Monday 27 May 2013

Rain Stopped Play

As so often happens, the weather comes along and interrupts all gardening.  This is the rain I woke up to on the Spring Bank Holiday Monday morning, the day that is supposed to be the BIG start to summer gardening.  Bad weather and Ben Hur on television are two things you can guarantee on a Bank Holiday! Would you want to go out gardening in this?

I didn't think so.  Did you see the driving rain falling at quite an angle?  Did you hear the wind blowing, and the rain beating against the window?  The winds were about twenty mph, not very pleasant weather for anything really other than ducks and staying indoors.

This kind of weather makes me think about my forebears who didn't have a choice in the matter.  If they were lucky enough to have a small garden they relied on it for food having to go out in all conditions just to survive.  In the winter months, this might mean a very basic diet of potatoes, parsnips, carrots, leeks, onions, and cabbage supplemented with maybe a pig and chickens kept in the same garden, and what they could forage from the land. No luxury of a pretty flower garden and neatly manicured lawns for them, or a supermarket with wide choices of fruit and vegetables from all over the world for them.  I like to grow my own fruit and vegetables because I like to know what I am eating, the provenance of my food, and that is a luxury by the standards of bygone days.

Did you see the yew tree?  I used it as my backdrop to the raindrops.  It arrived in my garden unannounced, a gift from a bird that dropped a seed that liked where it was and so it grew.  The only thing is, it is now getting a bit on the big side for my garden.  I have already cut out the central growing tip, a few years back, but it is starting to get wider and wider with each growing season . . see all the new season's growth, the little tips of dark orange?  Those are the new growth.  I think that very soon I must pick a shape and topiarise it.  I am not a huge fan of topiary, but there is little else I feel I can do with this gift from the birds, other than let it take over!  I think a free form 'gum drop' like those at Powis Castle might work the best.  If you look at the link you should see their gum drops lined up in front of the castle.  They aren't too formal but the trees are kept in check just enough to stop them from taking over.  I have special affection for Powis Castle because my Dad was a gamekeeper there, in the days before the National Trust acquired the property.

Rain or no rain, I could not resist (when the rain did stop mid~afternoon) getting out to take some photographs.  After the rain, everything looks so clean and refreshed, cobwebs blown, and dust washed, away.  Colours look brighter and sharper, so out I went and took these.

Gentle Reader, I am so happy to tell you that the apple blossom did not suffer anywhere as near as badly as I feared. I fuss and worry like a mother hen over her chicks!  Here is a short video of how the ground looks under the tree.  It is very pretty, I think, like a fluffy blanket of big snowflakes!


Then, I gave a shriek of delight to see the raspberry canes full of tiny clusters of flower buds, and future berries.  Raspberries are one of my favourite summer fruits, and I have four varieties with staggered fruiting times to prolong the fruiting season.  Few things are better than going out in the early morning to pick a small handful of fresh, sun~ripened berries from your own garden to put on top of your granola and home~made organic yogurt for breakfast.  Later there will be jam bubbling in the preserving pan for a memory of summery deliciousness in the depth of winter too.

In the days of the great garden landscape architects, like Lancelot "Capability" Brown it was common practice to make the outlying countryside appear as if part of the garden, bringing wild nature in with the tamed landscapes by use of such techniques as a "ha ha".  In a similar way I borrow my neighbour's overhanging trees, bringing a lovely, bright, acid green to my garden, lifting the colours along the boundary wall, making my garden look bigger and lighter than it is.  This is one of those plants, a beautiful tree indeed.

One tree I would rather not have anywhere near my property is the seemingly omnipresent native sycamore tree which overhangs my drive, dropping leaves in Autumn, and so many days are spent raking and bagging them up to become rich and useful leaf mould, and prevent the leaves ruining the surface of the drive.  The other thing are the sycamore 'helicopters' or ripe seed heads, that twirl their way on the wind.  This year alone, I have dug up no fewer than eight established saplings of around two foot high that somehow escaped earlier detection (they lurked in amongst my blackcurrants) and countless hundreds of tiny, freshly germinated seedlings.  I know there will be countless many more, just look at the seeds on this small branch . . and there are three or four fully grown trees full of them!

