Five years ago our lives were very different. My wife and I were both commuting for at least 2 hours a day whilst using a childminder to look after our young family. We were on a treadmill of long days and early mornings without a great quality of life. Something had to break and unfortunately that was me. From that point we decided to work our way to a different kind of life and now here we are on the Isle of Wight. We have opted to try and simplify our lifestyle.
We recently moved house and I was talking with a neighbour at the weekend whereby he asked me if I was a gardener. I answered negatively – that sounded like a profession to me, but it did get me thinking. I like the idea of gardening, but not being a gardener – to me that means doing it for others and that’s too much responsibility.
Our new garden is much bigger than any we have ever had before and has been neglected for some time. There is an area of raised beds for a vegetable patch, these are overgrown with weeds right now, but I’m using a small corner of one of them to attempt to grow some runner beans. First lesson – use long canes!! This is my first effort. I am also growing some tomatoes (in a grow bag), chilli’s in a pot, and a cucumber plant.
I would like my children to get some appreciation of where food comes from and the effort involved in producing it – that’s really important. I also want to be able to prove to them that it can be done and its cheaper / healthier / tastier / better for the environment to grow your own food if at all possible. As ever, time is the main problem, but now that I have left the rat race behind there is more of a chance that I’ll be able to spend some proper time in the garden.
Other jobs that I’d like to be sorting in the garden sooner rather than later (but I’ve got to get used to the fact that the seasons affect what grows and when so I’m not sure when the best times will be yet) include:
Weeding, digging over, and planting up the front garden so that it has a cottage garden feel (I’m investigating what this actually means)
Encourage the front hedge to be consistent (fill in gaps, grow higher). Its brambles, ivy, and bind weed right now
Sort the lawn out so that its actually more grass than weeds
Clear out the pond, relining and refilling it, re-bedding slabs, and restoring the waterfall that used to run into it many years ago
Behind the pond is a shady area – I’d like to try and see what kind of “woodland” planting I can do here – I’m thinking ferns, moss and so on
Establish a hedge along the side of the garden for privacy
Recommission the raised beds for a vegetable patch and then work out what needs to go where
Have a wild meadow patch to encourage the bees and butterflies
Build a greenhouse or similar – something to keep the plants warmish in the winter
Replace the dilapidated shed before it falls down – this will require proper money
So my problem is that, other than watching Gardeners World on a Friday and having a bit of enthusiasm, I have zero gardening knowledge. I can dig a hole and that’s about it. I’ve tried learning some plant names but then promptly forget. I generally describe plants as red flower, purple flower, long grass, dead twigs, so I really need to get my head around this and work out a strategy for remembering the names.
However, armed with the internet and the team at Gardeners World (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006mw1h/episodes/guide) I’m sure I can make a pretty good go at this. I just need to fit it in along with everything else. I’ll be keeping you updated with what I’m doing and how it’s going – please let me know how you think I’m getting on and if you have any advice!
DIVIDE AND CONQUER
So last month we had spawnography, and this month we have tit wars! Honestly it’s like Animal Farm out there! We have two nesting boxes and a number of nesting pouches in the trees, but it seems the only Des Res worth considering is the one in the apple tree. So, the great tits, who have been nesting in it practically every year since we moved in, are now being dive bombed by the blue tits, who sit (perch?) in wait in the tree canopy, ready to mob them every time they try to roost. But my money is still on the GTs, as the BTs seem too flighty (haha get it?) to me, veering off in the direction of the bird table at a moment’s notice.
I’ve never had so many birds in the garden as this spring; David loves the ones I mentioned above, but my heart belongs to the robin. When I’m working in the garden I can see him he flittering about in the corner of my eye, singing so quietly it’s almost as if he is humming to himself. He has another more sinister side to him though; I can see why people say that robins peck the eyes out of new-born lambs. Jitterbug our Devon Rex cat, whose intensions are not good when it comes to our feathered friends, has a love hate relationship with Robin. Being separated by only the wire netting of the catatorium, they torment each other at every opportunity.
