Friday, 24 February 2012

What is the opposite of a show garden?

Today the sun shone and for the first time this year I worked in the garden.  I was moving snowdrops, splitting some of the larger clumps into bunches of seven or eight bulbs.  This year I have tried moving them "in the white", that is while still in flower.  I have split them very successfully and moved them in the green before but the beauty of moving them while still in flower is that I can see the effect that I have in my head beginning to appear on the ground.  They do indeed look good against the red stems of the dogwoods.  The bed which I grandly call the native tree walk is coming along slowly.  I wandered up and down, establishing that, yes, the winter aconites which I put in last year are coming up, and that of course there is scope to put in many more spring bulbs, more snowdrops, more irises and perhaps more daffodils.  I haven't decided yet about the daffodils.  If I do add some they will be tiny daffodils, either Hawera or the native daffodil, narcissus pseudonarcissus.  But I have so many daffodils elsewhere in the field that I might keep this border to snowdrops and irises.

It is good to look back at photos of the garden a few years ago, especially when you are feeling that you have made no difference!  I found this one from early spring 2009.

 We had just planted four young trees as bare root whips in the previous autumn: a native cherry, prunus avium; a silver birch, the second stick you can see here quivering against its support, in front of the silver birch in the boundary; a rowan and at the end, with the green tree guard, a whitebeam. 

These trees just sat there in a sticky kind of way for a year or so.  Late that year I had an inspirational conversation with Zoe which helped me to clarify what I wanted to do and to think about what to plant that would not look out of place.

In late 2010 we took the turf off the length of the bed in a long narrow strip and I planted two hollies and some dogwoods between the trees.  I had an idea in my head of creating something that pulled you down the field to walk between the hedge and the new trees, that gave some point to wandering about on a fine day in late winter or early spring.  I put some snowdrops in too.

In February 2011 it looked like this.  The trees had grown with surprising speed but it was all very scanty and skimpy and bare.

I decided that the whole bed was just too thin and so we doubled the width of the bed and I spent hours thinking about more shrubs which would play to the idea of late winter/spring.   I wanted to include evergreens and spring flowering deciduous shrubs and not worry too much about autumn.  I put in a Viburnum Farreri, Daphne Bholua Jacqueline Postill, Hamamelis mollis Pallida, an evergreen Viburnum whose name I forget and, a total wild card and maybe total mistake, a Magnolia Elizabeth.  It was the Elizabeth that got me.  I think it is probably in the wrong place.

I still struggle to think on this scale.  How can it be that fifty or a hundred snowdrops bulbs just disappear into nothingness.  There are a hundred single snowdrops in here, just the common nirvalis, and fifty doubles.  The doubles are truly lovely.  Why didn't I buy five hundred or even a thousand and get it right first time?

In early summer Karen came and I took her down to show her.  The whole thing was really bugging me.  All that effort to make the bed wider, all that thought in placing the trees so that they would tie in with the land beyond the garden and in choosing shrubs that would bridge the gap between the natural landscape beyond the hedge and still not look out of place in what remains basically a field, and yet the whole thing looked wrong somehow.  It was anchored so strongly to the field boundary by the echoing of the tree planting that it didn't belong to the rest of the field at all.  It was lost, neither natural planting nor intensely gardened like the cutting garden on the higher side of the hedge. 

Talking to someone who understands what you are getting at it a wonderful thing.  My naturalistic, intensely rural, spring focussed and romantic style of planting is not Karen's style at all.  Hers is a painterly eye, using plants to play with colour and texture and shape and to make light dance.  I care about all those things too, although  my effects are much less accomplished, but I care most about how my garden fits into the landscape.  You can't garden here without an eye all the time to the hills and the view across the valley.  I care about how the garden takes its place in all that and about how it makes you feel.  She gets all that and, with her artist's eye, saw what I need to do to connect this space with the other spaces and with her gardener's eye saw how I could take the whole area on into the summer with hardy geraniums.   

This is what it looks like now, not as different as I had hoped considering the amount of work which has gone into doubling it in size!  Plants take a while to settle down here and get their roots down into the stony soil so the new shrubs are barely visible in this photograph.  It is still a work in progress, still far too much bare soil but so much scope now for washing the ground with colour.

There are nowhere near enough tiny irises, not enough snowdrops and I think I might have to bite the very expensive bullet of buying some cyclamen.  I love them but they are not cheap and I need loads.  In here as well I have a lot of hellebores, courtesy of Jane (thank you Jane!), but they are tiny seedlings too and will need much time before they spread and cover the ground.  I have hardy geraniums, but not enough, and euphorbias, but not enough, not enough of anything except dandelion seedlings.  I do however have quite a lot of white foxgloves in the cold frame which I will put out soon.  This picture lets you see the stony, thin soil.  I am determined that what I plant down here will look after itself and will not need constant mulching and feeding.  There is quite enough mulching to do with the cutting garden and the vegetable garden so I want this part of the garden to be filled with plants that thrive without cossetting.  You can see by how much growth the trees have put on that the soil is fine when plants have got their roots down, assuming you have the right plants!

