Monthly Archives: November 2013

Lots of Ivy

I am really enjoying this weather… mildish by night, overcast by day – but, most importantly of all, it is dry. The earth is still warm, despite a frosty morning or two a week or so ago, but damp and friable in most of my gardens, easy to work, and easy to weed.

People keep asking ‘are you winding down now?’ – to which my answer is a relieved ‘No!’. There is plenty of work still to be done in most clients’ gardens, and it’s a good time to deal with some of the more ‘structural’ work, free from the warm weather routine of weeding and mowing. I hope that I can keep working outdoors for a good while yet, getting ahead in readiness for next season, and to allow for the more-or-less inevitable spell of proper wintery weather which will come at some point between now and Easter.

Yesterday I spent a very happy couple of hours planting Tulips in a client’s garden. They’d agreed to spend proper money on a good number and variety of bulbs, so there was an opportunity to go for big impact in both volume and colour. Yes, you can pick up ‘mixed’ bags of bulbs from the supermarket or garden centre for under a fiver – but it’s good to be able to select properly, and create a palette of colour combinations. Quality not quantity. Come the spring, the display should be great, filling in spaces in between the herbaceous perennials until they start to get going in earnest.

Earlier in the week I had a ‘channel tunnel’ moment – by which I mean, working my way through a border full of massively entangled shrubs and small trees I finally met my own work coming from the other end of the garden. Minor – and silent – rejoicing followed. At last this long border in Mrs P’s garden has been reduced to its bare elements: a row of four decent Holly trees, one Forsythia (now much reduced in size), two resasonable Malus – and the superannuated apple tree I spoke of in a previous post. No ‘family decision’ has yet been taken on the apple: but to be fair, now that all the other surrounding nonsense has been removed, it looks better than it did. It still needs some proper pruning, and I will attend to that in January, but it could be redeemed. Everything else – numerous self-set Holly bushes, more nettles and brambles than you would ever dream of, masses of Ivy – has gone. There is now an enormous pile of debris awaiting the arrival of a truck to remove it.Then I will try something new. Cardboard. Apparently bicycle shops are a good source of large sheets of cardboard, in which shiny new bikes arrive from the manufacturer. Laid down over the soil it provides a biodegradable mulch, which can in turn be covered with compost or manure to enrich and improve the soil beneath. Cardboard is permeable, and as it rots down it is easy to plant through. I believe bulbs will even push up through the layer, as long as it is soggy enough. So, rather than resorting to black plastic membrane, I will cover the cleared border in cardboard, and trust that this will suppress any remaining perennial nasties sufficiently to allow the new shrubs to establish. Which reminds me, I need to get on and order them…

Another big Ivy clearing job followed the next day, removing a great mass of the stuff which had climbed up and completely smothered a conifer hedge, carrying on to reach a height of about 15 feet, and about 10 feet deep overhanging into the garden. This, of course, created a ‘rain shadow’ beneath which nothing could ever grow (apart from more Ivy), and made the garden smaller and darker than it should be. Well, it’s gone now, cut back hard to the wall behind. Without the Ivy to support them, the dead conifers are now completely loose, and I will get those out. But what will remain is an extra yard or so of useable garden. The plan is to get some climbers in which will grow up the attractive old brick wall, and make a pleasure of what was an eyesore.

Fig Leaves

Lots of fig leaves. One – admittedly quite large – fig tree. Lots and lots of leaves. And big leaves they are too. Great bulb-fingered hands of leaves, lying dry and curled on the lawn as if grasping the diminishing warmth and light of the year.

That was my afternoon in large part: leaf raking. I enjoy the task: it feels satisfying (much more so than mowing, for instance, which is simply dull). A sunny late autumn day, leaf-rake in hand, cannot be bettered. And the leaves will be put to good use, being left to rot down in a chicken-wire cage at the allotment, to create lovely rich leaf mould by next autumn.

The tree itself will need some pruning before the winter is out: but that is a job best left until the weather is properly cold, and all growth has stopped.

My mind wandered along the path suggested by fig leaves, to Adam and Eve in Genesis chapter 3, sewing fig leaves together to make ‘aprons’ – not the single fig leaves of many paintings, attached as if with some prelapsarian Velcro. And how that precedes one of two favourite horticultural moments in scripture – God walking through Eden ‘in the cool of the day’. Perhaps, like a character in a Samuel Palmer painting, wearing a straw hat and smoking a clay pipe?

The other moment is when Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Christ in the early morning of Easter Sunday – ‘supposing him to be the gardener’. Not a shepherd, as so often, but Christ the Gardener.

Gardens can offer such peace and refreshment at both ends of the day, even now as the days shorten dramatically towards the Solstice. The quality of light, the silence, the sense of the day beginning or ending in earnest. To take a moment and savour a garden at these times is truly a delight, and one too often missed in the haste to begin work or pack up for the night. 

