Monday 14th March 2022 – let there be light

We picked a good day to be off work today as the weather was glorious. The Under-Gardener (fresh back from a stay at his holiday home) soaked up the Spring sunshine, as did the daffodils and everything else that is now bursting into life. It was still light at 6pm this evening… just like that, the day length changes dramatically, and it never fails to amaze me how quickly it happens… every single year. You’d think I’d expect it by now, but no, it takes me by surprise every time. It’s a nice surprise, though.

I was out in the garden ready for action before 9am this morning and the sun was just hitting the hedge. In the foreground there are alliums coming up all over the place. We definitely need more daffodils in the long border: I can move some from the bottom of the garden when they’ve finished flowering (that’ll be one less thing to spend money on!)
Tulips coming through everywhere too. Last year I got irritated with the lack of a cohesive colour palette from the Triumph tulips – I thought I had meticulously removed all the pale pink ones so that this bed could have strong yellows and reds only. Clearly at least two escaped me! I’ll try to mark the spots somehow in the hope I can get them out at the end of the season.
That makes three pale pink ones! Grrrrrrrr! Happy to see the red one, though.
He spent most of the day in this position in various spots around the garden.
I love the vivid colour of this aubretia. What would we call it – purple? Maroon? Mauve? Anyway, I borrowed some out of someone’s wall nearby. The same place has a very nice hot pink variety too, actually, I must go and borrow some of that too! (This is a terrible habit which runs in the family. I’ll get caught and told off one day).
These little dog violets usually irritate me by self-seeding everywhere and refusing to flower. This is the first time they have ever flowered for me. And where do they do it? In a pleasing swathe at the front of a border? No of course not. In the pebbles under a table!
I’m not sure he’s moved, actually.

This stachyaurus praecox, above, is beautiful but really difficult to photograph. The flowers are so elegant and delicate. It isn’t fully opened yet, I’ll try again when it has opened its flowers a little more. The reddish brown stems are quite pleasing too. I bought it with some gift vouchers, so I think of it as a gift, and I’m very fond of it. It may get quite a lot bigger – showing unusual foresight on that front, I’ve planted it somewhere where I can clear more space around it as it grows.

I really hate tending to strawberry beds and planters – it’s a mucky job, the plants never really look very nice or very happy, and I always put it off until I have to deal with a soggy matted mess with lots of dead leaves that need to be cleared away. I bit the bullet at last, weeding the planters built by Chief Engineer (above) and applying blood, fish and bone liberally here and in the big strawberry bed. Then I filled in any gaps with the runners I had planted up last year and finished off with a mulch of the spent compost from a decommissioned blueberry planter. I can’t bear to see all the strawberry runners at the end of the season and not do something with them. I have enough left over to start a strawberry bed for a friend. My tactic with these planters and the large bed is essentially to beat voles, mice, rats, birds, slugs, wood lice and any other opportunistic feasters with sheer weight of numbers: when we had an allotment, we had several huge strawberry beds which we never netted, and we always had pounds and pounds of fruit, with plenty spare to give away. Here at home, we are lucky to get a couple of bowls a year for ourselves, nets notwithstanding. Perhaps this year is our lucky year.

Next to the strawberry bed, Chief Engineer erected some supports for the raspberries. My hope is that I might get the wires on here in the next month or so and perhaps manage to contain the raspberries before they go crazy like they did last year, flopping all over the place. Actually, herein may lay the problem with the strawberries: it might be all about the soil. The garden soil is incredibly rich: I think raspberries might be hungrier than strawberries and so perhaps this is why the raspberries are the happier fruit here (on the old allotment it was quite the reverse, the raspberries were ok but didn’t grow like they do here.) Perhaps I should try starving the strawberries a bit and refrain from pampering them too much!
Here’s a very poor photo of Soggy Bottom. The sun was not really in my favour here I think. Anyway, those two fatsia are happy and the pink hellebores are delightful. There’s a little yellow flower bottom left, I think it might be coltsfoot, it’s very jolly. I hope it is coltsfoot as I think that has some herbal medicinal applications. No frogspawn in the pond as yet – I check eagerly and often but I suspect I stand to be disappointed.
Nope, still not moved… or perhaps just moved round to face the sun a little better, like a daisy. Chief Engineer, buoyed by his success on the path behind the long border, is now laying a pebble path between the two veg beds. This will be a massive help in the winter and indeed in wet weather throughout the year, as the grass path turned into a treacherous mud bath and the air went blue several times when my feet went from under me whilst on a sortie to pick Brussels sprouts for dinner. Eventually we’ll probably do this all around the raised veg beds and the lawnmower will become increasingly pointless. I’ve never especially liked lawn anyway. You can’t eat it, for a start.
Here’s something you can eat, though. The Asturian tree cabbage is sprouting – just like sprouting broccoli, really, and the shoots can be treated in just the same way. Or they could, if they actually made it into the kitchen – they’re so delicious that I kept eating them, and the kale, raw. Hopefully I’ve left enough for a stir fry tomorrow.
The Under-Gardener thinks the grass should stay on this path, so that he can disco dance on it in the sunshine. The sun always makes him feel like dancing.
I lifted and divided the miscanthus grass in here, redistributing chunks of it so that we get a nice solid block of it (that’s the idea, anyway). The cornus sibirica ‘Midwinter Fire’ needs to be pruned hard, at least every other year if not yearly, to ensure the stems always have this bright glow. Fortunately it is incredibly easy to strike new plants from cuttings so what I’m attempting here is a row of cornus along the edge of the bed, hopefully they will support the miscanthus and give good winter interest. I’m not sure it’ll work, but I’ve nothing to lose, and I really do hate to waste viable prunings!
This pieris was swamped in the depths of a laurel hedge. I have an intense, possibly even irrational, hatred of Spanish laurel, so I ripped out as much as I could when we first moved in, reclaiming a substantial amount of ground space as I did so (it was incredibly hard work – when I think about it I’m not sure how I managed it, I don’t think I would now!). I like pieris, so I have been pampering this one with ericaceous feed and mulches. I am now a victim of my own success, as it’s about four times bigger than it was and now that I want to plant in the bed behind it, it casts quite a bit of inconvenient shade. I could possibly try lifting it and keeping it in a very big pot, but really I want fewer pots, not more, as the watering is so very boring (and really as an acid lover it would need rainwater not tap, and we don’t always have enough stored in butts in dry spells.). Plus I don’t really want to risk losing it, having nursed it back to health. I can’t do anything with it whilst it’s flowering anyway. This is the first year it’s done that: I’ve obviously pampered it sufficiently at last. I bet I end up trying to grow things in its shade, to avoid moving it.
The original idea when I ripped out the laurel was to create a wildlife hedge in its place, with native plants. This worked to some extent but started to get a bit out of control – I hadn’t really accounted for things growing at different paces, so it transpired I’d put things in the wrong place, and the hawthorn turned out to be a bad choice altogether (it’s called quick thorn for a reason and it threatened to take over the world, as well as casting shade on the veg bed. Sadly it had to come out). I’ve kept half of the wildlife hedge, which now mainly consists of viburnums, lilac, elder, hazel and common dogwood, with nettles, borage and comfrey mixed in, but I’ve also added an apple tree and today I added some blackcurrant cuttings too. They’ll take a while to come to anything much, though. My idea is that there are different ‘storeys’ so there are things going on at different heights – I suspect I’ve overplanted terribly, though. This may be another reason for retaining grass on this side of the veg bed – it might be better for wildlife. Last year I found several froglets hopping from the raised bed into the hedge, across the grass – I’m not sure whether the pebbles might make for a more dangerous, less comfortable journey…
Here’s the finished path. Chief Engineer has also used some spare kitchen tiles to edge the cornus/grass bed, with a view to laying pebbles over this scrappy bit of lawn, too. I’d better come to a decision about the other path quickly!
My last job for the day: sowing carrots. I actually sowed brassicas and some annual flowers today too, but I didn’t bother to photograph those. Here I am sowing carrots in between the garlic – the idea is that the garlic deters carrot fly, but I’ve read lots of articles that say this isn’t really terribly effective. It’s still good use of space, though. The lovely Huw Richards (well worth checking out on You Tube, he is as charming as he is informative) suggests this technique with both parsnips and carrots – laying a piece of wood over the sown seed until germination occurs. This prevents the seed from drying out, I think (though one does wonder whether it encourages slugs). Anyway, all good experiments need a control, so I have covered roughly two thirds of each row in this way and left a third, to compare. This is actually the remains of last year’s seed so it’s highly likely nothing will happen at all – carrot seed loses viability very quickly and its better to buy fresh every year, but I had so much left I couldn’t bring myself to bin it. If it doesn’t have a decent germination rate, I’ll still have time to buy fresh and make another sowing.

