We’re going on a bear – no, make that a lion – hunt!

Dandelion plant in flower

As a former children’s librarian, Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt was always a favourite at storytime. I have been reminded of it recently in the garden, only it’s a lion hunt – dande-lions, that is.

Last year, the dandelions taunted me, springing up into flower every time I turned my back. I pulled the flowers off as much as I could to stop them spreading their seed, but it clearly wasn’t the best approach. This year, they have come back as strongly as ever, all over the lawn in the flower garden and in the grass paths in the kitchen garden as well. We don’t want to use chemicals because of the cats, as well as to protect the wildlife a little, so we had no choice. I bought a long-handled weeding tool and started digging them up.

Green garden kneeler with muddy daisy grubber
The dandelion weeder

There is something strangely compelling and addictive about digging up weeds. I have become obsessive, leaping up, weapon in hand every time I see a tell-tale arrow shaped leaf or a yellow flower. Every time I lie down to go to sleep, a dandelion plant dances before my closed eyes. We no longer have dandelions in the lawn but it does look like we might have moles, as I have left big holes in the grass everywhere. The lawn looks to have suffered generally over the winter, with moss driving out the grass near the drystone wall and bare patches near the steps and gate up to the kitchen garden and my attempts at weeding have just made it look even worse.

Close up of mossy grass
You can see all the moss in here – not good

Unsure how to improve things without chemical weed and moss killers, we turned to our trusty reference source, the Gardening World magazine for advice. This time, it was Alan Titchmarsh who came to our rescue, with a timely article about organic lawns. Although daunted by the task ahead – our lawn is a fair size – we set to work. I took the lawn rake and removed as much thatch and moss as I could, while D put regular holes (not quite as big as my dandelion ones and much neater) all across the grass to aerate the land and improve the drainage. We used a hollow-tined fork for that, which left very suspicious-looking clods of earth all over the garden – it looked like the cats had taken to using the lawn as a litter tray for a while. They hadn’t, honestly!

Patchy grass with a row of drainage holes
The whole lawn looked like this for a while

A week later, D went over it all again, this time with an ordinary rake, to remove yet more thatch and moss and to break up the soil a little. We then covered the whole area with a fertiliser and grass seed mix. Keeping the spread of seed even was nearly impossible with the applicator built into the box, so I suspect we will have a lovely lush lawn soon – but only on one side. To try and balance it out, we bought some extra lawn seed from Wilkos. It hasn’t improved the lawn very much so far but the blackbirds are looking well fed!

Alan Titchmarsh had warned that keeping an organic lawn was a lot of hard physical work and he was certainly right. We ached for days after all that preparation. We couldn’t even get rid of what we had removed as there was no space in the garden waste bin and we had enough green stuff in the compost. We temporarily stored a barrowful of dead material in the shed, where the Calamity Cat used it as a cosy nest.

Grey and white cat in a wheelbarrow full of thatch and moss
She was in here all afternoon

In the meantime, I will carry on pursuing the dandelions (they may not run very fast but boy, are they tricksy little blighters – almost impossible to catch totally). The ones in the path on the patio are the worst to dig up and my poor weeding tool has become bent beyond all recognition or use. Its replacement is more substantial and hopefully will last a little longer. After all, I might have the lawn in the flower garden under control but I suspect the kitchen garden variety are made of stronger stuff, and I haven’t even thought about the ones at the front yet.

Garden with central lawn, path and white gate at the far end
After all our hard work – lets hope it greens up soon

Last year, I won a battle or two – this year I am determined to take the field, victorious, at least for a while. And if my attempts fail, I could always have a go at making dandelion wine!

Garden memories

Black and white photo of a young woman in front of a house in the 1950s

One day, I will own a gooseberry bush. Partly because I like gooseberries – I love their tartness and their texture – but also because a gooseberry bush represents home to me more than any other plant except perhaps rhubarb. Rhubarb holds powerful childhood associations for both D and myself. For D, it was something grown by his father and his plant still lives on in the back garden of the family home. For me, it takes me back to playing in the garden at my great aunt’s house. As a child, I didn’t like rhubarb much but I still remember being fascinated by the enormous leaves and the delicate pink of the stems. My aunt would poach the fruit, making pies and crumbles galore. She also used to give lots away, to my parents and grandparents and to neighbours, who repaid her with bunches of lily of the valley, one of her favourite flowers. So, when it came to deciding our first crops last year, we were in total agreement that we wanted rhubarb growing in our plot.

