Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Waiting for the snow

It is the middle of January, and still we have had no snow here in south Wiltshire. All that may change on Friday, as heavy falls are forecast, but I will believe it when I see it. The press and broadcasters get so excited at the prospect of snow (or any other 'different' weather: different, that is, from grey, cloudy, damp days) and cry 'wolf! wolf!' with such enthusiastic vigour: almost always to be disappointed. Twice this winter I have seen 'Daily Express' headlines predicting (on the Met Office's authority, it appeared) extreme cold - and neither time did it materialise. 

[I feel bound to point out that my knowledge of the 'Daily Express' is confined to (a) what I glean whilst waiting in the queue at the newsagent's to buy other papers, and (b) ongoing resentment and bewilderment that Rupert continues to feature in the rag, when he clearly belongs somewhere more respectable]. 

Out in the garden, though, it has been cold these past couple of days. Today I had to admit reluctant defeat when I lost the sensation in my finger-ends whilst tending to a client's garden. With gloves on I could keep the circulation flowing, but was unable properly to do the fiddly weeding and tidying needed; with gloves off I quickly lost control of the fingers. So I was forced back home and indoors to do 'indoor' jobs - reading Joy Larkcom's book 'Just Vegetating' (a pleasure indeed), leafing through magazines and seed catalogues, day-dreaming about the season to come...all ways to avoid what really needed doing: tax return, bills etc.

Signs of life are there, though. Bulbs are visible here and there: though never as many as I remember planting. Buds too are starting to appear on shrubs and trees. The large Fatsia japonica which looked so utterly dejected at 7am, had perked up again as the sun shone and the temperature rose above zero. In fact, the temperature in my garden reached zero at 3pm - just as it started to go dark...

Will the snow come? We will see...

Friday, 23 November 2012

Stormy Weather

Last night was ferociously windy. Rain lashed against the windows for hours, and left everything sodden. Garden bags ended up blown all over the place. And the final few leaves have been torn from the trees in the garden. But it is the sodden-ness which is the lasting thing, rain falling on rain, soil and fallen leaves alike turned to mush and mud. It makes any heavy work distinctly unpleasant, and potentially damaging - treading on grass or soil in these conditions churns and compacts in equal measure: not good as we head towards what ought to be some cold and frosty times through the winter. The ground needs to be open to the elements, not squished and flattened underfoot. 

One thing I did achieve yesterday, gales notwithstanding, was to acquire two new clients. One of them is in need of a quick garden-tidy ahead of the winter. The garden is small, but quite well-planted with shrubs and climbers. It won't take a huge amount of work, but it has the potential to be really nice come the spring. It's a bit late to get some bulbs in for the owner, but we'll see.

The other garden is larger, and very much a 'play garden' with plenty of grass, a few shrubs around the edges, and two areas of paved patio. This client wants me to garden sit for 6 months while they are abroad. The main task is to ensure that the garden doesn't resemble the interior of the Amazon rainforest when they return. Again, keeping on top of it ought not to be too taxing, but I'd like to think I can introduce a few improvements and nice touches while I am at it.

An old client has asked me to plant up some soft fruit for him: a good job for this time of year, as long as it doesn't stay too wet. I dislike putting plants in the ground when it absolutely soaking, as it's not good for many, and disastrous for lots. However, I can get on with preparing the ground and getting some manure dug-in while I wait for the plants to arrive. I have gone for a mixture of fruit to supplement the early-fruiting raspberries which are already well-established - to extend the cropping season, and to introduce some different varieties. So, autumn-fruiting raspberry 'Autumn Bliss' is top of the list. I grow this at the allotment, and it does well hereabouts, cropping well into October. The I have gone for blackcurrant 'Ben Connan', redcurrant 'Rovada', and whitecurrant 'Blanka' which all fruit July/August. Gooseberry 'Xenia' and a Casseille complete the patch for the moment. The client and I disagree a bit about strawberries - he's not bothered, but I tend to think they are de rigeur in a soft fruit patch. Still, we can always revisit that question in the spring: and it is his call, of course. 

Otherwise, it's clearing and tidying time in the gardens I look after - again, not a job that is much fun in these soggy conditions. I have built a leaf-cage at the allotment, and am taking as many leaves as possible up there, from my own and other people's gardens. I'm slightly ashamed at not having done this before, but better late than never. Mind you, there are plenty of leaves to spare, and I have mulched some beds in my own garden with them - the yellow and gold lifts the appearance of the beds and makes it easier to see what plants are growing too.

Which reminds me, having destroyed (or so I naively thought) the ancient yuccas in part of the garden last year, ahead of replanting it, I now discover that the green shoots of yucca recovery are poking through in many places. The shoots are small, bright green, and not unattractive in their way - easy to spot, and easy to remove. Tough old beggars they are, though.

