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’.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

May, bloody May...

It is raining steadily outside, as it has been for most of the past 6 weeks or so. It is supposed to be the spring, but it has been sodden and cold, dark and dreary as far back as the Equinox. This induces in me an unfamiliar gloominess, one that I associate with the long nights of midwinter, not this season of growth and uplift. Having wintered well, and managed to avoid the worst of winter’s dark hounds, it is not good to feel like this when summer is just over the horizon.

The garden grows, and long thirsted-for rain is bringing on a surge in the borders. Digitalis clutch towards the sky before one’s eyes, and there are bluebells and tulips for colour now that the yellow of daffs, Forsythia and Primulas have faded. And there is blossom on apple trees and hawthorns. But still, the mud and drizzle mean that forays into the garden are hurried, scuttling between house, greenhouse and potting shed, no time to stand (let alone, sit) and fully appreciate what is going-on.

At the allotment, which started with great energy and enthusiasm in the weeks before Easter, cold and wet have taken their toll. Whole sowings of early crops have disappeared into the cold, wet earth; those plants (Broad Beans, for instance) which were brought on early and planted out in late March, have scarcely grown since – and who can blame them. A few brave salad potatoes have shown through, but the anticipation of eating them on a warm evening in the garden seems sadly misplaced.

Work for other people has also been hard to manage, with today being the 4th consecutive Wednesday I have had to write-off because of the poor weather. On the other hand -  come on, indulge in a little optimism – growth in general has been held back, so lawns and borders are not yet in need of full-on attention each week.

I am particularly bothered by the garden I am working on for the friends whose Silver Wedding falls in late June. All the plants I have put in so far have struggled to make much headway, and things are running behind somewhat. I know that, if all else fails, I can be there on the morning of their  party with ‘instant’ bedding to create some sort of effect – but it will not be the silver and blue herbaceous mélange that I had intended and promised…

Oh, unseasonal gloom – get away with you…bring me sunshine!

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Mmm...and now April's half over

Any excuses for failing to post anything in a month? Not really...bit busy, week's holiday in the Lake District, but otherwise should have been able to make time. Never mind.

The garden is looking good now that there's been a combination of rain and new planting. There is still a  huge pile of shrub cuttings sitting on the lawn to be recycled, and I do worry that birds will start nesting in there, which would mean they could not be touched for  many weeks - with a fair wind I will get them shifted this week. Speaking of nesting birds, our robins appear to have raised at least one chick: it looks about a week or so out of the nest, so it must have fledged over Easter. Ma and Pa are certainly both busy to-ing and fro-ing with food, and nearly take my hand off when I pop out first thing in the morning with a fistful of suet pellets [you can see why Sergio Leone passed on that one...].

View from YHA Ambleside
Easter week was spent in the Lake District, based at YHA Ambleside. What a location: if this was a 'commercial' hotel you'd pay a lot for the stunning view across Windermere to Bowfell and Crinkle Crags, to say nothing of the lake itself, and the amazing sunsets - which we enjoyed from both our family room and the dining room. The staff were uniformly friendly and helpful, and the food was filling and tasty - not a bad selection of local beers in the bar either. Weather was par for April in Cumbria: one day of steady rain, but all the rest were no worse than 'showery'. There was a nice sprinkling of snow on the higher fells which made for some cracking views. Good birding, with common crossbills, dipper, treecreepers spotted on walks at Aira Force and Tarn Hows: and twenty-odd swallows dipping and weaving over Windermere one evening, as if revelling in the end of their long journey...except that they were gone next day, so must have just stopped off en route for Scotland perhaps.

Wee girl turned three while we were away, and started nursery school yesterday: she is growing up apace.

I was supposed to be back to work today, but the heavy thundery showers may put paid to  that: I think some more sowing of annuals is called for. There are already dozens of  perennials waiting to be planted, both here and in clients' gardens, all enjoying a good soaking, and some veg seedlings coming along well in the greenhouse. Some early spuds I put in about three weeks ago are already sprouting vigorously in the sacks here at home: the allotment crop are a little bit behind for now. Oh, the joy to come of salad potatoes fresh from the soil!

