Let it snow, let it sleet, let it hail…

This weekend, it felt like a door opened just a crack and we got a tiny glimpse of Spring, what a real spring day feels like. I actually sat out in the sunshine for two consecutive days. I can’t think when that last happened!

Up until Saturday, the week had delivered snow and sleet on Tuesday, hail on Wednesday and thunder and lightning too, then more hail on Friday. And yet, thanks in part to all the rain (and the lack of really cold weather, despite the snow flurries), Spring marches on – the leaves are out, flowers are blooming, we’ve seen birds gathering nesting material. It just hasn’t felt like Spring up until now.

On one of the sunny early April days which was much colder and windier than it ought to have been, I had a chance to revisit one of my favourite local open gardens. The site is on one of the loveliest roads in Herne Hill, in fact the very one I walked up many years ago to visit the Velodrome for the first time – and thought to myself ‘some day I’d like to live round here’. 

Well, I never made it as far as moving to Herne Hill, but I’m close enough, and it is certainly a pleasure to be able to return to this particular garden. 

It has a fantastic wild area at the bottom – great inspiration for how my birch tree might look in a few years, if I can persuade anything to grow under it!

And a very palatial looking bug hotel, with child beside it for scale.  This puts me to shame as I have made no attempt to create a bug hotel at home and there is no excuse, I’m sure I can find some way of cobbling one together.

In terms of plant inspiration I was spoilt for choice – gorgeous Yellow Archangel (top) with its deceptively nettle-like leaves, but so much more glamorous than the ordinary varieties of dead-nettle, the dainty fritillaries (bottom) which are probably far too delicate to survive in my garden right now, and in the middle, something I have discovered the name of but promptly forgotten: forget-me-not flowers but with the lovely heart-shaped leaves, very striking and definitely a plant that’s going on my list for the shady garden patch. (They have it in the local garden centre, so at some point I will buy some and hopefully remember the name….).

The garden also has lovely sculptural features – box balls next to a bird bath on a plinth, a rusty wire mesh fox (does it keep away the real ones I wonder?) and stone birds next to, um, a giant egg. 

I also really liked the use of wood and gravel here – another idea I’ve been mulling over is whether to put more gravel around some of my more drought-ridden areas, to try and keep weeds down and help disguise some of the bare patches of soil that plague me.

I have been keeping an eye out for other pretty things, too, and it is possible, if you look only at the pictures taken on nice sunny days, to imagine we really have had a spring after all. 

We had a sunny (but briskly cold) afternoon at the Horniman museum, and I was keen to see how their formal beds had been planted this year – and I wasn’t disappointed! 

The whole series of beds had been planted with pink, blue AND white forget-me-nots (White ones! Who knew?), with dark burgundy tulips dotted like sentinels throughout. 

The effect was charming and haphazard up close, but a seriously spectacular view when you look down the full length of the beds – patchwork of flowers so dense you could hardly see a bare space. And whilst tulips have never been a real favourite of mine, here they add some height and drama to an otherwise very pretty, delicate forget-me-not patchwork.

If the good weather is here to stay for a while, I will keep my eyes peeled for more inspiration – in the mean time, this lot have given me plenty of ideas to be going on with!


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.


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!

Singin’ and Gardenin’ in the Rain

Last weekend I read one of those articles which listed ‘Jobs for your garden in February’. It cheerfully informed me that my lawn should be ‘starting to wake up’ and it was a good time to start preparing for the first mow of the year.

This raised a hollow laugh from me, as I contemplated the quagmire which we currently have in place of a lawn. Our garden is west facing and we’re on top of a hill, but somehow there is no drainage at all, water just seems to *sit* there, perhaps held in place by the wretched raised bed which dominates the garden. It’s not helped by the fact there is no garden path, just a series of stepping stones, so even a simple trip to the compost bin or bird table involves squelching over already-sodden grass and slippery stones, ruining the lawn even more.

However, compared to this time last year, the endless rain has one advantage over snow – with the garden not hidden by a layer of frost or snow, I can see the shrubs much more clearly, while they are free of leaves, and with the ground not frozen solid I can actually take action to dig and clear stuff out. It’s as if the bare bones of the garden are out on display, so I can see where the dead wood is, what is overgrown and needs serious hacking back, and what only needs a trim and tidy up.

I also have a much better idea of what I want to keep and what can go – although the thought of taking out an entire shrub is much more daunting than just cutting it back, all those roots to grub up and all that back-breaking digging and sawing.

But I know I want to get rid of the Kerria – sorry, Kerria – as it’s a plant I’ve never really liked, even though we had it in the garden when I was growing up. Orangey pom poms just aren’t my thing, I’m afraid. It grows like wildfire, throwing out new suckers all the time, so I’ve no idea how we can get it completely cleared out without a lot of sweat & effort.

However, it’s on the south side of the garden, next to our side return, and when the builders finally arrive (not till July, it seems), they will probably take down the entire fence to get their equipment and skip in, and according to the Mr, we should expect to lose most of the plants along that bed thanks to the footfall of them all tramping to and fro.

I don’t mind if the kerria is trampled to death, at any rate, and the other large shrubs near it aren’t ones I’m particularly fussed about – a rather feeble hydrangea, which I have two more of in the front garden anyway, and a skimmia, which is reliable and sturdy, but a bit dull, so that can go without too many tears.

