24 October 2020 – quiet times and a small harvest

Not a lot going on at the moment – variable weather and a weary feeling of indolence combine to give slow, frustrating times for the gardeners. Still, the garden continues to provide, almost in spite of us. It’s not the biggest harvest nor is it a particularly good one, but here are beetroot, apples, raspberries and green beans freshly picked. Dinner was almost entirely home grown, containing squash, onion, beetroot, garlic, herbs and leafy greens all from the garden (just mushrooms and goat’s cheese added from the shops). I’ve saved the smaller leaves from the beets, too, as these can either be eaten raw in a salad or gently wilted and tossed in oil as a side dish.

The apples are a little scabby and, being Golden Delicious, are not great in taste (the tree was here when we moved in: if it wasn’t such a mature specimen, so loved by wildlife and giving such pleasing dappled shade, I’d replace it with a better variety). Still, they are fine when peeled and taste good enough when baked into puddings. The addition of some locally foraged blackberries perks them up nicely. The blackbirds, wasps and mice (and, let’s be realistic, rats, too). are grateful for the windfalls and I do not begrudge them these.

Sunday 4th October 2020 – rain and more rain; maintaining colour and interest into Autumn

Today I have that malaise that only a gardener who has been prevented from gardening can know. Everything is utterly sodden and if I had put a spade in the ground today I would have ruined the soil structure. I consoled myself by skulking in the shed, potting up garlic and sowing sweet peas to overwinter. Then I spent a little time winnowing seed saved this summer, to store for use next year. I know this weather is entirely normal for the time of year but every year its arrival takes me by surprise and makes me sulk for a bit until I accept its inevitability.

The garlic I potted up today was massive, I wish I’d taken a photo of the whole bulb (this wasn’t elephant garlic, either!) From Pennard Plants, whose quality and service has really impressed me, I highly recommend them for an interesting selection of plants and seeds (and so nice to support a small independent nursery instead of one of the huge ones).
Gardening for year-round interest is hard: grasses are a great way of bringing in different textures and adding autumn interest (plus they’re very forgiving and low-maintenance, and good for wildlife too).
I’m pleased with this combination: the red of the penstemon picks up the darker tones in the Bishop of Oxford dahlia and the dahlia’s dark foliage adds extra contrast. All the Bishop series of dahliae are great for this, they’re all real doers and their foliage is as much of a feature as their very reliable blooms.
Another Bishop here, of Llandaff, toning nicely with dahlia “Arabian Nights” and clashing pleasingly with some unnamed pink dahlia I picked up in a pound shop (and which is absolutely bomb-proof – it survives every extreme of Welsh weather and a complete lack of attention from me).

The best parts of a truly lacklustre squash harvest this year. The weather has been against us and my poor choice of neighbours for them (calabrese that got much higher than I expected) didn’t help. Next year I’ll start the plants off earlier and I’m considering buying some heat lamps to really bring the more tender crops on earlier indoors, so they are bigger and stronger when I come to plant them out.

I like to leave the echinacea seedheads up – most seedheads, in fact – as they add interest through the winter, they often self-seed very obligingly, the birds love them, it provides cover and maintains habitat for insects and, finally, I’m lazy. Why clear them away when Winter will do it for me, gradually?!

Penstemon are also very obliging for late-season interest: on the left above, a hot pink one picks up the pink tones in the leaves of the stachyaurus praecox; on the right, you can just see the bells of a red penstemon clashing with the purple verbena bonariensis (with the seedheads and stems of dead corncockle behind. I like their ghostly appearance once dead – I’ll cut the stems down in the Spring to encourage new growth then).

These night-scented stock are completely out of season! I love them, so I’m certainly not complaining, though I won’t be outside to smell them tonight!
The plants in the border are already tumbling obligingly over the new path, just as I wanted them to. I’m so excited about planting right up to the path edges next year.

This blue corydalis has flowered its heart out all summer and keeps going. I love it with the orange seedheads of the crocosmia. The glaucous blue-green leaves of the thalictrum and the Zepherine Drouhin rose behind it enhance the blue. This bed was newly created this year with the removal of a Wendy house, and although it’s not finished yet I love it already.

