Wednesday, 22 December 2010


My fingers hurt and I’m happy about it.

Perhaps I should explain a little and take you back to the start of the day.

This morning when I left for work we had snow and ice on the ground, my breath crystallised in the air and my nose quickly chilled. I was off to one of my favourite gardens, a beautiful place the owners had built up from nothing over the past 9 years that wrapped around a Virginia Creepered house and was quietly tucked away behind a large pair of private gates. As no one had been out in the garden much since the previous week most of the snow that had fallen was still un-trodden (though I did notice a set of prints across the crisp lawn) and it lay tranquil before me.
Now you may be thinking what can I be doing in a garden that is so covered? And you’d be right to think that. The ground was solid and impenetrable to spade or fork, plants lay shroud in a blanket of snow and I was already frozen before I had even started.
Well in truth there wasn’t a huge amount I could do but there are always a few jobs and today I had a large voracious rambling rose that had maybe been pruned once or twice in the time it had been in. It had now reached such proportions that it filled most the area around it with most of the flowers ending up hanging over the other side of their neighbours’ wall; it was in serious need of a good taming.

Amongst the tangle of snaggly branches there was much dead wood to be removed, the odd sneaky bramble limb trying to blend with the rose thorns around it, innumerable Ash seedlings, long strands of couch grass and a roll of wire fencing. As I say it was a large beast of a plant with truly vicious thorns though paradoxically small beautifully fragrant white flowers earlier in the year.
For most of the day I could be found trapped deep within, chopping out and taking down to the bare bones; leaving enough stem for any winters die back. It didn’t take too long to develop a large pile of dead and pruned rose beside me and here is where I began to run into trouble, you see behind me was the edge of the border and a drop of around five and a half feet whilst on the other side was a large hydrangea that the rose had also grown into. I was effectively trapped and tangled in the as yet unpruned part of the rose whilst also needing to chop an equally thorny wall up and drop into the garden bin.

I know some gardeners who will swear by a good pair of gloves. I’m not one of them. I like to get my hands dirty and physically make contact with whatever job I’m doing, even when that involves personal injury to me. There’s just something that feels right about soil under the fingernails and having to pick the spines out when you stop for a cuppa. Without wanting to sound too hippie, it’s all about the connection between the work and yourself, the days toil being written onto your hands.

After 6 hours of hacking, chopping, swearing, pruning, bleeding and sawing the rose was about two thirds done, my hands and fingers ached from the cold and thorns but overall I was a happy man.
You see this is what gardening’s about to me, it’s all very well pottering about in the summer stripped down to shorts and t-shirt whilst bees buzz about the numerous flowers but there’s always the balance. The days of cold drizzle when you’ve just discovered the water seeping through your jacket and you’ve still jobs to get done, the clearing rotting leaves from the gutters and bottom of ponds, the accidental hand in slightly buried cat poo and of course the pruning of large vicious shrubs.

So at the end of the day when I’m relaxing at home, a fresh cup of tea in hand and a reassuring ache in my hands I know it’s not only been a good day but that in some small way I’ve made a garden a little bit nicer and the world a little less thorny.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Garden design

I would be the first to admit that I’m not a huge fan of straight forward garden design; I’m one of these people who much prefers to have a rough plan in my head and then let the garden evolve around me. That’s not to say I never use plans and indeed think there are times that design is crucial, however for me the best way to do this is with a cup of tea and a good hard stare, the graph paper, plant lists and stencils come later.

It can sound a bit of a cliché but in my view the best gardens have grown around their owners over time, they don’t have to be overly stylised or hit you with the wow factor it’s more about a gardening working and being pleasing to the mind and eye. Paradoxically the best garden design is unnoticeable, if a client comes out to view my days work I prefer it when they can see that the garden looks better but they’re not sure why.
We’ve a cherry tree in our garden at home, for the past two years Anna and I have um’d and ah’d about where it should go, first it was moved about in ever increasing pot sizes and then finally planted down by the shed where it flowered and fruited well. However it was clear that its placement was still not right, competing with a bamboo and two giant Scabious for space it blended into the background and was generally ignored. A few weeks ago we decided we’d had enough and up it came again, on an ideal transplanting day I was to be found staggering around the garden with tree and large rootball in my arms. Now a happily replanted cherry it’s still strangely unnoticeable and blends with the garden around it only this time it’s because it's in the right place (hopefully) and looks as though it’s always been there.
The old bed by the shed is now not so overcrowded with a mismatched grouping of plants and has allowed me somewhere to start to fill with foxgloves, these will not only make a striking impact at the end of the garden but also compete nicely with the other plants around it. Rather than appear swamped or lost they’ll form a visual balance of colour and leaf shape to an otherwise difficult corner of the garden.

I still remember being taught about settling in and ‘living with the garden’ for the first year by my tutor at college (the same tutor who had us hugging trees and joyfully smelling well rotted compost). The idea that a garden can just have a design placed upon it and work; on more occasions than not doesn’t work. Without actually being out in the elements and seasons, seeing how the sun travels across, frost pockets appear or boggy areas form it can be extremely hard to then design a plan that will fit the garden seamlessly. This isn’t to say it’s undoable and there are indeed designers out there who can do this but they are few and far between, especially when it comes to subsequent aftercare and maintenance.
Sadly I’m not one of these magic number, for me design entails spending time staring at the space to be landscaped, visiting it a couple of times before drawing up a plan that I know will ultimately need a good tweaking as it’s laid onto earth. In general my designs will be loosely drawn up and then moulded to fit the garden space rather than the other way round, then after regular visits over the following months in which I help it bed down and neaten any rough edges it’ll start to look as though it has grown there over time.

