Monthly Archives: May 2014

The end of May

Well, we can officially cast our clouts now – May being over and out. Though (as any fule kno) that’s really about Hawthorn blossom – but then that’s gone too. My dear wife was trying to paint the outside of our wooden conservatory a few days ago, and gave up because the blossom from a nearby Hawthorn tree was blowing down and becoming embedded in the paintwork.

Anyhow, June will open in the morning. This has apparently been the third warmest spring since the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 (or something like that) – although also wetter and duller (as in, less sunny) than average. That comes as no surprise, having battled with inconstant weather all month. Last Friday I was  sheltering under a hedge as the torrential rain poured down on my efforts to weed the fruit garden at The Manor. Today, at the Manor again, I had suncream on as I raced the clouds to get the mowing finished. The coming week will be wet and unsettled apparently, so the grass at The Manor – and elsewhere – needed to be cut yesterday and today, or risk waiting several days. In which time, of course, it would have grown even more, and become even harder to cut with any finesse.

The Manor has many grassy areas, but two of them I regard as ‘lawns’ in the formal sense, deserving of special care and attention. The others – alongside the stream, behind the barns, in the orchard, and ‘over the river’ – are kept a little longer, and have a slightly raffish air compared to their neatly clipped and striped neighbours.

This is ‘over the river’ – and has been left to grow tall in the middle of a circular mown walk 

Looking towards the Oriental garden, one of the grass areas running alongside the stream.

One of The Manor’s two ‘formal’ lawns  

Mowing has become easier now that all the bulbs in the orchard and elsewhere have died back. For a few weeks, negotiating clumps of naturalised Narcissus and Bluebells has required extra time and manoeuvre. When they’re in flower it’s absolutely worthwhile, but it becomes simply a bind when they have stopped flowering, but the foliage is still green and doing its job of feeding up the bulbs for next season. Happily, from now on, having first strimmed the over-lengthy patches to get them under control, the mower can take straighter lines.

Today I found myself talking to my mower at one point, urging it on as it coughed over a slightly longer patch of grass. Like a ploughman and his (usually ‘his’, I imagine) team, my only company for most of the working day was the mower, and it needed the encouragement. 

Chelsea mornings (and afternoons and evenings)

It’s been Chelsea Flower Show week, in case you hadn’t noticed (or have been late to wake from hibernation). Every gardening medium has been full of Chelsea for at least a month of ‘run up’ – and will doubtless be so for another month (at least) of post-show reporting and commenting. The BBC, not content with extensive coverage during the show week itself, has run a week-long series of pre-show programmes.

Even ‘Gardeners World’ was in on the act, with an extensive item last week whose only point, as far as I could tell, was to address the questions over one of the (new) Chelsea presenters’ lack of gardening expertise or experience. I hold nothing against Sophie Raworth, and her parents’ garden is lovely enough, but the whole thing smacked of nervousness on the part of the producers.

And that’s not to mention the ‘is Alan in a huff or not?’ non-story – again, covered extensively in the gardening and non-gardening press.

Let me put my cards on the table: I have never been to the Chelsea Flower Show. I am sure that, were I to be offered a ticket, I would seize the opportunity to go. I am equally sure that I would dislike the crowds and the flummery, and the whole corporate trade show razzamatazz of the thing. I like to think I’d find some gardens, some plants, some people I’d not encountered before, and would come away having enjoyed myself, picked up some new ideas, not spent too much money. But I am not falling over myself to get there.

So much of Chelsea, as I experience it through newspapers, television and magazines, seems to be little or nothing to do with gardening as most of us actually experience it throughout the year. I search for a suitable analogy from other spheres – but I suppose the reduction of all lawn tennis to ‘Wimbledon’ is not that far removed. 

Just imagine if the media resources put into Chelsea were used to represent actual gardening, across the whole year? 

When did ‘Chelsea’ become the focal point of the entire gardening year? It would be interesting to know if there was a single moment (an ‘Italia 90’ in football terms) when this happened – but happened it certainly has.

Lawn Preparation

Not much of a rest yesterday either, as I was busy digging over in preparation for a new lawn in the front garden of a client’s house. It’s been a ‘lawn’ for a while, but the grass has become very patchy and thatchy – so when I took it on we discussed getting rid of the old lawn completely and making a new one. The soil is extremely stony, and the site slopes down from the road to the house – so it’s far from ideal, but we’ll give it a go. So yesterday was spent digging and turning the existing surface, getting rid of as many weeds and moss clumps as possible, and exposing the bare earth to some air (and, as it happens, overnight rain). Although I am no fan of chemicals in the garden, in this case I’ll make an exception and give the whole area a dose of glysophate to kill of any weeds and old rough grass that persist, before setting about getting the topsoil into a decent condition. I’m trying to avoid importing more topsoil, but it might prove necessary, as I suspect there’ll be hollows all over once I have got all the stones and other rubbish out. 

It’s not the greatest time of year for lawn-making, but I am determined to make as good a job as possible of it. 

