Friday, 1 January 2016

The blog has moved!

Five years isn’t bad going in one home. But towards the end of last year, I felt the blog was outgrowing the little corner of the internet where we’ve been so happy. So, with mixed feelings, and a decided sense of excitement, I decided it was time to decamp to a new web space.

I’m happy to announce the new look blog – largely the old blog, but with fancy bits – and it’s new location at All the old blog posts are there, but there’s room to grow and the capacity for me to build in some interesting new features. All in good time. For now, I’d love it if you’d have a look, maybe bookmark the new address, and even subscribe to receive the latest blogs straight to your mailbox!

I’ll leave the grow blog here for now, but this will be the last post under this domain name. From 2016, all the action’s over on Come and join in!

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Jam tomorrow

New Year’s Eve, an hour or two till sunrise, the wind still howling around the house as it has for hours. It’s been a wakeful night, partly due to the wind, and partly due to us having forgotten to turn the central heating down, causing me to wake in the small hours feeling like a dehydrated prune.

I’ve used the restless hours to finish reading Roger Deakin’s Wildwood – it’s taken me an absurdly long time to get through it, savouring every page, and drifting into long daydreams of woods and trees and hedgerows, of exotic locations with towering walnuts and their heady, befuddling aroma, of wild apples in the East, and bush plums in the Australian outback, of generous, open-hearted people and comfortable old friends, and of time spent among trees, in solitude, but never alone. And throughout it all a prodigious knowledge of and respect for the skills and craftsmanship honed over centuries, and an implicit though rarely expressed concern that we might be on the cusp of throwing it all away.

And now the book is finished, I’m left with that sense of loss familiar to anyone who’s allowed themself to be immersed into a world between the covers. The best medicine for which is another book – five minutes later and two more are on their way, Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks and a secondhand hardback copy of Deakin’s Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, my delight at the convenience of Amazon tempered by a nagging thought that I’m overdue a penitential visit to my local indy bookstore.

“I’m sure I’ll take you with pleasure!” the Queen said. “Twopence a week, and jam every other day.”
Alice couldn’t help laughing, as she said, “I don’t want you to hire ME - and I don’t care for jam.’
“It’s very good jam,” said the Queen.
“Well, I don’t want any TO-DAY, at any rate.”
“You couldn’t have it if you DID want it,” the Queen said. “The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday - but never jam to-day.”
“It MUST come sometimes to ‘jam to-day,’” Alice objected.
“No, it can’t,” said the Queen. “It’s jam every OTHER day: to-day isn’t any OTHER day, you know.”
“I don’t understand you,” said Alice.
Through the Looking Glass & What Alice Found There, Lewis Carroll

Kettle. Tea. Still dark outside, and raining now, the first train trundling up to London, the sound carrying across the fields in the damp air. Everything’s louder when it rains. And now the birds are getting going – far too many birds, surely, for winter, reminding me that it’s not just gardeners who are still waiting for the cold weather to arrive. The prospect of a new year frost is held out like the promise of jam tomorrow. but in this crazy El Nino winter that has brought serious flooding to the north of the country (exacerbated, it has to be said, by the shortsighted land use policies of recent governments at both local and national levels), it’s hard to imagine that we’ll see anything other than a barely noticeable transition into a mild and wet spring. That said, the first week of January looks to be a chillier prospect than anything December had for us, though not quite sufficient to put a check either on the plants making an early appearance, or the persistence of garden pests and diseases, storing up trouble for the season to come. A friend tweeted a picture of a small aphid infestation in her garden a couple of days ago, and I don’t recall ever before having to swat away mosquitos on Christmas day.

Today, though, we’re promised clear skies and sunshine in Kent – a pleasant way to see out the year in the garden. Winter tomorrow.

The hellebores have been out for weeks

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Burn, baby, burn

There’s a cheer with a real fire that the civilising influence of several millennia can do nothing to dampen. It’s a primeval comforter, our response to it being hard-wired into us at some point on the evolutionary journey. The alluring blue light of smartphone or tablet might flirt with our attention and distract us from more constructive pursuits, but it can’t hold a candle to an open flame, lacking not only the warmth, but also somehow the substance.

I’ll often sit down of an evening and watch the play of the flames in the stove; it’s a decidedly superior way in which to while away the time, especially when compared to watching the telly, and the stories that unfold in the heart of the fire are more compelling by far. But this winter having been such a disappointment so far – so mild, and dreary – we’ve hardly had cause to light a fire at all, which is beyond miserable. Our one consolation for the awful darkness at the death of the year is the bright fire in our hearths; it’s a pitiful season that not only robs us of the daylight, but contrives to be too warm to make the lighting of a fire a daily event.

