Early days… the January update.

We’ve been in the new house and garden for almost 6 months and have begun work on the garden at last.  When I blogged previously about the neglected garden we had taken on, we were only just beginning to realise the scale of the work required.  Having spent a few months thinking, and seeing the bones of the garden more clearly as the foliage died down for the winter, we have taken the first steps in a renovation process.  The garden is home to a lot of birds.  Over the winter we have seen Blue, Great, Coal and Long-tailed Tits, Blackbirds, Chaffinch and Goldfinch, Robins, Dunnocks and Wood Pigeons on a regular basis.  Less frequent visitors are a Green Woodpecker, tiny Goldcrest, and a female Blackcap.  I’m hoping to get the big camera out and try to take some half-decent photos later on.

IMG_1113This is the part of the garden we’re working on first.  Full of overgrown shrubs and old stumps, a massive Hebe, and behind that a dilapidated old shed.  Just to the left of this picture is more huge Hebe, a couple of big, self-set Hypericum, a completely woody Senecio, a dead tree of unidentified type and a mass of tangled perennials.  I can identify Acanthus, Solidago, Crocosmia and that devil spreader Japanese Anemone.  So, quite a job. Time to call in some help.

 

And this is how it looks after the help has been and gone. The work was done by Sid Valley Tree Surgery who were sterling workers through two days of torrential rain and gale force winds.

A nice big area exposed and some laid out beds that we didn’t know were there. We will place a new shed in the old position but turned through 90 degrees and at the moment we are thinking that some of the old beds would make good veg plots. They’re in a good position, open and pretty much south-facing and no overhanging trees.  Digging them over has started and we are finding an awful lot of old root fibres and some substantial roots.  Whether they will be ready for planting for this season remains to be seen.  At the moment Storm Ciara has us hunkered down inside.

This is the work for January, a bit late to the blog, so next time (end of Feb), there will be some progress to show you!

 

 

 

Chop, chop, chop….

I’ve been pruning.  Everything.  Nothing has escaped the secateurs or the loppers.  After the concentration on the garden refurb and hard landscaping and the establishing of a new border through last year, our old shrubby border is looking decidedly neglected.  Overgrown, leggy, rocked about by the winter wind, it’s a bit of a mess and in need of attention, otherwise the weather will turn for the better and it will all start to get away from us for another year.

At the back of the border there’s a huge, old Buddleia that has overpowered everything around it.  It has kept any light and warmth from a lilac bush to the left of it that is subsequently spindly and mean.  In front, what was a very pretty Weigela is stunted and dry.  I take the saw, loppers and secateurs to both Buddleia and Weigela – the first to let some light into the border and to encourage new growth for this year, and the second in the hope that it will regenerate and show its dark foliage and pretty pale pink flowers once more.  I am living in hope.

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The Optimistic Gardener

P.S. The weather has already taken a turn for the very much worse….that’ll be my next blog!

Winter walking…

A fine bright morning sees me and Mr OG wrapped up against the cold and heading to a bit of local woodland for a much-needed walk.  It feels like it’s rained almost every day since Christmas (it can’t have, surely?) and the paths are muddy and sticky away from the wider access routes used by the Forestry Commission.  This patch is mostly beech and the slender trunks all around us are tall and straight, dark from the rain.  Off the path the leaf litter is deep and soft and the wood seems dampened down in every sense.

There is little green in here.  The occasional yew tree, sometimes a straggly holly bush but these are winter-dark and there are few signs of fresh growth.  In two months time this wood will be filled with bluebells but there is scarcely a sign of them today – here and there a few rosettes of those strappy leaves are beginning to show but they give no sense of the haze of blue that will cover the ground later on.

We have come out in hope of hearing the Great Spotted Woodpecker.  I’ve heard one drum briefly from the garden this week but we have no luck today.  The wood is stubbornly quiet save for the insistent two-note call of the Great Tits, an occasional alarm call from a Blackbird, and querulous chatter from the Robin that has been a few steps ahead of us all the way from the car park.