Gooseberries, though, were less of a given. D isn’t keen on the taste and has no family history of growing the plant. My aunt’s gooseberry bush sat next to her rhubarb although it was much less hospitable. I remember helping to harvest the fruit, doing my best to avoid the sharp spikes which did an excellent job of protecting the precious berries by stabbing anyone foolhardy enough to try to pick them. Then came what felt like hours of endless topping and tailing before finally, she would cook them. More pies, more crumbles and, my particular favourite to this day, rich and creamy gooseberry fool.

I have mentioned my aunt’s garden before, but it seems a fitting time to revisit it now, during what would have been her birthday week, although we have been without her now for over 10 years. She lived in a modest 1930s semi, not unlike the one we now call home, in the house that she moved into as a teenager with her family. She, my grandmother and their brother lived there for the rest of their lives, and my father was, like me, brought up playing in the garden.

Woman sitting on a box in a garden with a black dog and a boy
My aunt with my father as a child with the family dog, all enjoying the garden

When I was growing up, and only my beloved great aunt remained, the garden had the feel of a traditional cottage garden. A lawn at the back was surrounded by borders, where the rhubarb and gooseberry sat comfortably next to a climbing rose and a range of decorative flowers. Raspberry canes and blackcurrant bushes jostled for space with wallflowers and snapdragons and her front garden was a riot of early colour, with bursts of snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils all bringing joy and promise of a glorious summer. She loved colour and scent, loved her roses, her peonies and gladioli, and the mass of white Marguerite daisies that grew along the side passage leading you on to the back of the house.

She did have a veg border right at the back and I have vivid memories of picking and shelling peas and of the wonder of pulling new potatoes and carrots from the ground to have for tea. In later years, this area was totally given over to her favourite fruit – she had rows and rows of strawberries just waiting to be picked and eaten. We had to move fast to beat the birds, who loved them nearly as much as she did, and the disappointment of finding a large, ripe strawberry, only to find the underside already eaten stays with me today. What we did manage to harvest, we usually ate raw, sometimes dipped in sugar but often on their own, or with fresh cream. Some made it into cooked puddings and she turned what was left into ice cream. She would mix cream and sugar, then fold in the fruit before putting in a container in the tiny freezer compartment of her under-counter fridge. She took it out every hour to break up the ice crystals and churn the mix, until it was frozen and ready to eat – a real treat, all the more so for being made by hand and with love.

It is no surprise, then, that I have wanted to recreate a touch of that magic in my own garden. We have created a soft fruit patch outside the greenhouse and filled it with strawberries and a blueberry bush. To have a gooseberry bush to go with it would wrap all those memories into one spiky parcel and bring me pleasure for many years to come. It would, however, not be my first attempt at gooseberry growing. I had a bush some years ago, which sat in a container on my patio quite happily and gave me fruit in the first year but, when I left it to move to Scotland, it went into an almighty sulk. A friend offered to look after it and planted it in her large and well-tended garden but it threw all its leaves one day, as she said, “in a fit of pique”. Eventually, it was rehomed by another friend, an experienced and talented gardener, but the move was too much for it to take and, despite her care, it died. I am told gooseberries don’t like change, so we will need to make sure that we find just the right spot for our new bush when I finally convince D to buy one. Somewhere in the orchard, I am thinking – much as I loved the higgledy-piggledy mix of fruit and flowers in my aunt’s garden, ours has clearly defined areas, with the orchard and veg plot – rapidly becoming “the kitchen garden” in my head – being divided from the flowers and lawn by steps and a gate.

Sadly, unlike D’s childhood home, my aunt’s house and garden are no longer in the family. The memories are all the more precious for that, and the home we are building here is a tribute to happy memories created by both families, as well as a way of creating our own to share.

Older woman and young woman arm in arm in a garden
My aunt and I in the garden many years ago. I still miss her every day

Greenhouse Day

Man standing in greenhouse

After what has felt like a very long wait, Greenhouse Day eventually dawned grey and drizzly. We waited anxiously, hoping that the gardeners we had employed to build the base and the structure would turn up. We were hopeful – they had laid the concrete base in a snow shower, so it was unlikely a bit of rain would put them off. Sure enough, they arrived not long after breakfast. They were soon up at the top of the garden, examining instructions and scratching heads as they tried to work out how to put the structure together.