A touch of frost

This week has been a splendid one for weather. Clear, bright days and chilly nights. How November ought to be. Yesterday even brought some proper frost, which stayed on shaded patches until late in the morning. Autumn colours have been wonderful: a client’s Rowan tree was positively glowing in the sunlight. 

In her garden the main task was leaf-gathering: fortunately the mighty Horse Chestnut which looms over from next door, flaunting its Tree Protection Order, has now lost all its great hand-like leaves. Still they cling to everything, and clearing them from the tops of shrubs took longer than raking the lawn. I also got plenty of Tulips into the ground, and into some planters, to bring colour after the Narcissi and other earlier bulbs have finished next Spring. I’ve put over 200 bulbs into this modest garden, so I hope we’ll be rewarded with a good showing in a few months’ time.

My next job was the continuing clearance of Mrs P’s garden, or at least the untamed part of it. This has been going on in fits and starts – interrupted by the need to attend to other parts of the garden, and the need to fit work into a couple of hours a session – for over a year. Finally I believe that the back of it is being broken: huge bramble roots, thick as a fist, are finally giving themselves up, along with nettles and countless Holly saplings. Part of the area is actually a path, though covered over with many inches of earth, so roots have insinuated themselves down between the paving stones and require some heavy lifting before they can be attacked. 

In addition, there are three or four – it is difficult to tell precisely as yet – substantial Holly bushes, an enormous Forsythia, which need serious containment – and an ancient apple tree. This latter was ‘pruned’  a few years ago by someone my charming client described, in a moment of quite uncharacteristic bluntness, as ‘an arsehole with a chainsaw’ – and it shows.Large chunks of old, thick growth have been crudely sawn off, and their stumps have subsequently died, while spindly ‘water’ shoots have proliferated in all directions. In spite of its treatment, the tree has cropped vigorously this season, and produced far more apples than anyone could ever need or use.

I broached with her the possibility of getting rid of the tree altogether, as it is to my mind beyond redemption. A domestic conference was promised, which will decide its fate.

Once all this clearing is done, I will get on with the task of planting up this part of the garden with low-maintenance, year-round interest – mainly shrubs I propose. 

Finally, on to my third job of the day, and some more Tulip planting, as well as tidying up the debris left by the double glazing fitters’ recent visit. On one hand they have pulled away lots of Ivy from around the house windows, which saves me a job. But on the other hand, they have left lots of it hanging and wafting around off the wall. They have also dealt with a huge climbing rose in much the same fashion: this will need more careful attention, pruning and reattachment to the wall.

Ashes to ashes…

A beautiful sunny autumn afternoon today, but one spent dealing with the aftermath of stormy weather. My client was the only one who suffered any real ill-effects from the St. Jude storm of two weeks ago. A large walnut tree came down, along with lots of debris from aspens and willows – and trees in neighbouring gardens fell too. The result has been a might bonfire, and – when I arrived today – a similarly mighty pile of wood ash, which needed to be dealt with.

Wood ash is never quite as useful, it seems to me, as it ought to be – and it is problematic to use effectively in the garden in large quantities. The ash from our log fire at home tends to go onto the compost heap, in relatively modest quantities, and as a small proportion of the overall compost material. It is a good source of Potassium, so adds to the compost which eventually results. However, in excess can make the soil too alkaline – especially when, as is the case here in chalky Wiltshire, the soil is already alkaline. Of course, if you have acid soil, then it can be a useful counterbalance…

The other problem with wood ash – as was the case today – is that it does not take well to being wet. The mound I had to deal with was, in its lower part, already transformed into a sticky clay-like consistency by recent rains.  Worse still, as soon as it gets rained on, most of the Potassium dissolves and leaches out, significantly reducing the usefulness of the ash.

So, a lot of sieving was needed to turn this claggy heap into something useful. Nevertheless, a few hours later, quite a lot of the ash heap had been turned into something useable as a top-dressing, whilst stones and other lumps had been removed and put to one side. Even then, a layer several inches thick remained for the next bonfire to sit on.

I then spread the material around the vegetable garden, raking it in well. Potatoes respond badly to wood ash, as it increases the chances of potato scab – but it will increase the general fertility of the ground for other crops next year. Whether it will do so in proportion to the time and effort it takes to produce is another question, but I am not convinced…

To The Manor…

Avebury. Britain’s largest stone circle, and  thoroughly magical, mystical spot. A village grown within and amongst the mighty stones, intertwined with the monument in a way I think unique. Of course, it is full of visitors, even on a fairly dreary weekend in November. And the good folk of the National Trust are there to inform and educate (and possibly recruit) us all: bobbing up and down the steps of their little caravans bearing leaflets and maps.

A couple of the NT folk spend a while with my son and I, telling us about the Walking Festival which is just drawing (like the Half Term holiday) to a close. But I am inspired by them to revisit Dinton, not far from here at all, which has a good walk – short enough for a winter afternoon perhaps. 