We reach the edge of the wood where the trees thin to a gappy blackthorn hedge with a stubble field and a copse of birch, hawthorn and oak beyond it.  At first, there is nothing to see here either, but as we focus on the stony ground in the middle distance there is movement and suddenly dozens of birds rise and wheel into the trees.  The dark wings and silvery grey heads and tails identify them immediately as Fieldfares.  This is textbook territory for these winter migrants – farmland, hawthorn hedges and trees nearby – although in harsher weather they will come into gardens.  They’re very social birds, roaming our winter countryside in large flocks, chattering away to each other while they search for insects, seeds and berries.  On the ground they’re obviously one of the thrush family – they hop, heads up, and through the binoculars the distinctive spotted breast and the dark eye confirm the identification.  We watch them for a while,  groups of them lifting into the trees and dropping to the ground again almost in relays.  Then the cold gets the better of us and we make for home and a hot drink.

The Optimistic Gardener

Not long now…

Finally.  Some proper time in the garden.  A couple of days of bright, sunny weather with some real warmth in the sun – but a wind chill that would freeze your ears off.  As always at this time of the year the garden is very wet and our clay soil is cold and sticky,  so no standing in the borders, no walking on the lawn because it will just compact the ground and make it impossible to do anything later on.

The fallen leaves from the Photinia have been raked and bagged.  I used to bag them for leaf mould but they take for ever to rot down so now they go out with the garden waste for collection.  
IMG_0222The rhubarb is showing itself and although small, there are quite a few spears about to pop up.  Last year we had to move it in the garden refurb and it sulked like mad.  Gave us about four spindly little sticks.  Rhubarb likes to be settled so hopefully it will recover a bit this year.

The elephant garlic planted in the autumn is disappointing so far.  Bought from a reputable supplier, only 4 out of 8 bulbs have come through.  They are in quite a stony bit of ground, but it’s in a good position so, yes, disappointing.  Maybe there’s still time – I am the Optimistic Gardener after all.

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In the shed, the seed potatoes are chitting on the bench under the window.  It’s light and frost-free and hopefully they will be ready for planting through March and April.  I grew them in bags for the first time last year and they were easy, bountiful and a delight to eat.  If you’ve never grown your own potatoes, try it.  Believe me, they taste nothing like the ones you buy.  This year I’m growing ‘Rocket‘, ‘Charlotte‘, and ‘Pentland Javelin‘.  After one season’s experience, I shall be putting them in a sunnier position and keeping a closer eye on watering them.  The first earlies were good last year, but the second earlies were small, although there were plenty of them.  I can’t quite decide if it was my novice cultivation or impatient harvesting!

 

The lighter mornings bring the birdsong which always lifts my spirits, and the garden birds are getting into their breeding feathers.  As I write, a very splendid cock blackbird is going over the ground under the feeders, stopping every now and then to give that little cough that isn’t quite an alarm call, but just a warning to others that this is his patch.  The long-tailed tits are regular visitors now swooping in to crowd onto the fatballs, sometimes as many as ten or eleven at a time.  I love them and that ‘tsee tsee tsee‘ they make while they gather on the bare branches of next door’s Acer, picking their moment to hit the feeders.  Great tits and blue tits are paint-smart with bright white cheeks and fluffy blue caps respectively, and there is a single coal tit – I think my favourite of them all – not as showy in colour but dainty, methodical and with an air of self-possession that is so endearing.

I’m not quite feeling it yet, but the season will start turning soon.

The Optimistic Gardener

 

Times past…

We are just into the new year and it’s high time I returned to the blog.  A very happy and peaceful new year to all of you.  I hope 2018 brings you all you might need to be happy.

