Sunday, 17 January 2016 16:30

Bridge, pond and fish dilemmas

I’ve always felt that water in a garden brings it to life – with wildlife, sounds (especially if you have a pump/stream) and reflections, let alone all the things that might live in it. So a pond is always a “must-have” for me in my garden.

I’ve also always wanted a bridge over the pond.

In London I resisted the temptation because the pond was pretty small (3m x Im x 1m) but here I reckoned the new pond was just about large enough to justify a bridge so I put one in the original design where it looked fine.

So, when I started this garden project I set about exploring pre-built bridges online. Every bridge seemed to start on the ground and finish there, either flat or gently arched and most weren’t long enough. Also they were mostly in softwoods and a great many were ‘Japanese Garden’ looking. Overall, they weren’t quite what I was after. I wanted something flat, with steps up and down (to improve the view from the bridge), handrails all the way, and for it to be generally more “across-a-rural-stream” looking.

By happenstance, when I was in the community village shop, I saw a flyer from a skilled wood boat restorer, Alastair Munro, who was offering his services for wood-built things generally. So I rang him and simply asked “Would you like to build me a bridge?”

Despite never having built a bridge before he accepted the challenge and together we sort of designed and planned it over my kitchen table and I agreed he would build it the old fashioned way he recommended (ie tenon and mortise joints, wooden plugs etc.), in oak - an expensive but long lasting decision.

So, for the next some months, at the same time as things were happening in the garden reconstruction, I suddenly had to rush over to Alastair’s workshop, dodge round the boats he was restoring and film the various elements of the bridge as they were created either by a rudimentary wood cutting/forming/shaping machine or by hand. (The video captures this creation but doesn’t really do justice to the amount of time and care taken on each piece.)

In the process I have learned that bridges are mighty complicated and very heavy. They have to bear a lot of weight and strain across the span and we had to sink huge legs into the ground around the newly forming pond to keep it secure. Dermot and Alastair worked closely together to achieve this. I tried not to watch as they started to put it in and up. I let them get on with it (for some long time) before stepping in. My practical woman’s eye spotted what was going wrong as they tried to fit things together. We sorted it. I shall say no more.

Anyway, suddenly the structure was up and stable. Okay it wasn’t usable as a bridge yet because it had no steps - but it was mostly there. It had been months in gestation and a huge effort in its construction.

I stood back to admire it but all I thought was “Cripes, this is far too huge/tall for the garden and pond”. I spent weeks worrying about how high and large it was. I tried re-assuring myself that it worked on the computer design when everything else in the garden was in place and the plants had grown.

Alastair said he could chop the legs down to bring it back to ground level but, after all the work setting the legs in, I wasn’t planning to chop them off unless absolutely necessary.

Over the next few months bridge work was halted by snow and mud generally but, nearby, the large, trellised covered, wooden swing seat from Duckpaddle arrived, Alan’s iron rose arch parade was installed, the shed and greenhouse were completed and then the plants started to grow. As each of these things happened the bridge seemed to get smaller in proportion. I decided to bide my time on the verdict of whether it was too large for the garden.

Then, later this Summer, when it was being finished, my visiting nieces and nephews and my neighbours’ children and their friends adored the pond and the bridge in particular. They raced across it, hung over it, swam in the pond (when I had turned the electrics off!) and, most usefully, they loved clearing the blanket weed out of it, despite the mass of water snail poo involved.

So, by the end of the Summer the bridge stood as large and proud as designed and built. The oak is also greying nicely.

However the pond below it is still empty of fish. Frogs and toads are sparse so far and all it seems to hold, despite a great deal of planting, is dragonflies (a great delight), water boatmen and other nymphs, plus a gazillion water snails who seem to be congregating on the pump and slowing its water intake.

I really miss fish in the pond. It is ready for them. The tap water it was filled with initially has been transformed into fish-friendly water and I need fish to eat the snails’ eggs to control their exponential growth.

Far too many water snail eggs in their see-through pouch - fish control needed!

‘My’ fish – especially Big Yellow and Silver Rocket – both Koi, still reside in the old pond in London where they are being “fish-sat” by the lovely couple who bought my home there. I am in a quandary as to what to do with them. They are very large now and would love the extra space in my new pond here. But the effort of catching and transporting them for over two hours might be expensive and complicated. Also the stress could possibly kill them. At their size they are worth quite a lot of money now and it’ll take a long time to grow others as large. They were tame and I am very fond of them, Big Yellow in particular, so I would love them to be here but is it worth the risk? I simply don’t know what to do for the best - ie for their sakes.

I am going to have to take advice but quite who I am going to get this from is a different matter so, if you are a koi transportation expert, please email me asap..

Thus, at the moment, the pond remains fish-less and I don’t plan to change this now until the Spring. It also needs frogs and toads. As you may know from my London blogs, frog/toad “singing” is one of my major joys in the early months of each year and I love watching their spawning antics.

I have created hibernation holes in the rockery around the pond and planted lots of things in it to try and encourage wildlife. I have also painstakingly built a pebble strewn, wildlife “beach” made of over 200 small stones (each hand glued to the liner with outrageously expensive aquarium glue) so that any mammals that might fall in can walk out via it. I don’t know how many mammals have had to resort to the beach (apart from dogs and human children) but so far I have still had to rescue Bob Starling from it and found a drowned mole in it – I suppose the mole couldn’t see/find the beach?

I don’t know if the pond’s seeming sterility is the lack of fish, the young planting or the filter. I didn’t have a filter in the London pond – it was all murky with fish poo and plant detritus - and wildlife seemed to love it. So the pond experiments will continue over Winter and into Spring. The garden is still very new so I shall watch with interest to see if frogs and toads find the pond and use it this Spring. If not I may need to move some spawn from elsewhere to start a frog colony.

In the meantime, the bridge looks great, if still a bit big, but it continues to seem smaller as the garden grows. All good.

Wednesday, 07 October 2015 13:59

Bob Starling - surprise guest

Have you ever reared a fledgling wild bird until it can fly away? I hadn’t until Bob Starling came into my life this year. This is Bob’s story.

Bob dropped (or was pushed) from a great height (three floors up) from the very noisy and messy starling nest that existed in my roof edgings.

Bob was so named – some days later - without my knowing the bird’s sex because I used to have a friend at university called Robert Stirling, he spent some time in my pond (Bob the bird, not my friend) and it just sounded right. Bob can be a unisex name ie Roberta/Robert. However, for the sake of this blog Bob is a male bird.

Anyway, back to the story. He fell/tumbled down a lower roof and into a corner of my terrace, where the dogs found him. They didn’t attack him but got very close and barked lots. He made desperate attempts to flutter up the wall away from them but clearly couldn’t fly. I shooed the dogs away and picked him up. He seemed unharmed by his fall – legs, wings etc, all OK.

So suddenly I had a live baby bird, partly fledged, that couldn’t fly properly, in my hands. On the ground he was prey for the many local cats plus the magpies, sparrow hawks, red kites, owls and other predators that would love to take him from here – dead or alive.

