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An Intrepid Blade of Grass

Updated: Oct 20, 2021

16/8/21

Sometimes it is quite difficult to decide what to do before a group visit arrives. This afternoon we have quite a big group coming from Croxley U3A, who will require a split guided tour. I have a bit of time available before getting grandad up and a bit more time available afterwards, before I have to go inside to get cleaned up before the visit. We also had a visit from the district nurse to check a dad’s finger, which I’m pleased to say is now OK.

One of the first jobs I decided to do was to clean out the water feature. The sculptural water feature in the paradise garden has twelve different flower cups through which the water flows between. Incredibly, each cup is now starting to produce green algae which is beginning to overhang the cup where the water flows over. I attempted to clean this away although, I had to admire natures ability to colonise all available sites. There was even a solitary blade of grass growing amongst the pebbles in the base of the water feature where there is no soil, how is this possible? I spent time tying in branches of the climbing roses and vines and then I started weeding in the terraces. I was dead heading cosmos when Aideen started shouting at me to come in and get ready and I still had barrows to empty! I have to confess that I try to spend the minimal possible time getting ready. I was a little late to be at my post directing parking and I forgot my walkie-talkie, much to Aideen’s annoyance. If I’m not careful, I might get the sack!

Today’s group were really lovely and one kind person gave us a 5* review on Google.

After they left, I was rather tired but once I had eaten I went outside and made start on tidying the field side herbaceous border. This involved weeding around some catmint which attracted Pip to my side and quickly made her go completely 'cracker cat', intoxicated by her favourite plant!

The evening ended with a lengthy conversation with James’ mum, Janet, about cake portions for the Open Day and who is baking what. We are very lucky to have her help and hopefully we will have enough cake on the day!


 

The Burry Woman


17/8/21

This morning I had to be up early for a long delayed appointment with the hygienist. Maybe it was knowing I had to get up early, but my night’s sleep was disturbed by recurring nightmares of dad’s buzzer going off, even though dad was sleeping peacefully! When I returned, I got dad up and then headed for the big field-side herbaceous border. I have been trying to weed this border since the Spring! I had two attempts at that time and managed to weed and mulch the first couple of sections, but I never even reached the half way point! It is a massive border and I was being called away to more pressing jobs!

The border grew, up came the perennials and then the shrubs filled out and bloomed, I had at least managed to prune the twelve budlejias and six cornus’. I have walked guiltily past it with guided tours ever since. The border looks rather like a slightly faded glamorous film star. Still beautiful with its peonies, delphiniums, lupins but a little untidy around the edges with the odd stinging nettle, bramble or burdock poking out between the flowers.

Well now, the time has come and I launched myself into the auricula theatre end of the border. If nothing else, I needed to chop the delphiniums down to the ground, which can give them a second spurt of growth and cut back lambs ear and ladies mantle. In no time at all, the green barrow is overflowing and I am covered in burs and seeds, I look like the Burry man (or woman in my case).

I go inside for a cup of tea and I am collared by Aideen who is bravely trying to design the Forest Garden information board on the computer. It is soon evident that I will need to sit down and help. Obviously, this is not with the technical side, but I am required to choose images of a selection of plants, provide succinct explanations of their uses, to go through my text to adjust it to fit on the notice and finish my planting plan to which will be positioned centrally in the notice.

I realise I must now stay inside and be good, but I cannot stand the glacial pace of putting things together on a computer. Obviously, the end result is very professional but I am used to just doing things. This is the reason I would hate to use computer programmes for writing and arranging music, by the time you’ve moved a handful of notes on a computer screen, I’ve finished handwriting a part! It is also why Patrick still prefers to hand draw plans rather than using CAD. My fidgety impatience, which then usually leads to me being silly, is very annoying for Aideen who isn’t than keen on computers herself.

After a couple of hours, she has picked my brain sufficiently and released me back into the garden for a second round in the field border. By the end of the evening, I’ve done about a third and there are some gaps which might require filling with another trip to Nik’s nursery!


