Getting to Grips – Part 1

For the last couple of days I have been getting to grips with our two gardens. Like time and tide, nature waits for no man when spring arrives. We’ve not experienced a frost yet in either London or Broadstairs so many plants are racing ahead. Curiously, I still have hundreds of narcissi and tulips left to bloom. Their growth has slowed as the nights have cooled down, whilst hyacinths have raced ahead unimpeded. Regardless, the time for planning and procrastination is past. It’s time for action.

A table of treasures ready to be planted
A table of treasures ready to be planted

On Thursday it was London’s turn. In comparison to our seaside garden our city garden is neglected, especially during winter when I don’t see it in daylight from one month to the next. Rather than gentle tweaking and adjustment each weekend, our London garden requires a major overhaul in spring and again in autumn. During the summer I try to get out there for at least 30 minutes every day to keep things ticking over. My first job was to plant three new espalier apple trees which have been heeled in since January. Planting them in the dark did not seem advisable, so Him Indoors and I snuck out the evening they arrived, digging one big, generous hole to keep them cosy until it was ‘time’. I took advice from David Patch at fruit specialist RV Roger in Pickering, explaining that we wanted tasty, cox-style eating apples over a long season. From a list of seven recommendations we chose three: ‘Epicure’ (early), ‘Ingrid Marie’ (mid-season) and ‘Tydeman’s Late Orange’ (funnily enough, late and, happily, from Kent). Whilst I’m not one of those ‘instant’ gardeners I do believe life is too short to wait years for a tree to produce fruit, so I splashed out on three-year old trained trees which should establish quickly. As I planted them I could see evidence of tiny new roots forming, so I was probably just in the nick of time.

New fruit trees can be heeled in over winter but need to be planted in their final position before growth starts
New fruit trees can be heeled in over winter but need to be planted in their final position before growth starts

During the winter months Mr Fox has caused us endless problems, trampling plants, digging holes, howling eerily, burying food and generally using the garden as his playground. He could do with a bath and a splash of old spice to boot. I am hoping regular applications of Scoot may deter him, but he has no fear of humans whatsoever. This makes me suspect a neighbour is feeding him. Having had several rows of lettuce and other salad seedlings scratched up, I have sown my first batch of ‘Little Gem’ under an old propagator lid. French tarragon had spread everywhere, so I gently lifted the wandering roots and attempted to plant them in a neat line again. Herbs such as thyme and rosemary struggle in our shady garden so must be planted in the warmest, sunniest spot if they are to survive. I tend to replace all the plants in my thyme pot every spring, choosing a mixture of varieties with different foliage colours and flavours.

 Thymus pulegioides 'Bertram Anderson', Thymus vulgaris 'Faustini' and Thymus citriodorus
Thymus pulegioides ‘Bertram Anderson’, Thymus vulgaris ‘Faustini’ and Thymus citriodorus

Every spring I despair of how few bulbs we have coming through in London. The soil is too cold and wet for most bulbs of Mediterranean origin, but narcissi, snowdrops and Anemone blanda demonstrate some staying power from one year to the next. Clumps of reduced to clear Galanthus nivalis snatched up greedily in the garden centre last spring have come back doubled in size and full of flower. Encouraged by this I planted yet more cut-priced snowdrops, this time Galanthus nivalis f. pleniflorus ‘Flore Pleno’ AGM (the long-winded but correct title for the common double snowdrop), along with some pots of Eranthis hyemalis (winter aconite) and blue Anemone blanda in a small rectangular border by the pond. The soil here is consistently damp but impossible to plant in late summer when it’s jam-packed with hostas and astilbes. A lovely hellebore with bright yellow nectaries purchased recently at Bosvigo hellebore day completed my work on that area.

Before .....
Before …..
...... and after
…… and after

The soil in our London garden is appalling beyond belief, so every year I diligently top-dress with farmyard manure (which I was convinced would send Mr Fox into a frenzy, and has) and coarse grit to help open up the structure. I’d like to tell you this has made a difference, but if it has, I have not noticed it. I dream of one day picking up a handful of rich friable soil and letting it trickle through my fingers, rather than being repulsed by slimy clods of yellow clay clinging to my knuckles. Finally I ran out of time, energy and manure. The woodland garden would have to wait until Easter. It was time to go inside and make myself presentable before dashing to St Pancras to catch a train down to the coast.

