The First Lift


Potatoes – Swift and early. But where have all the flowers gone?

These are the days of miracle and wonder, as Paul Simon once sang. The garden is starting to produce, and all the fastidious work sowing seeds, potting on, planting out, weeding, hoeing and slaughtering snails, begins to pay off.

One of the key moment is the lifting of the first root of New Potatoes. It is something that was treated with due pomp and ceremony by The Old Man and required the type of careful prodding and inspection one would normally expect only of a midwife.  The Old Man would have counted the days since planting, checked the growing conditions and attempted to calculate the exact best day to start digging.  But he traditionally only planted one type of potato (probably Wilja or Desiree), meaning that those dug in June were new potatoes, anything after that were main crop.

For my part, I am always seduced by the choice on offer at Pennard Plants Potato days so I buy various types for different end products.  But every year I am unsure about when they are likely to be ready.  The sages of the internet gardening fraternity say you need to start harvesting when the potatoes have stopped flowering, but this May / June has been so dry they seem to have barely blossomed.  And this has been a very different this year for other reasons:

  1. The potato patch (and veg patch) is only a few strides from my back door in the new property
  2. Due to a lack of supply we had to go for Swift first earlies instead of the usually reliable Belle de Fontenay
  3. In an even more radical break with normal procedures, earthing up has been done not with earth, but with grass clippings, thanks to reading an article by Alyce Fowler.

So the timing of when the first spuds would be ready was even more of a guessing game than normal.  However, the three variables noted above were more likely to help rather than hinder.  Point one makes it less time-consuming to check them, point two suggested that the they would be ready earlier (or else why give them a name synonymous with fast) and point three, after some initial misgivings, was the most beneficial of all.  With the dry weather, I was able to simply lift a portion of grass clippings to expose the golden orbs that indicated the potatoes were ready.

And so we enjoyed our first potatoes of the season along with the first kale of the year too.  The kale should have been ready much earlier, but it was a victim of unknown assailants – like the peas and salad.  But, on the whole, there is enough greenery to suggest a good growing season beckons.


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Going Soft or hard?

A long dry May was rudely interrupted at the end by wet weather which was very welcome in the garden. The veg beds seemed to visibly relax in the damp atmosphere and the plants all shot up as a result (except for the recalcitrant peas, of course).

Under foot the wet weather brought into sharp focus the new rules for the new house over what footwear should be used in which conditions. Like a new season in F1 racing there are fresh combinations of treads to be used when venturing out to the garden. Here they are:

  1. Hyper soft (slippers).  Should only be used indoors.  They are still occasionally used when it is very dry and you are only going on the patio or gravel.  This was a risky strategy initially because of the chicken poo that Agatha was leaving around. Now that she is back in her run, there is more opportunity for the hyper soft.
  2. Super soft (Crocs).  A choice of footwear that was mocked by my children when I bought some Croc-type plastic shoes.  Now they are noticeably in demand when the kids are home, as they are handy for nipping into the veg patch to get some salad or perhaps do some light watering (the shoes that is, not the kids).
  3. Intermediates (old trainers)  If heavier watering is required  and actual weeding these will take more wear and tear than the lighter Crocs.
  4. Hards (Hiking boots).  These have the grip and robustness necessary for the heavy digging and can see you through a whole afternoon in comfort.
  5. Wets, or Chunkies as they used to be known (wellies).  For the winter rain or summer thunder storms, wellies are still the standard for grip, comfort, and – above all – dryness on the vegetable circuit.

So the right treads for the right conditions – perhaps with a two stop strategy if you change from hyper soft to super softs to wear them to the shed to then put on your wets before taking the dogs for a walk. Woe betide anyone who gets chicken shit on their hyper softs and treads it back on to the living the room carpet.

There will be more than grid penalties for that kind of misdemeanour.



“Gentlemen, start your weeding”

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Hundreds Feared Lost

Tens – possibly hundreds – of seedlings were feared lost in a tragic mudslide caused by the collapse of a stand holding a number of seed trays.  The flower seedlings had previously suffered slug damage, and in an effort to prevent further losses to the slime menace, four trays of seedlings had been placed on top of the kneeler.

