Monthly Archives: January 2018


I got a bit distracted by the previous post’s theme – a consequence of spending the day trying to restore order in the garden, and finding myself with repeated handfuls of soggy brown leaves to decant into my green bin – and went on a bit. Sorry.

The geist of the day, however, was good and productive. I managed to go through the greenhouse plant by plant, checking on a the many overwintering Salvias, Penstemons, Pelargoniums (shouldn’t that be Pelargonia?) – all of which were potted up in late summer, and all but two of which have survived. Indeed, several are thriving with the promise of cutting material aplenty in due course. Which does raise the question of where exactly I am going to put them all when they grow to maturity…

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Inside the greenhouse after a tidy. The sad-looking Musa basjoo is fine, just resting over the winter like an ageing repertory actor.

I think they will fill the various pots and planters which are currently full of Narcissi and Tulips, queueing to flower over the next two or three months. Today I – very belatedly – potted up some Narcissus ‘Thalia’ and ‘Tete a tete’ from black plastic pots into presentable terracotta. They will join the others, planted back before Christmas, when they are flowering, and be placed around the garden to provide focal points of colour and interest.

The main herbaceous border was also a focus of my attention, as I cut back masses of dead and dying stuff. I pulled the plug on a scruffy old Solanum crispum, which used to live in a big pot on our decked area before that was torn up for the new shed. It’s never liked its subsequent location and neither have I – so into the green bin it went. At this time of year I always tend to plan an overhaul of at least part of the main herbaceous border – it currently contains far too much Lemon Balm, Tansy and Marjoram: three plants which are difficult to contain, and easy but fairly unrewarding. I didn’t have time to start clearing today, but their days are numbered. Kerria japonica is another plant I struggle to like – I’m not sure why I planted it in the first place – so it too was dealt with firmly.

One other greenhouse job was finally calling time on the chilli plants. I gathered the last few useable chillies, and then composted the plants. It is already time to sow this year’s chilli seeds, though I tend to grow a mixture of plants from seed along with a few I buy as plugs. The heated propagator isn’t set up yet, so the chilli sowing will have to wait for next weekend. A pot of Sweet Pea ‘Windsor’, sown back in October, has done very well in the greenhouse – strong roots are already showing through the bottom of the pot, and I pinched back the tops to encourage the plants to bush up a bit before I pot them on.

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The last of the 2017 chillies

A final greenhouse task was to fit a new automatic opener to the roof light, the previous one having seized up. Although the greenhouse is unheated, ventilation is important – and equally, the south-facing greenhouse can get very hot on sunny days all year round. A fiddly and slightly irritating job, involving repeatedly dropped screws and a modicum of cursing, but it’s all up and ready for the next warm day.

Then, as the light began to fade, and the blackbirds started their dusk chatter, it began to rain steadily but softly. I took the cue, made myself a mug of tea, and sat to reflect on a happy and productive day, clearing the decks for the season ahead.

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A mug of tea in the drizzle – feeling damp but contented.



In theory, I am all in favour of not going for a major autumn tidy-up in the garden. Many people like to ‘put the garden to bed’ some time in late October, once the dahlias and late-summer colours have done their thing. There is a certain appeal in the neatness which ensues, and the way it allows early spring to manifest itself unencumbered: snowdrops pushing through clean, bare earth. And it does allow you both to get a heavy mulch on to borders before the winter sets in, and to have plenty of clear ground for planting spring bulbs.

However, taking a different approach, and leaving herbaceous plants to die back naturally has many – I think, more – advantages. Firstly, many plants will keep going longer than you might imagine. There were dahlias and antirrhinums flowering well into November – a pleasure which an autumn tidy would have cut short. Secondly, leaving stems and seed heads is good for wildlife – providing food, shelter, even spots to tuck away and hibernate. And third – and the point of this post, perhaps – it provides some interest through the winter. There can be great beauty in the way low sunlight catches the browns and yellows of dying foliage, or the way frost gently seizes an Eryngium head or a spider’s web between two stems of Verbena – that image so beloved of the gardening magazines. Bare soil never quite catches the eye in the same way.

This is the approach we take at Horatio’s Garden, where generally we cut back very late in the winter – in fact we’re still doing it now; last year it was well into February. The patients and visitors need to see shape and colour in the garden, even – perhaps most of all – on a dreary January day.