Finally for now, garden reading piles up. I have been reading Christopher Lloyd's The Well-Tempered Garden which I know I ought to have read long-ago - shamefully it seems to be out-of-print. Whatever happened to that series of Garden Classics that Bloomsbury started publishing a decade or so ago? I have four on the shelves - Cobbett's English Gardener, Ann Scott James Down to Earth, William Robinson's English Flower Garden and Michael Pollan's Second Nature. But they seemed to disappear after that promising and eclectic start. There is certainly need to keep classic gardening books in print - publishers please note. Most second-hand bookshops' gardening sections are stuffed full of Readers' Digest books and other equally unattractive and dated stuff - seldom do you find really good books.

Anyhow, Christopher Lloyd is always good value, and I am learning lots from The Well-Tempered Garden - a wonderful title too. I also have Dan Pearson's Home Ground: sanctuary in the city sitting in the queue: a much more attractive book to look at, but I am confident it will be just as inspiring to read.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Winter over the horizon

The garden has turned. What looked, until a few days ago, still green and alive has now gone over into yellows, ochres and browns. Light levels have been low for several days, because of the season, but also because of the persistently dingy weather: layer upon layer of weak cloud, mist, drizzle. This has finally put paid to any thoughts of a bright autumnal bloom. Winter is on its way, and the best we can do it to keep ahead of its onward march. 

Sunday was a busy day in the garden at home, starting the winter preparations. I moved lots of things into the - currently unheated - greenhouse. This is as much about stopping them getting too wet for the moment as it is about protecting them from the cold: we have only had one frost, and that a mild one, so far.

Pots of Agapanthus, which never did very well this year, have been safely stowed and mulched with potting grit. Likewise, pots of herbs - parsely, thyme, sweet marjoram and sorrel - which will provide some green on the plate in coming months. 

A few weeks ago I sowed Watercress seeds in a large pot which does not have drainage holes, and compost which remains permanently damp. They have done very well indeed, and offer a nice peppery garnish for meals and sandwiches. What I failed to do was to follow-up with a second, successional, sowing, so the crop will not last for ever. But that makes it all the tastier for now.

I have also brought lots of small perennials under cover. These have been grown variously from seed, cuttings and plugs, and are stock for next year's plantings. But they are vulnerable to getting too cold and wet if left outdoors. Keeping them in the greenhouse allows me to keep an eye on them all in one place, and to keep the watered but not too damp. 

Finally, some lovely Pelargoniums (courtesy of Sarah Raven's nursery) have been brought in for protection. They didn't flower all that much in this, their first, season, but have grown into handsome plants, and I look forward to a good display next year, They are 'Venetian-flowered' types - Lord Bute, Mystery and April Hamilton - rich and velvety in hue. 

Sweet Peas, sowed in root-trainers a couple of weeks ago, are doing well under glass. I pinched the tops out to promote sturdier growth, especially as the light fades and they might straggle upwards otherwise.

On Friday I received a packet of plugs - Hollyhock Alcea Halo Mixed - on trial from Thompson and Morgan. I potted them out into a home-made compost/vermiculite mixture, and they are having a few days outdoors for now while they get established. I have grown these before myself, but it will be good to watch more carefully and precisely how they get on. I am, after all, duty-bound to report back on their progress to the ever-helpful Marilyn at T&M.

Allotment-wise, I have sown a mixed Green Manure on some of the raised beds: the first time I have tried this. As of last week, it was showing good growth, although so were the weeds - couch grass being the worst and most persistent offender. A load of well-rotted compost arrived too, so that it being applied to the empty beds after I have cleared them and given them a thorough hand-weed. It's lovely warm and rich stuff, from a supplier I'd not used before - and he gives a discount to members of the local Allotment Association to boot.

Finally for today, I am thrilled to see that Monty Don's first book - The Prickotty Bush - is to be reissued in December by Harvill Press. In her interview with the Don a couple of years ago Kate Kellaway described it as one of her favourite gardening books, and ripe for a reprint - well her wish has come true! And for me, as well as offering the delight of reading more of the Don's excellent prose on winter evenings, it will complete my collection of his published works.

Friday, 19 October 2012

New phones for old

A mobile phone is fairly essential for someone self-employed and out and about a lot. I had been getting on fine with my Nokia handset, especially as it had a proper keyboard. However, the lure of getting apps onto my phone proved too much, and I have upgraded (sic - phone company speak) to a Samsung smartphone. 

The two apps I really wanted to get hold of were:
(1) Birdtrack which allows me to record bird sightings on the hoof, and upload them to the BTO - so not only can I keep records of my own, but I can - in a tiny way - contribute to ornithological research along the way.
(2) Instagram. I know everyone's dog is using this, and has been for months, but it does please me that I can take quirky retro-styled photographs and upload them to Twitter so easily. What is the appeal of a picture that looks as though it had been taken 35 years ago and then left pinned to a noticeboard ever since? I don't know, but there is one...

Paper Camera is also good fun - again, why one needs to produce Warhol-esque images at the press of a button beats me, but there is a guilty joy to be had. Quirky avatars being not the least of it...

