A Prickly Problem

We are no nearer to solving the challenge (?) problem (?) dilemma (?) of our front garden.

Every time I approach our house I feel a little sag of the shoulders at the sorry, weedy, shabby state of it – the house, far nicer now than a few years back, but the thing in front of it, not so nice.

This is the big prickly problem which bothers me the most – the holly. Now, once upon a time I thought I liked holly. Christmas, red berries, wreaths, jolliness, The Holly and the Ivy, all nice warm cosy things, and when we moved into the house, it wasn’t an overwhelmingly large amount of holly, so it stayed.

And then grew, and grew, and spread – I keep finding seedlings everywhere – and never had a single berry. The wrong kind of holly, apparently. Now it has taken over half the main flowerbed and trying to cut it back, even with long sleeves and heavy-duty gardening gloves, is like wrestling with a herd of angry scratching cats.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to find that holly is prickly – right? – but our holly just seems to inflict pain beyond a point that I find reasonable, and now I just want it gone, the whole lot. Humbug!

Apart from the objectionable holly, there is lots I DO like about the front garden. On the other holly-free bed, across the path, we have Mexican daisies which I adore, mingling with lavender and spilling across the path in proper cottage garden style.

Behind, a red-pink (I want to say scarlet, but I don’t know for sure) hydrangea which at this time of year is reminding me why I like it so much (the one on the other bed having died last winter).

In between the daisies and hydrangea is one of the front garden’s many roses – most of them all old, gnarled, straggling and ridden with black spot, but this one I can’t bear to part with as the flowers are so gorgeous – very pale pink with a hint of yellow at the heart.

How could I banish something as lovely as this from the garden?

Then I have Japanese anemones, which seemed to be in everyone’s front gardens a few years back, so I followed suit and planted some, which seem to have settled in after a few uncertain years (no photos as they haven’t flowered yet), and the bliss of Canterbury Bells which I bought discounted somewhere last summer, planted out very late and they came back up triumphantly this year.

Besides the holly, though, there are some things which are either simply not to my taste – arum lilies, too funereal – or right plant, wrong place, the wretched camellia which looks lovely for a week or so and then drops rotting brown flowers everywhere.

There are also several fuchsia which I want to love, but behave so unpredictably that I distrust them. Every winter they leave a mess of dried sticks when the leaves drop and I never know whether to leave or cut back – will there be fresh growth or have they given up? Which branch to cut and which not to? The plant gives me no clues, so I get annoyed with it.

The real problem zone, though, is the drive and accompanying wall and gatepost. It has crumbled slowly over 5 years and now has a crack on the wall and a loose top to the gatepost (we suspect a neighbour clipped it going into the side return).

It looks shabby, it IS shabby, and the drive with herringbone brick paving is just as bad – ridden with weeds, despite my efforts with a fancy weeding tool.

We need a wider drive to fit the car on properly, and a better surface than paving so I’m not constantly battling weeds, we want the ancient old gates gone, we’d like a bin shed rather than having the bins up by the front door; I’d like a fancy bin shed with a sedum roof, but now we’re getting into pie-in-the-sky territory.

What I’d really love, too, is to replace the weeds in the drive with some proper planting along the edge – a soak- away with gravel and mesh so that we can have something low-growing like thyme or more sedums as a feature. We’ve already had Mexican daisies and violets self-seeding there, and I’d love to encourage them but lose the weeds.

Widening the drive and creating a bin store would also mean losing some of the problem plants, killing two birds with one stone – but doing one half of the garden and leaving the other half (the less troublesome flowerbed) untouched would look a bit odd and unbalanced. I can’t bear the thought, though, of losing plants I do want to keep and have taken time and effort to nurture!

And let’s be honest, this job, when it finally happens, is really about the practical task of getting rid of the wretched wall and sorting out the drive; any actually landscaping or replanting will be a byproduct of the building work, not the main event.

I can definitely say what I’d have if I was doing the whole thing from scratch, though – my inspiration is a house round the corner which went for the gravel-and-mesh look, done a year or so ago, and it looks amazing now, with a really stylish wooden fence too.

It’s got taller plants like red hot pokers and alliums towards the back, and things like sedums, daisies and thrift at the front, which have spread to virtually cover the gravel completely.

This front area is even used as an occasional parking space and it doesn’t seem to affect the plants at all. And it looks like the perfect choice for a sloping urban garden – Mediterranean-style plants which cope well with poor soil and drought seem to be thriving. I walk past it every day and drool for a front garden as impressive as this one. At this rate, it *might* not be this year…but maybe next.

