Twitter-free gardening

Now, before you all complain, this blog will ‘auto-post’ to Twitter without me going anywhere near the little blue bird, so I don’t personally feel that this constitutes a breach of Lent Twitter-fast.

A week and a bit in, and my withdrawal from the Twittersphere is going ok. I do miss some folk’s tweets (not HIS, obviously). And I do sometimes find myself with a bon mot or witty riposte to an item on the radio, but with nowhere to put it. But apart from that, the time gained is a boon. More importantly, the freedom from an unhealthy chatter of gloom and near-despair about the state of the world, is truly liberating and almost certainly good for my state of mind. Yes, social media allow you to feel part of a wide online community of like-minded souls, but given the dire state of the world right now, I’m enjoying not knowing what’s going on every minute of every day.

Another thing I do miss is the opportunity to post lovely photographs of the gardens I work in, most especially the thoroughly photogenic Horatio’s Garden in Salisbury. But that’s what Instagram is for.

Isn’t it?

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Frosty January

This January was far colder and drier than any of the past few years. Although we’ve had no snow here, we have enjoyed several stretches of cold, bright days and frosty nights.

The practice of leaving perennials uncut through the winter has a number of benefits – and we follow it in Horatio’s Garden, Salisbury. Cleve West’s design includes a good number of tall perennials – Aruncus dioicus ‘Horatio’, Acanthus mollis ‘Rue Ledan’, Eryngium giganteum ‘Silver Ghost’, Aster umbellatus and others, as well as the tall grass Stipa gigantea. None of these are cut-back until the early spring, when bulbs start to push through, and dead foliage begins to turn to unappealing brown mush. The benefits are several, and chief among them is that these plants provide food and shelter for all manner of beneficial creatures. From the House Sparrows dangling precariously to catch the last seeds from Stipa heads, to the myriad insects and mini-beasts which live in and around the dead stems – and in turn feed the resident robins and dunnocks – the rewards are significant.

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However, the other benefit is aesthetic. Every January the gardening press is full of delicious images of frosted seedheads twinkling in the low winter sunlight. And most winters, the damp, dull reality in our gardens falls miserably short of the ideal. But not this year. I’ve lost count of the mornings that I’ve arrived at work and gone straight outside with my camera to capture the frost and rime-coated plants. It seems hard to take a bad picture when everything is sugar coated in white and so beautifully lit.

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And the beginning of February has been wet and windy, flattening a lot of the taller stems and turning foliage to mush.

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This was our cue to begin cutting-back in earnest, clearing and tidying, and in the process allowing the emerging bulbs to have light and air.

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Christmas Reading

Gardening doesn’t leave as much time as it should for catching up on reading. Yet gardening books and journals are the way for most of us to keep abreast of developments in planting style, garden design and general horticulture.

Every year I make two mistakes. Firstly I imagine that I’ll get through lots of reading on holiday in the summer. It never happens, of course. I go away with a pile of magazines and books, and end up looking at few of them – being too busy doing all the other things one does on holiday. One of which, of course, is visiting gardens – the only opportunity I really get. Norfolk, where we have taken our family fortnight every year for more than a decade, offers a good few excellent gardens – so there’s plenty to see. To say nothing of the birdlife – my other great enthusiasm – which keeps us occupied in between fish and chips, ice creams and sitting on the beach. Norfolk has a huge amount to recommend it as a holiday venue – our children have known nothing else, and don’t complain or show signs of tiring – but all those books come back largely unread.

The second mistake is similar (identical), but at the other end of the year. I have an idealised vision of Christmas, stretching lazily from Christmas Eve en famille at the cathedral (having finished our annual watching of John Masefield’s ‘The Box of Delights’) through to some time in mid-January. Candlelight, log fire, armchair, and that pile of books again – this time coupled with all the Christmas issues of gardening magazines. And, yet again, it fails to happen. Not because I’m not enjoying myself, but because I am busy doing loads of other equally enjoyable things.

The garden reading I do get through in the year is – like any other reading I do – squeezed into the minutes between bedtime and sleep, or snatched over breakfast before anyone else is up (a good time for magazine browsing), or possibly a few stolen moments on a day when it really is too wet to be outdoors.