In truth though I’d always much rather develop and redesign as the seasons pass and in doing so build up a relationship between the garden and myself, it is so satisfying to see a garden age looking balanced and appropriately unnoticeable.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

November the fourth

It’s November the fourth and I’m stood in the garden at five thirty in the morning, Orla’s asleep on her bed in lounge, Anna’s asleep upstairs and Medlar’s wondering why I’m outside with a cuppa already, this I decide is pretty much a perfect morning for me. Simple pleasures ah?
From our garden in the Splott we can just about hear the main road and toll of the church bell if the wind blows right, at this time of day there is a little bit of activity out in the street, people off to work already and I can hear the sound of running water as nearby a shower is being enjoyed, but other than that it’s pretty quiet. My own little haven in the middle of Caerdydd and with the sunlight now appearing later an ideal place to watch the day start.

So what am I up to at this time of year? Well yesterday I was pottering away in a seaside garden for a lovely elderly couple who I visit almost every week of the year the lawn had its final cut and a thorough scarifying, a lovely bag of year old leaf mould spread and this years’ bag started. It’s a fine little garden that over the last five years I’ve got to know rather well so that now it’s like an old friend that I can relax into. Unlike todays’ garden where I’ve a 60ft long hedge of hawthorn, holly, beech and Pyracantha to prune so lot’s of thorns and much hand checking will be needed to be done after work tonight.
Autumn’s a wonderful time for garden work; it’s like Spring in reverse with a varied list of jobs to do some that mirror those done back in March and April. One of the key moments for the beginning of most peoples garden year is the first cut of the lawns, that tang of fresh cut grass is as welcoming as the returning birdsong. Well the same applies to the final cut and the ritual of cleaning the mower before packing away till next year; it’s a ritual that has certain finality about. In one garden there are two tortoises that appear early in Spring, I get to watch their progress from cardboard box in the conservatory to finally being out in their pen on the lawn; then in Autumn I get to see then slowing down before retreating back to the conservatory and finally back in a box in the loft.
The vibrancy of Spring green is well balanced with the fiery ochres of Autumn, the initial burst of bud and leaf is evident now with the piles accumulating along paths and borders an excessively large mound in some places (just crying out for a good kicking).

Ah, I do so love this time of year though I have been more than aware of the current warmth that seems to be washing over November, no need for extra layers as most days it’s been warm enough to work in t-shirt or jumper. The problem with this is that the garden isn’t getting chance to bed down ready for the winter, slugs are still oozing rampant munching anything remotely fresh looking and the weeds are having a field day.
This hasn’t of course meant a reduction in rain, we’ve certainly had a fair drenching of precipitation recently though thankfully often at night. The water butts are full and the ground nicely squelchy by the next morning. Sadly this is not the case today , a fine almost invisible cloud of drizzle drifts over the garden gently but thoroughly soaking into everywhere regardless of apparent waterproofness, it certainly makes for a lush garden though at completely the wrong time of season. I for one am hoping for a cold front to begin it’s intrusion for what remains of the year, not too sudden but a good frost here and there would be helpful, in some gardens I’ve got Pelagoniums and Begonias still in flower!

So what left for our days outside? Depends a lot on the hardiness of the gardener but we’ve always got jobs to do, weeding, shed and fence maintenance, winter planting, etc. Though the days are shorter, what daylight there is has a certain magical quality, a golden hue that mellows the garden like no other, after the high activity and heat of the summer (yes there was some, it’s just easy to miss if you’re not out in it all the time) Autumn is the perfect antidote.

A final job for the fading light at this time of year is to admire the garden, maybe with a glass of wine and cosy fire to aid the mellowing. Go on it’ll be Winter soon.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Tis the season...(for a bulb rant)

..for garden randomness, you never quite know what you'll find when you step out the door at this time of year. A garden full of wind and rain, leaves whipped from the trees and strewn across the beds and lawn, frogs hopping across the drive and us mere humans wrapped up tight against the raw biting elements; or a beautiful calm day, sun shining, birds collecting grubs as you work and you in a t-shirt smiling up into the blue sky.

I'll tell you what it is time for though, bulb mania. Not just the rush of trying to get them all in in time (I have to admit I always buy too many without knowing exactly where I'm going to put them) but also the distress of seeing all the beautiful pot's you've planted emptied of bulbs and the compost scattered.
Yes I'm talking about squirrels, the tree rats with a penchant for your Spring displays, those wonderful time capsules of flowering explosions treated like a quick fast food burger. It's not just the devastation that gets me it's also the fact that I know they don't care about the time and energy I've put in to thinking up the planting combinations and arrangements, they're oblivious to such delicacies as Tete a tetes ringing a central display of fragrant Daffs or the fact I've planted Tulips at different levels to flower progressively.
It's not just the pots they go for either, one year they systematically dug up all the Snakeshead frittilaries I'd planted out, they didn't even like them, they just dug them up and spread them about the garden ignoring the hoards of bluebells that I'd be more than happy for them to have a share of.
However this year I've discovered that it's not just squirrels I have to contend with. In one garden I foolishly thought I was safe having seen very few around and keeping all my prepared containers up near the house away from the trees and hopefully away from where the squirrels like to roam. It worked too, in a way. However a large pot of fresh soft compost can also be viewed as a nicely prepared cat toilet, bulbs either dug up or pushed out the way, compost looking like there's been a small detonation in the pot and big wadges of poo barely hidden (though hidden enough for me not to notice until I'd stuck my hands in to investigate).

Of course this is a mere trifle to the beauty of Autumnal light and evening birdsong it's still glorious to be out, the wind blowing away the cobwebs and steering thoughts to a hot cuppa and log fire. So I'll leave you with those thoughts and go and wash my hands once more...the smell of cat still lingers sadly.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Ramble, bramble, bimble thoughts.