 

Living Plant Supports


18/8/21

Today, Aideen has come outside to help which is great as we have an Open Day in less than two weeks! She started by cutting the grass on the upper part of the terrace which is a horrible job and out of bounds for Patrick, who can barely cope with getting on and off the 'ride on' mower. She then attacked the Brassica corner. Aideen does not like our dead twig pigeon deterrents because they are not very attractive now that the brassicas are in full growth. I suggested to try crossing poles, spaced along the bed as an alternative and she dutifully removes the twigs and puts in the crosses and it looks much nicer.

I continue battling along the field side border which is being assaulted from all sides. As its nick name suggests, it runs alongside the farm's field and as this is our lowest wall, the stand of brambles on the field side keeps throwing branches over the wall. The is accompanied by Gordian knots of bind weed. I can but do my best, but I feel like I am being outflanked! I now seem to have an issue with a very thorny briar that has rooted itself along more than half the border, along with nettles, burdock and creeping buttercup. However, I will not give up, this was my first herbaceous border, my first born! It is still beautiful.

The pairs of Sungold (gold) and Flower Power (lilac/orange) budlejias are in full bloom and I could see the coloured mauve/yellow/orange mounds poking their heads above the wall when walking the dog this morning. The Helianthemums are shining like the sun in front of the Budlejias, the banks of golden rod are fading from yellow to bronze and the 'Emily' Crocosmias are bursting with orange amongst the blue globes of Echinops and giant pink Echinacea, Anenomes and Phlox cone flowers. It might be weedy but it is a butterfly/ bee paradise!



Before it gets dark, I harvest the first sweetcorn. I’m always nervous of my timing with sweetcorn, a brown tassel signifies ripeness, but if you peep into the top of the cob it doesn’t look yellow. This is misleading, often the top of a very large cob may not have developed and the rest is fine. If left too long it will become mealy and chewy. I risk it and pick five large brown tasselled cobs for dinner. I bring in six large (and I mean large) beetroot and some baby courgettes which I bake with olive oil and garlic. I also bring in some Victoria and Seneco plums which were very sweet, and the sweetcorn was delicious!




 

Well behaved Plants


19/8/21

Unfortunately, I was called away with Patrick during the morning to assess planting at one of his sites. We became very delayed in traffic, resulting in a very late start in the garden. Luckily, Aideen and Diane spent some time in the garden weeding and sweeping. When I got back home, I went straight back to the field border and I’m delighted to say that by the time light was fading, I had finished it, bar a few nettles that I may have missed! It looks a lot better, but now there are some bare patches which require filling, preferably with small shrubs or perennials that will bloom now and into Autumn or some foliage plants eg. New Zealand flax or Cordylines that will look good all Summer. This bed is at its best in early to mid Summer and it is not as sunny as the fruit tree border so I am always trying to extend it's season of interest. While I’m out with Patrick I study Roy Lancaster's ‘Perfect Plant, Perfect Place’ and decide on potential candidates – Salvia, Fuchsia, Hebe, Penisetum, Aster – these are all very well behaved, dependable, hardy plants. I marvel on the shrubs already in the bed, all originally bought from the Parkers catalogue as tiny, unpromising specimens. It is incredible to see them now, only six years later, as large, impressive specimens, nature is a wonderful thing!



 

The Twins Birthday


20/08/21

Today is the twin’s birthday, which means a rare day out…hooray! I love our garden passionately, which is fortunate as I rarely leave its walls, but it is lovely to get out and look at another garden and have some leisure time together as a family. My sister arrived quite early to look after grandad and we dragged Patrick away from his drawing board where he was trying to finish a drawing before we left.

The plan was to go to Arundel, visit the gardens of the castle and briefly visit the sea…we are all suffering sea withdrawal symptoms. It’s been three years since our last Venice music tour and five years since our last holiday.

Everyone was in good spirits, despite Meave and Aideen suffering from travel sickness and Meave and Diane having trouble fitting their long legs in the back of the car. I swap seats with Meave to avert disaster (one daughter throwing up on the other) and the journey passes smoothly, such beautiful countryside and gorgeous houses. We stopped briefly in Petworth and walked through an Antique market and then piled into Pizza Express in Arundel for lunch…typical musicians always end up in Pizza Express and we always forget how slow the service is, so sadly, a large chunk of our day was spent waiting for pizza! However, the wait was eased by Aperol Spritz and Gin and Tonic.

