Serenity

It is now June, and other than some unwelcome slugs and snails munching away on the Hostas, Tradescantia ‘Sweet Kate’ and the Delphiniums, the ‘cool’side of the herbaceous borders is doing well – as seen here.

I have stuck to my no dig policy and have only had to spend an hour or so hand weeding out what turned out to be mostly ranunculus and a few other pesky unwelcomes. The bark mulch has done a great job at keeping weeds down on this side, which reassures me about having mulched the other side this year.

I am leaving the top section of the garden to grow wild for a while. The grass has grown rapidly and there are some lovely wild flowers coming up. I have noticed that birds are far more likely to spend time up in the long grass pecking for worms and insects than they have been previously. I’ve also left out a large saucer of water in the veg section for birds to drink from as, despite rain, it is pretty parched around here.

All is peaceful in the garden at the moment…

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May 2016: Long time, no post.

It’s been a while. Having embarked on a degree, I thought the garden might become fully neglected. Instead, it has only become partially neglected… June/July 2015 saw the ‘hot’ border grow to this epic magnitude.

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Impressive? I felt it was worth the hard work to get it to that point. It had grown incredibly full (this was late summer, when all of the ‘jewel’ colours in the garden are at their peak). In the foreground, the heuchera and sedum compete for darkest leaf award, the sedum winning out with its nicely contrasted dark pink flower. Behind it are a dark pink monarda, Burgundy Ice rose, cannas, dark leafed dahlias and a stunning pink salvia. Behind them are the yellows and some oranges. Scorching.

Below is an image of (mostly) both sides of the first section of the garden after one full year’s growth. It is clear from this image how one side has been planted with cool colours and the other with hot colours, and how well it works. Flame the German Shepherd is enjoying the garden too (she likes to chase the buzzy things). You can also see pink sedums, pink Japanese anemones and some antique pink sweet peas in this image.

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You can see that the newly laid brick path we put in last year has wintered, weathered, cracked in places, become overgrown with moss and a few weeds, and generally looks like it has been there for years. That was the idea!

After overwintering and dying back – as herbaceous borders do – I spent a bit of time on it in February, pulling out weeds and throwing on a thick layer of bark mulch to try to control them this year. I’m going fully ‘no dig’ in 2016 so it is all hand pulling of weeds and keeping on top of them, whilst spending as little time as possible doing it as I simply don’t have a lot of time to devote to this section for the next couple of years while I complete my degree.

Here is the border newly mulched and cleared, ready for all new growth. Since this image was taken (below) the hot border has really grown thanks to the lovely warm weather we’ve had in early May in the UK, coupled with the odd torrential downpour!

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All cut back and looking bare! This was taken at the end of February 2016. What a difference a few months of cold weather makes. Hopefully, it will be back to lush, vibrancy in no time. I will update.

Fruity

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The apples trees I planted last year are finally bearing fruit! They seem to be doing exceptionally well this year. These are my first ever apple trees, so I’m super excited. All are on semi-dwarf root stock so I’m hoping they’ll remain relatively small.

Hanging baskets, pots and troughs: Thrillers, spillers and fillers

It’s mid-July. Very often, bedding plants are beginning to look a bit tired at this stage, if not half dead. Unless you are the conscientious gardener who always remembers to feed and water hanging baskets and pots of bedding, by this time they can be looking somewhat depleted and have often run out of nutrients in the pot/basket. On the other hand, this can be the absolute peak for bedding plants, and there are some fantastic arrangements on show around the UK.

It can be a time of intense hanging basket envy, wherby you spot your neighbour’s lush, colourful hanging baskets and wish you’d had the energy to pot something up earlier in the year! Perhaps this explains the many customers we get coming into the garden centre at this late stage frantically hunting out a fully potted up and blooming hanging basket. You guys will pay some hefty money to get that stunning, well planted hanging basket that will look just perfect for outside the front door.

As a qualified horticulturalist more focused on shrubs, trees and herbaceous perennials, I don’t ‘do’ bedding. Well, I’ll qualify that – I do hanging baskets, made up from clearance reduced plug plants at the end of the plug bedding eight week season. I’ll then choose the last of them according to colours. I tend to go for a colour theme for each of my hanging baskets. This year, I have three hanging baskets and they are purple, white and deep pink themed.