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Where is March going?

Crikey, it's mid-March and the clocks are a week away from changing, how did that happen? It has been, in the words of the great Garrison Keillor (sort of), a busy week in constant gardener land.

People have clearly got the sense of spring in their veins as I have been gathering new clients/projects busily for the past ten days or so. Very gratifyingly, this looks like keeping me busy for the spring at least, and it will be a help when the wee girl starts nursery-school after Easter and I have a bit more flexibility with my working hours. And, of course, the days will be longer which helps.

Last weekend was fantastic here, warm sunshine and a real feeling of growth in the air. I spent all day Saturday at the allotment, getting raised beds in good order, planting some early potatoes, and re-roofing the shed. I have decided that gardening is an occupation better pursued on all fours, nose down in the earth where you can see and feel what's going on: maybe that's why I don't really regard lawn-mowing as a gardening activity? Certainly it's best done standing up... But everything else is about getting your hands mucky and some soil under the fingernails.

Having got a good stint at the allotment done on Saturday, I spent Sunday in the garden here at home doing a 'spring clean' of the big beds. Long overdue it was too. I have only recently realised how timid I have long been as a gardener, and conversely, how satisfying it is to be bold and make some significant changes every now and then. So several long-standing shrubs, which had got very woody and tatty, came under the loppers, and masses of bare earth emerged from the gloom ready for some new and more lively planting.

Incidentally, is there a proper name for all the dead strawy-stuff that accumulates in herbaceous borders over winter - bits of last summer's growth which have died-back and lie strewn about? Often it's been semi-deliberately left for overwintering bug purposes etc, but simply makes the beds look untidy come the spring. To myself I call it 'scrat' - I'm not sure why, but it may be that one clears it whilst 'scratting around' in the beds, or that the plants which generate it are often 'scratty' - or maybe both. Either way, in the absence of a better word, 'scrat' it is.

I also entered the lists against my old foe Ground Elder, which is starting to poke through here and there. What a persistent blighter it is, but I quite enjoy our annual trench warfare, especially as I finally (after many years) seem to be winning. Unconvinced by its culinary potential, I do seek to beat it into submission with my bare hands. I'm told it tastes like parsley, but I never wanted to have beds full of parsley in my garden either...

So, after two days, I have a lawn heaped with shrub-cuttings - which will go to the recycling centre today, all being well - but apart from that a much happier-looking garden: and a much happier gardener.

PS I discovered that watching Gardeners' World on iPlayer on Sunday night was a much more relaxing experience than watching it live. Looking back on a weekend's gardening done is so satisfying.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

A drizzly Saturday morning (remember them?)

This week saw some more planting in the front garden, which is now looking really good. There is a feeling of structure to it now, but still plenty of space for more plants as the season moves on. The back garden looks a bit neglected by comparison, probably because it has been, so that's the next thing to tackle. I know that, left to its own devices, it would look perfectly good by midsummer - it always does - but I am itching for change. In particular the first lawn, which has never been a success, is in my sights for treatment: the grass (mostly moss at the moment) is to go, and a gravel garden will replace it. Last night I had the idea of trying to incorporate a pond too: not sure it will work, but I will think about it. Ponds are such good value, especially for children, and our present one is tiny, if frog-filled.

My wee girl's birthday present is to be a playhouse in the garden, so a base for that needs to be constructed. Fortunately there is a good spot for it, with little or nothing growing (a horseradish will need moving, and a few naturalised primroses which can go into the front, but that's all). It will be tucked in behind the apple tree and against a fence with Jasminus growing over it, so should feel a bit 'secret' for her. She is very keen on 'houses' of one sort and another, so this will make it more fun for her to play in the garden while I work in the greenhouse nearby.