Arundel Castle is magnificent and the gardens are lovely. A particular feature are numerous, elaborate, oak gazebos, garden buildings, obelisks and even water features. One magnificent temple like building housed a water feature where a crown was being kept aloft by a jet of water. It was a recreation of a design by the landscape architect Inigo Jones for a masque Oberon, The Fairy Prince, which was to be performed in 1611. I talk to my visitors about our arcaded wall possibly being a backdrop for a performance of Milton’s masque Arcades in 1634 and I cite Inigo Jones as an example of landscape architect designing similar structures, so I was quite excited to see this. I can imagine maybe a slightly more modest structure at the end of the arcaded terrace.

After a thorough exploration of the castle gardens, we headed for the sea at Littlehampton and I had a brief paddle with my birthday girls.


 

Home Alone


21/8/21

Today I was ‘home alone’ with grandad. Patrick has been let down by a landscape company on one of his jobs and the family have had to step in to sort out the planting. I have designed a planting plan and will go next weekend to plant the plants, but today, the beds required weeding and turf laying. So, the girls, Patrick and Billy (Meave’s boyfriend) went off to lay the turf. It is very unfortunate timing that the deadline for this job coincides with our Open Day! I stay at home partly to look after grandad who cannot be left alone and also because I’m more use working in our garden. Despite steady rain, I work like a Trojan all day. I start in the Forest Garden bed, spurred on by the incredibly rapid arrival of our information notice which is beautiful.

I weed a very large area and then return to the house to paint 10 extra wooden plant labels to add to the border. I then move to the kitchen garden and start work on the potato quarter. This area always becomes messy at this time of year, mainly because the beautiful green potato plants now look dead because the potatoes are ready to dig up. I finish digging up the earliest bed for our dinner tonight! Because the plants are dying down, any invading weeds are revealed and this area is full of self-seeded Californian poppies, which are also past their best and blocking the paths.

I give the Californian poppies a haircut and weed the beds as best as I can and when Diane sweeps the paths, the area will look much better. I also cut back the old flowering stems of the sage in the top herb beds. The family return, tired and muddy at about 4pm. Aideen comes out for a bit to help, but I’m still outside until 8:30pm. It is always hard running up to an Open Day because I want the garden to look its best. When I’m giving a guided tour, I am able to explain why the garden is not weed free but an Open Day is different, visitors form their own opinions. Weed growth this year has been phenomenal and it has been hard to keep on top of it.

Later in the evening, Patrick and the girls go out to put up notices advertising the Open Day around the village. Even without this extra publicity, more than 300 people have booked to come online, that is a lot of cake to bake!

For dinner, we have new potatoes and sweetcorn from the garden, cauliflower cheese and salmon cooked in a sweet chilli sauce. I really should remember how hot my homemade chilli powder is because I nearly choke Aideen.


 

Scary Spider


22/8/21

The next week will feel like a marathon as we prepare for the Open Day. Patrick, Aideen and Diane were up at the crack of dawn to put up posters and I was up before 7am for a long day of weeding. The weather was generally fine today and I started work in the Forest Garden bed. Today, I weeded the area in my sunflower enclosure, this is a really magical place, encircled by giant sunflowers, one of which is higher than the 12ft wall!

After finishing in this bed, I went back to the kitchen garden. Patrick was in the fruit cage extending my plant supports frames. This will really help to make the fruit cage more accessible. He then moved onto cutting grass. Aideen continued weeding around the celery and sweetcorn, Diane carried on with the paths and later in the day Meave and Billy had a go at smoothing off the bottom of the pond prior to adding a layer of sand.

I finished the potato beds, tidied the cardoons (always a mammoth job), weeded the herb beds and pruned all the sage and dead headed dahlias and sweet peas. Whilst weeding the potatoes, I felt what I thought was a sting under my chin and brushed off a large insect which I though was a bumble bee. The insect then lodged on my T-shirt, it was a large spider. The round body was as big as a 5p coin and she was orange, with a rather pretty design on her back, with quite thick, stripy legs. The spider looked very exotic but was actually a garden spider which can vary in colour. I came in at about 8:30pm, it was a long day’s work.




