We Aren’t Quite There Yet

It is nearly the end of January, but we aren’t quite there yet. I don’t like to let a month slip by without writing a blog, but if there ever was a month to let slip by, January would be it.

January on social media has been taken over by people giving things up – Dryanuary, Veganuary, and over on Instagram (I’ve joined Instagram, for my sins), it’s all clean living and Slimming World.

Dryanuary would seem a bit wasted on me, who can go a fortnight without drinking and barely notice it, and whilst I have been tempted to dabble in veganism (hey, you can still eat chips, and I like dark chocolate, and tofu, right?) – and I do love my shiny new HFW River Cottage veg cookbook –

…..the thought of tea with some kind of milk substitute in it just can’t be borne.

So I have limped on to nearly-the-end of January without giving anything up, or taking anything up, and it has felt like a month of endless rain. Morning school runs in the rain, and slogs down the hill to preschool in rain, and dashing back up the hill to be home before it rains (this week bought some respite; we got the rain, but we also got a rainbow). I have only ventured into the back garden to fill up bird feeders, and found the lawn to be completely sodden.

It’s the time of year I like least, because the garden feels most remote from me. I look out of the window and notice things: I must cut that back when I’ve got a minute. I never pulled up the dead Michaelmas daisies. I wonder which ferns have survived the winter. And I don’t go and look. I put it off for another month. I think, February, I’ll deal with it in February.

And then February will roll round and there is a baby girl about to turn 3 – no longer a baby! – and half term and lots of weekends taken ferrying children to birthday parties, so another month will slip by and I still probably won’t get any jobs done in the garden.

I have done what I term ‘the basics’ in the front garden – sweep up the leaves, deadhead roses, cut back the fuchsia and a few other things that have got too big for their boots – but that to me is the very least, a lick and a promise to keep the front of the house looking vaguely respectable (and I’m sure I’ve typed very similar words in previous Januaries).

There is so much more to be done out there, an entire dead hydrangea to be dug out, for starters. That’s going to be an afternoon’s work in itself – and at least two other plants which don’t deserve to be there at all, and an enormous overgrown holly which is pretty much a hedge now.

Then we have to make decisions about the really big jobs of the year – new windows, and perhaps redecorating the sad neglected bedrooms (ours and the spare), or dealing with the drive and crumbling front wall. Make the house look more respectable from the outside, or the inside? The bit everyone sees, or the bit no-one but us sees? Paging Dr Freud…

In the meantime, the snowdrops are nearly up, the catkins are on the hazel tree, and for a pound you can buy a vase of sunshine in the shape of daffodils. So, spring is coming, but we aren’t quite there yet.

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The lazy spring garden

I had a strange realisation about the garden earlier this month – it is the usual time of year when I remark with apparent surprise how the garden is suddenly green and blooming (as if it should be a surprise that spring happens! I always have to remember Larkin said it best: ‘begin afresh, afresh, afresh’).


However, there was something different this year – I was doing my usual pruning back and deadheading and digging up of dandelions and sycamore seedlings, but usually there are also some gaps to fill in, new plants to buy, things on my wish list to be added in here and there.

This year, though – no gaps! For the first time, plants I put in one or more year ago and didn’t necessarily expect to appear, have popped back up and are thriving.


On the raised bed, poppies from the plant stall at the school fair two years ago are sprouting again, a sedum my mum put in as a tiny seedling is now enormous, and my white thrift is thriving too. 

Even the nigella seeds I scattered last year, assuming I’d only get one year’s flowering from, are back.


The woodland garden at the back is also doing well, too, with bugle, periwinkle and lungwort, which I used to have to water all the time and coax back into life every time they drooped, spreading to cover the bare soil, and the one recent new purchase I allowed myself, a couple of hellebores, also settling in nicely.

It is nice not to have to do too much beyond basic maintenance and weeding – nice to see plants which used to struggle now taking care of themselves – and it’s certainly good not to be spending so much money on plants (though I do always hunt out the bargains and half price tables!). It is especially nice to look out over the raised bed and see a continual wave of colour, although I know once the bluebells are over there will be big gaps.


The silver birch tree, now in for a whole year, is also looking good, and with all the leaves out, we have a big improvement in terms of our privacy – looking out from the kitchen window, I can only just see the top roof of the house opposite, not their windows at all.


The question is, where does this leave me? I have two big beds I’ve worked very hard to fill, and now with our fourth summer in the house, they seem to be mature. I do still have two border beds with lots of shrubs, some very overgrown and prickly, and a lot of undergrowth spreading like lemon balm – none of it exactly weeds, but all a bit dull and samey. 