Saturday 5th & Sunday 6th March 2022 – welcome to Spring… almost

The sun was clearly strong enough for the Under-Gardener to have a little sunbathe in. Supervision is exhausting work.

A bright crisp day on Saturday made outdoor work a real pleasure (and helped to dispel the Head Gardener’s mild hangover). Most of the weekend was taken up with groundwork, preparing beds ready for planting vegetables for the new season. It’s that awkward time of year where keen gardeners want to get sowing seed, but the temperatures can still be quite low, and for us this means the greenhouses are still groaning with over-wintering tender perennials and there’s no space for newly sown seed undercover. I start as much as I can off in the house but there’s only so much space for that (and only three grow-lights… unless I treat myself to a grow-bulb for the central light fitting on our landing, which I must admit I haven’t ruled out…) Anyway, I have managed to curb my enthusiasm and resist sowing trays of things I don’t have space to care for, but it’s going to happen sooner or later… in the meantime, here’s a round-up of some of this weekend’s activities.

I had to clear this section on the left, which had been planted up as a sort of a wildlife/native hedge, but wasn’t really working. I removed an excessively vigorous hawthorn (wrong plant, wrong place) and moved two viburnums to further down the bed, creating a big space. I was contemplating filling it with blackcurrants (there are never enough blackcurrants and too many redcurrants, for some reason) but seeing it in sunshine on Saturday made me decide to make a new veg bed. Being all about minimum effort, I gave it a perfunctory weeding and then covered it with a double layer of cardboard and wetted that thoroughly, then piled well-rotted manure on top. This no-dig method will let me plant through the manure and cardboard in a few weeks, creating fabulous soil and minimising the need for weeding, without requiring any double-digging from me. Unfortunately that’s the last of the well-rotted manure, so I now have to wait for the fresh stuff kindly donated by a friend to rot down… which will take a good few months, if not a year!

I’m not really sure what I’m going to put in the new bed yet. Possibly brassicas, as they won’t mind when the sun moves round and this area becomes shadier. This uncertainty about what’s going here is due to my new approach: after watching lots of gardening videos on You Tube, I was inspired by Huw Richards to try ‘gardening intuitively’ this year. Every year, for many years now, I have meticulously drawn up a plan on graph paper and plotted out exactly what I intend to grow and where, sometimes redrawing it several times during the Winter before putting it into practice in the Spring. Admittedly I invariably change my mind about some bits (and sometimes I lose my plan or get it covered in mud or something) but I always start the year with one and with the sincere intention of following it. This year I’m going to try not having a plan and, instead, simply putting stuff in wherever and whenever the mood takes me, also trying not to plant big blocks of the same thing together but instead planting small groups of things successionally, mixed together in clusters. This should, in theory, reduce pests and diseases and might lead to better use of space… or it could be chaos. We’ll see.

Here’s the first bit of intuitive planting: I bunged these garlic that were outgrowing their pots into the soil around the perennial brassicas. No idea whether this will work or not, but the gaps around the brassicas would have been unused otherwise and I have way more garlic than I really have room for. The last two years we’ve ended up with some white rot on our garlic so I’m wondering whether planting smaller groups in several different parts of the garden might mean we avoid the dreaded fungus. If not, I’ll probably have to give up growing alliums (though in fairness, last year’s were perfectly edible and indeed are only just starting to run out).
This Asturian tree cabbage is fantastic. Sweet, tender spring greens, in triffid form – it’s like a cabbage but keeps on getting taller and putting out new sprouts as branches. Excellent use of space! Sold as perennial but I’m assuming it will only last two years or so. It’s certainly set to feed us through the hungry gap between now and May. I’ll definitely grow more. There’s no need for row upon row of cabbages with one of these in the garden.
The humans were especially vexatious today and needed a great deal of Under-Gardener supervision.
Chief Engineer set about making the path along the hedge, behind the long border, more accessible and less messy with a dressing of gravel (with an under layer of multiple layers of cardboard – yes it will rot down but that’s the idea, I loathe and detest that hateful plastic membrane sheeting, it’s a disaster for wildlife and it just disintegrates and sheds micro plastics throughout the garden). The wood edging (recycled from a dismantled shed) keeps the gravel from spilling into the border and the horizontal keepers across the path stop the gravel sliding all the way down and accumulating at the bottom of the slope. It makes the border look much sharper and neater and makes border care and inspection so much easier.
One year, one day. I will say “I have planted enough daffodils”, but it won’t be this year. These are lovely but there aren’t anywhere near enough of them. When it comes to planting bulbs, think of a number and double it, at least. However many you think you need, I guarantee your first estimate is insufficient.

The grass border next to the new bed always looks sorrowful when I’ve cut down the miscanthus. This usually causes me to plant it up with something, only to find when the miscanthus grows back again that whatever I’ve added gets swamped and fails. These cornus sibirica ‘Midwinter Fire’ are at their best at the exact point the grasses need cutting down; they won’t mind the alternating cold, wet and then hot, dry of this bed and, since they are bomb-proof, they might also tolerate the miscanthus in a neighbourly fashion and perhaps even act to support its floppy stems a little. Or they might sulk and give up…. I’ll take cuttings soon, as a precautionary measure, in case I lose these!