Tragically, overnight, the kneeler keeled over jettisoning its load, leaving a pile of potting compost and seed trays on the floor of the greenhouse.  Dawn broke to reveal a scene from a disaster movie with seedlings strewn across the floor.  Some were broken, some still rooted, but with unknown numbers buried beneath the damp soil.

Investigators quickly established the cause of the disaster:  there was no need for black boxes or forensics here.  Instead the rescue mission started immediately with seedlings being carefully picked from the surface and transplanted to waiting pots of compost.  One tray of Rudbeckia (Marmalade) had remained mostly intact so most were saved.  The big losses were in the Ammi Visnaga and Majus and the California Poppies.  The germination for these had been slow, so any seedlings were very small and less likely to survive the major trauma of air crash followed by landslide.

Over the following days rescuers managed to pot on many of the survivors, and a fortnight later many are recovering well.  One outcome of the seedlings being so mixed has led to mystery over what seedling is which.  So planting plans for the season have been changed from swathes of individual Ammi, Poppies and Zinnias to what is more likely to be a small groups of mixed annuals.

A small service of remembrance was held as the remaining seed tray soil was placed on the compost heap to be recycled.   Before the hen scratched the lot over looking for bugs.


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The Destructive Gardener


An Open Border

A burst water main in town meant that school was closed last Thursday.  So instead of nurturing the young minds of tomorrow’s generation I was forced to spend a little more time on the more pressing task of nurturing the young seedlings of this season’s vegetables.

As luck would have it, Thursday is Mrs B’s day off so she joined the team (with Ella).  The other day we started clearing the border next to the front path which was overgrown with celandine, Alchemilla Mollis and a host of other unwanted invaders.  It was hard work so Mrs B agreed that I would be best suited to continuing this.  Instead she decided to set out to seek and destroy all the Ash saplings that have been springing up uninvited around the garden.   It turns out that horticultural demolition is something that Mrs B does very well.

Ash dieback has been in the news as whole forests of the stuff are apparently being killed by this pest. We would not mind a little drop of “Die Back” here as, left unchecked, I suspect our garden could become the New Ash Forest of Somerset in little more than a year. So Mrs B’s zealous campaign against the invasive menace was most welcome. She has form in the area of garden clearance, having managed to break off and hurl stakes when disposing of old PSB plants, but she has honed her technique to perfect her arboreal eradication methods and seemed pleased with the pile of Ash she produced.  from the area around the holly tree.  But after this act of deforestation she turned her hand successfully to the more selective and skilled work of thinning out the radishes.  I have always had a problem with thinning out, feeling that uprooting the very seeds I planted seems cruel and heartless.  We all know that thinning out is a necessary act to grow good healthy plants.  Unlike me, Mrs B has no qualms about destroying a number of seedlings “for the greater good” and the line of radishes look a lot better for it.

An Appetite for Destruction can be a positive thing.



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Some People Say a Man is Made Outta Mud

The song Sixteen Tons was playing in my head the weekend before last.  The original dates from 1946 by Merle Travis, about a coal miner in Kentucky.   The version I know is from the strike-torn 80s and is by The Redskins.  This was my ear worm as I spent last Friday evening and Saturday morning shovelling and wheeling a load of top soil from the drive up on to the lawn to fill the raised bed frames.  A total of something like forty barrows – which adds up to nearly six hundred shovel loads in my estimation.  All this to move only three tons, but it looks like I might need nearer to sixteen.

When I constructed my raised beds I naively imagined them filled to the brim with compost and soil.  After shifting that much soil (as well as a ton of compost from the previous weekend) it was disappointing to see that the beds retained the look of a harbour at low tide with compost only getting halfway up the nine-inch boards.  Another ton of compost last weekend helped top them up.

Top soil and compost are not cheap.   After shovelling all of  that, to quote the song, I felt more than just “another day older and deeper in debt”.



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“Oh The Summertime is Coming..”