That is probably the next big task to contemplate, but for now, I’m going to enjoy what’s been done so far.


Plus I have a couple of junior gardeners to help me out – they are busy planting nasturtiums in this picture – and the poor old lawn which has become so lush and green, is going to be sacrificed for the new big toy, a trampoline.

A walk around…Hever Castle

I thought I’d written about Hever Castle before – I thought I remembered the blog quite clearly, but when I went back to search for it, no such blog existed. 

Then it came back to me – we went in early March 2015, when the toddler would only have been a month old (looking back, I’m amazed we did such an ambitious trip so early on) and I was at the height of my Wolf Hall obsession, just after the TV adaptation had aired. Baby brain being what it was, I had never got round to writing about it.

I had read Bring Up the Bodies on holiday the previous summer, in the first trimester of pregnancy. I spent a LOT of time in a hammock in the garden of a French gite, reading and sleeping. The heart-wrenching climax, sharpening towards the fate of Anne Boleyn had, in my hormone-addled state, preyed on my mind, and when the same grim scene was replicated on TV I was right back there in that hammock feeling emotionally drained all over again.

So, (despite the emotional trauma) new baby in tow, we went off to see the Boleyn childhood home, (for purposes of admiring spring flowers, as well as the pursuit of history) and almost exactly 2 years later, we came back to do it all over again.


It was a little past the best of the snowdrop season, but there were still plenty of them, plus banks of crocuses and primroses – no surprises, but lovely nevertheless.


The site has good woodland paths to explore – possible with a lightweight buggy, though there are steps;  we barely did any of this last time, so I was evidently still at the stage of shuffling round at that point and the heavy-duty buggy would have held us back a bit. What a difference two years makes!


The part of the gardens we had explored the last time were perhaps not at their best – the formal Italian-style gardens were fairly bare, but I loved this sculptural heavily pruned tree with a splash of purple crocuses beneath.


Closer to the castle, inevitably the gardens get more Elizabethan – the most OTT topiary I’ve ever seen….


And of course there is a maze – thankfully an easy one, I went in with the big girl, let her take the lead and we were in the middle within minutes. Waaay too easy!


And another thing I’d missed on the first trip, an entire chess set in topiary.


What we didn’t do this time was go inside the castle – first time round I was lapping up all the Wolf Hall connections, and there was some fairly interesting history of the house itself alongside all the copies of the familiar Tudor portraits. 

Would be nice to see it all again without the baby brain-fog and take a little more in, but it was cheaper to just go into the gardens and it was a nice enough day to stay outside in any case. By the time we’d taken in the adventure playground, lunch and first ice creams of the year, we certainly felt we’d done it justice.


Now if Hilary Mantel would just hurry up and finish the last part of her trilogy, I will be able to get Wolf Hall fever all over again. (One other place I MUST go is Penshurst Place – very near Hever – which was used  as a filming location for the TV drama).

Snowflakes and snowdrops

Today felt like the first real day of spring, and not before time – January was a long, slow slog and today was one of the days when the fog began to clear (just mental fog, sadly; despite the sunshine I could feel the mouth-coating sensation of London air pollution just the same). This is still going to be quite a rambling blog all the same, as so much happened when we were in the January fog; I can’t quite believe it has only been four weeks.

It was that same week when Londoners were advised to stay indoors because the air quality was so bad, and the global event we’d all been dreading was approaching – the wretched inauguration – that our own minor crisis happened and I found myself calling for an ambulance at 5.30am. 

The Mr, it turned out, had pneumonia and managed to knock himself out getting up in the night to get medicine for the toddler, who was also ill (with tonsillitis, which later turned into an ear infection). Thanks to the awful air quality I had a hacking cough, too, and so we were all lost under a cloud of illness for the next few weeks. Pneumonia, it turns out, takes weeks to recover from, but he is doing much better now, thankfully.

Outside was mostly all gloomy and cold anyway – there were even a few snow flurries, but not enough real snow to excite the children. I certainly learnt that a chilly blast of snowflakes can make a toddler extremely miserable in a very short space of time – so much for the current depreciation of snowflakes as feeble and pathetic!

When I did get to go outdoors in better weather, I at least had something to admire in the back garden – we had a much-needed tidy up of the shrubs and bushes which were beyond my capabilities, by the excellent, and local, Capital Trees

The bay and olive tree we inherited from the previous owners had barely been pruned by us at all, and it’s a huge improvement to see them properly shaped rather than running wild. The cherry tree will also be getting pruned back later in the year once it has bloomed.

Then this week, finally, I was properly cheered when the snowdrops bloomed in our garden, and today with the weather finally improving we went to the Rookery to see what else was out – and to my surprise, lots was already.