So there you are.  Do you remember Ground Force on the TV a few years ago with its weekend makeover programmes when a team swept in and revamped a garden, covering it with decking and water features?  This is not Ground Force gardening.   This is slow gardening.  I was in Tatton Park this week and found that they have eighty volunteers who work in the garden at various times.  It is not Tatton Park gardening either.  Our garden couldn't be done without the help of David one day a week who cuts grass, trims hedges and prunes fruit trees with great skill but it isn't gardening with a team of helpers either.   Sometimes I think I would love to buy in plants in huge numbers and transform a space like a show garden at Chelsea but although I spend a lot of money on plants you would hardly know it from looking at the place.  This is propagate it yourself or you would be bankrupt gardening.

It is not even slow gardening, it is very slow gardening indeed.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Beating the February blues

In April 2012 I shall have been writing my blog for five years.  Blogging is just built into the fabric of my life now.  If I haven't blogged for a few days I begin to feel a bit itchy, not quite guilty but certainly aware that there is something due, a bit like when you know you need to phone a friend and haven't got round to it.

Five years of writing means you can look back.  Mostly I look back at the garden and the end of month view posts.  But you can also look back at what you were doing and how you were feeling at the same time last year, and the year before and the year before that.  I have been looking back today and the pattern is clear as day: in February I get grumpy.

It is the lack of light and warmth I think.  It hasn't been a hard winter up here in North Wales so far but it still seems a long time since it was light in the evening and warm enough to sit outside.  I have had enough of a sky like a dustbin lid and enough of mud and murk.  The garden remains closed down so there is not much scope for distracting myself with seed sowing and cutting taking, although I might have a go at root cuttings, following the excellent advice here in An Artist's Garden.  I have a fancy to have a go at echinacea.

So today I have been looking for things to distract myself with, inside and out.

Outside there was the great snowdrop count.  I did this last year for the third year in a row.  This year's count produced only eighty or so new snowdrops but taught me something I had not known.

All the established snowdrop areas continued to increase.

There were two areas though where I lost snowdrops.  Here snowdrops had been planted at the base of the wall to the kitchen garden and much of the area against the wall had been in darkness because we stacked some slates against it.  Clearly depriving the bulbs of light as they died down was not a good idea.  Someone with more scientific horticultural knowledge than I have might be able to tell me why all the bulbs in this area have failed to show this year.  Have they gone for good?  I suppose so.  I shall split the larger clumps in other areas and hope to fill the gap and take great care not to let it happen again.

I admired hellebores.

I began to feel quite hopeful about the earliest of the daffodils.  I even got as far as thinking I might do some gardening outside and went for my gloves and secateurs to start tidying the sedums and the valerian but as I did so the sky darkened, the wind blew cold and hard and the scudding cloud dumped a load of icy rain on my head.

So I came inside.  I made cheese scones and ate two of them.  I sorted out my gardening books and made a pile of some which had originally come from charity shops so they could go back to the charity shop in order that there might be room for some more on the shelves.  I put all  my Anna Pavord books side by side, alongside Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto and Mirabel Osler and Monty Don and all the books on growing vegetables and stood back to admire how lovely it all looked.  I contemplated how very much I needed to sort out paperwork and sewing stuff and garden records going back to houses I no longer live in. With determination and resolution, I retired downstairs for another cheese scone.

Off to the pub in a little while.  This seems to be how to beat the February blues: snowdrops, hellebores, cheese scones, a little light sorting out, the pub or a glass of wine.  What works for you?

Friday, 10 February 2012

Going away

If this blog has a colour it is green, the soft lush green of Wales.  If it has a theme it is the garden and the landscape and the kitchen - growing things, cooking things, eating them with family and friends.  Sometimes I think the rhythms of my life now are so seasonal and repetitive that they are not very interesting to others but this is how it is, so green and gold and grey are the colours. 

This is a fawn and brown, bleached gold and blue blog today. 

We went to Fuerteventura.  The reasons were entirely pragmatic: flights out of Liverpool at civilised times of day; a warmer, brighter climate.  I don't know what I expected really.  I had never been to the Canaries.  If I don't have deep countryside or wilderness I like cities, great European cities like Paris or London or Rome.  It was a very short break away from the various responsibilities of family.  I hadn't done any of the usual stuff, hadn't read up the history, learnt a bit of the language, bought any books.  I just got on the plane and fell asleep.

We stayed here -  a simple and beautiful room in a house in a village a few miles from the coast.  Our hosts, Carmen and Albert, were delightful.  Albert, a builder, had designed and built the house himself.  It was a lovely place with sinuous curves and polished wood and the village had a great shop with kind and English speaking owners.

It took me a while to get my eye in.  I am used to green and there everywhere was bleached brown and pale by the sun.  The fields were bare earth and stones.  I think that here at home I garden on stone but here you need to dig before you feel the clang of the blade against rock.  In Fuerteventura the land spouts stone like a fountain spouting water.  It is all over the land like grass.

