Sunday, 29 December 2013

Floods and frosticles

Awoke to frost, and finally it feels like winter. God knows we’ve had enough of mild and wet days, particularly here where storms and flooding have taken a harsh toll over Christmas. The river is bound by its banks once more and neighbours are starting to return to sodden homes, allowing us to welcome the most decorative incarnation of the third element with a combination of gladness and relief.

Fields that only a few days ago were under several feet of water have now drained, crisp tussocks of frosted grass receeding into the distance in the morning sunlight, instead of a stretch of eerily silent water. Things, it would seem, are getting back to normal; pasture and gardens will survive relatively unscathed, and the amazing resiliance and cheerfulness exhibited by even our worst affected neighbours suggests that it will take more than tempest, storm and flood to subdue the holiday spirit in this part of Kent.

26 December: Boxing day floods

29 December. Business as usual, albeit frostier

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Planting hedges in the mist

The shape slumped in the doorway was unrecognisable in the early evening gloom. Reversing the land rover onto the drive, I allowed a minor curse to escape me, directing it towards remote sensor for the porch light which since the start of the recent damp weather spell has been working only intermittently. I’d been expecting a delivery but had left instructions for it to be left around the side by the log store, so The Shape by the front door was either what I was hoping for, but in the wrong place (a minor thing), or...something else. It was not something else. The shape in the porch was a large polythene sack containing 50 bare-root yews and an assortment of similarly naked dogwoods. In essence, a nascent wood, in a bag. Just add soil.

The yews I had ordered for a gap-toothed hedge which I’ve been looking forward to rectifying all year, while the majority of the dogwoods, Cornus alba 'Sibirica' AGM, were destined for a particular long border in the same garden, red stems forming a rosy thicket about the large-lobed, rusty winter foliage of Hyndrangea quercifolia. Come spring and summer we can look forward to the leaves of the dogwood – a green of particular freshness and intensity – providing a backdrop for the white pyramid flowers of the hydrangeas. These shrubby cornus species are not grown for their flowers, unlike their more showy cousins (the kousas and the floridas, for example) and, while the flattish florets of creamy white flowers and blue berries are incidental as a garden spectacle, they are welcome all the same as an interesting detail and an additional food resource for birds and insects.

Cornus alba 'Sibirica' in early spring

Frosted leaves of Hydrangea quercifolia

The final occupants of the large plastic sack – a handful of Cornus 'Midwinter Fire' – are to find a home in our own garden where over the years no doubt we will increase their numbers with hardwood cuttings. I remain entirely unapologetic about my love of a bed full of fiery stemmed dogwoods over the winter months; the more I can cram in to the allotted space the more content I feel about the prospect. There are plenty of other views within the humble plot that excel in presenting monochrome vignettes in drabs and browns, and so it’s welcome to have a splash of flame at this end of the year to echo autumn bonfires and the more distant, hot colours of late summer blooms.

Thick mist lay heavily across the wealden landscape the next morning, and persisted for most of the day. Perfect conditions for hedge planting; the ground damp but workable, water hanging thickly in the air all around, like a fine persistent rain, but one in which on closer observation the droplets of water appeared reluctant to obey the laws of gravity, seeming to travel sideways as often as downwards, and apparently even upwards on occasion. This is a garden on a high ridge where often it’s unclear whether a cloud has descended to envelop the hill, or the mist has risen to achieve the same effect but, whatever the cause, I knew there was little need for concern that the young sapling yews would lose moisture through their bare roots while they waited to be lowered into their planting position. In any case, immediately upon removing from the plastic sack, each fresh batch of ten plants was plunged into a large tub of water to help rehydrate them after their journey from the nursery’s fields at the other end of the county.

Bare-root hedging plants are tough as old boots, and native plants such as yew have formed part of our familiar hedgerows for centuries. With relatively small plants such as these (60cm in height), a perfectly acceptable way to plant them is to make a ‘slit’ in the ground with your spade, rocking the handle to enlarge the opening and then, once the spade has been removed, to insinuate the roots of your plant into the hole to the same depth as the plant had been grown in the field (the mark between the aerial and the subterranean parts of the plant is quite apparent once you get your eye in), finally closing up the hole with your booted foot. For several reasons, I don’t use this method, trie, tested and ‘old country’ as it may be. Firstly, actually I find it a bit of a faff. Secondly, I’m not usually planting in an open field, but often in areas where previous plantings have had to be cleared. And thirdly, while I know there will be a pretty good success rate with plants grown in this way, somehow it doesn’t feel like a particularly auspicious beginning for a garden feature you’ll be looking at for decades to come. Planting a long line of hedgerow as a field boundary would be an ideal time to use this slit planting method but, in a garden, I like to be sure that everything I plant gets off to as good a start as possible. I include a couple of soil conditioning products; a handful of bonemeal as a slow release organic fertiliser, and also a sprinkling of myccorhizal fungi – sold under license by the RHS under the brandname ‘Rootgrow’ – over the roots. This fungi forms a symbiotic relationship with the plants via its roots, exchanging nutrients taken up from the soil through the fungus’s wide network of hyphae with sugars synthesised in the plant. My usual method is to sprinkle a small amount over the roots with the plant in its final position before backfilling the planting hole, although I noticed in this pack that the manufacturer is now including a sachet of a wallpaper paste like substance (actually, I think it might be wallpaper paste, hopefully without the anti fungal additive) which can be mixed with the Rootgrow crystals in a bucket to form a dip for the roots.

