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.

IMAG3435

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.

IMAG3442

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!

IMAG5523

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.

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.

Chaos Vs. Order – the conservationist gardener’s predicament

My plan for the garden here always involved leaving the top section of the 200 foot length to grow slightly wild and unkempt. The initial idea was to have a shady, slightly Japanese inspired oasis of bamboos and Acers, long grasses, a meandering path of slightly shorter grass, leading to a shallow ornamental pond and raised deck with a summer-house. Sounds good, right? So far, all I’ve managed is some seriously long grass and a ridiculous section of rotting turf at the very top of the garden. Yay (that was sarcasm).

Amongst the long grass, I’ve planted three fruit trees (two apple and one pear, all on semi-dwarf root stock) and three dark foliage ornamental trees (Prunus ‘Royal Burgundy’Prunus cerasifera Nigra and Malus ‘Royalty’. These aren’t showing much growth yet, but it’s the first year. I look forward to seeing these trees flourish (hopefully) and fill their allotted space in this section.

Last year, after moving in, I left the dog’s paddling pool in the long grass at the top of the garden. It filled with rain, then dried out, then filled with rain, and so on. It has been almost full for some time now, due to the rains we’ve had in May in the UK. I moved it to empty the nasty water over the trees a few weeks ago, only to spot a small newt plop out onto the soil as I poured. I was amazed, and horrified. I quickly put the paddling pool back in its previous spot in the long grass, then scooped up the newt (with difficulty – slippery things), and put it back in the water. In my panic, I put a large rock in the water with it, and a plant in a pot. I’m not sure why – something for it to do? In all seriousness, I was ecstatic to find this single example of unusual UK wildlife in my garden, and immediately went into action to encourage it to remain. The odd bank of rotting turf, weeds, long grasses, and self-seeded saplings popping up behind the paddling pool have obviously attracted small animals and birds. It is a rare area of uncultivated and undisturbed wilderness – small as it is – in an otherwise ordered and highly maintained row of urban gardens.

I mean, I knew we had foxes. I’ve even fed them once or twice, and they have rewarded me with some lovely dusk antics (and the occasional harmless digging in my veg bed). I’ve seen the occasional bat swooping low at dusk, and some swallows darting and screeching across the gardens in the last few days. All wonderful, but none of these seem too concerned with the wild state or otherwise of my garden. I realise they are dependent on insects, and how I plant and maintain my garden will affect insect populations and, thus, affect them (e.g. pesticide use and planting insect attracting plants); but that is slightly different to the implications of the actual physical state of the garden.

Since then, I have seen the same common newt in the paddling pool, but we now have two Great Crested Newts, a male and female. I’m out of my tiny mind with joy. I’ve also seen Burnet Moths (loads) stopping to enjoy the long grass and sanctuary, and a small common frog. This is great! My son, who was reared on long walks in the countryside and respect and love for wildlife, has spent more time in the garden in the last few days watching the newts and moths, than he ever has in the previous eleven months. Now, I’ve realised I have a bit of a quandary.

‘The Plan’ involves clearing this top section of garden, removing the bank of turf, clearing away the unwanted saplings, and building a raised deck and summer-house. It also involves putting in a very shallow ornamental pond. ‘The Plan’ never took into account existing wildlife, nor did it take into account any wildlife looking for refuge from other gardens and locally cleared areas. It should have.

When I think back to the garden as it was, when we moved in, it was ALL long grass and wilderness. What creatures lived in it, back then? What wildlife did we disturb in the process of creating something ordered and cultivated, and pleasing to the human eye? What the hell do you do if you want a horticulturist’s dream garden – trimmed lawn, herbaceous beds, well-maintained shrub borders, cultivated veg and rose beds, etc. – and at the same time wish to attract and nurture some of the UK’s most endangered wildlife? It seems to me to be a very serious issue. There is and has been a long-standing war between humans and wildlife, with many of the minor battles taking place within the average urban garden. Wildlife is losing.

Now I find myself completely re-considering ‘The Plan’ for the top section of garden, and it is having an effect on my maintenance, too. There is a small section of wild scrub running alongside Flame’s lawn, and I had been planning to clear it this weekend. Then, I saw a frog in there, and that activity went out of the window. What if that is its home? How many other small mammals live in there? I’d really like to encourage frogs, as my Hosta ‘Blue Wedgewood’ (decimated) will testify, so do I really want to clear away its home? No. And, again, that leads me to ponder which animals’ homes I removed when we initially cleared the garden. Shouldn’t we all consider the implications to our local wildlife when we move into a new garden and make plans to cultivate and clear? Should it even be a legal requirement to survey and monitor wildlife in a garden before making changes to the physical layout? Probably.