After an early start to the day thanks to a crying baby and exploding nappy I found myself out in the garden with a cuppa as the sun rose and the day started. Many words could be used to describe the wonder of a new morning at the point it breaks into light, invigorating, awe-inspiring, tranquil but I'll settle for cold.
I thought I'd been out in the gardens enough recently to have starting my hardening off for the winter but this morning really caught me unawares, I mean where did that come from? Don't get me wrong I'm all for a proper winter and cold snap, it's good for zapping pests and disease and setting the seasonal clock of the garden and okay maybe we'll lose a couple of plants we rather liked but thought we'd risk outside but there's a beauty about a proper winter.
The thing I realised as I stood shivering with my tea was it wasn't even that cold. There was no frost on the ground, the grapes are still fine and the the indoor plants I have out for summer (mainly Money plants Crassula and Bird of paradise Strelitzia) were still alive, though I am now aware I need to bring them in. The only real cold was in me and the suddenness of it the temperature drop, Thursday morning was wonderful, a little cold maybe but enjoyable to be out in all the same but by Friday morn you really felt it nipping at you first thing. The days are still being very Autumnal and a general pace of work easily keeps me warm enough so I haven't had chance to prepare but who knows how quickly Autumn will now drift into Winter.

I've never been great with accurate measurements, I honestly don't care whether it was 3C this morning or that during the day it'll be around 13C what I want to know is what level of clothing is it going to be. Chatting to a friend about cooking the other day and he remarked how he measured ingredients by rough visual size, "use two fists worth of peanuts and a big toe amount of ginger" for instance. That's what I'd like as a way of measuring the weather, "it's light fleece and boots today" or "looks as if it's going to be a loose knit hat day" of course I'm well aware that the main problem with this is the varying levels of personal hardiness out there.
You can generally go out any day and see a full spectrum of attire, just sat here now I'm able to watch people as they pass my window wearing anything from a jumper right up to fleece, hat and gloves (and trousers obviously). I have a sneaky suspicion though that when I next see the postie he'll be wearing shorts apparently oblivious to the temperature and the fact that everyone is staring in awe and disbelieve.
My dad always seemed to miss Winter off his seasonal clothing list too, generally shorts or light trousers for most the year from what I can remember and in the depths of Winter he would be in Autumn gear and then the first into Spring cloths the following year. Crazy but also something to aspire too, I'll garden though most weathers but a fair few times in bad weather I've get through with determination rather than indifference.

Saying that it was nice to feel the cold this morning, a bit like welcoming a friend you haven't seen all year or rediscovering a happy memory. There can be a real enjoyment when out at in the nip of Winter (I know it may seem early to be talking of Winter but with the cold coming it pays to think ahead), having to work to keep warm and get the blood flowing is amazingly something I miss at the other times of the year.
There are garden advantages to this early drop in temperature to, not only will it kick start the gardener into preparing for the coming time with frost protection and moving of pots but it'll also do wonders for some of the plants. My Callicarpa which I've raved about all year is looking splendid, the leaves are a vibrant pinky red and the berries seem like purple suns glowing away against the dark earth below. The Verbenas are still flowering and the vines are dropping their leaves by the armful which is not only good for the compost but also means I can see and get to the grapes much easier; plus more light now gets through. Hopefully there will be a few dead pests around too and the weeds will be slowing down their assault on the garden.

So if you find yourself unexpectedly up and out of bed hours before you need to, grab a cuppa and head out in the garden for a muse it'll set you up for the day and who knows what rambling thoughts you might have.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

It's been a while.

So first blog post for a while and boy what a while. Two weeks ago today we had our baby girl arrive at 2.48 in the morning and she's now sleepily gurgling and grumbling away next to me (which is must nicer than the loud grumbling she does when awake sometimes).
As all new parents know there's a certain element of restlessness for a while after the birth especially at night and mainly with the adults. Up every three hours for a feed, getting baby to sleep then trying to get asleep oneself before they awaken once more. Sadly this week has also seen my wife get a cold so Orla and I have taken to sleeping downstairs which has actually worked really well, we all get a decent sleep and the feeds are maintained fine with expressed milk.
You may be wondering why I'm telling you this? After all this is meant to be a gardening blog and no matter how joyful a new baby is it doesn't do to ramble on about them for ever and miss the plant bit. Well, as with any change in the way you view life it can lead to how you start looking at everything, including gardening.

For the first seven days after birth I took a much enjoyed and needed break from work and with no gardens to visit and only the occasional jaunt out into our own it meant I was on a little bit of a garden fast, or so I thought. As it is gardens pop up everywhere and with a little work you'll find you can still garden even if you never get as far as entering one.
My note book of sketches and ideas has blossomed, it's always on me with a pen to hand so any thoughts or designs I've had I've been able to jot down and then elaborate on. Normally I just mull them over for a while whilst working then the vast majority I let go, but sitting with a sleeping baby in the crook of one arm limits ones maneuverability down to the other arm.
The house plants have had a revisit and at over fifty that's been quite a job, plenty of watering and dusting of leaves, starting to repot those that need doing. (Including an emergency repot when the cat knocked a couple over last night, just before bed!) It was embarrassing the state of some, lost into corners, just part of the background, dusty and on a couple of occasions in much need of new compost and love.
The few times I've been out in the garden with Orla, though I haven't been able to do much manual work there's still the chance to view the garden from a distance and as objectively as possible review it. We did get chance to bury her placenta though, (slightly hurriedly sadly but nothing quite attracts the cat as freshly dug earth especially when it's near something bloody) and planted a selection of Allium moly and Allium Purple Sensation above. They'll be a nice reminder next year when they appear and of course the joy of bulbs is years from now when we come to move house we can no doubt lift and take some of them with us.
However one of the biggest garden jobs I've got done since Orla arrived is working my way through the mountain of garden magazines I've never quite got round to reading. The beauty of them over a book is not only do they give you a quick fix rather than you trying to follow a storyline but they also lie flat on the page you're reading, making them a god send at three in the morning when you're rocking a baby with one hand and supporting your head with the other. I've since discovered so many new names, plants and ideas, it's almost like being back at college (in a good way).

