Friday 29th & Saturday 30th January 2021 – Spring is around the corner

(Note: I posted this blog post and then WordPress had a little strop and ate it, so apologies to anyone who gets it twice!)

The first crocuses of the year are poking through – Spring is well on the way now.

Not an especially bright day but a mild dry one and it feels good to be outside and helping the garden to wake up for Spring. This year we stand a fighting chance of giving the hedges a trim before the nesting season starts for the small garden birds in March, which will keep everything looking a little neater and make such a huge difference to the light levels in the borders. I spent a happy few hours outside on both days – the days are lengthening noticeably and it’s a happy Head Gardener who can work outside past 4.30pm with still a little light left. This is not an especially good harvest of sprouts and it’s certainly not the biggest, but from two plants grown too late in the season, as an experiment (sprouts need to be sown early!) its really not too bad, and it’s gratifying to be getting food out of the garden this late in the growing year. We love sprouts so these will be just the job roasted with garlic and bacon and served with pasta.

This hammamelis (witch hazel – like the lovely smelling stuff you put on bruises) was a bargain in the plant graveyard at the local garden centre. The blooms are so pretty on the bare stems and the smell is so zesty and fresh. I’m thrilled with how well this has done after being rescued. I couldn’t resist cutting two small sprigs to bring indoors.
I like to think the snowdrops and iris reticula are having a chat. I am terribly impatient and the snowdrops are not spreading quickly enough for me. I started with 20; last year I added another 50; I have just ordered 100. That should do it! I couldn’t resist ordering bluebells too…

I’ve moved the bench and arch by 45 degrees. This opens up a route from the patio (which may come in handy if I eventually decide to go ahead with my vague ideas about a pergola over the patio). Behind the bench is a gate in the fence. This is because there is an old deed with our property, giving us access across our neighbour’s land for the purposes of bringing heavy/bulky items to the back of the house. The route around their property is so convoluted that it’s actually easier to bring things through the house, so we never use the gate. The deed was created in the 1920s, when our house was a butcher’s shop, and specifically gives permission for transporting coal or manure, with or without a handcart. Well, we don’t have coal… we do have manure but we just bring it through the house (in bags!) I suspect in the 1920s the manure was actually leaving our premises not arriving on them, as there was land with the house which I suspect had livestock on it (possibly destined for the butcher’s shop!) Anyway… I decided that since we don’t use the gate, we needn’t keep it clear. The rose on the arch will be happier this way around and it opens the surrounding space up, leaving me some new options for rearranging things…

View of the garden from the bedroom window. That blue tarp covering the patio table is ugly, isn’t it? I think I’ll get a more subdued khaki one for next year. This is a bit too “Steptoe’s Yard’ for me. It looks like it should have a half-stripped-down car under it. Here below is more or less the same view (patio is just out of shot, but only just) five years ago, just before we moved in. I want to try to post more of these comparison shots through the seasons, just to really capture how much we’ve done.

The nectarine tree is forming buds! Annoyingly I have broken one or two branches by being clumsy when taking the fleece on and off, but it’s important to fleece it now buds are forming, as a hard frost could see them all off. It’s vanity to attempt growing nectarines in cold wet South Wales really. I couldn’t even say the one fruit it bore to ripeness last year was any better than the ones from the grocer. The blossoms are very pretty, but since I need to leave the plastic covering over it well after the blossoms are over, it doesn’t even make an especially attractive feature. In fact… why am I bothering?!
This lettuce over-wintered in the greenhouse is surging back into life and will keep us in leaves until the new crop, just sown, is ready to start harvesting. It’s been a damp winter in the greenhouse and I need to fork over the soil in between the lettuce here as it’s got moss/algae on it – it needs aerating to boost drainage and prevent mould and fungus.

Who would live in holes like these, above and below? My money’s on Ratty McRatface, though admittedly in our wildlife safari park anything is possible. Hopefully the wildlife camera will capture something sooner or later.

The lengthening days are bringing a few other things to life too. These peas planted a fortnight or so ago, are just starting to germinate. The erratic temperatures may mean they don’t really come to anything, but I can always use the pea shoots for salads if the plants are a bit feeble.