Stupidly, initially, I hoped I could get him back to his nest so I put him in the highest gutter that I could reach on a ladder. It was still many metres away from the original nest and all he did was sit there, shiver and look miserable.

So I brought him back down. He shrieked his disapproval of being handled again and a parent arrived. “Thank goodness” I thought. The parent dive-bombed me very aggressively so I put the fledgling on the lawn for his parent to take him away. It worked tirelessly attempting to teach him to fly. I stood aside, locked the dogs in the house, kept cats/magpies etc away, watched for a bit but went back to my gardening.

Eventually the parent and baby were gone. As far as I was concerned, that was the end of baby starling - he had flown off with his parent successfully. I continued with my gardening and weeding.

An hour or so later Pickle started barking at the pond. He barks at the pond a lot when he drops his balls in there for fun, but this barking sounded different. I investigated and found the starling babe floundering in the plants I had recently planted. His flying attempts had obviously ended in the pond and his parent had given up on him, without my noticing.

He was alive if drenched

But he was still alive, if drenched. He must have been in the pond for an hour or so and was tiring as he tried and failed to clamber out of it. Now that he was wet there was simply no way he could fly anywhere, let alone back to the nest.

It was early evening. It suddenly dawned on me that he was now my responsibility if he was to survive the night. I had to dry him off, warm him up and try to keep him alive, at least before returning him to his nest or the wild - if possible.

So, despite his loud shrieks, I fished him out of the pond, wrapped him in swaddling towels and held him to my breast in the warm kitchen for much of the evening. To the dogs’ amazement I carried on normal life with a small bird wrapped up and stuffed into my bra. I had seen my mum do this with sickly chicken chicks when I was a child so I knew it worked. And it did.

Bob seemed very determined to stay alive but he had to go somewhere overnight - he couldn’t stay in my bra or, indeed, in the house.

The greenhouse was my saviour. I put my heated propagator shelf on the ground, found an old dog cage and covered it tightly in an old sheet. I put lots of old dog toys, towels and cuddly things inside to make a sort of nest and then placed Bob in, feeling very pleased with my imaginative response to young bird care.

Seconds later I panicked. I realised I also had to feed and water him to keep him alive. Saving him from the fall, the dogs, predators and the near drowning was not going to be enough. He needed to eat and drink.

But what to feed him?

I had no idea what to feed him. I have never fed a wild bird except via a bird table or my parents’ feathererd menagerie of chickens, ducks, geese, Guinea fowl etc. when I was a child.

Thank goodness for Google!

I searched “what to feed a fledgling starling” and of course lots of people knew. In the nest they live on insect protein but the site I chose made it very clear I should not feed him worms. Apparently adult birds know the difference between good and bad worms and humans simply don’t. A bad worm could kill him.

I had to make a mix of cooked, chicken-based, dog or cat kibble combined with stewed apple and hard-boiled eggs. I had to borrow an apple and an egg from a neighbour and then I cooked up this foul smelling and somewhat cannibalistic yellow/green concoction.

Not very hopefully, I approached Bob in the greenhouse. I used an old feather quill from a blackbird to offer the food to him. He was wary and difficult but eventually the scent got to him. He took a first, cautionary bite. Then he decided he loved it and would take it from me. He ate a lot. I can’t tell you how thrilled and excited I was.

Then I was worried about water. Apparently you shouldn’t put water directly into their mouths – they can drown. You have to drip it onto their beak. So I did this too.

It was all pretty messy but he ate and took water. I did this a few times that evening because they are supposed to be fed every 45 minutes can you believe? He responded well and I began to think he might possibly survive the night.

The next morning, there he was – dry at last, warm, alive, noisy, calling for food, and making the same sounds as his siblings in the nest far above in my roof. Suddenly I was his new parent until I could return him to them – or later to the wild on his own.

Something of a responsibility

Thus started 10 days of caring for and feeding Bob Starling. I let him have the full run of the greenhouse every day and put him to bed in the cage at night. I fed him every two hours or so and started leaving the food mix and water for him in upturned jam jar lids. He learned to feed himself from these, especially overnight, which was very gratifying.

 The older I get the less happy I am to kill anything. I admit to drowning snails and slugs and to squashing blackfly, greenfly and Lily beetles on my plants but almost everything else I usher away or out of the house and garden. However, I have to admit that I killed flies and small spiders in the house and greenhouse for Bob. He didn’t get many but, when he did, he relished them.

Feeding him by hand was somewhat chaotic. First I had to find him on the floor under the staging, behind the empty pots and general greenhouse stuff. Then I had to tempt him to come to the food. It was hard on my knees and I got bored so eventually I took to chasing him/picking him up and feeding him with my fingers. It was much more effective.

Then one day I found him on the bottom shelf of my staging – about 20cms up. He must have jumped or flown up – a good sign. A few days later he was on the top shelf of the staging (about 1 metre up). He could only have flown up there – a great sign.

I continued to hand feed him and leave food and water in the lids, day and night. Despite his squawking on being caught, I think he quite liked being hand-fed as he got older - he got better and better at it. I think he also quite liked being put to bed in his dark, warm ‘nest’.

Towards the end he spent a couple of days on the top of the greenhouse staging by a North-facing window watching all the other birds outside. He didn’t try to fly at all. He just watched, all day. When starlings came past he would give a little squawk of recognition but he did nothing else. I like to think he spent the time learning about life outside and other birds - from the safety of my greenhouse.

His release

A couple of days later he started to fly around the greenhouse. I studied his siblings in the nest at the top of my house. They too were experimenting with flight, albeit supervised by their parents. They were also starting to feed on my bird feeders.

So this was when I knew it was time for him to go. I opened the door and all the windows in the greenhouse so he could get out. I expected him to make an immediate escape - he had stayed ‘wild’ as far as I was concerned.

But Bob didn’t leave the greenhouse for a long time that day. He sat by his favourite, now open, window for hours just watching. When, at last, he took the plunge, he ignored the open door, and chose the small gap afforded by this favourite window. But all he did was drop onto the cold frame immediately below.

He then spent a lot of time looking back up at the window. He seemed to be wondering whether to return to the safety of the greenhouse or not and it made me worried that he might have been too ‘man-handled’ and molly-coddled or even that he could still not fly properly or was as yet too young to be left to his own devices.

He stayed below the window for about 10 minutes - just looking, watching, listening and I was very worried for him. Then, suddenly, on no obvious cue, he flew up into the tree above and disappeared. I was thrilled but also worried for him of course. He was covered in my scent. Would he be accepted by his family, other starlings and other wild birds generally?

Over the next few days the starlings from his original nest and elsewhere (young and old) were feeding voraciously on my bird feeders. They were squabbling, screeching and jostling as per normal. For two days I put the last of the kibble/apple/egg mix out for Bob or whoever – and it all went. As starlings grow up they lose their exterior yellow bill linings. Suddenly they are only distinguished from the adults by their slimmer build and lighter coloured feathers. They all fed busily for days.