Thursday 1st October 2020 – all of the weather; full moon, harvest moon

After yesterday’s autumnal damp and chill, a bright crisp day, though more rain to come and keep me out of the garden this weekend. A full moon tonight, so I hope it stays clear enough for a good view later.

The view from my desk yesterday. The rudbeckia glow, even in the gloom.

The brugmansia seems to have enjoyed the soaking and the top-up of compost I gave it and has opened its trumpets this morning to give one last fanfare before winter. I wish I could share the smell, which is sweet, rich, lush and tropical.

The Under-Gardener, however, is in full indoor nesting mode.

Sunday 27th September 2020 – tittivating around the edges

Beautiful low autumn sun this evening.

It’s been a day of hard work in the garden today, with an early start and blessed with beautiful sunshine, but one of those days when there is very little to show for my efforts – what my gardener friend Tom would describe as ‘tittivating’ rather than proper gardening – which sadly will make for a rather dull set of photos. Still, here we go, so at least I can recall what I did and when.

Chief Engineer extended the herb bed for me (probably about the fourth extension it has had, apparently it’s impossible to grow some herbs in sufficient quantity…) so I cut down spent woody stems, moved lots of things about and spread others out, so that everything was better spaced, floppy things should (I hope) stop flopping onto other things that don’t like that, and things that don’t like being overshadowed can go on an outer edge where they get maximum light. So the unruly tarragons are now in the centre of the bed and the sulky thymes are on the edges, whilst all the different chives and perennial onions are grouped together in the middle (this last is probably a mistake, the alliums will probably cross-breed into nasty-tasting mutants or something). Summer savoury now looks forlorn on the corner and chamomile threatens to engulf everything from all angles. I’ve started growing some herbs in the other borders, especially medicinal herbs, and I suspect this will continue, with more and more herbs getting tucked in throughout the garden. Here are some truly dreadful photos. I refuse to buy a new phone until this one gives up completely, unfortunately this means really bad photos until it does!

The herb bed. That sprawling mess in the middle is chamomile, which will get sheared to the ground soon. I forgive it its messy habit as it has supplied a profusion of flower heads all summer and it makes wonderful tea, plus for the first year ever I should have enough spare dried heads to make some toiletries, too. The grit in the bottom right corner is to pamper the thymes, which sulk if they sit in too much soggy-ness, and demand good drainage. They’re rather sulky in general, really, which is annoying as they’re probably the family of herbs I use most often in cooking. The pitiful twigs on the left are the summer savoury, which packed a great flavourful punch in cooking throughout the summer. I think it might be an annual, actually, in which case I’ve wasted my time bothering to move it anyway. Greek oregano is somewhere on the right, moved to stop it committing incest with its relatives the marjorams and leaving me unable to tell which is which.
I tidied up this corner near the house, ripping out the excessive snow-in-summer (regular followers will have lost count of the number of times I’ve done that this year. You’d think I’d just get rid of it, wouldn’t you, but I rather like it). I trimmed the meuhlenbeckia (wire vine) on the fence, with hand shears (and don’t my wrists and forearms know about it); I cut some divisions off the iris to the side of the steps – the idea is to fill the border here with them. You can see the divisions to the left of the parent plant – they look a little peculiar because I’ve cut down the leaves. This is done with iris to reduce water loss when transplanting, though admittedly I might have gone a bit overboard here and they’re meant to be cut in more of a fan than straight across in a brutal line like I have. Next year these will grow fresh, strong leaves and hopefully, the year after that, they’ll flower. I sowed some sweet pea seeds behind the iris, because one year the sweet peas self-seeded here and those self-seeded plants were the best I ever grew, but I think the meuhlenbeckia is now home to too many snails for any sweet pea seedlings to stand a chance over winter, really. Still, nothing ventured…
Further along the fence, I tied in the fig (a bargain from Lidl, £3! Mind you, it’s two years old and it isn’t earning its keep yet, even at that price… though perhaps I am impatient…) I weeded and – yep, you guessed it, removed some snow-in-summer. I moved the canna lilies in the centre of the bed from behind the paeonies to in front of them. My thinking is that the canna will get more sun and rain here, so maybe they’ll actually flower, plus the canna should start growing and bulking out at the point in the year when the paeonies stop flowering and start going over, so I should get quite a lush, full look here with year-round interest. In theory. We’ll see!

