Sunday, 24 March 2013

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The recent change in the temperature has put a crimp in things, but the first weeks of March got the garden juices flowing in me. Following An Incident involving ovines, I decided that whatever damage the Scrapper could do if shut in the house on his own would be far less than he could wreak  on forays from the garden (which cannot be made secure), and found to my delight, after four days of a couple of hours or more gardening, that he had not chewed a single thing in protest or despair, while the effect on my spirits of  just getting my hands in the ground and doing something was singularly salutary.

And, my oh my, there's plenty to do. There's several pots of heritage sweet peas growing in the garden room (formerly Chip's study and craft room – I'm sure she would have approved), while all the beds have to be stripped of grass, moss and tap-root perennials, some of the furniture has to be moved around, and some large climbing roses need to have some support built for them. To this end (and others), I have been over the local green, bundling up the willow wands cut in the annual coppice and hauling them home to create basketwork trellises, as well as repairing the edging to various beds and marking out the new ones.

The fresh-cut willow from the Millennium Green, woven basket-style, is great for separating bark from beds, but not so hot at keeping out grasses.

The ‘new ones’ as yet don't exist, but the plan is to get rid of most of the grass paths between the beds, as they are too difficult to mow and no particular ornament when overgrown, and tend to invade the beds. When we first moved in, the largest part of the garden (behind the house, rather than at the front or side), was basically a grassy slope with a patch of – gah! – sedge, and some slightly less ghastly, but no less intrusively placed, pampas grass. Both of these have now gone, and so, soon, will be almost all of the grass, save for strips separating the beds from the western and northern boundary hedges.

All of the grass in this picture, save for a little in the foreground, is to come up to make more room for plants.
If you're not into sport or sheep, there's no point to swathes of grass in a garden.
rt of the problem with doing this sort of work is where to put the turves. When I first excavated the ponds, I made some loam piles, which I have since used up, or created new raised beds, but I'm fast running out of space to build a new one, so this time I'm going to extend the platform I made in the north-west corner so that I can put a seat on it, having extended the willow structure up which a Clematis montana is scrambling in order to create a scented bower, and to level up the grassy path in another part of the garden.

When I excavated the south-west corner of the garden, the turves I had taken up had a great deal of sand and gravel attached, so I stacked them to form a loam pile then edged it
with some double Roman tiles from an architectural reclamation yard and made a well-drained bed.

The new paths are to be made with bark chippings spread over a weed-suppressing membrane, and since I will no longer have to attempt to manhandle a lawnmower down them, they can be narrower, perhaps more sinuous, and I can increase the size of the beds accordingly.

The only bummer so far is that I slipped and fell while fetching the bird feeders to be recharged. No harm done to me, but not only were the two feeders bent out of shape, but I also managed to knock a large terracotta flowerpot full of iris bulbs off a wall so that it fell, earth side down, on the top of another pot on the ground, breaking both of them; we're not talking small pots either, both 12" in diameter and costing a good £50 to replace, although I won't be bothering – we aren't short of terracotta, although the frosting can be brutal.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Chip's Garden

I've just been potting up seeds of several varieties of heritage sweet pea. It's not a big job, but a symbolic one, marking the end of the solstitial hibernation and the beginning of the garden year, and giving me a reason to look forward rather than back. Sweet peas are important, too. Terry Pizzey, Chip's neighbour when she first moved to Bristol in 1987, taught her the cordon method, and, although we long since abandoned that as a little too much like hard work and formality – despite the wonderful results – we always grew sweet peas, always for the fragrance, but after he died in 1997, also in memory of him. He provided Chip with the first benign father figure she ever had.

Chip with her first crop of cordon sweet peas, Mangotsfield 1988
I was never even nominally in charge of a garden until Chip and I took on our first house together, in Oldland Common on the outskirts of Bristol, but Chip was an old hand, complete with dirt under the nails. Her mother and her mother's mother had taught her that for Marriott women, happiness came with their heads in a bed and arses in the air. Her keenness drew me in, particularly once I realised the joy of pond-making and wildlife gardening, and, although I can never quite shake off the feeling that I'm something of an imposter, sustained by flukes, gardening has become an important creative outlet for me over the last few years. It also became a place to heal myself with the simple peasant pleasures of plunging my hands into the soil, of delving and lifting and cutting and shaping, of wrestling with tap roots and conversing with worms.

The first thing we did in the front garden at Oldland was to put in a curved path and crowd in the cottage garden planting

Because Chip suffered from ME for the last 25 years or so of her life, I did most of the grunt work – and hence the design, which was always done on the fly – but she continued to set the agenda and strategy, to choose (most of) the plants and do the sowing and pricking out and potting on and other delicate and essentially sedentary tasks, and now I'm going to have to be head gardener for the first time in my life. And, of course, as I made the current garden entirely for Chip and in her image, I'm going to have to find a new way to share it, as there's no point in creating something for an audience of me, which is why I'm starting this blog.

We made a total of three gardens together; the one in Oldland took 15 years, and the next, in a village on the Somerset Levels where we were constrained by landlords from really letting rip, five years. I'm sure to return to them later. We moved to this house in Devon in August 2010.  In part because I had already had experience in landscaping for wildlife, but also because I felt there was a real imperative to get the place up together (we were in our sixties and considered this a last shot at making a garden together), I immediately set about transforming what was essentially a grassy slope that wrapped itself around the side and back of the house, and succeeded beyond my wildest dreams in creating a place ahum with insects and betwittered by birds, where Chip and I, between bouts of gardeners' twitch, lolled and blissed away every halfway sunny day of her last two summners.

The garden just before we moved in in 2010, from the north-west corner
from a similar angle in July 2011

and in May 2012
And now the challenge, 'aided' by the enthusiastic diggery of my Jack Russell, is to keep the momentum going and bring it to maturity.