I am lucky enough to live by the sea. My evening stroll, to stretch out after a full day of gardening, now involves a walk along the beach. Where once there were groups of people sitting or lying around chatting and enjoying the gentle lapping of the waves, now every single person is on the move. Exercise time. People are not allowed to sit for any length of time. As I make my way along, I am searching for clues as to whether the tide is coming in or going out and I am really aware of time. When everyone else feels like time is standing still and one day merges with another, the rhythm of life interrupted, my life as a gardener is acutely marked by the speed of nature progressing along its seasonal path.
The leaves of the Horse Chestnut tree are only just now held aloft to catch the suns rays and already it is smothered in spires of flowers.
My first job of the week was to cut down the stems of Tulips that have flowered and faded, the petals scattered on the grass from the wind. This was followed by an hour of watering pots and whilst doing that stopping to tie in the clematis tendrils before they cling onto each other and form a crazy mass. Onto the greenhouse for potting up seedlings, tying the tomatoes to their supports, moving the potted Lilies outside to give us more room and spraying them (organically) to prevent Lily beetle.
More seeds of annuals need to be sown directly into the soil, especially those of Cosmos but the area where I want to grow them is thick with weeds. The weeds are flowering and turning to seed or are putting down really strong tap roots. Some ephemeral weeds can flower and set seed 4 or 5 times in a year. We got stuck into removing them all and then, before we knew it, the day was gone.
We’ll have to leave the seed sowing until next week… but make sure we start the day with seed sowing or we’ll repeat all the jobs to do including more weeding and miss our opportunity yet again.
Back home, back down to the beach, and those waves keep rolling in.
My gardening colleague Sham had been unable to come to work since the lockdown, so I was delighted she found some transport and made it back to the fold last week.
We made a start on clearing this beautiful border this week:
A few special plants will be found new locations around the garden, after carefully washing the roots so we know they are clean, however the majority will be destroyed or composted. Nearly all of them have either ground elder roots, bind weed or horsetail in their rootball. These pernicious perennial weeds can regenerate from the smallest of fragments and spread very quickly in any habitat. If we compost them, we would leave the compost for at least 2 years to be sure the weeds have been broken down sufficiently.
First section empty except for the Crinum… a huge bulb that works itself deep into the ground. Very difficult to dig out whole so hopefully we can leave it to naturalise. It has the most wonderful white or pink ‘lily’ type flowers…
Much like our ordinary lives, those April showers seem like a distant memory of yesteryear. How soon we get used to a new normal.
Until today, one month has passed since the last rain and the sunshine is bringing out the best in our beautiful flowers. Before I share the abundance, these are the jobs we accomplished this week:
We started with pruning this massive Forsythia which, unbelievably, was almost twice the size. The bright yellow flowers were over and now’s the perfect time to reduce it. We used a mixture of hand tools rather than a hedge trimmer just in case there were any nesting birds.
That was followed by clearing this tree. We removed the wild clematis and slightly raised the canopy of branches by cutting any growth lower than one metre from the ground, and removed ash and sycamore trees that had self sown around the base. All very satisfying. Next week we get to grips with the Bay Tree
Next job, we are in the Greenhouse:
Oh my, the Lilies are loving life and no sign of Lily beetle yet. The tomatoes in the earth have doubled in size and Ive started tying them in to their supports
More peas and beans got sown, some sunflowers were potted on and others sown directly.
All other time was spent watering, weeding and wondering…
Looking down I am taken by the yellow Tulip/Wallflower combination, the last throws of narcissi en masse, the pink and yellow ‘parrot’ and ‘lily flowered’ Tulips dotted in the border and the gorgeous setting for an outdoor breakfast on a crisp April morning
Looking up, the tree leaves are unfurling and the ornamental fruit trees are vying to attract the pollinating insects with their masses of blossom
I understand, I do. This pandemic is costing thousands of people their lives and many many their livelihoods. For those that survive ventilation their health will be compromised. The physical and mental toll will be nothing like many of us under 80 have ever experienced before. It’s knocking us all for six. In comparison to that my horticultural work losses are nothing. How long we must continue in this lockdown period, not being able to see and be with our friends and family, while the virus still has the upper hand is the great unknown. I am so grateful to be able to continue working in the beautiful Spring sunshine.
So far my losses have been minimal. . Hopefully the clients who can no longer afford a gardener will be able to manage their gardens with the extra time they have and will find the joy in doing it themselves. We can’t predict anything.