So having said in my last Blog that all the hard work was done, I can now officially eat my hat! I have always shied away from lifting and dividing if I can possibly help it but this year I have had to knuckle down to some serious hard graft. Scuttelaria, liriope, day lillies, flag irises and phormium just got completely out of hand. I had to use my First World War trenching tool just to prize them out of the ground! When it came to splitting up the clumps I had to use David’s heavy duty saw as my dainty hand saw just bent under the strain. The phormium and flag iris divided into over a dozen new plants each, and the day lilies were so heavy it took the two of us to lift them out of the border. Doc Page, esteemed Chairman (person, sorry!) of our Hort Soc – he of the immaculate hostas – donated a sackful of divisions that had to be split again just to be able to pot them up into 6” pots. The Three Cannas, still bursting out of their cut off dustbin sacks, are pushing out vigorous shoots in all directions and will have to be divided an’all. But oh, the number of plants I have propagated for our plant sales is mounting up apace. Ka-ching! Think of all that money we will raise for the NGS this summer.
This positively tropical weather has brought the garden on so fast I can’t keep up. I am not allowed to switch on the irrigation system as David is painting the summer house (Project Beach Hut is well under way, more of that next time) and the roof terrace tends to leak water down the outer walls. Nor may I have access to the hose as its mount has been removed from said walls for same reason. So it’s the watering can and moi. Now that we have stripped back most of the clematis Montana from the pergola all the pots of ferns have suddenly become exposed to direct sunlight and keep wilting pathetically. I have to say that the cats love their new sunny spots: It was especially thoughtful of me to leave the black fleece on the cannas so that Jitterbug could enjoy the afternoon sun in comfort. (Cannas not so happy, having lost all their new tips in the process).
Progress of a kind is being made in the greenhouse now that the mice have finally vacated. (Not so much as a backward glance.) So now that it’s safe to uncover the seedlings do I switch off the heated propagators and risk damping off (I know all the technical terms y’know) or leave them on and roast them to a crisp? Off, and I’ll take my chances. So far so good. I haven’t managed to kill the tomato seedlings yet, in fact they have even developed their first proper pair of leaves, and last year’s begonia tubers are sprouting nicely too. Dozens of T & M plugs have been potted up, some mini plugs doubling up per 10cm pot. Oh for those surplus containers that were tossed asunder for taking up too much space last autumn. So far Bidens Collection 15 Postiplugs are putting on the strongest growth, and this year I was ready with the slug pellets to protect Petunia ‘Romantic Mini Rosebud Peachy’, which got devoured within their first fortnight last spring.
I’ve raised four seedlings of Courgettes ‘De Nice A Fruit Rond’ ready for the allotment next month, and the broad beans were transplanted onto the plot last weekend. (Do any women actually like broad beans? Mr B loves’em. I recon it’s a man thing). One long row of Pea ‘Terrain’ seeds were sown a couple of weeks ago, followed by a parallel row of Pea ‘Eddy’ seeds, sown by my allotment partners Rose and Ed – we’ve decided to conduct a controlled experiment, nothing to do with competitiveness or one-upmanship at all! Talking of which, last weekend it was like a holiday camp down there, never seen so many plot holders in one go; nothing at all to do with the imminent site inspection, I’m sure. Truth be told, I feel put to shame; on the one half of our small plot the soil has been turned and manured to perfection but on my side of the plot the soil surface has at best been scratched. Clearly I believe in the No Dig method. (Actually I believe in the No Work method, however I am in the minority here.) I brought home armfuls of daffs from previous years’ transplanting, and will add this year’s assortment of T&M jonquils, currently flowering their hearts out and wafting their fragrance all over the patio.
For this Spring’s trials, I have just received a new T&M potato variety, complete with Incredicompost, Incredibloom fertiliser and grow bags, as well as a couple of experimental varieties of cosmos and poppy to grow from seed. Well within my comfort zone and not too likely to embarrass me with poor results Oh well I will just have to rake my cut flower bed to a fine tilth and get down to it. Still, ever the optimist, here we go…..