There’s another error I commit annually as well: asking for more gardening books for Christmas. I never learn. In case you’re looking for some inspiration, here are three books I’d ask for this Christmas if I didn’t already have them…

Rhapsody In Green: A Novelist, An Obsession, A Laughably Small Excuse For A Garden, by Charlotte Mendelson (Kyle Books). Already a pick in many garden writers’ lists, this is a fantastic book about what you can do in next-to-no space, if you allow yourself to give in to a fanatical love of plants- specifically, edible crops. Why have one variety of tomato if you can have five? It’s not remotely a ‘how to’ book – but it’s infectious, engaging, funny, beautifully written (Mendelson is a novelist by trade) – and also a lovely book in design and feel.

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The Cabaret of Plants: Botany and the imagination, by Richard Mabey (Profile). Mabey is the true heir of naturalist-writers such as Gilbert White (whose biography he wrote), WH Hudson and Richard Jefferies. I’d gladly sacrifice most of the (so-called) ‘new nature writing’ if I could hold on to Richard Mabey. His latest book is a fascinating collection of writing about the relationships between plants, people, art and history. Tim Dee described the book in a Guardian review as “the summation of a lifetime of looking at plants and reflecting on them” – what more, given Mabey’s depth of knowledge and insight, could one ask for?

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Container Theme Gardens, by Nancy J. Ondra (Storey). An absolute gem if you have planters to work with -as we do at Horatio’s Garden in Salisbury – and want to make the best of them. Ondra sets herself a strict rule of using only five plants, but manages to produce some fantastic and unusual combinations to suit styles and seasons. Sadly, her ‘Hummingbird Haven’ (Begonia boliviensis, Cuphea ignea, Fuchsia, Canna and Calibrachoa) won’t entice the diminutive birds across the Atlantic (the author is from Pennsylvania) – but would work brilliantly as a tropical scheme all the same.

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Finally, a journal to recommend. Rake’s Progress is a rather glorious thing – apparently available in selected shops, but easily obtained direct from the publisher www.rakesprogressmagazine.com. It’s full of fairly sumptuous photography and terrific words – all printed on heavyweight paper, which makes it a ‘coffee table magazine’ if such there is. Treat yourself to a subscription.

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Farewell to peat

The environmental damage caused by the commercial extraction of peat is now both well-documented, and undeniable. The UK alone uses a staggering 3 million cubic metres of peat each year, 60% of which is imported from Ireland. And yet, until the 1970s, no-one used peat in gardening. Home-made compost, and loam-based mixes, were the only option – and plants still grew perfectly well. Peat is supposedly appreciated by the large growers for its predictability and its low cost (in cash, if not environmental, terms). It lends itself to the commercial mass production of plants – particularly those plants then left to wither and die in their hundreds outside DIY sheds and supermarkets. But the environmental impact alone does not justify the continued use of peat as a growing medium by ordinary gardeners.

What, then, are the alternatives? I have used ‘New Horizons’ peat-free compost for a number of years, and both seem to be perfectly good. At Horatio’s Garden in Salisbury we are in the process of switching to peat-free growing for plants which we either use to re-stock the garden, or sell at our events. Last Friday we had a delivery of Sylvagrow peat-free compost, which we’ll be using from now on. This compost has been endorsed by the RHS and has come out top in Which? surveys of composts for both containers and raising young plants. It is 100% peat-free, and doesn’t contain any green waste: it’s made from bark, wood fibre and small amount of coir – all from sustainable and traceable sources. With credentials like those, I am confident that it will make a big difference to our plants.

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Of course, one of the keys to all compost use is not to treat it as a single substance. ‘Multi-purpose’ never means multi-purpose in quite the straightforward way many gardeners would like to think. Compost always needs to be mixed with grit, loam, leaf-mould, perlite, sharp sand and the like to produce the best possible medium for different kinds of growing. Seeds need a growing environment quite different from that which suits cuttings, and the compost needs to reflect that. I am also keen on sieving composts, as even the best will invariably contain the odd lumps which need removing – certainly for most seed-sowing it’s essential to have a layer of sieved compost to sow into.