Well as I said it's two weeks now since her birthday and I'm back at work, giving lawns their final few cuts, starting the leaf clearing and piling for the year and generally catching up with the season. I do so love Autumn, it's like Spring just in reverse and there really is a heap of jobs to get done which act as a wonderful therapy to the mind.

Between the garden and the rediscovery of coffee I'm staying reasonably sane, as sane as a new parent ever can be of course!

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Such weather!

After a promising start to the the day yesterday I ended up in a garden sandwiched between the backs of buildings in a rather effective wind tunnel, it's a real lesson in patience trying to garden in heavy wind. Luckily it wasn't a big garden but it took no time at all for my piles of weeds, pruning and general garden detritus to be send dancing around the yard and swirling happily about my feet.
Having in the past seen people trying to sweep up leaves in the wind (a futile task but fun to watch) I knew better than trying to maintain too much organisation to my work but it didn't half make the task of clearing up a hectic one.

After a night listening to the blind crash back and forth as the wind picks up and howls its way through every open window I'm aware of a blustery day ahead and my thoughts wonder to what sights will greet me when I get to work.
Rain has also been introduced into the days rota now, so the lawns are out and with the Liquidamber and Birch already starting to show its Autumnal colours I'm sure the garden will be full of leaves and more than the occasional discarded branch. So with the wind at crazy madness level and the rain setting into it's horizontal driving habit I'm expecting a windswept sodden squelchy day ahead.

All this you might think will make for a miserable day outside but in fact I rather enjoy it. You see over the years I've discovered a little secret to working out in all weathers; it really is very simple though at the same time rather hard to actually do. The trick is to enjoy all the different aspects of the weather regardless of what it is doing, we really are lucky to have such a varied climate though we may not always realise it, I for one still come home grumbling about it some days.
Now for most people an ideal gardening day would be lit by calm blue skies and plenty of sun, however having spent three weeks in Malaysia where that's about all they have I can tell you that that quite quickly becomes dull and tiresome. Too much of a good thing soon makes one realise it's not that good a thing and you start to long for a bit of grey sky or rain to moisten the air.

I know I'll most likely get home after work, soaked and wind blown but at the same time feeling better for it. There's nothing quite like strong wind and rain to make one feel alive and the same works for the garden, without the heavy driving rain the moisture doesn't penetrate deeply enough into the ground, the wind helps clear rotten wood from the trees and stir up bugs from the leaf litter.
The garden feels energised after such weathered days as do I, you're aware that the body has had to work harder than usual to keep warm, the skin is flushed with blood brought to the surface and you feel like you've had the cobwebs well and truly blown away.
This is where the secret comes into it's own, all weather is ultimately enjoyable and is what makes us, us and our gardens grow the way they do, after a while you come to realise that the only bad weather is repetitive weather, the same thing day after day after day.

So go on, get outside in all climes and experience the beauty and fun of the Great British weather...

...oh and the other part to the secret is to have a hot shower and cuppa waiting for you back home.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Gardening inactively.

I've a habit. A little behavioural tick. I take forever to get ready in the mornings, needing at least an hour to simply potter before actually starting to prepare for the day. The main reason for this is I simply love standing in the garden early in the morning with a cup of tea in hand, not doing anything other than listening, watching and maybe a little pootling about. I generally don't even have breakfast till just before I leave and I love my food, it's just I'm drawn to being out there with tea and a fresh mind.
Now I could say it's because I have my best inspiration in the morning or that it helps to plan what needs doing in the garden at that time but the truth is it's just nice to be able to do nothing.
Being a self employed gardener means I get to see many different places and experience working in the variety of styles they include, whether they're rambling old cottage like or showy pristine designer gardens. However I rarely just get chance to relax in a garden without the need to feel like I'm actively doing something. Now I know that one can weed and prune while still finding it a relaxing time and many people use gardening as a means to switch off from daily stresses, but I was reminded that it's also about simply being in the garden and appreciating it's atmosphere.

At this time of year as the Summer gently folds into Autumn there's a whole list of jobs that appear, from getting your bulbs in for Spring to clearing leaves, however I'd like to add inactivity to that list. You see gardening is as much about the present state of the garden as it is about how you want it to look in the future, we garden not to get it to a finished state but because we enjoy the process. If we see it as a dance, the reason we dance is to dance not to get to the final step, in rushing about preparing for the next season or even the next week we can miss the enjoyment of the moment.
This morning when I went out it was cold and fresh, I could see my own breath for the first time this side of the year and the lawn sparkled with dew. It felt as though you were watching a moment in time as only an hour later the sun has got into it's stride again, the sky becomes a rich blue and you can feel the day busying up around you. I'm sure if I'd gone out with the thought of doing some work I'd have missed many elements of the moment and it's those elements that for me make the garden such a special place.

Autumn is a season of preparation for the coming winter, after the joys and energy of Summer it's the chance to unwind in the garden before it gets too cold for all but the hardiest garden potters. Yes there's a myriad of jobs to be done as always and the days are indeed getting shorter but a cuppa and a quiet dwell doesn't take too long and nothing quite sets you up for the day ahead as a little time out in the morning.

Just you, the garden and blissful inactivity.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

How it all began.