 

Ranks of T-cups


23/8/21

Today I plan to visit Nik’s nursery, but first, I go out (early) to tie up and train the blackberries, raspberries and Tayberries to their new supports. I also give the mulberry a trim and when I’m finished the fruit cage is much more accessible. I then do some taming in the herb garden, dead heading the soapwort and tying back the Tansy. The Tansy is flowering at present and everyone, including Patrick, who doesn’t have a great sense of smell, is complaining about its scent! I also tie back the lemon verbena tree which by contrast has the best perfume of all and trim the silver mint to clear the path.

I get grandad up and ask to borrow Patrick’s car to go to the nursery. He refuses to use my car unless I wash off the purple bird poo that is splattered all over it! Finally, I depart in the Volvo, I don’t intend to return just with string! Nik is having a sale, I presumed it was just bedding plants but amazingly, it was also shrubs because he is overstocked. This is extremely fortuitous and I fill three trolleys full of plants, most of which were half price! Lupins, delphiniums, hebes, fuschias, magnolias, phormiums, cordylines, smoke bushes, yucas, sedums, gauras, pansies and violas and obviously, string! I completely fill the Volvo, Nik does not think it will all fit in but it does and I depart a very satisfied customer!

After a late lunch involving lots of tomato cucumber, raspberries and plums, I set about planting and filling the holes in the field border. The bee man comes today and we chat about our resident bees. We have three healthy colonies but no honey.

When I come in, I help Aideen with the Arcaded wall information sign and Diane spends ages matching cups and saucers. We have an incredible selection of vintage crockery which we’ve acquired from charity shops, car boot sales and quite a few generous donations from visitors. Looking at them all set out is wonderful, they are absolutely beautiful!



 

A Bee Sting


24/8/21

Today I was up fairly early, but not as early as I would have liked due to Minxy keeping Aideen and I up until 1:30am as we chased her around the orchard where she was stalking the alien stray cat! I decided to mulch the forest garden bed with the newly mown grass. I was accompanied by Pip who made herself a nice little nest in the long grass in the sun. Using the grass as a mulch is quite successful and it attracts lots of insects and birds.

I then did some extensive watering. I will need to keep an eye on the watering situation as the next week is due to be dry and I’m putting in a lot of new plants.

After getting grandad up, I head off to Nik’s nursery. I saved so much money yesterday that I decided to return today! Today, my list includes Carex for the organ bed because I’ve discovered that it prefers partial/full shade and maybe it will cope with the inhospitable conditions of the organ bed. I’m also buying multiple gaura for the bottom of the mount and plants for the courtyard and garden including begonia, phlox, brunaria, crocosmia and a beautiful variegated acanthus. I also buy extra Penstemon for the Manuka bed, this is a wonderful plant that I am gradually building up a stock of. I buy some more bits for the field border including, extra smoke bushes and a beautiful creamy, white budlejia that I couldn’t resist. I also bought some cheap thyme for the herb bed and some lovely pink phlox.

Whilst I was gone, Diane started to cut the courtyard grass and then manicured the edges with scissors! Diane’s standards are much higher than anyone else! Aideen is experimenting with baking and used our raspberries to make the most delicious muffins I have ever tasted. She also made cookies and brownies, she knows we will need treats to keep us going. Whilst walking past our Echinacea I was stung by a bee. Ironically, I was only thinking yesterday that I hadn’t been stung this year, famous last words! I removed the sting and ran my wrist under cold water. At first it was OK, but then it started to swell painfully, not ideal for planting dozens of plants but I do manage to plant the organ bed, the back courtyard and field border.

I am extremely tired when I come in but I play the organ for a bit because I will be playing the organ on the Open Day. I couldn’t possibly ask a real organist to play our organ at the moment because so many notes are not working or are out of tune!


 

Artists in the Garden


25/8/21

Today we are welcoming a small group of artists who will spend the afternoon painting in the garden. Whilst they are with us, a small group are coming for a guided tour. The lady organising this group has already visited us twice before and was keen to share our garden with her friends. This is a lovely thing I have noticed from some of our visitors, they become personally invested in the garden and promote it on our behalf. This is very kind and much appreciated by all of us. Before they came, I planted my 21 new gaura plants around the bottom of the mount. This was quite challenging as every time I dig into these beds I unearth numerous bulbs because the beds are so densely planted with bulbs. It is also quite sobering that the soil is so dry considering that up to a few days ago it was raining every day.