Have been busy in other folk's gardens this week, and making the most of some glorious afternoons - it's been misty and murky here in the mornings. A huge Buddleia davidii came under the loppers yesterday (actually a triple-pronged attack of  loppers, pruning saw and secateurs), necessitating several journeys to the recycling centre. I have an enormous pile of cuttings to remove from another garden too, which has built up since the autumn, and now needs moving ahead of some fence being replaced behind it: said fence is leaning at an alarming angle, though not due to the rubbish, which is simply in the way.

My most exciting project at the moment is pulling together a garden in preparation for the owners' Silver Wedding celebrations in June, which coincides with the daughter's 21st birthday - so a big outdoor bash is planned I think. Anyway, I have carte blanche and the brief is simply to make the garden look as attractive as possible by the end of June. I imagine this is a bit like it feels to do a show garden: everything has to be at its best by a certain date. But with the additional need for whatever I do to be sustainable thereafter, it's not a stage set, it's their garden. My head is buzzing with ideas and thoughts - what a welcome feeling.

Today was to be an odd-jobs day here and on the allotment, but  may have to reschedule the odd one until a dry day. But the feeling of drizzly rain is terrific, we do need days and days of it - hard though it is on Mrs G and the boy who have been stuck indoors all week, and need some  fresh air.

Was reading some pieces in Ruth Petrie's Notes from the Garden last night - a collection of gardening articles from The Guardian. I had forgotten all about the Percy Thrower scandal, when he was sacked from Gardener's World for doing ICI adverts - but I had also forgotten that he only presented GW for 7 years, it seemed like he was there forever when I was watching as a small boy. I do remember that the scandal was quite a talking point at the time, especially in conversation with older relatives, of which there was a lot in those days. Christopher Lloyd's contributions made me laugh out loud a few times - not something that can be said of much garden writing - but my favourite was a brief review of Derek Jarman's Garden from 1995. The description of photographer Howard Sooley, whose photographs illustrate the book (which I don't actually have, but will now look for), is glorious: "Sooley himself...looking like a giraffe that has stared long and hard at a photograph of Virginia Woolf." I have no idea what Howard Sooley actually looks like, but I think I would know him anywhere...

PS there are some lovely photos of Narcissus at

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Quick Sunday morning thoughts before heading off to Marwell Wildlife for the day. Clear sky and sun: lovely (not least as Marwell can be a bit - actually, a lot - chilly on a day with any wind). 

Had a good afternoon at the allotment yesterday. Having done a lot of weeding of the raised beds last November, they remain remarkably weed-free, and the soil is in great shape. Still not warm enough to pass the bare-bottom test (I didn't actually try, but used my palm as a buttock-substitute) but getting there. Got any remainding groundsel, couch grass and dandelions out, but otherwise the weed front was not too bad at all. The last of the Jerusalem Artichokes came out too, but they were fairly wormy - so into the compost they went.

Sadly, there was no opportunity to get any over-winter crops in last autumn, so nothing to harvest, but it does mean there's a blank canvas for this season. I need to attend to this  in the autumn this year, as a dearth of home-grown veg sits unhappily with the annual New Year/Lenten commitment to more greens and less protein. 

Also dug in the bag-ends of fb&b uncovered when we cleared and reordered the shed (lovely job - no, I mean it). 

Some of the raised beds are showing their age and need some patching-up: and the shed has lost its felting - so  the most pressing jobs are distinctly non-horticultural, nor very child-friendly, so will have to wait until a day without wee daughter in tow. The raised beds have done a good few seasons, and the oldest ones were not built from the most robust of timber. The wee daughter - and the not-so-wee boy - love the allotment, and left Mrs Gardener and me to get on yesterday very happily, collecting worms in the wheelbarrow, digging up artichokes, making 'molehills', and looking for frogspawn, slow worms, and lizards around the place. 

All this for less than £20 a year: thank you, Salisbury City Council.

