Rain dripping down my back, hands wet and muddy, boots caked with soil, fitting stones in to a repaired wall, just like old times. Even better than wild swimming....
The raised beds had started to collapse so now the growing season has mainly ended its time to get them sorted. I do have garlic and broad beans to plant next month and the old compost to spread over the soil before winter sets in. At this time of year the leaves are falling, we still have Dahlias and Zinnia flowering well, the Nerine bowdenii with bright pink arching flowers looks startling and bold, as if dressed up for a girls night out.
I have moved the old compost out of its bay and turned the one next to it into the newly empty space. Beneath the recent veg. pealings and cut back leaves I get to the middle layer where hundreds of red compost worms squirm as I disturb their work. Small toadlets crawl away from my pitch fork to hide in the leaves far enough away from this interloper, their secure warm larder upended and disturbed. Frogs and toads are my favourite creatures so I always stand back and let them continue their journeys.
It is reassuring to be a part of seasons change. What I do now will give me space and place for the oncoming work. In this world which operates independently from what we do the growth and decay of natures harvest follows it's evolved cycle. It's delicate checks and balances are just that, finely balanced. We now see vividly and with total clarity how when we push beyond the boundaries of natures tolerance we create a maelstrom of conflict for ourselves. Nature does respond to challenges, it is not a static entity and we will respond to our current challenge. We will transition, there will be some evolving, we will gain insights and may be wiser. We may even recognise that what we have is too precious to squander. This is where we are now.
and I think the poem by Derek Mahon expresses something of these thoughts
Everything is Going to be All Right
How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.
And finally, 20 Oaks
The plan is to collect 20 acorns and plant them in a pot
Next year, collect 21 and plant them in a pot
The year after, collect 22 and so on.
I will start this off with my grandchildren, Peggy and Alice when they visit us at half term. We will collect the acorns from Torrington Commons where there are thousands of big fat acorns this year. This year is a Mast year which occurs approximately every 5-10 years, when trees like oak and beech produce a bumper crop of seeds. The seed will be sown in pots and placed in a cold frame. In ten years time when the girls are in their late teens we may be able to plant these trees around the places we live. If lots of people do this we will have lots of trees.
There's Elephant Hawk moth caterpillars crawling among the Gerberas, Hummingbird Hawk moth on the Buddleja's at the other end of town, pesky Cabbage White's still trying to lay their eggs on my brassicas ( and succeeding ). Nesting season is over so no songs from the hedges. August is here, with its wind and rain but intervals of brightness, harvest time in the garden, lots of jams and pickles and juices bubbling away in the kitchen, apples, which have been excellent this year going into almost anything and everything. This is a good time to observe and monitor. What is doing well. How are the experiments coming on -compost tea - seems to be working, rhubarb insecticide- that's working, although there has been very little greenfly this year, don't know why. Red spider mite- thought it had passed by but there it was on the chillies, so it was outside and several hosings off. They are now transplanted, one in the green house and one planted in the bottom of the remains of the compost heap. Should be nutritious.
Dahlias have been splendid and continue to be so. Keep cutting them for indoors and dead heading and they will keep producing flower. Here in relatively mild North Devon I can keep them in the ground all year round. Something unheard of in Sheffield. They just keep getting better.
Similarly the roses keep producing new flowers as long as I dead head. They get sprayed with the compost tea, mulched with horse manure and thank us with gorgeous scents and colours that we can share widely among our friends, continuing that noble heritage that surrounds the Rose.
The wet weather has brought out that perennial nuisance, the slug, to the summer garden. The dry weather earlier in the year certainly limited their numbers so my garden is not over run by them. Not the case for other gardens though. An account written in the Times earlier this week described the difficulties gardeners have. Studies carried out by the RHS have shown that egg shells, fleece, copper wire, garlic make very little difference to their numbers. Biological control with nematodes works. The firm which supplies them, BASF in Littlehampton have been inundated with demand and have been unable to cope with the orders from garden centres. That leaves slug pellets which is one of the controls that the RHS says will work. Birds and frogs will feed on slugs, as will ducks, although I've yet to encounter any slug eating predator near my Hostas when it's wet weather. They must have better things to do.
