Sunday, 30 March 2008

Zen Attitude Towards the Weather

I decided to adopt a Zen attitude towards the weather - on my watch of various websites over the week, either it was going to rain, rain, rain all weekend, or we were going to at least have a bit of nice weather today. Even as late as Friday, again it was going to rain all weekend. So I thought, hey, I will be able to plant, when I can plant. I wish they could get the weather report right someday, but I live in hope.

Result! Today was beautiful, hovering around 15 degrees all day (that's nearly 60F) and in the sun, well, it was lovely.

Today I planted more in the left border - I mentioned I had been shopping? The shops are so chokka at the moment with plants I just can't help myself, mostly places like Poundstretcher where, if I remember last year, by the time I wanted to shop, everything was gone! Not to neglect my local garden centre, I do find that either I could buy a plant in a pot for perhaps £3 or £5, or I can buy a nascent bulb or root, for 99p. Bargain! Sure it may take longer, but then gardening is all about patience ...!

I was impatient today. The sun was shining and even though the left border is still not getting full sun, and it was very, very moist over there, I went ahead and put in

1 Phlox

5 Crocosmia Lucifer

2 Lupins (I love Lupins)

1 Dahlia Bishop of Llandaff

3 Lilium pink/white

2 Poppies

Yum. I am trying to mix up the colours. My favourite colours being blues and purples, I tend to gravitate towards those plants by label, or in a pot in the garden centre, but perhaps my most favourite gardener is Christopher Lloyd, who loves to mix. We should all mix!

Apart from the Crocosmias (which if you remember were a present), and the lovely red Penstemon at the very back, there is a lot of blue (the geraniums will be, when they flower this year), pink and purple here. There is of course the gorgeous red Lobelia which I did add later to this border, but given that this only gets sun during the spring and summer (it is finally getting the sun now!) this border needed some heat. But goodness, when I look at this picture again, oh my I can't wait for everything to get big again, or even bigger that this! It's all coming along nicely but my, weren't they lovely last year?

So this is how it will pan out - oh, fingers crossed! I didn't have an opportunity to add any summer flowering bulbs or plants last year, as I only had a chance to plant the whole thing up in June in the first place. I am so excited to see these things come up, and will most definitely keep you all posted! Ah, patience, the key to gardening.

Down towards the front, where there is the existing Phlox, two red Poppies and the beautiful Lillies (replacing one dead lavender).

In the middle, next to the gorgeous rose and the Delphinium, behind the geranium and the euphorbia, this truly beautiful Dahlia, the Lupins in front, and more Crocosmia to the right so there will be a whole patch of them.

Next to the red Sedum, in front of the yellow climbing rose (that's the only yellow in there?), in between the stunning new Hellobore and next to the green of the bamboo, just behind the Pinks, this new Phlox.

Ah yes, and I did at least plant the Raspberries, in the fruit and vegetable patch. A bit too wet to dig again, and then dig again, but soon.

If I can, I shall concentrate on this patch next weekend!

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Typed by my own fair paws


Sunday, 23 March 2008

Wintry Weekend Progress

Well, amongst the frequent hailstorms over the last couple of days

I am fairly pleased with the progress made thus far. I wanted to end the weekend sore but happy, but I will settle for sore, but content!

What I did manage to do was dig over the planned vegetable and fruit plot. I haven't really introduced you to the right border, approximately a third of which is made up of the herb garden. This section is made up primarily of herbs, apart from the jasmine up the fence, and the verbena in the foreground. In it we have the usual suspects: lavender, rosemary, bay, sage, orgeno, tarragon, chive, thyme (two kinds), plus the (new to me) hyssop and bergamot. This picture was taken last autumn and you will see that everything has grown up quite nicely over the winter season! Herbs are wonderful, and quite easy care in my experience. I wouldn't attempt to grow basil in the ground here, but I do very nicely with a big pot of it on my windowsill over the summer months. Oh, for a heated greenhouse, when I could grow it year round! I am missing two things, which I have now bought seeds for (in my dining table mini greenhouse currently): Lovage, and Borage. Lovage is wonderful with a celery like flavour, which I have grown very successfully (and very large!) in the past. Borage is an annual, but will be a very welcome addition to the patch, just to the left of the jasmine where you see a bare spot. I intend to sow it directly into the ground in a month or so, as per the seed packet instructions.

