I am conscious today that bad weather is looming, it is much colder and there is a strong wind. I only have the last section of the terrace left to weed, which I assume will not take long. However, this area turns out to be deceptive. The thistles are closely packed and it takes longer than anticipated.
Before starting on the weeding, I open the polytunnel. Whilst going through the normal ‘polytunnel’ opening routine, Tiggy manages to knock a tray of six seedling cucumbers off the bench. They land upside down, not the best start for them!
James comes over to help again today. He brought his pressure washer with him which Aideen uses to clean the sides of her boat. He then offers to spray clean the roof of the polytunnel. This is a great idea because one side looks particularly green and I was wondering how to clean it off. The polytunnel is tall and the roof is broad, so it would not be an easy task. Aideen and him spend the rest of the day patiently picking though the soil of the outbuilding.
Patrick and Diane are on an endless mission of clearing up. They make several trips to the dump and move all of the old machinery and garden furniture to a new home. They also measure out the site for the pond and outline it with spray paint. Diane is constantly beetling around in the dumper and its always full of something!
Whilst weeding the terrace, it occurs to me that the arcade section of the orchard has undergone a complete transformation. When we were having guided tours, I would finish at the arcades and explain what we know about their history and then we walk along the terrace, past the garage and into the back yard for tea and cake. This final journey has previously been rather embarrassing, as we would walk past the massive pile of hardcore, the overgrown material stores (that looked like Steptoe’s yard if it had been neglected for fifty years) and the chicken run. I would normally make a sheepish comment like, “This is what still needs to be done”, or “We haven’t managed to get around to this yet”.
I think those visitors would be very surprised to see it how it has transformed. Now, the arcades themselves are much better set off by a clear terrace, no longer obliterated by nut trees. The hardcore pile, flint mountain and piles of York stone have all been moved. We still have the horrible old line of sheds, removing these will be the last job in the project, but the flint is now neatly corralled in a pallet enclosure behind the back wall of the old sheds, along with some neatly piled materials. These materials will be used for the building project. The site of our new outbuilding is now clear, all traces of old derelict concrete walls, floor slabs and all of the unmentionable detritus that lay beneath the floor slabs has gone, as has the chicken run and shed.
When I finally finish weeding the thistles, I go out to the kitchen garden to assess the vegetable garden. It is quite likely that our Historic England visitors will want to look at the Kitchen Garden, or perhaps even walk around it. Much of the garden looks lovely, but inevitably, due to the time of year, more than half of the vegetable is quite overgrown and untidy prior to the new seasons planting. As we are presently closed for visits, I have been concentrating on sowing, pruning, and preparing for the start of our building project. I have been less concerned with the cosmetic appearance of the garden. I start on a vague attempt to tidy up the messy half of the vegetable patch which unfortunately, is the most clearly visible area of the garden from the viewing platform. This is a bit of a hopeless task the vegetable garden is enormous, about the size of four allotments, and takes weeks of work to get it ship shape for visitors. I’m unlikely to make much progress in an afternoon! I do my best despite the worsening weather and make a very exciting discovery…cauliflowers!
I vaguely remembered planting out some late season cauliflowers at the end of the summer but I had forgotten about them. Amazingly, some of them actually looked like cauliflowers…this is very surprising as I find it extremely difficult to produce cauliflowers with decent heads. I rush off excitedly to find someone to come and admire them and take a photo.
Soon the weather becomes horrendous, pouring rain, as well as gale force winds. Patrick, Aideen and Diane continue battling outside, laying down boards for the digger to drive over tomorrow.
I decide to retreat inside with a trug full of goodies to cook. I bring in some of the cauliflowers and what I thought were two large leeks, these actually turned out to be elephant garlic. These have self-seeded themselves from last year and looked splendid. I then picked lots of rhubarb. The rhubarb plants are growing to magnificent proportions and the stems are massive.
Once inside, I start on a cooking/washing up marathon, washing up accumulates terribly when you are constantly outside! I make a chicken pie with the elephant garlic (treated as leeks but more garlicky!) carrots, mushrooms and celery. I use the spare flaky pastry to make four little pie/samosas with the leftover mice/potato/spinach curry from last night’s dinner. I make cauliflower cheese as a side dish and rhubarb crumble for desert. When everybody comes in they are soaked, cold and dirty which means they are very appreciative of my culinary efforts!
Today, we have the digger coming to dig the trial trenches for the pond and the outbuilding, plus an archaeologist to monitor and assess the whole procedure. Work begins at 8am, with Diane driving the dumper all day to take away the soil.
At the start of the day, I foolishly imagine that I may be able to work on my ‘tidy up’ operation in the kitchen garden. It soon becomes apparent that my help will be required with the day’s operations.
The first issue is trying to prevent the dumper from leaving too much mud on our clean type one going down the new driveway. This involves Patrick, Aideen and myself wrestling with large sheets of plastic in the wind to lay them down over the driveway and then weighting them down with sheets of ply. The top soil coming out of the pond trench is good, clean soil and the intention is to use it to level and add good soil to the terrace. This will give extra cover to the crocus bulbs and a good tilth in which to sow grass seed.