Mrs G and a well-earned snack

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Saturday morning. Mrs Gardener is still asleep bless her, the childerwigs are breakfasted and playing happily - something to do with going on a boat journey, which has taken over the sitting room with blankets and cuddly toys: what fun! So I can sneak to the laptop with a cup of coffee and catch up on the past few days' goings-on.

Outside in the slowly-lightening garden one of the robins is singing with great gusto. They know, don't they, that spring is here. They've moved their nest site slightly, just around the corner of the house into another bit of the doomed ivy: maybe this time the nest will be used? It's been a poor winter for birds in the garden - good for them, of course, as they've clearly not been all that reliant on our feeders - but poor for sightings. Three blackcaps have been present through most of the winter, two males and a female, which is good: I wonder if one of the males was born here, and has hung around with his parents. But, as with so many so-called 'resident' birds, the likelihood is that these are migrants, and not the 'summer' birds at all. Maybe our garden has a reputation all across western Europe in the blackcap community!

Worrying stuff in the news about water shortages. I do agree with Adam Pasco on the Gardeners' World blog, that gardeners are generally (these days) highly water-conscious, and much less likely to waste water than many other people. I haven't  used a hosepipe in our garden for ages (thanks, Monty Don for the encouragement there), and they are absolutely verboten at the allotment of course. And yet 'hosepipe ban' is synonymous with 'drought' in this country. Having said this, my own garden's capacity to capture, store and use rainwater is severely limited: something I need to attend to. Maybe these early warnings of a dry year will spur me on at last. I'll also need to talk to clients about how we deal with water restrictions in their gardens.

Speaking of which, I may have picked-up a nice piece of work through Mrs G's yoga teacher, who wants her new garden planted-up. It would be nice to create a 'yoga garden' - I am thinking of a mixture of meditative and contemplative space, with physicality and strength, shape and control. Watch this space.

I finally got the new shrubs planted in my front garden on Wednesday, finishing off just as it started to rain, so they at least got underway with a decent drink. Sambuca Black Beauty, Cornus Alba, and Prunus Ko-Jo No Mai are all new to my garden. But the best of them has to be Lonicera Fragrantissima, which has a fantastic scent: I look forward to many deep lungfuls of it as I walk up to the front door after a hard day's work. Lovely. 

Nothing can beat the scent of 'Old Man' though, with the added joy of knowing that Edward Thomas had just such a plant next to his front door in Steep a hundred years ago, inspiring one of the greatest of plant poems:

Old Man, or Lads-Love, - in the name there’s nothing
To one that knows not Lads-Love, or Old Man,
The hoar green feathery herb, almost a tree,
Growing with rosemary and lavender.
Even to one that knows it well, the names
Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is:
At least, what that is clings not to the names
In spite of time. And yet I like the names.

The herb itself I like not, but for certain
I love it, as someday the child will love it
Who plucks a feather from the door-side bush
Whenever she goes in or out of the house.
Often she waits there, snipping the tips and shrivelling
The shreds at last on to the path,
Thinking perhaps of nothing, till she sniffs
Her fingers and runs off. The bush is still
But half as tall as she, though it is not old;
So well she clips it. Not a word she says;
And I can only wonder how much hereafter
She will remember, with that bitter scent,
Of garden rows, and ancient damson trees
Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door
A low thick bush beside the door, and me
Forbidding her to pick.
As for myself,
Where first I met the bitter scent is lost.
I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds,
Sniff them and think and sniff again and try
Once more to think what it is I am remembering,
Always in vain. I cannot like the scent,
Yet I would rather give up others more sweet,
With no meaning, than this bitter one.
I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray
And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing;
Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait
For what I should, yet never can, remember;
No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush
Of Lad’s-love, or Old Man, no child beside,
Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;
Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.

(Edward Thomas)

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Here in Wiltshire we are still awaiting the mini-heatwave that is apparently due any hour now...this morning is still chilly and, for the first time in a while, quite breezy, which keeps it feeling cooler still. 

