Bad Timing

It’s beginning to dawn on me that my timing may be a little out, it being January, and here I am committed to weekly posts about my garden, which at the moment is grey and gloomy and perishingly cold, and reluctant to offer up too many good stories.

So it’s a challenge.

But January feels like a good time for a challenge. And I’m telling myself that if I can come up with something to write about for a post at this miserable time of year, and if I can come up with subject matter to shoot for the online plant and flower photography course I’m doing at the moment with the great Clive Nichols at mygardenschool, then it’s going to seem like a piece of cake when things warm up.

At least that’s what I’m telling myself!

And when I’m really struggling it helps to remind myself of the damp and dismal winter we had last year, when it didn’t get cold, it just got murky. This year we have had more than our fair share of frosty mornings when the the sun shines and the world is ice encrusted and glistening. The silhouettes of the trees stand like sculptures against the winter skies, the sunsets take my breath away. And why is it that on these glorious days I don’t have time to get outside with my camera and only have spare time on days like today when it’s perishing and grey and…

Oh stop moaning woman and get on with the job in hand.

Because the truth is there’s still so much to enjoy in the garden. I just have to brave the elements, whatever the elements happen to be. And even though it’s freezing degrees fahrenheit outside and the ground is rock hard, the plants know that spring is around the corner and they are getting themselves in shape for it.

First the Galanthus nivalis, the snowdrops. Never ones to be put off by the cold they are getting ready to flower any day now.

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Snowdrops getting ready for action

Then there’s the Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ I planted in the autumn. It’s clustering beautifully and getting ready to put on a show at any moment.

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Enough buds

One of my all time favourite plants, the Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii, which has delivered its structural elegance to the winter garden, is limbering up and preparing to put on it’s lime green loveliness for the benefit of contrast, so that when the tulips and the daffodils and the scillas and the muscari come into flower they have something to work with. I have several strategically placed around the garden. Last year’s mild winter saw it flowering from November. This year we have to wait. But it’s so worth it.

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Euphorbia with rain

The hellebores are getting ready by the driveway. The Sarcococca confusa is wafting occasional bursts of scent, but really wants it to warm up a couple of degrees in order for it to release the full strength of its sweetness. The Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ is laden with buds whose scent is one of the most exquisite of any I know, so that people who rarely notice such things comment as they walk past it to the kitchen door.

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Euphorbia with Daphne and red stemmed Cornus

In the front garden buds are showing on the Amalanchier and the guelder rose and the Prunus. Once you start paying attention it’s amazing how much is happening out there.

And inside I’m playing around with reflectors and backgrounds and apertures. And  I’m breaking my resolution not to buy flowers because at the moment I have no option.

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Tulip against black velvet

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Ranunculus from above

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Don’t know what this is but I like it!

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Inner tulip

I can’t wait until the cutting garden starts delivering because this year I’m hoping that I will have much more of a clue about how to take photos of what comes out of it.

So… I’ve written myself into a good mood. This week’s post has delivered a whole lot more than I imagined it would. And there’s next week to look forward to.

Bare bones and skeletons

So it begins.

With snow.

2017-01-13-12-56-43

Not very much snow. But still a chance to see the bare bones of the garden. Which is as good a place to start this year of weekly posts as any.

But before I embark let me fill you in on a bit of background.

For those who may not know the history of this garden, I should explain that sixteen years ago it wasn’t… a garden that is. What it was was an awkward triangle of about half an acre of sloping lawn surrounded by stock fencing. The kind of space you look over and out of rather than into. It was the garden developers leave for you when they’ve finished. Need I say more!

The garden at Little Court House 2
Room for improvement….

And this is how it stayed for a couple of years. Until the time came to ask for help from my mate Judes; who happens to be a garden designer of the very best kind. One of that rare breed who understand space and function and form.