Although I love the good wishes and the sense of new starts, I dislike the new year period.  I find it hard to feel hearty and celebratory as another year slips by, and as I get older, I realise more and more how sweet life is.  I’m not miserable about it, it’s just that the noise, the false bonhomie and raucous entertainment simply don’t appeal.  I haven’t stayed up to see the new year in for many years.  I ring around family and friends during the evening and then take myself off to bed as usual, looking forwrd to a new year in the morning.

When I was a child new year was a very traditional affair. The whole family (including one and a half sets of grandparents) would gather at home during the evening.  At a few minutes to midnight my father would discreetly exit the house by the back door and make his way to the front door, which would be ajar.  He would sing the chorus of a mawkish old music hall song, I think called ‘The Miner’s Dream of Home’ (see below*) and then walk though the house, in through the front door and out through the back, carrying coal, bread and salt. There would be much sentimental weeping, hugging and kissing and shouts of ‘Happy New Year’ and we would all gather on the doorstep to listen to the local church bells ringing “…the old year out and the new year in…”.  It was like something out of bloody Dickens.  Dad would then go off to do the same at any neighbour’s house that didn’t possess their own tall, dark male.  My parents had been brought up in working-class families with Edwardian, if not Victorian, values and this was just one manifestation of them.  This was the nineteen sixties – it could have been the nineteen hundreds.  It’s maudlin influence has extended down the years leaving me with a life-long dislike of New Year.

There is one part of those remembered evenings that I miss, however.  Do the church bells still ring in towns and villages on New Year’s Eve?  I haven’t heard any locally for many years, and I think the occasion is the worse for it.  I’ve always loved a proper ringing of church bells – two of my uncles rang at our local church and I would sometimes get taken along to practice evenings.  The rich, falling cadences of the quarter peals, the called changes like some arcane ritual.  It was enthralling.  Sadly, it seems to have been lost to shrieking and fireworks.  I’d rather sleep through it all and have the year fresh and new ready when I wake.  And then the plans begin – there are seed catalogues to read, the latest Nigel Slater to cook my way through, theatre tickets to book for the whole season, the greenhouse to prepare, a book to be properly started, garden shows…

Life is sweet, indeed.

The Optimistic Gardener

*’I saw the old homestead and faces I love; I saw England’s valleys and dells.  I listened with joy, as I did when a boy, to the sound of the old village bells.  The fire was burning brightly – ’twas a night that should banish all sin.  For the bells were ringing the old year out, and the new year in.’

Handling hydrangea…

Wednesday 1st March – Happy St David’s Day to you! My welsh is non-existent but I can manage Dydd Gwyl Dewi Hapus! There should be a circumflex over that ‘w’ in Gwyl but I can’t get my keyboard to do it, so apologies to any proper welsh speakers.

If you’ve been reading the blog you will know that I have been impatiently waiting for some raised bed kits to arrive. They were delivered on Monday and are now stacked on the patio waiting to be put together. Because I really can’t bend much any more they’re the sort with legs, and they are about hip height which will be perfect. I’ve bought 2 that are about 1.8 by 1m and 1 that is 1m square. I’m looking forward to having neat and tidy growing space that I can tend easily and keep weed and pest free more easily. Mr OG will have to help put them together, but hopefully they will be filled and pristine soon, ready for planting after the risk of frost is over. Exciting!

After gale force winds and rain, rain, rain last week today is mild and dry, if overcast. I took the opportunity to give the grass its first light cut. As it’s so wet I raised the cutters as high as they would go and just quickly took the top off the growth. The mower is lightweight – it’s battery-operated and an absolute joy to use – so no ruts in the ground and no scraping mud patches. It looks much tidier and the damp clippings have mulched the plum tree.

I also took last year’s flower heads off the hydrangeas. The fresh, new leaves are coming now so it’s obvious where to cut. I take most of the stems down to the first break of two leaves, a few I will take a little shorter – maybe the second or third break depending on how untidy it is. I grow white hydrangea macrophylla ‘Madame Emile Mouillère’. It has pure white flowers that start with a hint of green and is so much more border-friendly than the pink and blue varieties. It fits in with any colour scheme, the flowers last well and the foliage is a very fresh green. Good value. Needs moist soil and plenty of water, obviously.This particular cultivar doesn’t grow too big either, so it won’t outgrow its space or swamp the border. Mine’s been in 3 years and gets to about 1m x 1m over the summer.