Yews planted and trenches backfilled, I mulch with well-rotted manure – compost would do if it’s not too weedy, otherwise it largely defeats the object, which is to supress competition from weeds while the new hedge is getting established); likewise woodchip would be fine if, again, well rotted, as fresh organic matter will rob the establishing hedge of nitrogen. There is just time to plant the cornus at the top of the garden, as the sun begins to set and the mist starts to thicken, visible across the valley like a white, fluffy sea surrounding islands of bare trees.

And then all of a sudden the mist is gone, and golden sunshine glints and sparkles from a million tiny lenses on dew laden grass and leaves. For a moment, it is breathtaking, and I remind myself; this is my office. What a lucky so and so.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Lords and ladies

The first week of December and, rather late to the party, Arum italicum makes an appearance in the garden, just as everyone else is leaving. So late in the year is its appearance that one could almost consider it indecorously early for spring, but advent has barely begun and we should really be on the other side of Christmas before we can even think about such things.

Of course, the plant in question has not been absent from our gardens throughout the rest of the year. In spring its pale green spadix is a feature of damper, shadier spots, and the short ankle-height columns of orangey red berries are a familiar site in gardens and woodland in autumn. The berries are highly poisonous and will cause breathing difficulties from irritation to the tongue and throat. Now, from among the detritus of the year, dark green leaves emerge on the floor of the garden, marbled with bold tracings of ivory. It’s a reminder that nature never sleeps; we express our belief that throughout the winter months she is at work beneath the soil, plumping bulb and swelling root, and the faithful are rewarded with signs as miraculous as these, unfurling, richly luxuriant while all around is pale and limp and dead.

A very good friend has a ‘rude border’ in her garden, for which I periodically supply plants whose names appeal, for all the wrong reasons, to those with minds that might obtain puerile amusement from such things. Here specimens such as horny goat weed (Epimedium spp.) and Rubus cockburnianus have found a home; I am not quite certain, but surely she will have included a plant with such a variety of lewd references amongst its common names. Arum italicum is known variously ‘Lords and Ladies’, ‘Priest's Pintle’, the ‘willy lily’ and, my favourite, ‘Cuckoo Pint’ - a reference to the fandigulare of the male bird. Having never knowingly been in the vicinity of a gentleman cuckoo's undercarriage I find myself unable to comment on the accuracy of the likeness, but posterity in its wisdom has chosen to preserve this particular nickname, and so we can consider it safe to assume that at some point in history a person, or persons, who were in the position to make the comparison found it an apt one, and so made it.

Arum maculatum shares many of the same features as its showier cousin. Its large mid green spear-shaped leaves lack the attractive marbling, but are handsome nonetheless. It also shares the same common names, and is consequently equally qualified for my friend’s garden.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Manure for the garden: a fundamental matter

Not quite seven in the morning, and I’m on site to make preparations for an early delivery. The faintest glimmer of daylight fringes the trees bordering the fields of the stud farm opposite, but nearer to hand the tarpaulin laid out over the drive bounces the harsh brightness of the security lights about the garden. A slightly surreal, not-quite-half-light time of the day and on the chillier side of mild and dry – which is very good news. As with most garden tasks it’s possible to do this job in the wet, but a day without rain makes for a distinctly more pleasant experience. All is set; I pour myself a large mug of tea from my flask and walk across to the lane outside to await the arrival of the tipper.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Five tulips to plant now

Late November, and the colour is slipping from the trees; down, down to the gardens and lawns, down to streets and pavements, grass and slabs strewn with discarded finery in shades of scarlet and copper and gold. The wind has been fierce, whipping the leaves into a frenzied dance, a kaleidoscope of burnished flecks whirling around me as I walk, swooping and bobbing in front of my face. I watched a leaf trapped in a doorway, caught in the eddying wind, unable to break free and find the way out like a fly by an open window, exhausting itself with frantic effort while being unable to comprehend that the simple way out of its present situation lies less than a few inches away.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Cold addled

It would seem that the grass has at last had the decency to stop growing, or at least to slow its rate of growth to a level appropriate for the time of year. This is fortunate: the ground is getting wet and claggy now as our local clay is wont to become at this time of year, and continued trundling back and forth with mower and heavy boots is liable to compact the soil and exacerbate any drainage problems. Some traffic will still be necessary until all the leaves are off the trees – and then off the grass – but for a few weeks over winter it will be good to give the turf a rest. In spring when the risk of ground frost has past we can think about aerating compacted lawns, but it will need to be drier than now or else the clay smears and becomes impermeable, making matters worse.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Mast year

It is raining acorns. They land with a sharp CRACK! upon the aluminium roof of the landrover, amazingly causing no dents. A less bell-like tone is produced when they fall upon the greenhouse, or upon the garage roof, but a steady percussion is now building to create a sustained accompaniment to the afternoon’s artistry. I am in the process of attacking a neglected woodland understory with an improbably small, but nonetheless viciously efficient hand saw. And all the while, it is raining acorns.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Autumn days and chocolate buttons

Autumn, at its best when days are dry and cold and bright, can throw some truly nasty weather at you. The light rain forecast for this morning turned into a lengthy downpour so heavy that the water somehow managed to flow back along the underside of my hat brim before encountering a brow furrowed against the elements, at which impenetrable barrier it abruptly turned course and proceeded to flow down my face. Puddles formed inside my boots as rivulets of rain coursed down my legs, almost making me regret this morning’s selection of shorts over long trousers, although my prepatellar bursitis – a knee affliction common to plumbers, housemaids, carpet fitters and apparently gardeners – continued to approve of the choice (the stretched fabric of a longer leg when kneeling down causes increased pressure on the lump above the knee; annoying rather than painful). I came home briefly at lunch to walk Bill, threw my sodden clothes into the dryer, and promptly managed to melt all the buttons. I can only conclude that they had been manufactured from chocolate, leaving me nursing a sense of regret at the thought of a missed snack opportunity.

