When the aconites catch the sunlight I know the spring cycle has started in the garden but it doesn’t mean that winter is behind us yet. February brought us a few days of bright, beautiful snowfall – heavy enough to produce snowdrifts to wade through and snowmen of various sizes. The sharpness of the air, the covered branches of the pine trees nearby and above all the brilliance of the light brought memories of the mountains to our flat, East Anglian landscape.
Work on the garage outbuilding really got under way this month with the laying of the concrete slab. At the same time it was good to see that the cowslips and primroses in the turves we had carefully moved were coming through in their new places and, hopefully, any pyramid orchids will follow on soon.
When I found that the winter vegetables, chard, kale and sprouting broccoli, were being nibbled and grazed in the back garden plot right by the kitchen door, we thought it must be a solitary muntjac making a brave foraging expedition. We were wrong. The deep, crisp snowfall this month showed us that a whole herd of the dainty-footed creatures sweep through the garden nightly!
I’ve been browsing the catalogues looking for vegetable seeds, yew hedging, roses to plant by the new garage and an hydrangea quercifolia for the shady bed.
The spring bulbs and plants from de Jager planted last autumn – mostly muscari, erythronium, camassia, iris reticulata, narcissi and cyclamem – are all coming through firm and strong. The only exception is the anemone nemorosa which seems to have vanished without trace. Instead there is a thriving clump of arum maculatum. For some reason these Lords and Ladies, some green, some spotted, are running riot in the garden just now.
I will definitely be planting Tiger Cross marrow, Cobra and Purple Queen French beans, Bolthardy beetroot and Nero di Toscana kale again. The runner beans and leeks were not so good so I might look for something else this year. And I didn’t have the space to put in broad beans last October so might try a spring planting.
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It must have been around 1988 when a student gave me a tiny pot with a sprouting ‘oak’ in it. I took it home and tended it though the coming leaves looked like holly to me. But it grew and after a while I potted it on and while looking up holly in a gardening book stumbled across the ‘holm oak’ and realised what my six inch sapling with holly-like foliage was. And what it might become.
There was no possibility of planting an oak in our London back garden and for several years I was dutiful in potting it on. But I got sidetracked in my gardening interests – as you do – and other things in pots took precedence. There must have been a period of about eight years when the two, then three foot tree remained neglected in an 18in pot in a sheltered position behind the pots of herbs, mimosa, lilies and an African lime which claimed my attention. About the turn of the millennium I found the dry, root bound holm oak still living in its pot against the wall. Guilt stricken, I went out and bought a very large clay pot. With good drainage in the bottom and lots of new compost on top this was home to the holm oak and she was carefully tended. By 2008 she had reached eight feet and developed mature, glossy, oval holm oak foliage and took pride of place in the van load of pots, plants and cuttings and gardening tools we brought to the Old Brewhouse that year.
But she wasn’t home and dry yet. We were delighted to find that our next door neighbours had a huge, ancient specimen holm oak in their garden. I was eager to get mine settled in good earth and quickly chose a planting spot at a corner of our boundary. It wasn’t until two years later that I realised it was absolutely not the right position for a tree which would grow to more than 40ft. She had to be moved, again.
This time we wanted to get it right and it was quite an operation. We carefully found the right position with enough light and space to spread – she will long outlive the tall weeping willow nearby. Peter dug a really large hole and together we struggled to dig up the tree with as big a rootball as we could lift. This was perched in our largest wheelbarrow and trundled precariously down the garden to the planting site. “You will never be moved or disturbed again” I promised as I backfilled around the site. She has settled so gracefully into this space and grown so much in height and width in the past decade – forgiving my neglect and making a huge impression on the garden. It’s good to think that she will be here for many years to come along with the English oak saplings in the boundary hedges which we encourage and protect.
January has been very wet though with a brief and pretty dusting of snow for a couple of days.
In the garden we completed moving the turves from the site of the new garage and laid them at the far end of the pond.
I’m starting to look for signs of the bulbs, especially the alliums, which were planted last autumn. And there are vegetable seeds, yew saplings, ferns and roses on order which will keep us busy for a while.
