Gardeners’ holidays

Can there be a good time for a gardener to enjoy a holiday away from home? How long can we afford to stay away? Before we had our garden we could book a holiday at any time of the year. Now it needs to be carefully worked out. The bleakest months of November to March seem to be the best options!

Our first year in the garden I blithely booked a holiday for early May, only then did it occur to me that all our tomato plants would be still indoors and could not be placed outside yet, and many other little seeds would be just emerging. An elaborate survival plan had to be prepared. Our bath tub became the temporary home for all the tender plants, placed together in the relative shade of the bathroom, with a common store of water. The seeds were placed in trays of water out of direct sunlight. I figured too much water was better than too little. The plan worked reasonably well but the tomatoes became a bit leggy and some of the seeds were lost.

Autumn seemed like a better choice, next time out we chose September, no problem with seeds or tender plants we decided. However, the garden was laden with produce: tomatoes, onions and courgettes, lettuce and radish. Before we could leave, all ripe and ripening fruits and vegetables were picked and I made pots of cooked tomatoes and courgettes for the freezer.

Duration of holidays has become another issue, can we really stay away for two weeks? Or should we shorten our trips? Watering is the biggest problem, in a country where it rains most days this should not be a problem, but it’s surprising how drying winds or a couple of sunny days can cause a localized drought. Enlisting the help of neighbours or friends is usually recommended, but this is quite a chore to impose on elderly neighbours, or the young families nearby.

This year we opted for April and I held off planting seeds of annuals until I returned. The bath tub was pressed into service again for tomatoes, and all vulnerable pots outside were watered well. As it turned out we got the driest April in years and we had some casualties outdoors and many other plants, particularly lettuce and radish, had bolted and gone to seed.

Pruning

Pruning is my least favourite job in the garden. It makes me nervous, I worry about killing a plant, about inhibiting blossom, and about ruining the shape. I have two books specifically on pruning and I watch YouTube videos before embarking on a pruning task.

I now feel fairly confident with the fruit trees. I prune the apples, pear, plum and damson in summer to keep them small and I do another trim in winter to tidy up the shape. I take out dead, damaged and crossing branches as well as those growing inwards or downwards, or at an acute angle to the trunk. I cut back the annual upright soft growth. Three apples trees, one of them a crab apple, are trained as a cordon on a wooden frame and they need to be pruned to shape and tied in to the frame.

We have two clematis, the early summer flowering Montana Rubens and the summer flowering Viticella Purpurea Plena Elegans. The Viticella is pruned down to the base in spring just as the new growth is starting, but the Montana is pruned in June after flowering. Both are very vigorous and I find it quite hard to prune the Montana as it twines itself around other climbers and it’s easy to cut the wrong plant.

Rambling and climbing roses are beautiful while in bloom, but can be a nightmare to prune afterwards. Our Rambling Rector swamps all around it in spring when it puts on thousands of buds which cannot be cut back until after flowering. The stems are strong and thorns vicious, and many times I’ve ended up scratched and bleeding from it. However, the short-lived blossom is so glorious that I forgive it everything. It has even begun to grow up the nearly Mountain Ash and Sambucus Nigra ‘Black Lace’, sometimes drowning its beautiful pink blossoms, which flower at the same time.

The Philadelphus is another vigorous grower and it plans world domination each spring. Its woody branches grow to more than twelve feet and scrape the paint from the roof of the shed and the palisade. Its blossom is magnificent and the perfume wonderful, but it has quite a short season and it gets destroyed in the wind. Part of it needs to be cut to the ground each year.

We planted a small Laburnum Watereri Vossii ‘Golden Rain’ as one of our first trees, but it needs to be pruned each year to keep it from outgrowing the garden. Originally we pruned it in late November or early December when it is dormant, but the garden centre recommended waiting until February when the worst of the winter is past so that dead and damaged branches can be easier to identify. Its abundant yellow hanging flowers make it a joy in late May and early June.

Some plants take pruning and cutting without any bother, especially those that can be used as hedges. Our fuchsias, hawthorn, pyracantha, and flowering currants are clipped regularly and are forming a mixed hedge in the front garden.

Pruned-Hawthorn-July-2017

Hawthorn prunings

 

Unhappy Acer

I love the idea of a specimen large shrub or small tree in the front garden. We decided that the ideal candidate would be an acer, with delicate foliage from spring to autumn, magnificent autumn colour and an intricate bare shape in winter.