Hellebores, crocuses, camellias, more snowdrops and the gorgeous buttercup style flowers I have not yet been able to identify…I was thrilled to see so much out already, and it has only just occurred to me that the entire slope is south-facing, and very sheltered, so no wonder it puts on a good show so early on.

This is, I guess, what we have to keep on doing – put on a good show. I put in a good hour tidying the front garden when I got back home and felt all the better for it – and days are getting longer, the daffodils and hyacinths will be up soon, and if they are putting on a good show, the rest of us can too.

Tale of a Tree

As I wrote towards the end of last year, one of the garden plans for 2016 was to do something about our scruffy old shrubbery, and plant a tree. 

It took a few months to get going with this project, but I can now safely say, we have begun. Our first task was to remove the gnarled old buddleia stump – I sawed back what I could manage of the trunk, the Mr did the rest, and we discovered the underneath of the stump was completely rotten anyway, so it all came out with a few hefty kicks and levering from him. 

Here’s how it looked at the end of Feb:   

And once the stump was all gone we were left with this:    

I spent a few hours raking up twigs, digging out roots and pulling up ivy till we had a nice clear patch of bare earth, uncovered properly for the first time in years. 

(This was the remains of the buddleia stump, or rather about half of it!):   

I had canvassed opinions from various gardening friends and we had decided – as anticipated – to buy a silver birch

One recommendation had been to buy a multi-stemmed tree, which would give the appearance of being a fully-formed mini grove of trees rather than a solitary trunk. This would fill out the empty corner very well, we thought, and also mean the tree would not grow as tall as a single trunked one would – as we already have a tall cherry tree in the garden we didn’t want anything to have to compete with that too much.

My only worry was that a multi-stemmed tree would be three times the price – 3 trunks meant 3 trees, right? – but luckily that was not the case, and my favourite local garden centre sold us a lovely multi-stemmed tree for the same price as a single stem.

They also sold us a wooden stake and gave us some helpful advice about positioning it, but we are certainly not experts and when the tree arrived on Easter Saturday, the tree itself went happily into the ground but the stake snapped in half when it was hammered in.

One return trip to the garden centre a few days later, a bit more explanation needed about correct staking procedure, replacement stake given free of charge (hurrah!) and we were in business!

(Staking tips: apparently you need to angle the stake so that it’s outside the tree root system, and also the stake must not rub against the wood of the trunk, so you need a rubber tie thing which goes around stake and tree in a figure of 8. So now you know).

The leaves were just coming out on the tree when we planted it, and it has had plenty of good soakings since then (thank you April showers), so now in full leaf, it really shows what a good choice it was to fill that dull spot:

  
The broad, generous shape of the three trunks already feels like it was made to go in a corner, and the dancing golden green leaves bring the whole area to life. What was a particularly dark and gloomy corner of the garden is now full of movement, interest and colour. What a joy!

  
From a distance looking down the garden it really shows how well it has filled the empty gap:

  
In a word, I am thrilled with it. Less thrilled that the poor Mr has damaged a shoulder from all the digging, but he seems to be on the mend now, and I won’t ask him to plant any more trees for me for a while…I promise. 

Too much else to plan now, that I have a mini woodland glade at the bottom of the garden, I don’t need more trees, the question is what else to plant around and under it? And what about the children’s play area? (When are we going to get a chance to do that, exactly?)

We are not going to plant anything too near the tree yet – let it get established first – but there are plenty of other gaps in the shrubbery that need filling now that I’ve thinned out a bit of the dull stuff, and lots more inspiration to seek out first before I make any decisions!

Howling gales do not a happy gardener make

There’s not been much gardening done yet this year, and it’s been getting on my nerves – a wet and windy January has been followed by a wet and windy February, and the garden feels like a remote foreign land to me. 

I’ve seen it under snow, and much more waterlogged and neglected than it is now, but somehow the past month has made me feel much more cut off from it than ever before, and it has never looked as bleak and empty as it has done recently. 

I’ve only really been out the back lately to put out crumbs for the birds – I feel like I’m venturing into someone else’s territory, the domain of the cats, squirrels and foxes, not my back yard at all.

I suspect it’s because this time last year, I had a new baby on my hands and I wasn’t paying much attention to the garden – by the time March rolled around I was ready to get back out there and start gardening. 

This year, on the other hand, I’ve had time to notice how folorn the garden looks, every time I look outside, but the endless rain and howling winds have put me off wanting to actually go out there. It has not even been very cold, but everything has looked so dreary that I’ve felt rather uninspired. 

