Thursday, 3 December 2015

Christmas warmth

It is early December in the Forest of Dean, currently the thermometer says sixteen degrees, the plants are still growing, the pests and diseases are still proliferating and I am still working in gear I usually wear in mid autumn. Apparently Christmas is soon and all we've had for winter weather is one light frost a few weeks ago, it certainly doesn't feel at all “tis the season”. In another week it'll be time for me to start knuckling down to making wreaths and table decorations whilst the garden is crying out for a break but until the temperatures takes a serious tumble that looks to be a long way off.

The problem is that there is a multitude of jobs that need to be done yet the job list is being constantly reordered, lawns are still growing but now the ground is too wet to mow on, leaves still cling to plants that usually have entered their winter prune time. The garden is confused and it is the gardeners job to try and soothe this turmoil especially when at the back of our minds is the ever present fear that the cold could suddenly descend before the garden has had chance to prepare itself. On the plus side however it does mean certain job windows have been enlarged, planting of bulbs and the relocation of shrubs would normally be best don't before the end of November but the further warm spell means extra time to catch up. I for one buy too many new bulbs every year and every year am racing the season to get them all in, more care does need to be taken as the ground is so damp it would be all too easy for rot to set in but a generous handful of grit in the base of each hope should sort that.
True to form the garden will always right itself in the end and you can be sure that spring will be here before you know it. Personally I love a good cold snap, I know where I am when huddling against the elements in multiple layers, chilled fingers sticking out my gloves, breath crystallising in the air in front of me, daydreaming of the hot shower and cuppa waiting for me at home.

Thankfully the Forest reacts more to the strength of light than overall temperature and after giving us a stunning autumnal display is now bedding down before the bud burst of new growth next year, looking to the forest floor there is still plenty of signs of life and the birds and animals are making full use of the extra food available. The mud is plentiful leaving us footprints of the wildlife we don't usually see, boar and deer are clearly roaming far and wide at the moment, a little too far and wide when looking at the state some village greens and verges have been left in. As always it is an absolute joy to be out walking amongst the trees, I love the Forest and would gladly spend every day in it but for now I have to fuel my arboricultural addiction with mini strolls through the woodland gardens at work.

So though the season may be all mixed up it's still a joy to be out whether catching up on jobs in the garden or filling your lungs with the breath of the trees.

Monday, 30 November 2015


Across the valley sweeps,
Rain clouds within their keep.
A storm of wind and rain to seep,
Into this gardener deep.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Dref continued

Slipping from the house as first light begins to grip the world we quietly follow the track leading up onto the mountainside, with the world still waking around us we can almost feel the mists of eden swirling around our feet as we trudge onwards and upwards into a landscape still fresh with the nights dew. A winding path through half cleared forest leads to a gate, a further track and then suddenly a split in the undergrowth appears to our right, a slimmer track halfway between an animal thoroughfare and a nearly dried up mountain stream leads onto the exposed expanse of bog, heathland and scraggy clumps of stunted trees. Nature here keeps close to the ground to prevent it being weather beaten off into a non existence, with autumn coming earlier this far north the leaves have already left the trees but were likely taken by the wind and cast to the valley below before they ever reached the foot of the tree. Leaf litter here is made up of whatever small cast offs the heathers make mixed with the droppings and remains of the animals that call this home (we found three sheep skeletons on this trip), the growing medium is hard here but centuries old and rarely disturbed, a narrow band of rich peaty top soil sits on rock and is held in place by moss and heather roots. Trees bore their roots down amongs cracks to thick seams of nutrients whilst plant and beast hunches down to avoid the winds and rain that seem to roll across in a never ending choreographed dance of cloud and sun. Even in this day and age it’s good to know such wildness is still on our doorstep, relatively speaking.

Heading on we pass through a bog and feel the landscape change beneath our feet, the softness of the moss makes way for the tenacity of the mountain heathland, tough dark green foliage clusters around our boots, dragging off peat and mud to savour later. Great rocks rise from the ground the earth bound icebergs where you know there is even more below the surface.

There are many things which impress me when out on the mountainside, the way the sheep traverse the land with relative ease, the endless drystone walls that crisscross this part of he country running for miles of incredibly tough terrain. One thing however which always strikes me and in many ways will leave me dumb with its perfection, is the balance of nature. From the full scale of the mountain and valley laid out before us to the tiniest microcosm of lichen and moss living in the cracks of fence posts. It’s all so beautiful and as a gardener I feel truly humbled by it. This is what Capability Brown understood. There are pockets of incredible detail and beauty all over the countryside around us yet the whole landscape runs seamlessly. Whether looking at the rich verdant fields below or the deep purples, greens and grey of Cadair rising above us, it’s all so perfect.

