Saturday, 29 December 2012

Plans and Dreams

My 'Courtyard Potager' earlier this Summer

Christmas festivities are over; the New Year approaches – almost a time in limbo, but perfect for making plans, allowing oneself to dream. I write so often about planning that you might consider it is a fetish of mine; but over the years I have come to realise that it is crucial to good gardening practice, and that any plot – large or small, rural or urban, – is not created overnight.  And after a year of terrible weather and lack of attention to our own outdoor space through travelling abroad and subsequently illness, I know that nothing goes as expected and contingency plans are essential. 

An editor once kindly called these beds 'inspirational' - but how sad they are now
So, despite the brambles that have overtaken all but the (Dobies) Courtyard Potager – because that is the one mini-garden that has been attended to – I approach 2013 with a pleasurable sense of anticipation. Yes, the rain is still sheeting down but so much is already emerging that I feel the distinct urge to augment what I write about in this blog: Dobies of Devon will expand into the other mini-gardens in my acre of Cotswold ground – for there is just insufficient space to trial all that is new and special, no matter whether one prefers edibles or flowers; or as I do, a mixture of both.

Flowering annuals and herbs grew in the bed now covered in brambles
Because of our underlying soil (heavy clay) and a change over recent years in the water table and blocking of old land drains beyond our boundary, all my four mini-gardens are now based on the raised bed principle. One thing is clear, many of my beds need a complete overhaul, digging out and transplanting special plants I cannot bear to lose, or working around them.  When I reclaimed the garden from scratch, I was quite happy to cover areas with old tarpaulins and wait for one or two seasons, but with advancing age, there may not be the time to do this. I will have to be brutal and be prepared to move stuff around. And ground cannot be allowed to lie fallow – I am determined to use every available space to grow crops, and everything I sow and plant must be ‘multi-tasking’.

Fruit, veg and flowers intermingle in the 'Eco-Garden'
Thus, in gaps left between my beloved shrub roses – which themselves yield pot-pourri and edible petals – I will sow perpetual spinach in droves. Quick to mature and lasting for more than one season, all surplus leaves are fed to the hens who crave greenery to lay well. No hens? Add leaves to the compost heap, or even dig in to increase soil friability. The perennial herb Sorrel (Rumex ???) is equally good for hens and as fresh growth emerges early in the year, it acts as a tonic for my poultry (and a lovely sharp sauce to go with oily fish which is good for our own health).

The 'Square Foot' garden, too, has become overgrown and full of weed
Weeds – certain ones – are allowed to grow for bees, birds and hoverflies, but otherwise the ground below fruit bushes is increasingly to be planted with ground cover: comfrey, which can be invasive but provides a compost activator; edible-flowered sweet violets, and wild strawberries (the birds are welcome to the surplus). Make a note of my four mini-gardens for I will be referring to them again over the coming months. All were created for specific magazine features and are the size of a small suburban back garden. The ‘Courtyard Potager’ has featured since the inception of this blog, but the other three are the ‘Square Foot Garden’ – created as its name suggests to test ‘square foot’ possibilities; the ‘Eco-Garden’ is the most recent and combines fruit with herbs and a bed for transplants and growing on when needed; and the ‘Physic Garden’ is the oldest – culinary and medicinal herbs originally amongst the veg, plus of late shrubs, roses and flowers for cutting. All four  'gardens'  are an eclectic mix based on organic principles, and the desire to feed ourselves.

Space to sit and plan and dream .....
Walk around your own garden or allotment on New Year’s Day and ‘take stock’; list all that brings you joy; take photos and make notes; then retire indoors with the Dobies catalogue or website – and keep checking their latest special offers. 2012 was my gardening ‘annus horribilis’  but 2013 will see a transformation. Goldfinches feed on the teasels and a thrush has returned to the shrubbery, shyly feeding on the bird-table, so all’s well with my world.

A happy New Year to all my blog followers and e-news readers.

Friday, 21 December 2012

The shortest day, the longest night

Wishing all our readers and blog followers a happy holiday
Today – the Solstice –  so it’s now officially Winter, when the night (or hours of darkness) far outstrips those of daytime. Today is so benign yet the ground is far too soggy to work out of doors. Wet is oozing out of the orchard grass, mud clogs the feet of the hens. But it’s the festive season too, and for many the start of an extended holiday – maybe a time for a quiet read in snatched moments.

A favourite haunt for hunting down rather special books on gardening
It’s at this time of year that I re-organise my gardening books, notebook in hand – I always mean to catalogue them all but as they ‘move’ around it would take forever. Books litter our house, are stacked on shelves, lie on tables or the floor, sit on stairs. Favourites of course, and newcomers. And I cannot pass a good bookshop without browsing in the gardening section. Will something tempt me? (It usually does!) We are all urged to support independent bookshops (I particularly love those with a seating area and a tiny cafĂ© offering home-made treats), but also one cannot fault Amazon for their ‘Prime’ service. As a writer, speed is of the essence and for me, living some distance from town, to have a book in my hands within 24 hours of ordering online is essential.

