Saturday, October 21, 2006

Heaps of compost

My winter building programme is now well under way at the allotment - there are still a few crops in the ground (parsnips and cabbages, mainly) but the summer crops are being cleared away now and I'm turning my attention to developing the next quarter of the plot.

Before I start stripping turf off the new beds, though, I have to sort out my compost bins. I had two last year, which lasted me fine, but now the "current" pile is tottering woozily about three feet above the bin and I really need to extend!

So I've built myself a third bin. In true allotment spirit, I spurned the new wood I built my bins at home with, but I've kept the design similar. So I made a square of three pallets, knocked 2" poles through where the forklift arms go in the back one to keep it stable, and nailed them together as best I could (I did think of using corner brackets, but thought it was probably over-egging things).

Then I nailed two lengths of 2x2 timber up the front edges, and cut a length of gravel board to fit the front. Then I nailed the gravel board to the inside of the 2x2. This holds the whole thing square and provides a base for the next gravel board up, which sits loose on the top (held forward by the weight of the compost). You can put another 2x2 behind the gravel boards if you like to create a channel to run them down.

This makes a 4ft x 4ft compost bin which I find a really good size. I'm not an obsessive composter - that is, I'm not turning it every five minutes, since I don't have time and don't like the job anyway! So I content myself with turning every 6 months - the price I pay, of course, is that the compost takes longer to rot down (about a year, on average), and it's a "cold" heap so I can't kill weed seeds and the like. But since I still end up with excellent compost I make the compromise.

I spent this morning breaking my back turning heap 2 into the new compost bin (it's now ready to use and will go into the double-digging later this winter), then turning the half-rotted heap 1 into bin 2, which will be ready for use in the spring I'd say. And I've got a growing pile of new stuff to go in bin 1 - my suspicion is that I'll need a fourth compost bin before the winter is out. It's amazing how much you can make from just half an allotment - once I've got the whole thing up and running I'll have a small production line going!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Water, water everywhere

It's raining again...

It's not often I get rained off a job but last week I was out doing a client's garden and the thunder and lightening started. It started raining slowly - a few fat drops at first, then more, and more, and more...

After about 10 minutes I was about as soaked as it's possible to be, squelching around in my gardening boots with the path turning rapidly into a river. I have one of those great gardening hats with the wide brims that keeps everything out, but even so it was streaming with water to such an extent it was like standing behind Victoria Falls.

Since every time I stuck my fork in a bit of earth it turned into a muddy stream and ran away, I figured it was time to stop and knocked off half an hour early - first time I've ever been forced to do that as I'm a hardy type usually!

Since then it's been raining more or less non-stop, including another thunderstorm and downpour, and everywhere is soaked right to the bedrock.

Then I read that the water companies are saying there's still going to be a hosepipe ban next year. What does it take? This has been the warmest October on record, but also one of the wettest - yet they don't seem to have the nous to collect the damn water and put it somewhere until we need it. Instead it's "oh look, it's July and it's not raining, so there's no water available - sorry....".

Something tells me they're giving whatever water there is to the higher-paying commercial users - who incidentally seem able to use gallons and gallons to cool machines, jet-wash buildings and the like - while us poor householders get pinched. And could the fact that they're making more money out of the commercial users have something to do with the fact that they have to pay dividends to shareholders? I wonder...

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Spring in autumn

I was weeding the garden yesterday - or rather, pulling out the self-sown nigella, phacelia and echscholzia which colonises it at this time of year and smothers everything else - and pulled aside a particularly thick cover of seedlings to find.... a crocus, in full flower.

Today I was in a client's garden where her Iris sibirica has just started flowering.

It's October. These are early spring flowers. I cannot say how unutterably depressing I find it to have the seasons spoiled like this. To say nothing of how frightening it is to see how advanced global warming is - and how much it's confusing natural life.

How is it that nobody is worried about this yet? It's too late already, yet here in the UK everyone just makes jokes and says how much they're looking forward to living in the Loire.

I don't feel like that about it at all. I love the English seasons - the pinch in the air on a crisp autumn day with the leaves reddening and crunching underfoot; the sparkle of a snowdrop above the snow in January as you can just dare to hope another gardening year might begin soon; the glory of a garden full of spring bulbs in March.