That may sound extreme, but I’m really anti human arrogance – the idea that we have the right to charge into an area and do what we like with it is seen as a perfectly acceptable one, but it isn’t. We are a part of a whole – we are interdependent, and when we do what we like with an area of land, there are implications to wildlife populations, whether we are aware of them or not. There is a knock-on effect. Frogs and toads control pests, insects feed birds and bats, yet we are constantly striving to remove both from our gardens using our own highly questionable methods. Those methods are now being called to account for the catastrophic decline in bee populations, along with the general trend in drastic decline in small mammals and invertebrate populations. Organic gardeners know that we must use and encourage natural controls, rather than using lethal chemicals and destructive gardening practices which are ultimately counter-productive and disastrous for wildlife (and us).

‘The Plan’ as it stands? To hurriedly rush up to the silly blue, scallop-shaped paddling pool every morning and every evening to study the newts and search the long grass for moths and butterflies. Long-term, I’m thinking of building a much-bigger-than-planned pond, something deeper, with ledges for marginal plants and invertebrates. I’ll wait until Winter to start clearing the old, rotting turf, when hopefully most animals will have found somewhere to hibernate or hide. I’ll leave some of it undisturbed. We should still be able to build a raised deck area for  a summer-house, and the space beneath would potentially be ideal to locate a hedgehog hide, and for foxes and other mammals to nest in. I’ll keep the grass longer than planned, with the hopes that once the dust has settled from the deck construction, existing wildlife will make use once again of the hidden spaces and wild bits. I’ve cleared away the mental image of Japanese-inspired, ordered space, and come to terms with a different, wilder, less ordered vision of garden tranquility. It will be wonderful and guilt-free, the best kind of garden.

To landscape or not to landscape, that is the question. Think I’ll be pondering this one for a while. Perhaps we should all ponder… Ha, ponder? Never mind.

Almost a year old.

The garden is almost a year old. The right-hand ‘cool blues’ border was planted up almost a year ago. These plants have rooted well over winter and are now showing vigorous, healthy growth. It looks like a proper herbaceous border! Almost. A few gaps at the front, but not many. These can be filled in time with low-growing plants that suit the colour scheme of whites and blues. Amazingly, I didn’t lose a single plant over winter, of those planted in this border.

Cool Blues border.
Cool Blues border.

The clump of Dianthus in the background turned out to be pink, not white, so that is ear-marked for a move to the ‘hot’ side!

I’m planning to re-paint the fence a more natural pale colour (Harvest Gold) to match the new fence on the other side. This will set the colour of the border off far better than the horrible dark stain on the panels now (apologies to anyone who likes that colour for their fences). The Nordman fir is not a part of the plan, and is in a pot at the back until I’ve decided where (if) to plant it.

Hosta ‘Big Daddy’ is huge in the background, but not at its full size yet for the year. It is just starting to flower. Campanula persicifolia has formed a nice clump in its allotted space. It has around ten flower spikes on it, with many more to come. The bells are huge, and perfectly blue. The Cornus alternifolia ‘Argentea’ is picking up pace and putting on some nice, new growth. Bit worried about the eventual size of these, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Tradescantia ‘Sweet Kate’ has just formed some nice buds, and one flower escaped today (not shown).

Tradescantia 'Sweet Kate'
Tradescantia ‘Sweet Kate’

This is a dwarf  (low-growing) Tradescantia with amazing acid green foliage and bright blue flowers. The contrast is fantastic, and it works well in the blue border.

The hardy geraniums are all looking amazing, and I seem to have quite a collection. Geranium magnificum ‘Rosemoor’ has been a huge surprise (literally). It’s a big one, as the name suggests, and here it is.

Geranium magnificum 'Rosemoor'.
Geranium magnificum ‘Rosemoor’.

And here’s a selection of the other hardy geraniums in both borders, so far.

Hardy Geraniums
Hardy Geraniums

 

The Plan.

After the grass had been mowed on shorter and shorter settings, and the dust had settled, it was time to start putting plans into action. After first looking around the garden, it was obvious (to some degree) what needed to happen.

