The lovely, unseasonably, mild weather continues today and I have lots of things in mind to get done. A pressing job is to sow the seeds that need an early start, but on my way to the polytunnel, I get distracted by the rhubarb. Next to the polytunnel is a planting bed that remains from an original greenhouse. I’ve tried various plants in this bed but have finally settled on rhubarb and horseradish. These are both potentially monstrous plants and they have settled very well into this area where I can keep them restrained. The bed also contains a motley collection of sickly blueberries which never seem to do well anywhere…I might move these (again!) to the forest garden bed. The rhubarb is really becoming established and last year, it produced leaves capable of challenging a Gunnera for size! The rhubarb was not only massive, but sweet and tender, and it is now erupting back into life. I have one incredibly old rhubarb forcing pot and after removing some dead foliage, I decide to put tubs and buckets over some of the other rhubarb crowns. This should help produce some early tender stems…maybe suitable for rhubarb gin, I mention this to Aideen!
Having emptied the big green barrow and collected a wheel barrow of compost, I retreat into the tunnel to sow seeds. I sow an 84 cell tray of celeriac (‘Prinz’ and ‘Brilliant’) and Celery (Loretta, Lathan Self Blanching, Hopkins Fenlander and Golden Self Blanching). I’m not sure why I bother with celery and celeriac, though I love both vegetables, I find them very difficult to grow well. First, they take ages to germinate (2-3 weeks), so I start them early, with heat. Then they grow really slowly and when finally planted out, it is very hard to get decent sized plants. However, I do not give up easily, so I will try again…the cats love rolling in the celery bed if nothing else! I then sow two, 40 cell trays, one with sweet pepper (Sweet Pimiento Salsa, Marconi Rossa, Long Red Marconi, Mixed Sweet, Bullhorn, California Wonder and Cornitos mixed), and the other I sow with chillies (Early Jalapeno, De Cayenne, Rokita, Devil’s Brew, Hungarian Hot Wax and Gusto Purple). Peppers and Chillies also need to be sown early, with heat, to achieve a good size. I then put the trays in the long propagator and cover them with sheets of glass. This is to stop the mice digging out the seeds, strangely, this is a problem particularly with chillies and pepper seeds. You would not think a mouse would enjoy eating a chilli seed!
After this, I made some salad for lunch with carrots, celery, cucumber, tomato (still from the garden), mixed beans, peas, olives and egg with a honey, mustard and garlic dressing.
After lunch, I pruned the next two climbing roses and cut back any dead foliage. I then pruned in the next two sections of the middle borders and I finished up by emptying the giant barrow. Before I came inside, I planted out my final, new, yew plant to replace (what I hope will be) the last, recycled, yew bush to die surrounding the compost yard. I also moved some daffodil bulbs that I accidentally planted in the opening to a short path in the forest garden bed. This path will lead to the wooden arbour, which will contain an image of the planting scheme for the Forest Garden Bed.
All in all, I had a lovely day in the garden. It is good to get the seed planting started and this will turn into a massive job as the season progresses. In the meantime, it is good to get the garden as tidy and ready as possible before I have to neglect it for a few weeks whilst I sow thousands of seeds!
At the end of the day I stand up on the viewing platform as the light fades, accompanied by Pip, who jumps up on the wall. As I look out over the fields I spot a murmuration of starlings (maybe?) above the horizon which I watch for ages, fascinated as the mass of birds make changing patterns in the sky. I feel very blessed.
A Cat Walk
I started today by sowing another 40 module tray with aubergines (which I forgot yesterday, plus extra chillies). Aubergines are another plant that needs an early start to develop a good size and I sowed 5 different varieties; Black Beauty, Long Purple, Black Enorma, Moneymaker and Rosa Blanca. I then filled the remaining 15 modules with Gusto Purple, Hungarian Hot Wax and Devil’s Brew Chillies.
I then planted out my spring garlic in the end of the raised bed that contains the peas. These varieties were, Elephant Garlic (with its giant cloves), Tuscany and Solent Wight. I was very glad to have Aideen’s help again today and she got on with weeding one of the other large raised beds, prior to me planting onion sets.
I then went inside to make lunch. I had noticed on an earlier trip to the basement that my butternut squashes are not storing as well as I would like, quite a few are showing signs of rot. I resolved to move them to the outside toilet lobby, where the potatoes are chitting, which is a drier environment. I collected up quite a few butternuts and brought them inside to make soup.
I also intended to make a new type of bread. I spotted this recipe in one of my new books ‘The Cardamom Trail’ by Chetna Makan. This is a particularly nice book which has lots of good ideas. This is a non-yeast bread which includes paneer, tomato, chillies and coriander. It turns out to be delicious and a good accompaniment to my butternut soup.