The parched look of the earth this summer in the middle of the worst drought for decades was warning enough, wasn't it? Everyone I know lost at least one favourite plant (mine was a glorious Helianthus "Lemon Queen" - I've been mourning it ever since). I spent this morning repairing the damage in a client's formerly packed perennial bed - the client was ill this summer (before I began working in her garden) and couldn't water it, and less than 10% has survived.

Yes, we can plant drought-tolerant Mediterranean plants, and yes, we can enjoy the frost-tender exotics we formerly couldn't grow. But what of flame-red, moisture-loving lobelias, water-hungry but jewel-like trollius, or even more traditional stalwarts like phlox and roses? If this goes on much longer, we're looking at the disappearance of these gorgeous plants from our borders altogether.

English gardens will be the poorer for it. And no amount of cannas, banana trees or English vineyards can make up for their loss.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Autumn at Kew

This weekend I took some time out to go to the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew - and what an amazing time to go. It's always been a favourite garden of mine, but this weekend they really excelled themselves.

It is, of course, autumn, and that means Autumn Festivals springing up all over the place. Kew was no exception - and here are a few pictures of the spectacle they put together.

Autumn display in the Waterlily House
This is the display in the Waterlily House - over 30 tonnes of pumpkins, gourds and squashes. Where did they find room to grow all these?!

Bright orange squashes
If this doesn't make you think of autumn, I don't know what will!

Chilli plants among squashes and gourds
Chilli plants packed with fruit among a pile of gorgeous gourds.

Blue-grey squash variety
We loved the subtle colour of these blue-grey squashes - unfortunately couldn't find the label so don't know what the name is, but they're beautiful.

Lots of different squashes
The sheer variety on show was just amazing.

And another autumn show at Kew - they floated over 5 million cranberries on the pool outside the Palm House as a demonstration of how cranberries are harvested in New England. Apparently cranberry bushes are grown on marshland which is then flooded so that the berries float to the top of the water, where they're then harvested. I'm sure it doesn't quite look as neat as this - but aren't they colourful?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


One of the only disadvantage - well, ok, the only disadvantage - to being a professional gardener is that you never get to spend any time in your own garden. I had a lovely morning weeding through a border and sorting out an overgrown pampas grass for a client this morning - and now I don't have time to plant the wonderful box of new plants which was on my doorstep when I got back, sent from Great Dixter's nursery in Sussex.

There's something truly wonderful about getting mail-order plants from a specialist nursery. It puts a smile on my face every time. My resolution for this year is to make sure they get in the ground straight away, rather than - as in previous years - languishing in some siding somewhere, usually stuffed into a pot and slowly starving while I dither about where to put it. No more! The plants currently sitting on the floor of my kitchen will be in the garden by sunset, come what may!

This is the first tranche of my shameless strategy to nick the border design from Christopher Lloyd's Long Border and adapt it to my own main herbaceous bed. The plants are three Achillea "Lucky Break", a Viburnum opulus "Compactum", and three Phlox "Long Border Mauve". These last won't be found in any other catalogues as they're an otherwise un-named variety which just turned up in the Long Borders one day - they're a lovely shade, though, so I can see why they wanted to keep them. I have my doubts how it'll manage in my sandy soil, but I'll put loads of organic matter in the planting hole, mulch them well next spring and keep my fingers crossed.

The Viburnum will be a gorgeous focal point, though Christopher Lloyd's book says airily "easily kept to 6' high with pruning" which makes me gulp a bit. Not very "Compactum", then. At the moment it's a tiny 1ft or so - hard to imagine it in its full glory.

Right-hand herbaceous border in October 2006

This is what my very own "Long Border" looks like at the moment - can you see why it needs a re-design? It's far too slewed towards June (when it looked gorgeous) - by this time of the year I'm down to a clump of Aster "Climax" in the back corner and a few Nicotiana for colour. The rest of it is pretty much all the "dead plant" look so beloved of Piet Oudolf. I'm all for winter structure from interesting seedheads - but not this early! Hopefully though my new colour-for-all-seasons design will bring it out of the colour-free doldrums and give it a bit more pizazz. Watch this space!

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