Monthly Archives: March 2015

Grass and trees

One way and another, there’s been a lot of grasswork this week. At the Almshouses, I have been reseeding some of the badly damaged areas which have been ravaged by Jackdaws. The birds have a habit of finding a mossy spot – of which there are plenty – and then working away at its edges, gradually enlarging the bare patch in all directions. The Jackdaws’ attacks have been compounded by the presence of too much moss – the product of shade, and (I suspect) over-zealous mowing in the past. The shade problem has been alleviated by the work done on the large Yew tree over the winter, which is now allowing a lot more light through to one side of the ‘quad’ garden. 

Anyway, much raking to get out moss (at least, the moss the Jackdaws hadn’t already pulled up) and thatch; then more raking of the exposed earth to get it ready for sowing; then seeding; and finally a top-dressing of lawn sand and topsoil mixed and sieved. 

A similar process has been followed at The Farm, where some areas are badly shaded and damp, and consequently more moss than grass. Timing is important, as the grass seed needs moisture to germinate – the work needs to be done just ahead of a wet day or so. Fortunately, this week obliged with some useful overnight rain to do the watering.

The ‘tree men’ have been dealing with some overgrown Willows at The Farm. These trees, along the side of river, have not been pollarded for the best part of a decade, so the tree surgeon estimated. Their trunks are badly cracked and fissured, and some support a lush ecology of ferns, moss and ivy growing among the dead material lodged within the cracks. 

They needed their tops taking out, and this was done last week. It’s made a huge difference to this part of the grounds – opening it up completely. It looks a bit stark for the moment. I am reminded of Paul Nash’s painting of the Western Front, “We are Making a New World” (1918) – which in many ways is an appropriate view of the tree work, as much as Nash’s intended irony. 

Sadly, this ground is far too wet to be cultivated, and floods to create temporary ponds whenever the river is high. There is a healthy patch of Flag Irises here as well. But it can be managed, at least, so as not to become simply a wilderness. Nettles flourish here, which is both a sign of the soil’s fertility, and also good for some butterflies – Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Red Admiral. It’s early for most butterflies as yet, though Brimstones are already visible as is the odd Tortoiseshell. I think we can leave plenty of nettles to encourage the butterflies, whilst still keeping control. 

The first cut

Not (pace Rod Stewart) the deepest, and not the shortest either, but today saw the first outing of 2015 for my mower. It’s always a slightly worrying thing this first mowing business. Leave it too late, and the grass has already started to get away from you; but jump the gun, and it’s likely to be too wet or cold, and the result won’t be good. There’s also the inescapable fact that, once you’ve started mowing you are going to be repeating the exercise every week or so until late October in any normal year. It’s like leaping aboard a treadmill, and as such not something you want to do lightly.

Today, however, a bright, warm, sunny day seemed like the perfect opportunity to take just a wee clip off the top of the grass at The Farm. The blades were set at their highest, and so the volume of grass removed and composted was pretty small. But the effect was good – the tuftiest tufts of coarse grass were brought into line, and – if you don’t look too closely – the lawns around the houses look pretty good. 


There is a lot of moss, though, and overall the quality of the grass is patchy (quite literally so). It will take some time to get it up to par, and I have already started preparing some areas for reseeding. Whether the resident doves will give the new seed a chance, when it goes down, remains to be seen.

I didn’t tackle the ‘grounds’ grass, as I was using my smaller roller-mower – they will need the 4-wheeler with a bit more oomph, a bigger grass-box, and self-propulsion. That’s one of Friday’s jobs all being well. 

A crop of white labels

First of all, I have changed the ‘style’ of the blog – hope you like it. The old look was a bit limited, and italics for some reason didn’t display properly. Time for a change.