After lunch I moved the remainder of the butternuts and then carried on tidying the central borders and pruning the climbing roses.
At the end of the afternoon, I ask Aideen if she would like to walk with me around the field behind the orchard so we could look at the view of the garden from the highest point. This was the site of the original manor house, before Harefield Place was built. The spot is referred to as The Mount in historic maps.
This seemed like a nice idea but we were followed by Tiggy and Minxy (Pip was spending the day with grandad). I didn’t think this was too much of a problem, as we would not be too far from the garden and hopefully the cats would know where they were. However, this depends on the cat…Tig was very good and kept close by, following me up the field and generally being very sensible…but Minxy was not very well behaved. Minxy can be quite silly, as recently demonstrated by her getting shut in the shed for half the night, and she kept running off into the bushes and trying to climb trees.
Minxy is very much Aideen’s baby, so she felt the need to keep following her into the undergrowth to keep track of her. This did not result in a relaxing, short stroll and it was nearly two hours later that we returned home with two exhausted cats!
I decided to use some more butternut with the dinner, roasted with garlic, honey, olive oil and balsamic vinegar, to accompany a chicken thigh tray bake with onions and peppers in mango and chilli sauce, with baked potato and mixed sprouts and cabbage.
Today dawned with brilliant blue skies and bright sunshine after a frosty night. It was a beautiful morning for my garden workout (I’m trying to do my running/walking laps every other day), I am now doing my ‘sort of Yoga’ stretches outside, on top of the mount (checking carefully that there are no dog walkers going past – that would be embarrassing!). I might be pretty hopeless at Yoga, but it is lovely to look up at a blue sky and see and hear birds all around me. The sunshine and resulting vitamin D is good for my creaking bones!
Aideen and I will definitely be outside today, it is incredibly warm. I am in a T-shirt all day and I’m tempted to lie down on the path and sunbathe, which is exactly what the animals do…they’re not silly!
Today, I remember that I really should prune the grape vines. Typically, when I last checked when to prune them It was a bit early and now I am close to being too late! I look at two books for hints on the best way to prune vines and then decide to at least partly rely on my own instincts. The vines are trained on a post and wire system along the three terraced levels of the mount. There are thirty vines in total, 16 around the base (8 Muscat Bleu-black and 8 Polo Muscat-white), 10 around the central terrace (5 Phoenix-white and 5 Regent-black) and 4 on the top terrace which are called strawberry Vines (amber/red). All of the vines have been chosen to be hardy outside in the British climate. The varieties are generally early fruiting, quite disease resistant and suitable for wine or as dessert grapes. I don’t know if I will ever get to the stage of producing our own wine but I do enjoy eating grapes.
Aideen continues to weed in the vegetable raised beds and I continue weeding the central border. I have now nearly finished removing the spent mushroom compost out of the mushroom house (on my knees in the dark!). Soon, we will have to fill the mushroom ‘bunk beds’ up with new manure. This time we need to take more care to get the correct type…it must be made with straw.
Tonight’s dinner is a family favourite, homemade meatballs. I make these with beef mince and sausage meat, breadcrumbs, onion, garlic, fresh sage and a bit of Worcester Sauce. However, I am concerned about the state of my sage bushes after the cold spell, they look very sad I hope they will pick up.
A Butterfly and a Bumble Bee
Today was another truly beautiful day, becoming so warm that I was almost considering shorts!
The miniature orchard, which is home to our established crocuses, is looking an absolute picture. The variety of colours and sizes is considerable, from the deepest purple to the palest lilac, bright yellow, pale butter yellow and pure white, I would happily look at them all day. Today I saw my first Peacock butterfly out and about, rather magically, it shared a clump a crocuses with a very substantial bumble bee.
The bumble bees have been out ever since the very cold weather ceased and it is quite amusing watching them in the crocuses which they love. Crocuses are very delicate and these bumble bees are very large. Their landing skills are approximate and they hit the crocuses with some force. The flimsy crocuses then teeter as they attempt to bear the weight of their outsized visitor.
It is the weekend again and Patrick has been let outside for good behaviour…there is no way he would stay inside on a day like today. Diane and Patrick set off for the Forest Garden Bed to erect the little wooden gazebo seat. I plan for this gazebo to act as a focal point in the bed, surrounded by lingonberries and cardoons and approached by a short path lined with Rosa Rugosa. I then hope to produce a laminated back board to fix inside the gazebo, with a planting plan and descriptions of the plants in the bed. I think this is worthwhile for this bed because Forest Gardens are not that common and the uses of the plants for food, spices or medicine are not that well known, so hopefully it will be interesting to visitors.
