Sunday, February 28, 2010

Back indoors again


I HATE February!

Especially THIS February! 1

The gods of weather up there are looking down at me and laughing themselves sick. Right, they say. We've given her ice, snow, hail, sleet and torrential rain on a Biblical scale for the last three weeks: now let's give her a nice sunny Saturday. Look! Lovely! Warm temperatures, and no rain at all! We won't even make it windy! Let's make it that exact Saturday she's got to stay indoors because it's her little girl's birthday party and not even she can come up with an excuse that can get her out of that so she can go gardening.

Then on Sunday, when there's nothing much going on and gardening to do, let's unleash the forces of hell on her! Yay! Lashing rain - tick! Howling gales - tick! The kind of temperatures that freeze your nose off as soon as you look outdoors - tick! Oh, what fun we had!

Harrumph. I've had to retreat back into the greenhouse again, as you may have guessed. I do actually like my greenhouse, but it is so frustrating not to be able to get outside.

Anyway: enough moaning. There's been a lot going on in both greenhouses just lately (wonder why that could be?). The one in my garden is chocablock with seedlings after I (again) started sowing a little earlier than I should. And up at the allotment there are changes afoot.

For the last six years since I put the greenhouse up there has been a fine crop of dandelions pushing their way up through what passes for a path (trodden earth, doncha know... that's code in gardening books for gardeners who couldn't be bothered to lay a proper path, and is almost always a very unsatisfactory option to choose). It's extremely irritating, especially as they seed themselves into the border, occasionally grow big enough to trip you over and generally make a nuisance of themselves.

So I've been spending the last few sessions up there fixing the problem. And here's what I did.

Before I started: see what I mean about that path? Not really up to scratch, and certainly not model-allotment stuff. You can even see the failed previous attempt at path-making there. Let nobody ever accuse me of seeing a job through from start to finish.

Anyway: the dandelions were history after a bit of brisk hoeing, and I was ready to go.

First job was to hold the borders back with a smart edging of gravel boards. Actually they're the gravel boards you can (just about) see in the above picture after cleaning up. Recycling and allotmenteering were made for each other.

The weed-suppressing membrane is recycled too: a gardening job I did where I had to rip up a membrane someone put down over a potato bed after planting (don't ask...) I've stapled it on as insurance against pesky weeds pushing through the gap - a lesson hard-learned from previous experience.

Sand was next: this evened out the bumpy bits nicely. I used a load of sand I had left over from doing the path in the garden (see? Nothing goes to waste around here!) and trod it down with the gardeners' soft-shoe shuffle (you'll see the same dance wherever lawns are to be laid: pretend you're an Egyptian mummy swaddled from head to foot in bandages and then try to move your feet up and down and you'll have it). Once raked and levelled with another board dragged over the surface it was ready to go.

Ta-daaaah! Almost the finished article: my camera ran out of batteries before I got the sand brushed into the cracks to finish it off. I would have mixed cement with the sand had I been really serious as the weeds will still grow through the cracks using plain sand - but at least I'll be able to pull them out easily.

By the way the concrete slabs are recycled too: I picked them up from our local primary school after they had a patio lifted.

So all this cost me... well.... nothing. Apart from about three or four half-hour sessions down the lottie. Not bad, eh? Wish I'd done it years ago now...

1: except the crocuses, I like those. And all those buds and shoots I was wittering on about the other day.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Be careful what you wish for

I hesitate to admit this in public, since anyone who knows how scruffy my garden really is (as opposed to how it's represented on this blog) will snort in a disbelieving sort of way into their sleeves at the news, but it's been a secret and long-held ambition to create a garden of a standard where I can think about opening it to the public. A couple of days a year under the wonderful National Gardens Scheme would be enough, like Martyn and Victoria. We'll overlook the fact they're both better gardeners than me and almost certainly a great deal tidier.

You'll note I say "think about". Actually all I really want is to have the sort of garden I don't have to apologise for when people outside the immediate family see it. And just in case the sheer impossibility of someone with my shortcomings in the neatness department turning out a spectacularly well-manicured garden like I would need didn't put me off, I was recently sent a cautionary tale in the form of a poem written by one Caroline Palmer, who clearly has all too much experience in these matters, which has confirmed me in the view that letting people in to admire the garden may be good for your ego, but not so good for your sanity.

