Struggling into spring

I never quite understood what TS Eliot had against April, or lilacs (mine flowers in May, not April, anyway – the photo below shows its buds still squeezed tightly up in the last week of April), but this spring has certainly proved that April can indeed be the cruellest month.

As the Easter holidays approached, we’d had a few glorious sunny days, when it felt like the year had turned the corner – the clocks had gone forward, the evenings were light, and finally things had begun to grow.

Then, the Easter weekend forecast began to grow worse, and it rained solidly virtually all day on Good Friday. Easter Saturday and Sunday stayed dry, more or less, but there was an iron grey cloud overhead all day; the sun simply vanished. It felt more like February than April.

Spring seemed to give up on us: I can count on one hand how many daffodils grew in the garden this year – it was as if the leaves came up, but the flowers thought ‘nah, can’t be bothered’.

Easter Monday we spent in Greenwich, where the Observatory was a good indoor distraction for a child ‘doing space’ at school next term – but what a dismal sight compared to the normal view across Greenwich Park! I felt sorry for the tourists seeing one of my favourite places at its absolute worst.

Having lost most of February half term to a vomiting bug, I had been banking on the Easter fortnight to be a chance for fresh air, sightseeing and fun, but fitting around work commitments, play dates and the ever worsening weather forecast meant we had little chance for proper outdoorsy exploring anywhere new or exciting.

There was one glorious, perfect sunny day in the first week of the holiday, but various plans already made that day meant we had no time to go further than Streatham Common (when it looks this lovely, though, who’s complaining?)

The next day, which started out grey but got better, we went to Crystal Palace Park, another old favourite, which as luck would have it had a funfair – I felt I was giving the children one unadulterated fun day which didn’t also involve me running errands, making a delivery or doing some other dull adult task en route.

And coming across lesser celandine spreading itself across waste ground in dappled sunlight (just outside the park) will always make my day – so that was, overall, a good day. That was the last sunshine we saw for quite some time, though.

Of course, we’ve had cold, wet and windy weather in April before – looking back at past blogs at this time of year I can see I’m always complaining about the rain and the lack of spring warmth – but there was something about the cold grey spell managing to last exactly the length of the Easter holiday which was relentless in its ability to grind me down.

We did find indoor stuff to do, naturally – the Horniman, Tate Modern, Flip Out, swimming, visits from friends and a thrilling trip to meet Doorkins, the famous Cat of Southwark Cathedral – but the endless grey skies were a monotonous backdrop to all the photos I took.

The day at Tate Modern was eerie and oppressive, with the City gradually disappearing into fog over the course of the afternoon – memorable, certainly, and perhaps a glimpse of London Dickens might recognise – but dismal when compared to past sunny day outings across the Wobbly Bridge and watching the street entertainers.

Into the second week, I felt the weather was beginning to troll me – the forecast when school went back was suddenly lovely, heading up to 24 degrees or more.

This felt like torment – all the fun times we could have been having, but the children will be back at school and preschool and I will be locked into the usual routine racing up and down the hill between them. Not fair!

In the end, it doesn’t really matter. The small ones had a fun time, and the mini heatwave, when it came, was still lovely. (We seem now to have settled back into more typical April showers followed by sunshine with a side serving of brisk winds, but the weather is set to worsen again this weekend – THANKS FOR THAT, APRIL).

Still, after the short intense burst of warmth and sun, the garden has finally caught up with itself, and May bank holiday weekend weather is looking promising – but then I’m spending it in the Lakes, famous for its prolonged dry spells and sunshine….oh well!

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The Outside Room

This summer, it has felt like we’ve finally got the garden to work, as a part of the home, rather than just the nice green bit which sits behind glass and occasionally gets tended to. It turns out there are a couple of really simple things you can do to help make this happen, and one of them cost only £40, and the other was free. Let me explain…

Last summer, the first when we had the new living space at the back and the bifold doors, I certainly spent a lot of time sat on the sofa looking at the garden but not much time in it, unless I was doing actual gardening. 

Mostly, though, I was sat on the sofa, with a baby rolling around on the rug, drinking tea, and making grand plans for all the things I was going to do in the garden this year

Now, at the end of the summer, I cannot, hand on heart, say that I have created the den at the bottom of the garden, but it hasn’t stopped the Big Girl doing it for herself – round the back of the silver birch tree is her Ice Palace and there is usually some game being played there or story being enacted whenever a friend comes round to play. 

There is a lot I could do – and hopefully still will do – to make it into a proper child friendly play area, but of course what I should have known all along is that a child’s imagination will do all the heavy lifting – they don’t need lots of money spent to enjoy grubbing around in the soil with a stick.

We did still have the challenge of what to offer the baby sister, though, who was crawling at the start of the summer and walking by the end. As I wrote about here, the big thing preventing me from getting out into the garden during daylight hours was her love of climbing, scrambling and balancing on the edge of the raised bed in terrifying fashion. 

I realised we had to find some outdoor toy of some description which could occupy her safely, so that we could all spend time in the garden without having to repeatedly pull her down from the raised bed or patiently re-plant the sedums in my planter which she pulled up over and over again. 

