The high and lows at the start of this year have been personal and weather based. Winter was rather good to us here. It was cold enough to kill lots of bugs but was nothing like as wet or windy as my previous two winters. So Spring started well.

My first plant in flower is almost always a stunning Japanese Prunus mume ‘Beni-Chidori’ which has deep pink, highly scented, flowers that spring directly from the dark stems in February.

It was fabulous this year and was followed shortly by the three Daphnes (which flowered properly for the first time), the snowdrops, Helebores (below), daffodils and early flowering Arabis ‘Little Treasure Pink’ by the edge of the pond.

 

Then my newly (last Autumn) planted small flowered Clematis along the difficult rose arches bed came good (C. Alpina Frankie’ and C. macropetala ‘Wesselton’) as did the one on the oil tank trellis (C. macropetala ‘Propertius’).

The “smaller flowered plants” planting plan in my difficult border has gone quite well. The little Chionodoxa ‘Lucilae’ were charming very early on and are now followed by the Anemone ‘De Caen Blue’.

In April the temperatures soared and we had uncommonly high ones (27 degrees in the sun one day – which is basically a very good Summer temperature here) and everything got very excited and came into bud.

 

The tulips were magnificent (more about one of them later) but we had no rain for about four weeks so I was watering where needs be.

So Spring was looking good – as were my Wisteria. One of things I am proudest of in my new garden is that I managed to get the existing Wisterias at the front to flower the first year after I was here (they hadn’t before). They just needed a proper prune. They have been good for the last two Springs but this year the flower buds were massively abundant. This is what they looked like around mid April – I was so excited and looking forward to a fabulous display.

I have three younger ones on the rose arch parade too and they were also in amazing bud – so it was going to be Wisteria heaven chez moi this Spring.

But then, on the nights of 24thth and 25thth of April everything changed and we had overnight frosts and cold winds. It went down to -3 degrees plus the wind chill factor. I awoke to a white lawn but wasn’t overly worried because my outside plants are hardy (officially to -5 or more) and I’d put all the geraniums and pelargoniums etc back into the greenhouse.

But then I saw the Wisterias with their “oh so promising” buds flopping like dead things in the light wind. I walked the garden - the Dicentra were drooping, a new rose stem was doing the same, young leaves on the multi-stemmed Circis Siliquastrum (Judas tree) and some of the Acers were “burned”, and the Camelias were totally finished off. The catalogue of plant misery was too much to burden you with (if you are of a sensitive disposition) but suffice to say it was devastating.

On the upside some things seem to have brazened it out. The tulips have recovered, the roses are mostly fine. healthily in bud with some just coming into flower, the Geums have weathered the storm with impunity and once again are in blazing flower. Even my somewhat tender Pittosporums and some of the Acers seem to have ignored the shocking freeze.

And despite the general drought most things continue to flourish.

My lovely Actinidia Kolmikta is becoming a nice shape on the workshop wall. Training the helpfully pliable stems sideways has the same effect as with roses. It creates new shoots vertically from the more horizontally tied stems. It is supposed to be a twining climber but it seems to respond well to this treatment. I love the white and pink tipped leaves and many people don’t realise that these hide tiny flower buds which, when open, exude a fantastic scent in the sunshine. It’s always great fun seeing people trying to work out where this amazing smell is coming from this early in the season.

And re tulips … last Autumn I read in one of my Gardening magazines about a new tulip called ‘Vaya con Dios’ (Let’s go with God). It is huge, open cup shaped, slightly frilly on the edges and yellow in the photo. I wanted to try it and the only seller online seemed to be Kelways. So I ended up ordering all this year’s tulips from them (pricier than many but very good quality bulbs). All of them have been great – large, tall and strong. But Vaya con Dios has been astoundingly wonderful.

 It starts out as a huge, slightly frilled, bright yellow cup the size of a small noodle bowl when it opens – much larger than a Peony flower. It's the yellow one at the bottom of the top photo. It then takes on raspberry ripple-like pink lines until it slowly develops an overall pink with a glowing yellow centre and it never fades – unlike some of the others.