A few weeks ago when I was at the garden centre (not specifically plant shopping), I couldn't resist buying a few early plants, one for the right border (a beautiful hellebore, to replace the dead skimmia) and a nice parsley for this herb patch, which is coming along fine.

There are bulbs in this border as well, as I wasn't sure how full everything would be by the spring, so we will hopefully have some gorgeous Alliums, and another sweet thing which I didn't save the label for (always save plant labels!) which has white bell-like fowers. I was looking for snakes head fritillaries last autumn but strangely couldn't find them. Well, you take what you can get, from your local garden centre or elsewhere!

Friday dawned fairly decent. The first thing was to take up the weed control fabric I had placed on the patch to keep the weeds down over the winter. This tactic was I believe something of a success, but of course the dreaded comfrey was rearing it's head. I think perhaps next winter when everything is harvested, I may try the wet newspaper trick, which should break down by the spring when I'm ready to dig over again. I thought the best thing was to get down into the dirt and just dig up those weeds that did survive, by hand. This wasn't too onerous, although time-consuming, as the sun was shining very nicely and with my several layers I felt quite warm!

That job done, I was going to get the fork out, but remembered my new tool

a hand cultivator. And here we go - the great garden work-out begins! What with the turfing last year, I lost weight AND toned up quite nicely! This took some time, as it turns out the border is 21 feet long and 4-1/2 feet across, but it was a very satisfying tool. It has a similar action to the rotovator, in that every time I found a stone (or more likely, a large chunk of cement) the implement would "buck", although of course not being mechanised it wasn't so much of a bronco! It also had a superb levelling effect, as this border slopes a bit worringly. But what had been this

became this

in the Friday sunshine. I felt satisfied with that for the day, and narrowly missed the first hailstorm of the weekend!

A note on the back corner: our initial plans for the garden, in consultation with the lovely people upstairs, was that in the right corner (which gets some lovely sun in the summer) we would put a patio - nothing fancy, something along the lines of the shed base we constructed on the right (as you will see soon). However, that didn't happen last year, and to be honest, I'm not sure if it will happen this year. So, in anticipation, I am taking over the ground for the time being to have a rather unexpectedly larger vegetable patch than I imagined!

So I have to say, this patch in the corner, since rotovation, has not really been touched. In fact, it spent most of the summer looking like this on the near right. That means it had not been "de-rocked" at all!

At lot of hard, satisfying work for a Good Friday, with one little shower in between. One word of warning: do not dig with whatever tool you are using, in rubber gloves. It was so warm in the sunshine that I was sweating profusely, including my hands in the rubber gloves (which I had been using to hand-pick the weeds). There is a good reason garden gloves are cotton - to absorb all that hard-working sweat and save your hands from - ouch - blisters!

Yes that was progress, but I would also have liked to, over Saturday and Sunday, dug over with the fork (getting out many more of those rocks), then with the spade (digging in some organic matter), then over the plot with the rake (adding in some fertilizer). Then, only then, would I have been ready to plant!

Today I woke up to snow. One more day tomorrow - it would be nice to get something else done, in order to plant these next weekend! The sun and blue sky appeared late afternoon at 5pm - hope for tomorrow?

Friday, 21 March 2008

Weekend Weather Watch

At last, Easter is here, a four day weekend. Time to dig over! Get those borders ready for the vegetable plot! Yes?

This was the headline that greeted me Monday morning on Yahoo:

"Snow, sleet and wind forecast for Easter"

Oh joy.

This morning on the radio they said we might have snow this weekend. Yes, in London. Snow??

Sky News puts it in a nutshell:

"Britain will have to wrap up for a chilly Easter as snow showers and strong winds are forecast for the bank holiday weekend. Much of the country is expected to experience raw wintry conditions."


Perhaps I'll just have to stay indoors and work on my seed trays.

