Planning for Growth

Winter morning Beds

It’s beginning to feel a lot like winter.  The clocks have changed back, the evenings have drawn in and every day when I get in from school one of the first jobs is to light a fire in the log burner.  The leaves have gathered in the corners of the back garden (when they are not clogging the gutters) and two panes of glass were blown out of the greenhouse the other night.  

I have not been overly busy in the garden although I am optimistic about this winter and the promise beyond it.  Despite the gloomy repetitious idiocy that passes for news at home and abroad, I am taking winter as a time to prepare for the spring and ensure that come March / April all will be well in the garden.  To quote my favourite gardening character from a movie:

“In a garden, things grow . . . but first, they must wither; trees have to lose their leaves in order to put forth new leaves, and to grow thicker and stronger and taller. Some trees die, but fresh saplings replace them. Gardens need a lot of care. But if you love your garden, you don’t mind working in it, and waiting. Then in the proper season you will surely see it flourish.” (Peter Sellers as Chance, “Being There”).

In the movie Chance,  the simple gardener, is mistaken for political savant.  The words are as easily applicable to the current political storms as they are to gardening.  The meteorological winter is likely to come to an end around March.  I suspect any Brexit-induced winter is going to last many more seasons or even years.  Is this why so many voters ticked the “leave” box? 

I think not.

One day this Brexit war is gonna end.  I just hope that there is something left at the end of it worth having.  In the meantime my therapy remains in the garden, planting bulbs (ranunculus, daffs and aliums) as well as sweeping up leaves and pruning roses and fruit trees.

“As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all be well.” 

Let’s hope our political roots are as well cared for as our horticultural roots so they are still intact when Winter is over.

Red Sky In the Morning…

 

 

 

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Planting to the Music of Time

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Lonely as a Cloud

The rhythm of the seasons is changing its beat as summer segues into autumn.  In the past, it was a time of year I would associate with final harvests of the summer and then closing down for the winter.  I would clear the veg patch and cover it over to suppress weeds, allowing only space for Brussels, leeks and broccoli to battle the winter.  I would uproot the deceased annuals in the borders and tidy the beds to wait till the warm weather returned.  This year I have even managed to pick some mushrooms from a local field.

But these days I have started the autumnal season with a sense of anticipation for the spring.  Like a tight rope walker looking straight ahead rather than down in order to make it successfully to the other side, I am planting stuff for harvesting and flowering in the spring.  If I keep my eyes on the early summer of next year, perhaps I won’t even notice winter.

So over the past few weeks I have been nurturing and planting out my own self-grown flowers, like Honesty, Foxgloves, Lupins, and Echinacea, as well as Sweet Williams.  I have sown Nigella and Phaecellia in the new bed out front.  Instead of a fallow time, it is a season to plant and nurture.  And to sit back and see everything shoot and take root in the still warm autumn.

In the raised beds I have planted a Curly Kale, garlic, shallots and broad beans.  Broad Beans were something The Old Man never planted in the autumn as he claimed the flavour was not as good as spring planted.  But considering the disastrous crop of spring grown Broadies I had this year, any kind of broad beans in 2019 would be an improvement – whatever the flavour.  But, to improve my chances I have sown two types:  Aquadulce and The Sutton.  The first in the raised bed, the second (dwarf variety) in pots.

So now, with any luck, I will have the benefit of watching stuff growing – even in the dead of winter – which is what this whole gardening lark is about, isn’t it?

 

 

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Fudge: Forever Free

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Arran Fudge

We are coming to the end of twelve months in which we have ridden an emotional roller-coasting and this week we hit another dip and sharp turn as we sadly bade farewell to our canine companion Fudge who, to coin an obituary cliché, finally slipped away ‘after a short illness’.  It was Mrs B’s sad duty to take her to the vets where the decision was made to put Fudgey out of her misery and bring to an end a long, adventurous life.

Fudge had started her journey to us when she was abandoned in a carrier bag outside a Dublin supermarket with her brothers and sisters.  After being passed through a couple of rescue centres she eventually took up residence with us while her sister (Truffle) moved in with my parents next door.  Over the subsequent fifteen years Fudgey-Dog was a willing playmate, constant walking companion, lap dog and occasional rabbit catcher for our family.

