Monday, January 31, 2011

End of month view: January 2011

Ever since I saw this meme, hosted by Helen at The Patient Gardener (thanks Helen!) I knew I was going to have to join in. What better way of keeping tabs on how your garden is changing through the year: rewarding yourself for the little improvements you've made, showing you where your priorities should be and reminding yourself how much it matters that you didn't get around to raking the leaves/pruning that shrub/clearing that border when you were supposed to. I've got the added incentive of a new garden: so (a pure indulgence I'm afraid) I've also added a smaller 'before' photo first, taken shortly after we arrived here last autumn, to compare and contrast: sometimes, big change, more often, a reminder that there's so much left to do. And, I have to say, also a reminder of how lovely and warm it was last autumn: my goodness but the comparison makes the garden now look even chillier than it feels. My veg garden is where the main work has been going on. The picture taken in autumn was taken a little further back (the second tree up is the one you can see in the foreground of this month's photo): but several months of cutting back hedges and intensive rabbit-fencing now means I now have half a chance of growing vegetables in this strip. I've only reached about halfway down the available space but what I have up and running is about 80ft by 12ft. As you can see I've also started growing things: that cloche is over my overwintering broad beans (there are autumn-sown onions in there too). And just check out that pile of green waste (this is the lower slopes of a mountain rising up behind). We already spent all day yesterday burning the first lot: now I just have to barrow this pile up to the hill and we can start all over again. On the other side of the gate into this area is what's going to be my fruit cage (-that-doesn't-look-like-a-fruit-cage). Design plans still ongoing.... I've cleared the veg beds which were here when we came, and very nice the beetroot were too, and this area is now also home to a second greenhouse - relocated (with help from Paul Debois - who found time in between lugging sheets of rusty metal around to take a photo - and a very large rented van) from my old allotment in Surrey. The pit is there a) to capture unwary husbands helping to erect said greenhouse and b) originally as a shed base, but then I changed my mind and decided it would block the view too much. Oh yes, and I've been stripping acres of ivy plus not a few roof tiles off the single garage, which is now de facto my shed, having been wrenched with many protestations off my husband who rather fancied it as a wood store. My technique was a cunning mix of bribery and compromise: he needed somewhere to put his motorbike, I needed somewhere to put my potting bench. QED. Spot the difference? What will be my cutting garden: haven't touched it. Apart from the lawnmowing, but even that was by proxy. The rock garden, or herb garden as it shall be known (as I am allergic to rock gardens) is looking considerably more wintery these days: I've done a little clearing here but this is the start of my Really Messy Garden as I am poised to do my Grand February Springclean any moment now. So what you have here is basically the remains of last year's plants: sad, yes, but the little beasties have appreciated the extra hibernating opportunities and I'm hoping I've helped protect the emerging shoots of some of the more tender plants in there (fuchsias, mainly: that great big bush to the right is a fuchsia, and a mighty fine one at that. It's in the wrong place, though: how do you go about moving a huge great thing like that?!). Popping up all over the place in the rock garden are my lovely snowdrops: now there's a phrase I've never been able to use before. Condemned to a snowdrop-less existence because of the acid sand I used to garden on (kept meaning to buy Galanthus elwesii which can apparently cope with drier conditions but never quite got around to it) I now have the damp chalk and shade they relish. The garden is full of snowdrops, and my heart is just singing. Hmm... another spot the difference. This is where most of the clearing needs to be done: great swathes of dead rogersia leaves and the new shoots of daylilies and geraniums struggling to make it up through the brown slimy mush currently collapsed on their heads. Plus zillions of dead stems, asters and valerian mostly, needing to be snipped out at the base. The spring clear-up is my first major job of the season, and also one of my favourites; it's like sweeping a brush over the garden and clearing the way for the new growth to come. I love it. The mahonia which grows here is a very fine specimen and has given me something to look at all winter, for which I'm grateful. I'm wondering whether to raise the crown on this one, however, and see if I can grow something underneath: I have fond memories of a mahonia tree in a client's garden I used to look after and would dearly love something like it myself. Wonder if this one can be persuaded...? Oh now this is a little depressing. I haven't touched this bit either - even, as you can see, to the point of not removing the sunflower stems which are now lurching even more drunkenly in various different directions. But then the bluetits did love hanging upside down off them enjoying the seeds, right through till the end of December. About the only change here has been Guineapig Palace, just visible beyond the viburnum ('Dawn' - another one whose flowers have been keeping me going through the coldest months). Previously a shepherd's hut my carpenter husband made for a garden show, now housing Nibbles, Marmalade and Smokey Bacon who are in seventh heaven with the run of a shed-sized hutch and very snug and cosy. The hill is also looking a little bleak (I took this month's standing with the trampoline behind me: it is still a little bone of contention in our house that we are looking at a large lump of blue plastic in such a lovely environment). The kids built a den up at the top, nicking the trampoline cover and a large ladder to do so, but otherwise not much has been happening here apart from... Aren't they lovely?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Hedging my bets #2