Sat in a pub the other day with friends I found myself at a slight disadvantage. You see the topics of conversation tended to flow along what you might call stereotypical man talk i.e. drinking, woman and football, none of which I have to admit to knowing a huge amount about. When asked my view on the state of the premiership I have to admit I was rather lost for words so took the only route I felt I could and started discussing the state of the pitches.
I've only two strong viewpoints when it comes to football, one is how can you support your local team when it's full of non locals? Whilst the other is the uniformity of pitch quality. Now I'd be one of the first to admit that the job the greenkeepers do is superb and that pitches in most football grounds are of the finest quality (not including the ones you find public parks and smaller football clubs). My issue with this is that they're too good and along with the constant removal and transfer of players has made the game into an equally uniformed quality.
However I will save my rants on turf, mowing, grass and all that comes with it for a later blog, what actualy made me take notice is how plants and gardening really have permeated so fully into my life.
I do of course have other interests, currently my reading pile contains a selection of quantum theory books which I'm slowly absorbing but even there I could probably turn it round to plant life again. So this got me thinking, where did this love of gardening come from?

As far back as I can remember I'd enjoyed time out in my parents garden, there was a good sized back and tidy little front, there where always trees to climb, dens to make and a fair sized lawn to mess about on. It was the best playground I could have hope for growing up and there are photos of me all the way to when I was a toddler enjoying the delights of being in nature (this often included being caked in mud). My guess is that this is probably much the same for most children, I also remember collecting cacti but once again this seems a perfectly normal boy thing to do, so when did it change from simple child like wonder to the delight and curiosity of gardening?
My first what I would call real gardening experience would have been tending the rockery (a sadly frowned on out dated part of most gardens now). I got to weed and trim back the various plants, spread gravel over any exposed soil and water when the summers got too dry, I learnt my first plant names on that rockery (Sedums and Sempervivums mostly). Now admittedly part of this might have simply been a cunning way my parents found to distract me and keep me reasonably quiet but it also provided me with hours of enjoyment and the feeling of actually having done something to be proud of.
I soon moved from the rockery to pottering round the rest of the garden, mowing the lawn and other general jobs, though never for once consider it as a way of life, for a long time gardening was what you did in your spare time, a way of unwinding after work.

It wasn't until the fateful year of 1998 when I was failing at business school in spectacular fashion, I was lucky enough to meet up with my uncle for a quick bite to eat some days. He'd always had a fantastic garden and was a joy to be around, a true gardener who'd learnt from simple trial and error and years of pottering, at the time he had a normal day job and the garden was simply somewhere he went after work and at the weekends. I could see how much he enjoyed it and how wonderful a place it was (I still aspire to be as good as him one day), it was during one of these lunchs that he mentioned the possibility of gardening for a living and to do what I wanted to do rather than what I thought I should do.
So in the end of my final year at the business school I enrolled in a horticultural college, began a two year apprenticeship at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and entered the world of the professional gardener. Twelve years later I'm still loving it and other than a few detours on the way have lived and breathed plants ever since, the years since 98 have had a huge impact not only on what I do but also on who I am; but that's another story for another time.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Garden changes

I've always been told that the best gardens are never finished, where would the fun be in that? However they certainly have different stages of finishedness and subsequent moments of change whether that's due to complete redesigning or simply thinking that you might try Lobelia's instead of Pelagoniums next year.

Having only been in our present house since Christmas 2008 I still see the garden as on the new side, it was a large patio when we arrived with a pergola, raised beds and two sheds. We quickly set about pulling up a few of the slabs to put in a compost heap or two (now four) and a narrow bed, before we knew it we'd removed around half the patio and had three beds and a new lawn beginning to grow.
Now some people I know like to meticulously plan, scale drawings and a list of plants they want and where they'll be going; we're not like that. We're of the school that sees a new plant, buys it and then works out where it'll fit, the garden has grown around us as we've settled in and I like to feel has a natural vibe to it. What plans we have had generally consist of "it'd be nice to have a climber around here" or "it'd be nice to have a wildflower lawn" and other than that we tend to just see what happens.
What has happened is that in just 37 days we're expecting a baby girl and with any big news I like to sit in the garden with a cuppa and try to get my head round it. I can't wait to meet her and do all the stuff dads do (whatever that may be) but it's something I have no real knowledge of, a leap into the wonderful unknown, so to speak.
The house is pretty much ready, nursery finished and other than a couple of things to get for her we're set, however the garden is another matter. As a child I spent many happy days digging holes, rolling in mud, eating soil and generally just making a glorious mess. With the garden we currently have I can see how unsuitable it is for play, fine for relaxing in with wine on a hot day but not for rolling around in and crashing through beds searching for creatures.

We're going to have to plan the garden. The lawn will need enlarging, a gate put to the compost area at the back, certain plants moving out of prying hands way and many other jobs I'll see as the time approaches. You may think that for such a bimbling, pottering gardener as myself the thought of a bit of structured organisation to the garden would be abhorrent but in truth I'm rather looking forward to it. The chance to really get stuck in and give the garden an overhaul, pull up more slabs and increase the lawn space.
You see nothing quite invigorates a space as looking at it with new eyes, when I get down and imagine what it'll be like for a baby I can see all sorts of fascinating ideas. It's also all too easy to stick with what you know, the comfort of the familiar and leaving areas whether inside or out how they've always been. It can certainly be daunting to start grand projects but then sometimes we need that push and are all the more thankful for it after.
Too many times do we throw ourselves into a Spring clean of the house but how often do we do an Autumn clean of the garden? Plants that have become too large can be lifted and split, shrubs that now appear too big for a space pruned back or transplanted, lawns redefined, woodwork treated, sheds cleared out, the list is endless but thanks to our little girl at least I'm being made to start the list. I'll just have one more cup of tea first...