Undeterred by the weather or the state of my clothing – billowing precariously in the chilly wind which had by now replaced the morning’s rain – I continued with the day’s toil, barrowing leaf mold and manure to the borders and coppicing overgrown hazels in the woodland area, all the while thankful for the capacity of the lawn grasses to survive a thorough muddy trampling.

It was gloomy and muddy and damp and cold – so far from the ideal autumn day I carry with me in my head. And while it may have been the frisson caused by the knowledge that at any moment a freak gust of wind could overpower the last remaining fastenings on my shorts and see me chasing my dignity across the rose garden, I think it is more the raw and elemental quality of the days at this time of year that makes me feel particularly present in the moment, particularly alive. I snapped a few hasty pictures on my phone on one trip back from the bonfire in an attempt to capture something of the feeling. Some are even in focus.

So here’s to autumn days, whatever the weather. And here’s to long autumn evenings by the fire, sewing on buttons.

Some elements of this composition are in focus. Just not the ones you’d expect.
Ivy stems on oak trunk

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Leaf mold

Much of this afternoon was spent both in and on a pile of leaf mold. A lovely, deep pile of well-rotted leaf mold – thick, chocolately stuff, the consistency of a really good chocolate brownie, the kind that makes your mouth go all funny and sends a little shiver down your spine. The kind that offers your teeth the resistance of the barest hint of crust on the outside but rewards the persistance of your masticationary efforts with a meltingly gooey interior. The word ‘unctuous’ gets a bad press but was surely invented for this stuff – in fact, I’m not sure that anyone could ever have really appreciated the richenss of that adjective without having been here, on this pile at this moment, watching the shining blade of the shovel carve tranche after tranche out of the heap, hearing it flop wetly to the ground, crumbling as it falls. There has been rain of late in volume, and were I in particular mood I could wish the texture more friable. Candidly, I rather suspect the inclusion of grass during the incorporation of the heap, but I cannot say. I was not here at that time. But what this compost lacks in crumble it more than makes up for in luxury, and it will be more than adequate for purpose.

This lot is bound for the rose garden, to act as a mulch in order to supress weeds, and also as a soil conditioner to lighten the clay. In this the gardener will be given invaluable help from the host of worms which poplulate the rich humus, as they do the hard work of mixing the new layer organic matter with the soil. Before the mulch can be applied, I remove fallen leaves from the beds with the aid of a powered blower. These leaves will not make it into the main pile, instead meeting their fate on the bonfire and thereby minimising the proliferation of rose blackspot (the fungus Diplocarpon rosae). Once the beds are clear, applicaton of the fresh leaf mold involves accurate aiming of the barrow, and the use of a long-tined compost fork – by far the most efficient tool for spreading the mulch between the stems of the rose plants.

I have posted before (in Leaf fall and Cloth of Gold) on the wonder of leaves. As I write this on Hallowe’en, and in spite of the fierce winds at the beginning of the week, we have not yet entered the peak of the leaf raking season, with many trees keeping a stubborn grasp on their foliage. But it’s surely a matter of days if not weeks before leaves cover our gardens again, and it’s as well to have a plan of what to do with them once they’ve been coralled and collected. It would, after all, be criminal to let all that potential goodness go to waste.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Honey fungus

Autumn is the season for mushrooms, the fruiting bodies of fungi that appear suddenly in our gardens at this time of year, along with morning mists and the smell of woodsmoke. An integral part of our environment fungi play an essential role within the ecosystem, converting dead material into nutrients required for plant growth. However, in the quasi-naturalistic setting of the garden, not all fungi are created equal. There are relatively harmless saphrophytic fungi, which live on dead or decaying organic matter, and aid the process of decomposition. These perform a vital function and one which, from a gardener’s perspective, is relatively benign. There are also beneficial micorrhizal fungi which form a codependnent relationship with the roots of plants, assisting in the uptake of nutrients from the soil in exchange for sugars and carbohydrates. But there are also pathogenic fungi, which are rather more of a nuisance, possessing as they do a penchant for living material.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Eat your greens

Wandering along the farm lane, as I do several times a day with Bill, I spend many a happy while examining the hedgerows. It’s fascinating to me that while we tend to think that at this time of the year the whole natural world is a few short weeks away from bedding down for a long winter snooze, many perennial and biennial plants are gearing up for spring, thrusting out lush green foliage and staking a claim to their spot for the new growing season. Here’s a selection of native plants, most of which are doing just that, and all of which, it occurs to me, might not make it that far in an unmolested state, owing to them being either rather tasty foragers’ fare, or rather useful in some way.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