We left them to it for most of the morning, apart from taking them a cup of tea. D’s study overlooks the garden, so he could see what was going on from there whenever he looked up from his computer. They got most of the frame up OK but then the rain started in earnest. As the glass needed to be fitted in dry conditions, eventually the gardeners had to call it a day, coming back the next day to finish the job. It was perhaps as well, as there was a piece missing (isn’t that always the way when you are trying to do a jigsaw like this?) and the supplier promised to courier a new one over.

 

Greenhouse frame with no glass on a concrete base in a garden
End of Day 1

As a family, we went up to explore our new building at the end of day 1. Like a child with a new Wendy house, I went “inside” and imagined what it will look like once it is done and filled with plants – the seeds we would germinate on the shelving down one side, with growing sacks and growbags lining the other side full of potatoes and tomatoes. The Calamity Cat came too, sniffing about curiously, looking at me as if to say “ooh, is this a new place for us to play?” That will be no, Calamity. The Princess was also clearly curious but played it cool, watching us from the safety of the longer grass under the apple trees. D, practical to the end, was busy working out where to site the new butts that will collect the rainwater dripping off the roof.

Man fixing water butt in place on greenhouse
D finding the perfect spot for the new water butts

The next day was fine and we were looking forward to seeing our new space complete. The chaps started bright and early and worked carefully and precisely, adding each pane of glass in turn to slowly enclose the structure. But then – crisis! – D received an email from the supplier. The replacement part wasn’t going to arrive until the next day. Such a disappointment! The gardeners couldn’t come back until the following week, when we were away for work, so we agreed they would come and fit the final part the week after. The rest is done and it looks great, but sadly, we have a pane missing in the roof. We have planted potatoes in sacks regardless and popped them in there, but it isn’t quite the same somehow.

Looking at the positives, in spite of very changeable weather, it is really starting to feel like spring. The days are longer, the fruit trees are coming into leaf, with even some blossom starting on the plum tree, giving us hope that we might get some fruit this year. The cats are enjoying it too, starting to come in later in the evening. The Princess has found a new door and insists on coming in most of the time through the study window upstairs via the flat roof. We go outside and call her and, just as we are about to go back in, convinced she isn’t there, we hear a trill from above and see her peeking over the edge of the roof. It is then up to us (she is the Princess, after all and we know our place) to close the door and run upstairs to let her in. She usually tells us firmly as she jumps up through the window that she has been waiting there for ages, and we should have been more vigilant in looking out for her. Oh, and she will have her tea now, if it’s not too much trouble.

As long as she doesn’t try jumping into the greenhouse through the gap in the roof, we will be OK.

Grey and white cat on a wooden beam
The Princess on next door’s roof height trellis but you get the idea – the expression is the same!

Pruning the buddleia

Garden area full of different green shrubs in summer

I am not tough enough to be a gardener. It takes a certain ruthlessness to cope with all the pruning, the pricking out, the discarding of plants that have outgrown their usefulness. And that’s before we get started on pest control. I feel cruel cutting and discarding something which has strived so hard to grow. This week however, while we wait for the greenhouse to be built, we turned our attentions to the flower garden at the back of the house and I had a rapid reminder that a firm hand is sometimes needed. We inherited a very mature garden, with all its accompanying joys and challenges. A lot of plants are old or have grown and spread far beyond what was probably originally anticipated and it is down to us to decide what to nurture, what to tame and what to replace. A tall order for a couple of newbies, one of whom is basically soft. As is often the case, though, D makes up for my weaknesses and can be ruthless when he has to be. He prunes the trees, trims the hedges, mows the lawn and generally imposes order where I would leave chaos, too afraid I will kill something to cut it back. I read all the advice, I know pruning actually helps the plant, but I still struggle, especially once spring growth is starting to show.

Occasionally, I harden my heart, take my secateurs and set to. Last summer, I reduced an elderly, spindly hydrangea to a stump. It may not flower this year as a result, but there is lots of strong new growth on it and I am confident – now, at least – that I did the right thing and it will be all the stronger for it.

