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.
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…
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.
I have a love/hate relationship with Sedum spectabile. My wife, a schoolteacher, simply cannot abide the stuff. It always seems to come into flower just as the school term starts in September, and so its connotations for her – and perhaps other teachers – are all to do with the end of the summer holidays, and the start of the long haul to Christmas.
On the other hand, I love it for its late summer display, and even more for its function as a bee-magnet in those days when other flowers are fading fast. But I am also unhappy that it is so very much associated with the ending of the season, and represents a last burst from the herbaceous borders before everything collapses. Not that Sedum ever wilts, its strong and fleshy stems stand firm against autumn rains and first frosts, even when the flower heads have long since turned from deep pink to a murky brown. Those flower heads can hold a prodigious amount of water too, as I know to my cost – cutting them back after a few days of rain gives the gardener an impromptu shower. It does also flop outwards from its centre, and is thus a strong candidate for a May (‘Chelsea’) chop to encourage shorter flowering stems later in the summer.
Anyhow, I have spent many an hour over the past couple of weeks cutting it back at The Manor, where there are masses and masses of it. And just now I have been doing the same in my own garden, albeit on a far more domestic scale (at least I am allowed to have some at home).
Sedum spectabile in full flower on 3rd September, just as the school term started (of course). I counted over 70 bees – and this is one of dozens of plants in the garden.
Is it just me, or is there something slightly irritating about being asked ‘have you been working?’ by folk you meet at the end of the day…? My hands are dirty, my clothes covered in a rime of grass clippings, earth and burs. Is this not some kind of clue? Similarly, gardening – yes, gardening – is actually my job, the thing I do to earn money.
The other annoying thing at this time of year is the assumption made by many folk of my acquaintance that – my wife being a teacher, and my children both of school age – I too take 6 weeks off in the summer. In fact the summer holiday is a very busy time. Yes, I take a fortnight off for our annual family holiday (it has to be during the school holidays because three of the four of us have no option) – but the rest of the time – all of August usually – I am working harder than ever. Not having to do school drops and pick-ups gives me rather more flexibility about time than I have the rest of the year. Furthermore, August is a month with plenty to do – grass (and weeds) are still enthusiastically growing – but at the same time, the shades of autumn are already gathering and bringing deadheading and cutting-back in their train.
Enough grumbling. All is well. I have acquired a new client who wants me to work a full day each week, throughout the year. How nice to meet someone who recognises that gardening doesn’t stop when the clocks change in October – and that gardeners have to eat all winter long. And it promises to be a great job, developing and enhancing an existing mature garden to make it more interesting and colourful all year round.
Sedum spectabile is my plant of the moment. Mrs Gardener is not keen, as it always flowers just as the summer holiday ends and she has to return to the classroom. Nevertheless, we have several in our garden at home – and The Manor has lots throughout the herbaceous borders. I counted over 70 bees on one plant the other day, and it was not even fully flowering. It’s a wonderful plant at this time of year – a real ‘last hurrah’ in the perennial border.
The early summer is flying by. I can draw breath today because I am at home looking after my 9yo son, who is suffering with a nasty summer cold (the worst sort to my mind), and wasn’t up to the school’s Swimming Gala. Other than that, it’s hectic.
At The Manor the mowing regime is in full swing. Eight lawns need constant cutting, which takes more-or-less one and a half days each week – with any ‘spare’ time devoted to weeding and tidying. Elsewhere, in other clients’ gardens, the need to mow is not quite so pressing, especially in dry weather when the growth of grass slows down somewhat. But there is still lots to do. Many early perennials are now over for the year, so lupins, poppies, delphiniums, irises and others need a good tidy-up. Aquilegia seed heads need taking off before they spread too widely (especially as the seedlings are usually quite ‘plain’ when they flower), as do the flower-heads of Alchemilla mollis which would otherwise seed everywhere. Digitalis and Verbascum need their spent flower-spikes removing as they just look tatty when they die back; and I have been taking perennial Geraniums back to the emerging small leaves once they’ve flowered, in the hope of a second flush of growth and more flowers later in the summer.
The Verbascums in my own front garden have been spectacular so far, with the tallest measuring about 15 feet tall – its yellow flower spike disappearing into the leafy branches of a nearby sycamore tree. These are Verbascum thapsus, the common mullein, which boasts an amazingly long list of vernacular names – Aaron’s Rod, Duffle, Fluffweed, Lady’s Candles, Old Man’s Flannel and Woundweed to name but a handful. They are biennials, so will not live another season – but I hope seedlings will establish themselves from the three I planted, as they’re quite spectacular plants, however ‘common’.
Lysimachia, Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’, Alliums, Lavender, Valeriana officinalis – working together quite nicely
Elsewhere in my own garden, the Japanese Anemones and Hollyhocks have just come into flower in the past day or so, while the Hemerocallis are coming to an end after a great show for about three weeks. I only have the dusty orange Hemerocallis fulva established, but picked up a red one (H.’Stafford’) the other day and will get that going as they like the conditions here.
In the greenhouse I have two new tomatoes. One is the (much-promoted) ‘Tomtato’, about which I remain ambivalent as a concept, but which I was sent gratis to try out. The tomato end of it is certainly thriving. The other tomato is ‘Maskotka’ which I have grown from seed. This is a trailing/basket variety, which I’ve not tried before – but which has had some decent reviews for both flavour and cropping. These are all in large tubs, so can be moved outside in due course.
One last success is a terrific crop of Verbena bonariensis, again grown from seed. I must have thirty or more healthy, vigorous young plants coming on in pots. I am slightly stuck as to where they will all end up. I imagine some will go to clients’ gardens, and others will be popped into the perennial borders at the front and back of the house for height, movement and colour. When I was a student at Sparsholt College there was a long border planted entirely with V. bonariensis, which looked absolutely spectacular. A lovely plant, slightly overdone I think in recent years, but still a lovely plant.
Not much of a rest yesterday either, as I was busy digging over in preparation for a new lawn in the front garden of a client’s house. It’s been a ‘lawn’ for a while, but the grass has become very patchy and thatchy – so when I took it on we discussed getting rid of the old lawn completely and making a new one. The soil is extremely stony, and the site slopes down from the road to the house – so it’s far from ideal, but we’ll give it a go. So yesterday was spent digging and turning the existing surface, getting rid of as many weeds and moss clumps as possible, and exposing the bare earth to some air (and, as it happens, overnight rain). Although I am no fan of chemicals in the garden, in this case I’ll make an exception and give the whole area a dose of glysophate to kill of any weeds and old rough grass that persist, before setting about getting the topsoil into a decent condition. I’m trying to avoid importing more topsoil, but it might prove necessary, as I suspect there’ll be hollows all over once I have got all the stones and other rubbish out.
It’s not the greatest time of year for lawn-making, but I am determined to make as good a job as possible of it.
By the by, while doing this job a Skylark was singing almost constantly overhead, and I was entertained by a Buzzard being mobbed very enthusiastically by a group of Jackdaws. And this on a housing development on the edge of Salisbury: albeit one that – at its edges – runs up against open farmland. On the other hand, I can sometimes work a whole day in ‘the countryside’ – at The Manor, for instance – and see hardly a bird beyond the occasional Robin chasing me along the borders, and the constant raucousness of the neighbourhood rookery.