Monthly Archives: July 2011

Update

The allotment and the back garden are now mostly tidy, and mostly growing things, so finally I have been able to turn my attention to the front garden. It has been covered in oriental poppies this year, and I left them alone on the basis that at least there was something flowering in the garden. Having said that, their serried ranks were more than a little overpowering and I was relieved when they finally died back and I could pull them up. They arrived of their own volition and have merrily self-seeded all over the place for the last few years. I’m glad to have them there but next year I think I will be rather more proactive about pulling them out if they’re in the wrong place as this year’s display was … excessive.

I’ve never really been quite sure what to do with the front garden. It’s a plot about twelve feet by twelve, with a chunk taken out of it by a bay window. It is accessible only from one side and the far end becomes quickly overgrown because it can be difficult to get at. At various times I’ve put in stepping stones but they’ve never really worked as well as I’d like, and often got lost under plantings. The ground is like a bog in the winter, despite a considerable amount of work on my part to open it up, and yet like dust in the summer, despite having had a lot of organic matter worked into it; it’s in full sun for much of the day in the summer and conditions are brutal, somewhere around USDA zone 10 (by contrast with the back garden and the allotment, which are about zone 8). Some plants do very well, for example hardy geraniums, but they then take over. So do weeds, particularly annual mercury, which is all-pervasive, and green alkanet, which is top of my list of hated weeds, mainly because its leaves have little hairs that stick in my skin and bring me out in a rash. Its little blue flowers are so pretty, but it is a thug. On top of this, the garden suffered somewhat at the beginning of the year when I had to unblock the main drain through the rodding eye in the front garden. I’ve leave the mess to your imagination but suffice to say that the garden got turned over and trampled down a lot as a result.

The new plan is to make a couple of little brick paths across it, using the various bricks and terracotta slabs that have emerged from behind the compost bin, and divide the garden into beds. This is P’s department, though this year he will not be all but burying the stepping stones and then wondering why they almost immediately disappeared in the soft soil!

My part of the plan involves choosing the plants, and I currently have long lists of known drought-tolerant plants to consider, plus offers of many, many seedlings from my father. I am hoping for a cottage garden-y effect, with plants self-seeding (though without poppies everywhere next time). Today, though, I had to dig the garden and clean it up. I cut back the pyracantha yesterday, and tied in various branches to encourage it to grow round the bay window. I would really like to dig it up but the birds like the berries, and I like the birds, so I just try to keep it under control. And the berries do look lovely in the winter. So today was a session of turning earth, clearing out weeds, potting up some sidalcea seedlings to give to my father at some point. I already have some I potted up for my own use last week. And more digging. It took me an hour or so to clear and rough-dig the ground but it now looks so much nicer, a blank canvas. I need to work over the ground with a hoe and get out the rest of the weeds but I’ll wait until P has made the paths for me as I am sure there is much ground-trampling to come.

I probably should have taken ‘before’ photos but I was so ashamed of the mess I really couldn’t bring myself to do it. But I will start taking photographs from here on in, just to show you what it looks like, and to chart my progress. Today, though, I just wanted to record that finally, all three of my little plots of land are under cultivation.

(Things are going well at the allotment. We are now into courgette and accidental marrow season, and the courgettes are delicious. Things are going less well in the growing salad in the garden department, thanks to Rosa, but she is worth a post of her own at a later point. )

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Weekend work

My trip to the allotment yesterday morning, an inspection rather than working trip, yielded a small harvest of three courgettes (which we later ate for lunch in a kind of minimalist ratatouille with pasta) and a general sense of relief that everything was still growing away vigorously (so vigorously indeed that when I last visited, on Tuesday, the courgettes were little more than a thickening of the stalk – we’ve had a lot of rain since Tuesday, clearly). The dwarf bean plants, which had barely begun to heave aside the soil on Tuesday, had sprouts a couple of inches high by yesterday. The beetroot is also starting to sprout, but no sign as yet of the Florence fennel.

Today’s trip was rather more intense in terms of work if less productive in terms of harvesting. I weeded the Top and Middle Thirds while P turned the compost heap and incorporated a bag of plant rubbish I cleared from the front garden yesterday, watered everything and put the covers back over. The compost heap is doing quite nicely. It has a slug population, is heating up nicely, and gives off a pleasant aroma of hay.

P also laid the first of the concrete slabs that will form a pathway in front of the compost bins. These are slabs left over from an ill-advised construction made by the former owners of our house, who built a brick-and-paving slab barbecue under the kitchen window. We never used it as a barbecue because, well, under the window is not the best place to set up a charcoal fire, and when we came to demolish it, the mortar turned out to be so poor it could be taken apart by hand. I stashed the three paving slabs involved in its construction behind the compost bin, because I had a feeling they might be useful at some point. Twenty years later, ‘some point’ has been reached.