Through November and December we kept up our daily walks but weren’t always able to follow our chosen routes as ditches became streams, roads flooded and waterlogged fields turned footpaths to mud.
Here at the Old Brewhouse puddles appeared in the meadow and ducks came and paddled in them. Work in the garden slowed right down. The winter vegetables – rainbow chard, kale and some beetroot have been good but the few leeks failed and something – our resident muntjac – has been nibbling the chard but not the purple leaved ones. We will have to fence it off. The sprouting broccoli is a treat still to come and needs protection.
The biggest task in the garden at present is preparing for the building of a garage in January. We have had planning permission for this since 2008 but in recent months we’ve decided to go ahead with the project. The black weatherboarded garage on brick footings will sit alongside the hedge, on a plot where some of the many primroses, cowslips and pyramid orchids of the meadow grow. To protect these plants we have removed the top 4in of soil turf by turf and relaid the them near the pond and around the new shady bed.
There was a large crop of medlars this year and the branches of the tree were bowed down with the weight. They are an interesting fruit and we were eating ripe ones from the tree towards the end of November. Each fruit has a cluster of hard seeds in the centre and only a small amount of delicious flesh around them. But to make medlar cheese many, many fruit are needed and they have to be laid out on newspapers in a cool room to ‘blet’ or soften for a week or two. By 15 December they were bletted and the long process began. Recipes give various methods to extract the flesh – all are messy and time-consuming but my preferred method is fingers and a teaspoon. In Lockdown 2 I had plenty of time plus Radio 3 and 4, podcasts and audio books so the last of the preserves was boiled and bubbled into medlar cheese.
And so 2020, the year of Covid, drew to a close with sobering statistics, a sharp rise in the number of new cases and concerns about new variants. But there was also good news about vaccines in the coming months. Like many people our Christmas and New Year plans were cancelled so we put up the lights and decorations, set the dining table with candles and crackers and settled down to dinner, Zoom, Netflix and a toast to a better year in 2021.
The colours are creeping in, green fading as the tawny reds, yellows and browns begin to show. There have been golden walking days, around here, at nearby fens and on the Suffolk coast, but we had to keep an eye on the Met Office app as we chose the days for our longer walks. The pictures look sunny but October was wet. There was heavy rainfall and gardening was in wellies, sliding around with mud-caked feet as we cleared vegetable plots, swept leaves and dug new flower beds.
In the spring I expected that courgettes would be a major part of the vegetable patch but had to think again as not a single seed germinated from three sowings. However the three home-grown marrow seedlings planted in their place have more than proved their worth. We will definitely plant them again in 2021.
Having a good supply of marrows set us looking for recipes and several became favourites. A Sri Lankan cucumber curry adapted beautifully to marrow –
– and it worked well with these pasta dishes too.
Best of all was Meera Sodha’s slow cooked marrow borani served on yoghourt with naan bread.
This month we gathered the biggest and heaviest crop yet from the quince tree. I worried that they might suffer drought in the hot, dry summer but recent damp weather seemed to swell the fruit rapidly and the bright yellow fruits were weighty and the size of your hand. We had to use the wheelbarrow to get them to the kitchen where hours were spent cooking them.
Many were simply baked with honey for puddings, or peeled, stewed and frozen, some were shared with friends and neighbours, a few made pickled quince to bottle but most went to make quince jelly and membrillo.
It’s a long, slow, process making membrillo. Part one is cutting, removing the large stones, slicing, chopping, stewing and straining the juice off through a jelly bag overnight. Next day part two involves lots of bubbling and stirring and the sweet smelling, pinkish-red result is spread in trays to set. Really good with cheese and tasty Christmas presents.
I’ve been planting bulbs for next year: muscari, narcissi, camassia, alliums and anemones. The vegetable patch is bright with rainbow chard and kale but most of the garden at the moment is damp and dripping with leaves to be swept, dead flower heads and black, bare trees. But occasionally there’s a lovely surprise, like this gorgeous hesperantha coccina ‘Major’ which flowered recently.