Similarly, the drainage and nutrient-retention properties of peat-free composts are not the same as those of peat. It tends to benefit from more regular watering than peat (little and often), but also to need the addition of grit or sand to aid drainage in winter. If dropping the use of peat requires a little thought and changing of gardening habits, then that seems a small price to pay.

 

 

New Blog, New Beginnings

September marks the beginning of the new school year, as well as the turn from summer to autumn. It is a time of change, of new beginnings, and of taking stock: far more so – for me, at least – than New Year itself. Having grown up in a household of teachers, and having been governed by the academic calendar myself for much of my life, there is something essential about this time of year. It is a time of nostalgia, as well as a season of looking forward.

My new beginning has been the wonderful opportunity to take on the position of Head Gardener at Horatio’s Garden in Salisbury. The garden, designed by Chelsea award-winner Cleve West, is adjacent to (indeed, part of) the Duke of Cornwall Spinal Injuries Unit at Salisbury District Hospital. It provides garden therapy, and a restorative environment of peace and quiet, for patients who are adjusting to life-changing spinal injuries.

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Having served my time in private gardens of one sort and another, the chance to work alongside passionate and committed volunteers, to the benefit of patients and their families, is an absolutely amazing thing. To do so in an award-winning, beautifully designed and gloriously planted garden is horticulturally even more exciting.

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For one thing, gardening can be a very solitary business. Not that I mind altogether – in fact I have written before about the pleasures of working in one’s own company – but talking to fellow volunteers, patients and other visitors on a regular basis is more than welcome.

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And here is a garden which bears very much the imprint of its designer. This is, and will remain, ‘a Cleve West garden’. It is my job to act as custodian of Cleve’s vision, whilst taking the garden forward. Having talked to Cleve about this, he is adamant that the garden cannot remain static – but there is an ethos, a spirit and a sense of place to be retained whatever changes the future may bring.

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I hope you will want to join me on the journey.

 

The sculptures featured are by Dorset-based sculptor Simon Gudgeon.

A Bay day

Definitely a spring-ish feel in the air today, as a miserable and forsaken January finally disappeared over the horizon. 

Jobs today included replenishing the compost in pots containing Bay trees (Laurus nobilis), and adding some slow-release feed as well to give them a tonic. It’s simply a matter of loosening and removing the top couple of inches of compost in the pot, along with any moss or annual weeds that have insinuated themselves. Then scatter a handful of slow-release fertiliser (I favour granulated Vitax Q4), and top the pot back up with fresh peat-free compost. Be careful to make sure that any roots you’ve exposed get covered back up again.

Bays have a tendency to sucker enthusiastically, so this is a good opportunity to pull out any suckers nice and low down. If they come away with some root, then they can always be potted up and allowed to grown on to create more Bay trees for other spots in the garden. 

At the Almshouses, before I arrived, a mighty Bay tree was felled. This was celebrated by the residents, as it suddenly allowed sunlight into a large section of the gardens hitherto shaded out by the evergreen monster. However, the stump was left in, and compost heaped over it to create a (sort of) rockery. Of course the Bay root can’t believe its luck and sends up thickets of suckers, which need pulling up more or less constantly, as it snuggles under its warm, fertile blanket! Needless to say, whenever we have an Open Day and a Plant Sale, there will be plenty of Bay to sell…

Belated welcome to 2016

Blogging has taken another unplanned and entirely unofficial sabbatical of late. No particular reason why, just a lack of motivation. And if I am not motivated to write then why, dear reader, should I expect you to be motivated to read?

Nevertheless, the year has been trundling along nicely enough, with plenty of work to be done, and plenty do-able too, in spite of the wet and inconsistent weather. Yet again we’ve had no winter to speak of: without checking, I think we’ve had six frosts since November, and never more than two together. I don’t need to bore you with tales of flowers appearing way before their normal season – whatever ‘normal’ means any longer.