Amelanchier in bloom – briefly

What a difference a month makes. In the space of what feels like a few brief days we have gone from a cold spring to the heat of midsummer. The Beast from the East has departed, with last month’s snowy downfall trailing in its wake, leaving us basking in warm sun this past weekend.  The grass is greening up and the trees are gently blooming, with Amelanchier blossom been and gone. Mind you, the speed with which the flowers went was mostly down to the impressive thunder-storm we had on Saturday evening which decimated the delicate blooms in one evening downpour.  But the thunder was timely as it meant I did not have to water in the veg patch that I had put together that afternoon.

Of course we know it will not last so I took the opportunity to take a significant step forward in the development of the new garden as I tried to get a lot of “done”.  On Friday the rotavator was delivered back to our place.  In a neat trick to avoid requesting favours of friends with trailers I asked the good mower man to collect the machine from one address, service it, then return it to another.

The Howard 350 Rotavator was one of the first things the parents bought when the Old Garden was being cultivated.  It is a legendary piece of equipment and still gets the job done over forty years later.  As a teenager I struggled to keep control of the beast and I was never too happy using it as TOM or my siblings were always likely to cast a critical eye over my efforts.  Maturity should lend some confidence to how I go about things now, but I was still a little self-conscious about trying to control the machine as I drove it onto the front garden. Saying I drove it suggests I was in charge.  It still feels to me as if it has a mind of its own, moving along like an old prop forward mindlessly trundling forward with little awareness of me trying to steer it.  It certainly draws attention to itself, sounding like a large tractor, and the clutch has a tendency to whine and slip.  And I had also forgotten how the prongs make the machine lurch alarmingly forward if they hit hard ground – and there was plenty of that underneath the lawn I was digging up.  I eventually crisscrossed the proposed potato bed six times trying to break up the clay soil, ending up with a collection of hashed lawn, earth and clay marbles.

Afterwards I drove it towards the entrance to the back garden, knocking through the latch as the clutch slipped and the beast nearly took the gate off its hinges.  But the job was done.

The next morning Richard arrived with a trailer load of compost.  A ton of compost does not go far, but it is a start.  And I was finally able to spend my Saturday afternoon planting  onions, shallots and potatoes.

Just in time to be watered in by the cacophanous downpour.

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Isn’t It Grand Boys


The Old Man was a dab hand with orchids

The Old Man was laid to rest this week with all four of his sons getting together to contribute to the send off. We took turns to deliver something in church, with Hugh reading a poem and Nick selecting a Bible reading. I read the poem that TOM had requested – Funeral Blues by W.H. Auden (Stop All the Clocks): a rather doom-laden piece following Paul’s sometimes ironic and amusing eulogy.  The poem reflected TOM’s admission of his grief at losing his wife – our mother – eleven years previously.  Feelings that I suspect he had suppressed for most of that time.

Grief is very personal.  I read the book “H is for Hawk” a couple of years ago in which the author (Helen Macdonald) describes how she took to training a Goshawk as a means of working through her sorrow and depression after her father died.  It is a bit of a Marmite type of book amongst those I know who have read it:  some love it, others detest it.  But, like Marmite, I did enjoy it but in small servings.  Her descriptions of nature and the slow grind to train the hawk are often lyrically descriptive and beautifully observed.  But the dark undertones of her struggle with her emotions makes for sometimes depressing reading and one almost wants to give the author a shake and tell her to get a grip.

But, like I said, grief is personal.  I suspect my father never properly grieved for my mother, keeping a tight rein on his emotions.  And my brothers and I have reacted in different ways, with different trigger points and feelings.  Without the patriarch of the family around, there is a subconscious reappraisal of our relationships.  While Paul joked in his eulogy about the genetic indicators that had been passed down to us (I apparently have green fingers and tell long boring stories about golf) there is no doubt we are all self-evaluating as we go through the painful process of selling up the house and disbanding the estate.

For me, like Helen Macdonald, I feel that nature is a soothing and apt way to balance my emotions, through walks in the country with my dogs and gardening (FINALLY, a bit about the bloody garden).  As I come to terms with my father’s death, I cannot honestly say I am physically grief-stricken, but there is a hole in my life which is going to take a while to fix, as a I come to terms with the loss of my sole-surviving parent and the loss of the house that had been my home for nearly twenty-five years of my life.  Creating something fresh and vibrant in my new  garden is the best therapy I can think of and should be a fitting testament and proof positive of my father’s genetic bequest to me.

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