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.