My largest current commission, a wholesale replanting of a garden in the New Forest, has been on hold as the ground is too waterlogged to begin the task of removing turf and creating new borders, let alone planting anything new. Elsewhere, though, apple trees and wisteria have been pruned, weeds (which continue to grow) have been cleared and plans made for the coming season.

One client has asked me to create a soft fruit garden for him. He already has a very aged plum and an apple in the garden, and has got the bug for preserving and cooking with fruit. So, raspberries, strawberries (to grow in redundant Victorian chimney pots), black and red currants, gooseberries, blackberries and loganberries are all going in. Sadly the supplier, having to struggle with the weather too, isn’t able to get them to me just yet, but it’s a lovely project to work on. I have even sown the seeds (metaphorical as yet) of peaches and apricots, and perhaps figs, as the garden has a terrific old south-facing wall to provide sun, warmth and shelter.

My allotment, pretty much a lost cause last year, has also started to get some attention. Raised beds have been cleared, and the old dining room carpet has provided welcome cover for the largest area of bare earth. There is still a lot to do, but an early start never hurts. Chillies and broad beans (’The Sutton’) have been sown in the greenhouse, and will be joined by more early sowings as the weeks pass. A good range of sweet peas, sown last autumn, are also doing well, and are bushing out after having their growing tips pinched out. 

One consequence of the mild weather has been a general shortage of garden birds. On chilly days there are more in evidence on feeders and bird tables, but generally it’s been a thin winter for birds in the garden – as they’ve been more than happy to stay out of town, foraging happily in woods and fields still full of food. 

Rooks, magpies, and wood pigeons foraging in the winter fields – illustration by Charles Tunnicliffe, from ‘What to Look for in Winter’ (Ladybird, 1959) 

The genius of Genus

What to wear when gardening? I look at old photographs of
gardeners from 100 years ago, and rather envy their tweed suits and ties –
whilst wondering whether they were only quite so well turned-out when there was
a camera about…

For the male gardener in 2015 there are probably three
options. Firstly, old clothes – those no longer fit to be ‘seen out in’, but
still with some life in them. Secondly, outdoor/activity clothing – again,
possibly relegated from actual hiking duties, but not quite ready for the
recycling bin. And finally, ‘workwear’ – the sort of pocket-laden garb sported
by all manner of tradespeople.

Now, none of these quite fits the bill. Old cords are
comfortable and warm (and have that desirable touch of the Monty Dons), but they’re
horrible when they get wet and  (by the
time they reach the garden) they’re prone to going through at the knees. Cord
and other ‘old trousers’ also only have the regular  allowance of pockets, and those are usually
not fastenable so dropping change and keys in the herbaceous border becomes a
problem. Activity trousers have plenty of (zipped) pockets, and dry quickly,
but they are usually made from fairly light fabric, and aren’t waterproof –
ideal for hill-walking but less so for cold, wet days in the garden.

The ‘workwear’ option – the likes of Dickies and Dunlop –
may be more practical, and widely available, but somehow don’t quite feel right.
As a gardener, I want to be warm, dry and comfortable – but not look like Bob
the Builder.

I was pleased, therefore, to be given the chance to try out
a pair of Genus All-weather Gardening Trousers. These are specifically designed
for gardening – rather than being co-opted from another purpose, or from the
Oxfam bag.

Fabric-wise they are on the ‘technical’ side, being made
from a mixture of Polyamide and Spandex – which means they’re light,
quick-drying, and nicely stretchy. They’re also comfortably warm (on a chilly
autumn morning), and pretty waterproof too. Given that we gardeners spend a lot
of time on the ground, they have fully adjustable, built-in knee padding (which
works very well), and a damp-proof seat – so you can perch on a wet stone wall
or bench for elevenses, without getting the proverbial ‘soggy bottom’.

There are plenty of pockets too. Two zippable pockets on the
thighs, a zippable ‘kidney’ pocket (intended for a mobile phone), and two non-zipped
hip pockets. I’d prefer them all to be zippable myself, but then I am prone to carrying
(and losing) more things than are necessary.

