Monthly Archives: February 2015

Hedging and pruning

First of all, dear readers, a picture of the ‘Shade Garden’ I planted a couple of weeks ago at The Almshouses.

I am not entirely persuaded by the prostrate Junipers, or the Polyanthus, but the client’s wish is my command. The pots (there are two of them) are nice though. 

At The Farm I was planting the native, wildlife-friendly hedge for which I had prepared the ground last week. When I looked at it again, the trench was not only uneven, but too narrow. So my first task was to widen and straighten. Then came the planting. A healthy bundle of bare-root trees from the estimable Landford Trees consisted of Hawthorn, Field Maple, Blackthorn, Viburnum opulus and V. lantana. All of these are found in ‘wild’ hedges hereabouts, and will provide both cover and food for insects and birds in due course. I put ‘wild’ in inverted commas, as no hedge is truly wild – the very notion of hedges is a human one, inextricably linked to farming and the enclosure of stock and pasture. 

As I said previously, the intention is to steer people along the path, towards the ‘proper’ garden gate, and to screen the ‘working’ area (to the left of the hedge in the picture). There were a good handful of saplings left over, so I made a ‘stock bed’ down by the compost heaps and heeled them in there. They will come in useful if there are any casualties in the hedge, or may end up somewhere else as a hedge in their own right.

Another job last week was pruning the bed of Cornus. I am going to try two approaches, to see which generates better results for winter colour. Those I have already done have been more or less pruned hard down to their base:

The others, which I will do next week, will be pruned according to Dan Pearson’s recommendation – in the Observer – to keep the structure and remove a third of the stems (as one would do to rejuvenate many shrubs). 

These shrubs – Cornus and, more particularly, others in these borders – which need winter pruning will have to be done soon, as birds are already starting to prospect for nest sites. I saw a Long Tailed Tit with a beakful of nesting material the other day, and judging by the old nests I have found when pruning, they love this part of the garden. A Long Tailed Tit’s nest – a beautiful soft ball of moss and feathers – is a wonderful thing.

I also did some ‘thrashing’ (there is no better word for it) of dead nettle stems which were hiding some of the lovely snowdrops in the Walled Garden. I have transplanted a few clumps which were isolated and totally lost in the long grass, and put them in the main border, but most of the naturalised snowdrops I’ve left in situ.

Wet day work

It’s a wet Monday here, not a good start to Half Term week! Never mind. It was wet last Friday too, with torrential showers coming and going all day. Overall, since Christmas – and certainly by any comparison with last year – it seems to have been a fairly dry winter (though anything short of Noah’s Flood bears fair comparison with last winter). At The Farm the river level has dropped steadily since the beginning of January, and the water no longer laps up on to the bottom of the lawn. This hasn’t deterred the Mute Swans, who have adopted the Walled Garden as their roosting spot of late. They spend the days across the river, paddling up and down en famille – two adults and two ‘first year’ cygnets – looking very picturesque. Their droppings, however, deposited overnight on the grass are rather less appealing: it’s surprising how much mess four swans can make!

I had a few ‘wet weather’ jobs to get on with. First of all I took out a dead apple tree from the – not altogether convincingly-named – ‘Orchard’. This actually amounts to 8 (now 7) apple trees planted in a very exposed and wind-blasted corner of the gardens. They do fruit quite well, I am told, but they’re not grown or pruned for fruit-production but for their appearance. One of them – and I don’t have the plan with me, so I can’t tell you its variety (they are all different) – had died and so I took it out. In fact it was so dead and shallow-rooted that the whole thing – a tree 10’ tall – came out with a few good heaves. All of the apples seem to be very shallow-rooted, and it may well be that this patch has a fairly thin topsoil covering rubble or other rubbish dumped there in the past. 

The plan is to replace not with another apple, but with something more properly ornamental. As I say, we don’t need or really want more fruit, and the site is not really well-suited. I’d like to plant a var. jacquemontii birch, but they’re not great chalk-lovers, though they don’t mind wind. Most probably I’ll put in another row of three trees, as well as replacing the dead apple, to balance up the planting.

I also took the opportunity to dig a circle of earth around the remaining apples, which had been left with the grass growing right up to their trunks. This means they can be properly fed and mulched, as well as not being knocked by the mower – and looking neater.

Then it was over to the Walled Garden, or rather the area just outside, where I started on the trench which will take the hedging I am putting in. This will provide a screen for the bonfire/compost heap area, and steer people – visually and physically – toward the gate in the wall which gives access to the garden proper. It’ll be a native hedge, so will provide good habitat for wildlife too. The bare-root trees will be arriving this week, so I needed to get ahead with preparing the ground for them. The area to be cleared of rough grass and weeds is about 15m long and 1m wide – I will widen it slightly to allow a double, staggered planting. A decent bit of rain won’t do any harm, as the ground will be good and moist when the trees go in.  

And yes, it is a bit wonky – don’t worry, I’ll straighten it up next time…

At last, a bit of planting

After several weeks of ‘winter work’ it was a joy to spend some time these past two days putting plants in the ground. Somehow one longs to grow things as the days lengthen and the weather warms (albeit only slightly).