Despite the tulip success I am already grieving for my frost hit Wisterias. Some buds have survived. As you can see there will be some flowers but they are not going to look anything like as magnificent as they should have done.

And talking of grieving, the reason I haven’t written a blog since September is firstly because it became Winter and not very interesting, secondly because I got busy work-wise but mostly because my beloved dog Lottie (who has featured in lots of the garden videos) became very ill in November/December (at only six and half), was finally diagnosed with a large, inoperable brain tumour in early January, and I had to have her put down which was the hardest but kindest thing I have ever done in my life. Her absence knocked Pickle (my other dog who loved her dearly) and me sideways to say the least and, honestly, I haven’t been inspired to write about the garden again until now. So please forgive me. I just wasn’t in the mood. A little Lottie gallery is below.

But onwards and upwards. I now have a wonderful new, very shaggy puppy called Daisy who is a Poochon (half toy poodle and half Bichon Frise) who is growing fast. She looks a bit like Lottie (similar colouring) but with a longer nose and longer legs. And she is a very different and busy girl – always playing with things, bringing me presents with a madly wagging tail and generally wriggling, running and jumping with the joy of being alive.

And she is my new joy. Pickle was very unimpressed when she arrived and it took a full month of keeping them physically apart in pens and cages in the kitchen and garden before I was confident that he would not kill her. Joyously, they are now best friends and do a lot of dog kissing.

So a new balance has been restored to our household that means I can again relax, enjoy the garden – and write about it. But we still miss our lovely little Lottie (20.08.2000 – 09.01.2017).

RIP my darling.

The video above gives movement to the interersting insetcs featured below. It is very short - so worth watching.

Dragonflies

This year the pond has attracted a number of flying visitors including the charming and common red, blue and green Damsel flies with their extraordinary mating circle. I had these around my smaller pond in London but, more excitingly, this year I’ve had a range of the larger dragonflies I never saw in town. The most prevalent of these have been large, hairy Brown Hawkers, the smaller green, red and orange ones and the gloriously coloured, large blue and green ones.

Most are, however, extremely difficult to film because they move around so fast and seldom settle, certainly not long enough for me to rush back to the kitchen to get the camera-on-tripod out, attach the right lens etc.. A few, like this orange/red one, like to sunbathe so are more readily available for pics and video but they tend to be small.

So, just as I was thinking this blog was going to have to be without representation of a large dragonfly this afternoon a huge blue and green one flew into the kitchen and caused us all (the dogs and me) some disquiet as, with a great deal of noisy flapping, it seemed to get stuck in one of the overhead lamps.

Having removed the bulb to help it escape it flew the wrong way towards the front window and flapped around there.

Once I’d opened the window however, rather than fly away, it just sat there seemingly recouping after its lamp foray allowing me every opportunity to take pics and video - so here he is in all his glory.

I say ‘he’ because I now believe he is a male Southern Hawker. He, and all those like him, are very welcome visitors – though best around the pond and not in the kitchen in future please.

Wasps

Less welcome visitors have been (and still are) the wood stripping wasps. My neighbour has a wasp nest being built above her porch. It is obviously a very upmarket nest, fit for the most demanding of Queens, for it is being built in the chewed up and regurgitated mush of wildly expensive oak (my bridge), finely decorated with inlays of teak (my garden furniture) and cedar (my greenhouse).

I must say the wasps are very industrious. They munch and chew all day, mostly in line with the grain, which means I have stripes missing from my garden chairs, greenhouse, shed and bridge and ovals evident all over the table.

Not much deters them and they ignore me even as I eat outside. I am guessing that my savoury rather than sweet palate is aiding our co-existence at the table.

My neighbour of course refuses to accept that they are “her” wasps - which technically of course they are not. Luckily we are great friends so this is good teasing material. But I cannot find signs of a nest being built in my garden, sheds or house so I am continuing to blame her, which is great fun.

And look who came to visit the terrace recently.

At first glance I thought it was a large slug but the way it moved and its long, trunk-like nose soon made me realise it was a giant caterpillar. I am sure all you insect experts out there are shouting “Deilephila elpenor” right now but I had to resort to my Butterfly and Moth books and Google images before I could identify it as the caterpillar of the Elephant Hawk-moth.