Friday, 20 November 2015

I hear it first.
A distant roaring that soon comes pouring over the hillside opposite.
I watch as wildlife is scattered, tree torn at and leaves strewn as though dust.
I watch as it comes crashing up the hill towards me.
As it first encounters the garden.
In its crazed state it doesn't even notice.

The garden does.
The plants bend under the ferocity of the onslaught.
Clouds of leaves ripped from the remaining canopies litter the sky.
I am under seige, cowering behind a wall as the garden is beaten by blows so great even the ground seems to shudder.
Then it is gone.
A silence and stillness descends.

The wind moves on.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Unseasonal season.

It’s nearly mid November and it’s currently 18.5° outside, I’m raking leaves in a t-shirt and the lawn needs another cut, it’s weird, it shouldn’t be this warm! We’ve so far had a stunning autumn and living in such a forested area I’ve been able to appreciate it every part of every day but by now I would be expecting to see the first frosts and signs of the garden heading towards its so winter slumber.
The garden needs a proper winter, we haven’t had one for the last two years and without a good hard frost pests and disease continue to prosper.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Dref Gerrig

There is a place not too far from here. Just three hours of winding Welsh roads door to door.
There is a village far from any other where a road becomes a lane, the lane a track, the track a woodland drive, the drive a cottage yard.
There is a cottage on the lower slopes of a Welsh mountain, quiet, secluded, home for four autumnal days.

This is Dref Gerrig an old basic farmhouse perched between forest and an ever rolling landscape on the feet of Cadair Idris. So far from anything that at night the sky is emblazoned with stars and by day you’d swear you could hear the slow munch of lichen dissolving stone and creeping endlessly on. It’s rare for me to leave the garden for anywhere other than forest but this mountain and landscape are something special, plus it does have some rather wondrous woodland looming up behind the house. Or did.

After a steep, narrow drive up from the village below I turn the bend expecting to see the first tentative glimpse of the cottage down a tree shrouded track only to discover a one sided expanse of sky. The forestry commission have obviously been hard at work clearing old pine plantings from the hillside, what was once dark and deeply mossy is now open, sunlit and rather daunting. Before one always had the feel of being enveloped by the land as though the woodland was physically reaching out to hug the cottage to its mountainous bosom. Now Dref sits exposed on one side with the very peak of Cadair rising up in the distance behind. Thankfully most of the broadleaf trees still stand including a stunning Beech standing sentinel next to the cottage and walking over where the woods had once stood I could soon spot the new seedlings which enriched by the sudden access to sun and rain were speeding skyward. Rowan, Oak, Beech and Larch were dominate but it didn’t take long to discover a diverse array of plant life that would become the new woodland. Give it a few hundred years.

As phenomenal as all this was there was one thing remaining. One thing that was needed to complete the perfection of this moment in time and the sudden crunch of tyres on gravel announced the arrival of it. My brother. Now much can be written about this man and how who I am now, owes much to his influence in my formative years. My love and innate fascination in nature was at the very least bolstered by him if not inspired in the first place. I’ve no doubt that without him I wouldn’t be the gardener I am today (the lovely irony is that he wouldn’t be the gardener he is without my influence either).

I can lose myself in this landscape so easily. The seemingly endless drystone walls heaving with thick verdant mosses, lichens of increasing complexity, forest glades perfectly lit by the split rays of the sun. A landscape such as this has been perfectly crafted by nature for hundreds of years, Dref itself is at least three hundred years old. As a gardener I am always amazed at what nature can achieve but here I have to not only take my hat off but throw it away never to be put back on because here is a landscape that would bring Capability Brown himself to his knees.

I will save the tales of our adventures here for another time. I’m aware of much to be told and the ever increasing length of this blog alone. I will therefore leave you will a few images of this most special of places.

Sunday, 1 November 2015


All day I've been amongst tides of mist drifting across garden with regular intervals of clear blue sky. From my point on the hill I can watch the next roll enveloping the landscape before the garden once more disappears amongst the cool droplets and the sun is split into rays of light and shadow. Fingers of tall shrubs and trees pierce the gloom as the ground locked cloud crashes ever onwards leaving behind droplets caught on leaf and gardener now basking once more in clear sky and sun.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Getting stuck into the garden.