How glad is the gardener of a good blaze, though! Tediously mild or bitingly cold, there’s always plenty of material unfit for compost heap or shredder, and too unwieldy for the council’s green waste collection, that will amply acquit itself as fuel for a heartening burn to drive the dull drab grey away. I’m no cub scout and, much as I’m sure it would offend Messers Grylls and Mears, resort to firelighters and matches to get a bonfire going. But never, in the manner of one venerable assistant head gardener of my acquaintance, to diesel, poured liberally from an old red can. He was a fabulous character, a lovely man and an absolute walking encyclopaedia of gardening knowledge and experience, so it always came as a surprise to me when he reached for the accelerant, rather than beginning the process by the rubbing together of a couple of sticks. At least it wasn’t petrol. People who habitually start fires with petrol tend not to last very long.

Well contained
There are those who might look askance at my advocacy of the garden bonfire, pointing to the aggregate effects upon global warming of a nation of gardeners burning their winter waste. And they might have a point, if all of us did it every week. But I fail to see how the occasional, well tended and considerately managed fire could cause a problem. Besides which, I’ll only take lectures on the topic from those who have forsworn both meat and air travel*. I’m not sure how many bonfires I’ll get to a year’s worth of cattle farts and return flights to Lanzarote, but I’m willing to bet it’s a fair few.

Today has been damp, but tomorrow looks fine and I’ve high hopes of finding sufficient dry tinder and kindling to get a fire going. There’s always plenty of birch brash in my Wednesday garden, and that needs little encouragement to burn. All that remains is to pack matches, firelighters and hayfork, and pray the rain holds off overnight.

Can’t help seeing faces in things. A warm smile on the incinerator here.

*You’ll probably still get short shrift. But maybe a toasted marshmallow if you’re lucky.

Monday, 30 November 2015

’tis the season

There’s ‘a time for everything’, the good book tells us; chapter and verse with which gardeners are only too well acquainted. Advent is upon us, the shortest, darkest days approach and, the list of gardening activities one can achieve by torchlight being disappointingly short, we are at pains to follow the seasonal exhortations, making we joy, and generally being of good cheer, with a determination that is something to behold.

The last week in November provides an ideal opportunity for such merriment, as several hundred garden broadcasters and writers descend upon the Savoy Hotel for the annual Garden Media Guild Awards. I snuck in for the second year running and, also for the second year running, was delighted to be shortlisted as a finalist in the Blog of the Year category. It’s a tangible affirmation not only of the work I’ve put into the blog over the past year, but also the enthusiasm and engagement of the community that’s grown up around the weekly posts. But while I’m both tremendously grateful and immensely proud of all of this, it didn’t make me blush half so much as receiving several generously and unexpected endorsements from gardening twitter friends (you know who you are) both before and after the awards were announced. A season to be jolly, indeed.

And, as winter follows autumn, itself turning into spring when the moment is right, it seems timely to confess that for a while now I’ve had a feeling that the blog in its current form is nearing the end of a season, and entering a period of transition. The hibernation period must necessarily be brief, but I expect this online collection of my garden witterings to emerge as a thing transformed, albeit with roots very much in the current iteration. I have in mind something slightly more than a refresh with, in time, some new features, tweaks to the structure, and a more open, airy feel about the place. At least, that’s the intention, with a view to launching early in the new year – a daunting, but exciting prospect.

In the meantime, I plan to keep these pages running, but do please excuse me if I should appear to be a little slower than usual to respond while I’m tinkering with things under the bonnet – a vehicular metaphor – time to give the blog a good winter service. ’tis the season for it, after all. fa la la la laa, la la la laaaa.

Posh suit and shoes for hobnobbing on Thursday...

....back down to earth on Friday.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Taking steps

Autumn, windy and mild, with no sign of a frost. The leaves, like embers in slow motion, glow brightly as they fall, fast fading to dull ash grey and brown. Much of the garden’s energy retreats below ground at this time of year and, with a good proportion of the season’s growth now lying either upon the compost heap or the bonfire, access into the borders becomes considerably more straightforward. Conversely, passage through the garden becomes increasingly difficult. The winding grass path, charmingly informal throughout spring and summer, has by mid November become a muddy cart track, rutted and slippery, making each trip through the garden a messy and potentially hazardous affair.

O, for a red brick path! Solid under foot, and easy on the eye. Throughout my various excavations in the garden, I’ve managed to unearth a small pile of imperial red bricks in fair condition, but nowhere near the quantity I’d need for the path. I keep a beady eye out for the small ads, and auctions of reclaimed bricks on eBay, but somehow, something more pressing and grown up always seems to require paying for – a new boiler, or a replacement cross-member for the chassis on the venerable land rover. Even – dare I say it – plants. And in the meanwhile, sure as eggs is eggs, the path turns to mush.

