Was Buying a House Called “Brambles” an Omen? (part four)
It is early January 2014 and it feels like it has been raining nonstop since Christmas Eve. The ground outside is splendidly squelchy; far from the horticulturist’s ideal and workable “crumbly tilth”. The cars, the children and the dog are all variously caked in varying layers of seemingly permanent brown crud and I have a dirty-(muddy!?) confession to make – it seems that I have not ventured out into the garden since the middle of October!
Frankly I am ashamed of myself! “Call yourself a gardener?!” is the internal dialogue that whispers loudly enough to register whilst I am otherwise distracted dashing around dealing with the weekend-devouring cluster of family birthdays that happen in Autumn and then of course there’s Christmas not to forget full-time work and trying to keep the house heated, clean and bills paid. But now that January has crawled around and the bustle of Christmas is over and, crucially, the daylight length is expanding I can feel my gardening desire unfurling and thoughts turning to green shoots, brown earth and bountiful borders full of colour. The horticultural retailers aren’t unaware of this either! Abundant plant catalogues are delivered for me to pore over – Sarah Raven’s eye-popping colour combinations for example, Thompson & Morgan’s mind-blowing cornucopia of delights – all dilemma inducing! Which plants to buy? Which to resist!
So, given the Sunday newspaper glossies are chocabloc full of new year resolution clichés, I thought I’d go with the rest of the herd and wallow in a bit of cliché myself – that of looking forward to the growing season ahead and listing a few of my new gardening year resolutions. I’m keeping the list short to try to increase the chances of me actually keeping to these disciplines:
Things I did last year that I will repeat this year:
- Staking! This I promise to do very early on in the season again. I will create a wondrous network of canes and twine and obelisks for the various perennials to scramble up and between. I will willingly put up with the garden looking like a mad cat’s cradle in March because I know that by May/June it will be hidden by growth. It worked like a dream last year and made me feel so much better about my gardening skills. Ah, the joy of having upright plants rather than a flat slump of them. Thrilling!
- Weed Early! This is however caveated with “depending upon what the weather brings” as, if the soil remains sodden for a long time, my size 7 Wellington Boots will just make a compacted mess of the soil if I furtle about attempting to weed. Nevertheless I will definitely put effort into weeding the borders before I start with the seed sowing. Late-ish seed sowing seems to always catch up in a way that is never possible if there has been any procrastination regarding weeding.
- Chelsea Chop! This, for those of you not aware of gardening-parlance is the selective pruning of summer perennial plants’ flowering tips in June. This is generally done around the time of the RHS Chelsea Flower show, hence the name. Not only does this prolong the flowering of summer perennials it stops them getting top-heavy and splaying irritatingly into their next door neighbours (see also staking comments above). But more marvellously so, this activity provides lots of brilliant material for cuttings and therefore more free-plants. This year I will be doing the “third” rule – going through and Chelsea chopping approx a third of each plant so that I still get some early colour but generally the flowering lasts longer into the middle of summer.
Things that I really must and will get around to doing:
- Another confession here – I have never tested the pH composition of my soil! I think that it is a little bit acidic but I haven’t really got a clue. 2014 is the year that I will pay proper respect to my plot of land and learn more about its geological building blocks.
- Mulching – I am, generally speaking, rather rubbish about doing proper mulching of the borders and this is probably one of the best activities you can do to improve your gardening success. But it’s a tricky thing to do right – you’ve got to get the perennial weeds out before you mulch and it’s fiddly to work in around all of the established plants so can take a long time to finish. And there’s the fear of suppressing the wanted self-seeders. But on the other hand, I have been ‘brewing’ three bays of compost so frankly it needs putting to good use. 2014 marks the 7th year of us being at Brambles so should really be the year that I give back some condition and attention to the earth itself.
- Visit other gardens – on my annual visit to the brilliant Eden Project in Cornwall this year I am going to try very hard to wander about in the outside gardens much more and really study the planting combinations. The biosphere plantings are great – but I can’t garner too many tips from them not living in the tropics or the arid Mediterranean. I am also going to take time to visit at least one other garden in the UK that can inspire me. I was given a new book for Christmas called “1001 Gardens to Visit” (sub-text, before you die!) so in honour of and with grateful thanks to the present-giver, I will endeavour to tick at least one off that hefty target-list!
