Saturday, October 31, 2009

Roses in November

When the Irish poet Thomas Moore went on in a lamenting sort of way about 'the last rose of summer' it was 1805 and I'd guess he wasn't looking at routine double-figure temperatures in November.

There is no last rose of summer any more. There might be a last rose of late winter at some point, I suppose, but this is, these days, a late summer or autumn flower. If not a winter one.

Certainly here it is, November tomorrow, and my garden is full of roses.

An unidentified miniature patio rose growing in the kids' garden.

Rosa 'Perpetually Yours'

A budding Rosa 'Dublin Bay'

Lots of buds on my container-grown Rosa 'Wildeve'

and the Rosa 'New Dawn' on the front of the house is flowering its heart out still.

I just can't make my mind up if I like it.
I love that my garden is full of roses: who couldn't like that? But they look all wrong among the autumn leaves somehow.
And can you imagine having roses on the table for Christmas dinner?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Netting niggles

Is it my imagination, or are the leaves coming down faster this autumn?

We've had a week or so of brilliant colour, and now it's like a wall of yellow confetti. I can't help feeling a little cheated: autumn is my second-favourite season (after spring, of course, silly) - something to do with the sudden onslaught of colour on senses bleached by the white light of summer.

But onto more prosaic subjects: each autumn I get into trouble. This is because I net my pond, a job I carried out about a week or so ago using a roll of reasonably small-gauge plastic netting I use every year. I weight this down with bricks to keep it taut and work the occasional length of wood underneath to keep it clear of the water.

Trouble is, my uber-wildlife-friendly friend tells me this is absolutely not what you should do if you want to be nice to nature. As of course I do: this is after all meant to be a wildlife pond. She says I'm trapping all the lickle creatures in the water so they can't get out. She gets a bit more fuzzy about what exactly happens then: after all, I said to her, I surely would have found rafts of drowned newts floating on the surface in spring if it really was a problem.

I say they can find their way out through the gaps (alongside, for example, the bricks) if they need to, and besides, it would do the wildlife a whole lot more harm if I let all the leaves fall in and rot into a stinking and stagnant mess on the bottom.

So who's right? Since we've reached something of an impasse I thought I'd hand it over to those who know more about these things than I do. Has anyone out there got any light they'd like to shed on the matter? Any intensive research studies on the winter habits of pondlife and the effect thereof of plastic netting I should know about?

All authoritative conclusions gratefully received...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The path to enlightenment #2

Back to the grindstone: you may remember I had a two-inch layer of MOT on the path which once I'd got the capricious and frankly malicious whacker plate under some semblance of control I managed to compress to a pretty good solid layer.

Step 5: start mixing your mortar. I went for a 1:4 mix of cement to sand which seemed to work pretty well. You slosh a bit of water in and then squirt some washing up liquid after it - this keeps the mortar elastic - before using the oldest spade you have to mix it up until it's the sloppy side of solid - about the texture of blancmange. This is the best way of ruining gardening tools I know.

Step 6: Use the mortar to set your edging bricks. At this point I thought I'd better start taking some pictures of my somewhat erratic progress.

This bit isn't quite as bad as it seems: I used pegs and string to mark the outer edge of the path so I had a line to follow and then it was a matter of using a rubber mallet to knock the bricks in place.

Step 7: go and do something else for a day while it all dries.

Step 8: it's time to play with the sand you ordered, if the neighbour's kids haven't got there first. A 2" layer inside the brick edging, if you please.

Step 9: level the sand and dry-lay the bricks, making sure they're level in every direction - I put a gentle camber on mine from one side to the other to drain the water off.

At this point Joe Swift produced a natty little bit of wood, with the profile of a brick cut out of each side so it "hung" on the sides of the path and acted as a template to smoothe your sand level.

I thought this looked like a good idea, so gave it a go. Sadly, I quickly realised the catch: it does assume that all your bricks are identical. In some misguided attempt to be a bit more environmentally sound we'd bought our bricks reclaimed at an auction, so they were every possible size, shape and thickness you can imagine and I had to lay them all individually, using my little rubber mallet and taking Bloomin' Ages.

Still, it's starting to take shape and look ever so slightly like a proper path by now.

Step 10: Mix some more 1:4 mortar but don't put the water in this time. Make sure it's not raining, or even a bit damp, and use one of those little pointing trowels to feed the dry mix into the gaps. Then follow up with a stiff brush so there's not even a little bit left on the surface of the bricks (where it will set in a grey and depressing mat of concrete). This is why it's essential your bricks should be dry before you start this bit.