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All For the Want of a Horseshoe Nail

I am sure I have mentioned this before, but there is something about having done a big building project which puts you off wanting to tackle the little things.

To begin with, there’s no money left, and then the need to have a break from endless workmen in the house, and the feeling that as long as most of the house is nice, you can live with the rest.

The thought of kicking off the whole recommendations – quotes – comparisons – appointments process to get one small thing fixed is heart-sinking enough, let alone the actual reality of having workmen in again.

And then after the big renovations in 2014 and a couple of smaller projects in 2015, we financially ground to a halt in 2016/2017, so nothing was going to happen then anyway (thanks, Brexit).

After a while, though, the little things begin to gnaw away at you, and there is a satisfaction in being able to tick off the small jobs one by one. For example, £90 got me pigeon spikes fitted above the bay window in the spare room = result, no more pigeon poo on the drive. It’s a small victory, but I’ll take it.

However, the thing that has bothered me is trying to get one small problem fixed and discovering it hasn’t been fixed at all, and the one small problem is symptomatic of all sorts of other things you weren’t even aware of. It always reminds me of the old poem about the horseshoe nail.

For instance, this is a patch of rising damp by the front door. Back in the old days it was hidden under a thick layer of woodchip, out of sight, out of mind. When we had the wall replastered and painted, it began to flake, so we had it stripped back and a new damp proof course inserted.

It held up for a while but started to peel and crack again – damp proof course had failed, and the trader (who we tried to contact within the warranty period) had mysteriously vanished from Rated People, damn him.

So we are back to square one with the rising damp, but we had other signs of mould appearing – in our bedroom and the spare room, and a patch on the bathroom ceiling.

It turns out, frustratingly, there is no one simple fix for all these things, they all need different solutions and to be tackled separately…frustrating, but ultimately, like the horseshoe nail, fixing one thing may have positive knock-on effects elsewhere.

The mould patch in the bathroom, we now realise, appears because it’s alongside the void of a blocked up chimney, which means there is a cavity of cold air stuck there in winter. A stronger bathroom fan should help improve ventilation in the room overall which should also help with condensation in the bedrooms.

Ah, the bedrooms. What should be the tranquil retreat from family life is a dismal gloomy room with an awkward bay window, horrid curtains and an even more horrid mustard carpet.

The worst thing about our bedroom was the mould behind the curtains. We had kept the net curtains up in our room for privacy, but they got more and more filthy and in the end I couldn’t take any more – I took down the nets one day back in Feb some time, and gave the wall and windowsill area around the bay a good scrub (baking soda is the thing to use, apparently).

The difference straight away was amazing – the room so much brighter, and of course I wondered why I hadn’t done it before.

There was a secondary motive – we had in the end decided to get new windows fitted in the living room and upstairs front rooms, (thanks, PPI payout) as we’d been debating back at the start of the year, so I’d been wanting to get rid of the nets before the new window came.

The windows were fitted in the spring and already our room is so much more pleasant – the black mould hasn’t come back and I don’t feel my heart sink when I set foot in there like I used to.

The spare room is a conundrum, though – the mould there is not under the window, the room is warm and south-east facing, (so it doesn’t get the prevailing weather) well-ventilated and only occasionally slept in, (so it’s not due to heavy night-time breathers). It is, admittedly, used for drying clothes, so that could be where all the condensation comes from.

The black mould doesn’t seem to be disappearing from the spare room, whereas in our room where we breathe all night, it isn’t coming back so far. The whole room is a mystery – it’s an odd shape with all sorts of awkward angles – and as it’s ‘only’ the guest room it probably matters the least, but I don’t want guests to have to sleep in a mouldy room!

But I’ve reluctantly admitted there is no point trying to do anything more to those rooms (when we can afford to) – redecorating, fitting new storage or tearing up those awful carpets – if the mould isn’t gone. I can’t bear the thought of having it fixed up once and then having the mould come back, like the rising damp did.

So we go back to the original suggestion – fit a more powerful bathroom fan and see if that helps reduce condensation overall. We’ve also been recommended to try dehumidifiers. Two small fixes, wait another winter to see what happens to the mouldy walls, and perhaps then we tackle the next project.

That’s without even getting on to the massive potential work to be done in the front garden where we have a wall crumbling away and a drive we can barely fit the car onto – again, no point doing a quick fix, it needs to be the whole job or nothing.

Meanwhile, I can make the most of the other investment we made this spring, new sofa and armchairs in the living room.

This is finally a room we can go to in the evening and feel we’ve left the chaos of everyday life behind. The battered old leather sofas and even more battered beige rug gone – it feels like a proper grown-up, reasonably clutter-free room. And that feeling is worth every penny!