Tuesday, 28 April 2015 19:28

Devoted to roses

 

I am devoted to roses - as is this blog.

I think roses are some of the best value plants in any garden because, if you buy well, they flower from May/June to the first frosts (which almost no other plant does), they look beautiful, smell fantastic, encourage wildlife, will climb or scramble, stand tall and proud, or create a bush, groundcover, hedge etc and do almost anything you want - except be a tree! Why wouldn't you have roses? OK, so you have to deadhead and prune them but that's not much to ask is it, for so much in return? And personally I love deadheading them. I go into a sort of 'zen zone' and forget the world as I do it.

Luckily roses do well in clay. Phew! The clay here is a potter's dream - solid, vaguely pliable and orange. In fact it was famous - it's Kimmeridge clay and years ago was worth money to potters. However, its glory is no more and it's a nightmare for gardeners. It is completely unweilding except in extreme circumstances. Underground it is a solid mass. On the surface, with no additional help, in sun or drought it will bake as hard as ceramics - then crack. Tough stuff.

But clay is full of minerals and holds all sorts of plant nutrients well. The theory is, therefore, that the roses (and many other plants) should love my now supposedly heavily enriched and more open structured soil  which has been improved with just ten tons of well rotted horse manure and 14 tons of soil improver compost. Please may they thrive! I've done my best to help them.

Anyway, as you know from previous blogs, my garden design required a rose arch parade. It was always going to be a major feature in the garden. Initially I toyed with it being wooden but decided that metal would be thinner and ‘disappear’ more easily under the plants. And I needed a huge structure (10 metres long x 2.2m wide and 2.6m high) but I didn’t want it to over-dominate the garden.

I felt the metal should be hollow so that plants attached don’t burn when it’s hot. I also wanted the metal elements to be tubular not square for aesthetic reasons and I wanted unspecified ‘squiggly’, decorative bits along the sides to look attractive but also to help entwine the climbers.

I investigated Harrod Horticultural’s versions but, much as I like them for certain things, I decided their arches would be too expensive and not individual, ‘squiggly’, or decorative enough.

Alan the blacksmith, who is four doors down my track, had already hand made two fixtures for bells outside my front and kitchen doors and the bits to hang the gates properly at the end of the garden – really cost-effectively. So I asked him to quote on the arches. He was completely undaunted by the concept, quoted, and I said yes.

He measured, then designed and built the entire structure in almost no time – and I love it to bits. The creation of it is in the video and I can’t enthuse enough about how wonderful it is to see a real blacksmith working at his art and trade, at a fire and anvil. He makes many of his own tools and uses adapted Victorian machinery in a black-smoked forge filled with horseshoes, forks and other garden implements that need straightening, and all the other things he is in the process of creating. It looks very ‘not of this era’ and is all the more wonderful for that.

It’s also thrilling to have something so important and major in the garden made by someone four doors down the track – it reminds me of being in India or Africa. There, you can just imagine and design what you want and there’s always someone round the corner who will build it for you. In London this just doesn’t happen. Here, at last again, it seems par for the course. We have so many skilled and talented craftspeople around here – blacksmiths, woodworkers/carpenters, artists etc. (wait for the bridge blog). In fact I have discovered it's much easier here to find someone to build you a wall, bridge or rose parade than it is to find someone to turn a bathroom into a wetroom with shower!

Alan is also perhaps one of the tallest men I have ever met at 6'7" and he has hands which each could easily cup a watermelon. He is also a natural on camera. In the video above he gives a totally professional voice-over on what he’s doing, completely unrehearsed.

He and Dermot then spent a day erecting the finished item digging it deep into the ground. At one point Alan popped away "to make a bespoke arch for each side-path-joining element" he told me. This was not part of the brief, just something he concocted so tall people wouldn't hit their heads if they went onto the lawn or into the veg bed from the parade. How fab is that?  OK, I might have said something like "that line of bars looks a bit low across the side paths" but I had no solution. At this point I was merely a bystander watching an artist create something in minutes that not only solved the problem but enhanced the overall design.

Initially, as created, the structure was silver/black. The iron is not protected so is already rusting and going a fantastic dull orange that matches the bricks and gravel and makes it blend in wonderfully. Indeed a number of recent visitors (I've had lots) such as: members of the Donheads Gardening Club  - the first gardening club I have ever been a member of - and others who came to take away some of my excess horse manure and compost; delivery men and women who arrive in huge lorries to bring scalpings, sand, top soil, gravel etc and who now know me well and ask to see the development of the garden, plus family, friends and acquaintances generally have already asked if I got it from a reclamation yard – result! It already looks like a Victorian rose arch parade to match this Victorian (1880) cottage. Alan has also now made me a single version to go across the other path and it balances the aspect beautifully.

The rose arch parade

The rose arch parade planting has a colour scheme of course  - you'd expect no less of me I hope! At this (the kitchen) end  - which to the right of the pic above - it starts in white and pale yellows and moves through mid yellows and buffs to oranges and then bright reds. Across the mini path divide it starts in dark pinks and mellows through medium pinks to light pinks. Complementary, non climbing, bush/shrub/hybrid teas are planted in the long border between them and are being inter-planted with herbaceous plants, perennials, bulbs and ground cover.