Under Judy’s expert eye the contractors got going and the garden began its transformation. Once the landscaping was done it was time to get on with the planting. In a haphazard, unplanned, suck it and see kind of way that taught me a great deal about what goes where and what doesn’t, I bought plants I liked and put them in the ground. Which gave me an unimagined amount of pleasure, along with a fair amount of pain, as things outgrew their allotted spaces, self seeded, spread, grew this way when I wanted them to grow that, looked wrong, failed to thrive, died; in fact did all those things that plants do when you add a bit of sun and rain, and wait to see what happens.

Because when I started out as a novice gardener I was under the impression that you just planted things and left them to get on with it. I had no idea that shoving a drought loving plant into my heavy clay soil was like uprooting a camel from the Sahara and expecting it to thrive in Greenland. Plants know what they like and I learned that trying to force them to do anything different is an expensive mistake.

As for leaving them to get on with it. I realise now that this is akin to believing that the hair on your head should be left to grow as nature intended. Without interference. Now there may be many who are completely fine with this approach, but I’ve always been a seek out a good hairdresser and visit them regularly kind of girl. Plants need to be shaped, fed, nurtured. They need to be re-assessed and re-styled every now and then. It’s not that I don’t love natural. I just think it needs some help along the way.

Two years ago, with the benefit of all the years of hard work in my own garden, along with garden visits, trips to flower shows, books read, garden magazines thumbed, catalogues poured over, conversations had, and my garden design course under my belt, I took a step back, looked at what was in front of me, and realised that it was time for a major re-edit.

I went through the garden bed by bed, plant by plant, getting rid of any that didn’t please me. I drew up proper planting plans for the main beds. I reworked the area on the other side of the hedge which had been field, and was now home to a very uneven lawn, greenhouse and vegetable garden.

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Work in progress!

Over the past couple of years I’ve rejected, replanted, moved, cut back and generally overhauled the entire space. This year I hope to see the fruits of my labours start to deliver. Which is another reason I want to keep this blog/diary.

This week the garden is resting, for a couple of days slumbering under a light blanket of snow, with the odd downpour thrown in for good measure, and today a burst of winter sunshine. I’ve been out there with my camera. This is the time when the structure of the garden is revealed. Now is when I can see if it’s working. And I’m pleased to report that the skeleton is looking pretty good.

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Snowy garden

At this time of year it’s easy to believe that there’s nothing going on in the garden. But when it seems that there isn’t much to look at, you just have to look a little harder!

There’s beauty to be found in the bones.

My Gardening Year

I gave up on New Year resolutions a long time ago. Too easy to make; too hard to keep.

But with the Christmas decorations back in the attic, the pine needles swept away with the Christmas tree, the Christmas cards sent off for recycling, I’m beginning to feel the shiver of anticipation that is one of the joys of being a gardener at this time of year. It comes from spotting the silver green shoots of the snowdrops pushing up through the cold bare soil, from catching a waft of scent from the Sarcococca by the back door when I put out the rubbish, from seeing the spiky fronds of the Muscari assembling along the edges of the pathways. I sit in my kitchen and look out at the bare bones of the outdoor space that I’ve made for myself and I’m full of excitement for the year ahead.

So I know we’ve got Trump and Brexit and melting ice caps and all manner of scary things going on in the world. But – right here, right now – deep in the brown earth of my garden things are gathering strength and energy and getting ready to put on a show. Whatever else happens the garden will do it’s thing for better or worse. And I’m going to be right there with it.

Because this year I’m going to do what I’ve been promising myself for years and keep a regular record. This January of 2017 my resolution is to write a weekly post about whatever is happening in my garden that captures my attention, so that one day I can look back and be reminded of what a year in my garden really feels like. One of my birthday presents at the beginning of December was a subscription to Clive Nichols’ online photography course with The English Gardening School. (Which I’m about to start!) So hopefully, as the year progresses, the photos that go with my posts will have that extra edge. But whatever happens I will do my best to post something, anything to give you, me, and anybody else who is interested, an account of the ups and downs of my gardening year.

So…

Watch this space.

