Before starting work outside today, Aideen and I decided to visit the churchyard to see the snowdrops and crocuses. When we opened the front door, there was a large, oddly shaped, brown package outside. We brought it inside, to investigate on our return, and disappeared through the gate opposite the front door. This gate is the entrance to Church Gardens’ secret access to St Mary’s Church. This shortcut to the church probably started when the Johnson family moved into the cottage at the end of the C19th because Mrs Johnson was the verger and then after her death, her daughter Connie took over. The gate leads to a path through the trees and into the church yard. In recent years, it has become overgrown and practically impenetrable, but lately there has been some clearing in this area and it was quite easy to get through.
It was well worth the visit, there are snowdrops of several different varieties everywhere, a galanthophiles’ paradise! There is also a large colony of pale lilac crocuses under a tree towards the rear of the graveyard, where the remains of a Tudor Mount is situated. Poignantly, this is where children and babies are mainly buried and it is very moving to see their tiny, beautifully tended graves.
On our return home, I unpack the parcel to discover it is the final four trees I had ordered months ago for the forest garden bed. These are two varieties of Asian Pear, C20th and Chojura, and two cherry trees – Morello and Early Frogmore. I took them out to the Forest Garden bed and planted them immediately in their positions against the wall.
Aideen then joined me in the Kitchen Garden where she continued clearing the strawberry beds and I made a start planting sweet peas into the polytunnel. I soon decided to plant all of the sweet peas into the polytunnel bed, to hopefully make a stunning display, and I will sow a new batch for the fruit cage to avoid them having to deal with adverse weather conditions.
For lunch, I had baked soda bread with Rosemary, which had turned out rather flat because the ‘dough’ was quite wet and spread on the tray, however, it still tasted nice. I made smoked mackerel paté and a salad with watercress, celery, grapes and carrot.
I carried on outside until I had planted out all of the sweet peas and then brought in sprouts, swede and kale for dinner. Tonight’s dinner is chicken thighs casseroled with swede, carrot, mushrooms, celery, apricot and butter beans topped with sliced potatoes, served with kale and Brussel sprout ‘tops’ cooked with garlic, sprouts and peas.
A Sad Day For Our Bees
The weekend dawns again, I cannot believe how the quickly the weeks fly past. The weather is very pleasant today, warm with sunshine and the crocuses in the mini orchard look fantastic. It is lovely to see bees, including a bumble bee, out and about.
Frustratingly, dad got me up at 2am last night purely to comment that there didn’t seem to be anyone about, I responded through gritted teeth, “No dad, that would be because everyone is in bed asleep…or at least they were!”.
After getting dad up and giving him and Pecky breakfast, I went to check on the progress of the crocuses on the arcade terrace and lo and behold, I spot what I think is the first crocus to flower out of the 21,000 bulbs planted before Christmas. It was near the top of the slope and appropriately, right in the middle. This crocus was yellow, but later in the day we spotted a couple more, it is very exciting to think what the terrace will look like when all of them come into flower.
Before I get going outside, a family meeting is called about the greenhouse. This is the next project for us to get underway and it involves building a partly earth-sheltered, ‘lean-to’ glass house, just inside the kitchen garden gate behind the alpine beds. It also includes a small shed/gardening office. This is particularly exciting for me as it is basically going to be my little ‘den’. I have great plans for this tiny building, which in my mind resembles something akin to a room where Darwin or a plant hunter from the previous century would have worked. This understandably is causing some raised eyebrows amongst the rest of the family but I know it is going to be the perfect home for my old desk, my seed collection, planting diaries, garden plans and inevitably, books. I would also dearly like to have a microscope! Well a girl can dream!
The meeting gives us a chance to formulate a plan of action and to discuss what needs to happen to the various things being stored in this area. These include organ pipes (the bent ones!), stained glass windows (that will be incorporated into the glass house), bricks (inevitably…will we ever use up all of these bricks?), Indian sand-stone and edging tiles. We then reconvene outside to try and get our heads around which bits of the soil require digging out (part of the green house is below ground level).