Memories of Brambles’ Summer 2013
So here’s to a fabulous new gardening year. No doubt full of the usual frustrations with weather, weed & wildlife infestations and poverty of time but equally giving of scent, colour, graceful flowerific-form and (fingers crossed) blue skies.
I’d love to hear if there are any other October to February ‘non-gardening-gardeners’ because frankly it would make me feel less slovenly and shamefaced! I’d also be really interested in what your 2014 gardening resolutions are – leave me a comment below so that we can compare..
Was buying a house called “Brambles” an omen? (Part three)
“Every snow drift has a silver lining?” or “Is it true that gardeners are the world’s greatest optimists?”
If you are inclined to classify yourself as British on those forms we all have to complete every now and again, then I’m going to hazard a guess that you’ve got a socially engineered propensity to bang on about the weather as much as possible. And if you’re further inclined to put “gardening” down as one of your hobbies or interests then I’m going to increase my bet that you in particular like nothing better than a good analysis of what the climate (micro and macro) is up to and the effect it is having on your plants. I feel fairly safe in making these sweeping generalisations – I am a happy member of this simplification – as I think that these past 12 months of weather have given British gardeners much to muse over and ruminate on.
According to the BBC Weather website this year the normal signs of spring’s arrival have been delayed by approximately one month and that March was colder still than December and January together – the coldest March since 1987 (nearly rivalling the infamous “ice-age” winter of 1962 of which I am happy to report I am too young to have experienced). It is certainly true that winter was refusing to exit stage left as per the normal stage instructions. So as the back-curtain is edged down and winter takes his final bow and swaggers slowly towards the side wings I thought I would write up a few observations about how my garden here at Brambles has fared. As I raise my head from the daily grind of work, school runs and housework it seems to me that the year has been on fast-forward and I am confounded at the fact that we are practically halfway through the year already. Look outside however and nature has decided to ignore this. There is no interest in the Gregorian calendar months that are slipping by and being in the garden at the moment is to experience a degree of time travel – back to approximately early April depending upon where you live.
This “extra time” is an absolute gift that the weather systems have conspired to hand to me. You see, my garden is invariably left to its own devices from mid-October through to early March. There are definitely months during most winters where the garden will not see me at all! This is generally down to the fact that I work full-time and so weekday gardening is just not possible in the short days and that the run up to Christmas is beyond crazy-busy with my two children having social diaries that would exhaust the Queen! During this five month absence therefore my garden happily decays back in on itself, flopping inwardly against the cold and attempting to revert back to its ‘field’ status. It reminds me of Greta Garbo – “I want to be alone” – actually rather pleased to remain out of the limelight and enjoying the enforced reclusive hibernation away from me. Meanwhile I stand forlornly at the French doors peering out, Christmas lights blinking behind me, onto the cold-shoulder of my garden, fretting that my plans are not progressing fast enough or with enough skill or fervour!
So it was with some relief that I was finally able to get outside this year and grab my obdurate, wayward garden by the shoulders and force it back towards the light-side. According to my garden journal this year that was 17th March. Only seven days later than 2012 interestingly – but feeling a whole lot later. I set about the first task of clearing all of the decay and getting down to the hard graft of weeding. The garden has five main borders in it – the largest of which runs the entire length of the plot and so is approximately 300 feet long. I try to be methodical in my weeding of these – mainly so that I remember from week to week what I’ve done. Now normally, the first run through will take from March to end of May for me to progress from the top of the garden down to the house, weeding the borders as I go. But this year I was completed by 7th April. A full four weeks earlier than 2012! Celebrations were held – documented by my ecstatic, if rather banal journal notes of “Phew! Finished! Amazed!”
This productivity is a direct result of the weather being as consistently bad and cold has it has been. Normally you see I am overtaken by the F1 roar of the perennial weeds (see my last blog post) as their turbo boosters kick in and they accelerate past me and my garden fork to put on huge leaf growth and deep, deep roots. I am usually left standing, hands on hips staring in despair thinking I am defeated – but not this year! The awful weather has dealt me a trump hand! I have had the time between the first step into the garden and the growing season really kicking in to get through the entire borders. The weeds were just lining up on the grid ready for the ‘pedals to the metal’ moment when I was able to pounce and eradicate them!