In between days

An awareness of the passing seasons is a grounding thing. It relates us to the world outside our window which might otherwise be perceived only in momentary glimpses as the natural realm intrudes upon our busy lives: suddenly we’re driving to work in the dark, shorts and t-shirts are consigned to the back of the wardrobe, and one day soon we’ll awake to find the lawn shrouded in leaves. We note the signs that mark our passage from spring to summer, to autumn, to winter and back to spring and, while we may complain about the less welcome aspects – complaining is in our nature after all, and something to be enjoyed – we are fortunate to live in a part of the world where the passing of time is softened by the comforting regularity of discernibly different seasons. But as much as we tend to think of clearly defined periods, each with their own individual events and moods, in reality we spend as much time transitioning between one and the next, where the interregnum is marked by a character of its own.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

On bulbs, and hoola for your moolah

As suddenly as someone flicking a switch the children are back at school, the temperatures have noticeably dropped, and the evenings are dark by eight. It’s rumoured that some have even been eyeing the central heating controls, and the time for the annual visit of the chimney sweep approaches. Summer may yet rally for one final, glorious encore, but it is unmistakably waning, and thoughts begin to turn in earnest to next year’s garden. Autumn (am I allowed to use that word yet?) is the time for planting bulbs – beginning with alliums, which benefit from a little residual warmth in the September ground, and finishing with tulips in late autumn, when the colder temperatures will help to keep the dreaded tulip fire at bay. This is good news, as bulbs offer the time strapped garden owner a shortcut to fantastic floral displays, with relatively little investment required in either time or money. Of all the ways to buy plants, bulbs arguably get you the most jolly for your lolly.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Green pebbles in the rain

Gentle drizzle falls this morning from a bright grey, light grey sky. The clear air and softened light makes for a pleasant change after such a period of unforgivingly hot, bright weather. Muffled sounds of the falling rain blend with the ambient noise of these gardens; a counterpoint comprising the cooing of collared doves, the plop of fish coming up for air, and the lightest swiish from the cherry trees as the breeze filters through their coppery canopies. This welcome freshness finds me kneeling on the turf before the low lavender hedge that encircles the lily pond. I have discarded my gloves, the better to feel the individual bundles of flowering stems which must now be removed if the plants are to retain a dense and compact habit, and the sharp blades of my secateurs make easy work of the task as they cleanly sever semi rigid green tissue. Snip. Taking care not to cut into the old wood, eruptions of tiny blue grey needles below the wound – new leaves contrasting with the softer, richer green of the mature foliage – confirm to me that the plant will make a full and fast recovery from this operation.

These plants want to sprawl, to range lankily away from their planting holes, pinned to the ground by a single foot but reaching ever outwards. They possesses a strange, wizened beauty in this form. But that’s not how we like to grow lavender in our gardens, where so often we enforce the juvenile state, perhaps because we are able to do to plants what we long to do to ourselves. Enforcing youth, I mean. Not snipping bits off.

Pleasing green pebble forms begin to emerge where earlier a flattened mat of cat sprawled chaos had threatened to overwhelm the scene. The rain begins to fall with a greater determination, fat drops pattering on the brim of my battered Barmah hat. There is still plenty of summer left, but the freshness newly discernible on the morning air brings with it a thrill of anticipation for the season to come.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Devilish hot

Midsummer. Lucifer straightens his back, rises and in a salutation to the sun stretches out his arms, glowing with crimson fire across the borders. Cooling waves of pale lavender lap around his feet but the contrast serves only to accentuate the fiery glow of the tall crocosmia, which performs with infernal constancy each July. Against the deep burgundy glow of the smoke bush and with sparkling highlights from spent alliums, firework explosions from Stipa gigantea and the shimmering haze of the deschampsia, this year more than ever the summer planting is in perfect harmony with the weather.

The sun is relentless, and quite a challenge for me as I emerge blinking from the relative cool of the courtyard area, shaded from the brightest rays by tall bamboos, a rampant pheasant berry on one side and a philadelphus on the other. Introducing some shade and vertical scale with one or two carefully placed trees is definitely high on the list of priorities for our garden; an inviting patch of dappled shade to make for on those summer days when the sun actually shines, as it’s been doing for the past few weeks with great enthusiasm. But that’s a job for later in the year.

There is a path here, somewhere. The lavender has been left untrimmed for the while, so that you have to push your way through clouds of delicate butterflies and industrious bees in order to get to the middle of the garden. It’s no hardship; the scent is intense and the thrum of the assembled humming bees imparts a kind of thrill as I wander through their harvest. I will have to cut the plants back soon – any heavy rain we get weighs the plants down and they’re getting leggier than I would like, even with a twice-yearly trim for the last five years. Before autumn comes I will need to propagate these same plants in reliable quantities, and get them sturdy enough to be nursed through the winter, in order to have enough replacements for the now ageing hedge which flanks both sides of the winding grass strip. There are doubtless more sensible choices of plant here. Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ would be less trouble and both foliage and flower lie in similar areas of the colour palette, but I’ve never been a fan of the scent of catmint of any variety and…well. Shoot me for saying so but it always seems to be something of a poor man’s substitute for lavender. That smells faintly of wee.

Over the coming week I will begin to tame the unruly summer sprawl, to make way for the later flowering plants, the cosmos and the dahlias and the nicotianas. But this weekend, I intend to revel in the untidiness.

Fiendishly hot. Lavender and cosmos are quite at home, but I’m not
used to such intensity of heat for more than a couple of days at a time.