Avebury Manor (pictured) has not been accessible to the masses for very long at all. Until recently it was tenanted – lucky old tenants – whilst in the ownership of the NT. Prior to that it had been in private ownership since the 16th century – and narrowly escaped being made into a theme park in the 1980s. But then the last tenants left, and the house threw open its doors and garden gates. For a while it was shown unfurnished – indeed, there were artfully arranged piles of packing cases, and dustsheets everywhere, to represent the departure of several centuries’ worth of  inhabitants. Then came the BBC series, ‘To the Manor Reborn’ which followed the fortunes of house and garden while they were restored – but with a (it being television, perhaps, inevitable) twist. The house was not treated as a single entity, presented throughout at a single moment in its history. Rather, rooms took on discrete and individual historical moods – Tudor, Queen Anne, Art Deco – and modern craftspeople were employed to recreate the fixtures and fittings, to repaint and restore. This is something quite different, and I think it works really well. It is enlightening to see what ‘Tudor’ furniture looked like when new – without the patina of half a millennium of use. The ‘Tudor’ furniture was made to Tudor patterns, using Tudor techniques (so far as we know them) and Tudor materials – but it presented afresh.

Best of all, it means one can touch! Gone are the strategically placed teasel heads to deter the tired bottom from trying out a chair – instead there is an invitation to sit. Not only to sit, but to bounce on the mattresses, to slip between the sheets of the beds, even to play a frame of snooker… The past becomes a sensory experience beyond mere sight.

While my son and his friend were attending to the green baize, I leafed through some old copies of The Times newspaper. Those were the days long before The Times carried news on its front page: but in this instance it didn’t need to, the news was clear enough. Dated variously between 1915 and 1917, they made for a sobering read: every front page carried its column inches of the dead and wounded of the Great War (or the officers at least). All of them so very young.

The gardens too are well worth seeing. There are a series of walled gardens, full of topiary and clipped yew and Buxus  hedges, which come into their own at this time of year when colour is fast fading away. As part of the BBC programme, the Kitchen Garden was renovated, and – apart from a ghastly skeletal ‘gardener’ (a relic of just-passed Hallowe’en) – look very fine indeed. I well remember a visit a couple of years ago, on a boiling hot day, when we just sat on the lawn and rested while the children raced up and down: no-one else there to disturb or be disturbed by our fun.

All of this coupled with the very friendly and unstuffy guides, makes a visit to the Manor a delightfully different experience. No doubt some will accuse the NT of ‘dumbing down’ in the name of ‘inclusivity’ or somesuch  – but the stated aims of the Avebury Manor approach are clear, and if you don’t like it, then go to a more ‘traditional’ property.

Just watch out for the teasels…

Well, that’s all blown over…

So, the great storm of St Jude came and went. The main damage it wrought here was the total reordering of our family plans for the Half Term holiday. Worried that all kinds of damage might occur in our absence, we rescheduled our visit to my folks in Lancashire, and stayed here while the gales blew so we could keep an eye out for trees falling, chimneys coming down and the like. In the event, a plant trough blew from one windowsill, and the last of the apples came a-tumbling down onto the grass beneath – but otherwise: nothing. 

I suppose there is a temptation to say the forecasters cried ‘Wolf!’ and over-egged their warnings. But, people were killed, and damage was done, in some parts of the country. And, it’s surely better to be forearmed for the possibility of a severe storm than to carry blithely on? As weather forecasting gets ever more sophisticated, and we demand ever greater precision from the forecasters, our expectations get inflated. Weather is a wild and unpredictable force (the more severe, the more unstable) and the best, most accurate, forecasts can only ever be percentage predictions. We must learn to treat them as such.

As for the Half Term holiday itself, it seems to have taken a seriously large chunk out of my working time over the turn of the month. And now it is November, autumn proper, with all that that entails – especially as the clocks fall back, and the working day ends (outdoors at least) at about four in the afternoon. 

I did get to visit Chester Zoo while we were up north. Last time I went was about twenty years ago, with my then girlfriend (now wife) – and I remember us feeling terribly conspicuous as we had no children with us. This time, of course, and very happily, it was different – and it was lovely to show the children around the zoo which I knew so well as a child myself. One of Chester’s highlights has always been its gardens – a ‘Zoological Gardens’ indeed. The zoo’s founder, George Mottershead, came from a market gardening family, and the design of the zoo (‘a zoo without bars’) has always – since its opening in the 1930s – used landscaping and planting to enhance the experience for both visitors and animals. There are National Collections of orchids and cacti (Copiapoa, Matucana and Turbinicarpus), as well other major displays of plants from around the world, which in themselves constitute a botanical garden of some note. There is a very interesting piece on the zoo’s website, entitled ’Plants in a Modern Zoo’ which explains the philosophy behind the approach to gardens and plants at Chester. 

As a small boy, I know that the animals were what I wanted to see whenever I visited Chester Zoo. Indeed, I wanted to work there as a zoo keeper – and even had a much-treasured letter from the great George Mottershead in response to some enquiry of mine (a letter now sadly lost). However, I can appreciate much more now the interplay between flora and fauna, and – while late October hardly shows the gardens at their best – it was good to see them again.