The early-planting garlic I bought this year was as huge as the autumn-planting bought last year but it didn’t arrive in such tip-top condition. The hard neck in particular (above) is a little dry at the top of the bulb (where I’m pointing to). I’m not going to pester the nursery about this, though, as I know they’ve been absolutely clobbered by the post-Brexit changes to plant imports and it’s caused huge problems to their business. This garlic comes from french growers (most does, in fact, although it is also produced on the Isle of Wight) and I suspect I’m lucky to get it at all. It may well thrive anyway. If it doesn’t, though, I’ll order different varieties or find another supplier (which would be a shame, as I really like this one – Pennard Plants – for all other items).

Nice big fat cloves – clearly been hanging about a bit as they’ve started to sprout. I suspect they have spent longer in transit than they should have, ideally, and probably got a bit warm too. All potted up now and snuggled next to the nectarine tree under its open-sided cover. They don’t need warmth – in fact, quite the opposite, they need a hard cold snap – but I want to keep the worst of the heavy rain off them to avoid rot and fungus. Once they’ve established good roots in their pots, I’ll plant them out in open soil (by which time the soil will be warmer, too and – hopefully! – less water-logged).

As usual for this awkward time of year, the greenhouse is groaning both with overwintering plants and the first few new sowings. In another fortnight or so I’ll start inspecting the overwintering plants for casualties and start moving things out gradually, to make space for more new sowings. The greenhouse is barely any warmer than the outdoors through the winter, but keeping the cold rain off is usually just enough to limp the more tender perennials through. I think my five year old heliotrope, grown from seed, has finally bitten the dust, though, sadly. I have either over or under-watered it through the winter – a difficult balance to achieve, as it’s easy to forget about plants in here and equally easy to encourage fungus and rot by keeping them too damp and wet. I’m not sure how long heliotrope usually last for anyway – many perennials are not actually all that long-lived and most planto lose vigour and attractiveness over a long period. It may be time to start again and release the pot for another use.

With this propagation/grow light set up in the window facing the main road, I think passers-by probably think I’m growing marijuana, which I find quite amusing (one of our neighbours thought we were keeping reptiles. Whilst I love reptiles, keeping them in a vivarium has always seemed like a largely unrewarding amount of faff, to me). This will be my first growing season using the lights properly – I’m excited to see what sort of difference they make. The sort of greenhouse crops that like it really hot – peppers, aubergines, chillies – need to be started early in the year but then often fail as the seedlings start to need more light and heat before they’re ready to go outside (commercial growers would use huge poly tunnels where light and heat can be very precisely controlled – presumably along with pumping in artificial feed and pesticide, though that might just be me being cynical). I’m hoping the combination of the heated propagator plus the lights is just enough to get the newly sown bell peppers, padron peppers and herbs through to the Spring… and to intrigue the neighbours! Last year’s padron peppers were a triumph and I’m keen to grow tonnes more this year (since I can’t see us being able to go out for tapas anytime soon…)

January 2021: taking pleasure where you can find it and a rare snowfall

A selection of pics here I’ve taken at intervals through the last week or so. Lengthening days and breaks in the rain afford a little more time to spend on getting the garden ready for Spring and the time spent outside in daylight feels vital. One must take one’s pleasure wherever a little may be found. A decent snowfall overnight means no gardening today but (when you don’t have to do anything or go anywhere in it) it is hard not to feel joyful at the sight of a good blanket of soft white snow.

A happy outcome of weak afternoon sun and a broken phone – interesting photo effects!
A mole has moved in. He (or she) leaves me neat little piles of beautifully tilled earth. I scrape them up and save them for potting compost. The middle of the path is a rather conspicuous spot to choose, but I prefer that to the havoc getting wreaked in the borders, undermining plants and leaving things dangling in unhelpful pockets of underground space. Still, I haven’t the heart to try a deterrent (I suspect none of them work, anyway).

I’m a little earlier than usual in cutting down the dead stems in the big flower border (which I rather pretentiously call ‘The Long Border’, like I’m Vita Sackville-West or something). I regret it a little now as the seedheads would have looked lovely against today’s snow, but at the time it was a soggy mess and threatening to smother new growth with a vegetative slime that would have led to rot. Plus I needed the exercise.