In defence, which it did after Pickle accidentally sat on it despite my best efforts, it also makes itself resemble a snake.

Luckily Pickle didn’t kill it and it “caterpillar-ambled” away into a flowerbed where I hope it will be allowed to transform itself without further disruption.

Some of you might remember I found an Elephant Hawk-moth just out of its chrysalis in a pot in my London garden some years back so I know what size it will be. Strange how large the caterpillar is before it metamorphoses.

Other than these three specimens there is nothing much unusual to report. The Butterflies have been less numerous and only the usual suspects (ie Peacocks, Red Admirals, Whites, Brimstones and various Browns) turned up ie the Painted Ladies didn’t show this year sadly. The bees have been numerous, many coloured and sized and as busy as usual. There have been few greenfly this year (good news) but as a result, sadly, very few ladybirds. The black fly had been scarce too but in the last two weeks a flock has decimated my chives. And there are a fair few too many earwigs hiding in the petals of my Dahlias (along with myriad baby snails) so I have to chase these out of the kitchen when the cut flowers come in for arrangements.

Talking of the kitchen again - it seems somewhat of a magnet. A large black/brown grasshopper/cricket lost its way and was in here the other day too. Obviously they are all bored with being unseen and seek the bright lights of the Internet and being featured in a blog. My pleasure!

Apologies for the radio silence - village life is more hectic that I had expected. Paid for work has also been busy.  So I got behind – in the garden and in blogs. However, below is a bit of a summary of what I have been dealing with this year – and it's not been all good to say the least.

Bog problem

Late last year I discovered I had a serious problem. One of my beds, alongside the rose arch parade, is a “bog” at all times of year. I think this because a Victorian clay pipe land drain, designed to take water off the house toward the fields, has been broken at this point. Possibly we broke it as we dug to create the garden or when we installed the parade arches. Possibly it was already broken - who knows? But the resulting bog is ruining my best-laid, rose arch planting plans (ie some of the roses and other plants are struggling badly).

There were two obvious choices: dig it up, again, re-do underground drainage and stuff or accept it and replant with things that will thrive in the wet conditions. I simply couldn’t face digging everything up again so there was really only one choice – the latter. I had to find plants to work.

So I bought two great books on bog gardening via Amazon, the wonderful Beth Chatto’s “The Damp Garden” and John Simmons’ “Managing the Wet garden” to help. I also went online to good plant selling sites like Crocus and Claire Austin perennials to see what they recommended.

I am sure Beth Chatto’s book is a masterpiece but it is very long. My copy is an old paperback and all the words are in tiny type and it has very few pictures. I really didn’t have time to get to grips with it. However John Simmons’ book (hardback) is full of useful pictures and is much more accessible visually. I have therefore pretty much read the whole thing and it has been really helpful.

Bog planting proper needs the soil to be reliably moist ie even in a hot summer. I think it is, lower down, but I am not sure. In the heat of mid Summer the surface clay still cracks despite all the manure and soil improver I have added, but just a few inches down there is lots of water. I am told mulching is therefore very important to help retain the moisture in drier weather.

Because I have been planting in a pond for many years now, I am aware of those flowering plants and grasses that cope with full water and marginal conditions (like Lobelia Cardinalis, Iris, Equisetum and the dreaded Ranunculus etc). However, because this "bog" is not in a pond but, very inconveniently, on the house end and East side of my huge rose arch parade which is supposed to be covered in roses, Clematis and Wisteria, I really don’t want it to be filled with pond/marginal plants.

The key knowledge I have gained from my reading/study is that small flowered Clematis and roses cope much better with wet conditions than their larger flowered versions.This seems to proven by the fact that my smaller flowered  C. “Wisley “ (which did very well last year on the other side last year in similar-ish conditions has been amazing this year and flowered for months).

 

I have also found out that just raising the crown of lots of plants helps them to survive the waterlogging lower down. 

So, I have done both. I have built two more large raised beds to cover most of the area. They are only raised by six inches and I have filled them with the friable Viridor compost from the council tips.

