Monthly Archives: December 2014

Out with the old

It’s that time for looking backwards and looking forwards at the same time, Janus-faced as we enter Janus’s month. Trying to avoid the same old mistakes, to do that which was left undone, and all the rest of it. So, here goes…

2014 was the most successful year of my professional gardening life. After a dreadful start, when the first three rain-sodden months yielded precious little work or income, things took off at Easter and my diary was full right up until mid-December. I enjoyed long summer days of mowing and weeding, and took on some new clients whose gardens have been a pleasure to work in. 

The new year looks set to be equally successful. I will remain a one-man-band – though I do occasionally think about taking on an apprentice at some point – but I will continue to learn and to grow as a working gardener. 

On the domestic gardening front, however, things went correspondingly less well. It’s a familiar theme of mine, but more paid gardening for other people only comes at a cost in terms of my own garden and allotment. So, my major resolutions for 2015 relate to this. I will get out in my own garden every day, even if only for 5 minutes, to check all is well, and to enjoy it. I will also get to the allotment at least once a week, again maybe only for a brief visit, but that will be better than the stretches of nothing that crept up on me in the autumn just gone. 

I really feel that, unless my own gardening is in order, it impairs my enjoyment of other peoples’ gardens, fuelled by what is, in effect, jealousy. Negotiating this – an inevitable consequence of doing something as a job that I also love as a pastime – is essential, and comes (I suspect) only with time. Nevertheless, I am determined to work hard at it this year.

Other resolutions are more confined and practical. There is an unattractive but essential job to be done in clearing the unacceptable amount of clutter which has accumulated at the bottom of the garden. I simply need to grit my teeth and get the rubbish – for it is essentially rubbish, even if most of it was left there ‘because it might come in handy one day’ – to the recycling centre. 

That job is a preliminary to demolishing the two increasingly decrepit sheds, and replacing them with a single bespoke building which will serve as garden/potting shed and store. At the same time I will create a modest ‘yard’ adjacent to the new building, which will provide a dry, hard-standing for outdoor jobs (such as potting-on) in good weather, as well as an area to store plants. 

That it turn will free space on the decked patio, which can then be better used as an outdoor living space for eating, entertaining and enjoying the garden. I will stop using the patio as a ‘holding area’ for plants en route to borders or clients’ borders, and thin out the pots around it to allow some nice plants to flourish and claim their moment in the sun (literally as well as metaphorically).

The lawns remain a question mark. Neither area of grass in my garden is of a decent standard to be called a ‘lawn’ really. But I am reluctant to lose them both. Over the past couple of years I have tried some re-seeding, but it’s not been a great success. I continue to toy with replacing the area nearest the house with artificial turf: which grates with my commitment to wildlife-friendly, organic gardening – but would keep the look of the thing, and is surely no worse than paving or gravelling the area? The other patch, under the large apple tree, and heavily trampled by children using the wendy house and the swing, may have to take its chances for a few summers, until such pursuits decrease and turf or seed has a half-decent chance of survival. 

I will try to buy fewer gardening books – though I cannot promise. I have always been a bibliophile, and will buy books whatever. 

I will make every effort to keep proper records of what I sow, plant and harvest – at least beyond the end of March, when previous years’ diaries tend to fall into neglect. I will also keep this blog more up to date – and use it as a diary, as well as a means to share my experiences with you, long-suffering readers. 

Finally, I will be a more generous gardener. My (sic) garden is actually our garden – my dear wife and splendid children own it too, even if their uses of it are often different from mine. The same is true of the allotment. Everyone needs to feel they belong, and that these spaces belong to them. That they sometimes don’t is my fault entirely, and I shall put that right. I will also be more generous with plants and produce. Visitors won’t leave empty-handed if I have young plants, cuttings, flowers or vegetables to spare.

I think that final resolution, which I hadn’t thought of when I sat down to write, will make me happiest of all.

I hope you have a wonderful 2015 in the garden and out of it.



Brr, it is cold

“Brr, it is cold! 

…Well, then, make a fire in my room; let the garden sleep under its eiderdown of snow. It is good to think of other things as well; the table is full of books not read, let’s do that; we have so many other plans and cares, let’s make a beginning. But have we covered up everything well with brushwood? Have we wrapped up tritonia? Haven’t we forgotten to cover the plumbago? Kalmia ought to be protected buy a branch; what if azalea gets frozen? What if the tubers of Asiatic ranunculus don’t come up next year? In that case we shall plant instead… wait… Wait a bit, let’s look through some catalogues.