I asked Josh and Verity for their most vivid memories of her and their strongest memories were of a dog who never tired of playing and jumping.   They spent long blissful hours in the garden building jump courses for her which she would  race through with glee.  Fudge loved to take on any type of obstacle and like a mad freerunner no wall or tree was too high to her.  She once scaled a sheer twelve-foot wall in a West London park as we looked, powerless, fearing she would fall over the other side.  And at home she once chased a cat up the Walnut tree in the Old Garden, reaching the lower branches ten feet up before deciding to bail out.

She did receive encouragement from her young playmates in getting on top of things, leaping onto hay bales for photo shoots or – with Josh as main instigator – being placed on the desk in the study.  As Josh says “She was so confused and excited all at once: she knew when we were breaking the rules”.

Breaking the Rules was part and parcel of Fudge’s ‘raison d’être’.  With Truffle taking the lead she had an ally who was always keen to escape and go on long rambles by themselves, often coming back in the early hours of the morning.  Depending on the crops they traversed Fudge would either return looking like a punch drunk boxer (maize fields) or a masked pirate (from ripe cereal crops).

The sisters had quickly made a name for themselves at puppy training classes where my mother and I took them.  When the instructor wanted to run an outdoor session, we warned her our dogs might not stick around too long. But with a cattle grid covering the entrance she thought it would be fine.  Ten seconds later “they’re idiots!” was her unprofessional judgement as two ginger puppies streaked straight across the iron bars and down the lane.

At home I used a different soubriquet when I walked into the kitchen one day to discover they had reduced their bean bag beds to shreds of blue denim amid drifting dunes of polystyrene granules.  “Fuckwits!” was all I could exclaim at the slightly bemused puppies.

Fudge’s aptitude for naughtiness and deception included taking food whenever she had the opportunity.  She was fully aware that food was not to be taken off tables, but when the grown ups have left some tasty bruschetta and other antipasto on the coffee table while they greet their guests who’s going to notice if a small ginger dog helps herself to most of the hand-assembled delicacies?!

Likewise the major part of Verity’s Christmas Toblerone was too much of a temptation when no one was looking.  The toxic nature of chocolate to dogs was shrugged of by Fudge’s cast iron constitution.  The canine consumption of her Christmas treat was not so easily borne by VB who commemorated the incident with the football-style  chant

“You’re fat, you’ve grown, you ate my Toblerone, you Fudgey Dog, you Fudgey Dog…”

When Mrs B sprained an ankle badly while picking blackberries Fudge, rather than run for help in the style of Lassie, simply troughed all the blackberries that Mrs B had dropped as she lay helpless on the ground.

In the fight or flight debate, Fudge was in the latter camp.  Never more so than with electric fencing.  When her cold wet nose touched some in the garden, she yelped all the way back into the house and would not walk on the lawn for a week, not even trusting the grass.

She got over that but other hang ups stayed with her most of her life.  She despised four-by-fours after she saw her sister knocked over by one.  (Truffle – remarkably – survived uninjured from the incident).  Thereafter, Fudge would growl and bark at anything that remotely resembled a Chelsea Tractor.  Not a bad sentiment I felt.

She also, for a while, seemed to have a problem with Black Dogs, barking at them but not other colours.  But any hints of racism were quelled when we got our own Black Dog (Ella) and Fudge realised that they weren’t so bad after all….although it took her a good few weeks of therapy to accept the young foreign interloper.

Ultimately our loveable rogue was a wonderful little chum.  She had some adorable habits such as being a wonderful lap dog / snoozing companion for Mrs B, particularly during chemo.  VB also recalls how Fudge had her own little room in the tent when we went camping and Fudge was very happy with that arrangement (when not growling at trucks and black labs).

For a dog that was constantly on the hunt for food of any sort and trying to get out to the open fields (and main roads) that surround us, she lived a charmed and remarkably healthy, injury-free life.  Even in her latter years she was still able to show the earth-bound Ella how a real dog leaps into the back of a car.  So when she was taken ill last Friday and gradually got worse over the weekend it was clear something was seriously wrong.

She was brave to the end and has been laid to rest in the front garden, where the last rays of the setting sun illuminated her final resting place.  It seemed only fair that she should be outside the confines of her backyard prison.  She should be free at last.