Hydrangea bush with new leaves
This was 2 spindly shoots last year but is growing strongly this year thanks to a hard pruning

This week, I decided it was time to take the same approach with an old buddleia, which has assumed tree-like proportions in the corner of the raised area towards the back of the flower garden. I read everything I could and announced boldly to D that March is the time to prune, that the harder it is pruned, the better it will respond and that it is fine to decimate it. Hmm, that is all very well in principle but, when it came to actually doing it, even D hesitated. It is clearly a very old plant, with most of the growth at the top and some of the older wood just came away in his hand when he touched it. He cut it back with more care than he perhaps might usually and I couldn’t even bear to watch that. Half an hour later, we had a totally full garden waste bin and a bare plant. Will it recover? Who knows. I suspect that everything I read about how to prune a buddleia didn’t take in consideration the fact that the plant may be years and years old and neglected for many of those to boot and, sentimental as I am, I am feeling very guilty that we may have killed something which has been living there happily much longer than we have. If it doesn’t recover, I also apologise to all the butterflies and bees that visited it late last summer. We are keeping everything crossed that at least some of it will survive our well-meaning but totally amateur attempts. It’s like the apple tree all over again – but much more radical.

Much less controversial was the removal of the old water feature in the lawn. It didn’t work and it was unattractive, with a layer of sludge and a dead pot plant in its centre. We have been wondering what to do with it for some time and eventually we agreed to replace it with a rose bed. We bought three small very bare rose bushes and D raided his wood stash to create a border around the new bed. It looks quite empty at the moment, but we intend to plant annuals in it around the bushes until they grow and flower. Even empty, it looks better than what was there before. It has proved a magnet for the cats and Calamity came in yesterday with a large scratch across her nose – she clearly got a little too curious and the rose bush fought back. Heaven knows what they will make of the greenhouse next week!

In which we make progress in the garden

Close-up of golden gravel

Following our success with the veg patch a few weeks ago, we have been pressing on with developments in the garden. As those of you who follow my Facebook and Instagram pages will know, we spent last weekend barrowing gravel up the garden to form the paths between the raised beds. While not quite as hard work as filling the beds in the first place, it was still a fairly strenuous job. We laid a thick weed membrane to try and deter the dandelions and the bindweed which thrived up there last year, in spite of our best efforts to control it. Bindweed is an old enemy – I had lots of it at a previous house, and learned the hard way that the beautiful white flowers are not worth the pain. I spent the next few years waging a battle comparable only with my dandelion wars last summer and, purely by removing every leaf I could find, I did manage to weaken it in the end. I often wonder about that garden and if the new owners have managed to stop, if not the invasion, at least the total occupation that completely covered the rest of the plants in my first year there.

We made good progress with the gravel paths for most of the day until – crisis! We realised we didn’t have quite enough membrane or gravel to finish the job. Cue yet another emergency dash to B&Q for something which is similar enough that we reckon we won’t be able to tell the difference after a few rainfalls.

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The result, as I hope you will agree, looks great and will be practical enough for us to navigate around the beds once they are planted. The cats are disgusted though. The Calamity Cat wouldn’t put her tender paws on the nasty sharp, stony stuff and the Princess made it clear that she was only doing so under sufferance. Who knows – maybe it will stop them digging up our precious vegetables. We can but hope …

Grey and white cat sitting in a raised bed
“How do I get out of here now?!”

Of course, they don’t really need to dig there anyway. We have been very kind and moved one of the old raised beds into the first, more decorative half of the garden. Last year, we grew tomatoes both outside and in our little plastic greenhouse and the outside plants were by far the more successful. As a result, this year we have created a more permanent structure – a raised bed and a very solid trellis (D never does anything by halves!) in front of the oil tank. The plan is to have tomatoes growing up the trellis and something decorative at the front of the bed. Once painted and planted, I think it will be a useful addition. In the meantime, the cats are delighted – they no longer have to trek all the way up to the veg patch for a nice patch of soft earth to dig in.

Raised bed with trellis in front of green oil tank
D built the trellis from scratch. It’s hiding the oil tank already!

The big news though, was the delivery of the greenhouse. I was very excited when it was unloaded from the lorry and stacked in pieces on the drive. It doesn’t look like much at the moment, but we have high hopes! The landscape company laid the concrete base yesterday, battling through late snow showers to get the job done. And it was reassuring to see that even the professionals get it wrong sometimes – they, too, had make a quick run to the supplier to pick up more hard core when they ran out. One thing we are sure of – when it’s up, this is one greenhouse that won’t be blowing away!

Stacked glass covered in paper and long thin cardboard boxes
Really?? Is that it?
Green metal greenhouse with shelving, plants and tools inside
This is what it will look like – eventually.  Image taken from https://www.greenhousepeople.co.uk/

Trying to keep the cats off the base while it dries, though, is proving to be a bit of a challenge. We let them out last night and, of course, they headed straight for it. We just managed to stop the Princess leaving little pawprints in the concrete. Not that I would mind that as a reminder of their presence in years to come, but I don’t fancy getting concrete off their paws.

