Garden Diary: February 2020

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I have decided to start a garden diary. It’s been over 30 years since I last kept any form of journal so I can’t be certain whether I’ll stick with it. I guess there’s only one way to find out. Now we have an allotment I feel I should keep better records of our gardening exploits. A diary will also be interesting to look back on – especially if I ever get around to writing my memoirs. Henceforth my Monday morning commute is spoken for: diary entries then a short snooze before the working week begins. Here goes:

Saturday 1st

Fifty sacks of horse manure arrive at the allotment courtesy of our friend Heather. It’s the second delivery in as many weeks. The manure has been rotting down for five years and is completely odourless. Unctuous clods of black gold are threaded through with gleaming maroon worms. I spot a handful of thick white roots and fear they might belong to bindweed. They are hastily removed and disposed of, just in case. The manure covers one large bed and a third of another. We ask nicely for another fifty sacks in order to finish the job in two weeks’ time.

There is a huge heap of chipped bark at the entrance to the allotment so we use it to freshen up the paths between each allotment bed. It appears to mostly be ivy wood and I hope it’s not full of seeds. Back at The Watch House one of our most common weeds is ivy, deposited on the ground by birds that have been greedily scoffing the powdery black berries since autumn. The paths look so much smarter and feel bouncy underfoot. I wonder if we should have used a thicker layer, but wanted to leave some for the other allotmenteers.

Our new allotment – mulched to the max

Several wooden crates have been sitting outside the allotment gates for over a week. We ask around and are told we can help ourselves. They are incredibly heavy but strongly constructed and will make excellent compost bins …. at least we hope so. We take two (The Beau vetoes a third) plus a crate lid. It’s a very long time since I last made my own compost, so in the evening I buy myself a copy of Nicky Scott’s ‘How to Make and Use Compost’. I am disappointed and surprised by the scant information provided in almost every book I have on vegetable gardening or allotmenteering and am already finding Nicky’s advice invaluable.

We stop at the garden centre to buy fibre pots and trays on which to stand them. We do well to ignore the tables groaning with brightly-coloured packets of bulbs and tubers – gladioli, dahlias, begonias and lilies – but we return later in the day with a long list of vegetable seeds to buy and find every variety bar three, which are put on order. I thank my lucky stars that we have this brilliant local shop. We’d be completely lost without it.

Sunday 2nd

Heavy rain overnight; heavy enough to come through the top bedroom ceiling; something else that needs fixing. The garden looks enlivened. The downpour will have started the process of integrating yesterday’s top-dressing of manure with the soil beneath it.

We are both achy from lifting so we do very little until midday when we venture out to the workshop to plant onion sets in modules. I am very rusty when it comes to vegetable growing so have turned to watching You Tube videos to get myself up to speed. Monty Don came up trumps with the onions. I could listen to that man talking about mass murderers and still find it soothing.

Salvia leucocephala (white headed sage) in full bloom in the greenhouse – better late than never.

In the New Year I gathered up all the old and unplanted seeds I had and found I had a surprising amount. We plant out-of-date sweet peas (‘Cupani’, ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘Mammoth Blue’) and nasturtiums (‘Crimson Emperor’) and will see what comes up.

The Beau starts chitting his potatoes (‘Anya’, ‘Pink Fir Apple’ and ‘Kestrel’ in the top bedroom (not the leaky one) and we move all the seed trays up there where it will be bright but not too warm. I check the greenhouse but nothing needs watering. I find the greenhouse fairly self-sufficient during the winter but wish it was less packed so that I could get in there and check for pests and diseases. So often I find my gardening ability limited by the space and time to do things properly.

Impatiens balansae, Zantedeschia ‘Hercules’ and Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’ packed into the greenhouse

My Instagram followers reach 3000. I am not sure whether this is something to be proud of or not, but I enjoy scrolling back through the images to remind myself of the glories of summer. Instagram is effectively the modern equivalent of a photograph album and it’s also a great source of inspiration. Following gardeners from the Southern Hemisphere ensures one’s feed is full of suggestions about what to plant that can be enjoyed six months hence.

Hydrangea ‘Merveille Sanguine’ is already bursting into leaf

Saturday 8th

Storm Ciara arrives bang on cue. In preparation we have tied up all of the taller plants in the Gin & Tonic Garden using soft ties or bungee cord. It’s better that there is some ‘give’ in the material as the wind pummels the garden with forceful gusts powerful enough to snap or topple anything held completely rigid. Our most precious plants are moved into the workshop or the garden room. Nothing is left to chance. I protect the new shoots of Sonchus palmensis with a plastic carrier bag tied carefully to the trunk.

With the fire lit and dogs slumbering on either side of me, I place an order for summer bulbs; seven varieties of gladioli to brighten the allotment, lilies to replenish pots where vine weevils have taken their toll and a small packet of Pleione ‘Tongariro’ to add to my collection. I find these diminutive orchids so easy and satisfying to grow.