When customers ask me how to plant up a hanging basket, I always use the same rule I was taught in horticultural college: you want a thriller, some fillers and lots of spillers. Each basket or pot arrangement of bedding needs a thriller, fillers and spillers. Easy, huh?

Your thriller is the main star attraction of the pot or basket. It is the biggest plant in the arrangement, and is placed centrally or to one side, depending on the location of the pot or basket. You only need one thriller. It ideally consists of your themed colour (either leaf or flower). Common choices of plant for a thriller might be a fuchsia, geranium, cordyline, perhaps a large begonia or fern, a dwarf conifer…whatever you want, so long as it’s the star of the show and can pack enough punch to pull the eye into the centre (height and spread is what you want). Ideally, it will be an upright plant, so if using a fuchsia choose a bush/upright variety and not a trailing variety. (Most bedding plants will be labeled upright or trailing.) Let’s say you want a dark pink themed basket, so you might choose a Fuchsia ‘Paula Jane’ as your thriller.

The fillers can be any number of a myriad of choices of bedding plants. It can be a bewildering choice. If so, keep it simple. Buy 4/5 of the same plant as your fillers if you want – there is no rule against it! Likewise, you can choose 4/5 or more of completely different, suitably-sized plants to plant around your thriller. I tend to choose 2 or 3 of the same type, and tend to use around 5/6 fillers in a basket. This creates some contrast but allows for a decent clump of the same plant in each basket. Remember the colour theme and stick to it. That pre-planned effect of an explosion of complimentary colours will be evident once they begin to grow and merge into each other. Typical, classic filler plants might be petunias, violas, pansies, nemesia, calibrachoe, bidens (bit of a trailer too), etc.

Lastly, you have your spillers – the trailing – sometimes seriously dangling – plant addition to every self-respecting, traditional hanging basket.

You can plant up veg or fruit baskets and pots too! Stick a tomato plant in the centre, some marigolds as companion planting around the edges, perhaps a few dwarf carrots, some dill or fennel, thyme and mint as your spillers. Just be prepared for these to run out of steam and space quite quickly regardless of feeding; they will need to be potted on or planted out eventually.

Goodbye, my lover

I wrote this two years ago when I left my previous garden. Those who have created a garden and then moved, leaving your treasured plants and creations behind, may understand the sentiment:

“It’s a tough thing, as a trained gardener and enthusiastic plant-collector, leaving a garden behind. My ten-year old garden will soon be left in the capable or not-so-capable hands of a new owner. I’m moving on to gardens new.

When I bought this house, its modest 45 ft by 25 ft secluded and private garden was one of the defining attractive features that convinced me to commit to a mortgage and the responsibility of first-time home-ownership. It was then a five-year old house, lurking at the edge of Hell Brook (yes, it’s really called that). The garden consisted of an extended patio, an uneven lawn and some hastily planted conifers in what I considered to be a humorous excuse for an East-facing border. Oh, yes – there was also a leylandii hedge.

As with all new partners, some things were not ok. The Cupressus x leylandii had to go. I brought some baggage with me, too – some mature plants from a previous garden. Those were the plants that I couldn’t bear to part with (I have issues with saying goodbye), namely a Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’, a Corylus avellana ‘Purpurea’, and various euphorbia and hardy geraniums. From a basic structure of newly expanded borders and the addition of trees for height and some larger shrubs for form, my garden grew. It grew slowly, mostly out of the odd spare fiver and a whim on a visit to a garden centre. It was added to with cuttings taken from friends’ gardens, and unwanted divisions of hostas, bamboos and hardy geraniums from other friends’ gardens. All gradually joined together, like a dot-to-dot, to create something unique and pleasurable.

It’s been far from perfect. There was no grand plan for us. We built on very little – slowly – border by border, until there was something imperfect yet somehow complete. It wasn’t an instant haven. It has only been in the last year or so that I have looked upon my garden, in its full June/July glory, and been satisfied with the result. Typical, now that I’m leaving, that the Tradescantia x andersoniana ‘Purple Dome’ which has resisted, struggled and looked miserable since the day I planted it in the ground eight years ago, now decides to look gloriously healthy and finally accept its place in the garden. It will flower well this year, but I won’t be here to see it.