So, new water butts are waiting in the garage, the greenhouse is being built next week and we have 2 other raised beds to lay at each end of it for soft fruit and asparagus. Then finally, everything will be in place and we will have a proper kitchen garden. All that will remain, of course, will be to start planting!

A taste of village life

Occasionally, I do leave the house. Only occasionally, I admit, apart from my weeks in Scotland, but I do enjoy feeling part of the community here nonetheless. I have D to thank for that – his naturally gregarious nature has led us to meeting people in the village and, through his efforts, we do have a social life of sorts, mainly revolving around the village club, where we go to join a quiz team, to hear live music and to dance. And, when we are given the opportunity, we dance. At the club, the dance floor is small and D and I can fill it alone. The regulars at the monthly live music events have started to expect it now and, as much as I worry about boring everyone or looking like we are showing off, everyone appears to enjoy watching us. D tells me that, on the weeks I am in Aberdeen, he has been greeted with disappointed looks and “Oh, is she not here? That’s a shame, I was looking forward to watching you both.”

D’s latest venture is to join the committee of the club, to support it by giving his time and showing his commitment to its future. It is his way of giving back to the community which welcomed us so warmly just over a year ago and, although not a committee person myself, I admire him for it. I have agreed to go to the newly formed craft and natter group once a fortnight though so, who knows, I might even get a social circle of my own. A few glasses of red wine may have been involved when I signed up, but I am looking forward to getting out and meeting some more people – honest!

Being on the committee means D is much more in touch with what is happening in the village than I am. Last week, he announced we were having a takeaway for tea. Our nearest takeaways are a drive away, so I was a little surprised that we were going to make that effort on a Thursday night, but, no! Totally unbeknown to me, we have a visitor to the village on a Thursday at 6pm – we have a chippy van.

A chippy van! I was beside myself with excitement at the thought. (Hmm, maybe I really should get out more … ) We walked down to the club, enjoying the signs of early spring in the hedgerows along the way – snowdrops, crocuses and even some early daffodils have started to bloom.

As we reached the end of our lane, the van went past us and pulled up in the car park of the club. By the time we got there, there was already a queue. We stood quietly chatting while the chaps in the van got the cooking underway. By the time one of them came round to open the sales hatch, we were all sniffing the air eagerly, looking forward to our chippy treat. And we weren’t alone. Silently and with a grave dignity, a black and white cat had appeared from nowhere and jumped up on to one of the tables in the beer garden, for all the world looking like he was taking his place in the queue.

Black cat with white bib in a cat bed on a garden table

Clutching our precious tea (which, as well as convenient, was very reasonably priced), we walked home again, to be ambushed by our own two feline friends, their little noses twitching even more than ours had. Decanting our haul on to plates was too much for the Calamity Cat, who made an attempt to steal D’s fish before admitting defeat as he defended it strenuously. We did save them a little but they had to wait until we had finished before they got it. They both very much enjoyed it, so I can see them looking forward to Thursdays from now on. And they may not be alone there – I think we have a new midweek tradition …

Blue and white fish and chip van
Image taken from www.hookedncooked.co.uk

 

The joy of cupboards

Grey and white cat on a pale blue patio table

A closed door is an affront to a cat. I am firmly convinced it infringes their feline rights. When it is shut, our two sit fixedly by the patio door (their usual exit into the garden), occasionally glaring at us with an accusing “Why is this shut?” sort of look. As soon as we open it, they thrust their noses into the space to have a good sniff at the outside world, just making sure that their empire is still intact, but they show no inclination to actually go out. They are simply exercising their right to have the option. During the summer, we leave the door open for them to come and go, although it does occasionally backfire when other cats are about, as it did last year. However, in the winter even we draw the line at sitting in the cold, just so they can get some fresh air. One day recently, I had the impudence to try gently encouraging Calamity outside with my foot. She looked round with an expression of utter outrage on her face and backed away from the door. “I was only looking!” she seemed to be telling me – and loudly too. “Would you want to go out in this weather?”