 

Back to basics…

It’s that time of year. Weather frightful. Rain hurling itself at the window. Wind wailing in the eaves. But, as far as I’m concerned, it can do what it likes.

Because I’m on a mission. The Jane King, DIY, get to grips with, find the confidence that’s been lacking, go back and have another go, mission. And the aim of this mission – to redesign the planting for the four central beds of my garden. I’ve put novel writing on hold and I’m channelling the gardener in me.

When I started with this garden in the early days, I knew less than nothing. I bunged plants in with little thought to how big they were going to grow, what shape I wanted them to be, how they would look when they were grown up. Some turned out ok. Others haven’t worked quite so well. Now, with time and space to draw breath and contemplate, I’m having a rethink.

These are the beds I’m working on.

Exhibit A…

Where do I begin???
The Where Do I Begin Bed

This is my biggest challenge. North-west facing, heavy clay, and more ins and outs to it than the Hokey Cokey. I’ve already drawn up and thrown away at least three plans. (The first of which I showed you in my last post.) So it’s still very much work in progress.

Exhibit B…

The White Mischief Bed
The White Mischief Bed

I went all Vita with this bed and decided it was going to be my white moment. It hasn’t worked. Which is why I’m having a rethink.

Exhibit C…

The Never Satisfied Bed
The Never Satisfied Bed

This was supposed to be my hot border. Didn’t really work. Time to reconsider.

Exhibit D…

The Rewrite Bed
The Rewrite Bed

This bed has had more rewrites than my first novel. (The Greenyards Legacy – you have read it haven’t you? And if you haven’t… WHY NOT?) Now I’m going to do it properly.

So you might think that – HAVING DONE A GARDEN DESIGN COURSE – I would have all of this planting design stuff under my belt, that I would be able to rustle up a cunning plan with my eyes shut. You would be wrong.

The amount of time we spent during the course on the principles of putting together a planting plan was minimal. Which left me contemplating the prospect with fear and trembling. Where to start? What to do? There are a million and one plants out there. Which, what, who am I going to choose? And how, when, where am I going to position them?

But with the help of two really excellent books, (The Complete Planting Design Course by Hilary Thomas and Steven Wooster, and Colour Your Garden by Jill Billington) I’ve gone back to basics. I’ve sharpened my pencils and I’m putting my ideas down on paper. I’m dusting off and rediscovering my Vectorworks skills, plotting and replotting plant combinations, drawing up plans… and then rethinking and starting over. I’m learning that, where the planting is concerned, it is important to view the garden as a whole, not, as I have been doing, as individual beds. I’m discovering that small gardens need a different approach to large. That there is an approach to planning the front, middle and back of borders which I’ve been failing to consider. And the light is beginning to dawn. I can do this thing. I have got what it takes.

Who knows where this will take me? But one thing’s for sure – my garden is going to look bloomin’ fantastic.

Oops…

So…

After the big announcement in my last post about NOT being a garden designer, I’ve got a confession to make. Because I think I might have been a bit hasty.

I’ve just spent the last few hours doing planting plans for my garden. I’ve taken photos, done some sketches, brushed the cobwebs off my CAD design skills, pulled out a few plant guides, and hallelujah…

You know what? I love doing planting plans… I really do. Which is pretty amazing considering that trying to do them as part of the ****ing garden design course I embarked on a couple of years ago nearly finished me off, made me think that I was the most useless person this side of Uselesstown, and turned me into a garden hater.

But it’s amazing what a bit of rest and recuperation can do. I realised things were beginning to turn around when I was able to look through the window at my garden without a feeling of dread; when, after deciding that topiarising my yew hedge into football supporters was a really bad idea, I went out and had a look at the uncut growth and saw Chelsea fans waiting to emerge;

Yew hedge in waiting
Yew hedge in waiting

when I heard my greenhouse calling to me in a welcoming tone, rather than sitting petulantly in the corner of the garden threatening me with all sorts of dire consequences if I didn’t get out there and get going.

The love of my life....
Last summer! The love of my life….