The arches are also planted with Lonicera Americana and Graham Thomas, Wisteria floribunda (white and blue), and many mauve/blue/purple Clematis including Daniel Deronda, Lasurstern, North star, Mrs Cholmondley, Kinju Atarishi, and Wisley. These are mostly large flowered, summer ones but I shall add my favourite Viticellas later when they become available in the garden centres, nurseries and fairs. At ground level, along the path edges, I am interspersing various light shade tolerant blue Geraniums (such as Brookside and Rozanne) and yellow grasses.

To try and give you an idea of the effect of the roses left and right along the parade see the pic below. Imagine the top ones are North (by the swing seat and pond) and the bottom ones are South, nearest the house. (Apologies - I created this montage in Powerpoint so I could put them all together easily but it means the photo resolution isn't great but I hope you get the idea!)

They are all repeat flowering, scented, climbing roses. Many are David Austin, new English roses - but not all. Many I have grown before (the ones marked with * I haven't) but the conditions and aspect here are very different so it will be interesting to see how they do. I’ll have to wait a few years to judge. Roses, especially climbing ones, take 3-5 years, at least, to get established.

The shrub/hybrid tea roses in the long border to complement them are: Arthur Bell (because he is early, strong, upright and well scented), Westerland for its lax habit and beautifully loose, fabulously coloured form; Indian Summer (to remind me of my five years in wonderful Bombay/Mumbai - and it looks and smells fab too); Queen of Sweden (for one of my best friends, Ann W,  who I met in Mumbai when she and I were almost the only professional, corporate, working expat women there. Luckily we got on splendidly after a few fights about boyfriends!); The Pilgrim (for its astounding beauty and scent); and Abraham Derby (because it looks fab and I have never grown it before).

 

The roses up the single arch are my trusty Phyllis Bide and a new, shortish rambler The Lady of Lake, with semi-double, small light pink flowers and golden anthers.

Rosa Phyllis Bide (short rambler)

Rosa The Lady of the Lake (short rambler)

And of course there are roses elsewhere too. These include:

In the Kennet Bed : Eglantyne (she is very gracious and scented), Scentsation (huge, mound-forming, floriforous and very scented with hybrid tea-style flowers on a floribunda), Glauca (for its fabulous arching shape and green/grey foliage, small single flowers and plentiful, small hips) , Pretty Lady (for her size, beauty and scent),  The Lady Gardener who is quite new and certainly new to me but looks and smells lovely apparently; and a Rosa Rugosa (for the insects and enormous hips).

Closer to the house, in the terrace bed which gets a fair bit of light shade, I have planted three R. Bonica which is a sort of ground cover rose that does well in shade and three R. Champagne Moment (which did so well in my North facing site in London).

 

Rosa Bonica

Rosa Champagne Moment

In the Zen bed (which is mostly full of dwarf conifers and unusual Erica, a trickling water feature and a number of statues) I have planted climbing Rosa Super Elfin (scarlet) to grow up next door's trees (mine aren't large enough yet to support climbers) and three ground cover roses: one Cambridgeshire (scarlet, gold and pink) and  two Rushing stream (pale pink/white with yellow anthers). Super Elfin did well for me in London after a slow start but I have never grown proper ground cover roses before so this is an experiment.

(Top = R. Super Elfin. Bottom left R. Cambridgeshire. Bottom right "R. Rushing Stream")

I have also added R.Blush Noisette to the veg bed fence. She should be vigorous and cover well, is small flowered but sweetly scented and very pretty as below.

 

And, the major decision about which rose to put up the front of the house has been made. Madame Alfred Carriere has been planted deep in the gravel to which I have had to add all sorts of good stuff, Q4 and microrhyzal fungi again. There is no ready-made bed so I hope she can find her way and thrive with what I hope is a good start for her. She grows to 15ft and I wanted a tall, well scented, repeating rose that is not a rambler. I hope she fits the bill and I hope I have given her enough soil and food to thrive on before she digs down into the clay herself for extra minerals etc... New wires on the front of the house are there to welcome her as she climbs. Let's wish her well. We'll see.

Which brings me to planting roses. Every single rose planted so far has been given the best possible start in life. First off I have spent gazillions on improving the soil. Then, when I plant, I soak them in water in a bucket (but beware, this can be tricky with new, early season, pot-based, climbing roses whatever their labels say 'cos their soil base falls apart with too much water - it's much easier with bare root ones. My advice is don't over-water early season roses in pots (Feb to April) prior to planting. Water them very well afterwards.)

Then I dig a wide, deep hole, add a good rose/shrub or multi-purpose compost and Q4 fertiliser at the base and mix it so nothing can "burn" any roots.  When I am sure I have the right level (I tend to bury the graft union) I then add micorrhizal funghi to the base of the hole and roots. (I swear by the stuff for all major perennial plants, shrubs and trees. I am convinced they establish faster with it.) Then I put more good compost around the rootball, firm it in gently all round, then cover with the other soil etc.. I then water well ie drench (which means at least one big watering can-full per rose). Planting is really the same whether we have had rain or not. However much rain we have had it is important to water after planting so that the soil/compost moves around and doesn't leave air pockets underground around the roots.

So, to date, I have planted over 40 roses and have four that have come with me in pots.  In my much smaller garden in London I had over 30 roses so this does not frighten me. I just pray they like this much improved soil as much as they did my London clay. They seem to be shooting well so I have high hopes, though not R. High Hopes yet!  Time will tell.

Monday, 16 March 2015 18:42

Planting commandments and plans

 

When I started writing this blog, as the snowdrops appeared, I thought I could cover all of what I have done so far, plant-wise, in one blog – but I can’t. There’s too much to say, so I need to divide it into a few.