All the cutting, moving around and tidying not only keeps my eye on hidden corners but also produces unexpected surprises.I have over the last few days spotted seedlings of spinach where they were a few weeks ago. They didn't thrive in the hot weather, but somehow I now have new ones coming up, which I will pot up in a couple of weeks once they are bigger and grow on in the polytunnel. Also I have another seedling Echium to join the others that have sprouted randomly around the garden. It was 2 years ago since they flowered so the seeds must have laid there all that time. I have just found out that Echium can be propagated from cuttings. I collected a few cuttings from the Devon Sculpture Park last month and they are rooting nicely already. This Echium is fastuosum which is not hardy here so this will be treated like a tender perennial next year. The greatest surprise however is to the seedlings of the Trachycarpus that have emerged. I planted 3 in the garden at least 10 tears ago and needed to remove one near my studio. The plants flower and then seed prolifically but I never took things any step further. When I cut the palm down I burnt as much as I could and left things like that. Some of the seed must have rolled down the slope and settled on the top side of my polytunnel which is where I now have a seed bed with at least 50 seedling Trachycarpus fortunei. Given that the original plants were grown from a batch of seedlings I bought wholesale when I ran the nursery I can now see that I will have the next generation available next season.
So, life moves on, seasons change and we change with them. As the kind soul I spoke to today said, perhaps life will be simpler now.
Now the soil is moist after several days where we sometimes had heavy rain I am called on the deal with the vigorous growth of much of my plants. I needed to stake my sweet peas, so armed with some twiggy stems I cut and weeded my way in and gently entwined their soft stems on their new supports . It was the weeds that sparked some thoughts, not the sweet peas, although hopefully they will be good enough later to spark some thoughts of praise and pleasure. The moist soil means that the weeds are much easier to remove. The bulbils of pink Oxalis and fragile stems of bindweed are easier to tease out in soft soil. They just resist when the soil is dry. This set me to thinking of the apocryphal stories we were told when I was a student. Marjorie Fish at East Lambrook Manor in Somerset would instruct her newly arrived garden trainees in the identification of weeds. Only the weeds that were in the basket could be taken out. When I was a student at Kew Brian Halliwell, department curator would creep up behind students and ask in his inimitable West Yorkshire style, 'what's the name of that plant ? '. When the answer, especially in my case, was, I don't know, his response was, ' Why don't you know ?, next time I come round here I expect you to know to name of that plant .'. God, did he frighten us, and yes he did come round again and ask for the name of the plant.
I can remember being given a book called ' How to enjoy your weeds ', by Audrey Wynne Hatfield. I could and can only assume she never met Brian Halliwell, and I know that for gardeners the naming of plants can be a minefield, it was for me for many years, and that to know a seedling is not some little delight that has crept in unannounced is part of the search we all subscribe to, weeds can still be a bloody nuisance.
When I was head down pulling out these reprobates this morning I found an Echium seedling, which means I've got 3 now. Alongside the Alstromerias is a group of Nigella Gertrude Jekyll. They recolonise different places and always provide an extra charm to where they arrive. Around the ongoing discussions about the pros and cons of weeds is the complex debate about destroying soil, attracting wildlife, companion planting, broadcast sowing instead of regimental lines. If something was ever designed to get our knickers in a twist this was it. It's funny sometimes that when we start a journey, get on the bus ( this is a metaphor ) we tend to assume that what we see out the window tells us everything there is to know. An easier holistic methodology where we start, wait, observe, start again, wait, observe might help us keep our own counsel. But there again , who am I to talk.
So back to the weeds. Some are indeed first class scoundrels. Popping up overnight without so much as a by your leave. Willow herb host a flee beetle which in turn spreads, i.e. jumps to other plants. The beetles overwinter on leaf litter and the early growth on Willow herb, one of its favourites will indicate that it's around and active. They will nibble on potatoes, brassicas, tomatoes and several other plants and fleece is what works best to protect anything susceptible.
The fleece also protects brassicas from the Cabbage White butterfly from which hangs another story -
So there we have it. A few musings on weeds. We are now 3 months into the lockdown. Things are beginning to ease in the world that humans occupy, but only very slowly and carefully. All the pests and diseases in the plants in our gardens will manifest themselves now the weather is warmer, so along with fleece I have an armoury of defences I can use. Whatever the science, old or new, if it works I will use it. The fringes and borderlInes of science also offer a vast range of approaches, so whether it's granddads remedies, permaculture, bio dynamics, companion planting, they all might have something to recommend them. You pays your money and you takes your choice. As someone who steers away from factional politics all I could say is it's your choice, not mine.