Okay – I say eradicate in the blind and comfortable denial I often like to deploy in life. Weeding is a constant cycle that means every month I have to start at the top and work my way, weekend by weekend, back down the garden, interspersed with the other more enjoyable chores – seed sowing, potting on etc. etc that needs to happen. But nevertheless I am nursing a burgeoning love of the perma-frosts we’ve suffered and a hope that every winter turns out that way. Because for the first time since moving to Brambles I have been able to feel on top of this garden and able to carve my vision more permanently and indelibly into the borders without the blurring and obfuscation of the thistles, nettles, creeping buttercup and Rosebay Willow Herb.
Whilst my hard-coded practicality is whispering that I shouldn’t be too smug, that there is time a plenty of the garden to be out of control in a jiffy again, I cannot let this breaking point go without some celebration of it and so I share with you my garden highlights of the year so far: These are pictures that I take to remind myself of the garden’s progress through the year and for my own self-aggrandisement and pleasure (my Facebook friends are quite resigned to being bombarded by the latest ‘flower of the week’ pictures in their newsfeeds!)
Hellebores – a real treat in the cold winter months
One of the first flowers to brave the winter chill – but of course ‘brave’ is the wrong adjective as, to these Hellebores Orientalis, the cold is delightful. Encouraging one to have to bend down to them and lift their flowers skyward they make the job of gardening next to them a treat – the chance to see them up close is one’s reward for the hard graft.
Narcissus “Cheerfulness” in all its Orchid-esque glory. These are not only very pretty and luxuriant they bulk up year on year very nicely and have a pleasant fragrance. They’re grown in the raised border that is on the terrace area so that it is possible to look directly into their faces. Frankly the person who named them knew what they were talking about – they make me cheerful!
Tulips – not very successful this year
Tulips have been one of my disasters this year – this specimen is the best of a rotten bunch I’m afraid. They started off looking promising and of course I was grateful to see their leaves poking up through the gravel in the pots, but as soon as they were up they have faded quickly. Did anyone else have the same experience I wonder, or is it just me being unlucky? These go down on the ‘must try harder’ next year list.
Lilac buds, blue sky, what could be better?
Emergent lilac buds against the best of sky-blues. A clear sign that spring was properly on its way and celebrated accordingly on the day it was taken. A simple but soulfully compelling shot of energy form the garden – one that I have no real part to play in other than a tickle of pruning after flowering.
Bearded iris – gorgeous blue blooms
The garden enters its blue phase. This is my one specimen of bearded iris – name unknown as it was purchased from a local charity plant sale. I am hopeful that it will bulk up quickly so that I can divide it and create more ‘exclamation marks’ of it throughout this border. They’re short lived flowers, but definitely worth it whilst they’re here. I find it hard to keep my eyes off them. Behind the Iris are the ‘local’ wallflowers; grown from seed that my Mother collected from her garden. Again; name unknown therefore, but the scent is one of the best honeyed wallflower scents I’ve had the pleasure to weed amongst. They will annoy me in their raggedly appearance as they progress to set-seed but I will put up with them so that I am able to collect that seed and keep that fragrance connection alive.
Perennial cornflowers – very hardy
Perennial Cornflowers have to have one of the best blue colours around in my humble opinion. These have been untouched by the freezing temperatures as befits their continental European heritage. I have managed to get them staked this year though to prevent them flopping about later on in the season and smothering their neighbours as they did last year.
Sweet pea frames ready for my no-fuss sweet peas
Sweet pea frames in place – as instructed by Monty Don this weekend just gone (not personally you understand, just on the telly via Gardeners’ World!). The sweet peas are also in the ground (unseen in the photo) and are ‘Navy Blue’. Grown from seed in my usual way; no pre-soaking or faffing, just put into long-tom pots to allow for good long root runs and kept in the greenhouse to give them a bit more shelter. I hope that they will produce a great show later in the summer and provide lots of cut flowers for the house. Even with last year’s wash-out summer I got quite churlishly fed-up of having to keep cutting sweet peas, the volume of flowers on them was so great. I happily look forward to getting royally annoyed with this ‘chore’ again this year!