I have a day to myself, and a list of jobs as long as both my arms. I also have a stinking headache. This may be the product of a late evening glass of red wine, my last before commencing Lent. Or could it be Bay poisoning - there were a lot in the stew I cooked last night? I think Bay poisoning is unlikely, and will keep reminding myself of the way my head feels if I get any yearning for a crafty pint during the next forty days and nights.

The accumulation of pot-grown shrubs which has carried on over the past weeks is getting ridiculous, so one major job today is to get them planted while the soil is warmer, and there is rain forecast. That will finish off the redesigned front garden for now, until (home-grown) perennials start to go in a bit later - most are in the greenhouse and will need a bit of exposure to the outside world before I put them in. I have to say that the laying-out of plants in pots, and fiddling around with the arrangement, is a great pleasure - even though first instincts generally prove right, however many subsequent permutations one goes through.

The robin in our ivy persists with its (I think his) nesting activity, which started before Christmas. Unless part of the nest has collapsed during the past two months and needed rebuilding, it ought to be huge by now, as he's been making very regular flights to deliver nest material. Sadly it can't be seen properly from inside or outside the house - sadly for us, that is, not for the robin who's clearly found a nice secluded spot tucked in behind the ivy. What the robin does not know is that the ivy is due to be removed, and is already pretty dead since I cut through its main trunk in the autumn. With luck the robins will nest early and then I can get on with taking it down completely - obviously, while they're there it can't be touched. 

More garden magazines have arrived this week - all full of what to do in March already...we risk wishing the year away so soon if we're not careful.

Right, I need to get on and can't stay at the laptop all morning: jobs to do!

Friday, 17 February 2012

Saturday evening....

Having enjoyed a pint of Shepherd Neame's delicious Christmas Ale with my supper, I have spent the rest of  the evening footling about on Twitter. How strangely compulsive it is. My thought was to use it alongside this blog, as a way of supplementing the content and, in particular, of documenting some of the more trivial (yet interesting) bits of the day. But I fear I may end up spending far longer on it than I can afford. After all, this stuff is meant to be an adjunct to my daily work, not the daily work itself. No-one pays me for tweeting.
The main problem is the WILF phenomenon ('While I am Looking For' or 'What was I Looking For?') which afflicts all web activity. The threads take you off in all kinds of compelling directions, leaving you stranded several  minutes later with no idea of how you got where you are, nor of where you thought you wanted to be  in the first place. Which would be dreadful - were it not so enjoyable.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Lovely morning here in Salisbury. A happy couple of hours pottering, literally: cleaning-up and tidying some of the over-wintered pots. Quite a few of last summer's annuals had finally succumbed to the freezing weather of the past couple of weeks, and went in the compost. But elsewhere, more excitingly, green shoots start to appear. Several outdoor pots of chives are poking through and, when the dead leaves of last season are cleared away, cranesbills, Alchemilla mollis and others are showing signs of new life: all this together with some sunshine on your back, and vigorous robin's song from the silver birch tree, makes for a real sense that spring is arriving.

Had a fairly robust go at the very rambly privet in the back garden, which - when I look closely - has shifted its centre of growth about a yard from the main stem. I think too severe a cut-back might be too risky so am bringing it back towards the vertical, and reducing its height by the recommended 1/3. We will see how it does. What it certainly has done is to open up the surrounding bed, so there is room for some more interesting planting. It is quite a dark, north-facing bed though, so options will be rather limited - the 'far' end away from the house is quite damp, and Angelica archangelica sets itself freely there every year. A lovely plant, angelica, which I first grew next to the pond in my parents' garden thirty years ago, and of which I am very fond.The advice is always to stop it seeding if you want to keep the plant, but it seeds so well that I just let it get on with things, and there are always a good number of new plants to carry on the succession.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Just been reading Collected Poems by Frances Horovitz. Fantastic stuff. The sequence of poems about prehistoric sites is wonderful:but there is nothing less than good in this (all too brief) collection. I saw that it's being reissued by Bloodaxe Books in their latest catalogue - and this prompted me to take another look.  
There is a brief selection of clips of Frances H reading here 