Another of Calamity’s demands recently has been to explore all the built-in storage in the house. There is a whole collection of tantalising closed doors, just teasing her with their possibilities. You may remember we hid their Christmas presents in a cupboard in the study and it seems to have left a lasting suspicion that she is missing out on something interesting. The hall cupboard holds a particular fascination and she will sit and cry outside it until we open it for her to get inside. Once in, she realises that there isn’t really anything worth her notice to be found, and she wanders out again nonchalantly. We close the door and half an hour later, we repeat the whole process. Sometimes it is the fitted wardrobes in the study – she may never have been in a particular cupboard before but she is suddenly desperate to get in and her cries can be heart-rending. Occasionally, she will curl up inside one of them for a nap but most of the time she has a good look, and then comes back out, looking bewildered, as if she isn’t quite sure why she wanted to be in there in the first place.

Grey and white cat in a cuboard storing fabric
“Hmm, this looks interesting … “
2 grey and white cats in a cupboard storing fabric
“What are you doing in there?”

This very peculiar habit hit a new low recently, when we were awoken in the night by a blood-curdling howl. We shot up in bed, convinced that there was something seriously wrong with one of them. We found Calamity sitting mournfully next to the wardrobe in the bedroom. “It’s shut”, she appeared to wail, “and I need to get inside”. We tried to distract her with promises of cuddles but she would not be moved. In the end, we opened the door and, once she had convinced herself it didn’t hold anything more interesting than our hanging clothes and their travel baskets, she came back to bed and settled down.  A couple of nights later, we went through it all again. In order to get an unbroken night’s sleep, I spent the next Saturday morning clearing out the bottom of the wardrobe and turning their travel baskets into 2 cosy cat beds. We now ceremoniously open the doors each night as we go to bed and haven’t been disturbed since. Of course, Calamity has spent every night curled up with us. She has the option to get into the wardrobe and that is the battle won.

2 sheepskin cat beds side by side
The comfy beds remain empty while Calamity snuggles in with us

The Veg Patch

Four new empty raised beds waiting for planting

Last week, we finally turned our attention to the vegetable patch. We inherited the space with its raised beds from the previous owner of the house and D has been itching to improve it ever since we moved in. It is an oddly shaped fenced area, sandwiched between the orchard, the summer house and the houses next door and behind us. We moved the fence slightly a few weeks ago, to give us some extra growing room – for two people who weren’t gardeners until last year, we have definitely got the bug and the space we had just didn’t feel big enough.

It took us a while to work out the best way to develop the area and, in the end, we decided to keep raised beds but make them bigger and deeper, with more defined paths in between. D got busy on the Internet, ordering scaffolding planks for the beds and tonnes of manure and topsoil. We knew that everything would be delivered on to the drive at the front of the house and would need to be barrowed up to the far end of the garden at the back. I teased D with “Oh dear, we only have 1 wheelbarrow – I won’t be able to help” but he was ready for me. “That’s all right, love, I’ve ordered us a new one – it’s on its way”. Oh well, it was worth a try. Purely by coincidence, it arrived on Valentine’s Day and, as I was up in Scotland that week, D sent me a picture of the new barrow to go with my lovely card. The old romantic …

Black wheelbarrow with a red wheel
Our new wheelbarrow

Usually, I can’t wait to get back after my weeks up north. Much as I love Scotland, there’s nowhere quite like home. On that particular week, though, I was almost hoping for snow. I had it all planned. “Sorry, dear, I’m stranded in Aberdeen – I can’t get home. You’ll have to start without me”. Of course, the weather stayed bright and sunny and all too soon, Saturday morning came and we were staring at piles of wood and 4 tonnes of earth, wondering where to start. The cats very sensibly decided to stay in bed and who could blame them?

Large bags of compost on pallets
So this is what 4 tonnes of earth looks like …

Our first job was to take the grass up that had grown on the paths. I turned out to be terrible at this, either not lifting the turf at all, or digging huge deep holes. In the end, D did most of it himself, and incredibly hard work it looked too. We also had to clear the old beds away and there was a certain poignancy to harvesting our final leeks from last year, along with the winter salad. Our first season as gardeners was definitely over. More of a surprise was the radish we dug up with the salad (we knew it was spicy salad leaves, but we had no idea we were growing radish leaves!) and a veritable feast of potatoes. Some of those weren’t even in the beds and certainly weren’t ones we planted. It was a real bonus the following week to be eating our own veg in February, and very tasty it was too!

Newly pulled potatoes, leeks and radish in a wicker basket
Our unexpected harvest

Once that was done and the old beds lifted out, we made a start on our first new one. It took three hours to build, dig and fill, with what felt like endless barrows of manure and topsoil having to be shovelled into the wheelbarrows, moved from front to back and tipped out into the bed, before doing it all again. By lunchtime, though, we had a finished bed and we gazed proudly at what we had achieved.