Our visitors come and the artists feel spoilt for choice about that to draw and paint. Amusingly, half of them decide to draw our derelict potting shed! The visits go well but I am suffering from my bee sting; my arm and hand have swollen and are painful and itchy. Diane makes me put an ice pack on my arm when I get back from giving the tour.

When our visitors leave, many clutching courgettes much to Aideen and Diane’s delight, I go back into the garden and weed the Manuka beds and plant out eight Penstemon plants. In the evening, Meave and Billy pick a massive bowl of basil to make a chicken, pesto, pasta dish which smells wonderful!




 

McHugh Landscapers


26/8/21

Today we have a morning visit from Hemel Hempstead U3A. They were starting with their refreshments because they were going out for lunch afterwards. Fortunately, I was aware of this arrangement in advance so I could keep an eye on the time. Ironically, the lady organising the trip had been on the previous visit that had to be curtailed due to a lunch booking, so we were determined to get it right this time. The visit went very well and the ladies were extremely appreciative.

As soon as they left, Aideen and I changed into our working clothes and departed for Wembley to meet Patrick and Billy at the site that requires landscaping.

This is our first experience working as a landscaping company and hopefully our last! This sort of work is not for me. Many years ago, after taking my RHS general exam as a correspondence course, I started a landscape design course. I soon realised that learning to produce low maintenance designs for clients was not going to be my thing. I’m much more interested in restoring historic landscapes or producing innovative and creative planting schemes and I want to work full time in my own garden making it as special as possible. Today was the complete opposite of that, we were planting incredibly tolerant plants into straight forward planting designs to keep maintenance to a minimum. We also had to contend with the usual issues of development sites, where topsoil has been laid thinly over rubble and hard-core. Horrifyingly, Patrick had to create some planting holes using a Kango hammer! I did my best to fill these unpromising planting holes with soil and prayed that the plants I had chosen will cope with the conditions, but I was not happy with the situation. We were not sad to pack up and leave, I knew I had done my best and the plants were well planted and watered. There really needs to be an improvement in how builders leave sites. Somebody’s new garden should not be sitting on a pile of hard-core!


 

Badger Attack!


27/8/21

Last night, we were all in bed soon after 11pm, an early night for us but we were all exhausted. Before going to get grandad up, Aideen and I walked around the kitchen garden to check our list of what needs doing. On walking into the vegetable garden, we were greeted by a scene of destruction….the badgers had got into the garden in the night and attacked the sweetcorn!



My beautiful, tall sweetcorn plants were strewn across the path with about 8-10 cobs chewed through and discarded. My immediate reaction after a horrified scream was to search for how they got in. I soon discovered that somehow they had forced open the gate at the top of the garden. This gate opens out onto the strip of ground that runs between the farmers field and the top of the kitchen garden and it is where the badger set is located. If I needed any further proof of the culprit, the badgers had left two more chewed sweetcorn cobs in the entrance to the gate! I returned to the sweetcorn bed to assess the damage. The badgers had pulled down six large sweetcorn plants and left a lot of mess, just to add insult to injury they had dug a latrine in the middle of the bed and filled it with poo! I then noticed they had been digging in my lovely chicory and endive bed next door to the sweetcorn, probably looking for worms, and had buried several plants. This ‘garden break in’ could not have come at a worse time, we are in the last stages of making things look as nice as possible before the Open Day! Obviously, the badgers had not read the advertisement poster fixed to the wall! I grimly added ‘tidy up sweetcorn bed’ to my ever increasing Open Day prep list.

Today, Aideen came outside to help weed the vegetable beds for the last time before Monday. Tomorrow she is playing at a fete and then she is baking solidly until Monday…we have already received more than 400 online bookings and that is a lot of cake! Patrick took the day off work and did a variety of jobs. First, he tidied up the pile of earth at the bottom of the drive and then he put a rope barrier around the pond, we don’t want people to go too near the edge on the Open Day. He cut some grass and then put up our new Arcaded Wall information sign, which looks splendid. He also secured the gate where the badgers had come in.