The Mysotis (Forget-Me-Nots) this year have been stunning. Outright blankets of them spread sporadically throughout the borders giving a much wanted regular rhythm to the place. I might add that this is their own doing, not my conceit but I am happy to take the plaudits if offered! If I were Cath Kidston or one of the other famous textile designers I’d be very tempted to take this image and make some best-selling fabric out of it….
So that is a quick canter through Brambles’ gardening year so far. I wonder what your ‘upsides’ to the prolonged winter have been? I’d love to hear about them – so please do leave me a comment. As my friends and work-colleagues will confirm– I like nothing better than being able to talk horticulture.
Was Buying a House Called ‘Brambles’ an Omen? (Part Two)
There is a famous quote by Thomas Fuller (English Churchman and historian) that goes “No garden is without its weeds”. Well, Mr Fuller was a very wise man and had he not been dead nigh on 350 years I would swear that he had in fact taken a visit to my little patch of England in order to be inspired to utter the quote. Perhaps I am being too literal and Mr Fuller had other more poetic meanings. But when it comes to the subject of weeds dear reader I am inclined to become somewhat dogmatic and obdurate!
For it seems that buying a house called ‘Brambles’ was indeed an omen of the weekly skirmishes I do in order to keep my garden as a garden and not revert to ‘agricultural field’. As I strap on my gardening boots I often feel that I am out to do battle with serried ranks of the SAS/Navy Seal weed equivalents. Actually, on reflection, those weeds out there don’t ‘serry’ – they positively maraud like drunken teenagers having an illicit house-party whilst Mum and Dad are away! And like the shocked and betrayed parents returning home I, upon my first foray out into the garden after my working week, am horrified at the progress those nasties can make. I reckon I suffer from all of the weed biodiversity that Mother Nature can throw at me, but the worst of them are of course the perennial bunch who hope to get their roots down and do some serious squatting! So let’s name some of the culprits
Bindweed (the Hedge variety) or Calystegia sepium to give it its posh Latin name is surely the most dreaded of them all? Beautiful in hedgerows where its white spiralled trumpets can look most elegant, but in an herbaceous border it has to be the most unwelcome guest ever since Jimmy Carr was booked to compere the tax inspectors annual dinner dance.
Docks (the broad leaf variety mostly) or Rumex obtusifolius are regulars callers and this is thanks in no small part to the fact that my garden was surrounded by fallow agricultural fields that have now been colonised as horse paddocks. A key feature, and the twang of irony is not lost on me, is that dock seedlings are actually considered to be poor competitors and can only establish in open or disturbed patches in standing vegetation. Meaning that they are therefore very grateful for my newly dug over border soil! Another interesting fact is that a mature dock plant can produce up to 60,000 ripe seeds per year each of which is capable of surviving up to 50 years in undisturbed sites whilst they wait for right conditions for germination. This is because the seeds have a chemical in them that inhibit microbial decay. Well if that isn’t a reason to go forth with border fork I don’t know what is – watch out for the multiple long tap roots which make removing them for good rather hard.
Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) go hand in hand with the Docks discussed above and are meant to be a good indicator of excellent soil. Trouble is they crowd out the plants that I do want the soil to nurture! They are clever though – that sting is caused by the plant having many hollow stinging hairs called trichomes on its leaves and stems. These act like hypodermic needles, injecting histamine and other chemicals that produce the stinging sensation when one is stupid enough to roll one’s shirt sleves up! I do allow a fair sized patch of nettles to grow at the ‘compost bin’ end of the garden as I am mindful of the excellent benefit to wildlife they have. But in the border they are pulled up and dug out on a regular basis and make an excellent addition to the compost heap. Nettles also have the benefit of being easily identifiable to the husband – so I can always rely upon him to weed out nettles.
Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus repens) – given that the ‘lawn’ is in most parts almost entirely made up of creeping buttercup it is no big surprise that I find a lot of this in the borders too! It can be so pretty when it clumps up and has beautiful yellow flowers that combine well with forget-me-not blue. But just like the “Cat in the Hat” of Dr Zeus’s fame – this plant just doesn’t know when to stop! It cannot be contained and will spread across a whole border if permitted. Don’t go thinking that a two week holiday in Cornwall will be a nice break and expect to come home to well behaved borders if you have this in your garden. It’s a tough critter – it can withstand trampling and compaction and is common in gateways and on paths and untroubled by the hoof falls of cattle or sheep. It can tolerate both waterlogging and a moderate drought – so frankly 2012 must have been a perfect year for this plant. Apparently wood pigeons and rabbits can play some part in controlling this weed – I must remember that when I next see a pigeon eating my cabbage seedlings and Peter Rabbit munching upon the just planted out delphiniums!