After a quick break for lunch (and that was a mistake – by the time we got back to work, we had seized up – all part of the joys of mid-life gardening), we set to again to make the second bed. Before we could put that in place, though, we had to move the rhubarb. We had given our rhubarb plants a small corner last year and put three young plants in there, with no concept of the space they required. When it came to digging them up, we were amazed at the roots we found, deep and strong and reluctant to move. Hoping we hadn’t done too much damage digging them up, we replanted them in one of the old beds that we managed to reuse in the orchard and the plants are now thriving in a much larger space, enjoying their well manured new home.

Young rhubarb plants in a raised bed
Our rhubarb has a new home in the orchard

Another three hours, another bed was done and so were we. After a shower and a pub tea, we slumped on the sofa all evening, exhausted, trying not to say what we were both thinking – we had to do it all again the next day.

It’s much harder to dig and build and barrow when you already ache all over and you are nursing blisters from the day before. However, we were committed and set to again with grim determination. The other two beds were slightly smaller than the first, but it didn’t make it any easier. The cats came to supervise on day two, checking out what we had done the day before and sitting on the paths between the beds with just their ears peeping over the top. It’s only a matter of time until they start digging in them, but we can hope that they leave them alone for now.

The cats weren’t the only creatures watching us work. All day, we were visited by the blackbirds who had so enjoyed feasting on our windfall apples. They were overjoyed that we were digging up turf and turning over the soil underneath and kept popping by to snack on the many worms we uncovered. I hope they left us some – we need the worms to help pull our new topsoil down into the old. One particularly brave chap was so excited by his catch, he flew right past the Princess’s nose, as if to say “Look what I’ve got and you can’t have it – or me!” She was so startled at his cheek, she didn’t even take a swipe at him – just looked totally disgusted when he disappeared into the hedge next door to enjoy his lunch.

Eventually, we had finished. I will be bold and say that we have the best looking raised beds in the village and I can’t wait to start filling them with vegetables for this year. The rhubarb is growing almost before our eyes in the orchard and all that remains is to put a weed membrane down on the paths before covering them in gravel.

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Unfortunately, the rest of the garden looks like a hurricane has hit. The wheelbarrows have churned up the lawn in our flower garden and turned it into mud and we have a pile of discarded turf, weeds and rotting wood outside the shed. Every time we look at it, we sigh. We have no idea what to do with it, but we will have to decide soon – we have just ordered a new greenhouse and guess where it is going …

Pruning the apple tree

Apple tree leafless canopy in winter

Those of you who follow me on Facebook and other social media will know that we have been very busy in the garden over the past week or two. I’m sure you are dying to know what we have done in the veg patch, but I am going to make you wait another week. First, I want to tell you about our apple tree.

We have been working up the courage to tackle the apple tree for some time now. It is very beautiful and gave us more cooking apples than we could eat last year, but it has clearly been some time since it has been pruned properly. Huge branches overhang next door and loom large over our veg patch as well. Being novices at this gardening lark, we are fairly reliant on what we read and watch to tell us when to do things and, according to the guru Monty Don, late winter is a good time to prune apple trees. So we girded our loins, took the saw and the ladder up the garden, and set to.

Man sawing branches off a tree in winter
D working hard up the tree

According to the Gardener’s World magazine, you can be quite ruthless with apple trees. Monty Don’s advice is to open up the branches sufficiently for a pigeon to be able to fly through with ease. I’m not sure that was really what we were aiming at – we would settle for it not taking all the light from our neighbours’ vegetable plot. Up the ladder D went and started to saw. It felt pretty brutal to me, watching from below while steadying the ladder and receiving the shorn branches, some of which were fairly big, but I knew it had to be done. The little boy next door, who at four is extremely bright and totally fearless, helped us from his side of the fence, lifting offcuts larger than himself over to our side. Trying to keep their dog from bouncing around just where the branch was about to fall was a bit more of a challenge though. Sensibly, the cats kept out of the way while we worked, although they took it in turns to supervise from the new woodshed roof, making the most of the winter sun and ensuring that we did a good job.

Grey and white cat walking up roof of an outdoor log store
“Make sure you leave enough tree for me to climb”

Slowly, the tree started to take shape, with me advising from the ground on what to cut off to try and tame the worst without losing the overall shape of the tree. I quickly discovered how compulsive it becomes – there was always just one branch more that needed to go. The discarded wood, looking almost like reindeer antlers, piled up and up on the grass until we started to fear there was more on the ground than on the tree. You still couldn’t fly a pigeon through the middle but one of the starlings that nest in our eaves might be able to have a go.