The late afternoon sun on Saturday was so glorious that it felt only correct to appreciate it with the first al fresco beers of the year. The fairy lights have been hung out on the pergola again… let the season’s outdoor drinking commence! Those red watering cans are really abrasive on the eye, aren’t they? At least they’re easy to find, wherever I’ve left them…
Sunday was a lot less hospitable, with grey skies and a biting wind. Any bit of shelter can help plants to survive the unpredictability of Spring temperatures. When we bought a large sheet of mirrored acrylic recently, to fix to the back gate, it came packaged in this double-walled clear plastic sheeting which was almost more valuable to me than the acrylic we paid for. One sheet of it cut into four made these rather nifty little cloches which are pegged to the soil with tent pegs and which will later fold flat for storage. I’ve planted out some lettuce in the right hand one whilst the left hand one is just warming some soil up for sowing in a few weeks. It’ll be interesting to see how well these work.
This is a bit Heath-Robinson, I know, and shows scant regard for gravity, but it worked after a fashion last year. The roof of the shed is atrocious and the drainpipe is in a most unhelpful place (because the pitch is really inconvenient, so the drainpipe can’t go anywhere else – it’s the least practically designed and the worst executed shed build I have ever seen). We have three huge water butts fed off it but still a lot of rainwater just gets wasted (and there is no drain). This will redirect some water into this bed, which is in rain shadow from the shed and so is excessively dry. Last year I rigged something up which delivered the excess water along the line of the wall – it did work, but hopefully directing it more into the centre of the bed like this will be more effective at getting water to where we need it. Chief Engineer was very patient with my demands… though he did declare it lunchtime once he’d finished this.
The Under-Gardener was understandably sceptical.
While Chief Engineer battled with drainpipes and rawl plugs, I weeded, levelled and covered these veg beds with cardboard. This will help to kill off any weeds I’ve missed, rot off the remains of the green manure I left in, and warm the soil ready for planting, whilst preventing new weeds from getting a head start (in theory. We’ll see!) Chaos, isn’t it? I can’t do anything neatly. Can you spot the Under-Gardener?
I keep finding foxglove seedlings everywhere, which is puzzling as I’ve never had especially great success in growing the bloody things to the point of flowering, so how they came to set seed here I’m sure I don’t understand. Anyway, every time I find a seedling I transfer it here, to the shady end of the long border. Maybe we’ll finally get a decent display this year. They are so prolific in the wild, it’s infuriating not to be able to get them going well here. Perhaps our soil is too rich or perhaps I’m not choosing the right site.
Brave early soldier, the first tulip! There are lots of tulip leaves popping through everywhere so hopefully his mates will join him soon. Impressive early start from the lupin here too, fingers crossed for a bigger display from them this year, following a successful breeding programme in the Autumn (an Autumn sowing and some experimentation with basal cuttings both finally paid off!)
More chaos. The over-crowding in this greenhouse is a disgrace. I couldn’t resist sowing something so everything had to budge up. I found a length of old guttering in the shed and have been meaning to try this for ages: filling guttering with soil and sowing peas, for an early start under-cover. I have to start the peas off indoors as the bloody mice have them all if they go outside (and there’s every reason to expect they’ll have most of these, to be honest). The idea is that you can simply dig a trench and slide the soil out of the guttering to plant your sprouted peas, reducing the root disturbance that peas so hate. I’ve never managed to grow a decent quantity of peas and having seen a video of Charles Dowding planting out his, I think I haven’t been sowing in any where big enough quantities, so these are truly rammed, and it’ll be interesting to see how this goes. The soil I used was really claggy, it had been sat in a jumbo builders’ bag outside the house all Winter and I think the compost component has simply washed away, leaving me with a saturated bag of very heavy and clay-y sub-soil, so this could be an utter disaster. One thing’s for sure, I won’t buy soil and leave it standing outside through the Winter again, even if it has to be stacked high in the shed in plastic sacks! That was an expensive mistake I can ill afford!

Friday 25th & Saturday 26th February 2022 – Here Comes the Sun

A weekend of glorious sunshine made for two long solid days of gardening and I am beginning to feel more like myself again thanks to it (albeit a little sore and achy). The Under-Gardener was also glad of the opportunity for a little outdoor inspection and supervision. I found myself musing on the importance of observation in the garden – knowledge and skill can be cribbed from the internet but that won’t help you if you aren’t able to see and to notice signs and changes. No amount of connectivity can replace your own senses. Thankfully.

Look at that blue sky! These clematis armandii buds will burst soon and in just a few years the pergola should be swathed in it.
The Under-Gardener notes that we are finally getting somewhere with the crocuses, mainly by planting in such huge numbers that even the vandal squirrels cannot uproot them all. The Under-Gardener may now crush them by break-dancing on them on his back, which he especially enjoys doing in the sunshine. Idiot.
A lovely strong display is imminent from these daffs. They make it incredibly difficult to get the net on the fruitcage but I don’t care. I’ll cut some for the house soon, and will lift and divide these clumps in the Autumn, as they can clearly take it.
Brian (or perhaps Brianna) the water-snail is huge. I suppose they have no natural predators, really.
Soggy Bottom, half way through a tidy up. We have transformed an ugly concrete hole into a pleasing damp shade garden, teeming with life of all sorts – beetles, pond-life, worms, millipedes and centipedes, fungi… I’m hopeful that the frogs return to breed this year. A tide mark over everything indicated this area had flooded at leat once this Winter. The plus side to this is that nutrient-rich stream silt has washed over everything – everything seems quite happy, anyway. ‘Right plant, right place’ really helps. This year I’ll work to plant up that empty space on the left… it’s got a few herbaceous things in it already but I want to add in one or two more big specimen plants for structure.
Here’s how Soggy Bottom looked when we moved in in 2016 (when I was much slimmer!). The previous owner dug a sort of a swimming pool, by hand. It must have been one hell of a job. It had long since ceased to be watertight, so keeping it as a pool really wasn’t a viable option – not without huge expense, anyway… also not very practical. It would take days to fill (indeed, drawing so much from mains water in one hit is probably illegal) and it would quickly turn into a stagnant soup. There’s a stream running behind so treating with chemicals is not an option. Damp shade garden seemed the obvious choice, but maybe it’s just me with a mind that works like that!
The mahonia I struck from a rather pitiful cutting is showing signs of new growth, despite the very soggy conditions here in Soggy Bottom. Clearly leaning into next-door’s hedge to take stealth cuttings continues to pay dividends.
Here, signs that the ruinously expensive plugs of candelabra primula I bought last year have survived and quite possibly self-seeded too. The conditions in Soggy Bottom are ideal for them, so if the slugs leave them alone we could have a really stunning display down here. I’m excited to see how they do this Spring. that mos is nice too, isn’t it? I love moss.
The Under-Gardener assures me this pond water is a far superior beverage to the fresh water provided in the house. The orange ball stays floating in there to bob about and help to stop ice forming (it doesn’t stop it completely, but it helps a little).

I repaired these makeshift trellises (above in these two big pots on the patio, and tied in the climbers on them, both of them having taken a real battering in the recent storms. I tidied up the patio pots and fed a few things with slow release fertiliser. I neglect my pots terribly and they look so much happier when given a bit of love. Last year I fed late in the year and was astonished how they perked up, so this year I’m determined to look after them properly from the get-go. The seeds sown in the cold frame on New Year’s Day (below) are shoeing mixed results – some of the onions have succeeded but it’s not an amazing success rate and the red Italian variety have failed altogether – not really all that surprising, I should have thought that any Italian veg would dislike the English Winter climate really! Broad beans doing well though, these can be planted out when they’re just a bit bigger. Starting them in pots definitely helps a little in the battle against mouse, vole and mollusc. Mmmmmm baby broad bean pasta… yum.

This lobelia in these two pots is meant to be an annual, but it clearly didn’t get the memo and is even trying to keep flowering. I’m going to see what it ends up doing… if nothing else I might be able to save seed from it.
The black metal gnome gang have been in the shed for a service and a paint job – gnome care, if you will (sorry). I think they look best all hanging out together in a group rather than dotted around the garden individually, so they’ve taken up residence on the patio. I suspect their ranks may swell further through the course of the year, while my back’s turned.

Friday 11th & Friday 18th February – Keep Calm and Carry On

Bad weather over the past two weekends drove us indoors for most of the time, but there were breaks in the rain which allowed for short bursts of outdoor work, and on the day Storm Eunice was supposed to devastate South Wales, I managed a blissful stretch of time outside in weak sunshine with clear skies. The Under-Gardener even found the time to sunbathe.