Creeping Thistles (Cirsium arvense) – everyone knows about the thistle’s deep tap root and how hard it is to get rid of these weeds because any tiny little bit of root left in the ground is capable of regenerating into a new plant. What I didn’t appreciate until fairly recently is that creeping thistles use lateral roots to increase their spread. These lateral roots have buds at intervals along the root which will go on to create more tap roots and new plants. The flowers are loved by insects for their nectar – but it is a plant with a fiercely competitive spirit and will vie viciously with any neighbour for light, air, water and food. Hook them out as soon as you spot them in the borders – the younger they are the easier this is. As with Nettles, this is an easy weed for the husband to spot and so with his help we can often manage to keep on top of this invader.
Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) – its name derives from the French “dent-de-lion”, meaning “lion’s tooth” and reflects the deeply cut leaves. It is a member of the daisy family and frankly a favourite with my children who love blowing on the dandelion ‘clocks’ (the seed heads) despite my strangled pleas not to spread the seeds about in the garden! The leaves are supposed to be good for eating and apparently taste like chicory – personally, not being into foraging as perhaps the uber-zeitgeist are, I’ve never had the inkling to find out. Furthermore, the roots when eaten are supposed to have a diuretic effect and this explains the “piss-a-bed” folk name for the plant! This is another weed-friend with a long tap root making them tough to eradicate by digging alone.
Couch Grass (Elymus repens) – Ah! This one is such fun to deal with (you have by now, I hope, tuned into my cynical tone!). It’s a rapid spreading perennial grass that uses rhizomes (underground stems) to spread. This network of rhizomes quickly beefs up and becomes a tangled net mostly at the base and in and around existing shrubs or herbaceous plants, making it a difficult job to eradicate without having to disturb the other plants. The plant is self-sterile so each spreading clump is actually a clone. This makes me think of the “7 of 9” character from Star Trek and the Borg (“you will be assimilated”) – although this plant has none of the lovely attributes that “7 of 9” possessed! My approach is to dig as much out in early spring as possible to keep its attack on the garden throughout the rest of the season to the minimum.
Brambles (Rubus fruticosus) – of course! I saved the obvious to last. Yes, the house was well named by somebody who was either as obsessively annoyed by these hedgerow invaders as I am or who had decided to see in them some beauty and go with flow by naming the place after them! The reasons for the naming decision are lost in the annuls of time. Yet despite my gnashing I will admit to a certain appreciation for the Bramble’s ballet-toed stretch as it ‘assemblés’ its way through borders. The way they are able to root at the merest touch of earth shows amazing evolution and adaptability. And also, I can’t help but recall the Aesop’s Fable story of the Bramble bush versus the elegant Fir Tree. The Bramble bush was ugly and the Fir Tree was beautiful and the Fir Tree made sure that the Bramble bush knew this. But it was the Fir Tree that the woodsman cut down, whilst the Bramble bush got to live on.
And perhaps this is the point that all perennial weeds tell us – all of them have a certain beauty or usefulness. Most are indigenous to our place and as such have great value for wildlife. It is one of the valuable lessons that gardening teaches me (and one of the reasons I love it so) – that striving for a balance is the healthiest option. The standards of perfection and exactness that I strive for in my working life cannot be so easily and quickly applied with any hope of similar results! Gardening, and weeding, is therefore a lesson in how some problems just need to be worked at constantly and that there is a joy to be found in the rhythm and frequency of this. I try to avoid as many weedkiller chemicals as possible and tackle the plants by organic methods (which translates to blood, sweat and tears often). My one weakness I confess is to ‘glyphosating’ bindweed. It is because it strikes such fear into me and will never be a welcome visitor in my patch.