By the way, the grey and depressing bits on the bricks above were already there - see reclaimed bricks comment earlier.

Now, I was lucky and it rained the night after I did this so all the mortar was beautifully watered in and set almost straight away. But if it doesn't rain, you'll have to do this yourself with a hose set on sprinkler - don't blast water at it all or you'll wash out all the mortar and have to start again.

By the way, being a very amateur bricky, I cheated.

I have three holes in my path: here, where the four arms of the cross meet (there are two little side-paths off to my shed and my greenhouse - oh, no, I'm not over-ambitious, oooooh no) and at each end, where the squares I made under the gates in and out were, ahem, not exactly square.

One of the many things I discovered through making this path is the reason why brick paths are always an odd number of bricks across. The width of my path, for reasons lost in the mists of history, is six bricks across for the main bit and four across for the side paths. This doesn't work, and my maths isn't up to working out why. So I just fudged it. A little concrete and a few pretty pebbles should fill in the hole nicely.

Doncha just love amateur DIY enthusiasts? What can I say - I make mistakes so you don't have to. Still, I got a pretty good new brick path, and I learned an awful lot of things - chief among which was that It's Never as Easy as it Looks On TV.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The path to enlightenment #1

We've gone a bit potty with the hard landscaping lately. First it was the gravel, which smartened things up around here no end, and then it was laying the brick path down the middle of my working area, which for the last seven years has been reduced to a muddy channel each winter, driving us crazy and causing not a few spectacular somersaults/twisted ankles/soggy behinds/caustic and very bitter swearwords.

So to spare our children further expanding their vocabulary we decided to invest in a Proper Path. Fortified by Joe Swift's enthusiastic if high-speed advice on an edition of GW a bit earlier in the season I set to work.

Step 1: dig out channel for path about six inches below ground level (the only easy bit in the whole process, I now realise).

Step 2: bash in some little pegs and use a long spirit level between them to make sure they're all the same height - viz. with the tops about 2" above ground level. This is Much More Tricky than they make it look on telly and takes a Bloody Long Time.

Step 3: get a lot of builders' bags full of heavy stuff delivered. First into the wheelbarrow and off down the garden was M.O.T., which when I were a nipper used to be called hardcore, but I think that word has a different meaning nowadays. Anyway, this is what they use under roads apparently: it's made out of grey chippings of what looks like old bits of concrete and though it's very heavy it settles down very satisfyingly to form a pretty impenetrable pad at the base of your path.

Step 4: put down a 2" layer and then hire a whacker plate (which I'm sure has a more technical name) to rattle the teeth out of your head making sure it's all well compacted down.

This turned out to be unexpectedly entertaining as the moment I turned it on the whacker plate set off at a terrific speed across the garden. I hung on for dear life as it headed for the herbaceous border trying to keep up and steer it away from the fence - do you have any idea how heavy those things are? About two inches shy of the first quivering plant I finally located which switch was the choke and managed to slow the engine down to a more modest chug. By which point my other half was on the floor in tears of laughter and I was a shaking wreck.

So at this point, I retired traumatised for a cup of tea and a lie down before tackling the next bit. Of which, more later (with pictures, this time).

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

I've got three triffids

I took a rip saw to my new triffid the other day. I couldn't quite take the JAS option and sharpen my axe (apart from anything else everyone kept running away when I asked them to help). So, a breadknife being laughably small, I raided my husband's carpentry workshop (don't worry, dear, I chose the rusty one).

My heart was in my mouth, I could barely look.... but actually, it was remarkably easy, and now my one monster triffid is three baby triffids.

I've hedged my bets with three possible overwintering options:

At DEFCON 1 is Triffid 1:

Most at risk of being lost to frost damage, especially if we have another winter like the last one, Triffid 1 is outside, in the border, and will stay outside all winter. I'll be giving it a thick mulch of autumn leaves, topped off with a pinned-down plastic bag (to keep the water off the crown as much as possible) covered in compost for extra insulation.

At DEFCON 2 is Triffid 2:

(can you tell this is the knobbly bit that was trying to get out of the original pot?)

Potted up into a nice 50:50 mix of John Innes and multi-purpose, plus a handful of sand thrown in for drainage, this chap is going into the frost-free greenhouse to see out the winter. I'm not too confident, to be honest, as I did this to my majestically lush Ensete ventricosum 'Maurelii' last year, and that's supposed to put up with roughly the same conditions as a Hedychium - but it turned to mush pretty quickly.