I still don’t know if Bob was one of the survivors in the wild and/or was re-united with his family. All I can tell you is that when all his siblings and parents from the nest above were feeding noisily on my bird table and I walked outside, they all flew away except one young one who continued to feed and watch me happily as I walked around and, eventually, filmed. I hope it was Bob.

Saturday, 12 September 2015 15:58

First Summer learnings

It is far too long since I last blogged – apologies but I have been very busy. My business (corporate/financial video) work has been pretty full on and I have become fairly involved in village life, committees and clubs - eg books, gardening, the community shop, the annual fete etc.. At the same time, obviously, I have been manically researching/buying plants and physically planting in the garden and greenhouse to get the first season going, leaving me little time to write, film, edit blogs and their videos etc. – so apologies but this one just has photos.

Anyway, to the garden.

It’s finished, in construction terms. The day at the end of April that the last of the 20+ skips was carted away, the new gravel went down on the drive and we filled the pond was a great day. I said fond farewells to Dermot and Chris 2. Dermot had been with me five days a week, for seven months, so it was a bit of a shock – for the dogs and me. The next day I was suddenly alone - with acres of beds to plant.

My credit and debit cards of course rose to the challengs and I am really happy with the new garden. My dream paths (based on the photo from a book – see previous blog) have been re-created in different stones and colours for this garden and I love them.

The model left and the final path right

So what I have learned this summer about my new garden and its plants? Well lots of course, some of which is below.

Take great care with soil additives

Since the last skip left I have been planting - and weeding – non-stop. The ten tons of horse manure dug in, it transpires, were full of grass, nettle and thistle seeds. Much worse, however, were the tons of “weed-free” topsoil I got from Bradfords. These turned out to be full of horribly spikey, very virulent weeds plus lots of others. Be warned – be very careful where you get your topsoil from and never buy it from Bradfords. The topsoil was put almost everywhere and the weed problem now is so serious that I have decided that, henceforth, I shall only buy aged, bagged, horse manure and much more expensive, top quality, weed-free-guaranteed topsoil - but never from Bradfords.

Just some of the weeds in Bradford's 'weed-free' topsoil

The only truly weed-free input was the 14 tons of cooked soil improver/compost I got from the dump via Viridor. Thoroughly recommended!

Flowering plant learnings

I moved in June 2014 and the garden was created in time for its first full summer. It’s doing really well (on the whole) and looking pretty good - at least better than I had expected in a few months. Obviously lots of trees, shrubs, roses and other perennials that’ll get bigger and fill out are just starting, but I have already managed to create some clumps of colour and texture, and height with new trees, climbers, sweet peas, runner beans, Lupins, Delphiniums and a host of other plants.

Buy in large, odd quantities

In my smaller London garden, as a plant lover, I wanted one of everything I could cram in. Though tempting to do the same with even more plants in this larger space, I decided it would simply look too ‘bitty’. So, apart from trees, major shrubs and certain specimen plants, I have had to learn to buy in quantity to create ‘clumps’ of colour, shape and texture and so that one can repeat or mirror a colour/texture effect elsewhere in the garden.

For some reason one is supposed to buy in odd numbers so I bought 3 x Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ for example despite knowing how huge each one would get, 3 x every Geum, 5 or 7 times other things especially some grasses, but with one grass (Nasselta tunuissima) I have bought about 15. However, if you read the article here you’ll see that after 7, ‘even’ numbers are not a problem. It also explains why we buy in odd numbers.

And I must say this approach is paying dividends. The garden already looks quite full and voluptuous in parts and somewhat cohesive. It certainly doesn’t look as formal, meagre and bitty in its first Summer as my London garden did when it was first planted. 12 years have at least taught me something!

London on first planting (left) and here (right)  - the grass helps.

However, I have also learned that, sometimes, large quantities are too much. I planted about 36 sweet peas up five wigwams and after filling every room in the house, giving weekly bunches to all my neighbours and the shop, I still couldn’t keep up with all the cutting required. It’ll be three wigwams next year and around 22 plants.

Aspect is no guarantee

This garden is North-facing but I have had some rude shocks. Firstly, it is bathed in sunshine almost all day in Summer (when it’s not been raining of course). The BBC told us the other day that the most rainfall this August was recorded in Motcombe, Dorset. Motcombe is five minutes from here, so you may sympathise with me now.

However, despite the rain, many of the shade-loving plants I planned and ordered online over Winter/early Spring were struggling. I’ve even had to plant an unplanned tree - Catalpa bignoides Aurea - towards the house, to create more shade for them. No great problem – any excuse to plant a new tree is welcome.

 It is also very windy here. We are in a wide valley and the winds whistle through. Someone locally said to me “if you’ve got views you get winds” and it’s so true. Views, per se, are open vistas with few windbreaks whether you are on the top of a hill, in an open valley or by the sea. And with this year’s strange location of the Gulf Stream we’ve also had lots of colder NE and NW winds as well as the prevailing South Westerlies.

But I love my views and do not plan to hide them. So I am already thinking about adapting my plant choices. For instance, I planted a number of large flowered, early, purple Clematis up the rose parade – Daniel Deronda, Lasurstern, Kinju Atarishii and Mrs Cholmondeley for example. They flowered well initially but were blasted by the early summer winds so their petals looked pretty dreadful much of the time.

Luckily, I also planted later-flowering Clematis (C. ‘Prince Charles’, C. ‘Wisley’, C. ‘North Star’ etc) which are smaller but more profusely flowered, and they have done really well in July/August and have looked fabulous for over six weeks.

Clematis 'Wisley' left and Clematis 'Prince Charles' right

I was about to dig out all the large-flowered, early, Clematis to replace them with smaller-flowered ones when they suddenly did a second flowering in August and looked fab.. The winds were lighter and they added beauty and colour again. So I can’t decide whether to replace them with viticellas, alpinas etc or to keep them.

My feeling is that they will eventually be more sheltered by the Wisteria, Lonicera and roses they will be growing through on the arches. At the moment they are the fastest, tallest growers and thus very exposed to the winds. In three years’ time they’ll just be part of the mix and will be much more sheltered by the other plants around them - at least I hope so. At the moment they have been spared to live to grow another day.

Create a ‘Limbusetum’ for impulse purchases

Despite all my careful planting plans I am a sucker for something new, different, interesting and pretty, especially if it is scented - or a tree. At the end of the day I have to admit to being somewhat more of a plant lover than an ‘overall garden look’ lover. But I also know I have to create and grow this space as a successful ‘garden’.

I have now discovered all manner of nurseries, garden centres and ‘gardens with plant shops’ within a one/two hour drive of here and have had enormous fun visiting them, often. As a result I have made a number of impulse purchases. Many of these have gone straight into beds either as permanent or filler plants. But an equal number arrived home without an obvious planting spot. As 'plants in limbo' they were placed in a special ‘waiting area’ in the garden nicknamed The Limbusetum (‘cos it must be in Latin) where they sit in their pots while I study them, think and eventually decide on their fate.

Some of these plants have defeated me and I have given them to other people for example a Vitex Agnus-castus – the Chaste Tree.  I have seen it in its new home and it's looking fab. which makes me very happy.