At the time I cleared them, these dead stems of geranium ‘Rozanne’ reminded me of bones. After clearing, the new growth shows through (pic on right).

I hope you can click on these images to enlarge them rather than having to squint at these tiny thumbnails. I remodelled the strawberry bed and moved an underwhelming apple tree. It was a freebie liberated from untended ground so it doesn’t matter really if it doesn’t survive. Why people plant Golden Delicious when we have such a fabulous range of British heritage apples is beyond me. France knows a lot about fine food, but its apples are crap. I lifted all the strawberry plants, thinned and tidied them and replanted in better rows, for easier weeding (they wont stay like that, they never do). I may have made the bed unmanageably large here, but nobody ever complained of having too many strawberries and a decent crop might give us a fighting chance of getting some before the rodent population. That said I’ve probably impeded this year’s crop by lifting and replanting. If I can just leave it alone for a year, we might actually get a decent crop next Summer.

Last year I planted garlic in amongst the strawberries as I’d read they complimented each other and it helped to deter pests. It wasn’t terribly successful and I shan’t do it again. On remodelling the strawberry bed I discovered multiple garlic bulbs I’d missed and failed to lift at harvest time. They looked surprisingly healthy, though small, so I’ve planted them up in these old troughs. If they don’t come to anything, we’ve not lost anything. If they succeed, there’ll be a bumper crop and I might have spares to give away. Personally I’d be delighted to receive a plaited bunch of garlic as a gift, but I accept I am a bit odd like that.
Sunday 24th January 2021 – we awoke to a reasonably heavy snowfall. It’s the hush that it creates that I like most of all. I’ve probably gone overboard with the photos here but snow is just so very photogenic!

Thursday 14th January 2021 – the first sighting of two old friends

I always feel the first snowdrop of the year is so auspicious.
I have no recollection of planting these tiny Iris reticulata here and in fact this is a stupid place for them as they’re lost at the back of a border, but I’m delighted to see them. I’ll move them when they’ve finished flowering.
I don’t actually care for this vinca major at all but these two blooms are welcome today (and rare, as the bloody thing hardly ever flowers!)
The one and only fruit the physalis bore this year.

A bright, dry day and an opportunity for me to start hacking and chopping. Shrubs are getting pruned, dead stems and seedheads finally getting cleared, perennials getting moved… after Valentine’s Day in February the days will quickly lengthen and, hopefully, get warmer. For now, most things are still relatively dormant and it’s a good time to rearrange things and start planning out new plantings. I disposed of a hydrangea that has persistently failed to please me and I lifted a Rambling Rector rose, raised from a cutting and bravely but ill-advisedly planted in a hedge. I had to remove it before it made off down the road and engulfed Caerphilly. It is promised to a friend who has a lot more space than we do!

10th January 2021 – the ghosts of three roses

The last few rosehips from Rosa ‘Rambling Rector’ and a single plump bud from the unknown rose I rescued from our old allotment for a better life… incredible that it’s still putting out buds in this cold…
There was a single fat bud on Rosa ‘Generous Gardener’, too, but it shattered when I pruned the plant. These gardening gloves are fleece-lined: I can’t recommend them highly enough for days like today! (They’re made by Briers, who make some of the better gardening gloves, though they are more expensive).

Biting cold but dry weather means we can get on with the tasks that start to fall due now and which quickly pile up and cause a panic in me if I don’t get on top of them. I’ll be sowing the first seeds of the year soon, for bringing on indoors with artificial heat and light, but today it’s all been about winter pruning. There’s a lot of guff talked about pruning and sometimes the best time to do a job is when you’ve got time to do it. That said, there are some basic technical principles to pruning and I finally feel, after god knows how many years, like I am starting to understand what the books are telling me. One of the upsides to the events of the past year is that I have more time in the garden and I am able to observe it more closely and more frequently, noticing things I might have missed otherwise. I have slowed down and developed my powers of observation – neither of these is a bad thing. I can see now where this year’s growth on a shrub is, and the previous year’s, and where I’ve gone wrong with pruning and how that influenced growth. I am beginning to get a sense of how where I cut, and at what angle, will influence what happens next in the plant’s development. Well, we’ll see how successful I’ve been when summer arrives!