However, it is all worth it in the end.  Even at this early stage in the season, while the battle against the weather goes on, I am very happy indeed with how these simple pots are looking.  The greenery is fresh and pretty, and the few splashes of colour brighten the front of my cottage.  I am so looking forward to seeing them grow and develop into a riot of colour as the patio roses, Oriental lilies, precious pansies, fragrant dianthus, and other plants bloom and open before our very eyes.  See my red dragon, sleeping in their midst?

I will leave you on this note.  It is only a day or two since I potted up those healthy foxglove plants, do you recall?  Well, is it my imagination, or are they already looking very much happier and quite a bit bigger than they did two days ago? 

Sunday 26 May 2013

Bits and Bobs and Other Jobs

Gentle Reader, Welcome!  Even when there isn't anything big going on, like digging (ugh!) there are always plenty of bits, bobs, and odd jobs to get on with in the garden.  Over the last few days the weather, generally, has been quite kind and although I haven't felt like doing any heavy digging, I've been getting on with some of those bits, bobs, and odd jobs.

It is Spring Bank Holiday this weekend (Memorial Day in America) and by tradition this is the BIG weekend for gardeners in the United Kingdom to make a start on readying their gardens for Summer.  The garden centres and big D.I.Y. conglomerates ready themselves for the biggest garden supplies trading week of the year.  Millions of bedding plants, pots, tools, compost, all manner of garden sundries, and the odd shed or two will be flying off their shelves, and good weather is imperative to get this off to a good start.  Sadly, this year, the weather is still stuck in a rut with below average temperatures across most of the UK, strong winds and rain are forecast for tomorrow (Bank Holiday Monday) and the week ahead does not promise any improvement.  Normally, by this time, I have already got some salad crops ready to pick, and my courgettes would be getting ready to plant out in the ground.  This year nothing is ready.  It is worrying.  If things don't pick up soon this could be the second year I don't grow very much.   I reckon we are about a month behind on the weather.

On I plod, and here are some of the jobs I got up to over the last few days, with some random images of things growing in my garden.

A few weeks ago over 100 foxglove seedlings arrived at my cottage and I had to pot them all up into individual modules.  This is what they looked like yesterday, and the task of potting them up into bigger pots, around four inches, began.

These are the first nineteen, potted on and in a large tray of water having a good drink to help them settle into their new pots.  This is where they will stay now until they are planted out directly into the soil in about two months, depending on how quickly they grow.  They will not flower this summer, being biennial, and I am anxious to see what colours they are, so I must be patient!

I bought some new seeds, Calendula to give some bright, annual colour, a lovely splash of oranges and yellows to dot around the borders, and a packet of Garlic Chives because I don't have any of these and they are quite delicious, and a packet of Dill as I do not have any of that and it is one of my favourite herbs, to eat, to look at, and to photograph.

I found a packet of Runner Beans called "Scarlet Emperor" and planted them up in a large dustbin that has a split in the side.  I filled it with compost and I planted a dozen seeds using my trusty dibber to guide me to the correct depth of two inches for each seed.  When the seeds germinate and there are tiny plants starting to push their heads above the compost I will show you a picture. 

A dibber is a very useful tool.  Mine is made of wood, I love the feel of wood in my hand as I garden.  It is marked, you can see the rings, in increments of one inch and by pushing it into the freshly tilled soil you can make a hole of exactly the right depth to sow your seeds.  Brilliant!

There are flowers on the Alpine (miniature) strawberry plants.  These make excellent ground cover, and I let them run almost where ever they want.  Moving a leaf aside I often find a tiny, sun~ripened, sweet, warm fruit, picked fresh they are a real treat for the gardener at work.  They produce very tiny fruit that make an attractive garnish for a summer berry dessert, added to a Pimm's cup, or to decorate a pretty cake.

The apple tree is full of pristine, snow white blossoms.  I do not think I have ever seen so many blossoms on the tree.  Now all we need are the pollinating bees to come and there will be apples, crisp, sun kissed apples, freshly picked, and juicy on a warm Autumn afternoon.