At The Farm I have been doing some more work in the Walled Garden, as well as tidying up grass edging elsewhere in readiness for the start of the mowing season. Sadly, a lot (let’s be honest, most) of the wooden edging on paths and lawns alike has deteriorated and crumbled. It really needs replacing but that will be a time-consuming and fairly costly job: maybe one for next winter? Many of the border edges have consequently ‘migrated’ over time, to create odd and wavy lines which are difficult to maintain. The danger then is that they creep further and the problem gets worse. Nothing looks neater than a newly-edged border, so out came the half-moon spade.

I also took the opportunity to widen one or two ‘strip’ borders in order to allow some more planting. At the moment this looks like a crop of white plant labels, as I have been using bare-root perennials – but they will come. Those I put in a couple of weeks ago are already showing green shoots in many places.


The Hellebores continue to look lovely, with a whole range of dusky pink shades. I have been taking off a lot of the foliage so that the flowers can be seen better, uncluttered by floppy browning leaves. Ignore the area on the other side of the path: the wall is about to be repaired, and I will replant completely once the building work is done in a few weeks’ time. 

Working along that border was a mouth-watering business, thanks to the amazing scent wafting over from a large Curry Plant (Helychrisum italicum) by the gate. Usually one thinks of Curry Plants giving up their eponymous odour only when the leaves are picked and sniffed closely, but this substantial old specimen sends out a cloud of delicious Garam Masala-aroma on the breeze.


The grass is greener, the flowers are more colourful…

Dissatisfaction. Frustration. Discontent. Gloom. These are a few of my least favourite things.

And yet, so often my garden – and I am talking here about the garden at home – is the cause of this unhappy sequence of emotions. We have lived here for 19 years this summer, and the garden has seen some significant changes in that time. There is now only one big old apple tree, where there were three apples and a damson when we arrived. The damson and one apple died and fell; the second apple made way for a seating/dining area at the far end of the garden. A big Bay tree has come and gone: it came as a potted tree 2 feet tall, and went as a mighty thing 20’ tall last weekend, having massively outgrown its space. There is a greenhouse where there used to be a vegetable patch, before which was lawn. And the lawns –  patches of grass, let’s be honest – have both shrunk and deteriorated. The big apple tree now gives hang to a swing seat and a rope ladder, which has more or less stripped the area around it of grass. And there’s a small, purple-painted wooden house belonging to my 5 year old daughter. 

The garden is certainly better than when we came to live here – more plants, more interesting layout – but it still falls so short of my ideal, and doesn’t feel like two decades’ worth of gardening has made sufficient mark. I look at what others have achieved in the same, or less, time and I feel very discontented. Where are the borders full of vibrant, glowing perennials? Where are the mature climbers covering fences and walls? 

In short, why does the garden strike me more often as ‘half empty’ (at best) rather than ‘half full’? Why does it threaten and oppress me, rather than inviting me out to enjoy it? Is it just my rather melancholic nature? 

In part, no doubt, it is. The irony being, of course, that as a professional gardener I spend all my working days and weeks on other people’s gardens, trying to make (and then keep) them pleasurable and attractive. Time is also a big consideration: so much gardening, so little time. And also, I firmly believe, the constant exposure to other – frankly, better – gardens in books and magazines. Just as the image of the perfect (sic) body in fashion magazines gives rise to all manner of unhealthy psychological and physical responses in young women (and men); the ‘perfect’ garden as portrayed in the gardening media can breed similar levels of dissatisfaction. Of course, looking at other gardens in print, on television, in the flesh, often provides inspiration – but it can also have the opposite effect. Even allotments, so long the resort of untidiness and happy muddle, are now more often represented as oases of lush greenery and chic recycling. Where is the mud in the magazines? When did a television gardening programme last show a raised bed (re)infested with Couch Grass or Ground Elder?