Pile of tree branches on grass
Just some of what we took from the tree

In the end, we decided to stop before it got totally out of hand. Then, as it was still early February, the race was on to cut the wood and move it before dusk fell and we ended up working in the dark – again. Chopping it into pieces small enough to go into the garden recycling was a long and extremely tedious job. It would have been great to keep it all and to use the smaller twigs for kindling, but we decided life was too short (well, the day was anyway) and we had no chance of cutting it small enough to use before it went dark. We did manage to save some of the larger pieces for the fire but it will need some drying time, as it was too green to burn – a good job we have a nice dry woodshed!

Hopefully the tree will respond to our well-meaning attempts and continue to thrive, bringing the fleeting beauty of blossom in Spring and fruit in Summer and Autumn for many years to come.

 

Pink apple blossom
Last year’s blossom

 

Is Spring on the way?

Snowdrops in bud

Even though it is only February, it feels like Spring is round the corner. We have had some sunshine and the days are finally starting to lengthen. Even more excitingly, the bulbs we planted in the Autumn are starting to appear in our pots and in the border. We took advantage of a cold but sunny weekend recently and embarked on some serious gardening tidying up – probably what we should have done at the end of the season last year, but better late than never, right? The cycle of nature never ceases to amaze me. As I hoed and dug and clipped away weeds and dead foliage, I revealed a whole new garden going on underneath. All sorts of shoots are appearing in every corner. I have no idea what most of them are – I can’t remember much from last year – but the sight of them lifted my heart and spurred me on in my work. Most exciting of all, I found a patch of snowdrops hiding behind the oil tank, their white flowers just starting to appear.

The herbs I planted last year were totally overgrown – who knew that oregano could spread that far? I knew the chocolate mint would take over if I didn’t control it, but I had no idea it would spread under the soil, forming a mat and reaching its tendrils into the heart of the other plants. I was ruthless, digging up, dividing, pruning hard and the air (and my hands) were soon filled with the mixed aromas of mint, chocolate, rosemary, thyme, oregano and lemon. It was the most fragrant and pleasurable gardening I have ever done. The result is a smaller, tidier patch although I know I will need to keep on top of it regularly.

Herbs planted in outside bed next to red brick wall
Looking much tidier than before – and smelling gorgeous

Meanwhile, D is continuing the practical work up around the vegetable plot at the back of the garden. Enthused by the success of reroofing the woodshed, he spent an afternoon building a tool store behind the summer house, to store the items that we currently have in the dilapidated shed in the orchard. Much cursing could be heard as he worked, when it rapidly became clear that the quality of the flat-pack pieces were poor and nothing actually fitted together that well. Given his skill in building our library shelving, he could have done it better if he had designed it himself. Still, it was done in the end and is a vital precursor to us buying a new greenhouse, which will replace the shed.

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There are other signs as well that the seasons are changing. The shops are full of daffodils, and I couldn’t resist buying some for the house, to keep us going until our own flower in the garden. The hydrangea has leaf buds on it and I am cautiously hopeful that it will thrive this year now I have moved the lemon balm which threatened to engulf it last year. The pampas grass flowers have seen us through the winter, but are now starting to look sorry for themselves, as the birds start to strip them for nesting material. I remember this from last year, when a flower could vanish before your eyes – the cats loved watching it from the window in the study as much as I did, although possibly not for the same reasons!

Grey and white cat sitting on a wooden table next to a glass vase of daffodils
The Princess posing with the daffodils

I am sure Winter hasn’t quite relinquished its hold on us yet but it feels like the end is in sight. We will know Spring has truly arrived when the frogs do, much to the delight of the Calamity Cat I am sure, who has missed her friends and still looks for them around the drystone wall from time to time. There is still much to do before we embark on a new growing season though. We have to clear the front garden in the same way as I have the back, re-lay the raised beds in the veg plot, and prepare for the coming of the greenhouse. The first early potatoes are chitting in egg boxes on the sideboard in the dining room and I need to check the seeds I collected at the end of last year, to make sure they are fit to be sown once the greenhouse has arrived. Perhaps there is some truth in what one of our neighbours said when he saw us hard at work on a sunny Sunday afternoon. “Are you out here again? Do you ever actually go into the house at all?” Sometimes, it doesn’t feel like it but we are loving it as much as ever.