And in conclusion, this month’s star performance goes to Erysimum Red Jep and Coronilla glauca Citrina. Happy gardening, love, Caroline
Taking advantage of the dry weather this week to empty and turn my compost heaps. Always a satisfying job.
One now vacant for this year, one cooking and one cooked ready for the autumn.
Our resident slow-worms have emerged and are basking in the sun against the fence, they produce live young which will be happy in the warm compost heap where they will not now be disturbed for the whole of the summer.
The onions Red Barron and Golden Ball are in now, nothing much to do now with those except keep weed free and watered. Thinking of putting in the first early peas thus week as the ground has warmed up quite a bit. I will start them in old gutters covered with cloches to keep the mice out.
Last year every runner bean seed was carefully removed from the gutter over night, I imagined an enormous mouse in the garden, but found the stash later behind a pile of old pots at the back of the greenhouse. Lesson learned.
The flowers beds are now coming to life as the hardy perennials green up and the spring flowers put on a wonderful show. The trees and shrubs are leafing up with that wonderful lime green that you only get in spring. The buds are beginning to open on the tree peony, more buds than ever this year it just gets better and better as it establishes(its been there now for 5 years).
Why oh why don’t they make gardening gloves reversible? Being right handed I have a drawer full of superfluous intact left hand gloves as all my right hand ones get ripped and worn with monotonous regularity. As I value my nails I opt to double glove, that is, to don surgical gloves first (well, I do come from a medical family) followed by fine weave gardening gloves with reinforced palms and fingers. I find this way I can actually feel what I am doing! But it seems such a waste to throw a whole pair away just because one glove has had it. So if there are any dainty size 6½ left handed gardeners out there in need of spares please do get in touch!
And so…….Spring is here, that is if you are of the meteorological persuasion. Personally I feel like that’s cheating and am opting for Monday March 20th before I celebrate the demise of Winter. But the frogs are definitely in the first category! Having sluiced out the fermenting rill (oh boy did we stink; even after our clothes had gone in the wash the smell lingered on in our olfactory senses) we decided not to refill it straightaway. (Why not, David? You still haven’t given me a viable explanation.) So when David came running in from the garden a couple of days later, lamenting that it was, “Too late, too late”, I wondered what on earth had happened. I should have put two and two together when the previous evening friend Lesley reported hearing strange throbbing noises whilst sneaking a fag on the patio, during our pancake eating Shrove Tuesday Book Club: Frogspawn in the rill! One centimetre of rainwater was all the encouragement they needed. So now what? Do we gently fill it up and hope the frog spawn rises with the tide, or run the risk of evaporation if we leave it be? And how would they climb out? Eventually, having watched a group of five milling around (is that what they call it in polite society?) amongst the frogspawn, David came up with a makeshift ladder cut from a piece of tongue and groove floorboard. They queued up to use it but slid down again, so he then applied a piece of fine grade abrasive anti-slip tape. Lo and behold, off they went to find fresh fields, croaking away happily…..
