Monday, 28 December 2009

Gardening through the winter season.

Starting the working day in this season certainly brings it's own challenges, starting before you even leave the house; it's a time of year where one really has to plan ahead and be prepared as much as possible. First stop is always that preliminary glance out the window, how's the weather looking and most importantly what does it look like it's going to be? Gardening down near the sea in Wales brings it's own issues, significantly how changeable the weather can be, rain now can all to easily be bright blue sky and sun in half an hour or remain rain for the rest of the day.

So lets talk kit to begin with. Getting the right clothing combination at the start is vital, waterproofs prove their weight in gold at this time of year even when it's not raining; a good pair of waterproof trousers will not only cut out the wind chill factor but also mean you can kneel down without the worry of getting damp knees.
Next on my list is my well used but still reliable fleece, this has been dipped in waterproofing and is light enough to slip off when you really get stuck into tough jobs that heat you up and tough enough to keep you warm and all but the heaviest downpour at bay.
Now onto extremities, hat and gloves go without saying and I'd suggest maybe a couple of pairs of differing warmth. Gloves can be tricky issue as I've found I simply cannot work with full finger gloves so have two pairs of fingerless which I carry with me one thick, one thin and then my secret addition a set of disposable latex gloves. Nothing gets the cold into your system as much as cold wet hands, if you can create a barrier between you and the dampness no matter how thin then the day becomes infinitely more workable. It's a wonderful feeling being able to strip them off at the end of the day and have dry hands that will warm up in no time.
As for hats, I'm currently the proud owner of four different gardening hats ranging from a thin light cotton one to a large thick knitted one that covers head, ears and back of neck, you can never have enough hats to choose from I think.
Finally a good pair of thick waterproof comfortable boots will allow you to step into almost anything with piece of mind and happy feet.

With this or a similar reliable set up it's possible to be almost unaware of what the elements are doing whilst you potter away: however, as is life, it's never quite that simple, obviously the weather doesn't just effect you but also the garden around you.
A heavy frost can wipe most jobs off you list for the day, unable to get the fork into the ground or walk on the lawn what else is there left to do? It's useful to put off jobs through the year that can be done any time for just such a moment, clearing out and decluttering might seem a bit dull and dirty but will make life much easier for the rest of the year.
Checking all your tools, cleaning, oiling and if needed repairing (cleaning and oiling should be done after each use but this will allow you a chance to really do a good job which at the end of a normal day you might not be quite as thorough with).
Reordering and cleaning out your pot store and any sheds is a real feelgood job though make sure you've got a good hat for this as you'll be coming across a lot of dust, cobwebs and spiders. Make sure your pots are clean and ready to use, get out all the old soil and give them a proper wash, this might sound a little excessive but is worth it for reducing transfer of plant diseases.
Next to the sheds themselves, any repairs that need doing? Fixing any rot, leaking roofs, drafty doors and windows and if dry enough a re-coating of wood stain wouldn't go amiss either.
For a final job that's a proper winter warmer get stuck into that compost heap! Really work it and give it a thorough turning, ideally if you've a spare bay you can turn one heap into the space of another (personally recommend three bays, one for using, one that's composting down and the other already composted down and is ready for the garden). Any compost that's ready you can either spread onto the garden as an insulating mulch or if too frosty bag up for later use, by mulching the garden you'll not only be giving warmth and nutrients to a tired end of year soil but also giving a food source for the garden birds. This will soon get you stripping off the layers and huffing and puffing with warmth and happy exertion (honest).

And that's my winters gardening jobs, there's always the usual odd jobs too, clearing any late fallen leaves or wind blown branches, hoeing off any weeds brave enough to give an appearance, if all this fails there's always the hard job of sitting inside with a cuppa perusing seed catalogues but who'd want to do that eh?

One final thought, whilst pottering away this season, clomping round in your thick warm boots, keep an eye out for bulb tips beginning to appear, it's worth sticking a bamboo cane into the ground near any you do see to make it easier to avoid next time too (just don't forget to stick something on the top of the cane and you'll keep your eyes happy for another year of gardening!).

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

In search of perfection.

Reading Alan Titchmarsh's back page article in the latest Gardeners World I was inspired by his tale of a woman asking him what she could do about slugs in her compost heap. Now personally the compost heap is one of the few places I actually want them, chomping away at old tough plant matter and breaking it down to a more compostable nature (I've got my compost heaps down to a two month turnover from start to black crumbly garden gold, but that's another blog story).