I think it was when Chris (the pruning expert you really need when your climbing plants have gone awol), arrived this morning to give me a hand with rejuvenating the roses and wisteria on the pergola, that I finally knew I was back in business.

Serious pruning
Serious pruning

I was out there in the wind and the rain, loving every minute of it (I KNOW!). And, when it finally got too cold and too wet to carry on, I came in, went straight to my desk, and started plant planningTa-dah!

Ta-dah!

And now I feel like writing about it. So maybe I am a garden designer… Of a sort. I know I said I wasn’t sure if I was going to carry on with this blog. But that was before. And this is now. And writing is what I love doing. And so is gardening.

So…

Watch this space!

Blotting Paper….

So…. my greenhouse….

You remember when you were little, and you did that thing with blotting paper and cress? Soak the blotting paper, put it on a plate, sprinkle it with seeds, keep it damp. A few days later….

Something extraordinary has happened. Spidery green shoots curling their way out of the seed cases. Wait a few more days – and there are slender fronds, each with its own hat of tiny leaves, waving gently at you and saying look, how amazing are we? Which is a miracle in itself. But it doesn’t stop there. Because when those little fronds are big enough, you get to eat them.

Well, my first greenhouse year has been the blotting paper experience on a grand scale. I started with nothing but a few packets of husky little brown things. Messed around with soil and pots. Sprinkled the husky brown things around a bit. Got busy with the watering can. After a few days extraordinary things began to happen.

Where it begins....
Where it begins…

And they went on happening. Every day something new and wonderful. And every week the vegetable garden turns into a new and completely different space.

Start with bare earth
Start with bare earth

Add a bit of cane construction....
Add a bit of cane construction….

Mix with sunshine and rain....
Mix with sunshine and rain….

And leave to rise....
And leave to rise….

And then you can start picking.

Amazing Aubergines
Amazing Aubergines

Preposterous peppers
Preposterous peppers

Tempting Tomatoes
Tempting Tomatoes

Colourful Kale
Colourful Kale

So the thing is…. what I can’t get my head around…. is how does it happen? I’ve done the science; I’ve sat the exam. But it still feels like magic to me.

 

 

Fairweather Friend….

So you know that friend, the really good one, the one you see all the time, do stuff with, text, email, meet for coffee….

…. until the day they disappear off the face of the earth.

Suddenly you don’t hear from them, they don’t return your calls, reply to your texts, turn up when they say they will. You begin to worry. Have they emigrated? Found religion? Been kidnapped?

But then you find out that it’s none of these. Because you know what’s happened? They’ve fallen in love. And suddenly they don’t need you anymore.

So, now it’s me. I’m the guilty ‘what happened to you?’, ‘haven’t seen you around much’ party. For weeks, months, years even, (ok, just one year, but it’s felt like more to me) you’ve had posts appearing on a regular basis. Weekly updates on the things that catch my eye, tickle my fancy, get me thinking. But for the last couple of months there’s been nothing. Apart from the occasional message promising the earth…. I’ll be there for you…. I’ve been away but now I’m back…. Better than ever…. etc, etc, etc.

So what’s been going on?

Deep breath…. finally…. it’s time to come clean. I am in love…. With…. Very loud drumroll….

My greenhouse.

The love of my life....
The love of my life….

I KNOW!

HOW SAD IS THAT!

It could have gone either way. If I’m honest I was really worried. That it was going to be another thing I didn’t have time for, a commitment too far, a stick to beat myself with, an impulse purchase to regret when I remembered that it was out there in my garden abandoned and unloved.

But it’s neither abandoned or unloved. In fact it’s my favourite thing in the whole world. I’m never happier than when I’m watering my tomatoes and cultivating my cucumbers. I spend every moment I can in it. I want to move into it.

There….

I’ve finally owned up. And I feel so much better.

Now you can look forward to lots of posts about vegetables….

Or maybe not.