I remember being introduced to her by my mother, which must have been in the late 70s when FH was a frequent broadcaster and reader. I think she was probably the first living poet I was aware of, perhaps along with John Betjeman (in his late 'cuddly national treasure' phase, appearances on Parkinson et al). And I remember - and deeply regret - missing the opportunity to meet Ted Hughes, who did a reading at the girls' school when I was in the 6th Form - and I was stuck in bed with a throat abcess...

“What a good use of life, to leave behind one beautiful book” (John Updike on Wallace Stevens)

Monday, 13 February 2012


After some bitterly cold days, culminating on Saturday morning with a low of -9 degrees in the garden here, it's warmer today. We were in Oxford on Saturday, and spent most of the day in the Ashmolean Museum ( keeping warm and being enlightened at the same time. I'd not been since the huge new building and re-configuring of the exhibition spaces, and I have to say it was fantastic. The blend between the original building and the new space is virtually seamless, and one keeps coming across unexpected glimpses of other floors and galleries which is a total contrast to the 'old' museum. Slightly sad to see some well-loved displays have gone - all those pale wood glass cabinets full of prehistoric stone tools carefully hand-labelled - but overall a vast improvement, though there is (or seems to be) less material on display overall? One is frequently advised to spend a lot of time in a museum or gallery looking at just one painting or artefact, but that seems hard to do in practice, especially when one is an infrequent visitor. Even so, we spent a long time on a few rooms and did not even visit two whole floors, so plenty for the next visit. A dearth of garden-related material - though of course the museum has its roots in collections amassed by the John Tradescants (father and son), who were gardeners and plant collectors (everything-collectors, I fancy).

Friday, 10 February 2012

The snow did come. Overnight we had quite a covering. I peered out at about 2am and it looked fantastic, but by this morning it's melted away from any hard surfaces like paths. Plenty remains on the grass and beds though. No sledging to school this morning unfortunately. Maybe we will have some more over the half-term holiday, and finally get the sledge out?
And the shops who have been displaying sledges since October might finally shift some. The drastic sale reductions in places like Blacks and Millets, which presage their closure (here we are losing one and keeping the other, apparently), are good news for stocking up on outdoor/gardening clothes. But it's bad news for the high street and the local economy generally (even though those two stores are a chain - we also lost an independent outdoor shop a couple of weeks ago). I always feel a bit like a vulture when sniffing out bargains in shops that are having (genuine) closing down sales: when, I ask myself, did you last go in and buy something there at full price? And when will nurseries and independent garden centres start to go the same way...?

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Well, we have finally had a few days that feel like 'winter'. Long, cold nights followed by days either bright and sunny or (more frequently) drab and grey. Not a lot of activity in the garden, beyond ensuring that the bird feeders and water supply are kept topped-up. There've been more birds since it got colder, with blackcaps, redwings, jackdaws and carrion crows all cropping up in the garden.

I have had the greenhouse heater on solidly for the past nine days, and even that has not entirely prevented some very chilly nights. Nothing appears to have suffered terminal damage though. It is always interesting to observe outdoor plants in the frost, and to see how they go from seeming very bedraggled and limp in the early morning to looking fine again once they get a bit of warmth on their faces. 

More bulbs continue to poke their way up, even if they then regret it...

Offered to plant a large tree (a Malus) at DS' school last week. The ground was not only very hard with the cold, but also impenetrable beyond about 4in of topsoil. I managed to get a hole dug with the mattock, and get the tree in - but it's not had a very cosy start to life in its new home. I reckon that, as it is about 3m tall, it should be mature enough to cope:  and at least there's been no wind. Last time I looked (Tuesday) it was still vertical.