This one is about the theory and Commandments of major planting decisions plus the “feel” I want to create: colours, textures, shapes, sizes etc..

The planting plans

On the planning side, certain things were a given – tall plants like trees and large shrubs (both of which I love) have to be restricted to the sides of the garden so they don’t disrupt the view from the kitchen and terrace across the landscaped fields, magnificent oaks and general beauty that stretches out for miles at the end of the garden with only one, very grand, house in sight.

Obviously the rose arch parade will be tall and have lots of climbing roses and other climbers such as Wisteria, Lonicera (honeysuckle) and Clematis, but it has been designed not to obstruct the view from the kitchen French windows and to be seen through/down from the window above the sink. Yes, the garden design plan is that detailed!

And the shadier parts of the garden, mostly closer to the house and terrace, will need plants that can cope with less sun and that also can’t be too tall or they’ll obstruct the view.

Colours and textures

I now have created lots of beds to plant and, honestly, it’s a bit daunting. I have never had so much space to plant in.

On the colour front, in theory, I love all the colours. Some people ban red, orange and bright yellow from their gardens, often because they find them hard to work with. But I love the brighter colours as much as the paler ones. I find they are particularly good in late summer and autumn (think Rudbeckia, Helenium, Canna, Dahlia etc), and am determined to have lots of everything.

But where to put them?

In London I had the simplicity of two major beds to work with. I made one for cooler colours (blues, purples, whites, pinks, very pale yellows) and the other was my ‘hot’ bed, filled with oranges, reds, deep yellows, and purples – the other side of the colour spectrum and path – and they worked very well opposite each other, even in a small space (as shown below).

 

Great borders in “proper” gardens (by which I mean grand, well planned or famous ones) sometimes manage to work all of these colours into one border. And I sort of see achieving this as one of my challenges here. I have two relatively large/long beds in which I plan to allow colour across the spectrum. The first is what is now called, rather too grandly, the ‘Long Border’. It runs from near the terrace to the pond, adjacent to the lawn and to the left of the rose arches. It is x metres long and a metre wide. The beds I am now planting from scratch are detailed below.

The second large planting area is the much-enlarged left bed, now named the ‘Kennett’ border, behind the new shed, which incorporates the peninsula ‘bulge’ into the lawn.

The ‘vegetable’ garden area to the East of the main path will not just be veg.. It will also be a cutting flower garden and I plan to grow sweet peas and Dahlias here alongside beans, salad leaves, beetroot, rainbow chard etc- so the colours will anyway be a bonkers mix. I am hoping it’s going to get enough sun for all these because part of it has quite a high East fence, all of it has the rose arch parade to the West and it has the greenhouse to the South – gulp! Previously it had a greenhouse and shed to the South and still grew fruit etc successfully, so fingers crossed.

Thus I think some serenity, some colour calm, is needed elsewhere. I have four other good-sized beds to plant and four smaller ones, a number being shade beds, plus the raised wall beds. White is always a good colour in the shade and evening and my North facing beds in both my previous homes were pretty lush, with even roses doing well. I feel the four larger beds will all need more restricted colour schemes – pinks, blues and whites in some and yellows, greens and whites with flashes of red in another etc..

The colour and texture of foliage, bark and flowers, shapes and heights, become very much more important at this stage. For instance I haven’t even thought about under-planting at the moment. It’s all about big decisions – trees, major shrubs, flowering seasons, colours and textures.

Some time back I sketched a very loose, wax crayon plan of what I want the Kennett bed to look and feel like with plant ideas.

 

I am very embarrassed to share this awfully bad drawing with you but I am showing you the reality of my planning ie I tend to combine “to the millimetre” hard landscaping design (which you’ve seen) with very much more loose, creative planting plans based around some key plants I want to grow, the colours, forms and textures so I can ‘feel’ visually (if that makes any sense) what it might will look like some years down the line.

Scent

I am obsessed by scent. I want this garden to smell glorious, all year. Scent also brings in all sorts of pollinating insects so lots of decisions will be based on smell as well as everything else.

Capturing scent is trickier here because it’s quite windy and I need to keep the end of the garden open for the views so ‘trapping the scent’ will be tough. An on-going project!

The Commandments of plant selection

As I am sure you know, if you want your garden to thrive it means adhering to a few basic rules – “right plant, right place, right soil” being my First Commandment (the official one is right plant, right place). In my book there are three (and soil gets added to the first) - see below for the other two.

Although there are many notable exceptions, it’s usually a good idea to try to plant plants where they will thrive best. Seems obvious when you think about it so it really annoys me that garden centres and plant producers/labellers don’t usually give enough detail. We have to research a bit more. OK, of course you first read the label. It’s a good start but label planting information varies dramatically and can just be symbols about sun etc.. More often than not, especially in garden centres, the label will not tell you which soil a plant likes. You are expected to know. So if you don’t, ask – or check it out on your handheld. Never walk out of any nursery or garden centre without knowing what your plant needs to thrive. It can be a huge waste of money.

And don’t worry about not knowing. Researching, asking and talking is how we all learn and get better at it. And anyone who knows more than you do will love to tell you – I know I do! To the huge embarrassment of my friends and family, I am forever butting into the conversations of complete strangers in gardens and garden centres and advising them on things I think I know lots about. They are often very surprised but usually grateful. I have even done it across tables in restaurants when I have ear-wigged a planting question with a poor answer. Let’s face it, I’m a plant menace because my enthusiasm for them knows almost no bounds. To be fair, if someone does it to me I love it too. Growing plants is all about sharing ideas and experiences – often with complete strangers. We should all talk more.