She was the most brilliant companion for us all.  She was quirky, characterful and funny and we will all miss her.

As the kids today would say: she was a Legend.

 

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Hestercombe: a proper Designer Garden

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Great Plat? More like Small Fringe

On Sunday  I removed more of the front lawn to widen the border and plant the final Sweet Williams.  It is a small development I have been planning for a while as there is little room elsewhere for the Mrs B’s favourite cut flower, but if I had needed some ideas for more garden design then our trip to Hestercombe Gardens on Saturday would have provided them in spades (and wheelbarrows).

I have to admit to complete ignorance of Hestercombe prior to receiving my brother-in-law’s Christmas gift of vouchers which allowed us entry to the gardens with afternoon tea in the Column Restaurant.  The gardens are stunning in a variety of differing styles, from the English landscape behind the house, to the formal gardens next to it as well as the Victorian shrubbery (“a shrubbery?!”).  But the real star of the show is the Great Plat: designed by Edwin Lutyens and complemented by planting from the great garden designer Gertrude Jekyll.

What makes the Plat so interesting is the different levels and the use of water throughout it in rills, ponds and trickling waterfalls, all lined with local stone.  The planting follows what could be a strongly linear design but softens it with borders of bergenia and other  subtly coloured silver and greys.  Some of Mrs B’s pet hates were there, but even she had to say that in this context Canna Lilies and peach coloured gladioli looked just right set against the bergenia.  Cannas were something my mother would plant around the sun-dial at the old place and were the first things we replaced when we planted lavender.  They are not unattractive plants – they just need the right context.  And Hestercombe is able to do this as the Great Plat has the size and structure to accommodate some sizeable and numerous plants including some magnificent Japanese Maples as well as vines over the impressive pergola.

There was a video giving a brief history of the house and garden.  The sunken parterre was an enormous undertaking in terms in the movement of tons of soil and the quarrying of rock from the estate to build the beds.  It illustrated just how much work went into it.  But when you have such a vast estate, as the owner Edward Portman clearly had at the turn of century, one simply employs a lot of men to sort it for you.  Although it had fallen into disrepair, it is has been restored over the past twenty years and looks close to its former glory now.

Of course the main reason we had gone was to have a champagne afternoon tea, so the  walk round the gardens was essentially killing time prior to our date with tea and cakes.  But we were blown away by the brilliance of the gardens and would heartily recommend a visit.  We managed to fill a couple of hours easily, courtesy of some stunning views and the fact that our tour was directed by Mrs B who had control of the map, so we went a little further than we at first envisaged.

But it served to whet our appetites for the excellent afternoon tea which, after choosing one of the many varieties of tea, involved consuming an impressive selection of sandwiches, cakes, a compote, sausage roll, and scones.  All washed down with a very palatable glass of English sparkling wine.

We waddled back to the car, replete.

Cheers Richard

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Autumn Approaches

Autumn came knocking this morning.  There was a sharpness in the air and a mist across the fields which reminded us of October breaks in a Monmouth farmhouse when we were younger.

The greenhouse retains the fecund smells of summer, but with the dewy dampness of approaching autumn and while some veg, such as tomatoes are coming to the end of their season others have made a resurgence (spicy salad, Chard and Cavolo Nero).

 

 

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Fresh Fruit (for Rotting Vegetables?)

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Victoria Plums

Last week I was at the Old Place to check it was in good order for potential buyers wanting to view the property.  Setting aside my feelings on the impending sale of the family home (a home for me in my youth and latterly in parenthood) it was good to take another look around the garden and reminisce with Josh about the times spent there.

 

The veg patch is no longer recognisable as such, but the fruit trees have been very productive this summer.  Ironically Josh and I decided to pick some of the plums excellent plums.  The irony lies in the fact that when the Old Man was in charge of the show we felt no compunction to harvest them  despite cajoling and instruction from the Lord of the Manor.   In his day, he would gather them in by the ton and the freezer has a good few bags of plums of varying vintages.  But picking them the other weekend they tasted good.   We also picked some pears, but TOM would have sighed at the comedy duo (trio with Josh’s GF in attendance) trying to reach the best boughs of plums with a dodgy step-ladder and some old loppers.