Creating a garden from scratch involves imparting a piece of yourself into the ground. Starting with a blank canvas, you allow your eye to wander and your mind to build on fancies, wishes and desires. You commit to something, and over time the garden becomes a fundamental aspect of your life. It becomes a sanctuary, a quiet space, a safe haven, a spot to sunbathe without prying eyes, a place to have a sneaky cigarette, a heart-felt chat, a quick snog with your other half… Whatever, it is always there; a quiet, safe and pleasurable space. And whilst your garden belongs to you, it is never fully owned by you. Because you may have bought the plants, lovingly planted each one in its carefully chosen location, dug the ground each Spring and Autumn, weeded and mulched and generally maintained, but once in the ground, a plant reunites with its true master and does only what Nature dictates. That aspect of a garden is somehow reassuring to me. I have created my garden, and I nurture it, but ultimately it doesn’t answer to me. I admire self-sufficiency and independence in a partner, and I admire it in a garden too.

I wander around my garden in the morning light, inspecting new growth and inwardly (and sometimes outwardly) exclaiming at the apparently magical appearance of buds and flowers where there was just bare stem days before. I take close-up photographs, trying to capture and preserve the essence of beauty and wonder in images, and invariably failing. Ever-loyal Hostas have emerged from the ground, with their elegant, sophisticated, juicy green leaf spikes. Prunus ‘Royal Burgundy’ has exposed itself in all its regal, dark and velvety glory in the space of what seems like a week. Liberally scattered daffodils and tulips are only now finally budding, ready to flower. What a difference sun, rain and warmth makes. Spring was slow to arrive, but as many an article in the Guardian or Indie Gardening Sections has informed us, the delay was just a delightful build-up to a month of orgasmic explosion of unusual combined growth and colour. Tulip ‘Queen of the Night’ arches and prepares to blossom beneath Prunus ‘Shirotae’ (Mount Fuji), while Viburnum x burkwoodii rubs itself against Daffodil ‘Yellow Cheerfulness’. Geranium phaeum ‘Samobor’ (Mourning Widow) soberly looks on. It’s all a slightly bizarre union.

Meanwhile, newly emerged butterflies drift in and out of the borders, a hoverfly surveys the garden from above, a large bee pushes its way in and out of the creamy yellow flowers of a Lamium galeobdolon. They all seem to be telling me, “Go on, leave. We don’t need you. Life goes on, with or without you.”

So now, I’m in love with my garden all over again. Yet I must leave it. Even the dog looks sad at my change of heart. Ridiculous, as I meander across the lawn to bend over and wonder at yet another emerging shoot, or zoom in on some dew-spattered daffodil petals, that I feel incredibly sad. The lump in my throat and watery eyes confirms it. I’m almost overwhelmed with sadness at my choice to leave this space I have clumsily explored, admired, fondled, nourished and protected for almost ten years… Or it could just be the dreaded hay fever returning.”

Sniff.

Grow Your Own Smug

The raised beds that we built towards the end of last year, constructed from sleepers, sat empty overwinter. Finally, in late spring, after ordering four tons of topsoil and creating the new herbaceous bed at the front of the garden, there was soil to spare. (I can’t say that wasn’t a surprise. Calculations, be damned.) Enough soil, as it turned out, to half fill each of the raised beds designated for veg growing. These were duly heaped up, and topped up with a liberal, stinky dose of farmyard manure. I dug it all in, and cleared any lumps and bumps. Then I set about planting up some veg plugs. At last! A real chance for me to live the self-sufficiency dream, and attempt to grow all of my own vegetables in the back garden. It’s the modern, organic vegan’s idyll. Stick that in your capitalist, free-market pipes, supermarkets. I don’t need your produce any more! Well, I probably will, actually, at least for some time to come.

The smaller 1m x 2m raised bed was designated the ‘Salad Bed’. Salad Bed, meet Cut n Come Again lettuce, Lollo Rosso, Butterhead, Spinach and Pak Choi. I was super excited about the Pak Choi – I love to make vegan Thai Green Curry, and this is a fundamental and relatively expensive component in the curry. The thought of skipping down to the bottom of my garden and cutting off perfectly fresh, organic pak choi leaves to use in a lovely curry bubbling away on the hob gave me a singularly smug grin, I’m not ashamed to admit.