I spent my day weeding, adding compost to beds, planting out a few plants and generally tidying up. I also spent quite a long time watering. Before I put grandad to bed, I patrolled the kitchen garden checking for invaders…at that point everything was OK!


 

Baking Marathon


28/8/21

Patrick and Diane were up at 5am. Patrick was going to his office and Diane was starting her baking marathon. She intends to bake as many cakes as possible before Aideen comes back from her gig. Aideen cannot bake before she goes because harp players cannot get their hands wet before playing! The first thing Diane did when she got downstairs was drop the cooling racks noisily on the floor, waking up the entire family, so I decided to get up as well. Patrick had gone into the kitchen garden to check the badger situation. He could hear them snorting and digging behind the fence and did not immediately notice that they had got in again! More sweetcorn down, this is a disaster. My sweetcorn was my pride and joy and at this rate there will be none standing by Monday. I crawl along the path, peering under the Yew hedge to try and work out where they got in this time, on reflection, this is a rather strange activity for a 58 year old woman at 5:30am! I locate a point where the bottom of the fence is damaged and they have dug underneath. We originally laid a block work foundation under the fence to prevent the badgers digging under but the fence is old and really needs some serious maintenance, this panel has probably pushed forward over the foundation enabling the break in.

Later in the day, I discover another fresh badger latrine at the back of the central border adjacent to my step over apple trees. I then realise that the four beautiful red apples have vanished. I had noticed a half-eaten apple on the ground the previous day and had been mystified at who had eaten it…now I knew! I did not plant step over fruit trees for the convenience of badgers! There was also terrible digging on the grass by the pond and in the front field, and they had been turfing through the mulch in the forest garden bed. I have to improve my defences.

Diane bakes all day and makes about 20 different sponge cakes and I work outside from before 6am until darkness falls. It’s a bit ridiculous, but there is so much to do! I replant the central border urns, dead head the sweet peas, do the watering, cut back and tidy the herb garden and alpine beds before getting grandad up. I then spend hours working on the central borders, weeding and cutting back plants that have finished blooming, I weed the path leading to the mount and do some weeding on the mount. I listen to Prince Charles with Simon Armitage whilst weeding in the polytunnel and tidying up the sweetcorn…again! Patrick mainly cuts the front field hedge, a horrendous job, cuts some grass and barricades the fence again! Meave helps Diane bake and then helps me weed. Mary comes and sweeps paths. Open days are a lot of work! Before shutting the kitchen garden for the night, I put on all the lights and leave my radio playing at the end of the garden in the hope that Radio 4 will deter my night time visitors!


 

Full Steam Ahead!


29/8/21

Today is the day before the Open Day, which means an early start and an open-ended finish point. A positive beginning is finding that the badgers did not come in last night, thank God! Radio 4 has many good points and it can now add ‘badger deterrent’ to them. On my list for today are

1. Weeding rose bed, trimming edge and adding manure

2. Weeding the back of the organ bed

3. Weeding the bean/onion quarter of the vegetable garden

4. Weeding the outer beds of the fruit cage

5. Tidy polytunnel


Quite a few things were added to this list, but that was enough to be getting on with.

Everyone was helping, Patrick and James concentrated on the big hedges and then Patrick did some mowing on his tractor…and then the wheel fell off! Patrick and James attempted to fix it three times, but in the end, it had to be finished with hand mowers. Mary came for the day to sweep, a vital job, and Billy arrived late afternoon and got stuck into everything! I decided to make up a hamper of Church Gardens produce to use for a raffle. By the end of the day, 520 people had booked online.



Everyone stayed outside until it was dark and then there was the small matter of icing 30 cakes! The problem with trying to prepare for hundreds of visitors is that there are endless potential jobs. I kept going until about 2am but having been outside working since 7am, I knew I needed at least some sleep before the big day. The girls admirably seemed to have braced themselves for an ‘all-nighter’. They have inherited this trait from their parents…architecture students traditionally are the ones that stay up all night to complete projects. When Patrick was studying, I would stay up with him for moral support. I have also been known to stay up all night cleaning the house before being visited by family!

I did say to the girls to try and get some sleep, but they are adults now and it is up to them!

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