I have planted two rambling (ie small flowered) roses in this new environment, R. Francis E Lester (scented, white with yellow centre) and R. Albertine (scented and pink). They’ll be more vigorous and shorter flowering than the roses originally there but at least they should thrive whereas the others are struggling. As an aside, this brings the total number of roses so far in the garden to a staggering 51.

Talking of roses, the only one that is already up and over the 8 feet high arch is one of the NON-climbing ones. It seems R. Arthur Bell (admittedly a tall rose – 5ft or so usually) had not read its own, very clearly marked, “non-climbing” label and must have hit a horse manure spot or something. In its first year it put on two huge new shoots, both about 5cms in diameter. I cut one back but let the other go, and it has shot - upwards and over.

I have also planted more of the smaller flowered Clematis up both sides of the arch including C. alpina 'Frankie' (blue/white), C. macropetala 'Wesselton' (purple/white) and C. 'Brunette' (purple/white) plus the very late flowering C. Vanessa’ (pale blue) and a pink and white C. viticella which I think wins the prize for oddest named plant in the garden being called “I am A Lady Q”. This one is climbing up the back of the swing seat and has flowered following the C. Montana and with the Pasiflora given to me as a cutting by a neighbour.

As an aside the Pasiflora flowered for the first time this year and one of the flowers was a “Siamese twin” (see pic below) with a conjoined upper and lower flower created from one bud.

And talking of Siamese twins, I've also had a Siamese tomato.

So, back to the bog. Since the new raised beds are officially in the “vegetable” garden, I filled them with bulbs of Allium of every sort, decorative purple and white Allium flowers, plus edible ones such as leeks, onions, spring onions, garlic and chives So far they are all appreciating the conditions and thriving and I am thrilled with my first ever crop of brown, red and white onions.

And the dried heads of Alium Christophii are also now looking fab as decoration in the house.

In the wet gap between the two raised beds I planted mint, which loves water. However, I’ve planted it in pots sunk into the ground to help limit it spreading everywhere. Putting terracotta pots into the ground helps to keep the plants cool and the clay is supposed to let water move through them. Perfect!

And between the raised beds and the path I have planted bog irises (Iris Ensata) and Lobelia ‘Hadspen Purple’. They are lovely but the Irises have failed leading me to worry that the bed is not waterlogged all the time. Crikey. That’s a real bore.

Further, this general planting failure means I still have a big flowerbed gap to deal with. It is not good enough at all yet - but that will be this Winter’s challenge to solve.

Weeds

They say a weed is just a plant in the wrong place and late Spring/early Summer saw a huge number of weeds in the garden and I have been pulling them ever since. By weed I mean basically “something I haven’t planted on purpose”.

Just a few however looked (and still look) rather splendid and have been allowed to flower before being removed before they set seed – I hope. In fact anything that looks like a daisy, especially with long stems, is welcome here.

However, I have a new weed that is a nightmare. It spreads by growing up and flowering (ie by seed), by over-ground runners, and also, like Convolvulus and Ground Elder, by underground shoots which multiply every time you pull/dig them up and leave a miniscule amount in the soil. It wasn’t here when I arrived (as far as I know) so it has come in with a bought plant or in the compost. It has quite attractive, velvety, heart shaped leaves, small purple flowers so it could beguile you into thinking it’s a welcome visitor. But it’s not. It has spread into lots of my beds and I am now seriously considering chemical removal over Autumn/Winter with a Glyphoshate spray. I haven’t used a single chemical since I arrived here, so this will be a major step change. If anyone can tell me what this weed is and how to deal with it I would be ever so grateful.

Moving plants

“Right plant, right place” is a very useful rule to help us make sure we plant something in conditions in which it will thrive ie as close as possible to those in which it would grow naturally, wherever it came from (often not the UK) – soil type, temperature, hours of sunlight/shade, wind levels, metres above sea level etc..

In my garden “right plant, right place” is also all to do with the combination of flower and foliage colours, foliage types, heights and scent. To this end I have already moved three pink roses that were being far “too pink” in what is now the “hot” Kennett bed. Rosa ‘Pretty Lady’,’ Eglantine’ and ‘Scentsation’ are now in the “Shed bed” and seem much happier as well as now looking “in place”.