Six weeks into the lockdown, or is it seven. None of us know when things might ease in the UK or what changes we will have to adopt. Here in North Devon I am involved with the local Food Bank and the Mens Shed which gives me a particular local insight into the impact of peoples well being and survival. When I am in the garden I can easily work away for 2 hours and not know the time has passed. Occasionally however I do reflect on the blessing I have to be able to work outdoors physically and observe the progress of nature in spring. I also reflect, not with guilt but hopefully with a sense of compassion, that there are many people who do not have a garden, who would love to have a garden, to be able to get their fingers dirty. For my part I hope to be able to continue writing and talking about what we can do and see outdoors, in our gardens, in the sky above us. We are all very small parts in a grander scheme, and try as we might to maintain balance, both physically and spiritually, that balance is, as we experience now so finely balanced that one critical malfunction or twist of fate will upset all our hopes and expectations.
So today I bring a few observations and hope to share some of the thoughts, speculations and experiments I have dug up over the last few days.
We have had some good rain after a long dry period and the soil is now moist. The bulbs have gone over, the Primulas have almost finished and new shoots of Dahlia, Alstromeria, Phlox have shot up. Where I have spring display planting now is the time to remove the old stuff ready for the new. This clearing out gives me some chance to also pull out the unwanted weeds that inevitably establish themselves there, although in the case of bindweed even gentle pulling usually leaves a tiny bit in the soil, an Irish man’s cutting, which will grow again. At this time of year the young shoots of bindweed are only a few inches long. They will wind themselves around a closely placed bamboo cane. When the bindweed reaches the top of the cane it can be carefully removed from the cane, placed in a plastic bag, the inside of the bag sprayed with Roundup and the bag closed. Some of the National Trust gardens use this technique. It does mean you have to use Glyphosate, which some people don’t but as a last resort it works. If I have an illness I always go for a natural or homeopathic cure, but when they don’t work my wife insists I go to the GP and yes I will use the drugs she prescribes because they work.
Along with the rain and the now nice damp soil have emerged creeping armies of slugs and snails, heading for my Hostas, lettuce, Dahlias. Whilst its dry they stay indoors but at the first sign of rain they out there like children after the lockdown, all over the place. The wood ash, which is the byproduct I have from the bonfires from the last few months of late winter cutting back and tidying, is spread around my leafy plants. Because the wood ash is alkaline the snails do not like to crawl across it. The ash doesn’t go round my ericaceous plants but then slugs don”t tend to go for those.
Another useful side product of varied garden works is my rhubarb. At this time of year the young spears are tender and sweet so they are gifted to the head chef for her to spread her magic. In normal times the leaves are put on my compost heap. When I discussed this with my father, 91 years old, he said his father never put them with the compost but kept them separate because they were poisonous. They are poisonous, the leaves contain oxalic acid, but I have never had any contamination problems with the compost I make. My compost takes everything that is biodegradable, the only exclusions are food and perennial weeds. Coinciding with the current harvest of rhubarb are the first signs of greenfly and ever the one to find ways of using natures bounty I unearthed a recipe for rhubarb leaf insecticide. I have done this before and it works so I emptied an old iron pot I have in the workshop that normally holds my masonry hand tools, placed a large quantity of leaves in the pot, added 3 pints of boiling water and simmered for 20 minutes.It is now cooled and filtered with the addition of Savona, a stronger horticultural detergent, and has been sprayed on to the green fly. I am ready now for all the rest.
Walking round the garden and making a few mental notes I can observe how things are progressing. The hand pollination on the outdoor peach seems to have worked. The Redcurrant and Blueberry that I transplanted 2 years ago have got lots of fruit on them. Where they used to be meant they were difficult to net from the blackbirds. Now they are in their own wooden cage with netting attached. Tomatoes are planted and the first flowers have set, broad beans have good looking pods, gooseberries won’t be long.