When the restrictions of early lockdown eased we began to make visits to London to see family and friends and catch up on cancelled appointments. As well as seeing my hairdresser for the first time this year, I spent a lovely morning at the Garden Museum with a friend. The exhibition on Derek Jarman’s garden at Prospect Cottage on the shingle of Dungeness revealed the eye of an artist and the hard graft of a determined gardener. The Museum was founded by the Tradescant Trust in the derelict former church in Lambeth where the plant collectors, father and son, were buried.
John Tradescant the Elder was most probably born at Walberswick in Suffolk in the 1570s. He seems to have made a name for himself as he became Head Gardener for Lord Cecil at Hatfield House and around 1610 was sent to the Netherlands to source fruit trees for the estate. After this he travelled widely in search of plants, seeds and bulbs. In 1618, then working for the Duke of Buckingham, he went to the Russian Arctic and later to Italy, France the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean. He also gathered specimens from the New World through his friendship with an early British colonist in Virginia. Many of the species common in our gardens today were collected and propagated by the Tradescants. Poppies, night scented stocks, jasmine, phlox, pelargoniums – even the Cos lettuce and runner beans that I planted this year and the Michaelmas daisies which are flowering in the garden now, came here through them.
John the Elder brought larch from Russia, lavender from France, lilac syringapersica and gladiolus byzantinus from the Levant and apricots from the Barbary coast. John the Younger made collecting trips to North America between 1628 and 1637 – Virginia creeper parthenocissus quinquefolia and the tulip tree liriodendron – continued his father’s botanical searches and catalogued the many curiosities they had gathered and displayed to the public in a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ known as The Ark. This first museum collection eventually went to one Elias Ashmole and formed the basis of the Ashmolean museum in Oxford.
The warm days of August spread on into a beautiful September and the garden produce kept coming. Marrows, French beans, green and purple, a few runner beans (a disappointing crop this year) and lettuce of several kinds led on to beetroot, chard and at the end of September we dug our first potatoes – seven nice sized ones off the first plant. We’re growing Maris Piper this year.
It’s been a good summer for fruit – early raspberries, plums and beautiful pears from the gardens of friends before our own greengages were harvested. We started picking blackberries from the hedges in July and were still bringing home plenty at the end of September. Apples have been especially good this year. Our own little trees produced a few and Ellison’s Orange was a star, but we’re still a lot of apples short of an orchard. However windfalls discovered on our walks and garden gate stalls with bags of Bramleys have meant lots of apple chutney and crumbles.
The lovely weather meant that the doors onto the pond have been wide open much of the time. The new water lilies flowered and we forgave the water voles for the leaves and buds they carried away. The mother duck who had disappeared with her ducklings in June returned with all five intact and grown.
Our foraging so far has mostly been for blackberries, apples and hazel nuts. Now, at the end of September autumn is here and we look out for field mushrooms on our morning walks. But even better was the quadrant of puffball mushroom given by a neighbour. Sliced and fried in butter with some parsley it was something special.
Partly for birdwatching and partly for the lovely autumn walks, we’ve been to Lopham Fen a few times recently. We saw a red kite in September, the first we’ve seen in East Anglia. We also found mushrooms, beautiful but definitely not for eating.
Small things have been important during lockdown – birdsong, the germination of seeds, new waterlily leaves rising to the surface of the pond, the hum of bees in the vine by the back door and the pleasure of identifying the wild flowers of field, hedgerow and footpath. Scabious, toadflax, ladies bedstraw, marsh thistle, horned poppies, pink and white yarrow – all snapped to be checked in Keble-Martin when we got back.
Towards the end of June we netted the gooseberries. The four bushes have been sorely neglected but I think the weeds which had grown tall around them had actually camouflaged them from the birds. The harvest on 5 July was good.
The vegetable patch looked bare once the broad beans were cleared.
However the three marrow plants quickly filled the space by the hedge and started to flower. The little kale seedlings, two rows of chard and a line of sprouting broccoli began to cover the rest. The French beans, mainly dwarf Purple Queen with a compact habit plus a couple of prolific Cobra which turned out to want to sprawl all over everything. When the fence to keep out the muntjac went up the beans leant over it gratefully and gracefully.