James and Aideen go to the site of the giant hard-core pile to start clearing away all the remaining bits and pieces of rubbish like glass, plastic and rubble still scattered over the surface.
I return to my central border, I have now reached the final four sections at the end, each of which contains an ornamental cherry tree – two weeping and two columnar. I carry on weeding and applying compost, and by the end of the day the mushroom house beds are empty.
At this point, Patrick and I enter the bee enclosure, hoping the occupants of our final hive have gone to bed, to have a good clear-up. The bee enclosure traps a lot of dead leaves, and weeds are springing up between the paving slabs. There is also quite a lot of detritus from the hives, our bee man leaves bits of broken honeycomb on the ground for the bees to clean up. The most surprising and frustrating thing to find in the enclosure were numerous seedling ash trees springing up around and between the paving slabs. These are little devils to get out as they have such strong roots, even when tiny, and the ‘whip like’ stalks are hard to get hold of because they slip through your fingers. I then hear buzzing and we spot quite a few bees crowding around the entrance to the healthy hive. We bid a hasty retreat pulling out piles of weeds behind us with a broom and we go inside for a well deserved cup of tea.
Today starts misty and quite chilly, but I know that is a sign that later the weather will be fine and sunny.
The sun has been so bright over the last few days that Aideen’s entire orchid collection has had to migrate across the extension and take up residence on the dresser. This is because their leaves can easily become scorched by the sun through a window. Aideen is like a mother hen with her orchids, which I can understand as they are so beautiful. The final orchid from the most recent group or orchids that she acquired has now come into bloom and the flowers almost look like living creatures!
It seems to have been decided that today is the day to cut the Yew hedges. One of the challenges of living with a family of non-gardeners is that these decisions are never based on horticultural knowledge, it is far more likely to be convenience or just what the fancy takes. Sometimes I am consulted, sometimes I am listened to and sometimes I intervene. Nobody else in the family would consider consulting a book to see if now is a good time to cut the hedge. Luckily, by pure fluke, later winter/early spring is OK to give Yew quite a hard cut…phew!
Aideen sets off cutting the relatively new Yew hedges at the back of the central borders. These hedges are doing well, a bit too well, and are invading the paths. The intention is for them to be kept at about four feet high. Patrick and Diane take on the established Yew hedge at the bottom of the Kitchen garden. I planted this hedge in front of the fence in 2004/2005 and it is now quite substantial. Our kitchen garden has no wall at the bottom, typical of walled gardens of the C17th, the theory was that wind and frost would pass through more easily. We need to have a barrier at this end of the Kitchen Garden because the badgers live on the other side of the fence. The poor fence has a hard time coping with the massive piles of earth and sand that the badgers pile up against it!
I finish off adding compost to the central borders which now look very healthy. I am delighted that this area is finished, but I wish I could wave a magic wand to finish the other beds because it is such hard work and takes ages…however, I know it is the best thing for the soil.
I now start on the organ pipe bed which I noticed recently looked very messy and would certainly benefit from added compost because of its tendency to dry out in the summer. By the end of the day, I have weeded the entire back section and cut back the vicious pyracanthas.
Tonight’s dinner will be vegetarian lasagne with carrots, butternut squash, mushroom and sweetcorn, with a Greek salad. In this dish, I use my favourite ‘squidging’ technique which involves squashing the squash when the tomato/vegetable sauce is cooked. This gives a lovely thick tasty sauce rather than having large lumps of squash in the sauce, thus making it more appealing to the slightly less enthusiastic vegetable consumers in the family!
Our fine weather continues, although there is a bite in the breeze that is cooler. I start the day with some help before I lose Aideen to the office to help her dad. We start by collecting compost for me to spread on the area behind the organ pipes that I weeded yesterday. This bed is going to need lots of compost because it is a fairly large area. I want to put down quite a thick layer of compost, therefore, it is extremely helpful to have Aideen to push an extra barrow of compost particularly as it is a long way to the compost heap. I am looking on this as a good opportunity to improve the soil in this bed. The organ pipe bed causes me a lot of grief in the summer months because it dries out very quickly. The soil is not brilliant in the first place despite my best efforts and it is an area of dry shade. At the moment the soil is still reasonably damp, which it should be considering the amount of rain recently and cool temperature. If I can get a decent cover of nutritious compost on the surface of the soil, this should help to hold the moisture in and the worms will draw the compost into the soil which should improve things. Also, being good compost it brings quite a lot of worms with it. Worms are probably the most important creatures on the planet, even more vital to human survival than bees.