Monday, 22 July 2013

How to keep your toes in the heat

Mid July and the heatwave continues, pushing 30 degrees during the day, not dropping much lower than mid teens at night. While far from my favourite weather so far I seem to be managing: remembering to drink enough, slathering on the sun block (which I detest with great passion) and developing a knack for finding jobs which happen to be in the shade. Sartorial standards have slipped; first it was an untucked shirt, then an open shirt over a t-shirt, and now the over shirt is usually abandoned almost instantly. But that’s as far as it goes. That, and the fact that my hairy white calves have been on show for the past month or so, though displaying a marked reluctance to develop anything which could be described even vaguely as a 'tan'.

Meanwhile, Bill has taken to flopping around like a discarded teddy bear, gazing accusingly at me from limpid brown eyes as if the weather is some cruel trick engineered by me solely for his discomfort. To be fair his fur is presently providing him with a luxuriant but entirely unwelcome system of insulation, but it will be several weeks yet until his thick top coat is ready to be stripped out.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Pretty useful

I snapped a photo of the trug en route to the compost heap. Spent aquilegias, unwanted yellow loosestrife and a garnish of wilted paeony petals. Now, it looks like pretty rubbish. In a few months, it will be brown, crumbly and useful.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Mosquito food

A soft rain fell for a while just before noon, welcome relief from the enveloping humid fug that’s settled over us over the past few days. It could do with an almighty downpour, which no doubt will happen while I’m digging this afternoon. In the meantime, I’ll be supplying tasty meals to clouds of aggressive, day-biting mosquitos, if the Jungle Formula doesn’t do for them. It didn’t earlier in the week, when my left leg alone received upwards of twenty bites, but that was largely due to the fact that I’d not thought to apply any. The local mosquito population had hitherto been, like me, of the opinion that they only came out to bite around dusk. These fellows must be new.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

A windy morning on Roughway

A mild but windy morning on Roughway, grey clouds scudding quickly over the North Downs. I have misplaced my larger ball of thick tarred twine but have managed to salvage enough odds and ends of string from the back of the land rover to allow me to complete the day’s tying-in tasks. More planting to do here too – today we literally turn the corner in the long border, and begin to repeat the planting groups established on the first, shorter trench. I want it to be daily loose loose, though, and avoid it looking blocky. The wind whips across this garden, high on the Greensand Ridge, and though today I’ll be sheltered by a fence while working the plants themselves need to be tough enough to withstand the constant buffeting. That doesn’t mean I won’t be planting a few more fragile things, though – sweet peas on sturdy hazel wigwams, dahlias and paeonies staked to within an inch of their lives. There’s an awful lot to be done, not least looking after the rest of the garden, so enough scribbling, best get on.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2013

Best in Show
Another Chelsea Flower Show is behind us. I’m still sorting through photographs to upload and wondering whether or not my overarching sense of disappointment is justified. In spite of its origins as a flower show, and notwithstanding the fantastic displays by top nurseries in the Great Pavilion, it’s frequently the show gardens which receive most attention at Chelsea, certainly with the media. In this centenary year much of the press attention appeared to be focussed on the gnomes, which I managed to avoid entirely, eager as I was to get to the gardens in an attempt to discern this year’s trends and see how tastes have moved on from last year. Strangely I found it particularly hard to identify common themes largely because in contrast to previous years, when the majority of the show gardens seemed to possess a certain coherence – irrespective of whether or not I found them to my particular taste – many of this year’s gardens didn’t quite pull it off. Perhaps the planting might feel rather leaden, or the finish wasn’t quite there, or maybe there was an element (or several) that unbalanced the whole. Admittedly this is only my own personal impression, but it’s no less keenly felt for that. However, in this post I’d like to concentrate on things that I appreciated, rather than those that I didn’t, although I’m always happy to discuss that side of things in person, so do catch me on Twitter if you want the lowdown!

Monday, 27 May 2013

Three ways to keep on top of your garden in May

It is early, a grey and misty morning, the hedgerows a luminous and dripping green with the dew lying heavily on the ground below. Birds sing, lambs bleat, and a solitary crow pecks for food in the field. Trees that were tentatively offering up delicate buds a matter of weeks ago are suddenly in full leaf. Mother Nature knows how to make an entrance and, fashionably late, the doors to the growing season are thrown aside and she is suddenly before us and around us and commanding our attention, while spring rushes in and May bursts into life.

So the month began, and so it continues. This is not a time of year to neglect the garden, as grass and weeds put on inches of new growth with each passing day and the undergrowth sends out tendrils of goosegrass to scout out untended ground, at which point it moves in with reinforcements to reclaim the territory by virtue of a more imposing occupation. The change of pace can take you unawares; each time I come home the answer phone winks at me to indicate another overwhelmed garden owner seeking assistance, and I can only help as many as the daylight hours and my diary will allow.

As futile as it might initially appear a strategic approach to the garden can help in holding back the advancing waves of vegetation, and while some investment in time is inevitable it needn’t occupy every spare moment. You can’t do everything at once, so let’s consider just three tasks that you stand a change of fitting into your schedule.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Green & pleasant

It must have been holidaying in Dorset as a child that instilled in me a love of earthworks. Driving through the lush countryside a few miles from Bridport our local landmark was Eggardon Hill, a prominent feature on the local skyline but, to a small child, all the more exciting for the iron age hill fort and burial mounds to which it is home. As a family we became adept at identifying the telltale swollen welt of tumuli in the landscape, while my sister and I learnt how to read the contours of the land on the Ordnance Survey map and home in on the gothic typeface that indicates a Feature of Interest. On the same vacations I remember scaling the windswept grass terraces of Maiden Castle, and clambering around the Roman amphitheatre at Maumbury Rings in Dorchester.