Some current reading and research
New or old, there will always be favourites; titles one turns to time and time again. I acquire more than I discard through charity shops (I once had to buy back one I had thrown out by mistake!) or by recycling them as ‘altered art’. Books currently on my desk for pleasure and research, or because they continually inspire me, include all the ones in the pile above, plus the following oldies which I am working my way through of an evening for fresh inspiration.

‘Veg – the greengrocer’s cookbook’ by Gregg Wallace is perfect for anyone new to growing veg, although it is not for gardeners! As well as presenting TV shows and writing about food, Gregg began his food-related career running a successful fruit and veg stall in south London’s Borough Market. He believes in using food in season and sourcing locally, a philosophy that shines through his writing and his methods of preparing fresh produce when at their very best. Forget the celebrity hype and snide reviews, this book is worthy of being on the cook’s bookshelf. Published in 2006 by Mitchell Beazley.

‘The Complete New Herbal’ edited by Richard Mabey is another golden oldie which I acquired in 1988. Published by an imprint of Penguin Books, it was described then as a ‘new herbal for the modern age’. It’s a practical guide to herb applications in everyday life and the identifying photos are as stunning today as they were then. A book you can trust and a good companion for anyone who is interested in the herbal properties of wild plants for medicinal or culinary purposes.

‘Bringing a Garden to Life’ offers a topical and realistic approach to gardening for wildlife, whether you live in the centre of London, on the outskirts of Leeds, or in idyllic rural Herefordshire. Or anywhere between. Written by incomparable plant ecologist Jenny Steel and published in 2006 by Wiggly Wigglers, it explains step-by-step  just how simple it is to bring wildlife into any plot, to the benefit of all else that grows.

And back to food: ‘a taste of theunexpected’ by Mark Diacono is a book for today’s changing climate and the most recently published of today’s selection (in 2010, by Quadrille Books). Amongst other activities, Mark runs Otter Farm in Devon, home to orchards of olives, peaches, almonds and apricots, forest garden, vineyards and vegetable patch. So his tips on growing, harvesting, preparing and eating the sort of produce varieties that are increasingly becoming available from Dobies of Devon, could not be more appropriate.

Don’t forget as your read and make notes to keep re-visiting the Dobies website for latest special offers on seeds, plants and equipment. 

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Winter Wreaths - so simple to make

Wreaths from garden and wayside

As promised in last week’s December e-newsletter, instructions follow for making some simple wreaths to decorate your home this festive season. Materials can be found in the garden or down the lanes; it’s surprising what can be found – and they’re so easy to construct, your children can help as well. You will need some simple tools and materials – you probably have them already, but if you don’t, I’ll start with those. Equip yourself with some good quality secateurs (557979), and some twine, malleable florist's wire and / or raffia (raphia 585084)

The simplest to make
Let's start with the simplest decoration - not actually a wreath at all but twiggy bunches such as these can be made at the last moment. The one on the left is just a collection of trailing variegated ivy and a spray of eucalyptus with seed pods left in situ, which look like berries. Tie together with twine or raffia. The right-hand bunch incorporates prunings from a box bush (Buxus sempervirens) bound to a twiggy circlet of hazel.

Even 'old' hands can twist these soft strands into a circlet
Making a circlet is really easy if you use the long strands of Periwinkle (Vinca major) – the large-leaved variegated variety is particularly pretty; and so easy for anyone with arthritic hands who cannot manipulate woody material. Just twist the strands into a circle and bind with raffia; then poke small clippings of other variegated shrubs into any gaps. I used the leaves and seed pods of Rue, but could have added bits of feathery Cotton Lavender (Santolina). The pic shows the back view to demonstrate the construction.

For a bit of colour, use rose hips or bunches of other berries such as Cotoneaster. My ‘twig’ wreath was made from a circlet of lithe willow twigs – as the leaves dried they became quite silvery, though their shrunken state did reveal poor construction! Bind the wreath with wire and tie three twigs across in the form of a triangle; these were pruning’s from our vine and the twisty tendrils added that little bit extra. Then poke the berries into position. 

Still as fresh today as when it was made some years ago
My ‘piece de resistance’ was my herb wreath made for a village flower show one Autumn, and the most tricky to make, though not difficult. It still graces our living room each Christmas (must not be allowed to become wet or damp) – I wrap it in black tissue and store it in a closed box; the colours are still fresh. It needs a very sturdy base, but with sufficient woven willow or hazel this can be accomplished. To decorate, I used bunches of herbs (fresh when inserted) and seedheads abundant in this garden; how I love the opium poppy, nigella (love-in-a-mist) and the teasel so special to goldfinches.

All the above may not look in any way professional, but they are not meant to be; just a joyous celebration using my garden as the source with help when they were created from some of the grandchildren. In other years, after a walk through the woods, I’ve made similar rings and wreaths adding sprigs of larch cones and pine-cones left on a platter by the fire to dry, and then wired individually into place. Evergreens come into their own – laurel and bay, rosemary and yew, of course the ubiquitous holly.

Trawl the Dobies catalogue for ‘seedpod’ flowers, and shrubs or trees that can be sown and planted for more than just garden glory. Oh, and don’t forget that you have until midnight on this immediate Monday, to order for delivery before Christmas.