To be continued ….. in Broadstairs.

Our London Garden, March 2016
In just a few weeks’ time the garden will be a sea of green

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30 thoughts on “Getting to Grips – Part 1

  1. Hello Dan. I have been following your blog for some time but have never responded before. I came to it through another blogger who is a very dear friend of my daughter-in-law. I live on the opposite side of the planet, in Perth Western Australia. Initially I thought I had nothing in common with your garden/gardening but actually we are very alike although in opposite ways (is that an oxymoron?). You celebrate the first hint of Spring while I celebrate the first rain of Autumn (we just had a shower of at least 1 ml, the first since a few mls in January. VERY exciting!); we are both replanting and refreshing our gardens, you for summer and me for winter; we both loose plants during our down times, you winter and me summer (although I do garden throughout summer but it’s HARSH). Many bulbs which you struggle to grow are ‘weeds’ for me and vice versa. What we do share in sync are our love of plants and, dare I say, gardening addiction. Thank you Dan. I do enjoy your posts very much.

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    1. Hi Suzanne. Lovely to hear from you and to know I have a Aussie fan club. Although I try hard to keep the blog seasonally relevant I am always very conscious that this only works for the northern hemisphere. However I always enjoy reading the Australian bloggers’ posts during our winter when everything is so bleak. Hopefully this works vice-versa. I appreciate you have very harsh, hot summers so any amount of rain must be very welcome indeed. Have a lovely weekend and please comment again soon πŸ™‚

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  2. Spring fever has prompted me to divide crocus and snowdrops which have become congested and then move them to new places in our garden. We have had rain here in the West of Ireland since last November but since last weekend the arrival of blue blue sky, wall-to-wall sunshine and the promise that it’ll continue is such a bonus!!!! Anemone blanda is in bud along with Primula denticulata (drumstick) – I just love both of them!!. I could see your new yellow hellebore next to them – must watch out for that one. Nice little Spring border you have there in London, Dan, and I love your ‘table of treasures’. Another great blog.

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    1. Thank you Sally. Pleased you have enjoyed some respite from the rain. Dividing snowdrops and crocuses is rewarding work, especially when the next spring comes and one has twice as many flowers to enjoy. Hope the sun continues to shine for you – it’s struggling a bit in London.

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  3. You have made a wonderful start. You have a great combination of hardscaping, water features and plantings. I am worried about our garden. Spring seemed to arrive here in early February – about 8 weeks early – so a few weeks ago, I had to start cleaning the garden and getting it ready for the season. Now, heading into late March, we are back to having freezing temperatures overnight.

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    1. We have a very similar scenario here Laurie. A warm weekend followed by a return to penetrating cold, although not freezing temperatures thus far. Us gardeners can so easily be caught out in spring. The garden centres don’t help by presenting us with fuchsias, geraniums and other tempting treats. However I am sure your spring clean will stand you in good stead and that your garden will look marvellous again soon.

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  4. We’ve been having beautiful weather and everything, I mean everything, is either budding or well out of the ground. So, now the temperatures have dropped and we are going to have a couple of nights of freezing temps. 😦 I went to a blueberry pruning class today and thought I was going to freeze to death. I’m now sitting where I can feel the heat from the pellet stove and enjoying the sunshine, but no gardening outside for me. Enjoy your time outdoors and here’s hoping your invader heads for the hills. πŸ™‚

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    1. So far, so good Judy. He hasn’t been back since we applied the ‘Scoot’, but I am not counting my chickens. (Actually, if I had chickens I would be counting them!) Here in England we’ve had high pressure for 10 days so it’s been dry but cold at night. The upside is that the daffodils and magnolias are lasting for weeks rather than days, but all weekend when I was gardening it was perishing. I would not have a clue how to prune a blueberry so you will have to fill me in some time πŸ™‚

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  5. Your pot of Thymes is lovely. Keep thinking a thyme bed, a la Sissinghurst would be a good project, but our solt is too heavy. But they do thrive in pots of gritty soil.near the house. I have a clump of savory in mine, but the very neat triad of thymes is lovely.