At The Farm I spent some time digging up Sedum spectabile from in among shrubs and hedges. Why it was put there in the first place is anyone’s guess, but it certainly no longer belonged. The plants – a good dozen of them –  were healthy and of a good size, so I took them into the Walled Garden and put them into the long border. In addition, I put in some Anemone hybrida (removed from another garden I look after), and Solidago rugosa (surplus to requirements in my own garden). These are all fairly tough cookies, so even though the ground is still chilly, they’ll have a chance to get established as spring warms up. I fed them with some Vitax Q4+ which contains mycorrhizal fungi to aid root development in newly planted plants, and is very good for bare-roots and divided plants in my experience; and added a bit of compost from the heaps as a mulch.

This morning I was planting-up a ‘shade garden’ at The Almshouses. This is a square area in the north-facing lee of a high brick wall and an outbuilding – with a mighty Yew tree directly to its north, so direct sunlight is fairly non-existent. It had been used as a vegetable plot in the past, perhaps when the Yew was smaller, but really needed replanting. The only plant to be kept was a large Ficus (I think ‘Brown Turkey’) trained against the wall, which seems perfectly happy. The planting scheme is predominantly blues and whites, and includes Asplenium and Polystichum setiforum ferns, Anemone nemerosa, ConvallariaLiriope muscari ‘Monroe White’, and a variegated Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’. Against the outbuilding wall I put in a large Hydrangea petiolaris which should cling to the brick without need of supports, and provide decorative cover. A few Digitalis alba were also moved in, and I hope they will colonise the corners to provide foliage and flower in the dark.There are some Hostas still to be added, some in planters along the edge of the border where there is a paved area, and some in the border itself. 

I realise I should have taken some photographs, and will add that to the ‘to do’ list for next week.

Burning it up

The pile of brushwood, prunings and larger branches has been growing steadily for a month. At this time of year, pruning shrubs is one of the best jobs to get on with. Since I started work at The Farm I’ve been pruning, coppicing and hedge-clearing like a man possessed – and generating large quantities of debris as a consequence. Fortunately, there is a piece of ground adjacent to the Walled Garden which can be used as a ‘holding area’ for all this material. And so the pile has accumulated: corrugated sheets of dead ivy, branches of hawthorn and spindle, all mounding up. On top of this, there was already a substantial pile of ‘stuff’ left by my predecessor, mainly leaves but also some large alder boughs, and lots of holly. Oh, and any number of crisp packets. My predecessor was fond of crisps it seems.

The pile of rubbish extended all along the length of the wall 

And so the time had come for a bonfire. In fact I’d already had a couple of goes, but failed to give myself time to get the fire going properly: and a bonfire needs time. Yesterday I determined to do the job properly, and built a neat pyre of kindling and newspaper as the base for by conflagration. Away it went, and I slowly, methodically added material from the rubbish pile. 

The bonfire, alight but yet to really get going. 

The key to a good fire is to build a really hot ‘heart’ so that more or less anything that is then added will catch light, even green and damp material. Over the course of five hours I kept the fire going with sufficient heat to burn the entire pile. Under the heap I found several big branches and beams, charred from previous fires, and these kept the heat going while the flimsier stuff burned in an instant.

Crackling with fierce heat, more or less anything will now burn

I must have pitchforked about a ton of material onto the fire in the course of the day, but it was deeply satisfying to see the ground clearing and order being restored. And the task of tending the fire, rearranging branches to ensure they burned, poking and prodding, is a wonderful one. Fire exerts such a deep, atavistic fascination for humans, I think, and the opportunity to have a really good blaze is never one to be passed over. There was a therapeutic – nay, spiritual – dimension to it as well – coming, as it did, just after the midwinter days, burning away the old and clearing space for the new.

Not a great photograph, but I liked the juxtaposition of the new – Galanthus nivalis – with the burning-away of the old.


The day before had been Candlemas, with its promise – which probably dates back to the pagan festival of Imbolc, celebrated on the same day – of telling us whether winter is over or not. The day was fine, which is traditionally a sign of more wintry weather to come.

Lo and behold, drawing back the curtains the following morning revealed a good couple of inches of snow had fallen in the night. Snow must be the most transformative weather phenomenon, changing the appearance, the feel, the sound of everything it covers. The morning was still too, so the crunches of snow underfoot carried on the air.

We enjoyed the walk to school with my two children – stopping for a bit of en passant snowballing on the way. Sadly, by the end of school the snow had virtually all gone, otherwise there’d have been an hour or so of light in which to enjoy it. Winter snow is not something we can take for granted here, so the children need to have the opportunity to play in it whenever they can. 

I headed over to The Farm. No-one had been out and about when I got there, so I seized the opportunity to get some photographs of the gardens under their sudden cold covering.

I say ‘no-one’ – no humans, at any rate. There were plenty of rabbit tracks, lots of small birds, and the resident Mute Swans had been padding about on the lawn by the river, probably having spent the night there are they seem to at the moment. I always keep an eye out for signs of otters, and the snow would have shown any tracks very well: sadly, there was nothing to see. 

I rather spoiled this picture by walking up the path before I took it…

Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ and C. sericea ‘Flaviramea’

The river, looking west. No signs of otters. I live in hope.

The snow lasted until late afternoon, although the wind got up around lunchtime and spoiled the still, bright atmosphere of the morning. Snow is not frequent in Salisbury, so I wonder when the gardens will look like this again?