By far the biggest loss for me (and in comparison), such a small and insignificant loss, has been being asked to rethink a border, in one of my larger gardens, so it becomes maintenance-free.
When we started on this border over 12 years ago it was full of Himalayan Balsam (a notifiable weed), knee high in ground elder, smothered in bind weed, and perennials all growing into one another.
It has been a labour of love. With no budget to spend on new plants we had to separate the plants, remove some and bulk up others with repeated divisions. We moved them all around into a more coherent rainbow of colours , added height where it was lacking, texture in the form of grasses (donated), made natural arches for the clematis to explore and grew many annuals such as sunflowers, poppies and marigolds to change up the experience every year.
Regular bunny invasions, the odd stampede of sheep and the ever increasing army of ants, biting horseflies and midges have tried to thwart our every move. Hours were lost in conversation in trying to dig out the ground elder every year and fight the invasive Spanish bluebells and catch the ‘sticky willy’ (Galium) before it gets a hold on everything. Year on year the border has got better. To the point where it has really come to be my favourite place to be.
Well, that is it, such is the life of a gardener. We are temporary custodians that is all. It has been an honour and a pleasure.
The most practical and inexpensive solution to making this area less costly to maintain, will be to remove all the plants and grass it over. Mowing the grass will gradually kill off the perennial weeds.
I would like to plant an avenue of beautiful small trees instead. Maybe either crab apples with their vibrant red fruit dripping from the branches for 4 months of winter or perhaps a row of Hawthorn with its sweet smelling blossom in Spring, underplanted with blue bulbs such as anemone and camassia naturalised in the grass.
The client will make the final choice and we can dedicate the walkway and border to all those wonderful NHS staff who have held the front line during this incredibly frightening and tragic time in many peoples lives.
I’ll then be able to walk down it and away with my head held high.
Weirdly, the day was much the same as any other Spring gardening day from previous years except that now I am working with my stylist/hairdresser… (more about that remarkable story another time).
We no longer have our breaks together and tend to work a good few metres away from each other, but the pattern of the day is much the same. There are certainly discussions about what we will and will not listen to on the radio and the topics of our conversation often relate back to coping strategies of our own, our friends and families. On the whole the tone ranges from up beat, funny to considerate and caring.
In a time of frenetic growth and change in the garden, we are just about keeping up with jobs to be done along with taking enough time to get involved with the task in hand and finding peace in the meditative nature of the work.
We began the day in the woods, collecting hazel sticks.
N began making support structures for Dahlias, Achillea, Peonies and Sanguisorba, all of which would end up falling over in a strong wind or heavy rain storm, never to look as good again for the rest of the year, unless they had supports. We need to make the supports now as it involves pushing the sticks into the damp earth. If we wait until they are actually needed, the ground is too hard to push them in the ground.
I took on the watering (see previous post). On my journey around the garden I checked on the ducks nesting in the courtyard. One in a corner behind the box ball, another beneath the rosemary shrub.
So difficult to see in the photos but the mother ducks have preened out their soft downy feathers to line the nest. If I was going to be hatched anywhere, I would certainly choose one of those places.
After watering the courtyard pots and all the many previously named watering hotspots in the garden, I return to find N cracking on with the plant supports.. N is an artist along with his many skills, so it didn’t surprise me to find there was a sculptural element to his structures
Meanwhile, I am weeding and edging. and N turns to separating, dividing and delineating the perennials.
DAY 2, Same gardeners, different garden
Different garden and on with the masks and gloves…. It’s safer.
N had a day of serious digging. Initially our remit was to grow a greater variety of flowers but now we have decided to grow as much food as possible. Clear the beds! I escaped the digging for a while to prick out the tomato seedlings that were climbing out of the tray
We can’t help but enjoy our surroundings whilst catching up with the watering
DAY 3 Different garden, different gardeners
The summer wedding here has sadly been postponed so we are putting this year down to a trial run. Nevertheless the spring borders are looking fabulous and are a treat for the increased number of family members now holed up in this quiet country location.
Today the last of the roses were pruned, more seeds were sown in the greenhouse and much of the day was spent weeding and watering of course.
So, many similar tasks in all the gardens but the variety of aims for each garden, the style and scale, the changing work colleagues and the assortment of clients all make this job one of the best I have ever had. I feel very lucky that in spite of this terrible pandemic, we are still able to work and put it to the back of our minds, for a moment at least.