I digress. Back to selecting plants.

 It’s also useful to know where plants are native to and what their natural habitat is or was and how they might look/develop – the Second Commandment. The “history” of plants is easy to research in books or online and gives you many more detailed clues as to where to plant them. For example, even if they come from the tropics, but really high up in the mountains where it’s much colder and the soil is thinner, they can do well in a temperate environment like ours if in a similar soil. Some are natural to woodland so grow well under trees or in the shade, others need open vistas, rocky ground and lots of sun etc..

Their Latin name can sometimes help you here too. I am a great believer in Latin names. They often explain so much about a plant and it means that all of us, all over the world, can talk to each other about them - common names of plants are different everywhere. We often have two or three common names per plant, per country/language, let alone all over the world.

One of the very important Latin terms to know is foetidus/a/um or foetidissimus /a/um which all mean foul smelling! But there are a great many others, easy ones, even in the Fs, eg Floribunda (free flowering), flore-pleno (double flowers), flavus (pure yellow), fluvialis (growing in running water) and fragrantissimus (very fragrant).

If, like me, your Latin was never great (I scraped a B at ‘O’ Level) and you are not a trained horticulturalist, there is an RHS book called ‘Latin for Gardeners’ which won a Garden Media Guild award in 2013 and you can get it here. It’s a useful and informative reference work. My major criticism of it is that the type size is tiny and it’s printed in a grey on coloured stock so most people over 40 (the majority of gardeners) will need their reading specs or a magnifying glass to read it – not the most relaxing way to enjoy a book or to learn.

 

Having been a ‘suit’ in graphic design for over ten years it upsets me that somehow the designer/typographer or financier/publisher took over the project from the author (Lorraine Harrison) and produced something that doesn’t meet the brief as well as it could have. I assert that the design fails to meets the needs of the majority of its potential target audience and does disfavour to its creator.

That bug bear dealt with, I have only learned the Latin names of everything because I started my gardening and love of plants in the (easily readable) RHS Encyclopaedia of Plants and Flowers (text printed in a reasonable type size, in black on shiny white) - so I had no choice. I didn’t even think about it and knew no different - that was simply what they were called. Mine was the third edition (1999), a fine book and my bible. I understand it has been re-published recently and comments I’ve heard are not favourable. I’m not sure why, so I need to see it to judge and shall seek a copy. Watch this space!

Soil

The key things about soil are pH (acidity/alkalinity), structure, food and water supply, depth and drainage. As you know I have worked hard (well Dermot, Chris 1 and Syd the digger have worked hard and I have spent loads) to build organic matter into the clay which will help with structure, depth, food supply and drainage. But we are in a dip here and the water table is often not far from the surface – hence the drains under the lawn etc., and despite all these efforts, most of the newly improved soil is seriously claggy (descriptive not technical term) at the moment. At least there are now a gazillion worms from the horse manure to keep it as open as possible.

The Kimmeridge clay is pH6. The horse manure is pH6.5 and the ‘black gold’ compost is pH6. So the final result is pH6 across the beds - just the acid side of neutral. This might seem detailed but it’s the difference between whether acid lovers such as Rhododendrons, Azaleas, heather and Magnolia etc or lime lovers such Ceanothus, Clematis and Lavandula will thrive better. Certainly neighbours are growing heathers and Magnolia successfully in the ground and I see this as a remit to try to grow almost anything except those plants that need the extremes of pH.

By the way, if you have never tested your soil pH, do it now. It’s really easy. Garden centres sell cheap pH testing kits and you just put a bit of lower soil into a tube, add some water and wait to see what colour it turns. However, you should test using rainwater and test more than one part of your garden because it’s amazing how pH can vary, even in a small garden, and obviously the test is affected by the pH of the water from your local water supplier. Because I am testing so many areas I have invested (all of £10) in a pH prod meter rather than eight or more disposable test tube testers.

 

And whatever the pH, I have to assume that, despite all the organic matter I have built in to 60 cms+, lower down the clay will be hard and cracking in summer and wet/waterlogged in winter - a tough environment for the roots of many plants.

The ‘new’ soil is also pretty rich in nutrients. This will be good for many plants but too rich for those that thrive in poor or sandy soils. Also too much nitrogen encourages green, leaf growth rather than flowers in some plants like Nasturtiums and Wisteria, so I need to be careful.

As a result, I have built terrace walls with raised, severely drained beds, have not enriched one ground bed – it’s mostly scraped off topsoil from the old veg. garden - and am building a rockery just so I can grow plants that like different conditions from the normal beds. I have also built a raised vegetable bed for lettuces, beets etc not least because I’ll never get a fine tilth for seed planting on this claggy soil.

Sun, shade and wind

Hours of sunlight can be important for many plants, especially those bearing conspicuous flowers. I have now witnessed my new North-facing garden in midsummer, autumn and winter. In summer all but a tiny bit of it (miraculously) gets lots of sun for much of the day but in winter the sun is restricted to the far half. However, it does depend how tall the plant is – the higher up, the more sun they get. And now, in March, the sun is already higher and most of the beds are getting at least a few hours of sunshine each day – so I am treating it as ‘light’ shade.