I’ve been asking myself what it is that so appeals to me about these constructions. It’s not merely the frisson you feel when encountering a familiar object – or, in this case, material — used in an unfamiliar way, or even the play of light and shade across the horizontal and vertical surfaces of the banks, paired with the relentless green of the closely cropped turf. But there’s also the delight of seeing the commonplace being used to create something of more complexity in both purpose and meaning. The grass itself has a semiotic link to something deep within most of us, recalling moments of carefree fun from childhood — whether it calls to mind grand lawns, country pastures or a welcome patch of green among the urban jungle. There’s something quintessentially British about grass, and pulling and pushing the land about into forms that suit our purpose before covering it over with a blanket of grass seems an entirely proper thing to do.

It’s exciting to me that garden designers and landscape architects like Charles Jencks and Kim Wilkie are incorporating these features today. But what unexpected joy, when entering the newly redesigned walled garden at Riverhill Himalayan Gardens, to discover crisply defined curved terraces of grass. Inspired no doubt by agrarian practices in the foothills of Nepal, it still somehow feels rooted in the Kentish landscape, only a few miles away from the sites of hill forts at Ightham and Plaxtol. The garden was full of children, throwing themselves with gusto at the embankments and laughing as they slid down the terraces. I’ll certainly be coming back to spend some time gazing at these lush green contours. Quite apart from anything else, in the absence of a flock of sheep which would have unwelcome consequences for the contents of the borders, I’m interested to see how they get on with the mowing.

Monday, 29 April 2013

An uplifting afternoon

I have a cold. This is very annoying, as the light outside today is shining with an intensity not felt for many months; the sky alternating between sunny and overcast with dramatic, silver-fringed clouds, and the air thick with a cacophony of birdsong. By late afternoon everything in our west facing garden is backlit: the bamboos in the courtyard, the early white tulips lining the path, and most impressively the amelanchier, now looking its very best, every stem heavy with pale cream candelabras of pristine new flowers. It’s impossible to stay indoors feeling sorry for oneself so I plug my constantly running nostrils and make my way to the greenhouse for more sowing and potting up activity, while Bill lies on the lawn outside, making himself sick with an all-you-can-eat buffet of lawn weeds, chief among them the strap-like leaves of Plantago lanceolata. Perhaps he’s trying to tell me something, as the ribwort plantain is used medicinally for, amongst other things, alleviating respiratory problems, and is an effective expectorant. Seven years after beginning to carve out something resembling a garden from the blank, weed-strewn canvass we took on it still loves our garden – especially the grass paths – as not only is it more than happy to grow in compacted soil (earning it one of its many common names, ‘waybread’ for its habit of growing on paths), but also likes to seed itself into the much more open soil structure of the borders. Truth be told, although its ground hugging rosettes are something of a pain in what little lawn we have, when grown in open ground I rather like its leaves and look forward to seeing the dark flowerheads with their little creamy tonsures, which hover above the plant on slender stalks and sway with the breeze, reminiscent of a small sanguisorba. Prodigious they are if allowed to set seed but, in the border, they’re not hard to pull out. I think I shall miss them if ever I become so efficient at home that I manage them out of our garden, although that day shows no sign of arriving.

But there’s something far more exciting which has drawn me away from my desk. These past few weeks I’ve been peering into the gloom below the pyracantha hedge, looking for signs of life in the leaf mould. Ever since I carefully snipped off last years mature leaves at the beginning of the month I’ve been waiting in excited anticipation for the unfurling of delicate, two-tone yellow flowers accompanied by heart-shaped leaves on impossibly thin, wiry petioles. The strong yet delicate and airy structure of the plant suggests some tiny eccentric aeronautical construction – you could almost be forgiven for thinking that the epimedium was designed to take to the air and fly. But the levitation for which this plant is known is of an entirely more earthy nature, with its reputation as an aphrodisiac. In a mood of uncharacteristic gentility I had decided that the nickname ‘horny goat weed’ for some reason referenced the horns on a goat’s head. It doesn’t, as another name, ‘Randy Beef Grass’, should have told me. Sold in tablet form as a the Chinese herbal medicine equivalent of Viagra, the uplifting effect was allegedly first observed in his charges by a Chinese goat herd, and is attributable to the compound icariin in which the plant is rich. Enough. Of more interest to the gardener are the properties of cultivars which provide robust and evergreen ground cover – many exhibiting attractive bronze markings on the leaves – several of the hardier types able to cope with dry shade. I have a fairly generic, but reliably hardy Epimedium x versicolour 'Sulphureum', whose leaves should emerge tinged with red, although mine refuse to, an annoyance which I feel may be due to the almost complete lack of any direct sunlight. I’ll move a clump this autumn into a more exposed position to test this theory next spring. In the meantime, I have a long shopping list of cultivars to acquire, starting with E. x rubra with its red bordered pale yellow flowers, looking for all they’re worth like something you’d buy by the quarter from a glass jar. Probably best not to eat them, though. The kind of sweeties that would keep a chap up all night.