At this time of year when plants are putting on new growth its the ideal time to divide herbaceous plants. My few Hostas divide and transplant readily. Where I had a lovely blue Ceanothus underneath my golden Catalpa there is now a new group of Hostas. The Ceanothus finally reached the end of its ability to survive with the competing roots of the close by Catalpa, both have strong spreading roots and if one is better than the other at taking up the available minerals in the soil then gradually the less strong, in this case the Ceanothus, will decline. The Hostas are not deep rooting so should manage and with some wood ash around their crowns we might have some attractive foliage underneath the golden leaves. I am also able to take some soft wood cuttings, again a good time as plants put on new extension growth, I have a dark leaved Phlox, which I think is Blue Paradise. With 4 inch cuttings taken just as the new growth starts they sit in a pot with a plastic bag enclosing moisture and sitting in a light place but out of direct sun. I’m not into commercial production these days but will follow on with Fuchsia cuttings, Sharpitor with its elegant and delicate pink flowers will replace the Phlox when it comes out of its bag.
As the spring has revealed its new joys we have seen some of what has always been there in a new light. In normal times we look and pass by, caught in our busy agendas. Having been given more time to stop and look we have unearthed some traditional and forgotten uses for some of the common plants that grow close to where we live. The wild garlic which grows abundantly alongside the paths by the river has been used to make garlic pesto. Christine put it in to scones and mixed it with spaghetti, both very tasty. I spent an hour collecting flowers of wild gorse, but this only produced 2 small handfuls, not really enough to make a cordial. Our friend Paula makes a face cream from Lemon Verbena, so thats on my list for some cuttings in a few days time.
Finally, well almost, have a look at the recent articles in the Times and the Daily Telegraph on the joy and benefits of gardening. It was based on a study by Natural England. Their data shows how spending time in the garden is beneficial for well being
And now finally I have to report on our family Sunflower competition. I’m not sure I will win. I started off with nice colourful sunflowers. The rest of the family were sent giant Sunflowers.
Dry weather makes work in the garden much easier. All those times when work had to be done whatever the weather recede into the folk memory of country boys like me. It was Billy Connolly who said there was no such thing as bad weather, only wrong clothes. He was right of course, but its such a palava to strip off your wet weather gear knowing that in the morning it will still be wet. After a few years at Rosemoor we did get a drying cupboard for the gardeners clothing. No such luxuries though when you're self employed.
Dry weather this spring has provided some well deserved respite from the concerns and pressures of what our societies are enduring. Even at a local level the seed we sow on our window sills or greenhouse germinates and heralds natures growth and energy. Our local Foodbank has increased demand on its services now. Our volunteers working well together. My neighbour John has spare Tomato seedlings, I have other things. We will share out some potted plants to the volunteers next week, and the simple pleasure of even that little thing can remind us of the grander scheme of things.
The fields in the valley below us are busy with muck spreading, sheep move from one field to the other, cows being fed and milked. The air is busy with bird song, bees are starting to find the pollen in many of the early flowerers, the newts in my pond slide backwards when I lift out a tray that had a dry plant soaking in it
This is the busiest time of the year for people like me. Normally, even though I am technically retired I would be involved with several garden projects. This year I can only devote my time to our garden here, but the garden is 2/3 rds. of an acre so has plenty to deal with. I did manage to get to a large branch at the top of an oak tree in one corner of the garden. I have an extendable pole chainsaw and was able to devise a way of reaching the base of the one large branch that needed to come down. Because my wife might read this I ought not to describe how I actually did it, suffice to say it took 2 hours to plan, assess and prepare and 2 minutes to do the job. The result is a nice pile of oak logs to season for next winter.
This week has been unusually dry and sunny for this time of year. After the chill of early mornings by lunchtime I was working in shorts without a shirt or vest. It is so good to feel sun on my body, to feel that therapeutic glow from the first real exposure of skin to the weather outdoors. Soil turns easily in these conditions. The old compost that is now nice and crumbly gets taken over to the raised bed I have just rebuilt. Fortuitously I bought almost sufficient concrete blocks before the lock down and have been able to build the retaining wall for the raised bed that now awaits its first seed sowing.
Photo of new raised bed
Veg and flower seed have been sown, both indoors inside the heated propagator, and in pots in the unheated greenhouse. All apart from the parsley seed have germinated, parsley seed always slow on the uptake. The courgettes have now got their first set of true leaves ( the first leaves are the cotyledons ), and I have potted up half a dozen which now sit indoors in the conservatory. Outside I have done a couple of air layers, one on a Peach and the other on a golden leaved Catalpa. Friend Chloe did a couple and I thought I could have a go. This isn't the kind of propagation I have experience of so it will be interesting to monitor progress
The first shoots of the early potatoes I planted in the polytunnel are emerging. The outdoor ones are still under the ground and waiting for some extra warmth. Shoots of the Dahlias lined out in the greenhouse are also emerging. I leave them outdoors normally but these are extras and will be put in a different location this year. Asparagus are showing their plump noses and we may have the first small crop this weekend. Weeds are romping away and my long handled how does good work when it's dry like this. Below is a picture of some of the pots on the patio. The tulips especially look superb. Thanks to Parkers Bulbs who supplied them.