Another gardening week (yes we are still working!) and the show must go on.
The day begins with a watering schedule that takes us all around the gardens. The greenhouse, cold frames, pots of tulips, pots of lilies, pots with herbs, perennials recently divided and replanted, newly bought and planted perennials (hollyhocks and delphiniums), new seed beds of veg and flowers and recently planted sweet peas from the greenhouse at the foot of their frames. Plus there are all the containers of topiary at doors and entrances.
In one garden there are 20 new roses planted all over the place, up high banks, along walls, at the base of trees. Each takes half a can of water once a week to get established and are planted a long long way from the tap…
The watering alone can take an hour at each of our gardens and is certainly a wonderful start the day, an opportunity to take in all the detail.
When I first started gardening I was always looking forward to what was coming out next, as you are always preparing for the next season. As the years have gone by, I now realise that the gardens are at their very best today, the day you are there enjoying them.
Following a global trend to ‘buy local’ in recent years, I have concentrated efforts in growing flowers for cutting, in my clients’ gardens. Planting one garden for a summer wedding this year fuelled my excitement to buy and grow lots of beautiful annuals from seed.
Last week I came to a screeching halt and a quick about turn. Covid 19 has changed everything, not least in my gardening world. We all need food and freshly picked vegetables from the garden are an absolute imperative. At least for us in the UK we are at the beginning of our growing season.
When everyone else was out buying pasta and loo rolls, I was at the local garden centre buying compost, vegetable seeds and seedlings. Today I was on a mission, busily emptying the greenhouse of flowers and throwing them into the borders with a wing and a prayer.
I managed to turn it around in a day and now the tomatoes, peppers and chillies are in, the beans and carrots are sown in pots and potatoes planted. Thats a start.
My enthusiasm has rubbed off on others too. The seed packets always contain more than I need, so I spent an evening packing up mini vegetable garden parcels to share.
Not only was I rewarded by the eagerness of friends and family but that translated immediately into action when I received a photo today of a new vegetable plot, built today, all ready to plant up.
and another, all marked out and on its way…
and one more project has just come in tonight… I’m loving this:
Let this be an inspiration to everybody. I can’t wait to see how these gardens grow…
About 4 or 5 years ago now, I spent a day learning the basics of willow basketry. It is a skill that requires patience and many hours of practice to actually achieve a fine result. You need plenty of space to weave the rods without them catching on the furniture and you also need very strong hands to push, pull, wedge, squeeze and hold the material in position, whilst keeping it neat, tidy and regular.
The main reason I tried to learn this skill is for techniques to build plant supports. Each Spring we need to provide supports for our floppy perennials and for this we mainly use coppiced hazel from the woods, held together with more pliable willow. Fortunately for me the finished product isn’t as fiddly as a fine basket, can be constructed quickly in situ and only needs to last a year.
Over the last couple of weeks I have been rained off work on more than one occasion and have found myself indoors for the odd morning or afternoon and in need of a project. As we have harvested our willow, thoughts turned to making a trug-like basket. Last year we had nothing to collect our produce in from the veg patch except plastic bags and boxes, which somehow just didn’t feel right with me.
Home grown willow to home made baskets. Far from perfection but a very satisfying process, an enjoyable way to pass the time on rainy days and a useful product at the end of it. All for free.
There was plenty of sad news this week with coronavirus affecting the global community. Some caught up directly, others indirectly but I think we are all held slightly in a suspension of time and confusion.
I’ve never been in a ‘pandemic’ before and it’s like I’m taking one very long slow breath in, watching and waiting….
Meanwhile my working life and routine marches on and nature’s growth waits for no man. Keep calm.
This week’s fascination include 1) my little spring favourite… Ipheion (Feature picture) Perfect at the front of a border or naturalised in grass around the base of a tree. Awful in a posy as it smells quite oniony
and 2) the slightly prehistoric flame-like new growth of Gunnera
3) So many tiny seedlings doing their thing in the greenhouse which is so satisfying (apart from most of the sunflower seeds that were found and eaten by a hungry mouse). And then there’s the potted Lilies in the cold frame growing great guns and sprayed with Grazers4 (organic control) to prevent Lily Beetle damage. Fingers crossed!
The Ammi majus, Sweet peas, Marigolds and Broadbeans that were sown in November, have all now found places either just outside the greenhouse or in the garden where they are to flower.