The green in the valley here is almost shocking after miles of bleached mountains.  Signs at the side of the road tell you to beware of goats.   Driving through this desert you cannot imagine what they have to live on.  You see herds of goats on the hillsides, apparently browsing on stones.

After the lowering grey of a Welsh winter the vivid sky is almost shocking.  There was a strong wind blowing from the North East and Carmen apologised for it.  Without the wind it would have been warm.  With the wind it was perhaps 20 degrees and not the weather for shorts and sandals.  But for us it was a luxury to need to wear sunglasses against the glare.  The nearest we have got to glare here in a world of grey for a few months has been the steely cold of a riding full moon.

Things were growing where they surely shouldn't have been able to.  How adaptable we are, both people and plants the world over.  Give us the chance for life and we will find a way.

Layers of volcanic rock made me wish as I so often do that my education was not so purely literary and artistic.  The science I once scorned now seems to me as magical as poetry.

A museum of agricultural life spoke to me oddly of home with the same preoccupations of shelter and management.  Our ancient bread oven is inside, as you would expect in a climate of rain and wet.  Theirs are outside, as you need to do when the enemy is not cold but heat and to bring your source of heat inside would be madness.

But look inside the oven and the construction is the same.

Look inside the houses and the pure simplicity of the rooms is the same.  In Wales and the rest of the UK you are concerned with keeping the weather out so the windows of our old houses are small and deeply recessed.  In Fuerteventura the old houses frequently have no windows at all.  They have double doors as the only source of light.  Why would you not when the doors will always be open?  There are no chimneys, a strange thought for us when the huge fireplaces are the heart of the house.

On the last night we ate outside as the sun went down, a great meal at the Blue Cow in El Cotillo, although by coffee time it was cold enough to ask to go inside.

Coming home across the freezing tarmac at the airport was a shock.  Here on the hill the hellebores have keeled over in the cold.  The snowdrops are standing bravely in the wind.  The puddles are deep in ice.

The world is a strange and beautiful place.

Friday, 3 February 2012

What do you wear when gardening?

Wellywoman blogged recently about what to wear when gardening  What a topic!  I didn't realise I had so many favourites and habits until I got going but the more I thought about it the more it felt like it should be a blog of its own.  Left as a comment it was going to be longer than the blog itself.

So first of all gardening requires very comfy trousers.  This was fine until recently.  I have a pair of old M&S stretch jeans and would have said they fitted the bill.  The only problem is that they are just a little too big in the waist so tend to inch their way down.  They are, however, suitably battered which is essential for gardening trousers as, no matter how many times I tell myself I won't, at some point in any gardening session I will end up kneeling down.  The problem came when I bought a new pair of jeans, intended to be my smartish jeans.  Not the smartest pair of all you understand, not the ones that I might wear with heeled boots, but the next pair down, to be worn with flat shoes but definitely not my scruff.  The only trouble is that these jeans are so very, very comfy that it is hard to take them off and put my gardening trousers on.  They fit perfectly.  They are neither too tight nor too loose.  They feel like a second skin.  As a result I keep finding myself outside in the garden, kneeling down of course, wearing my second best jeans.  I know I will just have to give in and buy another pair to be my second smartest and let these jeans assume their destiny.  I just can't quite bring myself to spend the money yet.

In summer I wear shorts, long and rather baggy shorts which even my best friend couldn't say were flattering.  Maybe there are some flattering shorts out there somewhere but I can't spare the time to go shopping for them.  Winter or summer I wear an old, soft tee shirt.  In winter I also wear an old navy fleece with lovely big pockets.  Jackets are easy but footwear is not.  When it is hot I wear an ancient pair of sandals.  I can't garden in summer without getting my feet filthy and I would love to find something to wear which is both cool enough for hot weather and which protects my toes.  When it is not so hot I wear an ancient pair of trainers and in winter I mostly wear wellies.  I might change over to walking boots in cold dry weather. I am about to demote the much loved boots which took me along the Offa's Dyke Path a couple of years ago and have been replaced by a new pair of Scarpa boots.  Wouldn't it be great to garden in a floaty dress or stylish skirt?  Maybe you have to have a formal English country garden for that and a gardener or two in the background doing the dirty, sweaty stuff.  The kind of gardening I do seems to need jeans and boots.

And the last thing is gloves.  I love gardening gloves and have about six pairs.  Unfortunately I can't bear thick, stiff gloves and know that if I wear them I will take them off.  Even with my favourite thin pairs, I am quite likely to find that I have discarded them somewhere but at least thin gloves have a chance of being on my hands for a fair while.  The only problem is that time and again they go on the right hand at the index finger and the thumb.  It must be my weeding action!

So if anyone has any great suggestions for summer gardening footwear and thin but tough gardening gloves please let me know.  Until then I will be found with dirty feet in summer and a dirty index finger on my right hand!