Today was the first and last session of our new group. Now that the seriousness of the spread of the corona virus is worryingly loud and clear we cannot continue. To physically meet as a group, even outdoors and at a 2 m. social distance would be too risky. So from now on we will continue our work and keep in touch on-line, sharing guidance and information when needed.
The original aim of the group was to take part in a six week course on Creative Landscaping, a course I have run privately on a few occasions. I decided to revive it again this year partly because I still felt there was a need to encourage engagement with the outdoors, and what better way to do this than make a garden.
That was the original plan. The course was meant to be run in conjunction with the Plough Arts Centre in Torrington but because not enough people signed up it was cancelled. However there were still 4 people interested so I decided to run it from home where we have a large garden with all the resources and working examples needed for a course like this, polytunnel, green house, raised beds, fruit trees, and the kind of fine diverse plantings that someone from Kew should have.
We arranged to meet today, Saturday 21st March. Mid March bright and dry with a cool easterly breeze. The reason why today was the first and last is because of the increasing concerns about the spread of coronavirus. We managed to maintain social distance and had a good session. First off was a bit of dry stone walling. Ruth has an earth bank between one part of her garden and the other. Her pile of stone was ideal to start the job, large ones bedded down first and then layers added with no running joints, laid to a slight angle back in to the side of the earth bank. We had time to start both sides of the bank, set the line and agree it looked ok. One questionable and unscripted interruption was a rendition of the Drystone Wallers song, hopefully there won't be a repetition of this for quite some time....
I am a dry stone waller,
Dry stone walling is my call
And of all appalling callings
Dry stone walling's worst of all......
Once we had recovered from this we decided we could leave the stone to Ruth to finish at her leisure. We moved over to parts of her garden where she had covered the ground with carpet. When it was pulled back there were white stems of Celandine. This was easy to fork up and remove. We could then fork over the soil, level it, firm it down and then plant some first early potatoes, interestingly Duke of York, so will resist the temptation to make easy, facile comments on this variety. The soil is a lovely dark loam so should be good for growing. The local soil outside of town is a brown clay loam which can be tricky to cultivate initially but is productive once the right preparation is carried out. The spuds were already chitted so could go in straight away. First early's 1 ft apart and 2 ft between the rows.
We agreed that following this first and last session we would continue on line so when I returned home I checked out a question that Ruth raised about those little slugs you get in your potatoes in summer. They are Keel slugs. I know that if the ground has not been used for a while then you will inevitably open up a repository of resting bugs and grubs that will attack the new grown vegetation you provide. When crops are grown on a rotation system you interrupt the cycle of pest and disease. When plants are growing strongly, well watered, not under stress, not competing with weeds they are better able to defend themselves. This doesn't always work of course so we do sometimes have to resort to man made controls. In the absence of slug pellets what could be used was the question. A quick google search when I got home said slugs don't like wood ash. I've got some of that from the wood burner so will save it and do some trials. Another old method was to pour boiling water onto slugs in a bucket, let it ferment and then pour it around plants. This deters them apparently. I am not advocating any or all of this but can only say that decades ago when I first got interested in gardening and would read old books from the late Victorian and Edwardian periods many of the techniques used would become incorporated into standard organic or even biodynamic methods. Much of what I saw when I visited places like Ryton gardens were methods my grandfathers would have used. Similarly the marvellous productivity that they created in the gardens at Findhorn was not new science. If ever you have spoken to the growers that show their Exhibition vegetables at village and county agricultural shows you will hear techniques that are thorough, methodical and as good as they can get.
I know I could talk for hours on this subject, it is endlessly fascinating but it's my fingers that need a rest.
Please feel free to share your experiences on this blog. If we can have a sharing collaborative community, if we can exchange our gardening skills and try to put the Earth First, we can find in the sun and wind and rain that which really matters. That is what will give our hearts hope again.
The start of the wall
A corner in my garden
Hand pollinating the outdoor peach. It always flowers early when there are few pollinators about. Most years I forget to hand pollinate, but this year there is more time to attend to this
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