The temporarily potted rhubarb has gone back into the ground today too. It got moved when we laid the base for the summer-house and has been languishing in a pot all winter. It has started into growth over the past couple of weeks so it’s gone into what I hope will be its permanent home. I won’t be forcing it this year as it’s probably stressed enough already!

I’ve still not sown any seeds but will start indoors now that March is here.

And finally – I told you I was having a new kitchen? Well, it’s all planned and sorted and work will start in May. I’m not thinking about the inconvenience. At all.

That’s all for today. Hope the weather is creeping towards Spring where you are.

The Optimistic Gardener

 

Spring gonna come…

Hello, gardeners! Don’t forget the recommended reading page here.

Friday 17th February –  a variable week weather-wise. Mostly gloomy and wet but a few sunny moments, though not enough to brave the soggy garden until this morning! There is sun and blue sky between the clouds and it just called me out.

It’s interesting how much more active the garden birds have become this week. The single wood pigeon and collared dove have both brought their mates with them, the sparrows are fighting over the females, and the blackbird burst into a proper spring song for the first time last Tuesday at 2.15 in the afternoon. Yes, I noted it because it was so lovely and it seems so long since the last time I heard it. The light is different too, thicker somehow, and it’s definitely a bit warmer .

The last of the Buddleia prunings are finally cleared away and that little willow that was exposed two weeks ago now looks like this (left): lovely bright emerald shoots and those red stems are a welcome sight.

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Salix alba ‘Britzensis’ showing lovely bright green leaf buds.

It needs a bit of tidying and shaping but for now it’s doing its bit in a rather forlorn part of the garden. I was in two minds about keeping it, but who could resist that colour when everything is so dark and gloomy?

There is so much life starting to show itself, it’s a delight to really feel that a new season is almost upon us, and to feel the reassurance that spring comes, inevitably, every year. Pretty soon I’ll be able to open up the summer-house and spend time outside reading and writing as well as working!

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Here be roses! Félicité et Perpetue responds to the mild weather.

All the roses are putting on new growth – a promise of the sublime beauty to come – and what is usually the first shrub in the garden to flower – Amelanchier – has also got its delicate little pointed buds on show.

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and here be Amelanchier lamarkii!

Soon it will be covered in a froth of little white flowers before its fresh green leaves put in an appearance. In the late summer and autumn its leaves slowly become a mix of orange, umber and fiery red and then, as if that wasn’t enough, it has dark blue/black berries which the birds love. It will grow in sun or partial shade, it doesn’t mind sand or loam or our heavy clay, it can be sheltered or exposed and one of its common names is Juneberry, so that’s enough for me to keep it in the garden!!

On a little heap of ‘spoil’ just behind the summer-house I found this beauty. I thought we had lost them all when we cleared the ground for the concrete base but this has survived and is like a bright light in a dark corner.

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Helleborus niger

I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about hellebores, but these pure white flowers, and the fact that they were so unexpected, have quite made me think differently about them. Maybe I’ll get some more. The garden centre is full of them at the moment. Speaking of which….

A trip to the local garden centre last week resulted in an impulse buy of two reclining armchairs, footstools and a little table to furnish the summer-house and I’m impatiently waiting for them to be delivered. The same delivery will bring three ‘table-type’ raised beds – they can’t come soon enough as I’m about to start the indoor seed sowing. I’ve never grown in this sort of raised bed before, so if anyone reading this has any tips, I’d be grateful. I’m planning to line them, but should it be with strong polythene or with something like weed-suppressant fabric that will let the water through? Maybe I shouldn’t line them at all – but surely they will rot and dry out really quickly? I’m planning to fill them with a mixture of garden soil and good compost. Should I add anything else other than the usual sprinkle of general fertiliser? All advice very gratefully received. I’m so excited about them. Although this impulse purchase has cut into the garden project budget somewhat…

So, that was this week in the garden chez moi. Enjoy the gardening chez vous!

