

Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney, Alain-Fournier, Eric Keiller: three of them killed in the Great War, and poor Gurney sent mad. These young men – the eldest, Thomas, was 39 – haunt the pages of Monty Don’s latest book, ‘The Road to Le Tholonet’, as does the young author himself.

This is not a ‘gardening book’, nor is it even simply a ‘book about gardens’. It is most certainly not a glossy coffee-table number to tie-in with Monty’s TV series about French gardens: and for that he has received no end of stick from disappointed viewers and fans. How unreasonable of the man, they seem to cry, to publish a book he wanted to write, rather than the one we wanted to read (or, rather, look at)! Monty has woven together memoir, travelogue, garden history, to create a book full of good things.

Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes seems to influence the tone of the book, with Monty’s ‘lost domain’ being the Le Tholonet of the title. More particularly, the garden at La Bertranne and its owner Mme Tailleaux, a sixty-ish widow to whom the young author is introduced by a cousin. Mme Tailleaux takes on Monty as a part-time gardener, feeds him and introduces him to the locals. She also provides him with a link back to the artists, writers and others who she knew before the Second World War: the late M Tailleaux was himself an artist, and a reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica hangs on the studio wall.

The episode is brief, and wonderfully understated. Twice subsequently Monty revisits La Bertranne – once when Mme Tailleaux is in her nineties, and again shortly after her death (of which he is unaware). On the last occasion he fears the worst, that the house and garden of his youthfull idyll will have fallen into dilapidation, or – worse still – have been tarted up as the holiday retreat of a Deutsche Banker. But no – whereas fiction would surely have opted for one of these bathetic conclusions (‘last night I dreamed I went to Le Tholonet’)– Monty instead finds that the Tailleaux’s son has returned home and intends to restore the garden. A happy ending: but one which actually occurs in chapter 3 of the book. Again, the ‘obvious’ narrative strategy of keeping the secret to the end is resisted. Instead, Monty allows the spirit of La Bertranne to escape the bottle early on, and to pervade the rest of the book with its melancholy charm.

“It was not so much a case of seeing old friends as of seeing and laying the ghosts of my old self, and settling that piece of my past easily into my present.”

The book follows a northerly journey through France, starting on the Mediterranean coast and in Provence – where the young Monty first fell for the charms of Gallic life and culture – and ending up on the Belgian border, among the war graves and battlefields of the Great War. Along the way he visits a variety of gardens, some featured in the TV series, others not. Several vignettes will be familiar to those who watched the series, and it is nice to revisit them. Monty is not afraid of being forthright in his views – the absurdity of the famous  ornamental potager at Villandry, for instance, where 30,000 lettuces are grown each year purely for show, ending up on the compost heap.

There is also the pleasure – for me at least – of revisiting the Francophilia of youth: when gardening was a million miles from my mind, and I yearned for the post-war intellectual milieu of Les Deux Magots, Sartre, de Beauvoir and – never ashamed of anachronism – the Nouvelle Vague, pastis and filter-less Gitanes. I too, like Monty, would “happily smoke a packet of Disque Bleu a day, if there were not more imaginative ways of killing myself.”

And so we come, at the end, to those fallen young men of the Great War. Eric Keiller is not known to us before we read this book: he was barely known even to Monty, his great-nephew. But he was one of the 8,000 or so men killed and never found at a place called High Wood in the Somme valley during the offensive there which dragged on through the summer and autumn of 1916. “O the Somme – the valley of the Somme…a delight of rolling country, of a lovely river, and trees, trees, trees” wrote Ivor Gurney in a letter home before the devastation had etched the name of the place so deep in the national soul. It is, 97 years later, a quiet and lovely place again: the trees regrown, rich farmland once more under the plough. Somewhere in that earth lies Eric Keiller: “He is almost certainly still there, is tree, is French soil.”

Monty wrote a student dissertation on the poet Edward Thomas, who died in 1917 at the age of 39. When Eleanor Farjeon asked Thomas why, at his age and with a family to support, he had joined-up, he is said to have bent down, picked up a handful of earth, and said: ‘Simply for this.’ The place of the soil, in gardening and in belonging, is another theme which runs through this book – and through much of Monty Don’s other work, not least his role as President of the Soil Association and organic missionary.

I do not share Monty’s experience of the war cemeteries as “too well kept, too clean, too orderly to be anyone’s notion of a garden.” Certainly, some of the huge cemeteries – Tyne Cot springs to mind, so does Lutyens’ Thiepval memorial – are so overwhelming as to be almost brutal: but that, surely, is fitting. I think fondly of the little cemetery in Agny, where Edward Thomas lies surrounded by a small break of trees, a few flowers and neatly mown grass: this is a very English garden, more churchyard than monument.

And I think of Julian Barnes’ exquisite short story ‘Evermore’: an elegy for the war dead and their graves:

“Like Blighty Valley and Thistle Dump, both half-hidden from the road in a fold of valley; or Quarry, a graveyard looking as though it had been abandoned by its village; or Devonshire, that tiny, private patch for the Devonshires, who died on the first day of the Somme, who fought to hold that ridge and hold it still.” (Julian Barnes, Cross Channel, 1996)

Here is the heart of the book, I think. A deep, deep love of the soil – French and English – after all, as he reminds us, only a couple of hundred miles separated the trenches from the depths of rural England, whence so many soldiers came and died. Gardening connects us with the earth, and with those who have worked it before us. We may no longer work the fields as our forebears did for generations, but our gardens, and the cycle of the gardening year, do give us the chance to hold that thread, however thin it may now have worn.

It is enough

To smell, to crumble the dark earth,

While the robin sings over again

Sad songs of Autumn mirth

from Edward Thomas, ‘Digging’

Bearing the scars

An afternoon spent grappling with a client’s massively overgrown climbing rose (variety unkown – or rather, lost in the mists of time) has left me tired and bleeding. The end result, with the rose cut back to a sensible framework, tied-in and away from the gutters and windows it had previously enveloped, is satisfactory. It’s an old plant, so I am hopeful it will have the strength to withstand my fairly serious pruning and that next summer will see a new and vigorous plant covered in flowers – as opposed to the straggly plant, matted with dead twiggage, whose flowers were visible only from the air.

In amongst said rose was a mass of Russian Vine (Fallopia baldschuanica), which also had to be removed – in fact I stripped that out first in order to get the measure of the rose. Horrible, horrible plant. It still covers the side of the client’s house, round the corner from the rose, and it will need concerted effort to get it down without taking the barge boards with it.

I don’t like wearing gloves when I am gardening. They get in the way too much, are seldom actually thornproof, and then end up getting lost (only in ones, of course, leaving an assortment of singletons which might then periodically get cleared from the shed). I do make an exception when dealing with roses, especially thorny old climbers like today’s. Even so, whilst my hands remained unscathed, I am now sporting a couple of truly spectacular scars on my right forearm. As I say, even pretty tough leather gauntlets are never really thornproof in my experience: and they only reach so far up beyond the wrist.

I remember my father wearing an old pair of motorcycling gloves in the garden when I was a boy: perhaps they were more effective, as we had plenty of blackberry bushes.