So in December the garden is mostly found in a great number of garden catalogues. The gardener hibernates under glass in a heated room, buried up to the neck, not in manure or brushwood, but in garden catalogues and circulars, books and pamphlets…”

The Gardener’s Year, Karel Capek, 1929

Cold afternoon at the allotment

Finally, finally, I summoned up the courage to get to the allotment this afternoon. I’ve not been up there for several weeks, and the longer time has gone on, the less appealing the prospect has become. I was frankly dreading the state things would have fallen into over the autumn, and didn’t really want to look.

In my defence, I have been very busy working all autumn thanks to the good weather and a full diary. There have been several weekends when, even if I wasn’t committed to family stuff, the appeal of a sixth day of weeding and cutting-back was decidedly limited. This year has been the worst for time spent at the allotment since we started in 2006 – the too-common irony of being a professional gardener with no time to garden for themselves.

Anyhow, I got myself there, and what do you know? It really wasn’t as grim as I had expected. Last night was really cold, and there was a proper frost this morning. The allotment faces east, and there was still hard frost on the beds this afternoon as the sun had missed them completely. The far side of the allotment site may have been still bathed in late afternoon sunshine, but our side was in shade and had been probably all day. 

Yes, there are weeds aplenty, but not ridiculously so. Yes, the grass needs cutting, but when doesn’t it? But a couple of hours tidying dead Jerusalem Artichoke and Sunflower stalks, and digging out weeds, made a signiificant difference. And there are some beautiful Teasels, frosted and stark just as they are supposed to be at this time of year. 

A job list formed in my mind as I worked: repairs to a couple of the oldest raised beds, thinning out the over-abundant raspberry canes in the fruit cage (and removing those which have emerged outside it), rationalising the compost heaps, having a bonfire to get rid of a backlog of rubbish. All of them achievable.

A robin followed me about, with a friendly – but slightly censorious – look on his face – as if to say ‘where have you been then?’. Happy enough, though, to pick up the worms and grubs I turned up as I weeded.

Most importantly, for me at least, was that my visit didn’t leave me feeling downhearted. As I was packing up, a neighbouring plot-holder made approving noises about my afternoon’s efforts at restoring order, and I made equally positive noises about ‘getting on top of things ready for spring’. At which point he chuckled, and observed wryly that ‘we all say that’ in December. Maybe so, but I do believe I mean it.

Winter planting

Early start this morning to drive down to a local nursery, where awaiting me were a Gage tree (Prunus domestica) and a bundle of Euonymus europaeus saplings. These were for the almshouses were I garden one day a week. The Gage – a beautiful specimen – was being planted to ‘replace’, on the guidance of the Conservation Officer, a massively overgrown Bay tree which was removed a while ago. I never saw the Bay myself, but it is spoken of in tones of enthusiastic dislike by the residents who did. It was enormous by all accounts, and cast a deep gloom over the corner of the garden it occupied. 

Anyway, it’s gone now. And the Oullin’s Gage I planted today is a beauty. It will bear white blossom and golden fruit, and cast only a modest shadow for the time it is in leaf. 

Oullins Gage can be used in cooking to make pies and jams, but is also sweet, juicy and delicious eaten straight off the tree. A large fruit by gage standards it needs a sunny position to produce a decent crop – so it suits the middle of what is, effectively, a fairly open courtyard garden.
As for the name,it was introduced from France in the late 1800s, and is named after the town (now more a suburb) of Oullins near Lyon.  

The Euonymus hedge runs alongside one of the borders, against a path and in front of the outbuilding I use as a garden shed. The saplings were extremely healthy, and have gone in well. They will take a wee while to thicken up but the residents’ idea is to have a ‘wildlife’ hedge rather than a purely ornamental one.

On the other side of the garden are a very large Yew (Taxus baccata), and an unnamed apple tree (the apple is visible in the picture above), both of which are currently awaiting a visit from the tree surgeon to bring them under control. The Yew in particular is shading out several beds which desperately need more light. One in particular is shaded by the tree on one side and a high north-facing wall on the other, and struggles to grow anything (despite being marked on the plans as a ‘vegetable plot’ – a cruel joke, I suspect). And, of course, the lawns are plastered during the autumn with sticky red Yew berries, which adhere to any and everything including gardeners’ trousers and boots, whilst failing to attract any birds.

Once these two are dealt with balance will be restored, light let in, and growing resumed.