The Optimistic Gardener

Patience, patience…

Hello, gardeners! I’ve updated the recommended reading page here.

Sunday 12th February – No gardening this week – too wet, and when it wasn’t wet, too cold and windy. Even a flake or two of the white stuff. So I have been preparing for the planting season and for the summer – a trip to the Garden Centre resulted in:

  • a patio potato-growing kit
  • shallot sets
  • seed compost
  • a new bird table and…

a totally impulsive purchase of two reclining armchairs for the summer-house. And a large hole in the garden landscaping budget. But, joy of joys, the landscaper has given us a date to start so we’ll have to have a little negotiation over what gets done.

I’ve sorted the seed packets and filed them in month order in the tin. All neat and tidy and ready to go. I’ve cleared the upstairs south-facing window sills ready for the seed boxes and I’ve washed out the water mister. I am gritting my teeth and not sowing seeds yet – I have no greenhouse and only a small cold frame, so it’s a little more patience for me!

The tulips are coming up in the containers, it doesn’t look as if there are any fails. The daffodils under the plum and rowan trees are three or four inches high but no buds yet. In the fields behind us the hawthorn trees are getting that slight fuzz of green just before the buds really break. So, it’s promising – but it’s bloody freezing!

I hope there’s more to tell you next week.

The Optimistic Gardener.

 

Making room…

Hello, gardeners! I’ve updated the recommended reading page here.

Sunday 5th February– Another week has flashed by, mostly wet and miserable weather-wise, but MrOG had a week off work so we did a bit of decorating. After 44 years of work and the last 15 spent living away from home Monday to Friday, now I’m at home all the time I’ve realised that the house is looking a bit scruffy (understatement of the year). I’ve decided to get a new kitchen – the current one has been in the house from new when we moved in 25 years ago, so it’s not before time. Lots of excitement this week then as the kitchen companies came along to measure and quote. Have you any idea how much a new kitchen costs? A lot. Thank goodness it is exciting or I would be reeling with shock. As it is I can think of nothing but pan drawers, larder cupboards and butler’s pantries. I’ll keep you posted.

The garden is sodden – muddy and waterlogged. No going anywhere near it until today. I’ve pruned the roses and given them a feed. I’ve got three new ones in pots waiting to go in since before Christmas but it’s been too wet. Gertrude Jekyll, Brother Cadfael, and Munstead Wood all from a trip to the wonderful David Austen Roses nursery at Albrighton, near Wolverhampton. I’ll try to get them in this month if I can manage it and if the weather is a little kinder.

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Buddleia prunings

This morning I also cut down an over-large Buddleia. They need to be hard pruned early in the year to get the best out of them. You can take them right down and the new stems will soon shoot and grow fast to give this year’s bee-friendly flower spikes. However, this one has to come out altogether as I want to make room for an apple tree. I’m not going to be able to get the stump out, so that will have to wait til the landscaper comes later in March (see previous blogs for those plans!).

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B***** sedge grass!

The branches are off and mostly broken up for the garden waste to take, but it has revealed a huge sedge grass growing in the stump – just shows how wet the garden is in that patch. I’m afraid I resorted to dowsing it with glyphosate, cursing it with every spray. Look at that lovely little red-stemmed willow Salix alba ‘Britzensis’ too, which was covered by the thug of a Buddleia. At least that will have a bit of room to breathe now. Which is more than can be said for me, because by that time I was wheezing like an old woman and thought it best to stop for the day.

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Random tulips coming up – signs of spring

I did notice some tulip shoots coming up around the bird feeders before I came indoors. Last year I left the old tulip bulbs in the pots until I was ready to put new ones in in November. Usually I throw the old spent ones away but this time I planted the old ones randomly around the garden, so it’s good to see them pushing their way up. All the more colour for the spring!