Garden as sanctuary.

For many the garden is a place of release, of refuge, a place they can escape the world on the other side of the fence and immerse themselves in their own world of thought and nature. Being a gardener by trade means I get the chance to do this every day, letting the mind unravel whilst the sun rolls across the day and I lose myself amongst the plants.
Today my mind chose to settle on a recently watched TED talk (link at the end) about the means of rising above bullying and being the person you are. I know I've mentioned before how complete the garden makes me and how I never feel more me than when down amongst the plants, soil trapped in the folds of my hand and all my senses filled with the garden. I'm well aware of the fact I'm not a people person and that working alone suits me, a point made even more prominent when I see the faces of those trapped in a job they don't enjoy. I haven't always been lucky enough to work on my own however...

Many, many moons ago I was a schoolboy. A typical, scraggy teenage schoolboy at a typically inner city school, Birmingham to be exact. In this school I have to be honest, I didn't do great. I didn't do bad either, but I tended to muddle along on the middle ground, neither failing or excelling. Nothing new there you may think, this is a story repeated over and over the world across however it's all the more real when you're the one living that story.
Now most children at school I would hazard to guess generally have something they do well in or at least try to. I hate to stereotype but a lot of the boys I remember who weren't interested in the academic side tended to be fairly into the sports side, especially if that involved football a sport I've never really seen the point of. It wasn't that I wasn't interested in anything it was more I didn't have the motivation for going for the best grades, it was more about the acquiring of knowledge rather than the correct application that drew my efforts.
I had a curiosity in the outer edges of subjects rather than the central curricular part, in English I wondered what the historical Macbeth was like and how would it have looked in those days to see a forest of men disguised as trees creeping across the land towards you. I have know idea what they wanted in my exam but it certainly wasn't any of that. In Science I wanted to know what the possibility of extra dimensions meant to our views of reality and even though I included a page of ponderings on such thoughts my teachers would apparently have preferred the correct homework instead. In P.E. I wanted to know where the best place to stand on the pitch was so as to never encounter the ball! All this did not lend me to making many friends, certainly no long term friendship were ever created, however it did open up a whole range of opportunities for the bullies. The weird long haired hippy with no interest in sports or academia does not belong in an inner city school.
There were no real vocational subjects, cookery class left the school before I did, woodwork was just a way to fill a bit of time and tick a box. Nothing to ever get your hands into. I learnt everything of use outside of school, the biggest lesson from inside school is that the world is really just one giant classroom. There's still the clever ones, the sporty ones, the ones who don't quite fit in and the bullies. The bullying doesn't stop when you leave school, it's still to be found in the modern workplace, in the street, on television, in everyday media, even amongst friends. So many people and faces saying who you can and cannot be, what you are, what you're not, what you should be, that there is barely enough time to hear your own thoughts.
This is where the garden comes in, this is where you can find sanctuary from all those voices, this is where I belong. The meek city schoolboy who was lost in a world of concrete, noise and education, sat in a stuffy classroom staring out the window now stands tall in the elements surrounded by acres of garden and countryside and knows he is home.

Get your hands dirty, silence the gaggle of the world and be comfy with yourself.

TED link. Shane Koyczan "To this day"...for the bullied and beautiful.

Monday, 24 August 2015

End of the day.

Sunlight dims, the colours of the days heat drain from the sky as the warm glow from our burning star begins it's crawl from the horizon.
Clouds capture the changing spectrum, flinging rays of red and orange across my eyes.
My mind fills with the beauty of our world pushing out the insignificant dross dumped upon one through the days.
Days become daze.
Sight becomes night.
I become sleep and all else seeps away.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Seasonal glimpses