All of this makes for some rather dull photos (I’m basically sharing a load of photos of twigs) but these will help me when I’m reviewing what I’ve done and how I did it. It would have helped if I’d paused for more ‘before’ shots, though… maybe next year!

On the right of the arch, Generous Gardener has been taken in hand and tied back in. On the left, Gertrude Jekyll awaits the same treatment tomorrow. She’s a vicious, thorny mess at the moment!
The gooseberries got a hard prune. These have been really waterlogged so I’m really not sure how well they’ll do. They were also ravaged by gooseberry sawfly last year so I need to make sure I treat them with nematodes early this year and inspect them regularly for the evil little critters.
I don’t really know whether these are summer raspberries or autumn ones, as they seemed to just fruit episodically whenever they felt like it, and without this vital knowledge I don’t know which way to prune them. Autumn fruiters are cut down to the ground in winter: do that with summer fruiters and you’ve likely removed this year’s fruiting wood. I compromised by cutting out obviously dead wood, shortening vigorous healthy canes by a third, and taking about half the cane off any that had clearly fruited last season, but leaving half behind. This way, if they’re summer fruiting, I haven’t removed too much of last year’s growth, which will bear fruit this year: if they’re autumn fruiting, the worst thing that will happen is that I’ll get a little flush of fruit early on and a (hopefully larger) second lot in autumn. Of course, that’ll perpetuate my uncertainty about which type they are, but I can probably get away with doing much the same thing year on year, giving us a nice long raspberry season into the bargain. That woodshed in the background is coming down soon (fewer hiding place for ratty, more growing space for me…) The plastic sheet on it is protecting a cherry tree from frost and heavy rain… and I’m going to have to move it before the shed comes down! It would probably fare better further back, on the white concrete wall, anyway, as it’ll get more light and heat there. Mind you, if it doesn’t flower this year its days are numbered anyway! Another plant I liberated from somewhere and know nothing about, so I’ve no idea what variety it is or whether its fruit are sweet or sour… or if it’ll ever bear any!
These two poor brutalised stumps are two fuchsias that underperformed last year, partly because I didn’t prune hard enough. No risk of that this year. Fuchsias can actually be pruned right to the ground, but I’m trying to create layers here by lifting the crown and having some bare stem at the bottom, around which I can squeeze in another layer of planting. The larger fuchsia at the back has attractive flaky bark, so I’m trying to expose the lower branches and encourage leafy growth and flowers further up. We’ll know if it’s worked in a few months! I couldn’t resist jamming some of the prunings into some soil – it’s not really the right time of year, but fuchsia roots so easily, there’s nothing to lose and it doesn’t matter if they don’t take, but it’ll brighten a dark empty corner if they do. Fuschias are very forgiving.
The currants got the very lightest of pruning as red and white currants fruit on old wood so don’t want a heavy hand, and the blackcurrants are still quite young and we didn’t have the biggest crop last year, so I want to observe them for a year before I go hacking into them. If they’re well established they can have a good prune immediately after fruiting this year. I used to think it was possible to have too many currants, but now I’ve discovered how to make my own spiced berry cordial, I realise I was entirely wrong. These need the soil around their bases clearing and a bit of food or mulch spread around. I’ve saved the wood ash from the wood stove as the potassium will help with fruit production, but I thought I’d try actually using the soil test I bought years ago first, as I might be piling on nutrients that aren’t needed and that might actually cause problems rather than helping.
In soggy Wales, black spot on roses is an inevitability. I just live with it rather than throwing nasty sprays around, though I have used a homemade spray involving garlic and mouthwash once or twice – with some – limited – success. What is important, though, is binning the prunings rather than composting them, so this lot is destined for the council green waste collection. The fruit bush clippings may harbour pests, so need binning rather than composting for the same reason. The thorns on all of them are also really evil, so with my propensity for making very twiggy compost, keeping these out of the compost bin will help keep the compost easier to handle (though at the moment it towers like the sentient compost heap in Fraggle Rock…)