I don’t actually care for bergenia, but the early foraging bees do, and it’s nice to have a splash of colour so early in the year. I swear these are more floriferous after being mulched with manure.
The Under-Gardener insisted on inspecting these rather sorrowful over-wintered sweet Williams before they were planted out.
Rain stopped play, so I headed indoors to sort out all the herbs that I’d gathered from the garden or foraged and dried, but never gotten around to cleaning and storing. These are mainly for teas, but some will be used to make herbal lotions, oils or tincture.
It’s a bit of a ball-ache, to be honest, but it’s ultimately satisfying. Here I am crumbling the dried thyme leaves off the woody stems, for use in cooking.
Camomile flowers dried for tea (and eventually for hair rinses, too, if I ever get round to making any).
These stripy crocuses are fun, aren’t they? I planted a mixed bag in the autumn and they’ve proven to be a good buy, as the different varieties flower at different times, extending the season.
Here is confirmation, not that I needed it, that I’m right to cut the clematis much earlier than the books advise. New growth coming thick and fast: cutting later would make it hard to avoid damaging this.
The clematis armandii on the pergola is giving thanks for being saved from the chimney pot and planted out into open ground. Some nice whips of new growth can be seen here. Along with bright blue sky – so much for Storm Eunice!

The roses tell the same story as the clematis – an early prune pays dividends. Bit gnarly, this rose, isn’t it? It’ll be ok. Roses are tough.

The Under-Gardener took inspection duties especially seriously during this session. Marauding through the border wasn’t really in the brief.
Never had quite this much going on so early in the year in the long border. If the weather isn’t cold like last year, this Spring could be the best year yet for the display here. I’m excited and full of hope. The Under-Gardener is too, but that’s mostly because he’s seen me take a chicken out of the freezer.
If you look at the two clumps of bronze-coloured grass (carex testacea I think) you can see that it was a little bit blowy out there!
Purple sprouting broccoli seems like a pain in the arse all year – it seems to take ages to do anything, it’s got to be netted all year due to butterflies and pigeons, it looks extremely unhappy at times, it’s bloody hungry and it takes up ridiculous amounts of room, but when Feb/March comes around and it’s time to start harvesting, all is forgiven… it’s delicious and tastes like every bite is full of goodness, especially this time of year when so little else is available to harvest.
Finally I have grown enough of these tiny daffodils to be able to pick some for the table without noticeably diminishing the display outside. The big bright hips of the Generous Gardener rose got missed when I first pruned, so I took them off today but couldn’t bear to bin them.

Friday 4th & Sunday 6th February 2022 – go hard or go home

It’s been a weekend of hard work, hard pruning, hard rain and a hard lesson. Not to mention hard times for the Under-Gardener, who has had to provide intense supervision with very little reward (he’s on a diet, or meant to be – he’s put on a few Christmas ounces… or pounds…)

The neat freak hidden deep within me (Chief Engineer might say it’s so well hidden as to be undetectable) finally cracked and cut down the overwintering dead stems of last year. The weather has been highly changeable (as is normal for the time of year) but there have been plenty of bright spells and there are signs of life everywhere as the garden responds to the lengthening days.

Chief Engineer and Head Gardener joined forces and made the most of the dry weather by tackling the building of the new rose arch – replacement set of grub screws having been sent free of charge by the supplier – really excellent customer service from Harrod Horticultural and an excellent product too. This one is really solid, with very effective ground anchors and a ten year guarantee. It feels really substantial. It was also really easy to build – not one cross word between us! The mugs of tea in the shot below helped. The Under-Gardener didn’t.

If I leave it any later to cut down this miscanthus grass, I’ll be cutting into the new season’s growth, but I really do hate to cut down the fluffy seedheads when they’re so pretty and there’s so little else going on in the garden. Problem solved: stuff all the cut stems into that spare empty plant holder, for a bit of outdoor flower arranging. Looks a bit odd from behind but that’s the working end of the garden – from the front, where it will mainly be seen from, it looks pretty good!

He always does this when I cut these down. Weirdo.

Another thing I hate cutting but it has to be done. This hydrangea paniculata can be pruned one of three ways – light, medium or hard – and I can never decide which to go for. I suppose I went for medium in the end (the sun was in the wrong place when I took the ‘after’ photo). Looking at the different year’s growth, I can definitely see that my pruning technique improves every year, which is gratifying. I continued the theme of ‘flower arrangements with dead things’, as I couldn’t quite bear to part with the dried flower heads, which always remind me of old lace (and I do love a bit of lace).

About 3pm on Friday I was trying to weigh up which of two jobs I should do, as I knew I’d only have time for one. I decided I’d tackle that clematis that I shouldn’t have planted inside the chimney pot. This proved to be the last in a line of bad decisions I made regarding that clematis. My parents used to have a poster that said “the man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything”. Well, I’m clearly due an especially productive patch, given the extent of my error here…

This was a really dumb thing to do to a big, hungry plant. It’s completely root-bound in this chimney pot – it doesn’t have enough space to spread its roots and it is clearly under stress.
Poor thing. Getting it out of the pot was the very devil. I had to use a knife, repeatedly loosening the roots around the inside edge of the chimney pot, whilst intermittently scraping away the soil and using the handle of the spade to try to knock the root ball out of the chimney pot. The clematis stems are slightly woody and brittle – I snapped a bit long stem wrestling with it, which was especially disappointing as it had lots of buds on it. I will undoubtedly have diminished its floral performance this year but hopefully it’ll bounce back next year.
I couldn’t have found a less suitable planting vessel. The ridges meant that it was totally stuck at each level. Getting it out of the pot was a right ball-ache. I was knackered and hurt all over by the time it came free, and I still needed to dig a really deep planting hole, plant the clematis, backfill it and go back over the whole plant, meticulously tying it back in to the pergola, knowing that the storm due overnight would ravage it if it wasn’t tied in properly. This poorly thought-out planting is one of the worst bits of gardening I have ever done – the air was blue by the time I’d finished.

Done. There is still a good chance we’ll have a good show of flowers this Spring. I have learned my lesson – sometimes it is better not to try to be clever! I was so desperate to make creative use of these chimney pots. They’d be much better suited to standing a potted plant in, something tough and Mediterranean like a thyme or trailing rosemary, which is probably what I’ll do in the Summer.

And now, two success stories – and with houseplants too, which is rare for me! I generally fail with orchids but this liriodendron is a triumph, all the more so for being rescued from the plant graveyard at the garden centre for a quid or something. Last year I started feeding my houseplants with a seaweed feed every fortnight – it has made a massive difference. I’m thrilled with this. In the other shot, burrow’s tail on the left and string of beads plant on the right (in the kitschy little swan planter). Burrow’s tails aren’t terribly difficult but string of beads plants can be. This is actually a cutting – I killed the parent but this one has limped on through and has actually started looking really healthy now and has put on loads of new growth. It is in a tiny pot with a very small amount of soil, I think this is the secret – it really hates to be wet, I think I drowned the parent. This bright spot in the kitchen is great for those succulents. It’s also above the dishwasher, so it probably offers humid heat, which may mimic their natural habitats, I suppose.

You know Spring is coming when the crocuses open. I even saw a bee on one.

Another job that wouldn’t wait any longer was hacking back the rambling rector rose (or rampant rector as I prefer to call him). Three trugs full of vicious thorny bastard clippings, which cling to clothes, hair, other plants… the thorns are extremely sharp and have a slight curve to them, to enable the branches to force up through trees and shrubs and cling as they go, scrambling towards the light… this hooked thorn shape also makes them especially unpleasant when they pierce flesh. Just for once I managed not to draw blood whilst doing this job. I did show it no mercy though – I cut much harder than I usually would. This might mean fewer blooms this year but the plant will be healthier for it and will put on an even better show next year (I may also have managed to delay its inevitable take-over of next-door’s garden… just for a little while…)

One comparatively tidy rambling rector corner. I’m trying to get it to cover the leylandii a bit more, but it will really only do that on the side I don’t want it to, because it strains for the light. I’m also trying to get it to cover the roof of the old potting shed… this may very well backfire on me spectacularly.