Elsewhere the colour of nostalgia was of a different hue as I saw that my own Worcester Pearmain tree at the end of the garden has a good number of apples on it despite having only a few spindly twigs masquerading as branches.  It was pleasing to see and I am still intent on getting the tree transplanted to the new estate.  The sapling is of sentimental value as it was given to me by a grateful parent whose extremely talented off-spring it had been my good fortune to teach and coach.  They were parents who had a balanced and intelligent outlook on life and were always open, honest and grateful to those who were doing their best to educate their children.  Happy days when parents and departmental managers were empathetic and supportive.  I hope that next year I will have Molly and TC’s Worcester Pearmains in my own front garden.

We can’t transplant any plums trees, but, at Mrs B’s request, we did acquire a greengage plant from a visit to the open day at Pennard Plants over the summer.  So in future I can look forward to telling any visitors to the Midlife Garden to “pick some plums” and perhaps in due course I too will be filling my chest freezer with the soft fruit harvest.

Plum crumble anyone?

 

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Veronica or Veronicastrum Virginicum?*

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Let ’em Dangle

I read a good article by James Wong in the Grauniad this weekend in which he gave his four top tips for beginners in the garden. I never feel like I have a great well of knowledge about gardening, although I have friends who see me as the expert in gardening, in relative terms that is, because I actually plant stuff, grow stuff and harvest or cut other stuff at the end of the process.  Although I still regard myself as a beginner in this big green-fingered world, reading James Wong’s article made me think that perhaps, in the horticultural educational ladder, I would most probably be in a position to now graduate from beginners’ to improvers classes.

James Wong says persistence is key – to not be put off by things dying on you.  Well, I think I do that.  There have been times when growing veg this summer has felt like a Sisyphean task – as successive batches of chard and peas have perished on the raised bed killing fields like ranks of yeomanry heading over the top to be mown down by slugs, sparrows or simple drought.  But I have rolled that metaphorical rock back up the hill and actually made it stick on occasion to reap the benefits in plentiful courgettes and beans, amongst other things.

Second piece of advice is to avoid worrying about weeds, which are simply flowers int the wrong place.   Using new raised beds has been a real treat this summer, especially with the dry weather so there has been little or no weeding to be done, but I have taken James’s idea to one extreme by allowing some of the random seedlings that emerged from the mudslide of the great greenhouse disaster to flourish in the warm indoor beds.  So I now have a sprinkling of zinnias and Ammi poking through the sweet peppers and tomatoes.  Why not?

Tip number three is simply to plant stuff in the ground and not bother with pots too much.  This is something I could take heed of as I am the worst helicopter parent when it comes to germinating and growing seeds.  I put them in lovingly sieved compost in individual seed trays and then check on them everyday – perhaps every hour – until they are poking through.  Then fuss over them even more watering and watching until they are bursting out of the trays and need to be potted on or planted out.  Then – to my amazement – when let loose from their molly coddled world of shop-bought compost and careful watering, planted out in the naked earth, they flourish.  Like grumpy teenagers living away from home for the first time they suddenly take flight, get on with growing up properly and become sensible members of the community.  So why not sow more seeds direct into the earth?  It might be what they really want.  Perhaps I’ll try that…

And finally Mr Wong advises using Latin names for everything.  Just get out and learn them he says:  no one really knows how Latin – a dead language – should be pronounced so no worries there.  And by using the correct Latin name you can be sure of what you are buying rather than vaguely describing the blue one of this or that flower, you can be pedantically specific.  But as someone whose school coerced him into taking Latin O-Level (My fault: I was one of only a few who actually revised for the exam in the second form) and subsequently scraped a C grade at sixteen (a “4” in today’s exciting GCSE grading), I have never been keen on the language even in horticultural use.   Until recently I would have assumed that streptocarpus was a fish flavoured throat lozenge.  But I will perhaps try the Latin way more often.  Does that include more gesticulation when I speak, suffering wild swings of emotion and using the horn on my car with impunity?  If it makes the broad beans grow, I’ll give it a shot.

I may not have been happy with being made to do latin as a schoolboy, but if things don’t go as planned, it is better to laugh than to cry.   As a latin student might have said of my designated superiors at the last educational establishment I left:

“Eos si iocus non possint pedicabo…”

 

 

*With apologies to Elvis Costello

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