Accident prone as ever, I dove into the flower bed to prune a clematis, only to catch my toe on the irrigation pipe coming out, and landed knee to shin on the stone path. Dear me, the air was blue and so were the bruises! Undeterred I soldiered on (back of hand to forehead) until rain sent me under cover. Oh the inevitability of my seed sewing failures: Basil nothing, leeks eaten by mice (you’ve overstayed your welcome folks), broad beans etiolated under protective tray cover, sweet peas dying of thirst. However all is not lost. I have managed to prick out three each of T & M tomato Garnet & Indigo Cherry Drops but alas no sign of Artisan Mixed. Perhaps a few cells of tomato Mountain Magic will produce better results. So the next lot of greenhouse sowings for March are as follows:
• Sweet pepper Gourmet
• Pepper Sweet Boneta
• Courgette de Nice a Fruit Rond
• Nasturtium Troika Spotty Dotty (surely these can’t go wrong)
And then there is the allotment. When it comes to The Good Life I am definitely a fair weather gardener. My first visit since last November was relatively painless. Hardly any weeds, a few brave broad bean seedlings valiantly growing away in splendid isolation. So I achieved my objective of pruning the blackberry hedge and the strawberry patch, with the welcome help of the allotment tortie cat. Originally from an adjacent semi, said cat opted for the outdoor life by adopting a plot holder who now provides bed and board. He feeds her twice a day and makes alternative arrangements in his absence, and has provided shelter in his shed with access via a cat flap. She has the hump right now because the local vixen has taken up temporary residence whilst in confinement with her two cubs. Obviously I didn’t hear this from her (!) but she did share my hessian ground sheet for a good hour, purring away as I struggled with the thorny brambles. (Who’s the mug here?) Anyway I digress. On my next visit I shall sow T & M Pea Terrain and Pea Eddy direct: I always surprise myself with the success of peas and beans. I have decided that I shall relocate the T & M tree lilies from the front garden to the allotment, to join the existing half dozen four year olds that flower so profusely you could see them from space. As I can’t grow them at home (as all parts of lilies are poisonous to cats) I might as well enjoy them on the plot. I wonder if the dahlias Fox Mixed and Trebbiano have survived, this being the coldest winter since transferring them three years ago. Plenty of daffs coming up though, good for cutting. All the flowers and bulbs on the allotment are from previous T& M trials, which reminds me that I have been on the Plant Triallists’ panel since its inception in 2010.
So with the growing season well under way, David and I have really got stuck in. Clearly not satisfied with the mess created by Rill-Gate, David pressure washed every hard surface in the garden. So traumatised am I by the inevitable mud splashes and sodden border edges that I won’t set foot outside until it’s all dried off and swept away. For my part, having completed all the heavy duty tasks – top dressing the borders with manure, successfully liberating T & M Tree Peony Hong Xia (2011) from its container to the pastel border, replacing aucuba with outrageously expensive cornus Kousa (and it’s not even my birthday for another month) and lifting & dividing monstrous miscanthus – I can smugly look forward to pottering about over the next few weeks. Who am I kidding; it’s almost time to hard prune the fuchsia and the hardy salvias, bring the giant cannas out of hibernation, and so the list goes on……..still, it keeps me off the streets! Love, Caroline
January, supposedly named after the god Janus, a two headed figure who could look to both the future and the past, the reason why we make resolutions at this time of year, to change things in our life. So it’s no surprise then, that we gardeners are very probably this month perusing seed catalogues, drawing up plans, and generally getting our kit ready for the growing year.
Ianuarius – (Latin for January) translates to a doorway – and this is where I feel I am, getting ready to step out into a new adventure. I can’t believe this will be my third year for blogging for T&M! Last year was not my best gardening year due to my cancer, but this year, I really hope to catch up and transform the garden, learn new things and have a lot of fun on the way.
The first thing I learned this year is how powerful plants can be. During my final session of chemotherapy, I decided to google what goes into the drugs that are saving my life. Cabol, was a synthetic and uninteresting drug, but Taxol, as the name suggests, is derived from the Pacific Yew tree. It also contains poisonous plant alkaloids from the periwinkle (Vinca Major) and the American wild mandrake, commonly known as the May Apple. Plus it has extracts from the Asian Happy tree a 40 meter giant that is also grown in Canada – no one would choose to ingest these, no wonder I have felt so rough!
But now with the chemo over I am no longer banned from the greenhouse, so I sit with my seed tins beside me and make a list of everything I want to grow this year. I start by picking out the fruit and veg I want, I’m going to grow both yellow and red tomatoes. Yellow Stuffer, and either Mountain Magic or Sweet Aperitif. I also pick Bullhorn and Sweet Boneta peppers as well as chilli Prairie Fire. The heritage pea Alderman is also on my list. I have asked if I can trial aubergine Listada De Gendia and some melon seeds and some Calendula. I hope I am allowed.