And at DEFCON 5 is my fall-back position, the one I really ought to be able to get to survive, the one I'm risking domestic peace and tranquillity to preserve by putting it in the dining room for the winter:

Actually there's a sting in the tail, as this was the only chunk which came away without a big hunk of root on it. It had some very sturdy-looking side roots which I hope are even as I write developing into the large rope-like snakes of its larger brothers. But in the meantime I've had to support it with a network of canes to keep it upright and the roots, such as they are, as stable as possible.

I chopped them all back by about two-thirds so the root systems wouldn't have the bother of supporting nine-foot greenery as well as finding their way around their containers (or my other plants, in the case of Triffid 1). Now I just have to watch every single weather forecast for that crucial first frost: in fact I think even if one hasn't arrived by next week or so I'm bringing them in anyway. Wish me luck.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Inspiration from West Dean #3

If you thought training fruit was a simple matter of arranging the branches in a sort of fan-shape against a wall, think again.

You can trim them into single stems - cordons - trimming off all the side shoots to encourage fruiting spurs from the main stem only. If you've heard of espaliers and fan-training, you've probably heard of cordons. The advantage to this is you get to pack about five varieties into a ten-foot space. You can grow cordons upright (though you get less fruit I believe) - like this:

And it doesn't have to be apples: this is a redcurrant ('Redstart') trained as a double-cordon.

And if you want to know what a double cordon is - here you go. You just allow that single stem to branch, once: doesn't take up much more space and doubles your yield.

You can train them along a fence into a hedge...

...or over an arch to make a tunnel.

Or if you're feeling really ambitious, you can build a sort of free-standing cage and train your fruit up that. Here's one they made earlier...

... and here's another one with a pointy top.

I'm a bit sceptical about cage training - can't see how you'd keep the air circulating around the centre of the fruit tree, and if you can't do that it's a recipe for fungal disease - but I'm willing to be convinced, and it sure does look pretty.

Thank you once again to Jim Buckland, Sarah Wain and the team at West Dean Gardens, near Chichester, for playing around experimenting and showing us all we don't necessarily have to do it like that.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Inspiration from West Dean #2

One for the hard-landscaping wishlist here....

There's a little loggia that formed the full stop to a very long pergola at West Dean Gardens (there's a picture of it on the front page of the gardens section of their website if you want to see it in its full glory). And inside, without a word of fanfare, there is quite the most beautiful floor I think I've ever seen.

It's very much in the local vernacular - the whole of West Dean seems to be built of flint from the nearby South Downs. I just fell in love with it.

It has such wonderful texture and a kind of instant agedness. I suspect the flint-knapping students at the nearby Weald and Downland Museum in Singleton may have had a hand in this. I wonder if they're looking for a course project in Surrey....?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

October flowers

The smell of autumn is in the air. We've had just the gentlest kiss of frost, not enough to hurt the dahlias but enough to remind us what's around the corner. But the flowers are still holding their heads up high.

I love this time of year: everything seems to put in a final effort for that last fanfare of colour before it all turns grey. May your autumn continue well into November.

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day is hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Inspiration from West Dean #1

I'm suffering from a bad case of coldframe envy.

I went down to West Dean Gardens a little while ago, and for a kitchen garden fanatic like me it was like being given the keys to the sweetshop. Jim Buckland and Sarah Wain, who manage the garden and have overseen its restoration, must surely get some sort of award for dedication beyond the call of duty. Since 1991 they've turned the walled kitchen garden into a wonderful fusion of old-fashioned Victoriana and modern foody organic growing where they experiment with new (and old) cultivars using very 21st century techniques.

There's also a college which among other things runs lots of mouthwatering courses in things to do with horticulture, and the gardens host a series of legendary foody events celebrating things like chillies, tomatoes and apples. You'll see why it's my kind of place.

But back to those coldframes.

Brick bases to absorb lots of heat and pristine white wooden frames. These babies must be 8ft from front to back.

They stretch right along one length of greenhouse (and that's a very, very big greenhouse). And they're packed with mixed salads of every kind, all sown lovingly in densely-packed rows. I wish, wish, wish I could grow salad like this.

The whole thing was a lesson in how to contrast leaf shapes, colours and textures: even humble old lettuce gets to look a million dollars if you mix it with a sprinkling of purple basil and pinch of perilla.

My discovery of the day was this dwarf basil, Ocimum minimum, which grows like a tight little football packed with leaves. Picked over just like thyme, they're intensely fragrant: I always find ordinary basil a little tricky so this could be the answer.