And I’m aware that there is a ‘Whatever Happened to Garden Design?’ issue to address. And a ‘Where’s this book you’ve been threatening to release onto an unsuspecting world?” question to answer.

I just hope you’re willing to stick with me.

Friends in love don’t have to disappear. They just have to make more of an effort.

 

The downside….

Ok….

Bit of a bummer….

I’ve discovered an unexpected downside to doing a garden design course. Which is that my critical eye has got more critical…. Now when I look at my own garden I’m seeing what’s wrong with it, rather than what’s right. And I’ve got a worrying feeling that the only answer is a bed by bed overhaul. I think I might have rather a lot of work ahead of me.

The good news is that the basic structure looks as good as ever. How lucky was I that before I properly appreciated what a really good garden designer could achieve I had a really good garden designer as a friend. Thanks to my mate Judes there is absolutely nothing wrong and absolutely everything right with the way the garden is laid out so the backbone is there. And luckily, thanks to her, I realised pretty quickly how important it is to provide a framework of trees and shrubs. So the structure is all there too.

It’s the bits in between that I’m thinking could do with a bit of reworking. And I’m starting with the front garden. To be fair my front garden has been work in progress for the past – shameful to admit it – over two years. Which is when we moved our front door from the side of the house to the middle.

We’ve lived in this house for coming up for fourteen years, and the thing that never worked terribly well for most of that time was the front entrance.

Fourteen years ago we moved in….

It was tacked onto a corner, from the days before we moved in when the house was smaller, with the porch leading through a front door into a narrow corridor. So that people came in and were surprised that there was more house than they expected.

The dining room window is the one in the middle....
In those days the front garden left a lot to be desired….

And it’s going to sound really sad, but I spent years trying to come up with a solution. Move walls here, put doors there, make this room smaller, that room bigger. Nothing seemed to work and I ended up thinking that we would just have to live with it the way it was. Until Christmas three years ago when I had one of my Eureka moments (they come if you wait for them) and realised that the thing to do was to lose the dining room, because it was never a very nice dining room, and we were always happier in the kitchen; turn what was the dining room into an entrance hall; turn the existing entrance ‘corridor’ into a downstairs loo; turn the existing downstairs loo (never great because of a difficult sloping ceiling) into a rather wonderful cupboard/walk in larder. And hey presto. A reworked house that worked the way it should have always worked, but just never did. Hurrah!

Except that when you move a front door from the side of the house to the front, the front garden needs reworking too. And it coincided with me being tied up with family stuff, and then I started the garden design course…. And time got taken over. And it slipped away the way it does.

So suddenly it’s two and a half years later, and the front garden still looks like it did when the builders left but a bit tidier.

Except for now I’m a garden designer. So that’s not great…..

But finally, a couple of weeks ago, I get round to looking at it. And it’s my first chance to put some of the stuff I’ve learned into practice.

Posh huh....
Posh huh….

Box balls in waiting....
Box balls in waiting….

So I did. And although you might not be able to see it yet, I think its going to work. I actually did some sketching to help me work it out. And I planned it properly. When I walk through it now I’m really pleased with it. More than pleased with it. I’m really excited about it. Because when it’s all grown up I think it’s got the potential to be a front garden I can be proud of.

Give it some time....
Just give it some time….

And these days that matters.

Who knew….

I’ve got a confession to make.

This post was supposed to be all about the lightbulb coming on, by George I think she’s got it, moment that I had this week. The ‘you know what, I think I might actually be able to do this garden design thing’ discovery.

But telling you about how I got on with Project 5 will have to wait for another couple of days. Because first I’ve got to own up to a guilty secret.

You know all this weather we’re having….

Well I think it might be my fault. Actually not entirely my fault. My husband Graham has got to take his share of the responsibility. But the finger of blame is pointing straight at us.

I really had no idea, didn’t think, it never occurred to me. When I got myself organised at the start of December, ordered the hessian online, found the string, I thought I was doing the right thing. Just shows you how wrong you can be. Wrapping my tubs to protect them from the icy grip of winter seemed like such a good idea at the time. For the last few years they’d been naked and defenceless, cracking and crumbling as the relentless frosts did their worst. This time it was going to be different.