Isn't this a sight to see?  It looks quite bridal, don't you think?  Thinning the apples at each cluster will be quite some job this year if they all set fruit.

Here is the pot of Alchemilla Mollis I showed you a few days ago, heavy with dew, sharing space with the glaucous leaf of a Pasque flower.  It is growing so quickly, as Alchemilla often does, so soon I must separate them out.

I love the daisy~like Osteospermums.  A native of South Africa, they seem to thrive in our British climate.  This surprises me, for I think of South Africa as being warm, but apparently it can be sharply cold as well!  I am happy, for these bright blooms give splendid drifts of colours, pink, purple, white, and yellow across the borders.  The centres are all so different too from fuzzy velvet to shiny satin textures.  I can only imagine what they must look like in their native home, growing wild.

Gentle Reader, the forecast for the week ahead is unsettled at best.  The lawn needs mowing!  There is heavy rain for tomorrow, so a typical forecast for Bank Holiday, with winds of 20 mph, with gusts of 40 mph and more.  Oh dear!  I think we might have seen the last of the apple blossom looking so magnificent, and this news could really impact on the fruit, as there are far fewer bees than usual and without the beautiful blossom to attract them the pollination will not happen. 

We will wait and see.  My water barrel will be filled with freshly falling rain flowing from my roof.  I have brought all the tender plants and trays of fresh~sewn seeds indoors for a day or two, until the heaviest of the rain and the wildest of the winds have passed to protect their leaves and roots, and stop the seeds washing away as can easily happen in torrential downpours.  My next entry might be a few days away, for there is little I can do in these conditions except hope it will pass by quickly.  Everything will be watered and refreshed, and I hope for warmer days to speed the growing of my plants and seeds.

I will leave you on a cheery note, a blackbird often gives me company in the garden as he seeks out fresh worms and bugs for his hungry brood.  Today, I was delighted with his precious song, so here he is for you.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Herbs and Rose Cuttings

Gentle Reader, there is no such thing as doing a 'bit' of gardening.  The addiction of pulling "just one more weed" takes hold, and before you know it you have worked long past the hour you planned to spend in the garden before tea, and the hour of tea is upon you and nothing is prepared.  The garden, however, will be looking better for your time, even though only a few adjustments are achieved, and your flagging spirits will be revived.

Today, I did not feel up to doing too much, there is a keen wind blowing right into my potting corner and my back is not happy if I am standing in the cold for too long, but when the sun suddenly put in an appearance late in the afternoon, I could not resist the opportunity to do a few small jobs outside.

A couple of weeks ago, I was given an amazing bouquet of hot orange and red flowers.  They looked stunning against the green foliage that arrived with them, and for two weeks now they delighted me sitting happily in my living room.  Today, sadly, they are jaded and past their best so I decided to dispatch them to the compost.  When I removed the stems, three of the deep red roses have leaf shoots springing from all along the stems!  I cannot resist the challenge, so I donned my heavy fleece, put on my brimmed gardening hat with ties (quite the fashion statement) and out I went.

I have trimmed the bottoms of two stems and dipped them into organic rooting compound before plunging them in to a pot of compost.  The other stem I cut into three sections and did the same thing.  Time will tell.  I suppose they have two chances, and if I am lucky then they will take and I will have some free rose plants for my garden.  They do not look like much, but I really have nothing to lose and everything to gain with this experiment.  I will keep you updated.

As I said, there is no such thing as doing a 'bit' of gardening, so while I was out there at the potting bench (which is really a very solid, old wooden work bench that belonged to my father) I found two four inch pots with tiny cuttings taken last year of Moroccan Mint.  Last year, the ants greedily devoured the mint, and this is what I managed to salvage . . some tiny cuttings that have rooted over the winter, but not put on any noticable growth.