Rather impressionistic due to the photographer wobbling about in low light

Friday, 19 April 2013


Spring rushes in wearing an expression of apologetic tardiness, a picture of windswept dishevelment. Better late than not at all and, now that the worst of the frosty nights seem to have passed, we can get on. On with rejoicing over meetings with old friends, and on with remembering the new ones you’d forgotten you’d invited. I have no recollection of planting Chionodoxa last year, but they’re here now, where they weren’t last year, where I was expecting crocuses which I seem to have planted further towards the back of this motley ensemble. The effect is harmonious to the extent that I begin to believe I had a sensible plan at planting time, albeit one which I’ve since forgotten. Appropriately then, forget-me-nots will join swarthy self-sown spanish bluebells and grape hyacinths Muscari in completing the late spring cerulean spectacle, though these last two will quickly become thuggish and require careful management. In May they’ll be succeeded by the white blooms of Paeony lactiflora ‘Shirley Temple’ and a pair of Dicentra aurora, while Corydalis ‘Purple Leaf’ with its tubular neon blue flowers and deep cut foliage will complement the dicentras and the ever-present ferny backdrop. Each of these has recently declared itself a survivor of the winter months, unfurling fresh, vibrant foliage above the well-mulched soil. I’m particularly excited at the prospect of watching this small section of the garden unfold this year.

Corydalis 'Purple Leaf' peaks out from behind the bluebells

The blue-green foliage of the dicentra emerges from a winter slumber

It’s at this point I realise that something is amiss. A californian lilac, Ceonothus ‘Concha’, presides over this corner of the garden, clothed in May with light blue liquorice alsort flowers which, in slowly deteriorating, clothe the ground below in baby blue confetti. Only right now it’s not looking quite as perky as it should. In fact, it’s looking decidedly – and there’s no gentle way of putting this – dead. Shrubs of this genus are often not particularly long lived on our heavy Kentish soils, and it’s not unheard of for them to croak after five or six years. This particular specimen, although in a corner and sheltered from the coldest gusts from the east, could be exposed to winds from other directions which would seize its top heavy growth and rock it about in spite of our best efforts to stake it securely. Well, no matter – I wasn’t overly convinced by it in that spot (truth be told, I find its leaves rather too small and ungenerous) and its loss presents an opportunity. What to put in its place, now...there’s the question.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

On Tufty’s tail

Something is digging up the lawn. And it’s a different something from the Something that’s making holes in the turf at the top of this garden. That Something is a rabbit, or rather, a community of rabbits, their fiendish excavations discovered by the unexpected disappearance of my foot, and with it a good part of my lower leg, while surveying the kitchen beds. A surprisingly deep hole which took a lot of filling in, for all the good it will do, as the rabbits will no doubt simply pop up elsewhere. Little sods.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Frozen rabbit

Late March, Palm Sunday behind us, and most of the country is in the grip of snow again. Here we’ve escaped the worst of the weather – only the odd flake falling – but outside the wind is bitter and a chill is on the ground. Indoors we’ve been nursing coughs and sneezes and sore throats – my first for at least eighteen months – but out in the cold, fresh air my head clears and thought becomes easier as the steady tempo of work drives out more precious complaints. Here in the ever-present company of robins and the occasional blackbird, to whom clearly both spade and mattock ring sonorous as any dinner gong, I am glad of my hat (sometimes two at once), scarf and thermals, but I muse as I work that the central heating back indoors has spoilt us. Not only does it make us softer and more susceptible to winter illnesses when we get a little run down, but it dries out throats and noses and makes sleep elusive. Still, I ask myself if I am really advocating a return to houses like the one in which I spent my childhood, with gas fires and three-bar electric heaters, where only the side of you facing the heat source was warm and to move more than a foot or two away was to be resubmerged in icy cold so thick you could almost see it eddying around you? I don’t think so. I think rather I’m picturing some cosy aga-warmed kitchen of a woodland cabin or farmhouse I’ve never seen, wet boots and gloves drying on the hearth while supper warms in the oven and a kettle sings on top. Fairy tale stuff, but it’s cold and still dark, and spring’s late, so I think I’m allowed a comforting daydream.

Swing {thump}, tread {squish}, lever {thut}, shovel {flump}. I love digging. The sound, the rhythm, the movement. Though I’ve a sneaking suspicion that there might be something in the no-dig method, I've not yet found a way of putting in rabbit fencing without disturbing the soil to at least a spit deep, preferably more, so I feel I can safely complete this job without spectral voices nagging me about damaging the soil structure and the loss of carbon sequestration capacity. Quite apart from which considerations it’s a cracking way to keep warm, so I’ll continue to find many a reason to so occupy myself during the colder months, even if the days of double-, or even single-digging a plot are largely behind us.

Swing {thump}, tread {squish}, lever {thut}, shovel {flump}. I scoop the final mound of earth back into place over the chicken wire barrier, a warm glow steadily spreading through me at the knowledge that my handiwork will keep my clients’ cherished plants un-nibbled this year.

A flake or two of snow has started to fall, and a rabbit scampers over my boot.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The dark side

Spring time. Well, March anyway – time at last for sowing seeds, and the last chance for clearing beds of the rotting bedraggled remnants of last year’s splendour and, in doing so, banishing all memories of a wet and miserable year. Lengthening days, air noisy with the chatter of birds, buds on the brink of bursting, soil warming as the sun gathers strength with every passing day. Gladdened by the prospect of the new year and the end of the long, dark winter, we rashly peal off layers of warm clothing and head for the garden, to be met with ferocious, bitter winds, the coldest March night in 26 years, and three and a half inches of snow. The snow, which started suddenly at half six on Monday morning, continues to fall heavily and apparently, eschewing tradition, almost horizontally, until noon the next day, at which time the sun suddenly appears and begins to melt it away. But by this time we’ve had an evening of travel chaos, schools are closed and gardening plans seriously disrupted.