So having established that I have the wildlife habitat equivalent of the Mona Lisa around my garden and if I so much as touch it I shall have the wrath of a thousand hairy-bearded environmentalists raging about my head, I have had to work out how it is possible to garden alongside my hedge.

Just after a puny hedgetrimmer had been at it: not a shred of difference did it make (the tops were done with a flail: now that's more like it, but a little impractical inside the garden as the tractor wouldn't fit)

I have been weighing up a few options:

1. Rip the whole thing out and replace it with a wall.
Social suicide. I could never lift my head in polite society, and certainly not in the village, ever again. People have been sent to the Tower for less.

2. Rip the whole thing out and replace it with another hedge.
There is a precedent for this in the village: someone down the road from us has clearly ripped out their hedgerow and replaced it with a sort of cotoneaster sort of thing. It looks horrible: the essence of suburbia dropped like an alien into a rural idyll.

I have a lovely memory of the beautiful beech hedge I planted around my old house: but again, such clipped refinement would sit oddly among the wildness, and besides, it took years to establish, during which time the cows who live next door would have a high old time skipping around among my cabbages.

The inside of my hedge. Now in the process of returning to its former occupation as the outside of my hedge.

3. Make it a bit smaller.
Ah: now you're talking more sense. The main point of conflict between me and my hedge is that it's taking up too much of the garden. This is especially the case in my very thin vegetable garden: when you've only got about 20ft to play with anyway, an 8ft hedge either side reduces the available growing space to a wide path.

When you look more closely at the actual structure of the hedge, it's quite obvious that it's escaped from its original boundaries. The hump of chalk bank which my hedges stand on is hidden behind a forest of suckers: mainly hazel, but an awful lot of bramble and some blackthorn, too. There's a good few years' growth there in fact, and I got to thinking if this were a shrub, I'd be pitying it for being so neglected and working out how to renovate it back to its original shape.

In fact if you start thinking like that, you remember (something I bang on about quite a lot) that hedges are still plants. They need feeding, watering and weeding just like your other garden plants: and in this case, they also require rejuvenating.

So that's what I've been doing: it is a herculean task, involving a lot of heavy action with the loppers and pruning saw, and a pile of green waste which has just passed my head height across about two car's lengths of garden.

But I am uncovering a better hedge: a well-behaved hedge, one which is a bit gappy at the moment (despite still being about 4ft across) but looks as if it will this season have enough light and room to regenerate with new wood and fresh growth.

Looking back down the garden at the bit I just did: the darker area marks the original footprint of the hedge. As you can see, it is transforming the space: and, though it looks a bit rough at the moment, I hope it will transform the health of the hedge as well.

I get four feet of extra space each side of the garden, and my grassy path of a veg plot is transformed into something that looks like you might be able to grow something in it.

I don't think my Grade I listed hedges will ever be low-maintenance; but all the best things take care and love and attention to keep them at their best. And besides, I like to garden my hedges. The nice thing is that now I can garden in between them, too.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Hedging my bets #1

I am feeling the heavy weight of responsibility on my shoulders.

You see, I have a proper hedgerow to look after. Actually, that's about the understatement of the year: I have about half a mile of hedgerow, as it forms the entire border of my very long and very thin garden.

Hedgerow is a proper recognised wildlife habitat: it's a priority habitat, in fact, protected under the Biodiversity Action Plan which describes them as 'particularly important for biodiversity conservation'. About 130 vulnerable species (so rabbits don't count) depend on them for their survival, including moths, birds, lichens and fungi.

Around here, there are miles and miles and miles of hedgerows. They are a wonderful, atmospheric feature of the landscape, turning lanes into green tunnels and patchworking the fields. They are, let's remember, essentially man-made: the farmers around here have formed them over centuries, with traditional management techniques which are still, essentially, unchanged (although these days they use tractors and flails, not billhooks). If farmers didn't manage hedgerows, they would disappear.