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

A hint of things to come.

Woke early this morning, the sound of seagulls fighting outside as the dustbin men crashed their way up the street. An early rise called for tea and a mooch around the garden.
I love the garden at the start of the day, before anyone else is out in theirs, the heat of the day still a while away even nature is caught between the transition of night and day activity. One can feel as though you're the only one about and the garden is truly yours to experience. Just standing on the lawn, the dew soaking into your feet and clouds still drifting by with a pinkish hue from the suns arrival a little earlier, can make you really feel part of all that's growing and breathing around you.

On a practical note it helps to see the garden at different points of the day, where shadows fall, what parts get the first rays of sun, how planting looks in a gentler light. In our garden the sun slowly creeps back and forth over the year, by winter it will never quite reach us, stopping teasingly at the fence at the bottom. Now though it happily if a little lazily pools under the grapevine in the morning, creeps around the fruit bushes at the back and peers blearily in through the kitchen window.

It's been a full year, time off on honeymoon at the start and the news of a new addition to our family to keep me occupied, new garden clients to meet and gardens to get to now, house DIY (nursery and making it a little more child friendly) and all my regular gardens to maintain has meant that time has sped away from me a little. Already nearly a week into August and I still feel like it's early Summer, in fact I'm not even sure I remembered Summer appearing, seems like only last week that we were in Spring.
So as I stood outside this morning with cup in hand imagine my surprise as I could already feel the first wisps of Autumn in the garden, the dew had a sharpness to it rather than it's usual cool refreshing nature, there was a nip in the air and I needed more than a tshirt to be outside. The day's already warming up and no doubt it'll be another beautiful summers day but I can't escape that feeling of seasonal progress. Already the columbines and poppies are waving their seed heads about, rattling as our cat pushing past them, the foxgloves are done and the grapevine is full with ripening fruit. Even though there's still plenty of warmth and energy in the days the light is slowly starting to fade, with evenings creeping in and the mornings becoming cool and crisp.

Autumn is one of my favourite seasons, it's definitely in the top four as long as it's a proper Autumn that is, so I always look forward to it as I time of harvest and activity. It's like Spring only in a different colour, while early in the year we wax lyrical over the vibrancy of the emerging green, how quickly plants sprout and grow. In Autumn it's the reds, oranges and browns that stop us in our tracks, sunlight through a Liquidambar or Boston Ivy is a sight that never fails to bring an admiring smile to my lips.
Tis the season where evergreens and leave fall comes into it's own, shrubs which for the rest of the year have been overshadowed by their more showy Summer neighbours now begin to state their piece.
Back in May I bought six Callicarpa and have since spread them amongst clients gardens and my own, having only ever seen them occasionally I've looked forward to the chance to tend them and watch how they grow.
My wife has been a little less fussed by my constant admiration of what to be fair looks like a lot of other shrubs, green leaves and little flowers, maybe not the most inspiring plant to look at through the summer whilst some hairy gardener coos over it promising rewards of jewel like berries to come. This morning I gave them a check and there are indeed bunches of green berries perched along the stems, joyfully I rub my hands together and think of the show they'll be giving in a few months time when the leaves have dropped and their vibrant purpleness shines out. Okay that may be a little over the top but it's always fun to grow something you haven't before and to be honest it can be a little hard to promise rewards of a plant you haven't actually got real first hand experience of.

So Autumn is approaching and though we may want to hang onto Summer as long as we can it's important to always be thinking of what's to come in the garden so as not to be left with a blank canvas when the season passes. Have a look around the garden and you can always see areas where you can tweak things a little, we're heading into a good time for shrub planting so while we sit and relax in the garden it's useful to have a bit of a evaluating eye on you.
Late Summer and early Autumn are superb for constructive and sometimes destructive pottering, shrubs that haven't quite pulled their weight can be moved as they head into dormancy without the fear of disturbing them too much or them dehydrating in the strong Summer heat.
Get into the beds and borders with the secateurs and have a good old tidy up of seed heads and old foliage. I like to clear a little under all my shrubs so as to allow air to flow smoothly, this can help reduce the threat of rot or fungal diseases settling in, especially under annuals that are still flowering and areas that may have become a little congested. It's important not to be too tidy obviously, leave some leaf litter for grubs and seed heads for birds but chop back those you don't want self seeding everywhere especially Lady's Mantle and Buddliea chop back or else you'll be digging them out the cracks in walls for years to come.

I'll be heading out more in the mornings from now on I think, that quiet, cool, crisp morning state sets me up nicely for the day ahead and makes for perfect pottering with tea in hand and cat pouncing on any leaf that dares move in a mildly exciting way. Tis a beautiful time to be out and I plan on enjoying it for many weeks to come.

Friday, 16 July 2010

A balance.

Sometimes the garden is all about work and trying to find the balance (especially when sudden problems arise) so it's always helpful when you get chance to see a lesson in unwinding by a true master.

Friday, 9 July 2010

A loss in the garden and a lesson in the perils of relatives.

For all my love of gardening I take a certain pleasure in the relaxed pottering approach as opposed to the drastic, sudden change of a landscaping job or the mildly high maintenance gardens with constantly changing planting themes and the ever present job of regular container replanting. It is for this reason I spend time and effort going out of my way to produce a more self balancing style of garden, one where certain plants are allowed to go to seed and reappear the following year in random spaces, where the lawn will err on the side of shaggy rather than cropped and the leaves are allowed to form a mulch (as long as they're not covering other plants).