Two ‘stab-proof’ pockets allow you to carry secateurs and
other sharp tools handily without injuring yourself. One is designed for a long
Hori-hori knife (of which more in another blog) – though mine was so sharp it
did still poke through uncomfortably.

Interestingly, Genus started out making gardening clothes
for women – whose options are maybe more limited than those for men. But the demand for men’s versions suggests male gardeners are keen to have suitable, well-made and
thoughtfully-designed clothing as well: and why not?

If you’re looking to invest in some serious trousers for the
garden – as an amateur or a professional gardener – I’d recommend you give these
Genus trousers a go.

A change in the weather

September, and the beginning of October saw some remarkable and glorious weather here. After all the rain in August, the prolonged burst (can a burst be ‘prolonged’?) of warm, dry sunshine brought about a sort of ‘second Spring’. Roses flushed up and are still full of buds. I have Digitalis putting out new flowering stems, and I even saw an apple tree in blossom the other day (though that did verge on the distinctly troubling). I can’t remember an autumn which has begun with the gardens looking so very green – none of the prolonged decline into dry barrenness which often follows the end of summer. 

Nevertheless, all good things come to their proverbial end. The new week began with a torrential downpour which lasted through most of the day. It was not a great day for gardening, but I spent it profitably and pleasurably, tidying up a modest patio area for a client. There were some shrubs – most notably a large and unruly Pyracantha – to cut back: though I managed to leave virtually all of its heavy crop of scarlet berries intact – they will be devoured by Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Redwings when the weather gets colder. 

More enjoyable (and less scratchy) was the process of emptying out, splitting and repotting a number of herbs. And then potting up planters and pots with a mixture of spring flowering bulbs. This garden is rather exposed and windy, so all the bulbs were chosen to be smaller varieties – Iris reticulata, Narcissi ‘Minnow’ and ‘Rip van Winkle’, and Tulipa ‘Tarda’. ‘Tarda’ is a wild, reliably perennial (and naturalising) tulip, hailing from the steppes of central Asia (cue Borodin) – very unlike the more familiar varieties, but ideal for pots and rockeries. 

The pots were then planted with a few autumn-flowering Cyclamen hederifolium which will provide some colour until the bulbs begin to poke through.

New Challenge

A change of regime at The Farm means that my time there has
come to an abrupt and frustrating end. Sadly, my work to renovate the gardens will
not be seen through as a ‘mow, blow and go’ contractor has been brought in. I’ll
miss the place: I had started, but won’t have the opportunity to finish, as John Humphrys might say.

Onwards and upwards though. I have taken on a garden on the
edge of the New Forest – let’s call it ‘The Green’ – which is in need of a
restoration programme of its own. A semi-woodland garden of about an acre, it has
hitherto been planted mainly with shrubs, ornamental trees and conifers – most of them in
individual island beds dotted around the large lawns. My job is to give the
whole thing a (long overdue) going over, removing long-established weeds and scratty
grass, and creating some sense of order and definition. Then I’ve been asked to
come up with some new planting which will introduce greater variety, more
colour and a year-round calendar of interest. There is a lot of potential, and
already thoughts are forming in my mind about ways to enhance the gardens: a
day’s weeding gives one plenty of thinking time. The owners are keen to bring
the garden up to ‘Open Gardens’ condition in 18 months’ time – a significant
challenge, but a fantastic target to have.

Open Gardens are also the order of the day at The
Almshouses, where we have just fixed a date in May next year for an opening.
Those gardens are, of course, lovely enough at any time of year (only in small
part due to my efforts, I hasten to add) being well established and
well-planted. I did clear and replant an area of herbaceous border last week –
taking out some tatty Lonicera and a
superannuated Hebe – and bringing in
some autumn colour. Lobelia, Rudbeckia,
Monarda
and a clump of Imperata
cylindrica
‘Rubra’ created a warm
glow of maroons and deep orange, where previously there’d been nothing much to
see.

A  treat while working
at The Almshouses was to pick (and eat!) a few delicious late raspberries: some
autumn varieties, and others summer canes that have simply kept on fruiting
right through the season.