The ornamental beds are more or less weeded, tidied and mulched now. Next week it’ll be time to focus on the productive beds.
Mr Blackbird has clearly told the Mrs that I’m trustworthy. She hopped around less than two feet away from me, picking out some juicy worms.

Three utterly useless photos in the dwindling light, but Chief Engineer has been working tirelessly here to take down an old wood shed that wasn’t really being used. My original plan was to put a poly tunnel in here, but in a rare moment of circumspection I decided I should really do as the books tell us for once and just observe my space for a year before making any expensive commitments. We’ll clear and level it instead and I’ll grow something edible here for a year, while I observe the drainage, light and shelter in this area.

Incontrovertible evidence here that garlic started off in pots is quicker and stronger than that planted in open ground. This weekend, a third batch of planting garlic arrived in the post… turns out I’d advance-ordered some for Spring back in September andI’d completely forgotten about it and so ordered more in December. December\’s order arrived first and has already been planted… I simply didn’t have the time or energy to plant up the latest arrivals in pots (and I’m not sure I have the pots to spare, either – although I have a large number, I seldom but things in these small pots any more so the numbers haven’t grown for years, and I use a lot of the smaller size when planting up in the Spring. This third batch has been shoved into open ground and is going to have to fend for itself (and to accommodate it, I’m going to have to redraw my planting-plan, for the third time!)

A friend bought me on of Sarah Raven’s books last year. For some reason there is something about her that grates on me a bit (an air of middle-class self-satisfaction and a habit of flogging twee homeware at exorbitant prices, probably). Anyway, it’s undeniable that the woman knows gardening and has some great ideas. Her book entreats us to stake our plants before they need it and provides useful instructions on how to do it. Raven makes use of freshly cut hazel stems – here, a framework shaped into domes is constructed over the crown of paeonies, so they will grow through the supports. I’m very interested to see whether this works – I’ve seen it done in National Trust gardens but never to round to it myself – and theirs looked rather better than mine, but then they had access to more hazel. We have two or three awkward specimens in the hedge, self-seeded there from squirrels burying their bounty and losing them. Apparently squirrels have terrible memories and tend to forget where they trashed things. I might see if I can transplant a hazel to a more convenient place, as they can be cut hard for a useful supply of stakes (although it risks enticing more bloody squirrels!)

Friday 28th & Sunday 30th January 2022 – getting stuff done

I love houseplants but I really hate caring for them. Gardening indoors does not do it for me at all. Our house is ill-suited to houseplants, having insufficient windowsills, awkward light levels and lots of draughts. I’m a messy gardener at the best of times and houseplant care results in a lot of frustrating mess and detritus, plus somehow or other pests always seem to find their way in. My houseplants are badly neglected. Today I discovered I was actually at risk of losing several, such had my care of them deteriorated, so I thought I’d better bite the bullet and do a bit of repotting and tidying.

One way around the lack of suitable space for all the trailing plants I want is to simply have them hanging up. This looks fun but makes watering and care an utter ball-ache. There’s a stephanotis in this lot somewhere that had to be repotted in situ because the long twining stem is so entangled in its neighbours. My Hanging Garden of Babylon suddenly doesn’t seem like such a great idea…
This trailing Swiss cheese plant has me hoist by my own petard. I saw it looking miserable at a friend’s house and asked for a cutting: she told me to take the whole plant as she was struggling to keep it going. I assured her I would revive it, split it and return more than one to her… well, I succeeded in splitting one large-ish plant into four, but I cannot make any of them perk up. It sulks in direct light; it looks limp in diffuse light; wherever I put it, brown patches appear on its leaves; it doesn’t like drying out, it flops when too wet. Bloody thing. I have no idea what it wants for. I’m quite pleased with the macrame hanger though: I made it myself, from a kit. It was easy and surprisingly enjoyable. I might make more. And find some less demanding plants to put in them!

This lot, fortunately, are rather more forgiving…

Sometimes, I can go out in the garden in the morning with a whole day stretching ahead of me and the day can slip through my fingers, with not much done and nothing achieved except a muddy mess, a sore abdomen and an aching back. Other days I can go out knowing there’s just two hours of daylight left and with two or three clear tasks in mind, I get into my groove quickly and everything flows – things get done, I feel skilful and a sense of accomplishment comes over me. Today was one of the better days.

Snowflakes coming through thick and fast now, little clumps everywhere. I still dream of having great luxurious drifts of them – it might take a few years!
The japonica (chaenomales) is opening and glowing…
Bulbs coming up all over the place. Not actually sure what these are. Daffodils, probably.
Good grief humans, what are you doing now and why doesn’t it involve food for me?

The daphne is opening its blooms too. It isn’t especially attractive to look at (though the evergreen leaves add some welcome bulk in the Winter months) but I do wish I could share the smell – quite unique, so fresh and clean. Well worth the multiple attempts to strike ‘borrowed’ cuttings!

The seeds I sowed on New Year’s Day are finally beginning to make an appearance. If you look very closely you will see tiny onion seedlings emerging here. I normally grow onions from sets, but this year I’m having a go from seed because it’s more difficult and I do like a gardening challenge. I may end up with onions that are more able to withstand disease, too… or I may just end up with several trays of complete failures!

And here are broad beans on the left and sweet peas on the right, just thinking about peeking out. So satisfying.

Growing delphiniums from seed has also proved a challenge. In many years of gardening, last year was the first year I managed to nurse any from seed all the way to flowering (indeed they went all the way on set seed and I’ve saved those and sown more this year, so we shall see how they do). It’s a technical bit of growing, with the seeds needing to be cold stratified to break dormancy (I sow them then put the module tray in a plastic bag in the fridge or 3 weeks. Luckily Chief Engineer is quite tolerant of my lackadaisical attitude towards appropriate and tidy fridge use). After cold stratifying, they need a bit of bottom heat so they go into a heated propagator. They’re incredibly prone to damping off, where high humidity causes them to rot and flop; once coaxed past this danger, they may yet sulk on leaving the propagator for a sheltered warm greenhouse; then in there, they may still just decide to keel over, or they may get munched by slugs, who consider them one of the finest delicacies. If the slugs don’t find them in the greenhouse, they almost certainly will when planted out in the border – the only way I’ve found around this is to bring them on in pots for as long as possible and to top dress the pots with as much sharp mulch as can be applied, then plant them out when they’re right on the brink of flowering. It’s finally paid off, as these four treasures flowered their hearts out last year in the most brilliant blue spires. Not only that, they’ve survived cold, wet and mollusc attack and are showing signs of re growth in their second year. I’ve moved them from the comparative safety of a large planter and planted them out in open ground – always a risky gambit. I’ve mulched very heavily with sharp grit and added a layer of crushed eggshell for good measure. I bet the bastards still manage to destroy them… I shall inspect daily and consider whisking them out into pots again at the first sign of trouble!