I will also be working on my new grassy knoll area, so I will be growing Banksia Hookeriana, and Horses Tails, as well as a variety of other grasses. When it comes to flowers, I seem to be especially attracted to all things orange this year. I am thinking of buying the Dahlia Jowey Linda, I love its pom-pom shape; I will mostly likely be growing Zinnias, Star or Veldt and Cosmos too.
My other mad plan is I want to have a charity plant sale with all of the extra plants I end up growing. I want to raise money for a local cancer support group who have been amazingly helpful in the last few months. I have no idea if I can achieve everything but I’m definitely going to give it a go.
To kick start the growing year, Mark has already sieved the compost and sown the peas, peppers and chillies. Nothing has germinated yet, but they have only been in for about ten days. The weather has been unusually mild with only one or two days of frost. Most days it’s at least 8 degrees and our lawn is growing, and will probably need a cut soon.
Apart from the germinating seeds, inside the little greenhouse I have some winter flowering shrubs that I had on special offer for £10 back in December from T&M. They are Chimonanthus praecox – ‘Wintersweet’, Viburnum x bodantense ‘Dawn’ plus Sarcococca confusa. I also took advantage of a magazine offer to claim an extra Viburnum X bodantense, fertiliser and snips for just the price of P&P, so it worked out about £4 per shrub. Bargain! The shrubs can be planted any time between now and March, Mark has already repotted them into 9cm pots as the roots are establishing quickly. Ideally the bigger the rootball the better they should settle in the garden.
I am hoping to transplant them in February, I don’t want to take the risk of frost damage or high winds just yet. Also the small flowers on the Wintersweet are making the greenhouse smell divine.
There are also the ever present Aloe Veras, some mint that needs repotting badly, and the Money tree.
In the large greenhouse we have random amaranthus seedlings growing where the aubergines were last year. I have no idea how they got there. The only thing I can think of is the seeds must have lay dormant in the soil from when we grew them at the edge of the wall before the greenhouse was built. I am leaving them grow for now and will transplant them when they are bigger. Amaranthus are really hardy, I have let them dry out completely in pots and they always bounce back. They love the heat and the longer they have in the greenhouse the bigger they become. There is also a Christmas basket containing a baby conifer and an ivy. The basket also contained Poinsettia, but it didn’t seem to live very well in our house. These plants are going to go into the garden eventually, but for now they are getting used to no longer being in the central heated warmth.
Another offer that T&M did with a magazine recently was to claim 40 free Gladioli bulbs for just £5.95. I wasn’t going to order them, but then I started reading the Margery Fish Cottage Garden Plants book, and her enthusiasm rubbed off on me, so I accidentally bought them too! Whilst I have longed for a cottage style garden, her insight showed me an obvious flaw in why I can’t really have the garden I desire. A cottage garden is usually surrounded by stone walls. Walls that will hold in the heat and protect the plants, we have a wooden picket fence along our front garden meaning that although it will filter the wind and offer some protection, it’s not ideal. Although saying that I do have success growing lupins and and foxgloves so there is hope yet.
My brother, Andrew, has recently bought a Veg Trug™ and flower pouches so he and his girls can grow strawberries and vegetables this year. He also says he going to finish building his greenhouse. (This is an ongoing saga, but at least now the base has been done.) My niece was so excited when I sent her and her sisters some seeds to try. I gave them lettuce, carrots, basil and tomatoes. Things that should germinate easily and quickly so they don’t have to wait too long for the results. It’s so good to see youngsters getting involved in gardening and making the connection between the land and the plate. Hopefully it will set them up to make healthy food choices and encourage them to be outdoors rather than inside on a computer. As well growing their own produce the girls regularly help their grandparents in the greenhouse, and me in mine when they visit.