This tale did however remind me of the levels that some people will go to in the search of their ideal perfect little garden. I'd be the first to admit to a certain pickyness over some areas (particularly lawns, I do like a neatly clipped and mown lawn) but at least I have know my limits, whereas some of the people I've come across in my years go beyond the norm, let me give you a few examples.

There's one lady I work for, a wonderful client but she does have some rather odd ideas when it comes to what her garden should look like. Over the years of working there I've managed to fill the once relatively plain borders with a reasonable selection of plants, nothing too outlandish but there's certainly a few unusual plants in there. Earlier in the year she came up to me to ask about a new appearance of a tall purple plant at the back, not one of my plantings but it looked really good, however she couldn't decide whether it was a weed or not.
So I asked her if she liked it, trying to explain that if she did then it wasn't technically a weed whereas if she didn't then I'd dig it up and take it home, sadly from her point of view she only wanted it kept if it wasn't a "weed". Trying to explain that a weed is only a plant in the wrong place I ultimately gave up and simply said that it wasn't, thereby keeping it in place and allowing it to naturalise.
I was however struck by this view that all weeds had to be removed from the garden regardless of what they added in appearance or whether she liked them or not.

In an equally bizarre garden experience I was trying to show a friend the intricacies and beauty of an recently exposed ants nest when she asked me if it was possible to remove all the ants from her garden and whilst I was at it worms to as she didn't like them either. I did point out that if I did manage this extraordinary feat then her garden would ultimately die but she still wanted it cleansed of all garden "creepy crawlies".

I've had people wanting their hedges clipped every week to keep them perfectly neat and trim, one lady asked me if I knew where I could get lawn dye to get a uniform green (some councils actually do this, often before a royal visit), I've found myself out early morning sweeping the dew of the lawn, on my hands and knees picking moss out of cracks in the path and generally following insanely minded people trying to achieve the perfect moment and state of garden.

I'm not suggesting we should let the gardens go to a completely natural state but there has to be some balance surely. We don't always need to be gardening, there must be times where we can sit back and simple relax or even just have a general pottering about, gardening shouldn't be a chore it should be a delight, a joy to experience and behold.
In those moments of quiet contemplation whilst meandering around gently gardening we might just find that by finding this relaxed balance we discover that the garden already is perfect and that is was us that needed controlling.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

The perils of gardening

Who'd of thought that gardening could be such a dangerous occupation? In the space of a week I've so far managed to stab myself viciously in the thumb putting a hole in it and nearly cut the tip of my finger off, again, and that's before one takes into account the usual aches and pains of a gardeners body oh and of course all the day to day thorns and scratches.

Now I'm not saying that I'm particularly accident prone and certainly it's rare to have two such injuries within the space of a week but it does seem that the life of a daily gardener is filled with constant minor damage. I have many a memory of getting home tired and muddy, looking forward to a good hot wash only to discover a myriad of little scratches on hands and arms that hot soapy water really brings to your attention.

The thing is you have to take them not only as part of the job but also with quite a large dose of humour, the hole in the thumb thing was done by a broom handle less than a minute after starting work! A broom handle for crying out loud. I won't go into the actual explanation of quite what happened as it's not the most pleasant of stories so I'll just say the the handle was a hollow metal pipe and my thumb met it with force.
I've also seen the hilariously classic rake in the face situation, made all the more special as I could sadly empathise having done it myself: and don't get me started on secateurs snipping a little to close to the fingers (feeling queasy just thinking about it).

Then there's the clearing fallen leaves and weeds not realising there are also rose thorns or brambles in the mix; and why do Holly leaves become so vicious once they've fallen from the tree and dried? I've had Holly quite happily pierce thick gardening gloves before.Rose thorns that stick so deeply into the skin that you need to grip and pull a lot harder than originally thought.

But of course it's not just the tools and plants out to get you there's the creatures too, from cat poo hidden under leaves to Horseflies biting and hanging on, wasps, mosquitoes, ants and earwigs it's amazing the variety of punctures and bites one can accrue after one day in the garden.