Then Graham went and got winter tyres for his car….

So there you have it….

What can I say except for I’m sorry. We should have thought. Tubs wrapped in hessian AND winter tyres. Of course it wasn’t going to get cold this year.

All I can say is that I promise we won’t do it again.

And for next winter we’ve ordered a WaterCar.

Greenhouse geek….

So the weather outside is frightful…. But the fire is so delightful….

Actually there’s no fire but the weather is truly horrendous and I’m sitting here like one of the three little pigs with the wind and the rain doing their best to blow the house down. Hopefully, since we’ve been sensible and built our house out of bricks, we’ll see this stormy weather out. But in the meantime there’s not a whole lot to write about in the garden. Apart that is from….

Big drumroll….

!*!*!MY GREENHOUSE!*!*!*

Is it sad to be so excited about a greenhouse? Yes it probably is…. But I don’t care. This is something I’ve been planning for years. And it’s finally happened. So let me talk you through it….

If you’ve read the page about my garden you’ll know that when we moved into this house the garden was a little lacking in…. well it was a little lacking in anything really. Apart from grass and fence, that is.

Lovely huh....
Lovely huh….

The house nestles at the bottom of a north facing slope, most of which is our field and a section of which was the garden. While the developers had their contractors in shifting earth around for the other properties next door we asked them to level out a section of field on the far side of the fence to give us a flat area to use for….

We're talking about the area on the far side of the fence....
We’re talking about the area on the far side of the fence….

Well we weren’t exactly sure what we wanted to use it for but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Over the years we’ve kept chickens there, put a trampoline up there and then got rid of it when the children grew out of it, (actually before they grew out of it but it had to go because it was so ugly), and we had a marquee for a mega party to celebrate my 50th, my son James’s 21st and Hattie and Emma’s 18th birthdays, which all occurred in the same year (James and my big birthdays on the same day) which was about as good a reason to have a mega party as I can think of….

This is where I planted the yew hedge a few years ago,

Chelsea supporters in waiting....
Chelsea supporters in waiting….

which is coming along nicely – apart from the section I lost to rot last year – and getting ready to be topiarised into Chelsea supporters for Graham. (Which I just love the idea of as you may have gathered from other posts and am ridiculously excited about.)

So a couple of years ago when the veg habit beckoned I (or rather Stuart) dug out some beds and planted some fruit trees as the start of my vegetable garden.

The embryo....
The embryo….

Then everything got left for a couple of years while life got in the way. But now that I’m back and better than ever the grand plans are swinging into action.

So first the greenhouse.

Don't you just love it....
Don’t you just love it….

It went up in the mud and the rain a month ago and at the moment it’s looking a bit stark. But just you wait. I’m showing you the pictures now so that you’ll appreciate that we have a way to go before this part of the garden achieves the effect I’m looking for.

Then there’s the section of mixed hedge to go on the far side of the new raised bed and the replacement for the section of yew hedge that I lost – the away team supporters. At the moment they’re heeled in, waiting for the trench to be dug so we can plant them.

Away team in waiting....
Away team in waiting….

The intention is that the veg garden will be surrounded by hedge so that it is separate from the rest of the garden and has an identity of it’s own. Another room so to speak.

One day it will be beautiful....
One day it will be beautiful….

We’re going to expand the existing beds and edge them with wooden planks, turning them into two large beds rather than four small, and adding another for the perennial veg like asparagus and rhubarb.

I’m thinking of planting a group of silver birch on the near side of the new section of mixed hedge to block off the roof of the greenhouse which will still be visible even when the hedge has established. And I’ve got a mad idea about planting hornbeam and topiarising them into cones in a row along the hedge leading down to the veg garden. Although this may be a step too far.

And then of course there’s the greenhouse itself and what to do with it inside and out.

So much to think about….

If you’re interested I’ll keep you posted….