Others have been planted eg a Heptacodium jasminoides (syn. micinoides) - which is quite rare so it eventually got its own special place, in the lawn, and I am just waiting for its autumn flowering. A Zelgova serrata ‘Goblin’ is now in the ‘oil tank’ bed and a yellow/orange Salvia ‘Golden Wonder’ (x 3 of course) now looks fab in the long border with the red and orange roses.

Above: Heptacodium jasminoides syn. micinoides

And I have also discovered some plants are worth giving a second chance. In Spring, on impulse, I bought three small, evergreen, white flowered Iberis ‘Masterpiece’ which I’d never seen before. But I didn’t plant them. Almost immediately I regretted buying them. They were a bit too upstanding/formal/’municipal bedding’ looking for my taste so they languished in The ‘Limbusetum’ without enough water and started looking tatty. I was about to bin them when I decided to give them a last chance. I planted them around the Styrax japonica ‘Pink Chimes’ and they have prospered, flowered and looked seriously fab ever since. They formed a strong, white, centre to the bed over the Summer which was very pleasing. They are still in full flower now and they don’t seem to need dead-heading, so are great value plants, especially because they’ll be evergreen when the flowers eventually go. Wow. I am so glad I saved them!

Iberis 'Masterpiece' above

Vegetable learnings

Veg took a bit of a back seat earlier this year whilst I was getting the flower borders going but I managed to start tomatoes, red peppers, runner and mange tout beans from seed in the greenhouse as soon as it was built.

Risk some beans

Beans are my favourite green veg and they also deliver height, flowers and a bumper crop from a small space. After hardening them off in the cold frame I began planting them out on 14th May.

There I was, carefully curling the third of them round the 12 attractive hazel stems I’d formed into a frame when Reg (who you know is my lawn cutter, edger and weeding man but who also turns out to be an allotment veg specialist), arrived behind me - it must have been a Thursday.

“Ooh, errh, I wouldn’t be doing that now Rosie. It be a mite early. I’ve not even started my bean seeds yet.” he said in his beautiful Dorset brogue.

“But it’s May!” I protested. “I’m allowed to plant them out in May.”

“Ooozzzh” (a sucking in of air through teeth) “but, there’s more frost a-coming….and winds. Them’ll struggle.” he advised.

As an ex-Londoner I took his advice and stopped planting them out. The rest didn’t go in until mid June, when Reg gave me the nod.

Meanwhile, the three original bean plants remained in the soil. He was right. They struggled. They looked wind-beaten, pale and mankey for about a month - but they prevailed. They are now voluptuous glories, well up and over the top of the frame and feeding me a crop of deliciousness every night. The others are just fruiting and some are still in flower.

So I suppose I have learned it’s worth ignoring local knowledge a bit and taking the risk with a few veg.. However, I hope now to have a succession of beans over the Autumn rather than a glut all at once, so Reg’s advice has actually been a great help. Next year, I shall plant them out at least two weeks apart – but still start in May!

Don’t put courgettes in a small raised veg/salad bed

A couple of weeks or so ago I finally sowed some lettuce/salad, beetroot and turnip seeds in my 6 inch raised bed. They are supposed to be OK sown in August and all are things I love to eat or cook with. Turnips in particular are a much unappreciated vegetable in my book and quite hard to find in supermarkets. They are delicious when fast cooked, small and whole, (especially with gin/) or, when larger, they make a fabulous flavour and texture introduction to almost any slow cooked meat or veg pot.

As an aside, isn’t it interesting that foods fed to cattle are often disdained by the humans in the same country. Turnips were/still are traditional cattle fodder in Northern Europe in the same way Avocado pears are in India.

When I first lived in Mumbai in 1994 it was really hard to buy an avocado in a ‘people’s’ market despite the fact they grew millions of them – because they were grown simply as cattle fodder. ‘Marketeers’ were horrified when I enquired for them. Things changed eventually as more westerners came in and demanded them – and their price soared of course. But the lesson here is that one country’s cattle food can be another country’s delicacy. Cattle food need not be disgusting to humans. And I urge you to re-visit the turnip. You will discover an incomparable flavour.

Anyway, back to the veg bed. I weeded it, raked the special (non Bradshaws) topsoil I had put in, made it beautifully flat and friable, then drew my half inch deep lines, six to eight inches apart along a tool to keep the plantings straight and I was very careful about the seed sowing. After an hour or so of bending I stood and proudly surveyed my newly sown and clearly labelled veg bed. And then it rained all night. Very satisfying!

The next morning I strolled down the garden to revel in it, only to discover that one or more local cats had decided it was ideal cat litter. They had dug, scattered the seeds and labels, and generally messed the beds. Ughhh and aargh!

A week or so later the locally donated courgette and gourd plants (which one simply cannot refuse from new friends) in the same bed became so huge that some of my, now wiggly, seed lines were covered in huge leaves – just as the seeds were germinating. I took a knife to the courgette leaves. Given all this disruption I am praying the newly seeded veg will survive and prosper.

To date this experience has taught me to keep seeded veg well away from courgettes and the like, and possibly that I’ll need to cover the raised bed to keep the cats at bay. Watch this space.

Stick to your colour schemes

Most of the original colour plans have worked out well but I heeled in/planted a few roses too early in the Kennet bed. Pink R. ‘Scentsation’ and pink R. Eglantyne’ are in what is now essentially a ‘hot’ bed.

The peninsular bulge of this (at present my favourite bed/most successful planting) is full of orange Geum ‘Princess Juliana’ which has flowered since May because of all the deadheading, It’s finicky but worth it. These now spill into the fabulously tactile, soft-effect grass Nasselta tenuissima (used to be called Stipa tenuissima - maiden’s hair), which edges the bed.

The peninsular bulge (left) and, in it, Geum 'Princess Juliana', Neselta tenuissima, hemerocalis and Verbena bonariensis  (right)

Beside/around/behind them are tall, thin and elegant Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ and ‘Emily McKenzie’, tall red and orange Alstromeria (tubers brought from London). They are backed by even taller, purple, Verbena ‘bonariensis’ and tall grasses Miscanthus ‘Silver Feather’, M. sinensis ‘Strictus’ and ‘Ghana’ as well as Pennisetum ‘Red Buttons’, self seeded, silver leaved and opulent purple and dark red poppies, Alium sphaerocephalon and dark purple Dahlias amongst them.

Crocosmia Lucifer (left) and Alstromeria (right)

They are backed by even taller, purple, Verbena ‘bonariensis’ and tall grasses Miscanthus ‘Silver Feather’, M. sinensis ‘Strictus’ and ‘Ghana’ as well as Chleome (purple) grown from seed this year.

Cleome grown from seed and now 2 metres tall

In between are grass Pennisetum ‘Red Buttons’, self seeded, silver leaved and opulent purple and dark red poppies, Alium sphaerocephalon and dark purple, cactus Dahlias.