And that’s it for this week in my garden. Enjoy yours!

 

The Optimistic Gardener

 

 

Starting somewhere….

Saturday 28th January – I’m a bit late with the blog this week. Somehow the time has just whizzed by and here we are at Saturday and no blog, so, better put that right. I’ve also updated the recommended reading page here.

Last week I talked about the plans for the garden. This week I thought I’d share some ‘before’ pictures so I can record progress through the year. It’s still pretty wet here and has been freezing cold for much of the week, so not much actual progress, I’m afraid.

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Cleared patch of south-facing border

The last of the big prunings from last year have been chopped and sent off as waste so I’ve now got quite a big piece of ground just in front of the fence in the back border (south-facing). There are some shrubs in front of it that need pruning back, but that’s a job for next week – weather permitting. The roots of the big stuff I have taken down are still there too and I have to try to deal with them somehow – chances are they will stay in until the landscape chap starts work.

The east facing side of the garden is where the current patio is and the summer house and where my raised bed veg patch is going to be.

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East-facing side of garden

At the moment it’s tidy and just waiting for work to start.  Behind the summer house is a mature ivy – I’m not sure of the variety, but it flowers well and is covered in berries in winter. Insects love it and so do the insect feeding garden birds. I’ve put up a nesting box in there, but so far no takers. I live in hope! To the left of the summer house there is an old clematis montana ‘Elizabeth’. It’s lovely in spring but then pretty raggy for the rest of the year. I don’t think it’s good enough value there, so it will come out at some point. The veg beds will be to the right of the summer house in the photo (right) in the south-east corner. Too shady, I hear you saying, but it’s not as shady as it looks. In late spring and summer it gets the sun for most of the day, even with the summer house there. It’s bigger than it looks too. The raised beds are table type so they are almost 3 feet high and once the sun is higher in the sky and the shadows shorter I think they will be ok along the south-facing fence. If not then the beds will move.

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West facing part of garden.

The greatest amount of work will be on the west-facing side. This is where the shed is going (where all those old bean sticks are), the compost area will be behind the shed, and (budget permitting) a small greenhouse will be in the bottom corner. This is the part of the garden that I want to grow a little fruit in. There is already a plum tree, an elder, a dessert blackberry and a gooseberry. I’m going to espalier an eating apple on the fence and put in a dessert cherry. All on dwarf rooting stock. On the north side, at the back of the garage I am hoping a ‘Morello’ cherry will be ok – for cooking and jamming. The tall tree in the picture is a white beam. It provides some screening in the summer so I don’t want to take it out, but if I can get round to it before it starts growing I intend to raise the crown a little and take off some of the lower branches. I want to keep the screening, but be able to move around.

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South facing border

Here is the back, south-facing border and the bit that can be seen most from the house. That’s a whacking great photinia x fraseri ‘Red Robin’ on the left that we have left in. It helps with screening (we’re pretty much surrounded by neighbours) and the birds love it. If you’re wondering why we have a rather obvious statuette of the Blessed Virgin right there, then you can find out here .It’s not because we are particularly religious people, and the tale is worth reading, I promise! This long border is where I want to extend and lose quite a bit of the grass in front. There are some old shrubs in there, some of which are worth keeping, and I want to fill it with flowering perennials and annuals and some roses, and maybe even dot some veg around.

So, there you have it. The garden looking its worst and the plans to revive and renew it. As always, I welcome any comments and suggestions.

As today is the start of the Great Garden Birdwatch weekend I’ve been doing my bit and have spent an hour recording the birds that come to the feeders. This morning I’ve seen Blue tits, Great tits, Long-tailed tits, coal tit, sparrows, blackbirds, robin, wren, woodpigeon and collared dove. If you don’t already take part go to the website and join in!

Happy gardening!

The Optimistic Gardener