    Waiting to see your exotics. .

    Curious time of year ; everything still rather brown other than the hellebores which are glorious; expanding nicely. But now is such a good time to shift a few herbaceous plants into more advantageous positions and then topdress with fine compost. As you say, in only a few weeks……. but cannot quite believe it! Dare I trim my hydrangeas? Still too risky ? I think so. Better to be patient for a little longer. . . .

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    1. Patience is a virtue! I have been out in the garden planting this afternoon. The soil is cool but not too wet so this is an ideal time to divide and move things. A thyme lawn is a wonderful idea, but high maintenance unless you have very free-draining soil and plenty of sunshine. I have neither!

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  6. I think this is the first time I’ve read of Him Indoors helping you with a garden project . . . had to read the sentence twice just to be sure (ha, ha). Love the thyme pot; you’ve inspired me to try to find a spot of sun on my largely shaded deck and and give it a go.

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  7. Loving the fruit trees and I know your London garden will look spectacular in a few weeks. Am also of the view that you can’t wait forever in the fruit tree dept so aside from having some established trees, which the kangaroos ravished the lower branches this year in search of food, I planted some ballerina apple trees in large pots this summer (Flemmings, your fav Aussies from Chelsea!- waltz and flamenico). Was so thrilled when I picked a whole 9 apples from them last week. Would have had a much improved harvest if I had netted a little earlier before the nasty corellas (equivalent to your Mr Fox in our part of the world) attacked. Greedy birds that they are.

    I have so much sympathy in relation to your soil challenge.. I have done everything to try and get a beautiful, friable result and have dug so much alpaca and cow manure along with compost in many of the beds, but it will take a long time to get it up to scratch. Years of neglect compounded by ‘sprayed on mulch’ which stripped the nitrogen, is a big project to deal with.

    So looking forward to a ‘coastal’ update – expect you will be working so hard to achieve a stunning result for the August opening so am looking forward to progress reports.

    take care – H

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    1. Sprayed-on mulch sounds ghastly Helen. Keep going with the manuring, you’ll be rewarded in the end. Glad you enjoyed a good crop of apples. I need to swat up on how to prune my espaliers as it’s been a long time since I studied the pruning of fruit trees at university. I am sure it will not phase me. Today I have planted out peas and lettuce whilst Alex has been spraying fox deterent and cleaning the pond.

      Broadstairs looks so good I could almost have opened it at Easter. If I’d known I might have! However it’s green rather than flowery right now: I’ve had to fill in gaps in the foliage with clumps of pot grown daffodils to brighten things up a little. Hoping to get part II written early next week. D x

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    1. Wet is the enemy, especially for Mediterranean bulbs that require a dry summer rest. I find planting a few more every year is a good way to keep the display ‘topped-up’. Buying at the end of the season when garden centres have good reductions is a great way to do this cheaply.

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  8. I am sure that the espaliers will be rewarding. How lucky you are to have walls to grow them against. I watch voles and muntjacs destroy my bulbs annually, but I keep trying and I do enjoy the survivors!

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  9. We live right in the middle of the countryside and rarely see a fox! Two rabbits are currently causing me grief and if Mr Fox made an appearance the little bunnies might scoot off. Crocus tommasinianus do well here even in the clay soil and the bank voles don’t seem to get many of them, they also multiply in pots (the crocus, not the voles). The Hellebore is gorgeous – covet – and your thymes look lovely, mine are doing OK out in the driest border I have. Have you tried mushroom or home-made compost? I find these the best here to open up my clay soil, along with a dose of grit.

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    1. I asked my one and only farmer friend for advice about keeping foxes away and he didn’t have a problem with them either. And he keeps chickens. They are clearly much more of a nuisance in town! I will try out the crocuses if I can find a bright enough spot for them and will keep going with the manure and grit. I have been using farmyard manure and a special bracken compost, combined with grit. I will chuck anything at the soil if I think it might loosen it up a bit. Have a great week Tina.

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  10. Like TT I am hoping for a fox to come and chase away those darned bunnies that mock me at the farm. If I send a one way train ticket could you please pack it onto the Devon Express and I will gladly share with herself down the road? x

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