The left side, obviously, is East facing in this hemisphere (yes we have readers south of the equator), so gets the morning sun. Lots of less hardy plants (plus some Acers, officially Camellias etc) don’t like morning sun after a cold night because they get frost/sun burned. West facing (ie the right side here) is a more gentle position for them. But wind can ‘burn’ lots of plants too and it’s quite windy here, especially on the West facing side, so my planting decisions are tricky, especially for my Acers and Camelias which have arrived in pots from London.

Be nosy and observant. This is the final and third commandment - check out everyone else’s garden and the environs. I have now managed to visit almost all the back gardens along this track (seven in all) so have been able to see what plants thrive in similar conditions and been able to ask about what doesn’t – all very helpful.

Seeing what grows well in the countryside around can be very helpful too. This area if full of Quercus (oaks), Salix (Willows) and Cornus (dogwoods) and hawthorn/brambles, all of which can cope with wet soil and it is now awash with snowdrops and early daffodils.

(Pics of oaks and dogwood locally?)

So commandments known, I set out to buy trees, shrubs, roses, climbers, perennials, annuals, veg seeds etc.. The next blogs cover my purchasing decisions.

But be aware, the fact that I now have a 100 year old rhubarb plant in my veg bed, donated by a neighbour - and I didn’t plan to grow rhubarb - is testament to the fact that, despite all my plans and the Commandments, I make emotional as well as logical decisions when it comes to plants and planting. I am now cramming learning on growing rhubarb.

Meanwhile the video shows the hard landscaping development – again. We’re nearly there! At least I have a greenhouse I am planting seeds in. Hooray!

 

Thursday, 15 January 2015 17:32

Being Libra

 

Decisions, decisions, decisions – do you love them or hate them? I love them but, as a fairly typical Libran, I find them tricky. I can see both sides of almost any argument. I don't really believe in any of this stuff - mankind divided into twelve types - but I do seem to be a typical Libran. New aquaintances guess I am a stronger sign, like Leo or Taurus, but other Librans spot me a mile off. Very weird.

Anyway, in business I have taught myself to make decisions more quickly than I would naturally. In my private life I find them more difficult and, in the garden build, I have had to spend the last some months making really major ones. Trees for example, are expensive, important and long lasting. Smaller plants are cheaper and easier to remove or re-position if you find they don’t work. However, on the whole, it is not planting decisions that have been troubling me. It’s the hard stuff - stone, gravel and bricks.

Around here there is a wide range of local stone and brick colours from grey through creamy yellows to reds, so really I could choose any colours for the hard bits in my garden. But, like a child in a sweet shop, the more choice I have, the larger the problem becomes and the longer it takes to decide. And, after all, hard landscaping is pretty permanent. This is a one-time decision unless you have pots of money and time to remedy a mistake. I want, and need, to get it right first time.

I need stone for the kitchen and pond terraces and within the two major paths. I need bricks for the greenhouse dwarf wall and the mini walls around the terrace and I need something – bricks, wood, stone? - in the two key paths and as edgings generally.

A reminder of the garden plan

I managed to make one major decision relatively quickly (over about six weeks), which is to use ‘Cathedral’ limestone for the flagstones on the terraces and in the paths. And now the kitchen terrace has been laid (mostly), so there is no going back. It is lightly yellow/pink/grey with hints of darker orange, is not too riven but has enough ‘surface’ to make it non-slippy.  And, now it’s down, I am happy. It’s not as unusual as the stone I had on my London terrace but that was a one-off delivery from China and seems unrepeatable. Believe me I have tried.

So now, everything else is sort of going to have ‘hang off” or “work with” its colours. Lots of people have come up with ideas. Dermot has, of course, as have my wonderful neighbours, one of whom happens to be an RHS award winning garden designer, Robert Kennett.

You should understand that I have been inspired by a photograph of a path in a great book called ‘Gardening in a Small Space’ by Lance Hattatt. I thoroughly recommend this book and you can buy it for almost nothing (sadly) on Amazon.

I think this path is completely beautiful and want my two major paths to look like this  - ie the long, straight, 6ft wide path from the kitchen terrace which goes down the garden under the rose arches to the pond terrace, and the curving, 4ft wide one which runs from my side gate to the Kennett’s garden gate which joins our gardens together.

This path is grey stones and gravel and, for a long time, it caused me to toy with grey as a colour. Grey sets off the green of grass and plants so well. But I have decided against it. I am going with warmer colours again. Another decision made at last. But which warmer colours and how warm?

And I can’t copy the path in the photo exactly ie using railway sleepers as edges, because they won’t bend for the curving path. But I want to recreate the ‘essence’ of it with its pattern, using different sizes and textures of stone and gravel.

Monday, 17 November 2014 22:01

Wildlife update

 

Those of you who have been following the blog since London times will know that I am keen to attract wildlife to my garden, particularly birds (except herons and magpies), frogs and toads, bees, butterflies and moths.

Unless you have the space for a wildlife meadow (which I don’t) the best ways to achieve this are to add trees and shrubs, lots of planting for cover, add water (preferably a pond or stream but any water helps), and plant lots of scented flowers in different colours so that the garden is scented throughout the year (especially with open bells and single, flat faced or open flowers that can be visited easily). Feed the birds and leave a bit of mess around somewhere (piles of logs, old bits of wood, old canes etc.) in a discreet corner for the smaller insects to nest in, feed on or hibernate in. You can also leave a few nettles and brambles because lots of butterflies and moths like to lay their eggs on them but I don’t need to bother with that. The farmer is doing it for me.