We bought a lovely Japanese Maple Acer palmatum ‘Orange Dream’ with beautifully decorative leaves, their red/orange tips fading to yellow then green, and intense autumn colour. It is small, growing to under five feet, good for a small front space, it is frost hardy in the ground and happy to grow in sun or semi-shade. So far so good.

We planted it confidently in our north-facing front garden. It looked well in the beginning, but it hated the spot, it got cold and shivery from the wind and its lovely red tips got wind burn. We left it for two seasons in the hope that it would acclimatize, but it was so unhappy that we felt bad every time we passed it.

In the winter of the second season we dug it up and transported it carefully to the back garden where we placed it next to the holly. Here in the holly’s strong embrace it is growing happily, sheltered from the cold winds. It is now about eight feet tall as we’ve never pruned it, it brings light to that corner and it is magnificent in the fall.

The front garden location has proved more difficult to find a suitable shrub for. We placed a small crab apple tree there, but in spite of its toughness it was not happy either, so it now resides with the other fruit trees in the back. The Witch Hazel that has been in the space for about eight years seems to be dealing with the uncongenial conditions. It is starkly bare in winter, producing delicate pale yellow flowers in January and February when the rest of the garden looks as if it will never see growth again.

Witch-hazel-2014

Strawberry fields

I imagine that an independent survey would place the strawberry among the top five summer fruits. Once available only from late May to July, with perpetual varieties kicking in from mid summer to autumn, strawberries now appear on shop shelves all year round. But now they often do not have the fine flavour that made them so loved in the first place. When you grow your own you can rediscover that taste again.

We started out with three plants purchased by mail order from Holland. How glorious that first crop was! We’ve never had to buy another plant as they throw out runners every year and we could have hundreds if we wished, and we are also able to share plants with friends. We’ve tried not to let them take over the two vegetable beds: they would without any bother. They need to be replaced every three to four years, so the runners come in to play as the new plants.

The runners arch out gracefully and plant themselves in any convenient bit of earth in the ground or in a pot. If I intend to keep them I get them to root in small pots next to the parent plants, pinned down with a metal staple. This makes it easier to replant them when they have rooted. I cut off all unwanted runners as they weaken the plant. As complete takeover of the vegetable bed was becoming a real possibility I decided to plant the new runners in pots, this only worked for one season as the dreaded vine weevil colonized the pots after the first year. This year we have got a new raised bed, four feet by four, not very large but as much as we can accommodate. We found a space for it near the currant bushes, in full sun. As the runners root this year they will be housed in the new raised bed.

11-July-2017

To keep the fruits protected and clean, I use paper from the shredder instead of straw, which can be difficult to obtain, this is a satisfying way to dispose of those Visa and other pesky bills. At the end of the fruiting season it is recommended to cut off all fading and withered leaves from the older plants. This seems to work well, it tidies up the patch and gives strong healthy plants the next season.

I do not think strawberries freeze well, they defrost in soggy lumps and make for watery jam. This means that the glut needs to be eaten or processed in a short time. After sharing with the blackbirds and any friends who call, we eat the best berries and make jam with the rest. This year I have tried freezing a container full of liquidized berries, I’ll see how this turns out as it’s faster than making jam when the pressure is on. All my friends may expect a pot of home-made jam for the next month or so.

 

Raspberries in captivity

How can a small garden provide a dedicated space for that most wonderful of summer fruits: the raspberry? For me the raspberry is the quintessential taste of summer. Until recent years their season in shops and markets was very short, and they are so perishable that they need to be eaten as soon as possible after being picked.

Shortly after we moved to our garden we purchased two summer raspberry plants (Rubus idaeas) to be placed tidily near the perimeter fence on the west side of the garden We have never netted them in case we would injure or kill visiting birds if they got caught in the net in the early morning. The first year we got a lovely crop of tasty succulent raspberries, which we shared with the neighbourhood blackbirds. The second year we had many more raspberry bushes and they filled the allocated space, we were able to make jam as well as eat them fresh and share with the birds. At this point we had put in our two vegetable beds in the sunny south west section, so we restrained the raspberries with a plastic barrier just under the soil. Two years of advance and retreat followed as the plants tried to escape their space, they even began to emerge in the new vegetable bed across the gravel path.

We carefully cut out the old canes each year and tried to limit the new canes as suggested by the experts. Scientific research showed us that the plants spread by sending out runners just under the soil which then sought to colonise new territories. Much as we loved the fruit this would result in the whole garden being swamped.