31st December 2020 – a hard frost to end the year

A run of very cold weather has brought as hard a frost as I’ve ever seen here. It gives the garden a magical look on this bright morning. I fear for the more tender plants like the dahlias, which I never bother to lift from the borders for storage, and for the very tender things sheltering under bubble wrap and fleece in the greenhouse, which is barely any warmer than outdoors. Still, that is gardening for you, and every year I anticipate casualties at winter and end up surprised and relieved… plants are tougher than we think. And, if I do end up with losses, that’s life, and a chance to find new and exciting replacements that may be better suited to the location and more able to thrive. Gardening is a great way to come to terms with the ebb and flow of life. The only thing constant in life is change! The frost is entirely appropriate for this time of year and makes a change from previous years when we’ve barely had any at all. It will help to renew and rejuvenate, killing some pests, viruses and fungal diseases; some plants actually need a frost to trigger seed germination or bud formation, and some actually improve with frost (like brassicas or parsnips).

Birds need water more than they need food. There’s plenty of insect life, seed materials and worms in the garden for them without me putting out expensive bird food and creating a buffet for rodents, but water for drinking and bathing is much more important. Pouring boiling water directly onto this birdbath to melt the ice would risk cracking it: standing a metal dish filled with boiling water on the ice melts it gently. The birds will thank me later. The kitschy little cherub beneath the dish is a bit patchy, isn’t he? Do I give him a lick of paint, or stick with the distressed look? I’m inclined to leave him as he is – he might look a bit stark and conspicuous with an even coat – but let me know what you think!
This trailing rosemary didn’t get the memo about the frost and has decided to start flowering anyway. That snow-in-summer beneath it will turn into soggy slime now its frozen. I need to clear it… again!
I love the delicate frosting on these houseleeks (yes, they are deliberately planted and positioned like that, they like the drainage and it’s a good use for a broken pot). Sleeping black metal gnome is less impressed. Perhaps he’s hibernating.
People who care about their lawns should not walk on them when there is a hard frost – the compaction risks longer-term damage to the turf and soil structure. I have no interest in lawn whatsoever (I only keep this bit so we can put deckchairs in the shade of the apple tree in high summer) so I don’t give a shit, but you know, to each their own.
Roses are tough. Don’t let them tell you otherwise. There’s a lot of guff talked about roses. They will survive most things in spite of you. And you can never have too many.
A good hard frost vindicates my obsession with seedheads.
The joy of chard is that (in addition to being quite attractive) it is so incredibly tough that it will withstand both drought and frost. The red, purple and yellow forms (you can just see a few yellow stems mid-left – I’ve picked most of them!) are easily attractive enough to edge a border with, as well as being great to eat. The purple form, mid-right, is particularly pleasing in both kitchen and garden. Chard is commonly sold in a mixed pack called “Rainbow Lights”, and whilst this is always productive, I find the white and red forms dominate at the expense of the yellows and oranges. This can be resolved by buying individual packs of each colour variant and growing exactly the numbers of each you want, and that’s what I plan on doing next season (Pennard Plants and Chiltern Seeds are particularly good sources of individually-packed colours and both are excellent seed suppliers in general).
One of three very frozen ponds. I usually leave a small ball floating in them through the winter as its bobbing around can help to stop the water freezing completely, allowing it to stay oxygenated for plants and wildlife. I forgot this year, but this pond needs a good clean out anyway and the wildlife is pretty rugged so I’m sure it’ll cope. This pond is tiny – even the smallest, shallowest bit of water in a garden can make a massive difference to wildlife. This one is simply a hole dug and lined with an old piece of butyl liner, but it could just as easily be done with a washing up bowl or even upturned dustbin lid sunk to ground level. We’ve made ponds using old shower curtains and punctured inflatable mattresses before now. The key thing is to provide planting to give cover and lots of nooks and crannies around the edges, so small things have lots of hiding places, plus sloping sides or a means for things to get out (hence the log sticking out here). Frogs can jump, but only so high, and a clumsy hedgehog will need something to climb up if he topples in. A sloping pebble beach, if your space and design allows it, is best of all, as this is the most use to the widest range of wildlife, but it can be tricky to achieve if space is limited or your pond liner is rigid and so something that forms a sort of ramp is the next best option.