However life wasn’t all vegetables. Our family campers came to stay more often as restrictions eased. The weather was beautiful and apart from sharing picnics and barbecues in the garden, we were now able to take outings together – a visit to the playground, a walk in the nature reserve, a canoe trip, a paddle in the sea and lunch in a pub garden. Together but distanced, still no hugs but better than Zoom for the time being.
Summer seemed to come early this year, just when we were beginning to grasp the worldwide consequences of a pandemic and get used to the jargon of Covid-19 – social distancing, track and trace, Zoom and lockdown. We carried on with digging and planting and early morning walks.
Most of the vegetable seeds were sown on 24th April – the day we saw the first swallows arriving. The June weather and the still lengthening days has encouraged germination. All that is, except for the courgettes – still not a single shoot from several sowings from a brand new packet. Their allotted space has gone to four eager marrow seedlings which look set to make up the deficit.
The seedlings – kale, French beans, runner beans and marrows – moved from windowsills to spells outdoors and finally into planting position. Beetroot, chard, chives, lettuce and radish were sown direct and are mostly doing well. Some leek seedlings will go out later.
A gift of four special tomato plants came over the fence from our neighbours and I have given them pride of place in terracotta pots. They are Black Russian, Principe Borghese, Fandango and a Yellow – treats in store for late summer.
This month’s garden produce was mainly broad beans and they were much enjoyed before they were finished, haulms hauled to the compost heap and their space planted with the kale seedlings. More plant labels on more vegetable rows . . .
Recent garden maintenance has included the repairs needed to the grass in the back garden after the laying of a new drain. When we found in November that willow roots had invaded and almost totally blocked the underground drainpipe, Peter took up his spade and pickaxe and dug The Trench – 40 feet long and 2 feet deep. Now it needed to be made good.
The roses have been blooming well. Alastair Stella Grey rampant again against the kitchen wall, rosa glauca now tall against the telegraph pole and setting many hips for autumn. Viridiflora, a curious but charming old rose with greenish/pink bract/flowers leans into an old greengage and Meg, a 1950s climber has the sunniest spot on the south-east corner of the building. Celestial and Buff Beauty are in the back garden along the fence with their roots behind a shed. This year our neighbour had some trees on the boundary taken down. A slip of the chain saw sliced through the thick woody main stem of Buff Beauty but missed most of Celestial. The response from both roses to the shock but also to the flood of light from the west was immediate – lots of healthy new growth and buds. A new lease of life.
There are many pyramid orchids in the meadow and they seem to be spreading as I discovered several flowering at the far end of the pond. But this year there were two bee orchids as well. They have appeared in the meadow before but not for some time so this is a welcome return.
Our water voles have increased in number and don’t seem to mind us being around. We have watched them running around the edge of the pond, seen them swimming out to grab mouthfuls of curled pond weed, heard them munching on the rushes and there is now a neatly nibbled ‘lawn’ at the end of the pond where one or two of what I think of as the maiden aunts gather to graze in the evening.
Muntjac are at home here too. They seem to be able to find their way through any hedge but mostly walk through the gate or up our neighbour’s drive. While talking on a video call recently a granddaughter had a good view of a munjac trotting across the end of the pond and leaping into the undergrowth on the far side. When we mow the meadow we find the flattened patches where they sleep – so our vines and vegetables all have stout netting around them to preserve the harvest. Now we just need to pick the greengages before the birds and wasps get to them.
The garden has been good to us during Corona virus lockdown and has also been a quiet place for family to come and camp in tents and campervan as a break from working in hospital, school, office, or at home with small children. Sharing distanced picnics, walks, barbecues and story-telling has made a big difference.
Spring 2020 has seen the dawning of new, uncertain and difficult times with the coming of Covid-19 – corona virus. Here in Suffolk, separated from children and grandchildren, we adjust to a new normal in lockdown with self-isolation, food deliveries, new routines, social distancing and a lot of time for gardening.