Turns out the solution is very simple. I kept my eye out on Facebook, and when someone local offered a Little Tikes slide – the cube shaped one – for £40, we snapped it up. The first afternoon it was out on the lawn was the first ever I was able to drink a cup of tea while it was still hot, and without having to retrieve a grumbling baby who’d got stuck at the bottom of the garden.


It has been a huge success for her, as she is just the right size to climb up and onto it without help, but even better is how both the children play on it together. The moment the doors are open, they are both out there, sitting on top of it, hauling out trolley loads of toys and setting up tea parties.


I didn’t expect the Big Girl to be interested in it at all, so her willingness to join in has been a great delight. By next summer, I imagine they’ll both be too old for it, but the entertainment that slide has brought them for £40 was money well spent. 

The other thing which helped? Well, that was something we couldn’t have planned or predicted, but one day in early August we spotted a fledgling robin sitting on the garden bench (and using the arm as a pooing post, thanks robin!)

He (or she) was unusually tame and curious for a wild bird, as robins often are, so we started leaving out crumbs, and pretty soon he was a regular visitor.


Over the course of August he’s grown from a speckly, still slightly fluffy fledgling to an almost full-grown bird, and we’ve seen him virtually every day.


Isn’t he a cutie?

Of course he had to have a name, and between us, he was christened Cheerio Bubbles (don’t ask…)

It has been a key element of making the garden feel like a proper part of the house that we live in, knowing there is a friendly small creature interested in us, and busy making our garden his home, too. And of course it’s been a privilege to watch him growing and realise that the children are getting to see wildlife as a daily part of their life. 

Remembering to save some crumbs for him and put them out after breakfast, and looking out to be the first person to spot him that day, have all become part of the daily routine. We hope he’ll be one of the family for a long time to come.

Tale of a Shrub

I have big plans for our garden next year! (Adopts megalomaniac pose, arms aloft, boldly gazing at the horizon). I’m going to pick it up by the scruff of the neck and give it a good old talking to.

Actually, no, I’m going to do no such thing – a big garden makeover is just not on the cards, but I do have a couple of slightly more achievable goals I’m working towards: I want to tidy up the shrubbery, and create a children’s play area.

The shrubbery has always been a bit of a conundrum to me – on the one hand, we need to keep a bit of privacy and screen off the view of some ugly garages, but on the other, we have an awful lot of garden space devoted to a tangled mess of trees and shrubs which are, for the most part, not really my taste.

So, what will stay and what will go?

Working left to right (looking from the house), the first thing I’d give the chop to is a ceanothus. It is already being choked to death by ivy, so I’ve cut out loads of dead branches over the years and it’s now in a rather sorry state. It does have nice blue flowers in spring, but it’s also very gnarled and spiky and just not my thing.

However, we do need to keep it for screening off the uglies, so I contented myself with chopping off a low overhanging branch which had been driving me mad. Doing the job myself was really satisfying, too – I haven’t wielded a saw in years. 

  
Next to the unloved ceanothus is a viburnum of some kind – that can stay. Nice dark green glossy foliage, evergreen so it provides privacy all year round, pretty cream pompom flowers. My only gripe is that it’s not one of the scented varieties.

Next to the viburnum is a rowan, which I have no complaint with. It’s my favourite tree by far, beloved for its beautiful orange berries and its place in folklore. It stays!

In the middle of the shrubbery, we have a horrid variegated laurel which I hate and would like to rip out altogether, and various unidentified shrubs and sprawling trees. There’s something that shoots up everywhere which I think is a dogwood, and something that might be hazel. I’ve hacked back quite a lot of this but I don’t quite know what to put in its place, is the problem…we’ll come back to that one.

At the far right hand side is the real ‘problem area’. There was a mahonia, a plant I really can’t love, sprouting everywhere, the ubiquitous buddleia, and a huge tree stump covered in ivy. 

  
This entire corner of the bed I cut right back to the ground (bar the big tree stump) over a couple of intense gardening sessions – the pile in the foreground is only about half of what I cut down in total!

This was all removed by the excellent Green Go Waste, an environmentally conscious waste clearance company who I can highly recommend. Now remains the question of what goes in place of all this tangled shrubby mess I am so glad to be rid of?

The right hand corner has a gap where the mahonia and buddleia were and is an obvious place to put a larger tree, to help screen us better from a couple of the houses that we back onto. The tree we all like most is the silver birch, with its pale bark and golden yellow leaves providing a nice contrast to all the dark evergreens – but at the same time, it’s an opportunity to plant a fruit tree and actually grow something useful. 

Cooking apples would be my preference – pies and crumbles all autumn and winter without having to pay for apples, sounds good to me. But I think aesthetically silver birch will win the day – next step is actually to buy and plant the tree, and I have no clue how to do this, I’ve never planted anything as big as a tree and I’d hate to get it wrong. Job for next year, anyway, she says, deferring having to make an actual decision yet.