 Allium sphaerocephalon

This glory of colour and texture then morphs, through three clumps of grass, into a cooler, lighter blue/purple/silver zone of Buddleja Lochinch (with its orange centres), Galega x hartlandii ‘Lady Wilson’, Gemphostigma virgatum ‘Silver Butterfly’, 3 x Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’, and lilac/mauve Tulbargia (Silver Lace and Fair Star), some purple Salvia ‘Schwellenburg’ and then waves back into more Nasselta tenuissima and Pennisetum Fairy Tales and P. Karley Rose, and the hot colours of Hemerocalis ‘Chicago Apache’, Helenium ‘Mardi Gras’, red and orange Dahlias, Rudbeckias in a variety of hot colours, Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ and G. ‘Mrs Bradshaw’ contrasted with a purple Agastache ‘Black Adder’-  so that the very end of the Kennet bed sort of mimics the peninsular bulge in colours and yextures but is a bit lower.

The two pink roses look very out of place amongst all this colour ‘heat’ and will have to be moved. I have identified a suitable spot (behind the swing seat) and will do the deed in Winter after they have finished flowering. They will be planted with two other roses my mother has found which have white stems! (They are a gift from a friend of Mum's and very unusual, as far as I am aware.)

Interestingly, three other pink roses in the Kennet bed (Pretty Lady, The Lady Gardener and R. Glauca) may survive where they are. The first (PL) is pale apricot to start and then goes white. It’s in the cooler, transition, section and seems to work OK. The second (TLG) is an orangey pink and also sort of works though I am not very impressed by her form at the moment. And the Rosa Glauca is really grown for her red hips. She is behind the cooler part and teamed with a red and purple Salvia. Her grey/green leaves go really well with the scheme and, because her small bright pink blooms are so vivid, I think they’ll work where they are next year.

So, overall I am very pretty pleased with the garden in its first year. I have a number of problems which will be dealt with and will be covered in the next blogs. I also need to update you on the pond, its planting and fish, and the building of the bridge; as also on the trees I have planted. These blogs should now come much more quickly than this one did!

Tuesday, 28 April 2015 19:28

Devoted to roses

 

I am devoted to roses - as is this blog.

I think roses are some of the best value plants in any garden because, if you buy well, they flower from May/June to the first frosts (which almost no other plant does), they look beautiful, smell fantastic, encourage wildlife, will climb or scramble, stand tall and proud, or create a bush, groundcover, hedge etc and do almost anything you want - except be a tree! Why wouldn't you have roses? OK, so you have to deadhead and prune them but that's not much to ask is it, for so much in return? And personally I love deadheading them. I go into a sort of 'zen zone' and forget the world as I do it.

Luckily roses do well in clay. Phew! The clay here is a potter's dream - solid, vaguely pliable and orange. In fact it was famous - it's Kimmeridge clay and years ago was worth money to potters. However, its glory is no more and it's a nightmare for gardeners. It is completely unweilding except in extreme circumstances. Underground it is a solid mass. On the surface, with no additional help, in sun or drought it will bake as hard as ceramics - then crack. Tough stuff.

But clay is full of minerals and holds all sorts of plant nutrients well. The theory is, therefore, that the roses (and many other plants) should love my now supposedly heavily enriched and more open structured soil  which has been improved with just ten tons of well rotted horse manure and 14 tons of soil improver compost. Please may they thrive! I've done my best to help them.

Anyway, as you know from previous blogs, my garden design required a rose arch parade. It was always going to be a major feature in the garden. Initially I toyed with it being wooden but decided that metal would be thinner and ‘disappear’ more easily under the plants. And I needed a huge structure (10 metres long x 2.2m wide and 2.6m high) but I didn’t want it to over-dominate the garden.

I felt the metal should be hollow so that plants attached don’t burn when it’s hot. I also wanted the metal elements to be tubular not square for aesthetic reasons and I wanted unspecified ‘squiggly’, decorative bits along the sides to look attractive but also to help entwine the climbers.

I investigated Harrod Horticultural’s versions but, much as I like them for certain things, I decided their arches would be too expensive and not individual, ‘squiggly’, or decorative enough.

Alan the blacksmith, who is four doors down my track, had already hand made two fixtures for bells outside my front and kitchen doors and the bits to hang the gates properly at the end of the garden – really cost-effectively. So I asked him to quote on the arches. He was completely undaunted by the concept, quoted, and I said yes.

He measured, then designed and built the entire structure in almost no time – and I love it to bits. The creation of it is in the video and I can’t enthuse enough about how wonderful it is to see a real blacksmith working at his art and trade, at a fire and anvil. He makes many of his own tools and uses adapted Victorian machinery in a black-smoked forge filled with horseshoes, forks and other garden implements that need straightening, and all the other things he is in the process of creating. It looks very ‘not of this era’ and is all the more wonderful for that.

It’s also thrilling to have something so important and major in the garden made by someone four doors down the track – it reminds me of being in India or Africa. There, you can just imagine and design what you want and there’s always someone round the corner who will build it for you. In London this just doesn’t happen. Here, at last again, it seems par for the course. We have so many skilled and talented craftspeople around here – blacksmiths, woodworkers/carpenters, artists etc. (wait for the bridge blog). In fact I have discovered it's much easier here to find someone to build you a wall, bridge or rose parade than it is to find someone to turn a bathroom into a wetroom with shower!

Alan is also perhaps one of the tallest men I have ever met at 6'7" and he has hands which each could easily cup a watermelon. He is also a natural on camera. In the video above he gives a totally professional voice-over on what he’s doing, completely unrehearsed.

He and Dermot then spent a day erecting the finished item digging it deep into the ground. At one point Alan popped away "to make a bespoke arch for each side-path-joining element" he told me. This was not part of the brief, just something he concocted so tall people wouldn't hit their heads if they went onto the lawn or into the veg bed from the parade. How fab is that?  OK, I might have said something like "that line of bars looks a bit low across the side paths" but I had no solution. At this point I was merely a bystander watching an artist create something in minutes that not only solved the problem but enhanced the overall design.

Initially, as created, the structure was silver/black. The iron is not protected so is already rusting and going a fantastic dull orange that matches the bricks and gravel and makes it blend in wonderfully. Indeed a number of recent visitors (I've had lots) such as: members of the Donheads Gardening Club  - the first gardening club I have ever been a member of - and others who came to take away some of my excess horse manure and compost; delivery men and women who arrive in huge lorries to bring scalpings, sand, top soil, gravel etc and who now know me well and ask to see the development of the garden, plus family, friends and acquaintances generally have already asked if I got it from a reclamation yard – result! It already looks like a Victorian rose arch parade to match this Victorian (1880) cottage. Alan has also now made me a single version to go across the other path and it balances the aspect beautifully.

The rose arch parade

The rose arch parade planting has a colour scheme of course  - you'd expect no less of me I hope! At this (the kitchen) end  - which to the right of the pic above - it starts in white and pale yellows and moves through mid yellows and buffs to oranges and then bright reds. Across the mini path divide it starts in dark pinks and mellows through medium pinks to light pinks. Complementary, non climbing, bush/shrub/hybrid teas are planted in the long border between them and are being inter-planted with herbaceous plants, perennials, bulbs and ground cover.