My new garden design and planting plans are designed to achieve exactly this but, even though there is nothing here now, ever since arriving I have been keeping a keen eye on what wildlife is around anyway, before I add my pond, trees, shrubs and flowers. And the great news is that it is already wonderfully busy.

Moths and butterflies

July was moth month. The entire house was filled with moths of an amazing variety most of which I had not seen before. I would have preferred them to be in the garden (they filled baths, covered walls etc) but, with the windows open and lights on, the inevitable happened.

Moth Black Arches

Butterflies too were abundant, especially red admirals, tortoiseshells and painted ladies. One of them died gracefully beside my bed and is still there – a colourful and delicate reminder of sunnier days.

The beautiful small tortoiseshell butterfly that died beside my bed

I suspect that the prolific brambles and nettles that are trying to invade the garden from the neighbouring field are responsible for this plethora of dainties but clearly I want to keep these spikey and stinging invaders at bay. I am removing them from the end of the garden because they are obscuring the view and wish to do the same at the side. It will be interesting to see whether I shall be visited in the same numbers next year.

Leggy things

In August I was thrilled to be visited by an enormous cricket. He must have been 5-6cms long, was beautiful colours, had huge eyes and legs and spent some time watching me through the glass on a French door. I’ve certainly never seen anything like him before.

The profile and undrneath of the huge cricket shot on and through filthy glass

In my London garden September was spider month but every month here seems to be spider month and most of them are indoors or around the windows. I think the cricket was after one of the flies trapped in one of the millions of webs that are spun in seconds.

September here was actually crane fly month – also inside not out. They were everywhere and often became trapped in the spider webs despite my clearing these on a very regular basis.

Frogs and toads

They are around because next door’s garden has them but the only one I’ve actually seen to date was a small male who found himself stuck in a watering can so was gently released into some cover in the field.

Birds

Despite removing most of the existing vegetation in the garden the birds are plentiful. My neighbours feed them well and have trees (as do I now - but more of that another time), so the garden is full of birds whizzing from side to side. Many are the same as in London. We have our resident robins, blackbirds – one of whom has a white feather, tits, goldfinches, sparrows and wrens. There is a pair of doves and a few pigeons, though thankfully fewer than in London.

Saturday, 08 November 2014 16:17

Of men, muck and mud

Check this video out - my garden creators are also musicians

It is somewhat apt that in September 2014 the new garden resembled the Marne 100 years on – all vegetation, trenches, rain, endless mud and tangled barbed wire. Though clearly incomparable, as I sport my red poppy, I remember and honour those who struggled, fought, died and prevailed with a new appreciation.

Thankfully, the weather outside September has been glorious but, almost since I moved in, the site has been full of men, each one striving, giving their best and “going in” where less valiant ones might fear to tread.

The vanguard arrived in July. They were Mark Hawes and his team of three from Hawes Arborists. They arrived in their protective uniforms, armed to the teeth with chain saws, long cutters and a tree chewing device.

They made short but noisy work of the willows et al in the left bed plus the extraneous shrubs, trees and overhanging branches from the right. They were a great bunch: knowledgeable, experienced, courteous, hard-working, efficient and very cost effective. Mark lives in the village so it was great to be able to give this work locally – and a fine job they did too. They even cut up the logs for me to add to the log pile, were sweet to the dogs (who tried to get involved of course), and tidied up beautifully after themselves. They come highly recommended.

Almost immediately after the tree and shrub removal two major characters in what will become an unfolding story arrived – Dermot West, my wonderful garden landscape creator and Syd, the digger, so called because she was hired from Sydenhams, a fantastic store near Gillingham which can supply almost everything you need for house and garden destruction and construction.


I found Dermot online whilst I was still in London and, despite getting other recommendations from people I knew in the area, on meeting him here, I knew he was the man for my garden. He is based in Frome (about half an hour away) and his company is Eclipse Garden Landscaping. He can do anything - build pergolas and walls, lay stones and paths, dig beds, do fencing, even put up curtain poles in the house when it is raining  - and play the banjo and guitar, as you can see in the video.

Dermot is intensely hard-working, a joy to work with, dedicated to the job and seems to care as much about the finished outcome as I do. Let’s face it, when you are going to spend every day with someone for many months, it matters that you get on and see eye to eye. Dermot is my garden’s star. Syd is his accomplice. And Dermot can work Syd like an artist. He has obviously had a much misspent youth in computer gaming. The way Dermot plays the levers to make Syd dig, mix, filter and smooth out the ground, even in minute areas, is like watching any other artist at work – spellbinding and awe inspiring.

Dermot also came with two right hand men – 'Chris 1' (only so named because he was shortly followed by another Chris dubbed 'Chris 2'). Chris 2, I have discovered, is also an actor and can play almost any musical instrument including the double bass (as you'll see in the video).

No garden redesign that Dermot is managing can exist without levelling tools and very many tins of red spray paint.

So, together, Dermot, his spray paint and I translated my computer design into real, red lines on the ground. I made a few small changes, but not many - one extra path.

Then Dermot, Chris 1 and Syd removed the gravel sea and old terrace, dug all the existing and new beds to two feet minimum, dug the new pond to over three feet, put loads of clay into multiple skips and made a pile to create the base for a rockery near the pond.