My dining table has turned into a mini greenhouse. In this tray, I have some aubretia going, which I intend to put along the front bit here while I figure out what to do with it. What I would really like is to dig this back, and construct a brick wall, all along the length of it. That may take some doing! Although I am certainly keen to try (how hard can it be to construct a brick wall?).

However, at the moment that is a project too far - I really do badly want to get that vegetable border ready, not least because I have been shopping lately (it being March, the shops are stocking up nicely with all sorts) and have a bag of onions, a bag of shallots and some garlic. Not to mention the two blackberry plants, a gooseberry and a raspberry. What a wonderful thing it will be to wander into my garden and pick my own fresh fruit!

It if isn't precipitating I shall be out there, cold or no. If it is too horrible, well, at least I can tell you more about what I've done, and what we intend to do. Stay tuned!

Oh and by the way, as it is officially the first day of it, Happy Spring!

Sunday, 16 March 2008

The layout and the border (left, not right)

I'm no artist, as you can see. But I thought it might be useful to see the layout so you can get an idea when I talk about left and right borders. And I've just realised, in the drawing above, that I have completely reversed left and right. I don't know how, but there you are. Please to remember that when I talk about the left border, I am talking as you would look at this scratchy layout plan (why did I call that right fence??) and the same on the other side. It's what I see when I look out of the kitchen window, or walk out of the kitchen door and survey the site.

Right. (Left!).

The first border I planted was, as you look at it, on the left. Neither the shed nor the lawn was there at the time, but we shall discuss those soon.

I had been given some plants by an acquaintance; a geranium, a sedum and some crocosmias which she had divided from her own garden, and two beautiful roses as a housewarming present. I had numerous plants in pots, from my previous garden (mostly a container garden, as it was largely a patio, see left) which I was keen to get into the ground; and I, greedily and happily, threw money about and bought a few to add into the mix.

I am a fan of the English Cottage Garden type scheme. So we have, in the left border:

fern, bamboo

penstemon, lovely red colour

sedum "Autumn Joy"

climbing rose, yellow; skimmia (now sadly dead), pinks

crocosmia, very red



delphinium, euphorbia

honeysuckle, rose


Lobelia, geranium

lavender (now dead), achillea

blueberry, phlox

clematis, choisya, campanula

This is how it panned out with the plants I had:

This is pretty much how it looked once I had put the rest in

My first border, in what was once a wilderness. Yay!!

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

West Winds

You may have heard that the British mainland has been buffeted by storms recently. Or perhaps not; is this really international news?

Well, on Sunday afternoon, and the weekend was better than forecast (it had threatened rain all weekend but I actually did a lot of weeding - again - and some planting!), we battened down the hatches in preparation for the coming, promised gale force winds set to hit overnight on Sunday (and peak during Monday morning rush hour, oh joy). Husband added some brackets to the left fence which included a fair amount of drilling into the concrete posts, and they have held everything in place wonderfully - not a panel down!

The winds weren't so bad here in London, but Monday morning was no picnic. Yes, strong wind and rain, on the walk to the train, followed by boughts of sunshine (unexpected) and more sideways rain (definitely expected) during the day. Coastally, of course, it was a different story, but this is an island, after all.

But today, even though we were promised some more of those winds, and it certainly is picking up out there, they seem to have a nicer, friendlier breath - which puts me in mind of one of my favourite poets, and poems.

So if you'll allow me, I'm going to throw poetry at you. You know how you can smell Spring in the air? That's what I scented tonight in the rising winds - not harsh and wintery like Monday, but almost warm and slightly sweet, and certainly a harbinger of the coming new season.

Without further ado:

Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley


O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The wing├Ęd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave,until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and Preserver; hear, O hear!


Thou on whose stream, 'mid the steep sky's commotion,
Loose clouds like Earth's decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,
Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine airy surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith's height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge
Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre
Vaulted with all thy congregated might
Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: O hear!


Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams,
Beside a pumice isle in Baiae's bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave's intenser day,
All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic's level powers
Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know
Thy voice, and suddenly grow grey with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: O hear!


If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share
The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O Uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be
The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne'er have striven
As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.


Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened Earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Five perfect stanzas, and the last line, of course, every gardener's dream.

More soon (gardening, I mean, not poetry!).

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Rotovator, Digger, Cultivator, or what you will

Rotovation Day was very exciting. We hired the beast from our local HSS Hire Shop. The weekend rate was £50, but if you add in delivery, collection, and insurance (well, what if we broke it?), it came to a shade over £100. Still, for two days deep digging, it wasn't such a bad investment. Oh, it was necessary. We could never have done this by hand, or I would still be guiding you through the delights of digging up a garden that hadn't been touched in what seemed like 50 years.

It was the end of April, 2007. We had a extraordinaily warm Spring.

Do you see that plant with the purple flowers? I'm almost certain that's Comfrey, or sympbutum bulbosum. Some grow it for it's medicinal purposes, and it is a valuable herb, in some respects. My husband recently had reason to research how to heal a broken bone, and at the same time, my father had a wee mishap which resulted in a break in his forearm. So in his internet searches, my husband discovered that another name for Comfrey is "knit-bone". After some searching, we discovered a store here in London that stocks Comfrey Cream, which you smear on after a break to, well, knit the bone. I believe it can be found on the internet in the US, but I brought some over for my Dad. He's been smearing on it arm ever since, I believe!

But, my goodness, it grows like a weed. I was sure it was a weed, but a weed like I had never seen before. So, so much of it all over the garden (and I'm still weeding it out). It has a root like a Dandelion, one long, single root that needs to be got at with a Dandelion weeder, an instrument with a long shaft and forked end. But at least, in this first instance, we just tried to plow it up!

One of my oldest (in terms of time!) and dearest friends, who was visiting that weekend from the States (well, she was warned) tried to convince me that it was a beautiful plant. Huh. It's a bit prickly, too, and wear gloves if you are trying to pull it out. It seems to be very prevalant around here, for some reason - I've never encountered it before.

photo courtesy of Olivia Lahs-Gonzales

Here's a nice patch of it around the meeting hall just at the corner - they actually dug this all up last September, but here it is back again - I took the photo last weekend.

Now let me tell you about this machine. Do not be fooled into thinking that this is easy work. Much easier, of course, than digging up years of growth with a fork and spade, but this machine is serious.

Husband did most of the work, bless him. If the man upstairs hadn't been away for the weekend, he would have badly wanted a go as well. But no, it fell to my man, to rotovate.

The goggles, gloves and ear defenders are absolutely necessary. The beast makes a powerful noise, and who knows what the machine is going to throw up. So don't even think of skimping on those three things, and HSS at least will hire/sell you that along with the hire of the machine, for a very reasonable price. That's unless you go out and buy them beforehand, not realising that you can get them from HSS! Wear very sturdy shoes, too.

And, oh my. On my couple of goes up and down, the thing is like a bucking bronco in your hands. It takes all of your upper body strength (what strength I have!). That's if you are digging out several decades of stuff - we found rake heads, large chunks of cement, and a very interesting collection of bottles

but I think generally, if you are working with very compacted soil and/or with lots of weeds (we had both), you have a lot to get through and dig up. So be careful, take it slow, don't back up but learn how to turn, and don't freak out if it clogs. Just turn it off, and turn it on again.

(I say 50 years because one of these bottles was a "pomade" which just makes me think of teddy boys and slicked back hair!)

Bear in mind it's not easy to power up because it's not like your normal electric lawnmower (I am speaking to UK readers here). You really have to power it up, with a pull cord, something like a petrol-driven lawnmower, and to be honest I couldn't do it myself. Do not attept this lightly, but if it needs to be done, do it! It is worth all the effort, and the sore arms at the end of the day!

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Fences up, fences down

The back fence is mostly up, which is a good thing!

The old fence is down, which is not so good …

That’s my new border I’m itching to plant! I’ve been thinking to get out there and dig over in March – well, folks, March is here!

It’s been so temperate lately that I’ve actually accomplished much in the garden that I didn’t expect to be doing in February.