The arches are also planted with Lonicera Americana and Graham Thomas, Wisteria floribunda (white and blue), and many mauve/blue/purple Clematis including Daniel Deronda, Lasurstern, North star, Mrs Cholmondley, Kinju Atarishi, and Wisley. These are mostly large flowered, summer ones but I shall add my favourite Viticellas later when they become available in the garden centres, nurseries and fairs. At ground level, along the path edges, I am interspersing various light shade tolerant blue Geraniums (such as Brookside and Rozanne) and yellow grasses.

To try and give you an idea of the effect of the roses left and right along the parade see the pic below. Imagine the top ones are North (by the swing seat and pond) and the bottom ones are South, nearest the house. (Apologies - I created this montage in Powerpoint so I could put them all together easily but it means the photo resolution isn't great but I hope you get the idea!)

They are all repeat flowering, scented, climbing roses. Many are David Austin, new English roses - but not all. Many I have grown before (the ones marked with * I haven't) but the conditions and aspect here are very different so it will be interesting to see how they do. I’ll have to wait a few years to judge. Roses, especially climbing ones, take 3-5 years, at least, to get established.

The shrub/hybrid tea roses in the long border to complement them are: Arthur Bell (because he is early, strong, upright and well scented), Westerland for its lax habit and beautifully loose, fabulously coloured form; Indian Summer (to remind me of my five years in wonderful Bombay/Mumbai - and it looks and smells fab too); Queen of Sweden (for one of my best friends, Ann W,  who I met in Mumbai when she and I were almost the only professional, corporate, working expat women there. Luckily we got on splendidly after a few fights about boyfriends!); The Pilgrim (for its astounding beauty and scent); and Abraham Derby (because it looks fab and I have never grown it before).

 

The roses up the single arch are my trusty Phyllis Bide and a new, shortish rambler The Lady of Lake, with semi-double, small light pink flowers and golden anthers.

Rosa Phyllis Bide (short rambler)

Rosa The Lady of the Lake (short rambler)

And of course there are roses elsewhere too. These include:

In the Kennet Bed : Eglantyne (she is very gracious and scented), Scentsation (huge, mound-forming, floriforous and very scented with hybrid tea-style flowers on a floribunda), Glauca (for its fabulous arching shape and green/grey foliage, small single flowers and plentiful, small hips) , Pretty Lady (for her size, beauty and scent),  The Lady Gardener who is quite new and certainly new to me but looks and smells lovely apparently; and a Rosa Rugosa (for the insects and enormous hips).

Closer to the house, in the terrace bed which gets a fair bit of light shade, I have planted three R. Bonica which is a sort of ground cover rose that does well in shade and three R. Champagne Moment (which did so well in my North facing site in London).

 

Rosa Bonica

Rosa Champagne Moment

In the Zen bed (which is mostly full of dwarf conifers and unusual Erica, a trickling water feature and a number of statues) I have planted climbing Rosa Super Elfin (scarlet) to grow up next door's trees (mine aren't large enough yet to support climbers) and three ground cover roses: one Cambridgeshire (scarlet, gold and pink) and  two Rushing stream (pale pink/white with yellow anthers). Super Elfin did well for me in London after a slow start but I have never grown proper ground cover roses before so this is an experiment.

(Top = R. Super Elfin. Bottom left R. Cambridgeshire. Bottom right "R. Rushing Stream")

I have also added R.Blush Noisette to the veg bed fence. She should be vigorous and cover well, is small flowered but sweetly scented and very pretty as below.

 

And, the major decision about which rose to put up the front of the house has been made. Madame Alfred Carriere has been planted deep in the gravel to which I have had to add all sorts of good stuff, Q4 and microrhyzal fungi again. There is no ready-made bed so I hope she can find her way and thrive with what I hope is a good start for her. She grows to 15ft and I wanted a tall, well scented, repeating rose that is not a rambler. I hope she fits the bill and I hope I have given her enough soil and food to thrive on before she digs down into the clay herself for extra minerals etc... New wires on the front of the house are there to welcome her as she climbs. Let's wish her well. We'll see.

Which brings me to planting roses. Every single rose planted so far has been given the best possible start in life. First off I have spent gazillions on improving the soil. Then, when I plant, I soak them in water in a bucket (but beware, this can be tricky with new, early season, pot-based, climbing roses whatever their labels say 'cos their soil base falls apart with too much water - it's much easier with bare root ones. My advice is don't over-water early season roses in pots (Feb to April) prior to planting. Water them very well afterwards.)

Then I dig a wide, deep hole, add a good rose/shrub or multi-purpose compost and Q4 fertiliser at the base and mix it so nothing can "burn" any roots.  When I am sure I have the right level (I tend to bury the graft union) I then add micorrhizal funghi to the base of the hole and roots. (I swear by the stuff for all major perennial plants, shrubs and trees. I am convinced they establish faster with it.) Then I put more good compost around the rootball, firm it in gently all round, then cover with the other soil etc.. I then water well ie drench (which means at least one big watering can-full per rose). Planting is really the same whether we have had rain or not. However much rain we have had it is important to water after planting so that the soil/compost moves around and doesn't leave air pockets underground around the roots.

So, to date, I have planted over 40 roses and have four that have come with me in pots.  In my much smaller garden in London I had over 30 roses so this does not frighten me. I just pray they like this much improved soil as much as they did my London clay. They seem to be shooting well so I have high hopes, though not R. High Hopes yet!  Time will tell.

Monday, 16 March 2015 18:42

Planting commandments and plans

 

When I started writing this blog, as the snowdrops appeared, I thought I could cover all of what I have done so far, plant-wise, in one blog – but I can’t. There’s too much to say, so I need to divide it into a few.

This one is about the theory and Commandments of major planting decisions plus the “feel” I want to create: colours, textures, shapes, sizes etc..

The planting plans

On the planning side, certain things were a given – tall plants like trees and large shrubs (both of which I love) have to be restricted to the sides of the garden so they don’t disrupt the view from the kitchen and terrace across the landscaped fields, magnificent oaks and general beauty that stretches out for miles at the end of the garden with only one, very grand, house in sight.

Obviously the rose arch parade will be tall and have lots of climbing roses and other climbers such as Wisteria, Lonicera (honeysuckle) and Clematis, but it has been designed not to obstruct the view from the kitchen French windows and to be seen through/down from the window above the sink. Yes, the garden design plan is that detailed!

And the shadier parts of the garden, mostly closer to the house and terrace, will need plants that can cope with less sun and that also can’t be too tall or they’ll obstruct the view.

Colours and textures

I now have created lots of beds to plant and, honestly, it’s a bit daunting. I have never had so much space to plant in.

On the colour front, in theory, I love all the colours. Some people ban red, orange and bright yellow from their gardens, often because they find them hard to work with. But I love the brighter colours as much as the paler ones. I find they are particularly good in late summer and autumn (think Rudbeckia, Helenium, Canna, Dahlia etc), and am determined to have lots of everything.