I sold the gravel, the old terrace tiles and the greenhouse on ebay to lovely people and one of my neighbours took the shed, so the house became full of things that should be stored in garden buildings - just as my new kitchen was being installed. Life was fairly hectic. At one point there were seven men on site in any given day, all doing different things and I was buying milk in multi litres to keep the tea and coffee flowing - from the utility room!

Working on clay is a serious issue – and this clay is very serious, very deep and very compact. The only reasonable top soil was on the veg bed. Everywhere else, and obviously under the gravel sea, near the house etc., had no good top soil. So my first challenge was to create a fertile environment for all the plants I want to plant. And let’s face it, good soil is the basis of everything. Creating it is money well spent. It doesn’t matter how good your design is if plants can’t thrive.

A view of the clay as the pond is dug

From a myriad of books, websites and BBC Gardeners' Question Time, I knew I had to incorporate lots of organic matter, preferably well-rotted horse manure, to break up the clay. All similar recent advice also said that putting grit in was useless unless you did it in vast proportions. So I decided I needed horse manure and I would add grit to planting holes for specific plants as needed.

At the same time Dermot swore by the cooked, black compost made from the green waste at the tip. So, to begin with, and because I was having great trouble finding well-rotted horse manure in time, I agreed to use it. Seven tons arrived early one morning to take up most of my front drive. It turned out to be fabulous, black, friable and steaming. It was used in an instant and another seven tons ordered and delivered.

I have never ordered anything in tons before. I have ordered bags or even dumpy bags in London, but tons? Suddenly my life became full of seven or ten ton trucks delivering things - especially skips. And, can you believe, the man who does the horrendously regular skip swapping knows this house well because his grandparents once lived here.

But I didn’t think this lovely black, compost stuff was enough. There were no worms in my garden or signs of organic life except deep down in the clay of the pond. Cooked compost doesn’t have worms. So I set out on my pre-determined quest to find well-rotted horse manure because it is deeply rich, highly textured and normally full of good orgamisms with which to enrich and break up the clay soil.

First I looked online - my normal, London-based, response to any search. All I found was people complaining they couldn’t find any. It seems that those who have well rotted horse manure around here don’t advertise online or use ebay.

So I rang all the local studs – there are lots in the neighbourhood – but everything was too fresh or used on their own fields.

I asked everyone I met locally and in the village shop. The shop is a community one and staffed by lots of well-connected 'volunteers' of which I shall become one in good time - to no avail.

So I set out in the car. I had a hunch I had seen signs on the roads locally. One of my more annoying habits is that I am observant and have a wont to comment out loud on signs I see from a car. However, in this case, my “sign observing” has proved useful. I knew I had seen two signs for horse manure in my exploratory drives within 20 miles of my new home. I also have a somewhat photographic memory. So I wracked it and set off, first to a place between Gillingham and Shaftesbury where I was pretty certain I had seen a sign.

Monday, 27 October 2014 17:33

New design challenges

Wow, this new place is fantastic - fabulous village, lovely, friendly, interesting people and amazing views. It may be the "middle of nowhere" but it is very close to major roads (though you can't hear them) and Shaftesbury, Tisbury, Warminster and even Salisbury. My new home and garden is on the Dorset/Wiltshire border and I am in heaven.

So to the garden....having searched for a country garden of a quarter to a third of an acre, South-West facing and preferably not on clay, I have compromised – well one has to compromise somewhere. I have found my perfect new home so have compromised a little on the garden. It is only four times the size of the London one ie 120 feet long by 54 feet wide (not even a sixth of an acre with the front garden included!) so it’s still a “small” garden – plus it’s North facing and on the thickest, heaviest clay you have ever seen. So, despite moving from London to the Dorset/Wiltshire border, I shall still be writing about creating and gardening in a small garden on clay.

But now I have many new challenges – starting with the design.  

The situation

I have fantastic views which I need to incorporate and not encroach on too much. In London it was easy. Everything was fences onto neighbours’ gardens and I could hide them away with trees and climbing plants. Now I have a beautifully landscaped estate of farmland and magnificent oak trees to build into my view from the back garden and a wonderfully tree-filled hill view over a common to the front. There is not a house in sight from the kitchen even though I am in a terrace of cottages first built in 1880, plus around six other dwellings on our potholed, unadopted road known as "the track”.

The back garden view

Front garden view

Though North facing, the garden is remarkably sunny for most of the day because of the layout and height of the house.  And as someone said, the great thing about North facing gardens is that the flowers look towards the house, not away from it - something to look forward to. But is also quite exposed and windy being surrounded by open fields and commons. It’ll also be colder than London of course.

And the clay is horrendous. In this area I expected to be on chalk or greenstone or at least something not clay. However, I am on a huge seam of Kimmeridge clay which comes up from the Dorset coast. It is very deep and intensely solid – you could throw pots from it in a minute. The garden has very little added top soil except on the old veg bed.

Clay has its positives. It retains minerals and goodness generally so is rich in nutrients but it cracks when dry (which can cause root disturbance) and holds water, which is not great in a wet winter on a flattish site – think bogs and mud. The previous owners have installed under-lawn drainage pipes to stop it getting waterlogged but I am going to have to work through and around these to create my new garden.

The garden as I bought it

The planting on purchase was a whole bed of self-sown hedgerow willows down the left border, two small trees (Bramley apple and Robinia aurea ) at the front of the lawn and a Rhus typhinia, a Viburnum and a Sorbus at the end of the lawn - all obscuring the view. There was also a young silver birch and a contorted willow which I am endeavouring to build into my plans and keep.