After the family meeting, I continue with weeding the fruit tree borders and adding compost, then someone tells me the ‘bee man’ has arrived. I go up to the hives to meet him but I am greeted with very bad news. He is checking the hives to monitor bee activity and he has discovered that two of our hives are suspiciously quiet. On opening them, we can both see that the bees are dead. This is heart-breaking and puzzling at the same time because the ‘supers’ are full of honey, so the bees haven’t died of starvation. Our bee man believes in leaving a more than generous amount of honey behind after removing some for human consumption so the bees have plenty of food for the winter. He doesn’t think it is the cold because bees can cope with low temperatures. Other possible causes are a virus, or maybe the bees have picked up something from a sprayed field. Much to my concern, I did notice some spraying in the neighbouring field to our Kitchen garden in the Autumn. However, our original hive is still going strong, which makes the whole situation very confusing. The bee man and I are very downhearted. He tells me that two of his other hives in Denham have also been wiped out and that members of the bee society keep calling in to say that they’ve lost colonies, so it isn’t just us. Interestingly, the wild bees in the garden last year were incredibly prolific and he commented that his own wild bee houses were full, so maybe it is just domestic bees that are vulnerable.
I go back to work, trying not to be too depressed. Aideen and James work away at clearing the greenhouse area, they are putting some of the bricks they are clearing from the greenhouse area around the edge of the pumpkin bed, to hold in the gravel. They also help me by bringing across the odd barrow of compost and buckets of mushroom compost which is much appreciated.
Later in the day Minxy provides some light relief with a repeat of her version of the ‘Schrodinger’s Cat’ experiment. She was back in the long propagator with no visible sign of how she entered. Her version of a philosophical experiment in Quantum mechanics is subtly different from Schrodinger’s in 1935, you can see, thank the lord, that the cat is alive but just not how she came to be there. However, the mystery was resolved when I realised that she had pushed past the plastic sheet at the end of the propagator! This does not bode well for my seedlings because the cats do like to lie on the seed trays when the heating mat is switched on. This is obviously not good for the seedlings and I had rather hoped that the cats couldn’t get into the propagator.
We had a good days work today because daylight hours are increasing…horray!
Getting into my stride
Today was a beautiful day, so mild that at points I was working in a T shirt. It doesn’t seem possible that this time last week we had temperatures below freezing! The combination of improved temperatures and longer hours of daylight means that my hours of manual labour each day are quickly increasing. My body is creaking and aching into action after a Winter of reduced physical activity. However, there is life in the old girl yet’, my muscles might be protesting but the spirit is strong and today I am out for the longest time yet, even sneaking in some time before getting dad up and I don’t come in until 6pm. This is a good thing because the list of work to do is endless…
First, I would like to see all beds and borders covered with a good layer of compost, having been weeded first. This is no mean feat as we have two herbaceous borders that are both 60m long, one 2m wide, the other 3m wide. Then, there are the central mirror borders, each 25m long and 4m wide, The Mount, the beds surrounding the Fruit Cage and the forest garden bed (40m long and 6/7m wide).
So far, The Mount and The Forest Garden bed have been done and today, I finish the fruit cage borders, start the central borders and I’ve already done about a quarter of the 60mx3m border. When this is completed, we then need to do the same to the 56 raised vegetable beds and this is without sowing all the seeds!
Aideen and James continue working in the greenhouse area and by the end of the day they have shifted everything and partly demolished the low, crumbling wall behind the alpine bed. This wall was all that remained of the original greenhouse that inhabited this spot when we moved in. This greenhouse was leaning at a crazy angle, having been hit by flood water released from the orchard when the channel had become blocked in the past.
At the end of the day, I am summoned to another family meeting in the orchard and I am greeted by Aideen, with a notebook, making a list…an ominous sign! Apart from the mountain of gardening work, we are embarking on a series of sizeable projects, including further wall restoration over the coming year. These are projects that have been in the pipeline for years and they will make the garden more ‘visitor friendly’, but in order to start anything, we are faced with the eternal Church Gardens dilemma…moving substantial amounts of stuff and finding a good place to put it…hence the list. Quite frankly, this moving/clearing/sorting out is probably as hard as the projects themselves…let’s hope this will be the final time that we have to move things and this will be their final resting place!