There is also a large patch of bare earth in front of the old tree stump and it’s here I’d like to create a play area for children. I freely admit here to being heavily influenced by Sally’s Secret, by Shirley Hughes – I loved playing in dens and Wendy houses as a child, and in the story, Sally makes a perfect den in the shrubbery at the bottom of her garden.

So I want to make space for a den, but I want children to be able to make it their own. A fancy playhouse is not on the cards, but we do want to make a safe surface underfoot – bark chippings or Astro turf, perhaps. Certainly with a layer of matting to keep the weeds down.

Then we need something to give it the feel of a den, to make it feel a bit enclosed. The obvious choice would be a willow structure, which I’d love to have, but the space is tight and I’m not sure it would quite work. 

The finishing touch will be something to use as play furniture – chopped off logs for stools and tables, of course, and maybe a low stretch of fence to make the play area feel distinct from the rest. The other half of the bed, underneath the rowan and viburnum, is my rather haphazard but pleasing shady ‘woodland garden’ where I’ve planted ferns, foxgloves, lungwort, etc – I want to keep this area well planted and hopefully not trampled too much by children. 

There is also the matter of my compost bin which sits, Dalek-style, under the ceanothus – I’d like to screen it from view a bit, but I’m not sure how. I should have positioned it further back behind the shrubs but it’s far too heavy to move now! Another thing to fix one day.

  
That’s the goal for 2016, as far as the garden is concerned – plant a tree, and make a play area. We’ll see how it goes – and I’ll update, if either thing actually happens…

It’s raining, it’s pouring…

This spring has given me quite a different perspective on my garden.

Last year, the endless snow and cold spells meant that I didn’t really get to see the garden in its full spring glory…it limped into life, in fits and starts between the frosts and snow, rather than bursting into bloom.

This time round, I feel like I’ve had the chance to appreciate it properly, and after the ground had a good soaking back in early April, it was almost as if – woompf! – it exploded into colour and lush greens overnight. We had some friends over at Easter and one of them commented how good the garden was looking – and I had to admit that most of it really wasn’t our own work.

Clematis

Our lovely, if all-too-brief flowering clematis

As I’ve realised – and what I couldn’t see last spring when the garden was struggling to grow at all – we’ve inherited good ‘bone structure’ from the previous owners. The lilac, clematis, bay tree, rowan, winter jasmine, and so on are all in good shape, and the different colours and textures of background shrubs give us a good baseline to work from. It feels like everything I’ve done so far has just been tinkering round the edges. And to think, shamefully, that I initially thought it was just a load of boring old shrubs when we moved in!

Lilac in foreground, cherry tree in background

Lilac in foreground, cherry tree in background

However, since then there has been some pretty serious work done. The ugly prickly half-dead tree being choked by ivy at the back of the garden has been heavily chopped back, letting light into the most gloomy corner – and not before time, as a skip was backed down the side alley to get to a neighbours building works, and even MORE had to be chopped down, to allow the skip to get past!

I am hoping that by providing a bit of dappled light into a previously fully-shaded area, we can cover some of the bare earth with shade-loving plants and those that are good at spreading to provide ground cover. So far, a vinca, pulmonaria and a harts-tongue fern are all settling in nicely, though the weeds and marigolds that seem to grow everywhere are also creeping in.

Then there has been the issue of the bluebells. I dug out a small patch of them earlier in the spring, and put in forget-me-nots and pansies, my standard springtime go-to blooms, and when the bluebells came up, it briefly created a lovely bed of glowing pinks and blues: up there with the nicest things I’ve ever managed to plant by accident or design, I think.

Perfect combination of bluebells and pink/blue forget-me-nots. My idea of garden heaven.

Perfect combination of bluebells and pink/blue forget-me-nots. My idea of garden heaven.

On the downside, though, it lasted all of a week, and I was confronted with the less pleasant side of an idyllic swathe of bluebells – pulling up hundreds of dead flowers and clearing up the rotting leaves makes me wonder if the week of loveliness is really worth it. So, this afternoon, I stood in the rain and dug out a load more bluebells.

Now, to decide what to put in their place? So far, a very sweet pale pink hydrangea which was a gift from friends, and I’ve just added a few favourite plants which I miss from the old garden – alchemilla, (lady’s mantle) which always looks nice after the rain (a definite plus at the moment), the Alba (white) variety of thrift, and to provide a bit of height at the back, a salvia.

Plus, some of the plants I originally moved from the old garden or saved as seeds are doing much better now – the heucheras are thriving, and snapdragon seeds I saved 2 years ago are putting on a lovely display now.

Pale pink hydrangea loveliness

Pale pink hydrangea loveliness

The next question is when we’ll actually get to enjoy the garden properly. Most of the time lately the toddler and I are standing with our noses pressed up to the window, her intoning ‘Rain pouring! Rain pouring!’, and occasionally ‘Rain pouring STOP!’

Let’s hope so…we only have a couple of months till the builders move in, and the garden becomes out of bounds. We need to make a bit of hay while the sun shines…but for that to happen, the sun would *actually* have to shine!