When you open to the public
They come along and say
'Oh what a lovely shrub that is'
And take a piece away.

They also like to know the names
of all the plants on view
They never bring a notebook
So they take the labels, too.

They like a pretty garden
And expect a damn good tea
And though it's all for charity
take extra cakes for free.

Because they weren't invited
Inside the house to pass
You'll find them in the flowerbeds
Their faces to the glass.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Goodbye to a dear friend

RIP Allotment Dog
Just too sad to do anything just now, so I'm taking some time off. Normal service will be resumed in a week or so when I can be more cheerful again.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Moving matters #3: Home improvements

You know that thing you do when you're selling a house when you rush round getting all the jobs done that needed doing for the last five years but you've never got round to? Just in time for someone else to enjoy the fruits of your labours?

Well I've discovered the same thing applies to the garden. Now - brace yourself: this is a bit of the garden I never - and I mean never - show people if I can possibly help it.

Here's a 'before' shot, taken in June 2008 when it was at its absolute worst, of the middle section of the garden: the section we've been about-to do up for quite some time.

You can see why I avoided showing it to people, can't you?

Over the ensuing two years progress has been painfully slow, but there has been progress of sorts: we've moved the shed which you can see to the right, and cleared the undergrowth and much of the junk. However it has still remained the bonfire spot of choice and the place where large loads of manure, sand and topsoil get dumped for want of anywhere else. My experience of this little wilderness has led me to form a firm belief that scruffiness just breeds scruffiness.

Anyway: the idea was always that there would be a central children's play area to house slides, trampolines and the like (it's opposite the wendy house) and I would plant it up with something cottagey around the edges.

The imminent prospect of dozens of people walking through my garden and seeing the scene of wreckage above has acted like a large box of nitroglycerine delivered beneath our backsides: and we've finally got on and done it.

Do you know what - it took about three hours to install it and was really, really easy. Hubby has also laid a nifty little path across to it since this photo was taken.

Now for the exciting bit: the plan is to rotavate all the spare ground around it and seed it with one of those lovely Sheffield mixes of meadow-style annuals from Pictorial Meadows. A quick fix akin to painting over the stains on the walls with a swish of Dulux: but much, much prettier.

It is so maddening that you always get these things done just in time to leave them behind. I would have saved myself a lot of abject apologising had I got on with it, say, two years ago, and I'd also have been able to enjoy those sparkly meadow flowers all for myself every summer.

I think there's an aberrant and probably masochistic gene which only switches on when you begin moving house. I have it in spades: it impels you to demonstrate to yourself what might have been, had you been more efficient, more perfect, and just a bit less inclined to procrastinate.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Upside-down tulips

You know all those dire warnings always to plant your tulip bulbs (and indeed any other type of bulb) the right way up, so the pointy end goes upwards and the basal root plate is pointing down? Ever had a crisis of confidence over those fiendish corms like ranunculus or cyclamen when it's sometimes impossible to tell which end is up?

Well I thought I'd put your mind at rest. Last autumn my little girls were given a packet of tulips (praestans 'Fusilier', in case you're interested) and we had a lovely muddy session in which they enthusiastically planted them all in their little gardens outside the wendy house. I did tell them which way up to put them, but, well, when you're seven you get a bit carried away sometimes.

So - I was weeding that bit the other day and accidentally dug up one of the tulip bulbs (a bit of an occupational hazard at this time of year I find). And this is what I found.

Now, doesn't that make you feel better? No matter which way up you plant a bulb, it seems, it manages to sort itself out perfectly well, thank you very much. So next autumn, sling 'em in and as long as they're not waterlogged or pulled up by squirrels, things will turn out just fine.

I re-planted this one right away. Upside down, of course: it seems to like it that way.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Gardening on air #3: Painting with words

A little poetry today, written by Andrew Young, a 19th-century Scottish botanist and clergyman who is said to have seen almost every single British plant for himself: no mean feat in those days. I hadn't come across this before, but it's one of the most vivid evocations of the end of winter I've ever heard.