All the March editions of gardening magazines have appeared, though I have scarcely had time to look at them properly.  It is a nuisance that they (a) all come at once, and (b) come so early - I don't want to be reading tips about March jobs when it is early February (and feels like midwinter). I need to remember that light is as important as temperature in dictating when the seasons change, and even on the greyest of high pressure days there is still a lot more light now at both ends of the day. 

Forecast is for overnight snow...we'll see. There was a fair dusting on last Saturday night, but it had all gone by morning. The opposite of the children's story version: you go to bed with snow, and wake up to nothing, such a disappointment.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Spring springing

Forsythia, aconites, snowdrops, daffodils...all spotted in the past 24 hours. The new Helleborus niger in our shade garden have just started to flower too, and all manner of bulbs are poking through the accumulated fallen leaves.
Instead of bringing flowers, our kind lunch guests last Sunday brought a couple of dozen Acidanthera bicolor corms - what a lovely idea: so much more welcome than cut flowers, especially at this time of year. I have not  grown these Peacock Orchids before, and they will make a nice addition to the planting in what I plan to do with the main back garden flower beds. Future guests please note!

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Stuck indoors a bit these past few days, following an accidental collision between my head and the car door when loading supplies for work. Excellently dealt with by A&E at Salisbury District Hospital, and nothing to be done beyond painkillers and rest. Two days later I am still sore-headed but otherwise fine. Have busied myself  with re-configuring DD's bedroom and building some new storage units (I know, not exactly restful in itself - but I have been able to have a few naps in amongst...).
Took delivery of three Clematis plants on Friday which will need potting-up as soon as possible: probably tomorrow. Seed potatoes also need putting in trays for chitting - these will go in planters so I can get them going sooner, and will get more for the outdoor plot at the allotment in due course.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Early up as usual, and lots of blackbird song in the garden, even though it is still dark...

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Dreary and wet again today, no inspiration to get out in the garden - other than to move the wheelie bin back into position after the collectors left it on the pavement. What a curse wheelie bins are...yes, they are bigger and maybe the green bins for garden refuse are a plus (though never big enough for any household with a regular gardening habit): but overall they're an eyesore. We are lucky in having space to put our three wheelies, although the newly-replanted front garden could do without them, however discreetly they're positioned to one side in the shade of a large apple tree. I have considered constructing a screen or shelter, but tend to think that would actually just draw attention to them, and prove cumbersome with the filling, moving, emptying cycle.
But the poor households who have a small old-fashioned terraced front garden, maybe only a couple of yards square, end up with wheelie-bins and nothing else more or less. And this goes on for house after house after house, yet another nail in the coffin of the integrity of classic late-Victorian terraced housing (along with the delights of UPVC double-glazing, the odd outbreak of cladding, and hard standing for off-street car parking).
All that said, I do not have a sensible alternative in my head, other than massive reduction in the use of packaging. I remember seeing, not that long ago, on television a family who filled only one bin's worth of non-recyclable rubbish each year - I find that utterly incredible.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

It's a damp and dreary day today, after the couple of dry, sunny, properly cold days we have just had. I hope that this isn't going to end up as a non-existent winter, following on from 2011's peculiar spring/summer/autumn sequence. The garden does not know which way to turn. There were some daffodils out last week near Romsey Abbey, and I have seen a Forsythia in flower already - as well as snowdrops and crocuses.
I did have that wonderful 'sense' of spring on 3rd January, and a couple of times since (like Mole in 'Wind in the Willows'): the slightest bit of additional tea-time light in the sky on a clear day, the hint of extra vigour and volume in the birds' songs. Let's hope too that the winter doesn't come some time in March and set everything back at the start of the season...
Birds have definitely reacted to the past couple of cold days, and numbers in the garden have increased significantly: blue tits, great tits, robins, dunnocks, long-tailed tits, blackbirds - all present and much more active and visible than throughout the latter part of last year. Still no redwings though, in spite of the ample supply of apples - some still on the tree, and lots on the ground.