I have also added the clay loving Sanquisorba to the bed which, with its lovely little burgundy heads on light foliage is looking pretty great against the Miscanthus sinensis 'Strictus', 'Ghana' and the Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Silver Sheen' which, miraculoulsy, has survived the frosts and seems to be thriving.

And I seem, somewhat inadvertently, to have created a bed for transient plants. Last year this spot was filled with sweet peas. This spring it was filled with tulips (all now raised) and now it is filled with Dahlias and Cosmos which, after they are done, will be replaced by more Tulip bulbs later this year.

Bathtubs in front

I also tackled the front garden. I am not planning to change its overall design and layout at the moment but the area in front of my kitchen looked very naked and clean once I removed the leftover paving and stone sets/bricks etc which were cluttering it up.

The front is South facing so gets a great deal of sun and weather generally – winds being the other issue. I use thyme, rosemary and bay in cooking a great deal and never have enough. The back garden clay does not provide suitable conditions for growing it successfully. It needs to be in pots.

So I decided that two great big, well-drained troughs under the kitchen windows filled with low growing Mediterranean plants like cascading Rosemary, proper thyme and perhaps even some garish, bright red Geraniums/Pelargoniums (to match the roses out front) would bring it to life and keep my cooking pots well flavoured. And of course a new bay tree between them because I have used nearly all the leaves off my old one in a pot which came with me from London.

Somewhere in a different galaxy I imagined the troughs would be stone – until I went online and discovered how horrendously expensive, heavy and often small they are. I have tried large wooden ones before and they just rot after about 10 years, so I needed something else.

I am very lucky to live in a village that is also the antiques centre of the area. We have two huge emporia representing a great number of dealers. On a recent trip to one of the aforementioned emporiums (I gather both the “a” and “ums” plurals of “um” are acceptable) I spotted two old zinc bathtubs from Eastern Europe. They are real, old-fashioned baths for humans, with no plughole. But I wasn’t sure they would be “quite the ticket” for the front garden. What would “the village” say about bathtubs out front?

After discussing the alternatives with various friends, checking that it’s OK to grow edibles in zinc containers and negotiating hard, I secured both baths and another large zinc pot for a very reasonable amount. The baths are 140cms x 60cms and 40 cms deep – simply the perfect size and height.

I drilled lots of drainage holes in the bottom and I filled them with the lovely friable stuff from Viridor plus left-over gravel (herbs don’t like it too rich) and have planted them as planned. I also found a lovely new bay tree to sit in the round zinc pot between them. I’ll take the leaves for the cook pot from the back!

Initially they looked great and it seems the village ‘approved’ because others have copied the idea. But it has not been all been good. The heavy rain in early Summer seems to have pushed the gravel down to block the drainage holes and the Thyme has “drowned”. My cooking now is still relying on the 10 year old thyme in my tiny, neglected, terracotta window pot sitting by the greenhouse so I have invested in lots of sacks of horticultural grit for re-doing them - when I can bear it (probably when the Pelargoniums are done).

So, apart from these troubles, a couple of trees that look as if they are struggling, the mass devastation caused by this year's onslaught of slugs and snails and the fact that my very tardily planted out tomatoes, beans, sweet peas and salad sowings are only now bearing fruit and flowers, things seem to be working OK and it’s looking and smelling lovely. Phew!

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.

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!

 

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.

 

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!

 

 

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.

 

Those of you who have been following the blog since London times will know that I am keen to attract wildlife to my garden, particularly birds (except herons and magpies), frogs and toads, bees, butterflies and moths.

Unless you have the space for a wildlife meadow (which I don’t) the best ways to achieve this are to add trees and shrubs, lots of planting for cover, add water (preferably a pond or stream but any water helps), and plant lots of scented flowers in different colours so that the garden is scented throughout the year (especially with open bells and single, flat faced or open flowers that can be visited easily). Feed the birds and leave a bit of mess around somewhere (piles of logs, old bits of wood, old canes etc.) in a discreet corner for the smaller insects to nest in, feed on or hibernate in. You can also leave a few nettles and brambles because lots of butterflies and moths like to lay their eggs on them but I don’t need to bother with that. The farmer is doing it for me.