The OPAL project (it stands for Open Air Laboratories) is currently running a biodiversity survey which uses hedges to measure health of your local ecosystem. So I thought I'd put my own hedge to the test: you take a three-metre stretch of hedge and analyse the state of the hedge, its plant species, evidence of mammals living there, and any other creatures you find (mostly invertebrates like woodlice and snails).

I must admit mine was quite a cursory inspection: you're supposed to do these things in groups, and record it on a proper form, which I'd forgotten to print out. But in my randomly-chosen three-metre stretch here's what I found:

Hart's-tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)
Herb robert (Geranium robertianum)
Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota)
Brambles (Rubus fruticosus)

Ivy (Hedera helix)
Creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens)
Nettles (Urtica dioica)

and I also happen to know (because they're now starting to come up) there are also;
Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis)
Cuckoo pint (Arum maculatum)

Other things:
Lichens, most of which I can't identify
Mosses, ditto
Little yellow fungi, ditto
Bracket fungi on the rotten bits

Woody plants:
Elder (of which the above is the oldest example I've yet found in the hedge)(Sambucus nigra)
Hazel (lots) (Corylus avellana)
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
Alder (Alnus glutinosa)

It's also a sign of the health of my hedgerows that there is a good mix of dead wood and live: the live provides the fruits, berries etc while the dead wood is colonised by tunnelling insects and the like.

However the hazel is undeniably taking over: there is less blackthorn than I would like (though my poor prickled fingers don't agree) and I could do with some more elder too.

I didn't find much to look at since it was winter and very cold when I looked at my hedgerow, and most sensible things were tucked up warm and weren't remotely interested in being surveyed.

However I did find this rather fine evidence of rabbits (as if I needed any proof: they scatter to right and left as you walk down the garden here). I have also, since I've been here, seen voles, mice, fox footprints and hundreds and hundreds of birds: wrens, sparrows, bluetits, wagtails, blackbirds, thrushes, robins, and that's not counting the ones I couldn't identify. And buzzards, and crows, and seagulls. though I don't think they rely too heavily on the hedgerows for day-to-day sustenance.

You see? What a responsibility. But though I like wildlife as much as the next person, and have a sense of tradition and history, and a great love of the countryside: I must also garden. And my hedges are undeniably taking over my garden, to the point where there is little garden left. They are 8ft wide in places, for goodness' sake.

My next step? What would you do?

Monday, January 17, 2011

January flowers

This was the post I was meant to write on Saturday, but British Telecom put paid to that. However this morning their nice young man came to fix our telephone line, blown down in the cobweb-clearing gusts of horizontal rain and warm but blustering wind we've had lately. So I can, at last, and only two days late, join in with the first Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day of the year, hosted by May Dreams Gardens.

Actually after all that lengthy preamble there aren't really all that many flowers to talk about this month. I used to be a on the committee of a dauntingly energetic branch of Plant Heritage - a charity which has much to be proud of and without which the range of plants in our gardens would be a pale shadow of their current splendour - and they did a competition each year for the most plants in flower on January 1st. The record currently stands somewhere around 30. I can manage three.

Erica x darleyensis 'Kramer's Red'
one of three heathers flowering heroically in a container just outside my back door

Mahonia x media 'Charity'

Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn'
recovering gingerly from its winter battering

There's a nearly-flower and a dead flower:

Skimmia japonica 'Rubella'
is it a flower? or is it a berry? Never could make up my mind. Pretty, though.

And who knows what this was. A member of the carrot family, obv, but angelica or Queen Anne's Lace? Or even a carrot? Who knows. But I'm leaving them there: rimed in frost they are sublime.

But the limelight at this time of year, in my garden at least, goes not to the flowers but to the berries, so if you can indulge me a little I'm going to cheat: here are the stars of my show this month.


The berries on my lovely mature variegated holly tree

And snowberries: Symphoricarpos albus. So happy here they're growing wild in the hedgerows.

Happy GBBD to all. I've got a little way to go to match my Plant Heritage colleagues: but I now have a goal, this time next year, to bring you four flowers. I feel an iris fest coming on...

Monday, January 10, 2011

Off-season garden visiting: Hestercombe

I love visiting summer gardens in the winter. Those which will let you in the gates at this time of the year are in the minority, but if you can find one, you will find a garden out of its vibrant, party-animal summer finery. You might even say you can never truly know a garden's character until you have seen it in winter.

