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.
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