These sedum are invaluable for late season interest and the bees love them for late pollen. The dead seedheads look lovely left to stand through winter, too. On the left, they look great with a starry-leaved euphorbia I forget the name of but wish I’d never planted because it spreads like the clap; on the right, contrasting nicely with blue salvia ‘Amistad’, which is hands down one of my favourite plants and is much tougher than everyone will tell you. Though I always lift a clump to store in the greenhouse as an insurance against hard frost, I leave several outside to fend for themselves and they bounce back quite happily. Below, the sedums glow in the border.

The artichokes transplanted from the allotment are finally starting to bulk up. I have high hopes of actually having some globes to harvest next year.
Orange tithonia, blue lobelia, silvery, ferny foliage of artemisia “Powis Castle’. Artemisia – although not this variety – is one of the ingredients in absinthe. A small amount of the leaves of this one taste rather nice in a herbal tea. It is reputed to have hallucinatory effects, but if this is true, I’m clearly not taking enough. It’s also reputed to have various medicinal uses and to be toxic in excess (but then what isn’t?)
Nasturtiums taking over – I like their enthusiasm at this time of year but I wish they could refrain from smothering the caraway and mints in their exuberance. There are two dustbins and a Belfast sink each filled with a different mint under here, not that you’d know it. The leaves of nasturtium are, technically, edible – I say ‘technically’ as I don’t care for their peppery taste, sadly.
This, however, looks a more promising idea: the seeds of nasturtium, before they dry out, can be pickled and used in place of capers. I love pickling and we get through tonnes of capers, so I’m keen to try this! In the background, pinky/purple asters, another great way to add a blast of late colour – very low maintenance and generous with self-seeding and root divisions, allowing you to extend your stock annually for free, something I value highly in a plant!

Friday 25th September 2020 – farewell to Summer

I hate cutting back the lavender. It feels like admitting Summer is over. Every year I leave it later than I should, partly because I hate doing it and partly because I don’t like to deprive the bees. Lavender really does need to be shown who’s boss though. Timidity on the part of the gardener results in indolence in the plant, and you end up with a leggy, sprawling, floppy thing in a season or two. It needs chopping back and a judicious going over with the shears, as close as you dare go without cutting into the old wood.

Every flower head I’ve hacked off will be saved and dried and used somehow: to make household cleaners or toiletries, lavender bags to deter moths, adding to my lavender sleep pillow, making teas or baking, or just hanging up around the house. Although having cut a similar amount last year, I haven’t quite used up all of last year’s harvest yet…

I’ve probably gone too far hacking into this lavender hedge, but I find the gnarly bare wood at the bottom of this veteran quite attractive, so I don’t mind taking the risk that the old wood will remain exposed. This plant is very old and has supplied years worth of cuttings for other parts of the garden. Lavender doesn’t usually like being moved, but this one has been moved at least twice and even split once.
The unruly offspring of this beast can be seen immediately behind it (that one got a close haircut too shortly after I took this.). One of the reasons the lavender hedges (there are three!) keep getting bigger is that – apart from my usual reluctance to trim them – I can’t resist shoving some of the clippings into the ground rather than composting them. They root so easily from cuttings that it seems rude not to (another reason it’s never the end of the world if pruning too hard sees one off.)
Chief Engineer succeeded today in taming the bloody leylandii. This corner bit is extremely difficult to reach and has been getting bigger and bigger… annoyingly, I didn’t take a ‘before’ photo, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that this is infinitely better (and he really did work like ten men, too).
This is a very cheap and unsophisticated floribuna rose from B&Q. It gets atrocious blackspot every single year, it has evil bastard thorns and a most uncooperative habit. I forgive it, though, because it flowers its heart out until the first frosts, and the blooms are so pretty, somewhere in between red and pink.