The Edwardian Garden at Hestercombe: a masterpiece of garden structure

Gardens in winter are quieter, more reflective. They show off less: there's less 'look at me!' competition and though high points are fewer and more subtle, there is so little else around at this time of year that you're inordinately grateful for a cluster of flowers, a scent, a shaft of sunshine glancing off snow-white bark. Each highlight, however small, takes on a significance which summer flowers can struggle to achieve.

The scent of wintersweet (Chimonanthes praecox) hung heavy on the air, trapped in the intimacy of the Victorian terrace

Berries and flowers on the same plant: Skimmia japonica worked its magic in great frothing heaps, making eyecatching splashes of colour

Bark is just one of the things unnoticed in summmer but showing its true beauty in winter: here a bank of dogwoods (there were silver birch behind, too)

We were at a loose end on Saturday and it was - miracle! - a gloriously sunny day, so as staying in was simply not an option and the gardens at nearby Hestercombe are free all through January and February, off we went.

They did pointless buildings so well in Victorian times, didn't they?

They weren't too bad at rills, either...

Hestercombe is one of those great restoration stories, in a similar vein to Aberglasney and Heligan. The original garden dates back to 1750, and there's a second terrace in fine Victorian style: but its finest moment was when one Edwin Lutyens moved in just as the 20th century began to create the Edwardian Garden, a tour de force of symmetry, grandeur and beautifully-judged stonework sweeping out from the front of the house towards a fine view of my house in the Blackdown Hills. Oh all right, you can't quite see my house from the back garden of Hestercombe, but it's there somewhere (and was when Mr Lutyens was at work, too).

The bare shape of an acer emerges twisted and tortured like exquisite sculpture

He was followed shortly after by the redoubtable Gertrude Jekyll who did the planting. The whole lot amounts to some 35 acres, and it must have been utterly breathtaking for all of twenty years - until the World Wars came along. After that the story is drearily familiar: army barracks, garden staff whittled down to two harried souls: trees felled randomly or left to grow where they shouldn't. Finally it was completely abandoned.

Saxifrages clung to the craggy walls and basked in the winter sunshine

Then in the 1970s, planting plans were found in a potting shed: more exploration revealed a disused waterfall, the ruins of garden buildings and follies including an 18th century water mill. Some helpfully detailed paintings surfaced of the garden as it was in the 18th century by its original owner, a landscape architect by the rather wonderful name of Copplestone Warre Bampfylde: and the restoration was under way.

These figs were wonderfully trained against a sunny wall: tiny fruits were dotted here and there on the branches

With generous funding from the National Lottery work began in earnest in 1995 and it's still going on: there are half-rebuilt ruins and bits of ground with no obvious purpose here and there around the edges. But the majority of the garden has emerged triumphant, a paean to the Victorian sense of occasion: sweeping vistas and grand statuary give way to intimate terraces, rills trickle playfully and all pay homage to the majestic view spreading out like some amphitheatre at your feet.

The glistening deep green of this water pennywort growing out of a damp wall by the mill was like an echo of summer

The craftsmanship is superb, with lovely craggy stone holding back the banks of grassy hillside and archways framing paths laid with the precision of an artist. Alot of it is all looking quite 'new' still: and perhaps that steals a little of the sense of history. But as the moss and the lichen creeps its way in, it will settle into its landscape once again, no doubt. I hope I shall be here to see it.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Garden words: The January review

I have many books about garden design on my bookshelf. The likes of Robin Williams, John Brookes, Tim Newbury, Piet Oudolf and Roy Strong snuggle together amicably there: they have, over the years, instructed me purposefully, generously and reliably. I have shamelessly nicked designs from all of them and shoehorned them into gardens with a non-designer's lack of discrimination. Heck, I once built a brick wall on instructions from a well-thumbed copy of John Brookes's 'The Small Garden'.

But there are only so many times you can be told how to triangulate things. Sometimes all you require is a lot of lovely pictures of, say, pergolas so you can figure out what you like and - more importantly - what you want for whichever garden you happen to be building at the time.

And that, mostly, is what you get with The Essential Garden Book, from the unlikely pairing of uber-chic interior designer Terence Conran and thoughtful, sensitive garden designer Dan Pearson: published in 1998 but still current and a late New Year present from my other half, who knows the agonies I am in at the moment over how to design a fruit cage that doesn't look like a fruit cage.

I have my doubts about Terence Conran's forays into garden design, though I must admit his design template for a compost bin (was it really his, though, do you think?) remains a staple in my repertoire. He's rather good at houses, of course: in fact this book was designed to follow his The Essential House Book.