The bed also contains a couple of roses, including a lovely vigorous white one right by the garden gate, and with my love of roses well documented, I’d be loathe to let those go. They are pretty old and gnarled, though, so I have pruned them back well, and am keeping my fingers crossed and hoping for the best – roses respond well to being treated firmly, so they say, and these ones look like they’ve been sadly neglected over the years.

In the mean time, I’ve done what I can, between the storms – cut back as much of the sprawling kerria as I can, aerated the lawn with a fork in a desperate attempt to improve the drainage, and dug out a heap of Spanish bluebells from the raised bed to make room for forget-me-nots and pansies, my faithful stand-bys for cheering up a sad garden. It was a good workout for me and for the hitherto little-used garden fork, if nothing else. And then we sit and wait, and wait for spring….

Here’s a shot of the garden from yesterday, looking surprisingly green and serene. After all the work done today, the grass is looking much more churned up and muddy, I just hope we get a few clear days to give it a chance to recover!

Garden, looking south west, February 2014

Garden, looking south west, February 2014

Shrubberies and spring cleaning

We have been in the new house for nearly four months now, and I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of the garden.

Cherry blossom

At least something is in bloom – cherry in the back garden

There are good reasons for this – we’ve concentrated on getting the house itself ship-shape, and the weather hasn’t helped (although that alone has not been a deterrent – I’ve been so desperate to garden that I’ve been out there in rain and even falling snow).

It’s more the overwhelming scale of the task which leaves me in a state of inertia. I start one job, then notice six more that need doing. Weeds everywhere. Lawn full of moss. Refilling holes dug by foxes, particularly around my poor heuchera transplanted from the old house, which they seem determined to destroy.

Sad heuchera

Sad heuchera, which *something* has repeatedly tried to dig up

Some tasks are a small effort for big reward – I tackled the front garden, which needed a trim and tidy-up, but as it’s the part of the garden on view to the world, I felt I had to make it look more respectable.

I’ve never had to worry about it before, as the old house only had a front yard, but now I have to consider what the neighbours will think if I let my flower beds get shabby.

Luckily, an hour or so’s work trimming back last years flower-heads from the hydrangea and dead wood from the fuchsia, and the improvement was quite heartening. I’ve also planted snowdrops, cowslips, violets, saxifrage and more pansies – it’s cheering to see the patches of colour poking out here and there when I come or go from the house.

The previous owners put down woodchip over the soil, to stop weeds coming up, which (rather like woodchip indoors) looks dated, but does its job pretty well. At least I can see what needs doing here – keep the shrubs under control, and fill in gaps until the woodchip patches get smaller and the green gets bigger. That’s the easy bit, anyway.

The back garden is more of a conundrum. No-one but us sees it or is affected by it (or so I thought) and it’s not even very visible from the house, due to a rather odd configuration of windows at the back.

Raised bed

Raised bed, full of mysterious bulbs

The plot is dominated by two things – a large raised bed across the width of the garden, which would be perfect for growing vegetables, but it currently seems to be sprouting bulbs of various kinds, and behind it, an enormous shrubbery.

Shrubberies have always seemed slightly naff to me, harking back to the days of Margo and Jerry, hostess trolleys and fondue sets. Possibly only beaten by the rockery as the most 70s garden feature (when I was around 7 I thought rockeries were the height of sophistication, believe me). When I was actually confronted with one, though, I was rather daunted by it.


Enormous overgrown buddleia

The shrubbery clearly serves a purpose – it shields us from neighbouring houses – but it’s been left to overgrow, to the point where it overhangs the fence at the back, branches almost touching the ground, and soon may partially block access to neighbours’ garages at the end of their gardens, so we have to tackle it now, to keep them off our backs.

The worst offender is an enormous sprawling buddleia – I’ve never seen one left to get so big – it’s so gnarled and contorted now that it’s frankly a mess. Ideally I’d like it taken out altogether, but getting the root of such an established plant out of the ground will be a challenge.

So far I’ve contented myself with chopping back what I can reach with my long-armed loppers, my favourite new toy, but I’ve barely made a dent in it so far (or at least that’s how it feels).

Besides the buddleia, we have a couple of low-growing shrubs (a mahonia and something with variegated leaves I don’t recognise), and at least two other shabby trees, one of them a viburnum of some type. All of it is tangled, overgrown and gloomy, with bare earth below, as it spends much of the day in shadow.

Without a serious pruning, which might compromise our privacy, I’m just not sure what to do with it. The empty flower bed underneath the shrubs is completely invisible from the house, as it’s behind the raised bed, so perhaps I should be growing vegetables there – but I doubt they would do well in the shade.

I am not too worried about my lack of inspiration – they say you should leave a garden for a year at least to see what comes up – but I am frustrated by the way the shrubbery looms over everything. I’m reminded of the tale of the Sleeping Beauty in her forest and wonder if the more I hack at the vegetation, the faster it will grow!

It’s a job for more than one person, really, but it’s hard for us both to get in the garden with a small baby around, and with the weather so bad it’s been a case of snatching a moment when I get a chance. What it needs is a serious assault, perhaps with friends helping if we promise them beer and food in return, and as we get down to the bare bones of the garden, I might start to get an idea of what it could become.