In a bid to sustain my delphinium success, I’m trying something new in the anti-mollusc arsenal. I have serious doubts about this stuff but I’ll give it a go. I find it extremely unlikely that anything that doesn’t actually kill or harm slugs and snails is going to be remotely effective against them but we’ll see (I mean what does it do to dissuade them exactly? Ask them nicely to leave?) I refuse to use slug pellets, even the so-called wildlife friendly ones, because I’ve read conflicting accounts of how kind they are to birds and hedgehogs, so if this really works I’ll be really impressed. I’d be more impressed if it killed the slugs and left everything else alone,though. Slugs really are the bane of my life. Well, slugs, moles and whitefly…

Discussing fig trees with a very experienced gardening friend (who is also a professional gardener), I realised that planting my fig tree in open ground was probably yet another big mistake. Fig trees get really massive and they really only stand a chance of fruiting if their roots are a little restricted. I decided to bite the bullet and lift this one while I still could, moving it to the confinement of the planter (ok, old water tank) previously inhabited by the delphiniums. Digging it out and moving the tank were both really stupid things to do, as both have aggravated my pelvic/abdominal pain for two days since (I really do need to strengthen my core and lower back so they do more of the work!) I do think the fig tree looks better already, though. I’ll give it its first prune in a few weeks. It might dislike getting its roots cooked – always a risk when planting in anything metal – but at £3 from Lidl I’m prepared to take my chances. I have zero expectations of ever seeing a fig on it anyway! It should have nice big tropical-looking leaves in Summer… it occurred to me that if we had a sort of a low pallet with wheels, the tank could stand on that and could be moved around the patio so that the leafy fig tree provides a mobile sun shade…. The idea has been tentatively floated with Chief Engineer, but I think he might need persuading… or bribing…

This clematis armandii has been badly treated by me, having been struggling through dense leylandii in a shady corner, which is not what it likes at all. Hopefully I’ve given it the space it craves here on the pergola – pleasingly it is showing some new growth and may reward us with lovely pink blooms and a heavenly scent in early Spring. I think I may need to pamper it a bit more though – I have planted it in a chimney pot to give it a longer root run (just visible in the far right photo). Clematis are quite forgiving on the whole, but they do like a really deep planting as they like their feet cool and moist. I think the chimney pot will be counter-productive. Not one of my better ideas… better fix that before the weather warms up, or the poor thing will get its feet cooked instead of getting the cool toes its craves.

Here follow three rather dull shots, included today because they show the smashing job done by the professionals on cutting the hedge, who have taken a good 18 inches off and re-established a neat line all the way down. The difference in light is quite astonishing already, I can hear the borders sighing with relief. If we can just keep on top of it now, we might be in with a fighting chance against it. The bloody thing grows if you turn your back on it, and if you miss the window in which it can be cut, you then have to wait for most of the year until the birds stop nesting. This hedge is a sparrow condominium, as well as housing blackbirds, robins, wrens and probably a few others too. We’ve never yet managed to give it a hard cut early in the year, so I’m excited to see how much it influences the growth in the border through Spring and Summer. Quite how we ended up paying to get the neighbours’ hedge cut is beyond me, but I’m so desperate to improve the light that I’m beyond quibbling about it. In fact, thinking about it, I wish we’d had more taken off, since it was at our expense anyway!

The Under-Gardener declares it is surely tea-time!

Saturday 22nd & Sunday 23rd January 2022 – digging deep on a grey day

I am trying to make notes at least once a week so that I have an ongoing record of tasks and progress. Some weeks, although a reasonable amount might get done, there seems little to show for it. Photos of tidying up and bare earth are not very interesting. Better, more interesting things will follow once we’re past Valentine’s Day and the days lengthen more rapidly.

The recent storms took down my rose arch, requiring a very hard prune to save the two climbing roses from further damage. They currently sit looking rather stumpy and awaiting a new support. A very swish, very solid, iron arch has been purchased at great expense. There was every intention that it would get built this weekend, but an out-of-character decision to check all components before the build started revealed that we’d not received the full number of screws… so construction was postponed. Chief Engineer got a reprieve. The Under-Gardener carried out a shed inspection instead of an inspection of works. There is wood in the shed here, behind Chief Engineer, waiting to become raspberry supports, ideally before the raspberries burst into growth again. Really must get on with that. Meanwhile, the flamingos have been in for a service, and have received a fresh new custom spray job.

I’m trying to focus on one area of the garden at a time, completing work in one area before I move on to another task. It is neater and cleaner and much more effective and efficient. I am easily distracted and often create mess in multiple places without finishing things in any of them, so I’m trying really hard to change that. Sunday was all about deep focus, attention to detail and being thorough. The big herbaceous border (which I pretentiously call The Long Border, like I’m Vita Sackville-West or something) hasn’t had proper attention for ages. The soil is compacted and a bit waterlogged in places (look at that moss in the picture on the left above!) and it is full of evil pernicious weeds in others (ground elder and cinquefoil in the photo on the right). you have to get down on your hands and knees to see these things, but they do seriously impede the health and success of the border. So for the first time ever I got down close to the ground and fastidiously tickled the soil surface to aerate, and gently dug and pulled and teased to remove the deep roots of vast numbers of tiny, troublesome weeds…

… I was really pleased about this, as it’s always seemed like a gargantuan feat until now and I’ve been disheartened even thinking about it. Somehow, the challenge seemed more acceptable this weekend and the gratification from extracting these deep roots seemed worthwhile. The white roots above are ground elder, the darker ones are cinquefoil – you would never guess such deep tough roots lay below the tiny, fragile leaves that appear above ground. Both weeds proliferate at alarming speed and smother the plants I do want in the border. Seeing the bed finally clear of them was so pleasing, even if it will only last a few weeks before they start to reappear. What do we learn from this? Sometimes you have to dig deep if you want to root out that which irks you… and you’ll probably have to repeat the process indefinitely at intervals, too.

Nifty tools are making the world of difference to my gardening – I can manage to do more before pain kicks in, now that I’m using long handled tools to reduce bending. This long handle has interchangeable tool parts – it’s incredibly tough and versatile. Here, the hand fork implement is just the thing for reaching right into the border without bending or tramping down the soil. I was sceptical, but thinking differently about tools has been an absolute game changer.

The border doesn’t look the most interesting this time of year but actually it’s got a whole lot more going on than it did this time last year, partly because I’m starting to think differently about planting, trying to plant in bigger blocks and constantly trying to find ways to bring in year round interest (hence introducing some grasses). I gave (nearly) the whole border a good mulching with well-rotted horse manure. I ran out of steam before I could quite mulch the whole thing. That is some heavy shit, you know.

By this time in the year, I always have a sorrowful collection of cuttings languishing in pots. Here are currants and strawberry runners, saved from prunings I couldn’t quite bring myself to throw out, plus behind them some trays of bomb-proof perennials I am bringing on for a non-gardening-minded friend. I’m hoping I can give her some colour whilst not creating much work for her. I might have created work for me though, as I’ll need to plant them for her!
These seedheads got cut down. It is a little early, but I read that Monty Don doesn’t hold with all that ‘leave your stems up over winter’ business, and if it’s good enough for him… I needed to take them down so that I could get in between the plants and weed properly. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.
The hedge is out of control and I hate it. We’ve not been able to keep on top of it and it’s run away with us, it’s missed the hard cut our neighbours used to arrange every couple of years. We’ve got a firm coming this week to take it in hand a bit before the birds start nesting again. I’m pathetically excited about the impact of gaining more light just before the Spring – we’ve never actually got our shit together for a Spring cut before, even a small amount of extra light on the border in Spring could make a dramatic difference to growth and flowering through the rest of the year. Just for once I’ve thought to take some ‘before’ shots. Those spare currant bushes in the earlier photo will go in the bare patch of earth in the photo above, once the work has been done. I might also put the strawberries underneath in a sort of a food forest effect… or, if Chief Engineer manages to take down the old wood shed, I might treat myself to a poly tunnel and try Bob Flowerdew’s recommendation of growing strawberries under cover for the most reliable results… after all, that’s how commercial growers do it – under huge plastic tunnels (though they probably have climate control, automatic irrigation and mechanised spraying with pesticides, too!) Thinking about it now, I probably spend an unhealthy amount of time daydreaming about polytunnels…
The hydrangea in the middle of the photo above and the miscanthus grasses on the right both need a hard cut, but I can’t quite bring myself to do it yet. It will keep a little longer, until slightly warmer weather, though I had better not leave it too long…

12-16th January 2022 – low sun and frosts, grudging supervision

I started last weekend early and sneaked out in the weak Wednesday afternoon sun to get a few things done. The Under-Gardener wasn’t impressed, but felt duty bound to supervise. Thyme was on his side (sorry).