Diane deposits about 20 loads of soil along the top of the terrace. It is then our delightful task to rake it down over the slope. This is a lot of soil and it is back breaking work. Although the soil is good, there are still bricks, flints, metal and glass that need removing.
We all work tremendously hard all day and communicate frequently with the archaeologist and Martin, the digger driver. The trenches are declared ‘clean’ which is good news. This means we can progress to the next stage. We dig up the usual things; broken crockery, bottles, animal bones and bits of rusty metal. We also find a beautiful earthenware jar but none of these things are cause for concern.
By the time I start teaching at 4:30pm I am completely exhausted. Now we have the site visit to contend with.
Historic England Visit
Everyone is up very early this morning preparing for this important site visit. Patrick realised late yesterday that our visitors were due at 10am, not 2pm, as he had previously thought! As a result, there was a flurry of activity from 6:30am onwards and we tidied away all the final things that we had not been able to do yesterday due to the massive amount of soil shifting. I also needed to get grandad up and fed a little earlier than normal so we were all free for their arrival.
For the site visit, we were expecting the lady who runs the archaeological business who is overseeing our project and the representative of Historic England, who has dealt with our Planning Application. Everyone had arrived by 10:30am and we started by looking at the trial trenches for the pond and outbuilding.
This did not take much discussion as these trenches are clean. They decided we will not require an archaeologist to monitor all the excavation work as it is unlikely anything will be revealed. This is good news, as it is expensive to have an archaeologist on your site for several weeks. We then looked at the site of the music room extension, this is just a small square of earth where the turf has been removed…not very interesting. This tiny extension is basically a large cupboard for music and instruments that are exploding out of the music room!
We then walked around the kitchen garden looking at the walls that are already done. This was very helpful because it gives us the opportunity to show the work we’ve already carried out, the quality of construction and how the walls have weathered. It also shows how the garden has been restored which helps to establish our credentials as responsible custodians of a historic garden. We then walked around the orchard walls that are awaiting restoration and there were lengthy discussions between the archaeologist and Historic England about methods of recording. This involved everyone, including Tiggy, traipsing through the undergrowth to look at the outsides of the wall.
Finally, we arrived at the arcaded wall and the Historic England representative was suitably impressed. Here, discussions included methods of recording, extent of restoration and how to finish the walkway along the top of the wall – interestingly, turf was suggested. We also discussed what to do about the monster sycamore growing through the arcades at the far end.
All in all, it was a very successful visit lasting about 2 hours.
Last Minute Zoom Talk!
Today, the weather is changeable so I do a variety of jobs. We are all still quite shattered after the build-up to yesterday’s site visit. I decide the best place for me is the polytunnel and Aideen heads off for her boat. Mayflower has been quite neglected recently because of the mountain of other jobs. Aideen decides to paint Mayflower’s hull with black bitumen paint and inevitably it then pours with rain. Aideen then appears, bedraggled, in the polytunnel having covered Mayflower with a tarpaulin. She spends the day painting, covering and dodging showers.
I start my polytunnel jobs with transplanting seedlings. This is either because they’ve outgrown their existing seed tray or with new seedlings, where several have germinated in the same module, they need to be separated and given their own space. This situation occurs because some seed is so tiny and dark in colour that it is impossible to know how many have dropped onto the compost. It is a painstaking task to transplant these tiny fragile plantlets but it is worth it for the increased stock it provides. I sowed a new tray of 84 Zinnias and popped them in the propagator, I’ve decided you can never have too many Zinnias!
Towards the end of the day the weather is much more settled so I take a root trainer of peas outside to plant them amongst my existing peas. Unfortunately, most of the original peas did not survive the cold spell. I have to leave this job when the grab lorry arrives to oversee them taking away the heap of subsoil that came out of the trial trenches. Whilst I am out the front of the house, I start checking the box hedge for caterpillars and I remove several overwintering cocoons and caterpillars.
In the evening, we have a zoom talk. This was requested by Ruislip WI group two days ago when they were left without a speaker for a planned talk. This poor group had no idea what they were getting and thought our talk was literally a talk about gardens in churches. Luckily, they enjoyed the talk and asked questions afterwards for an hour!
This was lovely but nearly resulted in us missing the voting deadline. We rushed out of the house at 9:50pm!
Rearranging The Beds
We are still all walking around like zombies, including the cats. We probably need a few days to take stock and there is certainly a backlog of jobs to attend to. The weather, surprisingly, remains dry all day so after hanging out the washing I head out into the vegetable garden. I intend to finish planting out the peas and I’m soon absorbed in weeding and transplanting potential companion plants.
There are many companion plants that happily self-seed every year. The two beds I’m working on today already had their edges planted with self-seeded Nigella and cornflowers when the original peas and broad beans were planted out in late Autumn. Now they are filling up with self-seeded borage, Californian poppies, purslane and a few calendula. I try to move potential companion plants to the edges and keep the bed clear where the vegetables are planted. Otherwise, the companion plants can smother the vegetable crop which rather defeats the purpose of using them! Californian poppies are tricky to move as they rely on a main ‘tap root’ and they wilt quickly when shifted. This doesn’t stop me trying, little compares to their brilliant, pure orange blooms. These beds are sharing space with onions and garlic, both of which really dislike competition from weeds.