Perhaps I ought to have a baby every February to distract me from the lack of satisfying gardening I get done – rather extreme, I know – I suppose proper grown up gardeners use the time to read up on new plants and do their planning for spring, but that’s unlikely to be me being that organised any time soon.

We did have a mild-ish Sunday in January when I got into the front garden and did some tidying up – weeding and pruning back the roses, holly and hydrangea made me at least feel the public face of the garden was a bit more respectable. A quick bit of work that gives very satisfying results – every time I come in and out of the house I look at the fresh green hydrangea leaves just opening and the sprawling mass of holly now wrestled under control and feel quietly pleased.

Then of course the bulbs start to come up and again there is a quiet spike of joy – snowdrops back again in the exact same week! And there do seem to be more every year (I know that shouldn’t be a surprise, but it is so delightful to see!)

  
Plus we have grape hyacinth and crocuses…

   
 
My only regret is that I didn’t do a serious attempt at planting some more bulbs back in the autumn, to give us even more to enjoy now – but I’ve plugged a few gaps with some potted bulbs which should come up a bit later in spring, and I can at least be pleased that what I have put in already is spreading nicely and well-established – the snowdrops were all planted since we’ve moved here, as far as I remember, though the other bulbs were mostly there already.

One new treat which I’ve been delighted to see is some lovely pale primroses which my mum planted last spring – they were tiny seedlings from her garden, so wee and easy to miss last year I was constantly worried I’d pull them up as weeds by mistake, but one year on they are suddenly huge and in full bloom already – just lovely.

  
These two are on the north facing bed and seem to be thriving there under the kerria – some others she planted in the south facing bed shrivelled up completely, as have several other plants there which I’ve tried to keep an eye on. The ground on that side of the garden seems much poorer quality, dry and rock hard even in winter, and I wonder what I can find that will do well there? Something to ponder as we head into spring.

Springtime snooping, 2015 style

i was gifted a lovely day off last week – the Mr booked me a trip to a hotel spa where I had a morning lounging around in the pool and steam room, followed by a massage, whilst he wore out the big girl (I can’t call her a toddler any more) at Battersea Park zoo. 

I was then delivered two suitably tired children, who were happy to have a rather quiet and non-stimulating afternoon (well, baby sister doesn’t get much choice on the matter yet, anyway) and I got to do what I like best, take a long leisurely walk past some of my favourite local gardens. 

Not that this isn’t interesting for a 3 year old too – we stop to say hello to cats or dogs, watch birds and snails, and see which plants and trees she can recognise. But mainly, it pleases me and soothes my soul…. so let the snooping begin!

  
First of all, I was seeing irises everywhere. The white, dark purple and yellow variants were all familiar to me, but I’d never seen the pale purple and yellow variety before – nor the bright yellow with a dash of burgundy.

To my mind, irises are best growing wild by a pond, what I know as yellow flag, and while the lilac ones in my back garden look very nice when they are flowering, they are a bit ugly at other times of year when a big messy-looking bulging mass of roots is left behind (rhizomes, as my mum has taught me). Still, they do add a bit of drama and height to a bed, as you can see above.

  

I caught sight of something next that I hadn’t seen in years, and hardly ever seen in urban areas – cuckoo’s spit. The curious name hides a tiny green bug, the larvae of the froghopper – I had to resist the temptation to clear away the froth to show the big girl what was inside (I always used to do this as a child, but now it seems a terribly cruel thing to do, to leave the tiny thing without its defences).

Then I saw a plant – and smelt a smell – which always makes me think of summer, gorse. I know it flowers all year round, as the old saying goes, but the heavenly scent of gorse is one that always recalls summer holidays to me, walks along cliff tops and sand between the toes. Not very often seen in urban gardens, either, so it was very cheering to see it there.
  

This wasn’t just aimless wandering, either, (though there ain’t nothing wrong with aimless wandering!) – I am actively on the look out for ideas of plants which might fill in a gap, or things I’ve been missing from the old garden and yearning to replace. 

Some of these I spotted and photographed – Nigella (love-in-a-mist, to give it the prettier name) and California poppies (how I love that splash of vivid orange!) I have already bought seeds for, and waiting for the right time to plant them. Honeysuckle I long for – need to find the right spot for it. And snapdragons can be fitted in any old where, I just need to find some from somewhere!

I’ve already had a few successes this year – a heuchera and Mexican daisies which were transplanted during the building works last year are thriving in their new locations, and I’ve found an old friend, London Pride, on a recent trip to a garden centre and am thrilled to have it growing in my garden again.

The weather has been a bit too hit and miss to do any serious gardening, but it’s looking pretty good out there right now – and there always plans afoot for more things to do…