Mid month, I did a lot of weeding of the left and right borders, and the ugly front bit, and even in the lawn (the dreaded comfrey again, which I will discuss in the rotovation chapter). Plus I removed a lot of leaves. Removal of leaves is not just aesthetically pleasing, but is necessary because (1) snails love to hide under a nice carpet of leaves (although thankfully it’s a bit early for them) and (2) you can actually see the weeds you need to weed. Not to mention, when everything is clear, you can see the new growth of the beloved plants in the border, which is most exciting!

A word on fencing. When we moved in, the left fence was nearly down, a ramshackle affair with your common lap panels and wood fence posts, all leaning precariously into the garden (if they weren’t already completely down). This is something I certainly never knew about (or much thought about, until necessary), but I would recommend cement fence posts, and gravel boards. The cement fence posts make the job of changing old, worn-out panels much, much easier as you can slide the old ones out, and the new ones in. The gravel board, well, there are two kinds; cement, and wood. What they do is slide in before you put the fence panels in, and protect the bottom of the panel from rot so they will last longer. On the right side, when we moved in, a right panel was down as well – but it was in good condition, as it had been sitting on a cement gravel board (even better) and it slotted easily back into place. Since we replaced the left fence, there has been no problem with the right as the wind comes from a westerly direction and when the left fence was down, the right was exposed to the harsh winter wind. We opted for wooden gravel boards on the left fence replacement, but they are still going to prolong the life of the panels themselves.

Replacing the left fence was the one big job we had to do before we could think of digging over the soil. We ordered the necessary from our local DIY store, and finally (after several failed delivery attempts, but they managed to deliver in the end) we had our panels, cement fence posts, and gravel boards, plus several bags of cement and ballast to hold the posts in.

We are in such luck. The man upstairs, happens to be a builder by trade. So, cement mixing is a doddle to him. Now, I wasn’t here when the fence was finally put up, in mid-April. I was visiting my parents and getting a blow by blow update by text from my husband. I would have put my all into it had I been around, but imagine my joy when coming off a transatlantic flight, I come home to a beautiful left fence!

This is what was required for the job:
5 fence panels
4 concrete posts
5 pack gravel boards
10 bags of ballast
5 bags of cement

There was one concrete post in place, strangely enough, so they just worked around that. As you see, ballast is 2-1 to cement. With a garden hose and a flat board, you can mix enough cement on it to do the job of filling the holes with cement, in order to hold up the posts. This was day one, and letting everything dry. The next day, I believe, was a matter of slotting in the panels and way hey! Fence! Time to dig ...

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Top tips from a successful composter

Here is what a friend of mine had to say, after reading the latest blog. She lives in the north of North America, so has much more snow and cold to deal with than I ever will!

Over to her:

* I don't add paper - the layers between the green and the brown can be thick and adding paper shouldn't be necessary. I find that come summer, my bin, which looks more like your second one, gets a wee bit hot so I'll go hose some water into it - or when I know it's about to rain I'll go take the lid off & allow it to get rained into - the water will help get things wetter and that should encourage the good rotting to get started - and it will also help to sodden down grass clippings and leaves as they get piled in.

* Mine is usually full by the end of summer (with the leaves that get raked into it) and I just have to leave it be dormant all winter here as it will sometimes freeze through. Then in the early spring consider turning it- essentially how I do this is just lift it up and off the current spot & put it right beside where it is. Then I fork the stuff from the top of the pile into the bottom of the bin - when I start hitting soil I stop, and I use that in the bottom of garden beds - it's a lovely rich black stuff that plants love.

* Add worms. Yup - garden centres and some fishing places sell red wrigglers - these are the best here - and they can be added in the early spring as well.

* Get a compost poker. It looks like a stick with a little flappy hooky thingie on the end and essentially you sort of jab it into the pile and pull - the hooky thingie opens and helps create aeration within the stack (and come hot summer this will give worms in the middle of the pile a quicker way down into cooler soil below) pitch fork works well also, I just find it more work.

End of advice - my grateful thanks to my friend! I have a compost poker - bought it off the same site as I did the bin as it did seem like a necessary and possibly work-saving thing. I may consider adding worms as well.

Happy composting one and all!

Any other advice, please feel free to add your own stories!