So in the meantime, whilst I struggle with the reality of digging up deep tap roots, cursing the nettles as they fight back at me with their stings and chanting the mantra of “these weeds are sent to test me”, I find that Gardeners’ World’s website has some fantastic advice and guidance on how to spot your enemy and prepare to serry the ranks against them.
Good luck with whatever is your most hated weed problem! Perhaps you might like to let me know and we can share battle scars together. And as I started this with a quotation, I will end with a quotation too:
“I guess a good gardener always starts as a good weeder.” – Amos Pettingill. Well said Amos, well said!
Guest blogger Rachel Davidson-Foster’s post on her ongoing quest for the perfect garden.
Was buying a house called “Brambles” an omen?
I hope you will forgive me the women’s-magazine cliché that begins my story; 6 years ago I’m pregnant with my second child searching for a new home for the family; the forever home that will bring us back to our home town and finally (hopefully) give me that plot of land that will give me the space to stretch my gardening skills and give life to those bucolic daydreams of a self-sufficient veg plot that Monty Don would be proud of and a glamorous ‘Sarah Raven’ style cutting garden.
Frankly I’m fed-up, but just when I feel certain that the right house with the right garden will never arrive I visit a place, rather ominously for a gardener, called “Brambles”. The house, built in 1896, is a nightmare from 1980’s pub design hell and needs a load of work (and money) to put it right – but the garden is two-thirds of an acre of blankness that is just right for me. Even the dead-bunny on the lawn isn’t able to deter me (although it was a clear warning of the on-going battles I would have with its close cousins to keep them from destroying my burgeoning plant collection).
So the house is purchased, but because all of our money gets used making the house habitable I’m left with an interesting problem; how to create a fulsome Gertrude Jekyll billow of a garden with no money? The answer comes via the inspiration of Carol Klein’s writings and telly appearances and a timely direct mailing from Thompson & Morgan’s seed catalogue – I will grow all of the plants myself from seed or propagation, not allowing myself to simply purchase any full grown plant unless it fulfils the criteria of a) providing lots of material for cuttings or b) can be divided into multiple plants. The final rule is that I am allowed to accept plants as presents.
Spires of Lupins Summer 2012
My first success – Lupins (latin name Lupinus). Anyone who is plagued by bunnies cannot have failed to notice that they don’t have much of an appetite for this statuesque herbaceous perennial. This was certainly true of the examples that were happily growing in neighbours’ gardens. So Lupins were first on my ‘seed-list’ and have the advantage of being readily available as seed in most garden centres. They are robust plants that grow to a good 3 feet wide and with densely packed spires of colour that can reach up to 5 feet in the air. They are a member of the legume (pea) family and this is seen not only in the shape of the individual flowers and their seed pods but also in their ability, like all of the legume family, to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into ammonia via a rhizobium-root nodule symbiosis, fertilizing the soil for other plants. I could pretend that this influenced my decision to grow Lupins – with my eye on the long-term horticultural health of my soil – but the truth is that I just loved the eye-popping colour combinations and their massive ‘cottage garden’ status.
Some suggest that soaking the seeds overnight prior to planting is advisable, but I’ve never done this and still had prolific success. I simply put the seeds into trays that have got good sandy seed compost and then cover over with vermiculite. The seed tray is then placed into a tray of water so that the compost can suck up the water via capillary action until the whole depth of the seed-tray is good and wet. After this it is just a case of placing in a sheltered location (away from slugs and snails that will in my experience nibble at the seedlings) and wait for the first palmate ‘real’ leaves to grow before pricking out and potting on. Keep them moving onto bigger and bigger plant pots until they are at a big enough size to withstand any unwanted wildlife advances.
Once in the ground they are pretty happy to be left alone with the only real work being to ensure they are staked against any summer storms that threaten to snap the flower spikes off and then to deadhead the fading flower-spikes which is always a good idea to do in the first year of growth to ensure that the plant concentrates on developing good root systems. That said – from my one packet of Thompson & Morgan “Band of Nobles Mixed” I have saved my own seed and subsequently grown my own colour combinations.
Next time I think I will write about my on-going struggle to grow lavender from cuttings! Or perhaps I will share how useful I have found Sisyrinchiums to be in filling up newly turf-removed flower borders! In the meantime I hope you enjoy this picture of early summer as much as I did being able to ‘live’ it!