Pre-season training


We are into March. The days are lengthening.  The February seeds have germinated and are looking sprightly: the race to produce those early tomatoes has started and the chillis are up too.  We need to make sure they are in good shape for the summer ahead.

The change of month means that I can now allow myself to open those packets of veg and flowers seeds that advised sowing from March onwards.   Having a greenhouse is a boon at this time of the year, but before the seedlings graduate to this I have been starting some in the warmth of the spare bedroom before putting them in the conservatory which is no more than a giant leaky cold frame at this time of the year, but still marginally warmer than the greenhouse at night.

It’s not all seeds in trays, though:  I’ve sown a couple of rows of peas and sugar snaps in the raised beds.  The peas will once again be Hurst Greenshaft – The Old Man’s favourite.  I keep a picture on my desk of him proudly standing alongside the Greatest Peas Of All Time.  It is something to which I can aspire.  The key might be the soil – which was a friable fecund tilth at the old place: the result of decades of cultivation.  My one year old raised beds are composed of a thin layer of compost overlaying the claggy clay topsoil I bought last spring.  I have put some well-rotted manure in with the peas but I fear it will take many more years’ work before it gets anywhere near as fertile as the last place.

We’ll wait to see if their early form is good enough to ensure good performance this season, whatever the ground..

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Rewild at Heart


Simon Barnes was speaking on Radio 6 the other Sunday morning, promoting about his book “Rewild Yourself: 23 spellbinding ways to make nature more visible”. He has ideas to get everyone to be more in touch with the natural world around us.  One suggestion – to learn the songs of some common birds which – is exactly what Mrs B and I have been doing recently too.  We reckon we have learnt the great tit, song thrush, robin, blackbird and chaffinch so morning strolls are now very much a multi-sensory affair as we listen out for birdsong.

And bird song is not the only sound that attracts the attention at the moment as the countryside reverberates to the drumming of greater spotted woodpeckers on hollow branches, and the overhead thrum of closely packed wings as a flock of starlings arrives at a nearby tree.  Whenever I see starlings I recall one sixth former from a private girls school asking the question “starling….is that anything to do with that bloke in Russia?” The subsequent incredulity of staff and students said it all: thirteen years of school fees for this? Some serious rewilding needed there.

Mrs B and I were very much at one with our natural environment on the morning dog walk this week.  We listened to the song thrush which regularly sings at the top of the same tree each morning;  we watched flocking starlings and spectated as two deer fled the attentions of our hopelessly out-paced labrador.  Potentially a pet dog might have a negative impact on the local ecology, but those deer will be fitter and healthier for the hundred workout sprint they put in before the dog threw in the towel.  Ella proceeded to flush out a couple of pheasants and then a rabbit but she was no nearer catching them than she was the deer.  She might have had a chance with a grey squirrel – but she did not spot that – and fortunately failed to see the badger bumbling which was oblivious to our presence just fifteen yards away.   We put the dog on the lead:  this was one piece of wildlife she would probably do well to avoid.

Back home the (flocking) starlings were trying to get back into their nest sites under the tiles of the house.  I’ve put wire over some of the holes to stop this so now, as I sit at my desk, all I can hear is them scratching away at the bars trying to get in – like an avian Andy Dufresne in reverse.  I would not mind them being there, but we decided to evict them when they started removing loft insulation and depositing large tufts around the garden.

So no more artificial domesticity for them – I am encouraging them to do their own bit of rewilding.

Stile and oak tree

Sun rise over South Somerset

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Early Birds Seeds

Irises in the snow

Winter arrived at the end of January with the snow and frost, but before it did, I had managed to plant some extra irises and a Delphinium from the Old Place in the herbaceous border in the back garden.  I don’t know how they will tie in with the Hesperis, aquilegia, Rudbeckia and other established shrubs.  I am nowhere near being a garden designer – I am just someone who plants stuff in borders and hopes for the best.

With little to do in the garden, planning is what this time of year is about.  There is an anticipation of what might be, which is why all those seed catalogues land on your door mat post-Christmas.  It is a time for some horticultural pornography, turning the pages with your hot sweaty fingers (better than them being frozen in the garden) as you imagine  which hot chilli is going to steam up your greenhouse this summer.

I ordered up some of the early planters from a major seed company for convenience, but have also ordered some of my favourite niche herbs – like Pipiche and Korean mint – from Real Seeds.  And of course the annual Red Letter day for veg gardeners round these parts was the Castle Cary Potato Day when Pennard Plants rolled into town like the horticultural circus with the finest range of seed potatoes to wow the thronging hordes.  We duly went and paid our dues.

And last night, when doing boarding duty at school, I took a few minutes away from watching dull-witted Beautiful Young Things bitching and flirting on “Shipwrecked” to buy some flower seeds from Higgledy Garden.  If I have bought an excess of seeds I will blame it on a temporary paralysis of reason caused by the stun-gun effect of listening to bronze-skinned, bikini-clad structured reality TV.  But the flowers will look wonderful (in my imagination, at least, which has little structure, or reality).




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The Year’s Pivot

Someone’s been busy

New Year’s Day and all is quiet about the garden.

I saw a quote the other day via Twitter (a friend re-tweeted a quote from Nigel Slater which had been tweeted by a fan which was then also re-tweeted by Nigel Slater himself – so I suppose he approved):

“I hear people describing the days following Christmas Day as ‘flat’. I am of another mind. They are peaceful days, gentle days that are as much a part of Christmas as those leading up to Christmas Eve.”

Amen to that. In amongst the celebrations and intermittent scurryfungeing we must not forget to take time out to reflect and appreciate the good things in our lives. The lull after Christmas gives us a moment to reflect.  And we can also cheer ourselves with the fact that we are past the shortest day of the year – the Winter solstice was on 21st December – so from now on, as Rob MacFarlane said (retweeted by our Nigel again)

“light begins its slow climb back and night yields its reach.  Midwinter, yule, the year’s pivot, Earth’s rebirth, a dawn of hope.”

And in the garden the rebirth and dawn of hope is well under way.  The Hellebores were true to their alternate moniker (Christmas Rose) flourishing outside the patio doors.  Even many of the “annuals” are looking far more hardy than I imagined, having survived from the summer and forming buds already.

And throughout the borders bulbs are spearing upwards through the cool damp soil.  The identity of many of these bulbs is a mystery to me as, like a squirrel with nuts, I haphazardly buried many of them in the autumn, fondly believing that I would remember what I put where.  Now I am engaged in a slowly evolving version of the Memory Game in which I will preogessively discover if my guesses are correct about the location of daffodils, aliums, tulips, ranunculus, muscari and whatever else I might have planted.

Perhaps my New Year’s Resolution should be to plan more carefully.

I’ll make a note.

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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


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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