Winter daydreams led to this year’s first planting – three Regent grape vines beside the path to the front door. The broad beans planted last October are flourishing so our plan now is to grow more vegetables. We needed more space for planting and a better water supply – filling and carrying watering cans from the pond is both precarious and hard work. Peter made a raised stand in the corner of the back garden for a water butt which can be filled periodically from our well. It’s been a boon in the hot, dry weeks of May. Next, he extended the small vegetable patch, removing some of the ‘lawn’ and laying a brick path.
A patch of the paddock was dug over to give room for three rows of potatoes, space cleared in front of the gooseberries for a few courgettes and another patch prepared for runner beans. All will have to be fenced around, like the vines and broad beans, to keep muntjac and rabbits out and netted over to deter the pigeons and great tits when necessary.
I sourced seeds online and we were not the only ones with this in mind. Orders to Dobies and Suttons took an age to come through but did so eventually and with other seeds arriving by post from friends. By April I had trays and pots of seedling marrows, runner beans, kale, French beans, chives and radishes in the warmth of the kitchen and seed potatoes chitting in cool shed. The germination rate was mostly good though courgettes failed completely on two separate sowings. It is quietly soothing to plant seeds, watch over their germination and transplant the seedlings into carefully prepared beds. I’m measuring my days, not with coffee spoons but with plant labels at the end of rows. And with Zoom meetings.
There is work to be done and the evenings, mornings and afternoons stretch on.
We don’t use herbicides in the garden and the path by the pond in front of the house kept growing tough weeds which were impossible to dig out of the trodden gravel and hard ground. We tackled this job in May, first clearing off the old gravel and cutting black weed suppressing fabric to fit on a bed of sand. Then it was just a matter of shovelling and wheelbarrowing a ton of new gravel across from the gate where it had been delivered and spreading it out. With garden maintenance, chopping firewood and daily walks our fitness regime is going well.
In April we got up at 4am one morning to walk in the dark along lanes and footpaths to a nearby nature reserve to listen to the dawn chorus.
Daybreak and dawn chorus
It was wonderful to stand in grassy meadows as the robins, blackcaps, chiffchaffs, tits and linnets took their turns, drowned out at times by the mighty sound of a tiny wren in full diva mode. Last year we noticed that a robin was imitating the spotted flycatchers in flitting over the pond after flies. This year in late April there were two robins spending a lot of time feeding like this and they in turn were joined by a pair of chaffinches using the same method. Then the flycatchers returned in May and showed off their superior skills. On our daily walks we’ve spotted yellowhammers, sparrows and greenfinches and been accompanied by the cascading song of soaring skylarks which are plentiful around here. In the garden goldfinches, blue tits, great tits, long tailed tits, woodpeckers, tree creepers and nuthatch visit and a lovely song thrush often chooses the top of a neighbour’s pine as a perch for its evening recital. We are thankful for the beauty of birdsong which has really marked our days in isolation this spring.
Water is a big part of the garden at the Old Brewhouse. The gable end of the extension faces south looking down the length of the pond and French windows open onto a small deck. From inside or out all the flora and fauna in, on and around the banks of the pond can be seen, butterflies, fish, ducks, water voles, moorhens, birds, hedgehogs, waterlilies, dragonflies and often plenty of duckweed or blanket weed.
Yellow flag iris and marsh marigolds were already growing on the edges of the pond and we added darmera, rodgersia, primula florindae, gunnera, lobelia Pink Elephant, iris sibirica, hostas, red stemmed cornus, purple loosestrife (lythrum salicaria), pickerel plant (pontederia cordata) and mimulus – all with varying degrees of success. The pond had not been cleared since the 1930s and in the summer of 2011 the Pondsman decided to drain what water was left and dig out decades of silt, by hand, with a spade, as a fitness regime. Starting with an hour a day he built up to four hours daily and shifted some 200 tons of solidified mud. Use this link for full details the pond blog
After this major transformation we wanted to add waterlilies to shade the surface of the pond and keep the temperature of the now 2ft-5ft deep water cool.