This quarter of the garden was completely weeded not long ago but now young seedling weeds are covering the soil surface. When I finish the two beds containing the broad beans and peas, I move on to the next big bed which is full of young onions. I soon realise that one of the plants prolifically self-seeding amongst the onions is coriander! First, I try to leave it in place whilst removing other weeds but this proves impractical, so I just leave the plants that are on the edges. This is why it is difficult for other people to help with weeding, as it is hard to decide what is considered to be a weed! I realise that I am making it difficult for people to help me which is probably foolish.
Aideen continues to work on her boat, she is now sanding the deck area prior to painting with Kurust, red oxide, and finally black exterior metal paint. When Aideen comes back from buying said paint with her dad in the evening, they notice the badger has found where my edging hoops stopped and broken back into the organ pipe bed. This is extremely frustrating as I’m still waiting for the rest of the hoops to be delivered and the sneaky beast has found my weak spot, knocked down more tulips and dug more holes!
Starting The 2nd Zoom Talk
Today the weather is terrible, there is heavy rain and very strong winds. I am down stairs working on the second talk by 7am. After the enthusiastic response of Ruislip WI to talk no. 1 on Thursday evening, I feel motivated to get on with talk no. 2. My plan is to put some hours into writing before going outside to the garden. However, it soon becomes clear that the bad weather is set in probably for the day.
I decide to keep going and work on the talk for the day. I finally finish making notes of what to include in the talk, which involves me skimming through 14 notebooks of blogs, and at last I start writing the actual talk. I know I need to write approximately 6400 words to have the right length. Although this is time consuming, I do not find it a problem to write words, the problem is fitting everything in that I feel should be included within the time limit. This was a major issue with the first talk, where huge projects like building a garage or a new home for my dad were dealt with in a few sentences!
Aideen is deeply immersed in her boat at the moment. She has printed off several blank plans of the interior and she spends hours deciding how to set out her new studio space and deciding on fittings.
Patrick has reluctantly decided to spend the day in the office, although it is Saturday, to make up for time missed in the week preparing for the site visit.
I write away whilst the wind whistles around the house. It is actually a very positive exercise to go back over what has been achieved over the last three years (talk no. 1 stopped at the first NGS open day August 2018). Firstly, it reminds me of the progress we have made because sometimes it can be daunting thinking about what needs to be done and there is a tendency to forget or dismiss what has already been achieved and not appreciate it properly. Secondly, it is useful to remember how crazy our lives were, particularly mine, before Covid and it definitely confirms that it is good that my teaching/performing work has reduced, even if that decision has been made for me by circumstances rather than choice. It makes it very clear to me that I’m definitely happier changing my direction and focus towards the garden and I’m very grateful that my life has changed before I became too old to carry out my dreams for the garden.
Help at Last!
Today, the temperature has risen noticeably. After a bit of time spent writing the talk in the early morning, I head out for the potato beds.
I have planted two beds of potatoes, using four different varieties so far and the first bed of ‘first earlies’ is beginning to show leaves above the soil. But, I still have nine other varieties to plant and I’m a bit late in doing so. I’m not too worried about this as the weather has been unseasonably chilly and I know the potatoes will soon catch up and hopefully, avoid being checked by frost. My problem is preparing the beds. I still have three and a half beds left to clear and they are big beds, 6/7m long x 1.2m wide. They are densely covered in vegetation and therefore, 9not easy to weed. One good thing is that the rain has softened the soil, which is very good soil anyway. I am also slowed down by my determination to salvage Californian poppies. I get stuck in and hope that my plaintive cries for assistance at lunchtime will eventually be met with a response.
Meanwhile, Aideen is painting the deck of her boat where she is kept company by Tig, who has an obsession with tarpaulins and makes a nest in one of them at the foot of Mayflower.
Patrick is trying to work out levels around the site of the outbuilding. Levels are a subject very prominent in our minds at present, particularly with the pond, which we hope to start digging quite soon. Last night, the three of us attempted to watch a video about creating a large pond to pick up tips on excavation, liners and levels but we had all fallen asleep by the half way point! We are all still ridiculously tired, particularly Patrick.
At about 4pm, Patrick does come out to help me and starts doing some weeding. However, when Aideen arrives at about 5pm, he is happy to relinquish this job and volunteers to collect compost instead. Aideen and I soon become aware that Patrick is gone for ages collecting each barrow load. We both tease him about this on his return, Aideen quips, “Been on holiday?”. He retorts that it is a very long way to the compost heap, which is true. After his next long absence, we probe a bit deeper and discover that he is stopping to talk to Tiggy and having a little sit down at about three different spots. This is greeted with a great deal of amusement so Patrick goes back to weeding and Aideen goes to collect the compost! When we come in, I pick a big bunch of spinach from the polytunnel to add to tonight’s lasagne.