In one garden I'd spent the last four to five years allowing bedding plants and annuals to self seed and overwinter when normally they'd have been ripped out and confined to the compost heaps. This had resulted in one bed being a mixed carpet or pansies, erysimums, stocks, alysums, snapdragons and wallflowers in amongst golden Mock Orange and Callicarpa. Over time I'd be careful to allow the plants to not only seed freely in the bed but also when their time was done to only cut them back and leave the roots and about an inch of stem in the ground, it was amazing the amount that would regrow the following year. Earlier this year the bed had been a joy to behold as flowers filled the space while bees went about their business and beetles and various other creatures scrambled away in the shade of the leaves. The ground beneath was moist and light, easy(ish) to weed and happily supporting all the plants in it.
Image my horror then when upon arrival one day I discovered not a haven of naturalised planting but a barren, dry, empty bed!! Apparently my clients sister had come to visit, looked at the border and as most of the flowers had died decided to pull the lot out. Four years down the drain just because someone decided to be "helpful", it's times like that where you really need to remember who's garden it really is and why you do the job you do. Now I've nothing against people relaxing in their own garden and doing some odd work here and there but it can very disheartening to the gardener who has spent time preparing it a certain way only for it to be undone in moments by an over zealous relative; and this is the crucial point, it's nearly always a relative of the owner.
A visitor who doesn't know what's been done out there or any of the plans discussed but has a strong view of their own on how a garden should appear, sadly it seems all to often that a helping hand lent is from an body that doesn't normally garden. I've had long grass scalped to the ground regardless of the bulbs dying back amongst it, logs tidied away that had been left for the wildlife and bamboo canes bundled up after I'd spent ages marking a new layout but before I'd had chance to note the final positions, all done by visiting relatives.

Still we live and we learn and accept that this is just another sudden change that gardening will occasionally throw at you and in the bigger state of things it isn't much different to finding a limb off a tree down or the ravages of squirrels to a carefully planted bulb display. It's what keeps the days exciting and the gardener on their toes, it's good to have a challenge: as long as they don't happen too often.
Instead of seeing the baked earth as a loss I've had to instead see it more as a new canvas on which to start again after having had chance to really prepare the soil, fresh homemade compost down and a wider variety of seeds distributed.

I look forward to the next four years of development in the garden knowing it will continue to throw random challenges at me and at least it hasn't disappeared into a ten foot hole like one of my brothers gardens has, but that's another story.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

A damp days gardening.

Today was thoroughly damp. There is simply no other word for it. When it wasn't going through the various degrees of constant drizzle it was so soaked into the plants that a mere knock against a bush would leave you drenched from a sudden shower, a few drops of which always manage to sneak down the back of your neck! What's more I thoroughly enjoyed it. After a few weeks of glorious sunny heat the gardens were beginning to look more than a little tired, and not just the gardens but the gardener too.

There's nothing like a comprehensive drenching of self and surroundings to really help refresh the mind and bring a new colour to the garden. There's nothing quite like drizzle for really soaking into every nook and cranny, it'll slowly but surely seep its way through numerous layers of clothing, fill your ears, gather in large droplets upon leaves before pouring off and turning the soil into a lovely happy medium perfect for moving and planting into.
It also seems to help wash away some of the cobwebs and dust that appear after prolonged time working through sunnier drier days, days when it's hard not to loose yourself in the beauty of the garden and nature around you.

When the rain comes down the best thing to do is get into your waterproofs, put your head down and start doing jobs that require maybe a little more focus than beautiful Spring days normally allow. With drips falling from your nose and the smell of damp soil wafting upwards, the background patter of raindrops drowning out any other sounds and your eyes looking down, it can feel like you're the only one in the world and this has a wonderful effect on the mind. With a smaller view of the world your internal viewing also shrinks till what you thought of as everyday issues are being seen from a completely different perspective. New ideas emerge, solutions occur to niggling problems.

On a gardening level too it's cleansing and creative, helping wash leaves of the dust and pollutants that have been gathering on them, soaking down deep into the soil carrying with it nutrients and dirt and helping trigger innumerable dormant seeds that in turn will grow and help add material to the compost and keep moisture in the soil with leaf shade. What's already growing will also be given a new boost, it never ceases to amaze me how much growth a lawn can put on after rain (as can the weeds).

In my own garden the water butts are now in a healthier state, the corner we're turning into a moss and fern patch has had a thorough soaking and the ferns are happily unfurling. The raised beds Anna and I have been painting will have to wait to dry out before we can do the next set, but the one we've already finished which is viewable from the kitchen window looks nicely weathered in. The sweetpeas are beginning to take over the hanging baskets and the other climbers have come into their own, the grapevine with it's twisting wooden branches, the clematis covered in small flowers and the rose dripping with scent. Spring is indeed a joyous time to be out in the garden.

Keep an eye out for an explosion of weeds after a days rain, any spare soil will quite quickly be colonised and bindweed can grow an inch a day if left unchecked. Get bedding plants in and consider future longer term planting you might be wanting to do.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

A bright perfect day.

Some days the sun is so right and the flowers so bright..

Monday, 12 April 2010

So it's Spring again.

Whilst I try and write this the sun calls me from outside, impossibly inviting rays are streaming through the window and the birds are doing their best to sing like garden sirens, beckoning me out to enjoy the delights of the world (though without the water death).

Due to the harsh winter and late frosts sadly some plants have suffered, old favourites that have made their way through winters past have had their boughs crushed by snow and young foliage nipped back by the frost. On the plus side the daffs that were slowed down due to the cold are now still coming out in beautiful staggered arrays of whites and yellow, the Hyacinths are still flowering and the herbaceous borders are crammed with young foliage bursting with Spring vibrancy.

As always this time our year seems filled with potential and I've already gone into plant order overdrive though thankfully have places for all the plants that are coming, with some minor changes to garden layouts. It's around this time that I also like to take a little break from the plethora of jobs to be done to simply stand with a cuppa and admire the garden from a distance. We're still able to see the bones of the garden which whilst being fleshed out with Spring growth allows us to plan future ideas, maybe a reshaping of the lawn or replanting of areas that aren't quite living up to our expectations.