Pleione formosana will soon be in bloom

Sunday 9th

Rain finds its way into the house through the roof of the garden room and again through the ceiling of the top bedroom. For the first time in ten years I see the trunk of the narrow-leaved bay (Laurus nobilis ‘Angustifolia’) moving appreciably in the storm. The last time this happened the tree was considerably smaller and I could hold it back with my own strength. No chance of that now it’s over 30ft tall. I dread a repeat of last spring’s calamity when the ironwood was toppled. At its peak, Storm Ciara blew through the Jungle Garden at 72mph, which is the strongest wind I can recall here in almost 14 years.

Saturday 15th

Another weekend, another storm, this time named Dennis. We cancel our third manure delivery since horse boxes, motorways and high winds are a dangerous combination. We don’t much fancy spreading muck on a windswept allotment either.

Every fortnight I give the plants in the garden room a thorough inspection, removing dead and dying leaves and rearranging if necessary. It’s been a dull winter so far and the plants look as desperate for sunshine as I am. My paper whites have been terribly disappointing this year – the bulbs that came were very small and there have been more leaves than flowers. The lesson here is always to buy the best you can, not the cheapest.

Acacia verticillata ‘Riverine Form’ will bloom early next month

Saturday 22nd

We find ourselves at a loose end having been forced to cancel a weekend visiting family and friends in Cornwall. The car went to Mini heaven on Monday and it will be another week before we collect a replacement, hastily chosen by two complete car-buying novices. The only consolation is that it can’t possibly be any less reliable than The Beau’s other, now ex, Cooper. Let’s hope this one doesn’t go the same way.

Up at the allotment we are reminded of the importance of planning and preparation. Having walked all the way there we realise we have forgotten half of the equipment we need to get the day’s jobs done. We construct a framework on which to train the loganberry bush that I was given for my birthday using huge stakes purchased last year to support the fallen ironwood. Why is it that there is always one stake, cane, screw or nail that won’t go in when you’re trying to get them in a neat row? We gave up with stake number five after it hit concrete or solid chalk. Stake number four then proceeded to lean at an angle as we tightened the galvanised wires strung between them all. There was clearly a more professional way to do this job, however the framework will suffice. The good thing about an allotment is that it’s more functional than ornamental …. and that I won’t be sharing it with the public.

We start thinning the woefully overgrown strawberry bed. There are more strawberry plants outside the confines of the bed than there are inside. It’s hard to know where to start. Secretly I’d like to rip the whole lot out and start again, but I detest waste and so we will make the most of what we’ve got. If the results are not good we can start again next year with new plants.

A snowy mountain of Clematis armandii greets us at the entrance to our allotment

Sunday 23rd

Going to the allotment on a Sunday to harvest vegetables for the week ahead is a task I could easily get used to. Although we can take no responsibility whatsoever for the abundance of kale and purple sprouting on our plot, we can at least honour the efforts of the previous allotmenteer by eating it all. Fortunately purple sprouting is one of my favourite vegetables so we’ll be planting a new crop in the spring.

Back at The Watch House we decide it’s time to move pots full of narcissi, tulips and hyacinths into position to create this year’s bulb theatre. Rain keeps threatening so we make haste and neglect to separate out the two colour schemes. The Beau has chosen mainly white and red varieties, whereas I have gone back to my preferred palette of oranges, rusts, purples and plums. They will not look good combined, so at some stage we must move one set around to the Gin & Tonic Garden to be enjoyed in splendid isolation.

We’ve enjoyed purple sprouting in abundance this month

Saturday 29th

Storm Jorge has arrived. No gardening today as everything is too cold and wet. We collect our new car from the showroom in Canterbury – a Kia. It is brown – Sienna Brown to be precise. I’d call it Bitter Chocolate. You’d think brown would not show the dirt but it does. There’s not much legroom in the rear for passengers but I expect the back seats will mostly be occupied by plants.

Despondent after three weekends of storm and pestilence, yet feeling flush after pay day, I decide to place my Dibleys order. It’s amazing how quickly one can spend a small fortune on plug plants. Coming our way, alongside the regular coleus order, are Begonias ‘Connie Boswell’, ‘Dawnal Meyer’ and maculata ‘Wightii’; Saintpaulias ‘Senk’s Vespa Verde’ and ‘Optimara Myjoy’ (seriously, who comes up with these names?); and Kohlerias ‘Sunshine’, ‘Amanda’, ‘Flashdance’ and ‘Brazil Gem’. Goodness only knows where they will all go. We ran out of windowsill space in January. TFG.

Plants restored to the outdoor kitchen work surface following storms Ciara, Dennis and Jorge