Finally I decided to dig them out, otherwise we would become a monoculture garden. Not able to bear the idea of being without them altogether, we selected the best behaved new canes (relatively speaking) and placed them in six large tubs (50 cm in diameter and 45 cm high) in the windy alley to the east of the house near the compost bins: exile indeed! This is a shadier area and is a fairly hostile environment for any tender plant. The tubs provide good drainage, which they like, and we mulch them every spring with home-made compost and water them well with stored rain water during any dry spells in summer.

Home-grown raspberries mature and ripen and cause a glut in a few short weeks. We eat them fresh in June and early July, but we freeze them for making jam later. Small quantities can be frozen each day as they ripen and they are perfect for making jam later in the summer. The process of freezing seems to make them more tart in flavour, so they are not suitable for eating defrosted, but they are better for jam and preserves.

The raspberries are thriving in their tubs, and while they bear somewhat less fruit, there is still plenty for the needs of humans and blackbirds.

The end of an affair (with a robin)

Never lose your heart to a wild creature: it will always end in tears.

Charlot was born in the neighbourhood of our garden in the spring of 2014. We’ve followed his progress through all the important stages of his life. He was fledged and had his first feeding rituals in our garden. When he grew to adulthood and displayed his fine red breast, he fended off all rivals and established himself as the ruling genius. We were there for his courtship the following spring and his first brood; we provided food and advice when his moult began while he was still feeding his youngsters; we saw him fall in love again the next spring, and his two new babes were fed on our patio.

His favourite resting places were those where he could catch our attention: on the laburnum or apple tree, looking directly in at the kitchen sink; the bench from which he could view the kitchen table; and the handle of the French door where he could peck the glass for attention. Outside, he liked the fuschia next to the stone bench, and he had his own concrete column for feeding.

The garden provided most of his nutrition, but his favourite special treat was mild white cheddar cheese, which he consumed in vast quantities. First thing in the morning, even before I was dressed, he arrived to beg for cheese. He even offered it as a gourmet dish to his lady friend.

Disaster struck this spring when a strange new robin turned up and decided that this would be his territory. We looked on helplessly as the fight for domination played out for several weeks. We patiently explained that we could accommodate both, but neither would listen. Charlot was gradually forced back across the garden until he held only a small section near the bench. After a dreadful aerial battle Charlot moved out and ceded the territory. He sneaked back a few times in the following days but the neighbourhood bully kept a sharp watch. We were devastated, but could not intervene in nature’s ways. The aggressor has moved on, but Charlot has not returned.

It is now midsummer and an adolescent robin has arrived on his own, without parents or siblings. He has not developed his red breast yet, but he is making himself quite at home.

Beeline

There are many reasons why we wish to attract bees and other pollinators to our gardens. Fruit and vegetables perform better when they are pollinated, in fact some will not fruit or flower at all without the help of our bees. On a macro level we wish to keep up the world’s population of bees to safeguard food supplies into the future. And, what sound is more evocative of lazy summer afternoons than the buzz of contented bees!

We installed our raised beds for vegetables by the patio, outside the kitchen door: a fairly barren part of the garden at that time. We decided to enhance the attractiveness of this sunny corner by planting a native (naturalised) Fuchsia and a group of herbs in pots. In case this was not incentive enough to attract bees we added a ‘beeline’, a line of pots and tubs to edge the patio area, next to the vegetable beds, which would be filled with summer flowers. Here we plant bee-loving borage and sweet peas to give some height and a splash of summer annuals. When the season is over these tubs are emptied and stored away until the following year. Originally I used a variety of pots pressed into service, but I settled on a group of large flat tubs that gave a bit of structure and a look of uniformity, while the flowers could spill out with joyful abandon.

 

The first year I decided to use a summer meadow mix of wild flowers in the pots. This was not really a success and by the end of the summer we had a tangle of thugs and very few flowers. The next year I chose the better components of the meadow mix, such as cornflowers, and grew them individually. Now, however, I sow a combination of self-seeding plants such as borage, calendula (marigolds) and nasturtiums, with a variety of plants grown from seed or rescued from dried-out supermarket shelves which are sold off cheaply. Cornflowers have remained an annual staple, poppies sometimes make an appearance, cosmos, nicotiana, ageratum, and occasionally lavender, salvia and other perennials for just one season. Each year gives a new show, with different colours, textures and forms, the bees seem happy and I’m sure the vegetables benefit.