One of the joys of being in the garden at this time of year is it feels as though you've being given a special pre glimpse of things to come. This morning I was out around 5.30 (a 'perk' of having a toddler) and got to sample the first morning air, you know the one that seems to crystallize as it meets your breath, the curl of vapour as it leaves the mouth forming ever so briefly a personal cloud.  
There's a nip to the air that no one wants to mention dare it brings on the A word. Autumn.  It seems spring and summer really are the favoured seasons with autumn falling sad third simply due to it's fading light and proximity to winter. For many that first nip of cool autumnal air is a stirring of memories of going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark, of the outside world seeming bleaker and more distant than usual. Personally I adore autumn, I really do. The change that occurs over the season is astounding, equal to the spring change and just as magical. The garden starts to slip towards slumber as summer folds into autumn and the natural rhythm rolls on, the green of the leaf dulls and flowers turn into seedheads.  
Fortunately I know I'll still be out there everyday experiencing all the shift brings with it, remembering what it is to be weather beaten again. There's no doubt that many a day in the winter months balance up nicely the superb days you get mid year and I know of one garden on the side of a hill that brings a new level to 'exposed to the elements' in which I've been forced to raid the car for any spare and extra layers. However the light you get on fine autumn mornings is something close to perfection (in my eyes)especially as it means you can be out in the garden early enough to see a new day be born. The first touch of Jack Frost cleans the air and can bring on a new beauty to a garden, true some plants may be killed off, I know for gardens that rely on annuals it's a tough time and it spells a change in the veg garden too of course.  
As for now we get to enjoy the pre glimpses of the magic show to come. The change in the garden is both quietly sedate and incredibly rapid, you can see the plants tiring and find a lot of general garden work is taken up with removing seedheads from weeds and cutting back faded leaf growth on many of the more herbaceous elements of the garden. What starts as a perfectly manageable garden soon excides all expectations and can seem to swamp you with work, so much so it's easy to loose sight of the garden as a whole, so busy do we become with our heads down. It's the horticultural equivalent to not being able to see the wood for the trees. As at any time in the garden it's important to feel part of the work you do and by stopping and looking up once in a while you can link that back into the bigger picture. Don't just focus on the one plant to be cut back but look to see how it fits into the garden and the structure that's left behind when it's gone, watch as the shadows lengthen in some areas as the sun dips lower.  
Be momentary lazy, really stop for a cuppa and simply watch the garden whilst you drink.

Monday, 22 June 2015

The garden. The gardener.

It's been over a year since the move. A year of discovering new gardens. A year of rediscovering gardening and what it is to be a part of that.

Since my first days apprenticeship nearly seventeen years ago I've worked for myself in a couple of cities, the National Trust in Cornwall, the odd small holding here and there and a permaculture farm in the foothills of The Black Mountains. Nowhere have I been happier than where I am now and nowhere do I feel I've been a better gardener or better understood what it is to be a gardener.

City gardens tend to be postage stamp spaces hammered into place by the surrounding concrete, even the large gardens beautifully tended and spacious meet a definite barrier at some point however carefully hidden. This comes down to the entire environment of the garden, birdsong swallowed by the sound of car stereos and sporadic but daily sirens, the sky line punctuated by the harsh lines of buildings. Perhaps this seems a trifle harsh and perhaps it is, but the truth is until one has actually experienced the visually endless expanse of field, forest and farm land and really heard the birdsong clear all around you, you don't know the alternative. Compare the relief of stepping out of a suit into looser comfier clothes, the release your body feels as you loosen the collar.

The gardens I now find myself in are part of the landscape no matter how formal they may try to be, the awesome presence of rolling hills and giant trees humbling the grandest of borders . When the weather is rolling down a valley towards you and there's nothing you can do other than hunker down, get your clothing right and work through it, that's when you really feel it. A peg in the land, your back exposed to the sky, fingers deep in the soil and rain driving through you blurring the lines between air, skin and earth. That bright summers day after weeks of sun when a sudden shower sweeps across, soaking all below it before leaving as suddenly and the ground feels refreshed, you duck out from your shelter and laugh along with the garden as you feel the plants drink in the moisture and lift their now cleansed heads.
Toiling away in one of my most loved gardens I get to hear of it's history, how long it's been in the family, the planting and designs done by past generations, I hear of rose borders created for weddings, trees planted to commemorate a date now forgot. The soil that now cements itself forever in my hands has been worked by countless gardeners before and hopefully will do so for many more to come. I'm just a passing moment in the gardens history, barely a blink to many of the trees and not even a whisper in the surrounding landscape. The hedgerows that flow out as far as I can see were old when my grandparents were babies and many of the trees that punctuate the skyline were hundreds of years old when the land was still worked by hand.
It's this that truly marks country gardening from city gardening for me. Out here I feel a part of the garden in ways I've never had the chance to before, I feel not only that I am shaping the ground and growth and around me but that it is shaping me, there's a level of symbiosis where we feed of each other and both become stronger for it.

Truly this is the essence of it, to exist in a state where there is no difference between gardener and garden.
There is just the garden.