Well, smug dreams come true; I’ve since used up all of the first batch of pak choi (over, and over, and over again – may even admit to being very slightly bored of cooking Thai Green Curry now). I was half expecting a come-down from my organic dream – some disappointing payback for being an idealistic fool – but instead, the pak choi leaves were fresh, and crisp, and juicy, and perfect. Still grinning here, smugly.

The loose salad leaves were equally rewarding to grow. As we all know, the first step towards self-sufficiency is growing your own salad. Ok, it probably isn’t the first step at all and, ok, it can’t be compared to installing your own wind turbine, solar array, or reed filtration bed system, but it’s a step in the right direction. No more last-minute jump in the car and head to the local shop for a gassy and over-priced bag of salad. Oh no! Step outside into your own tranquil oasis, stroll down to the veg patch, and pull a few leaves off a plant. How simple is that? No fuel needed, takes a minute rather than ten, and there’s the satisfaction element. Yes, there’s that smug grin again.

The spinach leaves are best used up while young and fresh. Sadly, too many of mine shot up and started to go to seed. I understand that the hotter and drier both pak choi and spinach get, the more likely they are to run to seed. Next time, I’ll attempt to keep the salad bed far more moist; but a very hot and dry period fell quite soon after these had started to develop, and I think this caused them to run to seed early. I pulled out most of these, to allow the other leaves to develop.

I have given quite a few lettuce heads to family, as no matter how much you think you’ll use, you never use that much. Don’t over-estimate how much veg. a small family needs to grow. You actually don’t need a lot of space at all, if you sow and bring on your veg month by month, as and when you use it.

I’ve since done this with the pak choi – used it all up, and sown more in the cleared space – and these have germinated quickly and are starting to develop into small, healthy plants. I’ve tried to keep the watering well up with this second batch. I’ve sown red leaf and green leaf varieties. The red leaf variety of Pak Choi intrigues me – how much difference will there be in taste between red and green? Red leaves in salads are often much more bitter. I’ll find out in around a week, and report back.

In the 2m x 2m bed, I planted golden courgettes, mange tout, petit pois, runner bean ‘Streamline’ and leeks ‘Musselburgh’. As I’ve mentioned, the weather has been far too hot and far too dry. The only downside to having raised beds in the middle of a 200 foot south facing garden is that it is miles away from a hosepipe or water butt! This needs to be rectified. As a result, this bed has dried out quite a bit so far this year, on and off, and the legumes have suffered a little. The courgettes are… well, courgettes. You can’t go wrong with courgettes, can you? Plant them, watch them grow (and grow), and eat courgettes until they’re coming out of your ears. Job done. I can’t recommend growing your own courgettes highly enough. Great for beginner veg growers, and I feel I speak as one.

I’m really excited about the leeks; but I know I’ve planted them too close together this year so they won’t do as well as they could have. It’s a learning experience. Next time I’ll give them more space between plants. I love cooking with leeks so it will be great to have our own home-growns to cook with. The Streamline runner beans are finally rewarding me with fabulous, juicy long beans. Again, runners are a fave veg, so we are well pleased to be able to pick and cook these now.

We still have one remaining raised bed to finish. The gravel is down. There is also the greenhouse to install in this section, and guttering and water butts. This has had to be put on hold while other work in the garden is completed (now done). In that bed I’ll grow more brassicas, I think, and next year I plan to grow Jerusalem artichokes and salad potatoes, too.

Ashamedly In The Pink

It’s mid-July, and the rate of growth in the garden is quite astounding. The left-hand border, which was only created in April, has gone berserk. And contrary to my previous assertions on this blog that I don’t like pink, in any way at all, a disturbing development has occurred – there is a lot of pink in my garden. This is not the cutesy, pretty, delicate kind of pink, either. We’re talking shocking, in-your-face, you-can’t-pretend-this-isn’t-pink pink. I’m mildly ashamed, and slightly confused. Just take a look at the disturbing evidence of my garden’s overt fall into pink disgrace, as shown below.

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Lewisia bringing a shocking splash of colour to the front of the border.
Monarda
Monarda ‘Mowhawk’ (Bergamot)
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Close up of the stunning hot pink Monarda ‘Mowhawk’ (Bergamot)
Salvia
Salvia x sylvestris ‘Rose Queen’
Pittosporum
Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Elizabeth’
Rose
David Austin Rose ‘Princess Anne’
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David Austin rose ‘Darcey Bussell’