25th December 2020 – pottering on Christmas Day

After the deluge, some bright, crisp, dry weather for the first time in what feels like ages. I took time to just sit and look around, and wander about a bit. At last the days are getting longer and already there are signs of life everywhere. Buds forming, shoots emerging… hold on. Spring is not so very far away.

The indefatigable yellow rose. Those black specks in the sky are a flock of birds that was circling in the sky as I wandered about the garden.
Flowering quince – early this year. Possibly due to the rather chaotic fluctuations in temperature.

There are signs of bulbs pushing through everywhere. I’m not really sure what these are, to be honest… the ones on the right might be snowdrops.

Rosa Zepherine Drouhin is quite unphased by the frost.

Down at ground level, a trio of (not entirely seasonal) beauties. Cyclamen, primrose, geranium.

I love these physalis fruits when the casing disintegrates to a skeleton, exposing the orange berry inside.
I’m not quite sure what this is: I think it’s probably a sunflower. The seeds have either fallen or been picked off by sparrows and other small garden birds (or rats or mice!) or maybe a combination of all of those factors. I hope they self-seed if they’ve fallen, but I suspect the combined appetites of the local wildlife will put paid either to the seeds or to any young seedlings.

More photos of dead things! I particularly like the spikes of fluffy liatris seedheads in the big pic. I think the dead plants in the two smaller pics look a little like fireworks. The allium seedheads in the pic on the right detach themselves from the dead stalks then roll about the garden like tumbleweed, catching in the stems of shrubs and sticking there like strange alien life-forms.

The ghostly grey-white dead perovskia stems look almost metallic. The rudbeckia soldiers on behind it.

The artichokes transplanted from the allotment a year ago have finally started to look a little happier and bulk out a bit (possibly because I’ve diverted a drainpipe to feed rainwater directly into this bed, because it’s parched by the bastard leylandii). I do have some concerns that the plant in the pic on the left might actually be a cardoon, which would be annoying, as I want globes to eat, not leaves, but then again, if it is, I can let it flower and go to seed and the bees and birds will thank me for it. I don’t think it’s possible to grow too many artichokes. I do think it’s possible we don’t have enough space to test this theory of mine, sadly.

Tiny, cheery rosehips cover the Rambling Rector. I should cut them off, but I can’t bear to. They give food for the birds as well as brightening up the place, making it even harder not to love this thug. I do fear I’ll live to regret planting it though. It threatens to take over not just the neighbouring garden but the entire cul-de-sac behind us… though I couldn’t honestly say I’d consider the obliteration of that a terrible loss.

Slow but steady progress with overwintering crops: brassicas on the left, garlic on the right. If these all survive this wet winter, I’ll be astonished and delighted.

Daffodils poking through amongst wild primroses and some soft fruit cuttings I have shoved in pots and neglected horribly. They might thrive in spite of me: soft fruit is often very forgiving like that.
The stream that contributes to Soggy Bottom’s sogginess is a raging torrent and has clearly overflowed at some point in the last 36 hours. There are signs in Soggy Bottom that part if not all of it has been under at least a foot of water recently (not to mention my rotten wood pile and large dead branches and tree trunks getting swept away and washed up high on the opposite bank – plus a bucket completely lost! I hope it has not gone out to sea (unless the rats set sail in it, in which case, good luck to them!)
A very, very soggy Soggy Bottom. Is that a tide mark at the back, beneath the compost bins?

This fatsia stands well over 3ft tall… and there are muddy tide marks on the leaves half-way up.

The lower growing plants like this hart’s tongue fern are all a bit bedraggled and muddy. The whole area looks as if a surge of water swept over it, and the plants on the opposite bank tell a similar story. We had to walk the dog in the pouring rain and noticed the stream was very high much further downstream from the house – a good 8-9ft higher than its usual level. I thought at the time I should check on Soggy Bottom but I couldn’t be bothered to traipse to the very end of the garden in the mud and the driving rain… and even if I had, what could I have done about it anyway? Plus I might have been swept out into the Bristol Channel in my own bucket! I hope everything recovers here. Hopefully it’s all had a good feed with mineral-rich stream silt and humus (not houmous) and the damp-loving plants I’ve gone for here will prove to have been good choices!