I planted out the second batch of garlic – a different variety. This lot arrived in the post later than the first – they were supposed to arrive together – and it was in noticeably worse condition, though not as bad as some I’ve received in other years. Garlic for planting has been a bit of a lottery for some time – I assume there are issues with the crop grown specifically for raising the following season’s bulbs for planting. Last year many French varieties were impossible to get hold of. Maybe it’s Brexit related.
Can’t we go indoors? I’m cold!

A series of obligatory frost photos follows.

Starting to feel that grouping pots together looks better than having them spread about individually. Need something to put in the grey pot… better go plant shopping!
In the same vein, I’m realising that bold blocks of multiples of the same plant look better than a mash-up of many types of individual plants mixed together – I bet every Head Gardener makes this mistake when they first get their hands on their own space. These trailing rosemary had outgrown their pots anyway – planted out here they might be happier and I hope they’ll trail over the ugly breeze block wall and through the little railing, and generally spread about to form a block.

David Austin sent me the wrong rose. Since they are an exceptionally good company, they told me to keep it and sent me the right one at no extra charge. Both roses have been settled in and given a nice blanket of manure. You can never have too many roses!

Oh that’s MUCH more comfortable than under-gardening in the cold!

Friday 7th & Sunday 9th January 2022 – how many bulbs does it take to exhaust a Head Gardener?

200 snowdrops, 100 gladioli byzantinus and 22 cloves of garlic, that’s how many…

The last of my bulb orders arrived today (150 tulips, 50 crocus , 50 alliums and an uncertain number of daffodils went in late last year). Buying snowdrops ‘in the green’’ like this makes them more likely to establish well, and more quickly, but it does mean you really need to get them in the ground quick smart. Around about planting the 75th snowdrop I started to question my choices, given that it was freezing cold and raining. I’m sure I’ll be glad when they flower though – which might not be this year, though the ones I bought this time last year did flower very well immediately after planting. The gladioli are not the blowsy cultivated type Morrissey used to twirl around, but a more delicate species type, smaller blooms in a bright magenta which will perrennialise and spread itself nicely (I hope), bridging that occasionally difficult gap where Spring segues into Summer.

A rare occurrence of me remembering to do a before/after shot. Gooseberry pruning: I haven’t been pruning hard enough in past years (and this may actually still not be quite hard enough). We never get a massive crop (every year I wage war against gooseberry sawfly) but gooseberries are hard to find in the shops, and I do love a gooseberry fool (plus they are quite cooperative about tolerating shade, so they make good use of this space). Once the lot are pruned they get a mulch with the wood ash saved from the wood burner (especially good for fruit trees and bushes).
A friend very kindly brought me a large bough of mistletoe for Christmas. I have since learned that it likes to grow in apple trees best of all. I rather like the pagan associations with mistletoe so I thought I’d see if I could persuade some to grow. I doubt this will work, actually, but it’s an interesting experiment. The berries are exceptionally sticky and look disgustingly snotty. – these have stayed stuck on the tree through torrential rain. Mistletoe does somewhat weaken its host tree, but this apple tree was already mistreated by the previous residents (who probably planted it) and since I don’t especially care for Golden Delicious, it’s demise would not cause me a huge amount of grief. It’ll probably still outlive me, to be honest!

It’s that time of year when I bang on about seedheads. I cleared the dead stems too early last year – the garden looked bare for ages and I destroyed habitat for overwintering beasties. Trying very hard to be a little more patient this year – I’ll start clearing, gradually, towards the end of the month, rather than slashing across the border in one fell swoop.

Last year I also started sowing too soon – I started too many things off indoors and ended up with sorry leggy seedlings that couldn’t go outside when the weather refused to warm up. This year I will resist the temptation to get cracking with these and I’ll hold off sowing any indoor crops until at least St Valentine’s Day, when the day length dramatically improves and the light is kinder to seedlings. This is one of two seed orders placed for this year… of course I don’t really need seed but the catalogues are just too tempting!

Lots of things are really taking off already (it’s really not been that cold, we haven’t had much in the way of frost). This fennel is especially enthusiastic. Big billowing clouds of foliage would be lovely this year. I’ve never yet managed to get a really dense back row to my border… perhaps this is the year!
Last year I was unhappy with big gaps of bare earth between the blooms of the Spring bulbs – I know that’s how Spring borders often look, but I was after a fuller, lusher look. For the first time ever, I was organised enough to sow and raise wallflowers last autumn. These have been in this flower bed throughout the Winter and are bulking up nicely. They should, hopefully, open up in a deep velvety red, complimenting the tulips. If it’s successful I’ll raise lots more, in different colours, later this year for next year’s display. Growing bedding from seed saves a lot of money and also saves resources – it’s infinitely more environmentally friendly.

We’ll never manage to be fully self-sufficient, but it is certainly possible to have at least one item fresh from the garden for dinner every day of the year. Left to right: cavalo nero, various chards, and more chard, with beetroot below. All continuing to produce, despite really torrential Welsh rain for what feels like months.

I am trying very hard to be more disciplined about what I put on the compost heap – rather than indiscriminately chucking on woody bits and perennial weeds, which only stacks up trouble later (specifically, me being in trouble with Chief Engineer). Most kitchen waste goes on here and a sizeable amount of paper and cardboard – we put substantially less waste out for the council collections than most of our neighbours! It’s not pretty, but it’s largely out of sight, and it’s certainly effective. It would be quicker and more effective if we covered the heap to retain heat, but the garden is like Centreparcs for rats already without building them a fucking sauna too. We keep it wet and exposed and try to turn it fairly often so that cats and foxes can get to any inhabitants and it’s as inhospitable as possible. Realistically, it probably has numerous mammalian residents anyway (though sadly no hedgehog, which really would be a treat).
I treated myself to some fab new tools – this long-handled trowel and a hand fork with the same type long handle. A pain consultant suggested different tools might help to improve the aggravation caused to my chronic pelvic/abdominal pain by frequent bending whilst gardening. Initially I thought this suggestion was a typically unrealistic and dumb idea from a non-gardener, but she was absolutely right – these things are actually really good! They reduce the bending burden, make it easier to reach into big beds, and give a bit more leverage so many border tasks are easier. I love them so much, I even clean them after use!
Mr Blackbird has clearly decided I am friend not foe and comes very close to me now while I’m working, to see if I’ve unearthed any tasty treats for him. He was about a foot away from me when he decided that big fat worm had his name on it. He was about to come even closer when the Under-Gardener got jealous that I was talking to a creature that wasn’t him and came and barked, causing Mr. Blackbird to escape to the relative safety of the fence.

A thoroughly scientific experiment here. Garlic planting time. In the picture on the right, the bed is half Solent Wight garlic planted directly in the soil and half the same garlic, from the same batch, potted up into pots before it goes into open ground. In theory, it will enjoy better drainage and put on a good healthy root ball before being planted out – this may or may not make it more able to resist white rot, rust and other diseases. We’ll see. To be honest, I discovered last year that even with some disease, if lifted early enough, a decent crop can still be obtained. We won’t make it through a whole year being self-sufficient for garlic from last year’s crop like we usually do but we won’t be very far off – the stored bulbs are still going and I probably have enough left for another month or two (we are a VERY heavy household for garlic use!)