Another absolute do-er, this unknown yellow rose is probably a sucker from a parent plant in our neighbours’ garden, the other side of the fence. It too flowers right up to the first frosts and I’m gradually coaxing it over an arch around the bench Mum sits on to smoke. I’ve successfully struck cuttings from it for the first time this year – if they make it through to Spring, I have high hopes of getting yellow roses to climb all the way up both sides of the arch, which will be very pretty.
It’s no wonder callicarpa is also called ‘beauty berry’. I love these vivid berries, every year their astonishing bright purple surprises me.
I loved the sun shining through the bergenia leaves today. I love the seed heads on the crocosmia too, I should cut them off really, but I think they looks so pretty.
Believe it or not, this lot all self-seeded. How they managed to colour-coordinate themselves I do not know, but it’s a great effect and the sweet allysum smells amazing.
Another useful plant, these Japanese anemones are tough as old boots and bring colour and interest just as lots of other things start going over. The seed heads are pretty, too.
This is not, in fact, a lethal weapon (though I’m sure it could be used as one). It’s a pocket chainsaw, it arrived in today’s post and it’s surprisingly effective, if a little tough on the bingo wings. Something of an upper body workout. Theoretically, the green cord should help to extend the handles and help to reach high branches… I don;t much fancy giving myself a head wound trying to get it up into the tree canopy, through!
The brugmansia has more flowers forming on it than it’s had all year, but the temperatures are dropping at night now (6.6 celsius INSIDE the greenhouse last night!) so will these actually get to open or not?

Humour me with these next pics. I spent ages chasing a hummingbird hawk moth around the garden, trying to get a photo. The clue as to the speed and flight pattern of this insect is really in its name… needless to say, my photos are terrible, but here they are anyway. If you’d like to see a photo of one of these where you can actually work out what it looks like, I suggest trying Google.

Wednesday 23rd September 2020 – emperor’s purple

This tibuchina opened today, brightening a gloomy overcast day. I’m thrilled about this – just look at that colour! My mum called it “emperor’s purple” and said Julius Caesar would be proud. This is a subtropical plant that I’ve had for four and a half years – it was a moving in gift from my mum, bought in Lidl (last of the big spenders, my mother). Anyway it’s a much treasured gift and had grown really big, much too big to overwinter in either greenhouse, so last year I decided to take a chance and plant it out in the most sheltered border. Well, that was stupid. I nearly lost it, despite heaps of protection. I lifted it in the nick of time, prunes it to a stump and have been nursing it all year. Finally it’s starting to look like it’s forgiven me. It turns out tibuchina can be pruned very hard, so in future I’ll prune it until it fits into the greenhouse rather than taking a chance with it outside through the coldest months. I have successfully struck a cutting from it once and once only (and now my mum has one thriving in a pot in her garden too, the gift that keeps on giving). I’ll try striking more cuttings as it really is a fabulous, exotic looking specimen. In Madeira it grows wild, getting huge and scrambling down stony banks. It’s very hard to replicate the Madeira climate in soggy South Wales!

21st September 2020 – preserving Summer

It’s a grey wet day in Wales but we are not disheartened, for we have preserved Summer or, rather, a taste of it. I went a bit overboard growing basil this year. Loads of it has gone into salads and tomato sauces for the freezer (yes, all those green tomatoes ripened!) but I still had huge amounts needing to be used up before the plants run to seed… I stopped weighing this lot when it passed 150g and there was still loads left… so I made the largest amount of pesto you can imagine and froze it in meal-sized portions. Now we’ll have the taste of Summer through the winter months (it’s delicious stirred into home-made minestrone, which is another great way of using up excess produce!)

Sunday 20th September 2020

A hard day for Bosun, having to double duty as Under-Gardener and Inspector of Works at the same time. No wonder he needed a lie down.
Soggy bottom is becoming its own little enchanted world… I suspect there may be fairies at the bottom of the garden.
It’s the time of year for seed saving.
Miscanthus, hydrangea and pyracantha. I love these colours together.
Late sown brassicae. You will note that this net is not sufficiently fine gauge to deter butterflies…
I’m terribly pleased with these big blowsy rudbeckia, the first year I’ve had any success growing them from seed. I’ll definitely be saving the seeds from these for another go next year.
The borders are still going pretty strong with some lovely late colour. That dark red leaf right in the centre is some chard I ran out of room for in the veg beds. It’s very happy here at the front of the border and I think it actually makes quite a handsome addition!
Hazy autumn sunshine.
Chief Engineer’s finished job, top to bottom…
…and bottom to top! No, it’s not meant to be straight. Look at all that space along the sides just waiting for me to cram it full of plants!