Aideen does some more work on her Yew hedges and then disappears into the office, leaving me to trundle back and forth with heavy barrows. At first, I attempt to push a barrow up a ramp and into the bed but I soon realise there are too many plants vulnerable to damage if a wheelbarrow invades their territory. I resort to carrying the compost across the bed shovelful by shovelful, rather time consuming but at least the job is done properly. When the rear section is finished, it looks lovely I can almost hear the plants sigh with contentment!
This bed, despite its problems, is special to me because of the planting. It houses many of my favourite plants and it will be coming into its own quite soon as they are largely spring and early summer flowering. The back section contains four rhododendrons, three camelias, three azaleas, one large peony and the two mahonias I moved last year (which I’m glad to say are now thriving). They are inter-planted with numerous, frothy astilbes. These are all plants that do not mind some shade but they like a more acidic soil, I know they should appreciate a more humus rich mixture. The front section of the bed, in front of the organ pipes, has two magnolias, two skimmias, three acers, three dicentras, bergenias, anenomes, hostas, a kalmia, ferns and two fatsias. They are under-planted with lots of polyanthas, cyclamen and pulmonaria and the entire bed is filled with daffodils, tulips and grape hyacinths.
As I started to weed this front section I became increasingly aware of a beautiful perfume and soon realised it was my precious daphne, which is coming into full bloom. A daphne is a shrub to be treasured, my mum always wanted one but I think she worried that it would be too sensitive to look after. It is certainly true that a daphne takes a while to get established and its beautiful coppery barked branches are quite delicate, but it is so worth investing in at least one. The clusters of pale pink, waxy, firm flowers are very pretty and the scent is wonderful. I sat for some considerable time beside this little shrub just taking in its lovely smell.
By the end of the day I had weeded all of the front area and had started to collect more barrows of compost. My brain is also contemplating a better solution for the little patch of grass by the front door, which is the usual position for the outside Christmas tree. It looks rather untidy and I’m sure I could come up with a nice idea…
The weather got off to a much more grey and cloudy start this morning. I attempted my morning run but I encountered a lot of obstructions…not just from my protesting muscles! The Yew cutting teams had left various items strewn in my path, like big yellow sand delivery bags, which we use as a convenient way to gather up the hedge clippings. At the top of the garden, the scaffolding tower blocked my way, the yew hedge at the top of the garden is so high that the tower is necessary to cut it safely. I took a small diversion suggested by Bella, my running partner, through the brassicas. When it got to Yoga stretch time on the mount I was interrupted by a delivery van bringing Aideen’s new curtain poles, by this time, I could see it was going to be one of those days!
In the house, before I could go outside, it was ‘discussion time’ about the loft room. Aideen has now moved out of the loft room and into her newly decorated bedroom – not fully finished, but habitable. Diane now needs to vacate and empty her bedroom in order to decorate and lay flooring and she needs to move into the loft room. The loft room will eventually become a studio, and is already being used as such by Aideen for her pressed flower art. Therefore, moving Diane in, with the contents of her bedroom, will be challenging. This does seem to be the ongoing story of Church Gardens, which is constantly moving stuff, inside or outside, from one place to another. Hopefully, this might be the last time for our long-suffering loft room.
Finally, I get outside to do what I considered to be a relatively simple job…to finish applying a thick layer of compost to the organ pipe bed. “That won’t take long”, I thought. Well I got that wrong, it was a lot of compost! It has to be dug out of a heap, then barrowed a long way, and then has to be applied carefully with the shovel, but I didn’t expect it to take all day! My compost is obviously ‘slow’ in more ways than one….it is produced by a cold composting method, where it is left to rot down for a year rather than being regularly turned ‘hot-composting’, which accelerates the process. Now even applying the compost is proving to be slow!
During this process, I notice something concerning about the magnolias in the bed. Some creature has been scraping the bark off the trunks, who could it be? I’ve only heard of deer scraping the bark off young trees and we do have mount jack deer, but could it be badgers or squirrels? I will have to work out a solution, or this could be the end of the magnolias which would be terribly sad, I’ve waited a long time to have my own magnolias.
When I go inside I consult my personal oracle, my precious library. My library is quite diverse but by far the biggest section is horticultural/gardening books. I pull out the RHS Guide To Pests And Diseases and immediately discover the answer…squirrels! Apparently, squirrels will attack the bark of certain plants, particularly magnolias, at certain times of the year. Now, I just have to work out a solution.