Moroccan mint makes one of my favourite teas, just a few leaves torn up and infused in boiling water for about five minutes, strained and sweetened with honey if liked, is superior beyond words to any bought teabag.    I also like it steeped in water and chilled for a cooling summer drink, and it is such a bright green it is perfect for sitting on top of fresh fruit salad or berries as a quick garnish.  I hope there will be plenty to dry for the winter months too.

I love terracotta, it has a warmth that you don't get with plastic pots of the same colour, and I love how it weathers with spots of lichen giving it character and depth.

A small pot holding a couple of thyme cuttings and a clump of chives was next, so they too are now in their own little pots and already looking much happier than when all crammed jammed into one small pot.

I love to sprinkle thyme into potatoes and onions as they fry in my heavy, cast iron pan, or over vegetables roasting in the oven . . just a few minutes before the cooking time is up so you get the full flavour and the herb does not burn to a cinder.  I will nibble on chives when I'm gardening, and the purple flowers are pretty in salads.  I dead head chives regularly to ensure a prolonged growing season.

It was but a few minutes out there today, but even these few small and simple jobs have lifted my spirits and there will be herbs to harvest for the kitchen, mint for tea, and a few more things rescued and tidied up.

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Setting the Stage

Winter: exit Stage Right, with slow stubbornness 
Spring: enter Stage Left, with hesitance}

Gentle Reader, today I set the stage, I give you the prologue to this challenging task ahead.

While the work of clearing and cleaning, reorganising and regrouping, and all the other chores that mean a gardener's work is never done, my garden has fallen into a state of neglected disrepair. 

I love gardening more than I can say, with deep roots running in my blood, but I confess, I am in pain with an arthritic back that limits what I can do, and the uphill struggle against inclement weather conditions mean that I have not give the garden the attention or care that it demands for around three years.  Weeds and pest proliferate if left unchecked, while much loved and favoured plants have withered.  A sad fact, but true, and regaining control, putting things right is the task ahead of me now.

I do not use chemicals but I sometimes feel the weeds and pests are making the most of this choice.  Last year, when mid~June arrived, the days were barely warm and I had lost three successive plantings of seedlings to slugs and torrential rain I just gave up.

Over the winter I spent much time reflecting and considering my options. It is not a big garden, but is big enough, and I need to make it manageable, to meet my needs and expectations.  So what are these needs and expectations?  Then, later on, as I get to grips with the tasks, how will I achieve them?

My expectations are: ease of maintenance with fresh, organic food from raised beds, and plot to plate in minutes, fruit and vegetables for jams, chutneys, and pickles, flowers for cutting, photography and creative inspiration, a verdant lawn to sit and sink my feet into the grass when the sky is blue and the days are warm, with fragrant herbs to heal my spirit, a garden that refreshes and nourishes my soul.

How will I achieve them? One task at a time.  I am no miracle worker, I have no magic wand to wave and it is done.  I know what I want, and while my expectations remain constant, all the time I change my mind as to how I want it all to look. There will be times when three steps forward are countermanded by four back, and no doubt I will keep changing my mind, plans will evolve, but then that is half the fun I think, don't you?  Budget is a consideration too, and so I am looking at what does well in the garden to avoid costly mistakes in poor choices of planting.  I am already offering plant exchanges with neighbours, and taking cuttings too.  Recycling and reusing is important to me too.  There is, I feel, a certain charm in the look of recycled things, and this also appeals to my ethos and values of not sending stuff to landfill unnecessarily.

Being of an overwhelmingly stubborn character, I want to do this all myself, without outside help unless the work is very heavy and not managable by me even using of the laws of physics!

There, Gentle Reader, you have a nutshell version of my hopes for the garden.  Later, I will be more specific, talk of raised beds and planting.  The reality, so far this year, is that Spring was supposed to arrive several weeks ago.  We are still waiting.  I don't know if she missed the boat or was simply held up along the way, but now, slowly and hesitantly she is arriving.  There are promises of Spring, and maybe even Summer, popping up all over the garden.  I talk a lot about the weather because I think it is the one biggest condition that impacts upon the garden and how well it does.  The weather patterns are changing, and I know I must change how I garden, and what I grow, to make my garden successful.  Indeed, my next blog entry may be about the weather!