But where to put them?

In London I had the simplicity of two major beds to work with. I made one for cooler colours (blues, purples, whites, pinks, very pale yellows) and the other was my ‘hot’ bed, filled with oranges, reds, deep yellows, and purples – the other side of the colour spectrum and path – and they worked very well opposite each other, even in a small space (as shown below).

 

Great borders in “proper” gardens (by which I mean grand, well planned or famous ones) sometimes manage to work all of these colours into one border. And I sort of see achieving this as one of my challenges here. I have two relatively large/long beds in which I plan to allow colour across the spectrum. The first is what is now called, rather too grandly, the ‘Long Border’. It runs from near the terrace to the pond, adjacent to the lawn and to the left of the rose arches. It is x metres long and a metre wide. The beds I am now planting from scratch are detailed below.

The second large planting area is the much-enlarged left bed, now named the ‘Kennett’ border, behind the new shed, which incorporates the peninsula ‘bulge’ into the lawn.

The ‘vegetable’ garden area to the East of the main path will not just be veg.. It will also be a cutting flower garden and I plan to grow sweet peas and Dahlias here alongside beans, salad leaves, beetroot, rainbow chard etc- so the colours will anyway be a bonkers mix. I am hoping it’s going to get enough sun for all these because part of it has quite a high East fence, all of it has the rose arch parade to the West and it has the greenhouse to the South – gulp! Previously it had a greenhouse and shed to the South and still grew fruit etc successfully, so fingers crossed.

Thus I think some serenity, some colour calm, is needed elsewhere. I have four other good-sized beds to plant and four smaller ones, a number being shade beds, plus the raised wall beds. White is always a good colour in the shade and evening and my North facing beds in both my previous homes were pretty lush, with even roses doing well. I feel the four larger beds will all need more restricted colour schemes – pinks, blues and whites in some and yellows, greens and whites with flashes of red in another etc..

The colour and texture of foliage, bark and flowers, shapes and heights, become very much more important at this stage. For instance I haven’t even thought about under-planting at the moment. It’s all about big decisions – trees, major shrubs, flowering seasons, colours and textures.

Some time back I sketched a very loose, wax crayon plan of what I want the Kennett bed to look and feel like with plant ideas.

 

I am very embarrassed to share this awfully bad drawing with you but I am showing you the reality of my planning ie I tend to combine “to the millimetre” hard landscaping design (which you’ve seen) with very much more loose, creative planting plans based around some key plants I want to grow, the colours, forms and textures so I can ‘feel’ visually (if that makes any sense) what it might will look like some years down the line.

Scent

I am obsessed by scent. I want this garden to smell glorious, all year. Scent also brings in all sorts of pollinating insects so lots of decisions will be based on smell as well as everything else.

Capturing scent is trickier here because it’s quite windy and I need to keep the end of the garden open for the views so ‘trapping the scent’ will be tough. An on-going project!

The Commandments of plant selection

As I am sure you know, if you want your garden to thrive it means adhering to a few basic rules – “right plant, right place, right soil” being my First Commandment (the official one is right plant, right place). In my book there are three (and soil gets added to the first) - see below for the other two.

Although there are many notable exceptions, it’s usually a good idea to try to plant plants where they will thrive best. Seems obvious when you think about it so it really annoys me that garden centres and plant producers/labellers don’t usually give enough detail. We have to research a bit more. OK, of course you first read the label. It’s a good start but label planting information varies dramatically and can just be symbols about sun etc.. More often than not, especially in garden centres, the label will not tell you which soil a plant likes. You are expected to know. So if you don’t, ask – or check it out on your handheld. Never walk out of any nursery or garden centre without knowing what your plant needs to thrive. It can be a huge waste of money.

And don’t worry about not knowing. Researching, asking and talking is how we all learn and get better at it. And anyone who knows more than you do will love to tell you – I know I do! To the huge embarrassment of my friends and family, I am forever butting into the conversations of complete strangers in gardens and garden centres and advising them on things I think I know lots about. They are often very surprised but usually grateful. I have even done it across tables in restaurants when I have ear-wigged a planting question with a poor answer. Let’s face it, I’m a plant menace because my enthusiasm for them knows almost no bounds. To be fair, if someone does it to me I love it too. Growing plants is all about sharing ideas and experiences – often with complete strangers. We should all talk more.

I digress. Back to selecting plants.

 It’s also useful to know where plants are native to and what their natural habitat is or was and how they might look/develop – the Second Commandment. The “history” of plants is easy to research in books or online and gives you many more detailed clues as to where to plant them. For example, even if they come from the tropics, but really high up in the mountains where it’s much colder and the soil is thinner, they can do well in a temperate environment like ours if in a similar soil. Some are natural to woodland so grow well under trees or in the shade, others need open vistas, rocky ground and lots of sun etc..

Their Latin name can sometimes help you here too. I am a great believer in Latin names. They often explain so much about a plant and it means that all of us, all over the world, can talk to each other about them - common names of plants are different everywhere. We often have two or three common names per plant, per country/language, let alone all over the world.

One of the very important Latin terms to know is foetidus/a/um or foetidissimus /a/um which all mean foul smelling! But there are a great many others, easy ones, even in the Fs, eg Floribunda (free flowering), flore-pleno (double flowers), flavus (pure yellow), fluvialis (growing in running water) and fragrantissimus (very fragrant).

If, like me, your Latin was never great (I scraped a B at ‘O’ Level) and you are not a trained horticulturalist, there is an RHS book called ‘Latin for Gardeners’ which won a Garden Media Guild award in 2013 and you can get it here. It’s a useful and informative reference work. My major criticism of it is that the type size is tiny and it’s printed in a grey on coloured stock so most people over 40 (the majority of gardeners) will need their reading specs or a magnifying glass to read it – not the most relaxing way to enjoy a book or to learn.

 

Having been a ‘suit’ in graphic design for over ten years it upsets me that somehow the designer/typographer or financier/publisher took over the project from the author (Lorraine Harrison) and produced something that doesn’t meet the brief as well as it could have. I assert that the design fails to meets the needs of the majority of its potential target audience and does disfavour to its creator.

That bug bear dealt with, I have only learned the Latin names of everything because I started my gardening and love of plants in the (easily readable) RHS Encyclopaedia of Plants and Flowers (text printed in a reasonable type size, in black on shiny white) - so I had no choice. I didn’t even think about it and knew no different - that was simply what they were called. Mine was the third edition (1999), a fine book and my bible. I understand it has been re-published recently and comments I’ve heard are not favourable. I’m not sure why, so I need to see it to judge and shall seek a copy. Watch this space!

Soil

The key things about soil are pH (acidity/alkalinity), structure, food and water supply, depth and drainage. As you know I have worked hard (well Dermot, Chris 1 and Syd the digger have worked hard and I have spent loads) to build organic matter into the clay which will help with structure, depth, food supply and drainage. But we are in a dip here and the water table is often not far from the surface – hence the drains under the lawn etc., and despite all these efforts, most of the newly improved soil is seriously claggy (descriptive not technical term) at the moment. At least there are now a gazillion worms from the horse manure to keep it as open as possible.

