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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…

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.

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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.

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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.

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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’

 

Almost there.

July project: A reclaimed brick path

This week's project - up the garden path.
This week’s project – up the garden path.

So, this is this week’s project. Of course, it had to be the hottest week of the year, in a South facing garden. Lots of sun cream needed! But, hey, we need paths, right? Can’t get from A to B in a garden too easily without one, and you might as well do it in style.

The choice of pathing is endless. You only have to take a trip to a garden centre, builders merchant or local DIY centre to find a crazy and bewildering array of pathing options. You can have pebbles bedded in cement, crushed glass, slate, wooden decking style paths, gravel, grass or other low-growing plants, and of course all of the usual paving slab options and arrangements. I’m sure there are more options still. I’ve decided on old, reclaimed bricks.

My trusty gardening companion and all-round enthusiastic handyman, Alan, is here to help with this project. Phew. We’re using weed membrane underneath a bed of builders sand, with the same yellow builders sand used to point and fill in the bricks once they’ve been laid out. We aren’t cementing the bricks in – no need. I want to create a nice, laid-back, natural path, with irregularities and bits of brick missing, all of its foibles taken into account and used to create an overall naturalistic, ‘cottage garden’ effect.

Any gaps in bricks along the path will be filled over time with a bit of Saxifraga or Thyme – perhaps Thymus ‘Silver Posie’ or Thymus pulegioides ‘Aureus’. These mostly stay small, very low growing and neat, with some flower and scent interest.

Some might turn their noses up at a higgledy-piggledy reclaimed brick path, full of gaps, slight drops and rises in level. Well, in the wrong situation they’d be absolutely right to do so. You have to choose the path for the garden, and even the area of garden, in question. In this case, there is a slightly formal design of deep herbaceous beds on either side of a straight-down-the-middle, one metre wide path. Whilst a neatly trimmed grass path works well in that situation, and gives the right impression of relaxed and laid-back yet still relatively formal, this path leads straight on from a pathed patio area and I felt it required some harder landscaping to connect the two areas.

Hard, machined slabs straight to soft grass wasn’t working for me. A brick is man-made and yet much softer to the eye than a square slab of concrete made to look like stone. Bricks crumble and soften at the edges. They can, indeed, look quite natural; they are, after all, made of a natural substance. Old, reclaimed bricks are the way forward (pun intended).

Corrr, just look at these sexy bricks with their bits of grout and chunks missing… Makes me think of Lego blocks, and makes me want to build stuff.

A pile of lovely old bricks.
A pile of lovely old bricks.

Two days in. Turf stripped, ground levelled, membrane down, bricks going in…and this is what we look like today. Wahey!

Me laying an informal, reclaimed brick path.

The key to a successful path is to ensure the ground is level first. In fact, I’m going to use that word a lot in this paragraph just to stress the point… Lightly dig out the ground with a border fork and level using a rake. Use a spirit level to check ground levels. Use a single layer of weed membrane above your base soil level, and use at least an inch or so of builder’s sand above this. Bed each brick in lightly, tapping it in and ensuring that each brick is level with the remaining bricks. Check levels all the time. Even with a more rustic, relaxed path, you still want to ensure that the path is relatively level throughout. You get the idea – level, level, level! The end result will be so much better.

Once the bricks are bedded in, fill in all gaps with completely dry builder’s sand. Be prepared to have to go over the bricks again with more sand in a few weeks, once the path has settled and sand has seeped into cracks and holes. Pointing may need re-doing annually, depending on rainfall and usage. There are a few coloured sand options available now. This could be used to interesting effect when pointing bricks in a path.

Well, today we are almost finished. The weed membrane ran out at exactly the end of the last row, which was fortunate, and we seemed to have exactly the right amount of bricks. I finished off the path that leads into the rose arch using less bricks per row, and using broken half bricks to create a worn away/eroded impression, which then leads straight into lawn. This seems to work nicely, but we have had to raise the level of the ground where turf has dropped over time with heavy footfall. This needs to be seeded so that it grows seamlessly into the turf already here, and back into the half bricks and brick path. It will take a few months for the final result here. Otherwise, all that we need to do now is spend a lot of hours brushing sand into all of the gaps between bricks! This always seems to be the most time-consuming and mundane part of the job!

This was Alan earlier, having reached the quarter way mark!

wpid-wp-1406034885212.jpgTomorrow I will post up the finished product.

Alan’s tips for constructing a brick path:

  • Select a pattern for layout of the brick path
  • Level the area out well to firm ground
  • Use weed membrane to keep weed growth in check
  • Use a decent inch or two thickness of fine sand as your base for the bricks
  • When using reclaimed bricks, choose each brick carefully as you lay them, selecting thickness and size according to the specific spot and allowing for old grout attached to bricks
  • Use broken bricks to fill smaller gaps and awkward areas
  • Use a spirit level with each row and each section of bricks, in all directions, to ensure they’re consistently level
  • Keep lines parallel and straight
  • Fill in and point bricks with fine sand

If you would like a consultation with a view to professional construction of paving or paths in your garden, please contact us using the form below.

June: Herbaceous beds

Here’s a quick update of the growth and development of the two herbaceous beds on either side of the main path.

Right-hand bed, containing all the cool colours. As can be seen, there is a lot of growth.

Herbaceous border: Cool blues
Herbaceous border: Cool blues

And the left-hand bed, containing all the hot colours.

Herbaceous border: hot bed
Herbaceous border: Hot bed

The hot border was only planted at the beginning of April, yet is already starting to fill out. I admit to leaving quite a lot of gaps and spaces around each plant. I’ve been both criticised and applauded for this. One friend admired my constraint (her garden is full of plants and each new plant gets shoehorned into the tiniest gaps imaginable). It is entirely deliberate. I’ve planted up many gardens in the past (my own and others), often without leaving space for each plant to grow to its fullest potential, and have regretted it within one to two years. Plan them too close together, and you both limit the space for larger shrubs to expand to their natural and glorious size, and you choke out light for the plants next to them to thrive.

I’ve lost too many smaller plants this way; I’ve found myself wandering around the garden a year after planting, remembering specimens that used to be in the border here and there but which have disappeared, then realising they’ve been reduced to a small space deep beneath a shrub’s lower branches. I’ve found too many much-loved and treasured perennials reduced to one pathetic, weedy stem, desperately searching out the light and failing, and I’ve lost quite a few plants this way. It is now my rule #1 when planting – always take into account the final size of a plant, when you put them in, and allow them a decent growing area accordingly.

Having said all of that, I still make the same mistake now and then. Just look at the Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ in the first image. That plant grows! I’ve put a number of smaller shrubs around it, some of which will have to be monitored to ensure they don’t become overshadowed, quite literally. I’ve also put a Picea pungens ‘Hoopsii’ right next to it, within around two feet. That’s going to have to come out and move at some point. Moving mature shrubs is never a good thing. Planning is everything.