You’ll pardon us in Kent if we feel confused; the more cautious of us were expecting winter to have a sting in the tail (I may I fear even have predicted it in my last post) but, considering the last couple of weeks have been warm enough to work outside in shirt sleeves, excepting Friday’s torrential rains, it’s hard to plan when the weather is quite so capricious. Suffice to say, it would seem safe to suppose the next week or so will see colder than average temperatures. I wouldn’t mind that if only we could be sure of some decent light – at this time of year, it’s important to resist the temptation of sowing seeds too early and then running the risk of the seedlings going all weak and leggy as they struggle through the gloom. But this is gardening, and there are precious few guarantees. Especially, it would seem, in March.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

The bright side

The morning began cold, damp and murky, with mist lying heavily over the distant hills. A few weeks ago I alluded to a sense that somehow Winter wasn’t quite done with us and now, at the end of February, mornings like these leave us in no doubt that this is still the case, though the daily increasing indicators of Spring’s approach suggest the hivernal grip is slipping.

Maybe we’re in for one last bitter wintery fling before we see the back of that season till the end of the year. But tomorrow is March – when the days grow much longer, and seeds need sowing, and the garden really starts to grow in earnest – and I’m optimistically looking forward to a warm, dry spring.

As I loaded rake, spade and barrow back into Digory at the end of the day, the sun came out.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Fashion in the garden

I don’t know who invented knee-pads, but I’d like to shake them by the hand. Possibly I’d squeeze a little too hard, just as some form of recompense for making the straps on the back of mine too short so that, when fastened sufficiently tightly to prevent them from wandering down my shins and consequently making themselves unavailable to my knees at the very moment of greatest need, they bite into the back of my legs. But, on the whole I’m rather pleased with them, at least after their first day in service. They have kept my knees dry and, most importantly to my mind, warm and isolated from the cold winter ground. There have been several chilly mornings where I’ve almost felt the veins in my kneecaps contract with the cold as I knelt on the frosted soil; the immediate moderate discomfort I can deal with, but the long term effects have to be considered as a jobbing gardener. If you want to keep at this into your old age, I tell myself, you need to remain bendy, or at least as bendy as you’ve ever been. I now feel liberated – freed from the tyranny of the waterproof trousers which I seem to have been wearing for months, irrespective of whether or not it’s actually been raining. Hard as it might seem to believe there have been quite a few dry days, at least in terms of precipitation, although the the ground has remained stubbornly, knee-soakingly soggy, something which the overgarments were supposed to counter. Inevitably they didn’t; they might be good at keeping off the rain and snow while walking, but prolonged contact with wet ground under pressure from several stone of solid gardener invariably results in the dampness eventually seeping through. That, and the combined efforts of bramble and briar have shredded several pairs into ribbons.

While on the subject of workaday fashion, I’ve also decided to wear eye protection whenever I’m in the garden now, which means finding a pair of safety glasses which look less like goggles stolen from a school chemistry lab, and more like spectacles. I’ve more or less succeeded, but they’re still larger than normal glasses. And then there’s the hat. Several of the gardens I work in are large, rural and exposed, which puts me at the mercy of an often bitingly chill wind, and so a trapper style hat, with faux fur flaps (which I think of as ears), seemed to be a good idea. It seems to be doing the job, but at what price? With the safety specs, I now look like an unholy cross between Ali Gee and Rowlf the piano playing dog from the Muppet Show. With knee pads.

It’s a look.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Notes from the greenhouse

11.5°C in the greenhouse, 7.5°C outside

You know that glorious winter’s day we carry about in our heads; cold, crisp, and golden with sunshine? It was today – and although it’s never a hardship working in the garden, this afternoon it was a positive pleasure. And so, while Emma got stuck in to weeding the veg patch (rhubarb peaking through the soil here; fat, deep pink stems starting to swell), I made for the greenhouse.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Reasons to be cheerful...



Wednesday, 30 January 2013

A jade’s trick

Yesterday the weather played a trick on us. Unusually mild and fresh and bright and, although at one point a dark cloud overhead brought with it a brief rain shower, half an hour later the sun and the breeze had dried everything out. The best kind of rain. The strongly gusting wind, so usually an annoyance, merely seemed to be blowing away all memories of a sodden summer, followed by a wet winter. For the first time in months I returned to the van at the end of the day with clean tools, and all night long the hearth remained unadorned with a pair of sodden, mud caked and gently steaming gloves.

Of course, the soggy weather is back today. Still mild, still windy, but now whipping the rain into your eyes no matter which way direction you face. Fools, says the Winter. Did you think Spring had come early? I’m not done with you yet.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The ostrich and the beaver

There are those who would seek to persuade you that there’s nothing to be done in the garden over winter. Pay them no heed. They are for the most part misguided, although several are bonkers and one in particular has that “Mwaha-HA!” laugh that tends to accompany delusions of a nature not conducive to the wellbeing of society at large. I have noticed that, whatever their peculiar motivation, they who espouse hivernal gardening abstinence fall into one of two categories, and can therefore be designated as either ostrich, or beaver.