Friday 4th December 2020 – winter veggies and splashes of colour on a dry cold day; some notes to self for next year

I think the garden has beauty at any time of year, it just depends what you find beautiful. I am cheered by this happy little bed of brassicas battling on through winter wet, frost and occasional underground tunnelling by rodents (they will die, I tell you, they will die!) I like the contrasting forms and textures here. This lot will feed us in the ‘hungry gap’, the period early next spring when there is lots of gardening to be done but little still in the ground to harvest.

Difficult to photograph through small-gauge net, these red cabbages are a little further ahead than the ones in the photo above, as I am finally getting to grips with successional planting. These are hearting up nicely. I take the raggedy outer leaves off from time to time but I’ve left them on for now in the hope the slugs eat those and leave the hearts alone… for now!

Astonishingly, these rudbeckia KEEP GOING! Not bad for a free packet of seed with Gardeners World magazine. Slightly raggedy looking now but a welcome shot of yellow, even as it fades.
More winter colour from a strident and indefatigable rose. This one gives blooms of different colour at different times of year, ranging from orangey-peach to blowsy pink, always staying well within that part of the spectrum I like to think of as ‘Barbara Cartland’. It’s got some water damage on it here but it’s still pretty.

Penstemon, the plant that doesn’t give a fuck. It just keeps going, steadfastly refusing to bloom when I’d like it to or to maintain a polite habit or to stick to whatever shape I prune it into. It’s such a do-er, though, and such a stalwart cottage garden classic, that I just let it get on with things and I’ll probably even add a few more in next year. Beautiful purple and blue varieties are available, though all sorts of plants seem to revert to red tones once they hit our soil, I assume there is some sort of trace mineral influencing this (one day I’ll actually use the soil test kit I bought several years ago…)

I’m really pleased with this calabrese (which is the proper name for what the supermarkets sell as ‘broccoli’.) Another successional sowing success story, this is a real win as we normally buy tonnes of broccoli and it is invariably shipped (I suspect air-freighted) from Spain, so reducing food miles on this crop is a big win. I’ll dedicate more space to it next year and experiment with different varieties to see if I can extend the season. This lot probably needs harvesting soon as I’m not entirely sure how cold-hardy it is.

Neighbours to the red cabbage, the perpetual spinach, Swiss chard and rainbow chards have been a great success and will also limp us through the Hungry Gap. The perpetual spinach (a.k.a. New Zealand spinach) is a tastier, tougher and more forgiving crop than the type of spinach you buy in the supermarket and it will tolerate pretty much every adverse growing condition you can imagine. Unless you have the patience and foresight to harvest when the leaves are young (I don’t!), it’s best cooked, and it will withstand a bit more cooking than the slippery, watery leaves that come in plastic bags. I tend to cut one huge basketful at a time then clean it, shred it and freeze it in portions. This makes me more likely to use it, saves me sliding around a muddy garden in the dark, trying to harvest dinner with a torch, and means that it keeps producing new leaves. Unlike the other type of spinach it will keep producing edible leaves for more or less a whole year, even after it has bolted. I germinated too many seedlings this year and so have dotted little clumps all around the garden – under roses, in flower borders, in plant pots… and it’s worked brilliantly. I haven’t had to buy frozen spinach for months, another food miles/plastic reduction win, not to mention a cash saving, as the seed was saved from a crop grown many years ago. The brightly coloured chard can be used in much the same way and brings a lovely pop of colour to both garden and plate. The earthy taste alone tells you it’s packed full of folates and other dietary essentials and it’s surprisingly versatile in the kitchen, provided you remember to chop off the stems and cook them first, as they take longer to soften than the leaves and can be a little woody if not cooked enough. Another crop I’ll be making more of next year.