Mum has two projects on the go, firstly she wants to grow her own tomatoes this year, but she wants to raise them from seed. So she is making a cold frame from the vegetable trays from her old fridge. I like this idea of recycling the plastic boxes, as they already have drainage holes in them and they are deep enough to hold several pots. Her other task is to redesign her tiny front garden. When I say tiny, I mean it, as you can see from the picture. She wants to keep the roses and the gravel but she says she wants a new theme. I am rubbish at designing and my gardening style is too wild for her. By that I mean I grow for nature rather than myself. I have native flowers, wild flowers and stinging nettles in borders for the butterflies. I grow sedums, hebe and ivy for the bees, honeysuckle for the ladybirds and leave the seed heads on Verbena Bonarienses for the Blue Tits. I love the dandelions, buttercups, thistles, clover and daisies that grow in our lawns which most people, including Mark, hate. In return I am rarely plagued by pests. The worst I have is earwigs in the dahlias, as looking after the insects means we have a variety of other creatures visiting our garden. We have a massive family of house sparrows, as well as a resident wren, robin and collard doves. We have a family of blackbirds and magpies, plus plenty of other feathered friends too. We have bats feeding in the summer, foxes, hedgehogs, and slow worms. Not bad for an urban garden in the industrial side of Pembrokeshire.
So there’s plenty to look forward to. Soon it will be time for my daffodils, grape hyacinth and crocuses to flower, they are budding, and there is new growth coming on last year’s trial Antirrhinums, these have stayed out all winter in a hanging basket on a west facing wall. They are yet to be named, and I didn’t see them in the catalogue, so I’m intrigued to see what other trialists make of them and if they were a success. I’m hoping to start off my sweet peas next. Then the potatoes.
Until next time.
Wild Bee numbers have been declining for decades in the UK. This is due to the wild grasslands of this country diminishing by a massive 97%; and the widespread use of agricultural pesticides on farmlands up and down the country. The Government has urged gardeners to do their bit and help with this serious issue. Bee experts have called for a nationwide effort to protect this threatened genus.
Aubretia ‘Cascade Purple’ & Wildflower ‘Honey-bee Flower Mixed’
So what can gardeners do to help bees survive – especially during the winter months? Well there is plenty to do to help in small ways.
The first thing to do is leave a small patch of your garden to grow wild, and make sure it will not get disturbed in any way. Make it just as nature intended it, and you can do this by letting grass grow long and allowing wild flowers to bloom. If you have a north facing bank then this is the ideal spot to allow grass to overgrow. Bees like to burrow, especially when they need to hibernate and facing north is the most suitable for their hibernation.
It is also important to grow plants which will provide an essential food source for the bees during the colder months. Such plants as spring flowering plants and winter flowering plants are a good idea. Perhaps an aubrietia or acacia dealbata. Hedera hibernica ivy is also good for wildlife gardens, fast growing it is ideal if you want to get your wildlife garden going quickly.
Echium vulgare ‘Blue Bedder’ & Wildflower mixed seeds
For your wildflower garden you can scatter seeds straight into the ground, with one of our wildflower seed mixes, so there is no need for potting up or pricking out. For early flowering plants crocus bulbs and snowdrops are perfect, they provide early springtime food supplies to sustain the bees until more spring flowers arrive.
Most bees exist in a state of near hibernation during the winter but having food to eat during this time will give them a much better chance of surviving until the next spring. Summertime flowers are frequently seen in the garden; but extending the time there are nectar rich flowers into early spring and late autumn is increasingly important for the bee’s survival.
Anemone ‘Wild Swan’ & Acacia dealbata
Lord Gardener Minister of Rural Affairs and Biosecurity has said that bees are a much loved feature of the English countryside in summertime. He also stated that they are also a crucial part of the biodiversity of this country and an essential part of our economy; and that it is vital not to forget bees’ during winter time. At Thompson & Morgan we feel that it is extremely important to provide a home and food for these wonderful little creatures that do so much for us.
If you would like to find out more about making your garden a haven for wildlife – the articles below have a vaste array of information, knowledge and inspiration >>
Bees & Butterflies Inspiration
Encouraging Wildlife including Bees
Plants for Wildlife
What to do in the Garden to Encourage Wildlife