The answer to my problem is perhaps two-fold. Firstly, to stop poring over filtered, perfectly-lit, essentially make-believe images of gardens: the camera always lies. Secondly, to strive for a more relaxed and accepting mentality in my own garden. Embrace the limitations – time, money, childrens’ ball games – live and garden in the moment and celebrate the good fortune of owning a garden at all. Loving what is there, rather than worrying about what isn’t

The smoke’s smell, too

‘The smoke’s smell, too 
Flowing from where a bonfire burns
The dead, the waste, the dangerous,
And all to sweetness turns

from Edward Thomas, Digging

The builder is ill, so the wall-mending must wait, and I have the chance to burn that mighty pile of prunings. Whoosh! A couple of mild, dry days coupled with a great deal of dead wood made for a rather spectacular conflagration. The pile which had taken three weeks to amass burnt in an hour or so, aided by a brisk and chilly northwesterly wind. The wind not only fanned the flames, but also kept the smoke – not that there was a lot, as the fire burned so hot and fierce – away from any open windows. Even at the end of the day the embers were still glowing hot and white, certainly hot enough to cook a sausage or two had I thought to bring some.

The crackle and spit of the fire also took on a slightly melancholy and sinister air. Thoughts of the stake – of martyrs both Protestant and Catholic – perhaps prompted by ‘Wolf Hall’ and a consequently heightened awareness of the 16th century – were in the air.

Whereas my bonfire a few week ago felt like the end of the old year, this one, on a bright blue March morning, felt quite different. Cathartic (it has been a difficult few days away from the garden), and also full of promise for the new season to come. Edward Thomas’s poem, although ‘about’ the autumn – and ending with the beautiful line about the robin’s ‘sad song of Autumn mirth’ – was written in April, and the stanza I quote captures perfectly my feeling of today. There were plenty of robins singing too, though with the boldness of spring in their voices.

As does J.W Inchbold’s glorious Pre-Raphaelite landscape variously known as ‘A Study, March’ or ‘In Early Spring’. This painting hangs in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which is where I first saw it 35 years ago. It has stayed with me ever since, and on a day like today it is the touchstone for my response to the light and the colour of spring.

A halcyon day it was – calm and clear – a flash of Kingfisher on the river, and a Red Kite – my first seen at The Farm, and so close to the centre of Salisbury – soaring over as I started work.

Pruning and perennials

There was some final pruning to be done. In the half-moon shrub borders was a mixture of ‘3D’ – dead, diseased and damaged – material to gladden the heart of anyone who’s ever consulted a pruning manual. The shrubs themselves are a mixture of Chaemomeles, flowering cherries, roses and Spirea – all of which had been given the ‘haircut’ treatment with a hedge-trimmer for what must have been, I reckon, the past 3 or 4 years at the very least. There was a considerable layer of twiggage suspended at head-height in several of the denser shrubs, where it had been cut and left hanging – rather than tidied away – by the previous incumbent. Taking a ‘thin by a third’ approach, some shrubs held up well enough, but a couple were completely dead to the root; and others had scarcely any viable shoots left. Anyway, they look more cared for now, and have been given a good feed with Vitax Q4, so we will see.

There is certainly more light now that the densest growth has been thinned out. The only drawback seems to be that, whereas the thickest shrubs were previously good for skulking birds such as wrens and dunnocks, these have lost a hideout – and a staging-post en route to the feeders – for the moment. On the other hand, the large pile of prunings, awaiting another bonfire, is constantly picked through by blackbirds and robins in search of its remaining insect inhabitants. I hope I can get it burned before they start thinking of nesting in there too.

This week the builder arrives to start work on restoring the garden’s brick walls, which are in dire need of attention. A few perennials – mostly Helleborus – were moveable, and dug up to take their chances elsewhere while the border at the wall’s foot becomes a building site for a few weeks. Once the work is done that border can be properly replanted. 

A few bare root perennials were also added to the long ‘downhill’ border. I cannot claim that this planting has been ‘designed’ in any but the most rudimentary fashion – not least as it will need to be dug-up and transplanted next spring when the second phase of wall repair begins. But for this season, a variety of flowering perennials ought to bring some colour – Eryngium, Lupins, Delphiniums, Aquilegia, Alcea and others. Even the presence of plant labels, with their promise of growth to come, gives things a more cultivated look.