Autumn sown onions, both red and brown. Poor choice of site, as this is nearly the lowest point of the garden and after such a wet year the ground is saturated. I’ve hoed here to improve drainage but I already suspect I need to reconsider my onion tactics – the previous onion harvest has only just run out, but it wasn’t a great season and we did get a lot of them rotting off due to the wet, including a sighting of what I fear was the dreaded white onion rot. I suspect I need to move to sowing in raised beds for better drainage. I probably also need to accept that, with a smaller productive space, our previous self-sefficiency for onions is not achievable! One might say, that’s shallot… (sorry…)

The long border is now a tangle of faded stems and crumbling seedheads, interspersed with the odd evergreen perennial and the rather belligerent forget-me-nots that I never quite manage to thin adequately (I’ll be glad I didn’t, when they flower in a mist of blue). I like the seedheads and so do the birds. An untidy gardener is a friend to wildlife and there seems little point clearing it away and filling the already overflowing compost bins when the winter wet and cold, plus time, will compost it for me on the spot. One or two days of snipping, grafting and soil-tickling just as winter gives way to Spring is the most interference I can bear to make in this border, it seems like its own little world, somehow, and who am I to tell it what to do?

Here’s a curiosity. The extreme, prolonged damp has obviously caused the seeds in these seedheads to germinate in situ. I’ve never seen this before. I think there’s something rather charming about it, though presumably the seedlings are doomed and the seed spoiled now. Opium poppy on the left, echinacea on the right, both prolific self-seeders from which I saved and stored seed in the summer, so not a huge loss.

Pleasing reds and oranges from two types of cornus, contrasting nicely with an elder in the native/wildlife hedge.
I think these chrysanthemums look like fireworks. I leave them in a pot all year and ignore them and every year they forgive me and flower effusively just as everything else is giving up the ghost (though they do sprawl a bit). This year I’ve actually given some love to the several varieties of chrysanthemum I’ve been neglecting for three years, and I’ve potted up divisions of each type, clearly labelled, in the hope I can build up stock and have greenhouse-grown flowers for cutting well into the winter. It might not work but it’s fun to try these things out.
Grass border following its twice-yearly weed and tidy. That hydrangea to the left is a poor performer and is very likely to get moved or binned in favour of something more interesting. It has boring mean little flower heads and its never looked well, having been planted in completely the wrong place when we first moved in. I moved it and gave it the benefit of the doubt but I’m losing patience with it and will probably move it to the very bottom of the garden where it will have to fend for itself or die. I can plant a worthwhile native then, or let the (far more attractive) guelder rose next to it really take off to a good size.
Rather extravagantly, I decided I wanted moveable uplighting half-way down the garden, but I hardly ever turn them on. More’s the pity, as the grasses look lovely lit up. I might need to rescue the armillary behind them, it’s gradually disappearing as all the plants get bigger.

4th November 2020 – first frost

Our first proper hard frost of the season last night and it took some of the plants by surprise. A handful of pics grabbed between hectic bouts of home working, yet I am filled with gratitude that last week’s relentless downpours and grey skies have given way to crisp brightness and the possibility of spending time outdoors. A week imprisoned inside by torrential rain nearly broke me. I go a bit nuts if I don’t get enough fresh air and daylight. I don’t mind the cold, I mind confinement and dark oppressive skies.

Sunday 1st November 2020 – autumn visitors

Not in our garden but in the neighbourhood… I’m fairly sure these are Fly Agaric, one of Britain’s most iconic fungi. Poisonous and hallucinogenic, but I probably won’t try them! Something has been munching them… I hope the local rat population is now tripping.

I have been yearning for frogs since we moved in. Four compost heaps and three ponds later, finally we find this little dude hiding in the leaf mould. Welcome, froggy! I have high hope of frogspawn and more froggies next year. Isn’t he beautiful? Lovely markings.

Continue reading “Sunday 1st November 2020 – autumn visitors”

Wednesday, 28th October 2020 – Mushrooms

Some photos I took in the very damp autumnal garden a few days ago and forgot to post. Now it is even damper out there and these fragile fleeting beauties will have dissolved. They remind me of the Sylvia Plath poem, so here is that, too.

Mushrooms – Sylvia Plath

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam
Acquire the air

Nobody sees us
Stops us, betrays us
The small grains make room

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles
The leafy bedding

Even the paving
Our hammers, our rams
Earless and eyeless

Perfectly voiceless
Widen the crannies
Shoulder through holes.

We diet on water
On crumbs of shadow
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek
We are edible

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves
Our kind multiplies

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth
Our foot’s in the door