The last of the sprouts – probably enough for one more meal in all. These were successful and delicious and I’ll definitely grow more this year (the variety is Sanda from Real Seed Co – with the added bonus of being self-pollinating, but I can’t quite be arsed to raise plants in isolation cages in order to save seed…) The sprouts themselves never got very big, though – does anyone know the secret to this? Should I be removing the cabbagey top growth early in the season?
The first of the snowdrops (not one I planted this weekend, that would be cheating). The first one of the year always brings me such joy and relief. It’s very short and it’s not quite fully open yet but it is undeniably flowering. Spring is around the corner! It feels so good to get outside and get the earth under my nails again, even in the pissing cold rain. Seed packets and gardening supplies keep arriving… an exciting year’s gardening lies ahead. No Under-Gardener photos this week – he was not impressed enough with the weather to spend much time outside supervising!

1st January 2022 – A New Year’s Day

It was such a pleasure and a relief to be working outside today despite the oppressively grey weather. I decided to try to reapply myself to capturing garden work and thoughts a little more assiduously, because my written notes aren’t very fulsome and I lose most of the good ideas I have. So, here we are again… and I’ll try harder to keep it up this time. As last year drew on, I found myself sliding into a reluctance to engage with the outside world at all… then a reluctance to garden… then a general, insidious reluctance to do anything at all, permeated by a malaise that made everything seem rather pointless and less than it might be. At least three people older and wiser than me suggested to me that the cure might be found in the garden… and I think they’re probably right. So, out to the garden we went…

These photos are terrible but it’s good to get back into recording what we’ve been doing. Maybe my photography skills will improve as the year rolls on.

The Under-Gardener was happy to mooch outside for a change. There was a lot of supervising to be done.
Chief Engineer undertook his twice yearly duty of pruning the apple tree. Fortunately the Under-Gardener (doing double-duty as Inspector of Works) was on hand to make sure standards were observed.
This was the important bit for New Year’s Day. I always like to sow some seeds on 1st January, even if I’m being ridiculously optimistic. Broad beans sown in pots on NYD can usually be relied upon to grow sooner or later, so can lettuce (it helps if they can be kept under glass). I sowed both, hopefully, along with brown and red onions, shallots and some exceptionally optimistic sweet peas (these last are very unlikely to succeed, but I have a lot of saved seed, so it doesn’t matter if they fail).
The flowering quince is putting out buds already, so I cleared the overwintering plants in front of it and mulched throughout the bed, using our home compost, which is really good (and after three or more years of rotting down, so it should be!)
I moved this viburnum because it refused to flower. I guessed it needed more light and I was right – this year it’s rewarded me with a beautiful display. The pink really glows in the winter gloom and the scent is gorgeous. I cleared these grotty dead crocosmia leaves from around it and gave it a good mulch to say thank you.

There are bulbs popping up everywhere – I’m not even sure what all of these are. Daffodils on the left, snowdrops in the middle, not sure what the ones on the right are…. I have ordered 200 more snowdrops anyway, because you can never have too many and I am impatient.

Hamamelis (witch hazel) flowering on the left – smells amazing. Stachyaurus praecox on the right, getting ready to flower (no idea what the common name is). I saw a massive one in bloom in a park once and decided I had to have one. It will probably prove too large for our garden, but for now I don’t care. Winter flowering shrubs bring me so much pleasure.

It’s not all ornamentals. I managed to harvest some turnips today (on the left). To call these imperfect would be to put it politely but they’re perfectly edible (there is probably one here shaped like a thingy, for Baldrick fans). On the right, three different types of perennial leafy greens – all delicious and all looking set to keep producing well into their second year. The kale (Pentland Brigg) is particularly good – I keep breaking bits off to eat raw.

These are both ornamental and edible – hopefully now these artichokes are taking off, we’ll get huge plants (and maybe even some fruit) by summer. They’re slap bang in the middle of a flower bed but the plants are so attractive that I think it’ll work.
This was a labour of love! Fortunately the Head Gardener and Chief Engineer remained civil throughout the installation process. The gate is quite attractive but enables people in the parking areas on the other side to see in. A large piece of mirrored acrylic, cable-tied to the gate, gives a trompe l’oueil effect, blocking the view in from the outside, but making it look from the inside as though there is something beyond (and reflecting back light, too). I’m pleased with the effect. I can sit on the nearby bench without being ambushed by next-door’s kids now!
A soggy grey view from inside the fruit cage (nets removed, so the birds can get in and eat overwintering pests). In front right, the bed is filled with mustard greens, a green manure crop which is meant to help cleanse the soil. It’s time to cut the plants down now, then I’ll leave the cut parts spread over the soil to rot in, preventing weeds from growing and adding organic matter and nitrogen ready for the Spring crops. There was a rose arch over that gate – Storm Arwen destroyed it and I had to hard prune both roses to save them… they may still not survive. Fortunately I am forever taking cuttings, so all is not lost! I will buy a better arch next time, though.
This is either Brian or Brianna. We have a pair of absolutely giant water snails. I’ve never seen one so big. We have a great many water snails but these two are absolute mutants. I don’t even know where they came from. I’m very attached to them – I hunt anxiously for them every time I come to the pond. Soggy Bottom flooded again recently – looking back over old posts I see it was around the same time of year last time. Fortunately, neither Brian nor Brianna were washed out to sea.
Mr Mole’s assault on the garden continues. We managed to see him off for a bit – Chief Engineer filled the molehills and tunnels with the peelings from me pickling 2.5 kg of onions. Apparently moles hate alliums. It certainly worked for a while, but by now the peelings will have rotted away and it seems he is back. I’m not sure I can be bothered to pickle onions continuously. Presumably a chopped whole onion will have the same effect!
I set about removing some of the very oldest lavender last year and started a new lavender hedge along the edge of the patio, from cuttings. Despite Mr Mole’s attempts to undermine it and despite all of the weathers, it seems to have taken… so far. We’ll see if we end up having any snow, that might well see it off! If it does make it through, it’ll look and smell great in a couple of years (though inviting quite so many bees to the patio in summer might prove foolhardy…)

Finally, success with purple sprouting broccoli (in fact, so successful that we had to risk pigeon attach and remove the nets, as the plants were straining to bust through them). I’ve been unable to resist munching on little bits of this raw, too. The secrets to success proved to be 1) fresh seed; 2) only growing a very small number of plants and giving them a lot of space; 3) staking them without mercy and firming them into the ground very well; 4) feeding. I found I had some very old sulphate of ammonia languishing in the shed, bought for our old allotment on the recommendation of my Grandpa, which shows just how long it’s been hanging around, as he died quite some time ago. Well, no, sulphate of ammonia is not an organic product and no it probably isn’t a very good thing to use a lot of, but following the instructions scrupulously did send all of the brassicas off like a rocket, putting forth astonishing lush green growth, and it made me realise how hungry brassicas are and how I’ve probably been cruelly depriving my plants for years. With such dramatic results, I can’t promise not to use sulphate of ammonia again, though I will always use it in strict compliance with the instructions on quantities.

One of the most satisfying things about growing soft fruit is that it’s so easy to make more plants. Every year I pot up lots of new strawberry and black currant plants. There’s always someone who’s grateful for them and I can usually find space for any that don’t find homes. I have yet to meet anyone who isn’t happy to eat summer pudding at any time of year.

The Under-Gardener wishes to remind the Head Gardener that Chief Engineer hates it when she doesn’t clean the tools after use.