Last Snow
Although the snow still lingers
Heaped on the ivy's blunt, webbed fingers
And painting tree trunks on one side,
Here, in this sunlit ride, the fresh, unchristened things appear
Leaf, spathe and stem with crumbs of earth clinging to them
To show the way they came
But no flower yet to tell their name
And one green spear stabbing a dead leaf from below
Kills winter at a blow.

As heard on Poetry Please with the inimitable Roger McGough yesterday on Radio 4.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Butterflies at Wisley 2010

Not quite as many to see this year as it's been so cold - we're planning to return in a few weeks when it's a bit milder - but still enough for some magical moments.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Wordless Wednesday

Pavonia x gledhillii
as seen in the glasshouse at RHS Wisley

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

And now for something completely different

Look what I got my hands on at the weekend!

I've been trying to track down one of these for years. I've put my name on waiting lists, sent hopeful emails to likely friends, even posted messages on message boards, but to no avail.

They say it's when you're not looking for something that - ping! - it shows up, and so it has turned out with my yacon crown, which I found while at the 12th Annual Hampshire Potato Day on Saturday at Whitchurch, near Andover. I've gone on about this at greater length on t'other blog I write for, as it was a revelation: I never knew so many potatoes existed in the world.

But potatoes weren't the whole story, and there were some fantastic nurseries in attendance too: Pennard Plants whose collections of heritage vegetable seeds I'd already admired last year at the Wisley Flower Show, and Edulis, possibly my favourite nursery of all time. This is because they specialise in unusual edible plants: I've seen them at many shows and plant fairs before and every time I've found myself in raptures over their plants (and usually laden with carrier bags before I can tear myself away).

My eye was caught by a little tray of bright orangey-pink oca, another vegetable I've been wanting to grow for ages and haven't seen anywhere else. While I was dithering over that, the lady next to me asked what the big yam-like tuber behind them was (being observant, I hadn't actually noticed them despite the fact that they were at least a foot long).

"They're yacon," the man said. At which I suddenly started jabbering away at him in a state of extreme over-excitement, the lady previously mentioned backed away cautiously and my kids (who have previous experience of these outbursts of mine) went off to hide under a nearby table.

The man turned out to be Paul Barney, the lovely and very kind owner of Edulis who clearly knows an obsessive when he sees one. He reached down and produced a big yacon crown he'd been hiding in a plastic bag on the floor. He said it was his last one, but never mind, he cut me off a big chunk anyway (I do like gardeners) and I skipped off with a grin on my face like the cat who got the cream.

Now I've got to figure out what to do with it. Paul said there's enough there to allow me to split it still further if I want to, but as a yacon novice I don't think I'll dare try that until next year. So for now I'm potting it up and keeping it on the dry side in the frost-free greenhouse before starting it into growth at about the same time as my dahlias (which it very closely resembles, only about six times the size). And then... well, let's cross that particular bridge when we get to it. For now, I'm just happy my search is over.

Monday, February 01, 2010

GOOPs February

Notes to self:

1) In winter, branches on apple trees are full of water and therefore VERY heavy.
2) You know that little cut you do on the underside of the branch to prevent it falling and stripping away a load of bark on the way? You do that FIRST, even if you think it might be slightly in the wrong place so you'd better just do a little cut in the top first to make sure you're going to line the two up.
3) When you ignore the two points above, the following happens:
  • you slice through around, oh, let's say 10cm of the top of the branch
  • you suddenly realise that previously stout branch is inexplicably moving away from you
  • there's a sort of creaking noise and the sound of splintering wood
  • your chicken run fence disappears under half a tree that's now lying on the ground
  • because you failed to make the underside cut first the branch takes with it a massive strip of bark and you have revealed yourself to be crap at pruning trees.

My final weekend finishing off the apple tree pruning didn't go as well as I'd hoped. Fortunately I'd made this rubbish cut halfway along the branch so I could get rid of the top weight before making a neater cut closer to the tree - you see I do know the theory, I just don't always follow it - so I was able to cut away most of the shockingly big tear, but there's still quite a bit left and I feel the tree is reproaching me every time I look at it now.

This post is inspired by GOOPs - Gardening Oops, a meme probably dreamt up especially for me as it encourages us gardeners to stop taking ourselves so seriously and more to the point 'fess up that we're not all as perfect as we'd like everyone to think we are. So thanks Joene over in Connecticut - lesson in humility duly learned!

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