This winter, I’m taking steps to avoid the quagmire. A roll of grass reinforcement mesh – the kind of stuff you find lurking just beneath the sward of the overflow car park at a country fair – which I unrolled and immediately split down the middle with the aid of a pair of tin snips.

Snip. Figured I only needed a 50mm strip down the centre of the path
A hideously cheerful, bright glossy green – quite revolting – but thankfully grass has already begun to grow up through the holes, and is doing a fair job of obscuring the playground-bright colour. With at least another three months of potential sogginess before us, it’s early to form a definitive opinion but, so far, I am impressed by the difference it’s made. No substitute for my lovely brick path. But, while I’m pining for that, at least I can get to the end of the garden and back.

Not pretty, but already disappearing

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Hairy bittercress

Some plants are just hard to love.

The admission causes me a degree of discomfort, having on numerous occasions made my admiration for weeds a matter of record, but even I find it hard to wax lyrical about hairy bittercress.

“Hairy bastard cress, more like”, a gardening friend of mine once quipped. It’s hard not to sympathise. Whilst the leaves of Cardamine hirsuta – a plant in the brassica family, closely related to mustard and also to garden cress Lepidium sativum – might possess a certain peppery, cress-like taste, it’s difficult to know what it’s good for. You would be bonkers to go out of your way to deliberately grow a crop, not least because surely every plant container in Christendom is sure to become home to at least one or two specimens in any given year.

It’s a nuisance in the nursery – perhaps not to the same degree as the liverworts which blanket the surface of the growing medium, but nonetheless a pretty ubiquitous presence, stealing nutrients and acting as a host for numerous glasshouse pests.

It’s also something of a gremlin in the garden, and you need be in no doubt that you will have hairy bittercress in your garden. Possibly also its cousin, wavy bittercress (Cardamine flexuosa) – very similar in appearance, though the small white flowers have six stamens to the four of its nominally more hirsute relative (the hairs on the leaf margins and axils aren’t particularly noteworthy, in spite of the name). As long as extremes are avoided, bittercress can’t bring itself to be discerning over the pH of the soil, seeming just as at home in acid, neutral or alkaline conditions, and will grow in shade, part shade or sun, in either moist or dry conditions. A hardy annual (C. flexuosa sometimes persisting as a short-lived perennial) it behaves as an ephemeral weed, producing several generations in one growing season, and each plant can produce up to 5,000 seeds.

Not wavy, but downy. Four stamens, so Cardamine hirsuta
Garden designer Chelsea Uribe (@CUgardendesign) pithily summed up generally held opinions on the plant. “That sodding little ruderal. I wish it every ill.” A coloniser of recently disturbed ground, it’s readily identifiable from its rosettes of bright green pinnate foliage with almost circular leaflets at the base, becoming more elongated higher up the plant. Weeding it out isn’t a particularly satisfying experience – although not deep rooted, it’s quite fiddly to handle when it first emerges, and so you might be tempted to allow a clump to grow to a more convenient size for hand-pulling. In which case, you’d best ensure this forward-dated task doesn’t slip your mind, due to the speed at which it will flower and seed.

Common names include lambs cress, spring cress, hoary bittercress, wood cress and flickweed. This last name is particularly descriptive of the manner in which the plant goes about dispersing seed, a trick which anyone who has carelessly reached for a plant which has gone to seed will be only too able to describe. The characteristic long, thin seed pods (known as a siliqua), common to many members of the brassica family, split open when dry, ejecting their contents with some force and scattering seed over a distance of up to six feet, unless prevented from doing so by some intervening object. Such as the face of a surprised gardener.

The ripening seed pods, or silique, ‘overtopping’ the flowers
In Old English herb-lore, bittercress is known as Stune, and included as one ingredient in the Nine Herbs Charm recommended as a cure for poisoning and infection. Given the generally poor state of health and hygiene we can assume in Dark Age Britain, this suggests that each of the nine herbs would have been in constant demand. I have my suspicions regarding the efficacy of bittercress a medicinal plant, but, by including it on the list of ingredients, our ancestors had clearly devised a way to guarantee a sustained and wide-ranging harvest of the stuff. They probably didn’t like it any more than we do

Let me know what your thoughts are on hairy bittercress, either on Twitter, or by leaving a comment below.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

A walk in the woods

A beautiful, dry and sunny autumn afternoon for a walk in West Wood. The leaves are beginning to fall, but still there are more on the trees than the ground.

Hawthorn, field maple, sycamore, sweet chestnut and hazel – each turns its own rich shade of yellow gold before releasing its leaves. We wandered along gilded corridors between stands of coppice understory, shafts of bright sunlight piercing the ceiling and spotlighting individual works of art – here a patch of moss on the trunk of tree, there a single leaf picked out on the muddy forest floor.

A gallery of sylvan wonders. Dogs welcome.