By the by, while doing this job a Skylark was singing almost constantly overhead, and I was entertained by a Buzzard being mobbed very enthusiastically by a group of Jackdaws. And this on a housing development on the edge of Salisbury: albeit one that – at its edges – runs up against open farmland. On the other hand, I can sometimes work a whole day in ‘the countryside’ – at The Manor, for instance – and see hardly a bird beyond the occasional Robin chasing me along the borders, and the constant raucousness of the neighbourhood rookery. 

No rest for the wicked…

I am not really wicked – a bit over fond of Ritter Biscuit & Nut chocolate but that’s about as far as it goes – but I have been busy given that this was a Sunday. 

I was up & awake at 4.30 to listen to the Dawn Chorus for International Dawn Chorus Day – blackbirds, robins, song thrush, chiffchaff, dunnock, carrion crows, jackdaws – nothing remarkable – but lovely nonetheless.

Then out into my own garden for some tidying and sorting. Trays of young plants are starting to be moved from the greenhouse to the open air nw the days are warmer, and to make room for more seedlings which are coming through from the propagator. I planted up some sweet peas – Cupani and Winston – along with some salad herbs – rocket, parcel (the one that looks like curly parsley, but tastes of celery), land cress, mizuna and coriander. These are all in a sheltered spot outside the kitchen door, where they will get looked after, and the herbs are handy for cooking. 

After which I mowed the lawn, and gave it a good rake to get the moss and thatch out: there was an alarming amount, which went onto the compost heap.

Then I had a quick job for a client, who wanted her grass mowing asap. It’s a smallish garden, so didn’t take too long at all. I will have to take the scarifier along next visit, as the lawn has got very mossy on the shaded north-facing side, and needs a bit of attention.

And then… up to the allotment for more grass cutting. Banks and edges got a thorough (rather overdue) strim, and then I went over as much as possible with the mower – this both picked up the strimmings, and gave a better finish. I always rather resent having to mow at the allotment, it doesn’t seem like it’s what the allotment is for, but it needs doing on our site, which has quite extensive grass banks between plots. As always, the job took longer than planned, and generated enormous quantities of clippings – onto the compost heap with them too.

Finally, two overdue jobs: finishing off the paths with chipped bark – which entailed barrowing it up from the bottom of the site: good exercise if nothing else; and getting some pot-grown soft fruit into the ground in the fruit cage. It might be a little late to be moving fruit bushes, but they desperately needed to be planted once the ground was cleared and the walkway sorted. Gooseberries, Redcurrants and Blackcurrants all added to the existing stock, and to the Raspberries and Blueberries – the cage is full to bursting now. Let’s hope the harvest is similarly copious. Soft fruit is the thing I best love growing at the allotment, a high-value crop of which one doesn’t easily tire in a glut. 

Strawberries are grown in a raised bed, and I still have some plants in pots at home which need moving to the allotment without delay. Like I say, no rest for the wicked…

The Manor: a beginning

I have now worked two days at The Manor, my new and rather splendid garden. Not ‘mine’ of course, but the garden where I work half a week to help the owners manage six acres of formal and woodland gardens.

My first day, last week, was long and very, very wet. Within half an hour I was so wet that I could not get any wetter, and remained wet throughout the whole of a very, very wet day. Did I mention that it was wet? Too wet for anything but weeding, and even that was limited to avoid churning up and damaging areas of lawn and border. My main effort was concentrated on the Oriental Garden, which is covered partly in slate chippings, and partly in gravel. Both of these provided a reasonably firm surface to work from. I must have looked like I was searching for a murder weapon, as  I crept slowly on my hands and knees, extracting hundreds of sycamore seedlings with my fingers. Nevertheless, eager to prove my worth, I persevered and got not only the Oriental Garden, but also the main circular herbaceous borders, weeded.

Yesterday the sun shone, and the garden felt completely different. The ground was still pretty soggy – it had rained heavily again the day before – but conditions for working were infinitely better. I finished the herbaceous borders, having previously been unable to do the backs of them because of the wet. They are planted with a gentle mix of colours – pale blue chiefly at this time of year, especially a wealth of Camassia – with pink Persicaria waiting to enter stage left, along with Astilbe and Digitalis, all surrounded by a yew hedge and punctuated with neat balls of Buxus.  A handful of pale Narcissi are still hanging on – Sedum and Crocosmia will add to the show as the season progresses.

This year’s weed of the spring award has to go to Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine Hirsuta) which has clearly loved the conditions since last summer: it is ubiquitous. As the seed heads mature, they develop an amazing ‘firing’ mechanism which sprays seeds in all directions when they are touched. So much so that I sometimes wonder whether pulling the plants out is a counter-productive exercise: for each mature plant pulled-up, the seeds for 100 more are spread everywhere at high speed. I don’t know how fast the projectile seeds actually travel, but fast and hard enough to flick you in the face if you’re bent over them. Of course, birds or even the wind will do the job as well as any gardener – the trick is to catch the seedlings early, before the seedheads have matured.

That job done, and a quick sandwich eaten by the river which runs through the garden, I got on with mowing the Orchard. Large stands of naturalised Narcissus and Bluebells are still in full leaf, so needed mowing around: as the foliage dies back, and the goodness feeds into the bulb for next year, the mowing will become less complicated. Then the circular beds around each of the trees were weeded and hoed-over, and the long border along an old wall planted with espalier fruit was also worked-through, but not quite finished by the end of the working day.