The coldframe I really, really want, above all other, is this one. And the reason I want it is that bit of iron at the side: that's an automatic Victorian light-lifting contraption. You can wind up the lights bit by bit to harden things off or adjust for the weather: no more bits of wood propping up the glass and getting knocked out, to the accompanying sound of breaking glass, by over-enthusiastic dogs bounding about the garden.

As if that wasn't enough, they've got those lovely curvy glass panels too, designed to guide the water away from the wooden frame and down the centre of the glass. Sometimes those Victorians had the right idea.

I want, I want, I want....

Monday, October 05, 2009

How we spent our weekend #3

A bit of an update on the fishpond's progress...

As so often seems to happen, we've done it all arse before elbow, having been a bit distracted by a sudden rush of hard landscaping in the last week or two. Things were rather brought to a head by the precipitate arrival of the fishies, which came from my mum's pond where they were surplus to requirements. They couldn't stay in the plastic storage box we'd brought them back from Wiltshire in, so I made an emergency dash to our local specialist aquatic centre for some greenery to make them feel at home.

At the risk of having a bit of a Colborn here, there was b***** all to choose from. It's not like we only went to one, either: we'd already visited a mockery of a "specialist aquatic centre" on the way home from my mum's, to find half a bench of sickly looking specimens riddled with shepherd's purse and a tank full of dead waterlilies.

On to my local "aquatic centre", and it was much the same story: badly-kept, ill-cared-for, tragic-looking plants which obviously played a poor second fiddle to the fish - particularly koi, for some reason that always escapes me - and to the manly-looking aquatic gadgets, pumps, bits of moulded plastic masquerading as fountains and other large and preferably electrically-operated paraphernalia. I couldn't find a single waterlily I wanted to buy instead of put mercifully to sleep, so eventually I despatched my father-in-law, who lives in London, around every nursery in the city until he found a disease- and weed-free Nymphaea pygmaea (for very small ponds).

I know it's probably not peak time for buying water plants, but all the same, that's no excuse for such a messy and shoddy display. If you're going to run your plant stock down, take the wretched things away from the sales benches: I'd rather see empty shelves than that sorry collection of cruelty cases.

It doesn't have to be this way. One beacon - if a lonely one - of excellence which puts plants first and does them well is Waterside Nursery, a regular at the RHS shows. Its plants are multitudinous and beautiful, sometimes unusual, spectacularly well-cared for.

Sadly it's in Leicestershire, around 100 miles from my front door: great for mail order, but if you're being as disorganised as us, a bit of a detour. In the meantime we have to put up with these excuses for plant sellers. Why the aquatic industry short-changes us so badly on plants, when so many people adore their ponds, I cannot understand.

Anyway. By the way, there's no picture of the fishies (who are called Peanut and Mango, for reasons best known to my 7- and 9-year-old), who have been given a nice rock for shelter and are consequently almost always under it. But I managed to snap the water snail, who is - equally inexplicably - known as Banana Corkscrew.

He's doing a great job of eating all the algae so far, though I rather suspect him of doing an equally good job of eating the waterlily leaves. I just hope he (she? it?) doesn't start multiplying, that's all...

Friday, October 02, 2009

I've got a triffid

I've been given a triffid.

It's about 9ft tall and it's rather scarily making a bid to burst out of its (14" or so) pot.

So, it's a Hedychium gardnerianum, aka ginger lily or Kahlili ginger. Now, not to brag or anything but I've seen these in the wild in the Caribbean, but never attempted to look after one myself. Luckily, after much internet research I've discovered that they're quite robust even in a British climate: in fact they have been described as 'quite invasive' when given good drainage and a southerly bit of the UK. You can even leave them outside all winter with a thick mulch and a cover over to keep the rain off (as with so many things, it's the winter wet that gets 'em, not the cold).

I'm quite hopeful of success in my free-draining sand, but just in case I'm splitting it in three (it desperately needs it, after all) and putting one bit in the (frost-free) greenhouse and another bit in my dining room, much to poor non-gardening husband's despair.

Only question now is, how to split it. Whaddya reckon - breadknife? Bandsaw? Chainsaw?!

(PS: you are seeing far more of my garden than I usually allow onto these pages in the above photos, mainly because this is a plant that resolutely defies my usual refuge in the macro lens. The reason there is straw all over my lawn, in case you were wondering, is because that's where the guineapigs live).
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