I’d forgotten how heavy they were. P rolled them through the house, one by one (the only way from our front garden to our back garden, and vice versa) and this morning we lifted the first into the back of the car (which sagged visibly) and drove it to the allotment. We unloaded it and P commenced to roll it to our plot, at which point the Man By The Gate suddenly appeared pushing a wheelbarrow. ‘I hate to see someone struggle,’ he said. He and P loaded up the slab and P pushed it to our plot. Fifteen minutes later, after a bit of scratching around with the mattock, he lowered it into place. Its weight is now holding it very firmly in place. Once the other two slabs are in place, this end of the allotment will look quite lovely and tidy. I think I may put up a small wicker fence to divide the composting area from the planned fruit (and asparagus) area.

And yes, I did begin clearing the front garden yesterday. It has been a forest of poppy and sidalcea plants all spring, but now they have flowered and gone to seed, it’s time to shift them, so I started pulling them up (along with the fine crop of oats and wheat which germinated from spilled bird seed) and stuffing them into bags, ready for the compost heap. The snails were wandering around disconsolately afterwards, scores of them. I regret to say I then spattered the area with slug pellets to clear out some of them. We shall see what happens.

Once I’ve cleaned up the garden, weeded it again, weeded it yet again, and weeded it some more, I’ll be putting in bulbs and then thinking about perennials and hardy annuals. Specifically, I will be growing drought-tolerant flowers. Conditions in the front garden are soggy in the winter but brutal in the summer (if the back garden and the allotment are USDA zone 8, the front garden is zone 10); full sun most of the day, and anything growing out there needs to be able to fend for itself as I don’t want to water regularly. I’m researching drought-tolerant plants at present, drawing inspiration from things like South African fynbos and plants that survive well in the drier parts of California and the Kansas City Metro area. There will be a separate post about this later.

Other than that, this week’s biggest triumph has been to germinate seed in the back garden again. I thwarted Rosa the cat’s efforts to dig up my salad beds by laying sheets of roof plastic over the beds where I’d planted seed. This worked really well and less than a week after I sowed seeds, the rocket, pak choi and radishes are sprouting. I now have to figure out how to raise the sheets to let them grow without allowing Rosa to scrat them up but I think I will be successful. Once they’re well grown, la Rosa tends to leave them alone.

Also, my top tip for the year: everything works better with fresh veg seed. I cleared out my seedbox and disposed of everything dated earlier than this year. The results have been quite startling. Everything is growing!

Insects in the garden …

When I began gardening regularly, I bought myself two books. I bought a flora because the weeds in my garden were unlike any I’d ever seen before in a suburban garden and I had no idea what most of them were (wood avens? enchanter’s nightshade?) and I bought a guide to insects, on the grounds that now we were getting up close and personal with one another on a regular basis it was time to find out what I was dealing with. Even now, I haven’t really got beyond grasping that there is more than one kind of bumble bee, more than one kind of hoverfly, that’s a shield bug, that’s a froghopper and that thing Rosa brought in last night is a cockchafer and I should encourage her to catch and eat as many as she likes, but it is enough to have names for things.

My guide to insects is a little frustrating in some respects. The text is dry and technical, tending to focus on how many hairs the X has on its legs, distinguishing it from the Y, rather than the basics of ‘what do these guys actually do in the garden, and should I encourage it or, literally, stamp them out when I encounter them?’ Its coverage of butterflies is incomplete (no cabbage white, no speckled wood, no holly blue, to name but three varieties I see regularly), possibly because there is a separate volume devoted to butterflies and moths. For butterflies, I make do with a pull-out from The Guardian which has excellent large illustrations. Moths remain a bit of a mystery apart from the hummingbird hawk moth, not least because I mostly encounter them hanging out of Rosa’s mouth, and it’s all a bit too late by then.

>My insect guide doesn’t do arachnids either, obviously, because they’re not insects, but it is still a pity as we have spiders of all shapes and sizes. At certain times of the year, negotiating the garden is a bit tricky, what with the webs strung everywhere, though they do look lovely as the sun glints on the frost or dew.

(I did think of buying the guide for spiders but baulked slightly when I saw the size of it – there are many more spiders in the UK than you might suppose – and the cost. My need to know is not that great.)

However, today the insect guide came up trumps when I encountered the Thing. It was sitting on the garden table, quietly minding its own business. It was obviously a fly of some sort and from the shape of its wings I guessed it was probably a hoverfly. It was garishly marked in yellow and dark brown, with huge eyes. Oh yes, and it was over an inch long. No, really, I’m not joking. It was the biggest hoverfly I had ever seen in my life. Like a hugely magnified model of a hoverfly. It didn’t look real except that as I moved it moved too, regarding me calmly with those enormous eyes. I turned away for a moment and when I looked back it had gone. A quick consultation of the insect guide revealed that I had just had a close encounter with Volucella zonaria, the hornet mimic hoverfly, unknown in this country prior to 1940 but now quite common in southern and south-east England and today making a guest appearance in my back garden, en route to the nearest park or garden with flowers.

Yes, it really is big.