But stick to what you know is my motto, and such sequels are often less than successful. Luckily whoever was advising him clearly knew his stuff, as he managed to collar a relatively recently-established Dan Pearson to do it (there are also - surprisingly ill-acknowledged - contributions from Isabelle van Groeningen and Andrew Wilson). The book was first published a scant decade after Pearson arrived at Home Farm, so we were only just beginning to see what he was capable of.

I'm afraid I quickly gave up on the words and just basked in all the lovely, lovely pictures. You see this is a sourcebook extraordinaire: the size of a baking tray, it is heavy and rich with ideas. There are steps, sprayed with mud and grass, growing green and hairy; wonderful dry-stone moongates; a trellis so cloaked in ivy it looks like a living sculpture; and fences made of multicoloured bottles strung on wires.

The pictures are this book's strength, but it does get bogged down in the words. I do question how digestible and relevant an essay on void versus mass - however intelligently put - is to the ordinary backyard reader. And most non backyard readers will probably know about it already anyway. Dan Pearson is, of course, a fine writer: but this is quite obviously a book designed to be looked at, not read.

But worse: in the end it tries to be all things to all readers. How can you possibly even attempt to cover the cornucopia of perennials, bulbs and ferns in just six pages (including pictures)? I'll tell you - woefully inadequately, and by avoiding cultivar names wherever possible, which makes it a bit of a pointless exercise. And vegetables, herbs and fruit are given just four measly pages, including exotica like kiwis, peaches and apricots. A breakneck gallop through every aspect of gardening is achieved in just 12 of the book's 272 pages - relegated to the back, of course. It's hard not to avoid getting cross at the priorities here.

I came away with the impression that this was a book without the confidence to be what it very nearly is: an outstanding sourcebook full of inspiration, ideas and horizon-widening examples to send you away into your garden full of renewed determination and optimism. If I'd been the editor, I would have lopped off the bits about plants and gardening and let it flourish as the design book it was meant to be.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Hey, look at my stash!

Now of all my Christmas presents, the ones which most fired up my imagination were the series of intriguing little packets which dropped through my door one by one in the week or so leading up to the Big Day.

These are the contents of my Seedy Stocking Stuffers: a wizard wheeze dreamt up by Emma and taken up with enthusiasm by fellow veg-growing addicts Andy, Charlotte, Liz and Ali, as well as myself.

I did find myself rather humbled by the result: I save a little seed, but not that much, and blithely signed up before realising that actually, the contents of my seed packet shoebox weren't quite as inspiring as they ought to be.

I did manage to send out some rather lovely beans I saved: blue ('Kew Blue'), purple ('Cosse Violette') and brown ('Coco')as well as bog-standard green. But mostly, I didn't come anywhere close to the delights I received in the post: so here's a public thank you to all those who have given me the chance to try so many plants I've been wanting to grow for ages, and a sorry for fobbing you off with less interesting fare.

So from my box of treasures, here are the ones I shall most look forward to growing this year:

For my herb garden, I have some orach 'Magenta Magic' from Ali and some red and green perilla from Charlotte: the large French sorrel (also from Charlotte) should cope (and indeed spread like mad) on the shady side of the herb patch and look suitably handsome, too.

My tropical edibles garden has suddenly taken shape in a way it was struggling to do before: I can't wait to get my Achocha 'Fat Baby' in the ground (thanks Ali and Charlotte, again) and - yay!! - at last I have some oca tubers to sow (thank you Emma!) though I have to somehow prevent them rotting off before I get them in the ground. I may just plonk them in a pot in the (heated) greenhouse for now as otherwise I think they'll all be goners. Plus the giant sunflowers are making a comeback: I now have a pack of 'Russian Giant' from Liz. Tape measures at the ready!

And for the veg garden: can't wait to sow the 5ft high climbing pea 'Telephone' - Liz and Ali, and possibly another candidate for the tape measure - and my tomato needs are very nearly taken care of too, what with the plum tomato 'Scatolone' (Liz), good old 'Gardeners' Delight' (Andy) and 'Sweet Pea Currant' (Charlotte): tiny, delicious, and worth growing just for the name.

Of those plants I've never even thought about growing, I shall watch the 'Potimarron' squash (Ali) with fascination as it gallops around my plot; Italian capers (Emma) are a new one on me and I have no idea what to expect; and sea beet (Emma) I'm pretty sure I've picked wild on the seashore in my youth but never actually tried to grow.

Well who would have thought it. It's still only January and I have a list as long as my arm of delicious things to fill my garden. I have a feeling it's going to be a good year!
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