When I looked out of my window this morning, across the lawn I thought it was snowing!  Pink snow in May can only be one thing: apple blossom drifting on the gentle breeze.  Indeed, the display of blossom is promising.

Here are a few more photographs I've taken over the last few days that show Spring finally arriving, and a little of the cleaning up and planting preparation that I have started.

These are trays of cultivated foxglove plantlets that I brought on from seedlings purchased from Thompson & Morgan an established mail order company.  I am very happy with their progress. There are over one hundred here, many more than I will need, so once potted up I will swap them for other things with my neighbours, and any surplus ones I will sell off and give the money to charity.

Here are some native foxgloves (digitalis purpurea) that I love to see in my garden and I let them seed where they want to grow.  Sometimes, I have to move them though, as they aren't picky where they grow.  These three are growing against a low, south facing wall in a border with herbs.  That is fine by me, although they might get a little crowded, three so close together, I might have to move that middle one to another spot.

Below is a terracotta pot that originally held a Pasque flower waiting to be placed in a raised border.  Over the winter, an Alchemilla Mollis (of which I have many in my garden) self seeded.  I was going to weed it out, but I just love the contrast of the two very different textures of leaf and colours of green that I am leaving it for a while as a possible photograph opportunity.

Edibles play a large part in my garden, and I am especially fond of my herbs.  The sage is finally starting to return into growth after the long winter months.  This is currently along the edge of the south facing raised vegetable plot, and it seems to love this sunny, well drained spot.  As well as seasoning, and as with many herbs, it has healing properties too.  I love to roast veggies in the oven on a bed of sage, then eat the crunchy leaves with my salad.

This is Sweet Cicely, such a pretty  name, don't you think?  It is rather close to the rosemary (another favourite herb of mine) but for now it looks so happy I cannot bear to move it.  I plan to harvest seed to sow and raise more of this delightful and versatile herb, for I think it would look really good with cut flowers in a vase, as well as the culinary and medicinal uses.  Umbelliferous plants are amongst my favourite, and I hope to introduce many more umbels to the garden this year.  I shall return to The Perennial Nursery, a delightful, small, independent plantswoman's business that shelters under a rocky outcrop in the wilds, and where I can rely on sound advice and quality plants.

Devonshire Violets run rampant in the nooks and crannies of the garden walls, giving delight to the senses with shyly bobbing fragrant blooms.  You will see the Corsican mint too, bottom right.  I love this small, invasive mint and wish it would spread more vigourously between the paving stones.  I love stepping on it and crushing the leaves, releasing the most intense mint fragrance into the summer air.  I think I have a mild obsession with this small beauty!

A promise of gooseberries soon!  I must work on my gooseberry plant, something is wrong.  It is not growin in size as it should, nor is it producing much fruit.  A little research is needed, I think.

More herbs, two varieties of Oregano, again this Mediterranean herb thrives in this raised, south facing plot (more on this raised plot in the future) but as you can see, I am happy to let the Alchemilla Mollis and a digitalis purpurea alongside, and the feathery fronds of Nigella (Love~in~a~Mist) having escaped from the garden have arrived here too . . perfect!

Blackcurrants do very well in my garden, and if these blooms are anything to go by I think there will be a bumper crop this year, for all five bushes are a mass of pinkish~white blossom.  I can look forward to summer pies and crumbles, jam, and some for the winter from the deep freeze as a boost of Vitamin C.

Finally, today, this enormous white pansy bloom.  It is nearly twice the size of all the others in the tubs, and at around four inches from top to bottom it dwarfs the very plant from which it grows!

So, Dear Friend, the stage is set for Spring and Summer too.  There are many months of dilligent work ahead, but for now it is weeding and clearing spaces and making the most of those spaces while the garden takes shape.  I hope, along the way, to share recipes, ideas, and crafts too.

I will change my mind a hundred times or more, of that I'm sure, so I hope you will come back again and see how I progress, and maybe share a gardening tip or two of your own.