On a lighter note, last night I put up my first set of curtains in our bedroom. I think it is a sign of the ‘unusualness’ of our family that this simple act caused such attention amongst my girls. Meave must have stood in front of the curtains for a least five minutes, staring and gently moving them back and forth saying… “it seems so strange to see this room with curtains, it looks so different”. I am very, very happy to finally see the first of these precious curtains in place…they only waited in a bag for more than 20 years!
Too Much Salad!
I overdid the salad, or more specifically the red onion, with last night’s dinner. We have all given up things for Lent and some of us, myself in particular, are regarding this time as an opportunity to take more care over our diet. This is being further encouraged by reading Tim Spector’s brilliant book ‘Spoon Fed – Why Almost Everything We’ve Been Told About Food Is Wrong’. I would recommend this book to anyone and I’ve already told the family that everyone has to read it!
Last night’s dinner was one of my giant quiche/flan things, packed with veg as usual, with Potato Salad and more salad. I put one red onion in the potato salad and another into the other salad, which was made with two small red cabbages from the garden, apple, celery, cucumber and olives. The quantity of salad defeated all of the girls and Patrick, who said his jaw was aching from all of the chewing…it was a lot of cabbage!
Today was still very mild for the time of year but rather damp, a fine rain persisted on and off all day, which was a shame after yesterday. Aideen came outside which was great and she carried on weeding around the strawberries in the fruit cage. I carried on with my ‘mammoth mulching’ programme. I continued making my way up the central border which is divided into 16 different sections. Even though this border was initially planted in 2017, it is incredible how much it has grown. Therefore, apart from weeding, I am also cutting back/pruning and obviously removing dead stalks and foliage. Two of the sections I worked on today contain groups of three salvias, which have become rather large. I love salvias for their long flowering period and the wonderful aroma of their leaves, but these specimens have become a little ‘out of hand’, so I cut them back quite hard.
We got quite a lot done, but I must confess to feeling a dip in energy levels after yesterday, perhaps it was the weather.
Last night was a cat crisis! Our cats have their final meal just before we go to bed because this helps to get them inside (if they are out) and then we shut the cat flap for the night. This is generally a good system but last night Minxy did not appear. This was most out of character, especially for this time of year. In Winter time, the cats are not out for long in the evening and Minxy is very interested in food so will not willingly miss a meal. I went on a long trek to check all the places that she could be shut in and walked around the kitchen garden, orchard, front field and down the track (accompanied by James) in the dark, calling, but still no Minxy. Eventually, everyone went to bed except me, I was too worried and I kept calling and going outside every 20 minutes. I even checked the mushroom house at 2:30am, this was very scary as there is no light working in there at the moment! Finally, at about 2:45am, I checked the garden shed, for the third time, and luckily heard a slight sound before I closed the door. I kept calling and the rustling increased and then Minxy appeared, thank God! She must have got shut in about six hours previously and then fallen asleep amongst the recycling bags. I was so relieved, she was very hungry and full of purrs!
Today was very windy but dry, so Aideen and I continued working outside. Aideen started by finishing weeding the beds in the fruit cage and tidying up the strawberry plants. Some of the strawberries are planted in a series of old water tanks, arranged as raised beds of different heights. In these tanks, I noticed some sneaky weed behaviour which I have witnessed many times before. I am convinced that weeds deliberately grow alongside official plants that they resemble. This time it is Ranunculus growing beside strawberry plants, very confusing especially for an inexperienced weeder!
I was carrying on with my ‘weed and mulch’ programme but I became distracted by pruning the climbing roses on the arches spanning the central path. It is ridiculous how long one can spend pruning a climbing rose and tying it in. It was also a bit dodgy climbing up steps to reach the top of the arch in a strong wind. After a particularly powerful gust, I decided to curtail my pruning before I got blown off the ladder…we don’t want any more ladder accidents in this house.