And yet. This winter has been so mild, wet and windy that it’s challenged this approach for me, at least in my own garden. We’ve had no snow at all, and hardly any proper frosts, certainly no prolonged cold spells. I’ve just spent the day clearing and tidying the borders, and regretting that I didn’t do it in November – so much wet mush and soggy mess, foliage turned the texture of dishcloth and soaked paper. It’s unpleasant to the eye, and even more unpleasant to gather up by the handful. Most frustratingly, swamped by some of this gunge are emerging snowdrops, hellebores and primroses – which are now free to enjoy their moment, no longer surrounded by decay and sodden brownery.

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Maybe – if mild, wet winters are the anthropocene future here in southern England – I’ll have to rethink the approach…

Back to the lottie

Let me be honest. Last year my allotment was a disaster. Not because of weather or pigeons or tomato blight. Because of my neglect. I failed to prepare, plant or then attend to  the plot at all, and as a consequence it became a weedy mess. My attentions were then limited to a few Blitzkrieg attacks with the strimmer, in a vain attempt to assuage my guilt, placate my neighbours and avoid a stroppy letter from the council. And then the Gotterdammerung climax of a massive bonfire in the autumn, when – in a frenzy of (more) guilt and frustration – I burned more or less everything in sight. Not a happy tale. [I’m not sure why I’m describing my year at the allotment in the same Wagnerian terms as the rise and fall of the Third Reich – no doubt a shrink would tell me].

Over the winter, in anticipation of the request for my 2018 payment, I agonised about keeping the plot on at all. A good gardening friend (that is, a good friend, and a good gardener – you know who you are) had given up hers. How could I justify keeping it on if I not only didn’t grow much,  but couldn’t even look after it?

A conversation with a London allotmenter last summer stuck in my mind. When I confessed to her that my growing plans for 2017 amounted to little more than ‘rhubarb and raspberries’, she looked at me appalled. If that were the case with someone on her site, she said sternly, they’d be given their marching orders, and the plot would be given to someone prepared to do it properly. Wasn’t I keeping someone else from a worthwhile exercise in modest self-sufficiency and healthy eating? 

But then, there’s history bound up with my plot. We got it when the boy was a baby – he’s now heading precipitously for 14. We’ve had happy days there as a family, and have the photos to prove it. Damn it, we were ahead of the curve when we took it on back in the early 2000s, before allotments became desirable again. A young family with an allotment was a novelty – I was interviewed by the (then new) ‘Grow Your Own’ magazine. How could I walk away from those memories?

Admittedly, the allotment is now in a worse state than it was a decade ago. And therein lies another tale, that of my transition from hobby allotmenter to professional gardener. Too many times I’ve not wanted to spend the weekend weeding, when I’ve spent all week on my knees amongst the creeping buttercups and couch grass. And, of course, being a full-time gardener means that my anxieties (never far below the surface) about what the allotment looks like are ever greater. I have no excuse for not having a fantastic, abundant, Instagram-worthy plot. And that burden, really far more about anxiety than time or energy, has weighed me down latterly.

So, it was with trepidation that I approached the plot yesterday for the first time this year. And?

Well, it was a weedy, overgrown mess. There, I’ve said it. I’m not proud, but it was not perhaps as bad as I’d feared it would be. Couch grass has re-asserted itself all over the place. To be honest, it’s never really disappeared since we took the plot on. I rue the hours spent obsessively getting the raised beds level and square, when all they did was give an appearance of good order. I should have spent the first twelve months clearing and weeding the ground, before even thinking about building raised beds, fruit cages and the rest. Now the raised beds are falling apart, and the weeds are back.

I took up my strimmer, and went over the whole patch. It looks like someone cares for it now. And the area I gave the scorched earth treatment last November is still weed-free. There is rhubarb coming, and the fruit trees are looking good.

So I’m going back to basics. First of all, I shall lift and ‘park’ all the plants I want to keep: cardoons, currant bushes. Then, I’m hiring a weed-burner for a weekend to give everything a blast and take all the grass and weeds back to soil-level (at least, that’s what I hope will result). I shall channel my inner Colonel Kilgore, and blast out ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ as I work. Then it’s the unsightly but practical black sheeting for as much of the plot as can be covered. The shed needs re-roofing and painting. The raised beds need either removing or repairing – about half and half. Get all that done, and maybe, by the time the days are longer and the sun a bit warmer, I’ll be in a position to sow some seeds.