Last year I finally discovered the true delights of annuals having always sadly dismissed them before in a delusional snobbery that they were only good enough for parks and city planting. How wrong was I? Standing outside today I can almost here the weeds growing, filling gaps, exploiting bare earth and relishing in the freshly turned soil; with annuals under my arms I'm able to reclaim these areas before they do. Plug plants are cheap and so I go into the garden with trays of Lobelia's and Alyssums, scented Stocks and colourful Wallflowers ready to create a early year splash. When they're done they're simply lifted out and replenish the garden via the compost heap but till then they'll cheer my day waving their coloured heads and wafting the scent of life about whilst I work. With the coming of the Garden Show period you'll undoubtedly be buying new plants for the garden and it's useful to have short lived annuals to fill the gaps for a brief time till you pick up these fresh longer lived additions.

Amongst the planting of annuals and the weeding out of amazingly fast growing weeds there's a list of other jobs also clamouring for your attention. By now most lawns have already starting their yearly mowing regime but it's not too late to be giving them a top dress, feed and repair, get the rake out and shift the winters damage: moss and thatch creep in so easily, especially in the damp weather. If like me you've also erred on the side of caution then there's likely to be cutting back of old frost damaged foliage to do too, my Lavenders are looking particularly scraggy but with a mass of fresh soft shoots lower down the branches and the late cold snaps I'm glad I left the old brown growth for protection. Feed your plants, check for dead branches, keep an eye out for bulbs going over and pinch out the dying flower heads and spend time just enjoying the blossoming year. Pop to a second hand book shop and pick up a copy of a yearly gardening book (there always seems to be a Hamilton or Titchmarsh one when I've gone), then sit back with a drink of your choice and read whilst nature does her thing around you.

Oh and word of warning keep an eye out for bindweed shoots coming up, they'll popping up their purpley green shoots now and will appear to grow whilst you watch. If possible, get a fork in and dig out the roots as best you can but be gentle, they have a habit of snapping of and propagating themselves. If you can't get to the roots I recommend sticking a cane into the ground next to them so you can keep a check and pinch them out at first sign of growth, you'll have to do this weekly but it is worth it in the long run. If for any reason you don't get to them regularly the chances are they'll climb the cane rather than smothering the neighbouring plants and getting a hold before you realise.

Above all else, enjoy just being out in the garden, it's approaching t-shirt weather, feel the sun on your skin and relax knowing Winter's behind you and you've the whole year ahead, lighter days and warmer weather (hopefully).
Have fun, I'm now off to potter contented in the undergrowth.

Monday, 25 January 2010

The gardener (a story).

There once lived an young man with thoughts and aspirations beyond his means, he worked long and hard tending a rich mans garden always begrudging his lowly position and striving for greater status.
It came about one hot day that he looked up to see the owner lounging in the summer house, sipping iced drinks and chatting to friends, the young gardener felt truly dispondent at this.
"Why can he relax all day enjoying the garden whilst I'm the one who has to put all the work in? I wish I was a rich man."
No sooner had he though this that he found himself there in the summer house, with the drinks and friends laughing along with him. Imagine his delight as he settles into his new role and staus, now he can be the one to tell the gardeners what to do and simply sit back and let the world pass by, however before even a week had passed niggling thoughts started to appear again. One day as he sat admiring his estate he reads of the new palace garden being opened up and the magnificience of its floral displays.
"Ah, if only I was king" he thought "how wonderful and great would I be then."
Once again he suddenly finds himself there in the palace gardens, resting on a lounger whilst servants carry him around. King of all he surveyed and everyone answering to him, surely there could be no greater status then this? Sadly, once again those thoughts start to appear in his mind. There's still work he has to do, still people to discuss with and at the back of his head there's a thought of something greater than him. It comes about one day while strolling in the gardens with his advisor that he looks up to the sky shielding his eyes from the sun. Ah to be the sun throwing light and warmth on the earth, surely nothing could be greater and more powerful; and there his is, up in the sky and great ball of fire.
"How great am I?" he shouts "Now everyone is below me and nothing can surpass me."
So he goes about shining down for a summer heatwave like no other until he can be sure that everyone knows of his greatness. Till one day he looks down and can no longer see the earth.
"Who dares get in my way?"
For down below the clouds are casting their shadow on the ground, watering the plants and cooling the summer heat. To be as powerful as a cloud, blocking sunlight and controlling who has water and who doesn't, that must be the greatest role. And so once more he finds himself down by the earth, a great rolling cloud system casting his shadow upon those below him. Yet still it's not enough, for he can feel himself being moved where he doesn't want to go, herded like a simple sheep, for there is the wind blowing him this way and that.
"I must be the wind!" he says
What a wind he is, rattling window panes, blowing over trees and causing people to run for cover.
"Look at me!" he roars "none can stand in my way, all are moved by my presence"
Well maybe not all for as much as he blows and disturbs the surface below, the Earth continues to go her own merry way, turning at the same speed and refusing to be effected by him.
"Of course, the Earth. For nothing is greater that the Earth. It gives food and shelter where it pleases, yes I must be the Earth"
So he finds himself turning slowly as the very living planet, he can feel seasons passing, plants growing and at his core a great molten churning mass of power. Could this be contentment, is this what he's been seeking all these years? No; for somewhere he can feel himself be manipulated and changed.
"Who could possibly be strong enough to effect the very earth? I must be great! I must be this force of change I can feel"
No sooner does he think this than he finds himself in a garden, with a fork slowly turning and weeding the soil. A lowly but very contented gardener.