My new garden design and planting plans are designed to achieve exactly this but, even though there is nothing here now, ever since arriving I have been keeping a keen eye on what wildlife is around anyway, before I add my pond, trees, shrubs and flowers. And the great news is that it is already wonderfully busy.

Moths and butterflies

July was moth month. The entire house was filled with moths of an amazing variety most of which I had not seen before. I would have preferred them to be in the garden (they filled baths, covered walls etc) but, with the windows open and lights on, the inevitable happened.

Moth Black Arches

Butterflies too were abundant, especially red admirals, tortoiseshells and painted ladies. One of them died gracefully beside my bed and is still there – a colourful and delicate reminder of sunnier days.

The beautiful small tortoiseshell butterfly that died beside my bed

I suspect that the prolific brambles and nettles that are trying to invade the garden from the neighbouring field are responsible for this plethora of dainties but clearly I want to keep these spikey and stinging invaders at bay. I am removing them from the end of the garden because they are obscuring the view and wish to do the same at the side. It will be interesting to see whether I shall be visited in the same numbers next year.

Leggy things

In August I was thrilled to be visited by an enormous cricket. He must have been 5-6cms long, was beautiful colours, had huge eyes and legs and spent some time watching me through the glass on a French door. I’ve certainly never seen anything like him before.

The profile and undrneath of the huge cricket shot on and through filthy glass

In my London garden September was spider month but every month here seems to be spider month and most of them are indoors or around the windows. I think the cricket was after one of the flies trapped in one of the millions of webs that are spun in seconds.

September here was actually crane fly month – also inside not out. They were everywhere and often became trapped in the spider webs despite my clearing these on a very regular basis.

Frogs and toads

They are around because next door’s garden has them but the only one I’ve actually seen to date was a small male who found himself stuck in a watering can so was gently released into some cover in the field.

Birds

Despite removing most of the existing vegetation in the garden the birds are plentiful. My neighbours feed them well and have trees (as do I now - but more of that another time), so the garden is full of birds whizzing from side to side. Many are the same as in London. We have our resident robins, blackbirds – one of whom has a white feather, tits, goldfinches, sparrows and wrens. There is a pair of doves and a few pigeons, though thankfully fewer than in London.

Check this video out - my garden creators are also musicians

It is somewhat apt that in September 2014 the new garden resembled the Marne 100 years on – all vegetation, trenches, rain, endless mud and tangled barbed wire. Though clearly incomparable, as I sport my red poppy, I remember and honour those who struggled, fought, died and prevailed with a new appreciation.

Thankfully, the weather outside September has been glorious but, almost since I moved in, the site has been full of men, each one striving, giving their best and “going in” where less valiant ones might fear to tread.

The vanguard arrived in July. They were Mark Hawes and his team of three from Hawes Arborists. They arrived in their protective uniforms, armed to the teeth with chain saws, long cutters and a tree chewing device.

They made short but noisy work of the willows et al in the left bed plus the extraneous shrubs, trees and overhanging branches from the right. They were a great bunch: knowledgeable, experienced, courteous, hard-working, efficient and very cost effective. Mark lives in the village so it was great to be able to give this work locally – and a fine job they did too. They even cut up the logs for me to add to the log pile, were sweet to the dogs (who tried to get involved of course), and tidied up beautifully after themselves. They come highly recommended.

Almost immediately after the tree and shrub removal two major characters in what will become an unfolding story arrived – Dermot West, my wonderful garden landscape creator and Syd, the digger, so called because she was hired from Sydenhams, a fantastic store near Gillingham which can supply almost everything you need for house and garden destruction and construction.


I found Dermot online whilst I was still in London and, despite getting other recommendations from people I knew in the area, on meeting him here, I knew he was the man for my garden. He is based in Frome (about half an hour away) and his company is Eclipse Garden Landscaping. He can do anything - build pergolas and walls, lay stones and paths, dig beds, do fencing, even put up curtain poles in the house when it is raining  - and play the banjo and guitar, as you can see in the video.