Speaking as someone who hasn’t had much formal training in garden design, I’m at least aware that one of the fundamentals of garden design is to break up any large area into smaller, manageable sections, and to avoid creating a garden that is entirely visible from any one line of sight. When dealing with a garden like mine, which is very long and not especially wide, the best course of action is to cut it into sections, or areas.

This is the plan. So, to decide on how many sections, where each area began and ended, and what function each section would provide. Every garden should have function and purpose, even if that purpose is simply to be a wild flower meadow. An urban garden needs to be planned if it is to work well and make the most use of the space available.

When planning a garden, it should be measured out in length and width, and the angles of the terrain taken into account. Next up is aspect – which direction is North and South? To some extent, this will dictate what you can and can’t grow in a garden. Then, soil type; use a PH soil kit to test the PH of your soil. Again, this will very much dictate what plants will and will not grow. After taking into account these things, and any obstructions growing or present in and around your garden, a garden plan can be formulated. It doesn’t have to be a formal design, but anything written down is easier to adhere to and follow step-by-step.

I’m lucky. My new garden is South-West facing, with no nearby trees or buildings to obscure light, spread unwanted seeds or interfere with the growth of plants in my garden. So, the first step was to replace the cobbled-together mix of different fencing that lined one side of the garden (my boundary fence) when I moved in. This wasn’t cheap. I opted for lap panels, which are longer-lasting and more robust, with concrete gravel boards and posts.  The length of the garden thirty panels! Here’s the fencing going in. It took a team of two people three days to build.

Fence construction.
Fence construction.

I don’t relish the idea of using concrete anywhere, so this wasn’t ideal. More importantly, this kind of fencing is partially responsible for the huge and worrying decline in British hedgehog numbers. They can’t move from garden to garden during their nightly forage for food, and so they now really struggle to survive in urban areas. This is to all gardeners’ detriment as well as the poor hogs; we rely on these small, nocturnal mammals to control pests such as slugs and snails, so creating such barriers to their vital movements is a very bad thing for the health of our gardens. In time, I will be looking to replace the concrete gravel boards with something sturdy but less of an obstacle to creatures trying to move from one garden to the next. Any ideas welcome! 

 

A Brave New…Garden.

In June 2013 I moved into a new home. A 1930s house in urban Derby. One of the main reasons for buying the house was its garden. At almost 200ft long, and about 25ft wide, it’s a typical urban 1930s long plot (the kind they don’t build just one house on any more). My previous garden had been a square of grass approximately 30ft by 30ft and, although it looked good by the time I’d finished with it, it was small. I needed more space to grow more plants and try new things.

This was my previous garden, in 2012.

Previous Garden
Mature shrubs and herbaceous perennial borders.

I felt I had done all I could with this garden. In particular, I wanted to grow more fruit and veg, and there just wasn’t the space to do so. I feel it’s important to become more self-sufficient and to grow our own food where possible. Being vegan, those fruit and veggies are important to me! And I’d rather not pay a fortune for something I can grow in my own small space. I’d also rather not consume anything laden with pesticides. Time to move!

When I moved into the new house, this is what the garden looked like…

A freshly mowed meadow.
A freshly mowed meadow.

…after we’d spent three days mowing what had been an incredibly overgrown 200ft of mixed grasses. The grass was around 2 metres high on the day we moved in! It was slightly shocking, given that the two times I’d looked at the garden before buying, the grass had been nicely mowed.

The job of clearing it began with a petrol strimmer and ended with a number of progressively shorter mows with a heavy-duty petrol mower. At last, the canvas was clear. I discovered a fairly mature but straggly Forsythia, a very mature and tall Lauris nobilis (culinary Bay), an overgrown Syringa vulgaris (Lilac), and various leafy remnants as evidence of a few bulbs (Muscari and Galanthus) planted in the ground, here and there. What stood out the most was a very old and slightly gnarled Photinia x fraseri ‘Red Robin’, so mature that it is now a tree. With some light pruning and removal of a couple of branches to improve its shape, it is a very welcome small tree in this new garden.

Sometimes, just one interesting, unusual or pretty plant in a garden can be enough to inspire us to build upon it and create something wonderful. A delightfully scented flower, or a showy flowering plant, an unusual tree or shrub – it can be enough to stimulate the creative urge to plant and experiment.