However, I have also loaded some plant/gardening apps which I didn't even know about - Garden Mentor is not infallible, and nor is it a comprehensive database, but it is useful enough to be going on with. If the developers keep adding content to it, it could become a really useful tool. Will the RHS follow suit with a really top-notch Android app?

I can't quite get on with face recognition either. Sometimes it works brilliantly, and life feels like 'World of Wonder' magazine said (in 1971) it would be in 2012. Other times the bloody thing doesn't know who I am at all, blanks me completely and resorts to some weird finger-waving procedure to unlock itself. I swear it's all in the expression - if I look wide-eyed and slightly pleading, the phone responds: if I adopt a more assertive, nay surly, look it doesn't want to know. Now I've put it that way, I can sympathise...

One perennial problem, of course, is that gardening means mucky hands, which don't go well with a shiny new smartphone!

Right, have to go and do the school run now. Speak soon.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Where's he been then...?

I had almost given up on blogging, but thought I'd try to get back into the discipline as the days shorten and opportunities for actual gardening start to wane. It was dark, to all intents and purposes, at half-past five this afternoon as gloom and rain descended for the night. Not good.

It was a busy summer, if a wet one. What this has meant is that the garden is looking very lush and green for this time of year. Usually, on returning from our annual family fortnight by the sea in lovely North Norfolk, the garden is looking a bit dessicated and never fully recovers before the autumnal tidy. This year, there is plenty of green, and colour, to be seen still. And it is the same in other gardens. I remember this time last year, when cutting back and clearing for the winter was already underway (although, of course, we didn't actually get a winter to speak of in the end).

New clients have continued to emerge, without having had to advertise, and I am now fully occupied for the three full days a week I can work. Most gratifyingly, the work I had been doing over the summer holiday at Wyndham Park School has paid off, and the Library Garden is looking really good. Following the ideas suggested by the Headteacher, I have created a number of discrete areas within the space around the new octagonal Library building: a herb garden, wildflower meadow, beach garden, bee & butterfly garden, rockery, and a more traditional herbaceous border.

Left: the wildflower meadow in June 2012

Left: the newly-planted herb garden in June 2012

I will be back at the school tomorrow,  all being well, getting some bulbs in for spring and starting to tidy-up a bit. I have got various different wildflower/meadow seed mixes to try out, so need to clear some spaces and sow these. It will be interesting to see which flourish and which struggle. 

The site is very rough ground indeed: Wiltshire downland chalk and flint, compounded by any amount of builders' rubble from the original school building and the library building last year. It's also pretty windy and exposed, so planting choices have to be fairly robust and able to deal with dry conditions. It would be great to make a 'jungle' garden with some exotics - canna, banana etc - but short of building some quite extensive sheltering fences I am not sure it's practical... we'll see.

There, that wasn't so difficult, was it?

Monday, 9 July 2012

The SADness of summer

Is there any light at the end of the tunnel that is this summer?

When I decided to go into horticulture as a job as well as a hobby, the allure of being outside was an important factor. The thought that I could store up as much sunlight as possible during nine or ten months of work each year, enough to see me through the dark of midwinter, was hugely appealing. For too many years I had travelled to and from work in the semi-darkness, only to spend the daylight hours indoors, under artificial lights. And in the months of GMT that often meant seeing precious little sunshine from one week to the next. None of which was good for me.

This spring and summer were supposed to be the start of a new dispensation, one in which the rhythms and cycles of nature would have a daily impact on me. No longer would I be insulated or cocooned from the natural world of weather and seasons, but they would start to dictate my working (and non-working) life to an unprecedented degree.

Well, of course, that has happened. But not in the way I imagined. Yes, I have become completely immersed in the changing seasons and the fickleness of the weather, a slave to the forecasts and the barometer. However, this has coincided with the most unpleasant and unforgiving spell of spring/summer weather I can remember. Low light levels and overcast gloom have predominated for weeks now, to say nothing of the persistent rain. I find myself suffering from what I can only call summer-SAD. And the cure, getting out into a garden – mine or a client’s – and working, is frequently denied to me by the cause. I don’t mind working in the rain: but there is little pleasure to be had in it, huddled in waterproofs, head down towards the soil, no sun on one’s back. Seeds planted early to steal a march on the season perished long ago in the wet, cold soil. Plants remain stunted and unhappy because of the lack of light and warmth. Those that have done well have suffered a battering at the hands of torrential rain and blustery wind for weeks.

How low are my sunlight-batteries going to be come the end of the year, I ask myself anxiously? If I go into the winter in deficit, how much of a lux-deficit can I sustain? I can only hope that the remaining summer will improve, and that we may experience a sunny August/September (even October?), the sort of late summer weather we have had in a few recent years.

And yet I am still optimistic and positive about being a gardener. There is nothing like it, and I am as happy as I have ever been. If I can handle this summer, I tell myself, anything approaching a ‘normal’ year will be (in Raymond Carver’s lovely phrase) ‘pure gravy’.