So feel a little sorry for the gardener, yes it may be a beautiful job in the sun some days, but on a cold damp morning when the drizzle is soaking into the skin, a bramble has snagged itself to the back of your knee and there's a waft of cat poo we really do need that cuppa tea and a rest.

Monday, 5 October 2009

The authenticity of garden ads.

Now I like looking through fancy gardening pictures and day dreaming as much as the next person, oh to sit in a Victorian styled greenhouse, with a ride on mower sat outside, a traditional set of ash handled fork and spade learning against the door whilst I sit sipping tea from my bone china mug and gaze out over a modest acre garden. You see, simple pleasures.

However, what do I see when I flick through the glossy photographs of such things? Clean, pristine and most importantly unused tools and equipment being held by some smiling apparent "gardener" without a scrap of dirt on them. When will the companies that sell us these products learn? If your tools are that good show us! Use the flipping thing and let us see it doing the job and surviving.

We gardeners know tools get mucky and certainly won't be put off by a bit of mud on a spade. Case in hand, two separate adverts for fancy greenhouses, the first sits amongst perfectly trimmed lawns and pot plants, detailed pictures show beautiful ironwork and workings: ain't never done a days work in it's life, no signs of mud or grease to be found. The second shows a glasshouse crammed with plants, a stained floor and a woman relaxing into a chair with muddy boots and trousers and an old tatty jumper on, the window panes have rain residues and there's moss appearing in the edges of the floor tiles. Now even if the second one has been staged I still know which greenhouse I feel inspired by.

So to go back to my daydream...there I am sat in my Victorian greenhouse, the smell of damp brickwork and moss fills the air, an old mower sits outside waiting to be cleaned off with a worn cushion on the seat for added comfort, my grandads fork and spade stick out of a nearby bed, the handles shine smooth from years of use whilst I sit sipping tea from my favourite bone chine mug, with a chip in it naturally.

Now that's my idea of true contentment.

Sunday, 4 October 2009


That's right..bulbs.
It's that time of year again when the garden's starting to look tired, shrubs need pruning, herbaceous plants chopping back and the weeds collecting before their infernal seeds take over the garden. Now it's got to be said that there's a fine balance between an over tidy garden and one left to weather the winter whilst still trying to wear it's summer planting. The thing is, tidying the garden at this time can feel like a step back; at least in the new year you feel like you're getting ready for Spring whereas this side of Christmas we still want to be hanging onto the feel and energy of Summer, I dare say many people would go along the line that we haven't even had a Summer yet so even more reason to delay the arrival of that Autumnal vibe: and this is where bulbs come in. If ever there was an emotional seasonal saviour it's these little beauties.

Bulbs! Every colour you could wish for, forms and shapes you wouldn't even have imagined a plant could produce is tucked away inside these little time capsules of foliar joy. From the tiny wild Daffodils (Narcissus asturiensis is a dainty 4inchs) to the wildly flambouyant Lilies, from beautifully simple Crocus to the bizarre Dragon arum (Dracunculus vulgaris is a site one is unlikely to forget as is the smell sadly). Now some of you may have noticed that the last plant I mentioned, the Arum, is infact a tuber rather than a true bulb but with a little gardeners licence I like to put them all together under the same banner, you see when one includes the full range of underground plant capsules (corms, tubers, rhizomes, bulbs and tuberous roots) you open up a box of possibillities and all you have to do is plant them!

So in these darkening days of garden potterings, don't stress yourself with the sight of fading foliage and weeds going to seed, arm yourself with a bucket load of bulbs and get out there planting at the same time. You see the Autumn isn't just about tidying the garden ready for next year it's also about getting new colour and growth ready for the Spring, plant a drift of Snakes head fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) in the lawn, fill your pots with Daffs and Tulips, perhaps a row of Gladiolus at the back of a bed or Cyclamen around the base of a favourite garden tree. With the garden so clear and you scrabbling around amongst the bushes after weeds it's the perfect time for you to pop a few in as you go.

After a Summer like last what could possibly be more cheery than the knowledge that all the work you put in now will at the very least reward your new year with a riot of colour, form and fragrance. If you really can't wait that long pot up a little basket of Hyacinths, pop them in a dark cupboard till the green shoots start appearing then bring them out into the shade, after a few days move them nearer the window, then when the flower buds start to form you can put them wherever you want them and simply sit back and enjoy as you peruse the garden catalogues and dream of warm sunny days in the garden once more.