Dermot is intensely hard-working, a joy to work with, dedicated to the job and seems to care as much about the finished outcome as I do. Let’s face it, when you are going to spend every day with someone for many months, it matters that you get on and see eye to eye. Dermot is my garden’s star. Syd is his accomplice. And Dermot can work Syd like an artist. He has obviously had a much misspent youth in computer gaming. The way Dermot plays the levers to make Syd dig, mix, filter and smooth out the ground, even in minute areas, is like watching any other artist at work – spellbinding and awe inspiring.

Dermot also came with two right hand men – 'Chris 1' (only so named because he was shortly followed by another Chris dubbed 'Chris 2'). Chris 2, I have discovered, is also an actor and can play almost any musical instrument including the double bass (as you'll see in the video).

No garden redesign that Dermot is managing can exist without levelling tools and very many tins of red spray paint.

So, together, Dermot, his spray paint and I translated my computer design into real, red lines on the ground. I made a few small changes, but not many - one extra path.

Then Dermot, Chris 1 and Syd removed the gravel sea and old terrace, dug all the existing and new beds to two feet minimum, dug the new pond to over three feet, put loads of clay into multiple skips and made a pile to create the base for a rockery near the pond.

I sold the gravel, the old terrace tiles and the greenhouse on ebay to lovely people and one of my neighbours took the shed, so the house became full of things that should be stored in garden buildings - just as my new kitchen was being installed. Life was fairly hectic. At one point there were seven men on site in any given day, all doing different things and I was buying milk in multi litres to keep the tea and coffee flowing - from the utility room!

Working on clay is a serious issue – and this clay is very serious, very deep and very compact. The only reasonable top soil was on the veg bed. Everywhere else, and obviously under the gravel sea, near the house etc., had no good top soil. So my first challenge was to create a fertile environment for all the plants I want to plant. And let’s face it, good soil is the basis of everything. Creating it is money well spent. It doesn’t matter how good your design is if plants can’t thrive.

A view of the clay as the pond is dug

From a myriad of books, websites and BBC Gardeners' Question Time, I knew I had to incorporate lots of organic matter, preferably well-rotted horse manure, to break up the clay. All similar recent advice also said that putting grit in was useless unless you did it in vast proportions. So I decided I needed horse manure and I would add grit to planting holes for specific plants as needed.

At the same time Dermot swore by the cooked, black compost made from the green waste at the tip. So, to begin with, and because I was having great trouble finding well-rotted horse manure in time, I agreed to use it. Seven tons arrived early one morning to take up most of my front drive. It turned out to be fabulous, black, friable and steaming. It was used in an instant and another seven tons ordered and delivered.

I have never ordered anything in tons before. I have ordered bags or even dumpy bags in London, but tons? Suddenly my life became full of seven or ten ton trucks delivering things - especially skips. And, can you believe, the man who does the horrendously regular skip swapping knows this house well because his grandparents once lived here.

But I didn’t think this lovely black, compost stuff was enough. There were no worms in my garden or signs of organic life except deep down in the clay of the pond. Cooked compost doesn’t have worms. So I set out on my pre-determined quest to find well-rotted horse manure because it is deeply rich, highly textured and normally full of good orgamisms with which to enrich and break up the clay soil.

First I looked online - my normal, London-based, response to any search. All I found was people complaining they couldn’t find any. It seems that those who have well rotted horse manure around here don’t advertise online or use ebay.

So I rang all the local studs – there are lots in the neighbourhood – but everything was too fresh or used on their own fields.

I asked everyone I met locally and in the village shop. The shop is a community one and staffed by lots of well-connected 'volunteers' of which I shall become one in good time - to no avail.

So I set out in the car. I had a hunch I had seen signs on the roads locally. One of my more annoying habits is that I am observant and have a wont to comment out loud on signs I see from a car. However, in this case, my “sign observing” has proved useful. I knew I had seen two signs for horse manure in my exploratory drives within 20 miles of my new home. I also have a somewhat photographic memory. So I wracked it and set off, first to a place between Gillingham and Shaftesbury where I was pretty certain I had seen a sign.

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