The Kimmeridge clay is pH6. The horse manure is pH6.5 and the ‘black gold’ compost is pH6. So the final result is pH6 across the beds - just the acid side of neutral. This might seem detailed but it’s the difference between whether acid lovers such as Rhododendrons, Azaleas, heather and Magnolia etc or lime lovers such Ceanothus, Clematis and Lavandula will thrive better. Certainly neighbours are growing heathers and Magnolia successfully in the ground and I see this as a remit to try to grow almost anything except those plants that need the extremes of pH.

By the way, if you have never tested your soil pH, do it now. It’s really easy. Garden centres sell cheap pH testing kits and you just put a bit of lower soil into a tube, add some water and wait to see what colour it turns. However, you should test using rainwater and test more than one part of your garden because it’s amazing how pH can vary, even in a small garden, and obviously the test is affected by the pH of the water from your local water supplier. Because I am testing so many areas I have invested (all of £10) in a pH prod meter rather than eight or more disposable test tube testers.

 

And whatever the pH, I have to assume that, despite all the organic matter I have built in to 60 cms+, lower down the clay will be hard and cracking in summer and wet/waterlogged in winter - a tough environment for the roots of many plants.

The ‘new’ soil is also pretty rich in nutrients. This will be good for many plants but too rich for those that thrive in poor or sandy soils. Also too much nitrogen encourages green, leaf growth rather than flowers in some plants like Nasturtiums and Wisteria, so I need to be careful.

As a result, I have built terrace walls with raised, severely drained beds, have not enriched one ground bed – it’s mostly scraped off topsoil from the old veg. garden - and am building a rockery just so I can grow plants that like different conditions from the normal beds. I have also built a raised vegetable bed for lettuces, beets etc not least because I’ll never get a fine tilth for seed planting on this claggy soil.

Sun, shade and wind

Hours of sunlight can be important for many plants, especially those bearing conspicuous flowers. I have now witnessed my new North-facing garden in midsummer, autumn and winter. In summer all but a tiny bit of it (miraculously) gets lots of sun for much of the day but in winter the sun is restricted to the far half. However, it does depend how tall the plant is – the higher up, the more sun they get. And now, in March, the sun is already higher and most of the beds are getting at least a few hours of sunshine each day – so I am treating it as ‘light’ shade.

The left side, obviously, is East facing in this hemisphere (yes we have readers south of the equator), so gets the morning sun. Lots of less hardy plants (plus some Acers, officially Camellias etc) don’t like morning sun after a cold night because they get frost/sun burned. West facing (ie the right side here) is a more gentle position for them. But wind can ‘burn’ lots of plants too and it’s quite windy here, especially on the West facing side, so my planting decisions are tricky, especially for my Acers and Camelias which have arrived in pots from London.

Be nosy and observant. This is the final and third commandment - check out everyone else’s garden and the environs. I have now managed to visit almost all the back gardens along this track (seven in all) so have been able to see what plants thrive in similar conditions and been able to ask about what doesn’t – all very helpful.

Seeing what grows well in the countryside around can be very helpful too. This area if full of Quercus (oaks), Salix (Willows) and Cornus (dogwoods) and hawthorn/brambles, all of which can cope with wet soil and it is now awash with snowdrops and early daffodils.

(Pics of oaks and dogwood locally?)

So commandments known, I set out to buy trees, shrubs, roses, climbers, perennials, annuals, veg seeds etc.. The next blogs cover my purchasing decisions.

But be aware, the fact that I now have a 100 year old rhubarb plant in my veg bed, donated by a neighbour - and I didn’t plan to grow rhubarb - is testament to the fact that, despite all my plans and the Commandments, I make emotional as well as logical decisions when it comes to plants and planting. I am now cramming learning on growing rhubarb.

Meanwhile the video shows the hard landscaping development – again. We’re nearly there! At least I have a greenhouse I am planting seeds in. Hooray!

 

Thursday, 15 January 2015 17:32

Being Libra

 

Decisions, decisions, decisions – do you love them or hate them? I love them but, as a fairly typical Libran, I find them tricky. I can see both sides of almost any argument. I don't really believe in any of this stuff - mankind divided into twelve types - but I do seem to be a typical Libran. New aquaintances guess I am a stronger sign, like Leo or Taurus, but other Librans spot me a mile off. Very weird.

Anyway, in business I have taught myself to make decisions more quickly than I would naturally. In my private life I find them more difficult and, in the garden build, I have had to spend the last some months making really major ones. Trees for example, are expensive, important and long lasting. Smaller plants are cheaper and easier to remove or re-position if you find they don’t work. However, on the whole, it is not planting decisions that have been troubling me. It’s the hard stuff - stone, gravel and bricks.

Around here there is a wide range of local stone and brick colours from grey through creamy yellows to reds, so really I could choose any colours for the hard bits in my garden. But, like a child in a sweet shop, the more choice I have, the larger the problem becomes and the longer it takes to decide. And, after all, hard landscaping is pretty permanent. This is a one-time decision unless you have pots of money and time to remedy a mistake. I want, and need, to get it right first time.

I need stone for the kitchen and pond terraces and within the two major paths. I need bricks for the greenhouse dwarf wall and the mini walls around the terrace and I need something – bricks, wood, stone? - in the two key paths and as edgings generally.

A reminder of the garden plan

I managed to make one major decision relatively quickly (over about six weeks), which is to use ‘Cathedral’ limestone for the flagstones on the terraces and in the paths. And now the kitchen terrace has been laid (mostly), so there is no going back. It is lightly yellow/pink/grey with hints of darker orange, is not too riven but has enough ‘surface’ to make it non-slippy.  And, now it’s down, I am happy. It’s not as unusual as the stone I had on my London terrace but that was a one-off delivery from China and seems unrepeatable. Believe me I have tried.

So now, everything else is sort of going to have ‘hang off” or “work with” its colours. Lots of people have come up with ideas. Dermot has, of course, as have my wonderful neighbours, one of whom happens to be an RHS award winning garden designer, Robert Kennett.

You should understand that I have been inspired by a photograph of a path in a great book called ‘Gardening in a Small Space’ by Lance Hattatt. I thoroughly recommend this book and you can buy it for almost nothing (sadly) on Amazon.

I think this path is completely beautiful and want my two major paths to look like this  - ie the long, straight, 6ft wide path from the kitchen terrace which goes down the garden under the rose arches to the pond terrace, and the curving, 4ft wide one which runs from my side gate to the Kennett’s garden gate which joins our gardens together.

This path is grey stones and gravel and, for a long time, it caused me to toy with grey as a colour. Grey sets off the green of grass and plants so well. But I have decided against it. I am going with warmer colours again. Another decision made at last. But which warmer colours and how warm?

And I can’t copy the path in the photo exactly ie using railway sleepers as edges, because they won’t bend for the curving path. But I want to recreate the ‘essence’ of it with its pattern, using different sizes and textures of stone and gravel.

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