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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Hestercombe: a proper Designer Garden


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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