Saturday 18 May 2013

Welcome to My Garden in The Shire

Gentle Reader, Welcome! Won't you step into my garden in the Shire and sit a while, dear friend, and we will share some tea and talk about the plans I am making for my garden?

Once upon a time, which now seems as if it was in another life, my garden was a pretty place, with  flowering plants a~plenty, a weed~free lawn of verdant green, some shady trees where underneath I'd sit with a book and read for endless hours while the bees buzzed in and out the lavender and roses.  A vegetable plot produced and keep me in fresh salads and herbs all summer long, with squash and beans, potatoes, parsnips, courgettes, onions, soft fruits and so much more.  In the Autumn I would put up a store of pickles, chutneys, jams, and fill the freezer with the harvest.

Now, in this charming little spot, things were never perfectly tidy and neat, for I am far from perfect, and neither tidy nor neat in nature, with a tendency to let nature do her own thing, so hither and thither there were weeds, things growing where they chose, and plenty of nooks and crannies, and food, for wildlife too . . and no nasty chemical sprays or powders!  That last bit can make gardening a tricksy business when it comes to some of the more persistent pests like slugs and snails, couch grass, and prickly bramble vines, but I soldier on.

Then, one day, life interrupted, and a couple of years of inclement weather disrupted my idyllic corner in the Shire.  I was not able to dig and weed, tend and grow, or care for my garden as I should, and as it deserved.  For two years now everything has been left almost completely alone, and to it's own devices.  I have mown the lawn but not really looked after it, and today, much to my chagrin, yellow is the new green. The weeds have grown, the slugs and snails proliferated, most everything I planted failed.  The weather deals cruel blow after cruel blow and only the hardiest things have survived.  With no greenhouse to bring things on, I struggled and gave up.  I do not know what this year's weather will bring, but I am determined to regain control and stop everything running amok!

I know I have lost many plants, the wind and rain have seen to that, for the ground is so very wet, and the winds blow wuthering wildly in from the west, conditions many plants just do not like, and who can blame them?  Some plants, like hostas, just have 'snail fodder' written all over them, and when the snail population explodes in those perfect~for~snails conditions what can you do?  I have spent some time observing, seeing what does well and what doesn't, so that my chosen planting will stand a better chance of surviving what nature throws at it.

Here is an overview of the lawn and borders, rockery, leading into the soft fruit area . .

I am surprised, if truth be told, at how nearly presentable the lawn looks, but then you are not getting close enough to see the border full of couch grass, or the nettles under the yew tree, and the brambles rearing up in the distant corner 'neath the camellia.  Oh, and I have a few of those small, stone troughs to consider.  Once, in a former life, they held salt for cattle in the fields to lick.  The mill stones are orignal too.  

This is the proposed vegetable plot, still under weed suppressing cover, currently used as a holding area for plants for the borders.  This very morning I turned back one of the corners and I think the job is well underway!  Hurrah! There may be raised beds here.

The small curved area at the top of the drive which will eventually have a low, retaining stone wall.  Here, I plan foxgloves and ferns, maybe the very hardy Alchemilla Mollis too.


Ah! There you are . . you stayed!  You have seen my garden almost at it's worst, weeds and all! I am so pleased the photographs of weeds and much unmentionable rubbish did not deter you.  Plans are afoot, my friend, and much work is needed and I am an army of one who does not care to dig in the rain or weed in the cold.  A work~in~progress, but progress is being made.  It is not a large garden, but plenty for me to deal with.  If I have changed my mind once, I have changed it a hundred times as to what I plan to do.  The top priority is to make it as easy care as I possibly can, without resorting to chemicals unless absolutely necessary, and for it to be productive for the plate, a pleasant to sit, and pretty to the eye. There are beds to be dug, borders to weed, compost bins to move, a tree to cut down, and so much more when I can make up my mind exactly what to do.  So many gardening ideas, so little space in which to put them. Wildlife, fairies, and helpful critters welcome!

Thank you for visiting, I hope you enjoyed your tea and your tour.  Please, come by again, if I'm not in the garden I'll be in the house making plans!  Questions, suggestions, and input welcome in the comments section!