Our first white waterlilies were given to us by friends nearby who have created a beautifully planted pond. We planted them rather inexpertly in three plastic buckets which had contained building materials – we just made some holes. Lesson 1: this is not the best container for water lilies. The buckets we placed rather haphazardly in different depths of water in the pond. The two in deeper water didn’t survive. Lesson 2: don’t start plants off too deep. The following year we added more waterlilies, some lovely cream ones from an aquatic plant specialist – which came in the right plastic mesh containers – and planted them all at similar depths to the flourishing plant. Lesson 3: see what works.
In the spring there were lots of leaves but there were also lots of ducks and moorhens and soon the young leaves were floating all over the pond. So the barricades went up – posts with netting secured over them.
This amused the ducks no end as they circled round grabbing what they could and ducking underneath the edges. The moorhens found the netting a useful aid to walking on the water lily leaves and a pleasant place to roost when their chicks were being bothersome. The chicks of course copied their parents.
One summer we added a couple of sturdy pink waterlilies which were sitting in a bucket at the annual village plant sale. They seemed at home in deeper water in an improvised bit of netting as a basket.
After a few years though, we had several quite substantial clumps of imprisoned waterlilies, some pretty flowers and extensive, unsightly, netting.
At this stage we decided to tackle the job of dividing the water lily plants, dismantling the barricades and planting things properly. The Pondsman has a fine pair of waders which he uses when clearing duck and blanket weed with the floating barrow and some long red drain gloves so we set to work.
The planting buckets were hauled out and the poor pot-bound plants cut free of them with old bread knives and pruning saws. Garden forks, secateurs, saws and knives were needed to divide them up. This time we wanted to get the plant containers right. We found some plastic garden sieves which we lined with tissue paper, put in some aquatic compost, spread the roots of the divisions out with more compost on top and then a coating of gravel to weigh them down. This was more like it.
The five or six pots were returned to the pond at the depths where they had seemed happiest. The pink ones deepest, the white ones in the shallows and the cream ones in between.
We have never replaced the barricades and yet seem to have arrived at a critical mass or equilibrium. The ducks and moorhens are still around and do a bit of damage to buds and leaves but as there are more plants it’s not so noticeable. And we like having ducks and moorhens around – though not so much when they feast on newly sown grass seed.
Now it’s another year and we’re planting more waterlilies – brought home today in a wheelbarrow. Neighbours in the village are thinning out their pond and offered pink and white off-cuts. This time the Pondsman made the simple wire mesh baskets from fencing material which we lined with paper and topped with aquatic compost. As we had no gravel we have used flints and stones to weigh them down.
The first leaves of the waterlilies are beginning to spread on the surface of the pond this month and we await the most glamorous display in the garden when the dragonflies and damselflies shimmer over the cream, white and pink blooms.
It’s the damp, dark months when the ground squelches as you walk and the earth grips your wellies. Though the grass was still growing in November it was too wet to mow and now the moles are are burrowing under in all directions. They have undermined my carefully planted iris bed so that the rhizomes which were on the surface are sinking beneath.
The Trench continues to grow and now reaches right across the ‘lawn’. All the old drains have been removed, including some 2in thick horseshoe shaped sections which we think are over 100 years old. Peter deepened the trench put in some heavy duty flexible piping, laid on and covered by a ton of fine gravel. Now he’s putting back the earth to let it settle for a few months. It’s a muddy business.
This was the medlar tree on 23 November – the fruit glowing as the yellow leaves fell. In retrospect this was the day we should have picked them and taken them in to blet and make medlar cheese, as a week later the crop was gone. Completely gone, all of them. Not lying on the ground, not rotting on the branches – just gone, maybe taken by birds, maybe something else to blame on the muntjac!
The broad beans planted on 18 October are looking good and are not in the line of Peter’s Trench.
In September I found two avocados germinating in the compost bin and potted them up. They have both sprouted and put out leaves but it’s interesting to see how different they are – one tall, the other shorter and spreading. The leaves are slightly different too.
There are hellebores, iris stylosa and winter jasmine flowering, even a spire of lavender. And the little pulmonaria from the village plant sale is in just the right place. We just need a touch of winter now.
So the end of a year and the end of a decade. Like the garden we’re a bit limp and ragged – here’s to 2020!