However, between the house and the lawn is a terrace and then a vast sea of gravel about 15 feet long, 54 feet wide and 8 inches deep. The house feels miles from the garden and the gravel is Dorset flint which is big, sharp and extremely difficult to walk on for me, let alone the dogs. So the first thing I had to do when I arrived was to create a pathway across it, for all of us, from old planks and bits of wood I found in the wood shed.

The bridge across the gravel sea - almost biblical?

The second, of course, was to completely redesign it,  which I started doing whilst still in London.

The key design challenges

  1. To bring the garden closer to the house, make it feel integrated and bring the wildlife closer for easy filming
  2. To create height and interest without impeding the views. It is level-ish and wooden fenced
  3. To add a large pond and create more plant borders whilst keeping enough lawn for Pickle and Lottie
  4. To re-invigorate, widen and deepen the existing beds – only the veg bed had any reasonable level of top soil and signs of worm life
  5. To create more planting areas for all the trees and other plants I want to grow
  6. To site the new greenhouse, shed, compost bins and a washing line without them encroaching on the view or casting too much shade
  7. To deal with the utilities. Our four cottages share a septic tank next door and all the pipes run through the back garden - somewhere?! The garden has existing drainage we have to work with, and I need electricity and water to the shed and greenhouse and pond pumps.
  8. To keep reasonable access to the gate into next door’s garden so they can fill their oil tank via my side access – and to facilitate their popping over for a drink, as is their wont, plus dog and child swapping generally which is already a feature of daily life
  9. To create cover for the unsightly oil tank and to disguise a large electricity pole
  10. To create alternative privacy for my neighbours to the right. At the moment this is achieved by a bank of brambles and nettles in the dairy farmer’s field which encroach into my garden – not ideal planting companions!
  11. The planting: to combine plant colours and textures. My last garden was so small it made sense to have a hot bed full of vivid colours separate from the cooler bed. And let’s face it, it’s much easier to do. But now I want to learn how to make them work together without banning a single colour. So there will be orange, purple, wild yellow and red alongside the easier pinks, blues and whites, plus greens, browns and maroons etc. - gulp!

Design process

I made lots of rough drawings but knew the design had to be to scale so a garden design program would be really helpful, as it was 11 years ago. I researched lots of potential garden design programs and eventually invested about £60 in one called Realtime Landscaping Pro 2014 from Idea Spectrum.

Overall, I am very pleased with it. It is easy to use, you can work in plan or perspective view, and view in 3D - as mouse controlled walkthrough or using video cameras. It has a good number of features and items to include in the plan, it’s easy to change them and it also does some cute things. For example, if you add a bird bath you get birds using it and if you plant scented plants you get butterflies fluttering around.

However, it is pretty American! You can choose from a thousand different modern house styles, decking types, swimming pools, patio stones and lawns but there is not a single climbing plant and only one vegetable in the plant list. I can’t imagine a garden without climbing roses, clematis, jasmine, honeysuckle, sweet peas, wisteria , even ivy, let alone the more interesting climbers. And I don’t want a vegetable garden completely full of cabbages either. I have offered to advise them on this for their next version but they have politely turned me down.

Initially I tried dividing the garden quite strongly into different “rooms” but it meant losing views or too much lawn with dividing features (hedges, walls, fences etc). So the final design remains a "whole", with different “areas”. I have incorporated some ideas from my London garden that worked well such as the low walls around the terrace which provide well-drained sites for alpines etc, the stream running into the pond and the rustic swing seat from Duckpaddle over which one can grow climbers, but otherwise it’s very new.

The new design

So the new garden will have a greenhouse in almost the same place as the existing one (which was correctly sited East/West and is in a sunny position). It is on order but won’t arrive until January which is OK for most seed planting. We shall build its base and brick walls in advance. It will be 10’x10’, not 12’x8’ so that it does not interrupt the sight line from the kitchen sink window, down the rose arches, to the view. A matching cold frame will sit the other side of it alongside an outdoor sink. The new compost bins will be at the beginning of the veg/cutting beds nearby.

I’ve moved the shed (which will be a new one) to the other side of the garden so it doesn’t block the Southern light through the side access to the veg garden.
There will be a long, six feet wide path up from the terrace towards the new huge pond and rock garden at the end of the garden. The path will be covered in black metal rose arches covered in climbers and have a long border down the left of it with a gap in the middle to allow movement to the left onto the lawn and to the right into the extended veg/cutting garden. At the end of the path will be more hard standing, the rustic swing seat and a bridge over the pond. I shall keep the existing metal gates in the fence at the end (but hang them properly) so that it looks as if the view through them is an extension of my garden.

The border down the left will be widened, the self-seeded willows (and everything else) removed and a peninsular bed added.

The sea of gravel and misplaced young tress will disappear and the lawn will come towards the house (accompanied by the long border). Two beds have been added nearer the house (so will be shadier beds – but shade beds are a fun challenge), with another around the trellis hiding the oil tank and one by the low terrace wall near the new side gate. The path from the side gate is four feet wide and ends up at the gate into the neighbour’s garden. Everything except the rose walk path is curvy - and it'll look a bit like this from where I sit and work.

The same view in the old garden looked like this.

So I am now happy with the overall design – all I need is someone to build it for me and clear what’s there at the moment…..watch this space!

Page 3 of 4