Garden Diary: March 2020

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Who could have predicted that the Month of March would end as it did? Over the course of two weeks our daily routines changed in ways we never imagined possible and there is more of this to come for sure. We are living in a new reality, in the short term at least. We must all do our bit to stay well and keep others from harm. If the worst side effect of that was having to stay indoors and exercise once a day – very much first world problems – that would be okay, but many people will become ill, go hungry or find themselves in long term financial difficulty as a result of this unwelcome virus. Those of us with sufficient means, good company and a garden have nothing to complain about.

It’s hard to predict at this moment, but surely we’ll come out of this affair changed for ever? For the sake of all those who will suffer, let’s hope it’s very much for the better. I am already fitter and lighter than I have been in years thanks to the amount of time I am spending on the allotment or walking the dogs. I am also getting a lot more time to myself now that I no longer have to commute for five hours a day. In that time I am sowing seeds, communicating with friends and tending our allotment. Having cancelled two long weekends away, we have found ourselves able to bring forward jobs we didn’t expect to do until April or May or, indeed, ever. I regret that I still haven’t found a lot of time for cleaning or reading, but I am cooking a little more thanks to encouragement from The Beau.

Evening sunlight in the Jungle Garden

Without further ado, here’s what happened at The Watch House and Plot 64a Culmers Allotments this month:

Sunday 1st

Rain, rain go away! The ground is still too soggy to be worked. Our neighbours, whose plots occupy ground on a gentle slope, are having a bit more luck creating a fine tilth for sowing. We need to be patient for now. The Beau is itching to plant his onions out. They have been growing in modules for a few weeks and are starting to get leggy. We make a start on the compost bin by lining one of our salvaged shipping crates with cardboard. We have plenty of fresh and dry compostable material to get the first one going, covering the whole thing with recycled plastic sheeting to keep the warmth in and excessive moisture out. We desperately need to get new felt on our shed roof before the wood underneath is too badly damaged, but the wind never abates for long enough.

Sophora microphylla ‘Sun King’ blooming outside the workshop in early March

Saturday 7th

Finally I get around to drawing up a plan of the allotment based on The Beau’s measurements. The plot measures fifteen metres by fifteen metres and slopes very slightly to the north (south is at the top of the plan shown below, north is at the bottom). It is a handsome plot with decent chalky loam soil and friendly neighbours. It only takes us a matter of minutes to decide what should go where since we’ve been discussing it for a couple of months. Despite having ample room we still have no bed assigned to brassicas. Given the success of the purple sprouting broccoli we inherited from the previous tenant, we need to remedy this.

We plant Jerusalem artichokes into warm, wet earth and cover the purple sprouting with netting to stop the greedy wood pigeons getting there before us. There is much more activity on the allotment now and plenty of people to talk or wave to. A profusion of white plum blossom on the plot next door indicates that spring is just around the corner.

Our very first allotment plan

Sunday 8th

Our friend Heather and her husband Ben arrive with another horse box filled with five-year-old manure. Each sack oozes with goodness and pink worms that remind me of strawberry boot laces from the corner shop. It is a beautiful day with the sun shining and birds singing in the trees, yet we are puzzled as to why we have neither seen a blackbird nor a robin on the allotment to date. We can only assume it’s down to the allotment cat, Mr Findus, who regularly patrols the paths dividing one plot from the other.

Frustration at the haphazard layout of the beds encourages me to straighten a few of them up, starting with Bed 3, which is where we will plant a collection of dahlias. I plant thyme and tricolour sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Tricolor’) in the herb bed, which has been cleared of copious couch grass and a surplus of mint.

Our first compost bin is already full to the brim.

My last attempt at a herb bed, some years ago. Tarragon is my favourite herb of all and I’ll be planting lashings of it.

Friday 13th

After work we start potting up dahlia tubers in fresh compost. We lost one or two over the winter – entirely our own fault – but there were no tragedies. On the outdoor kitchen worktop Pleione formosana ‘Claire’ is starting to flower. Her blooms are milky white with lemon-yellow throats. The Jungle Garden is heady with the fragrance of hyacinths and the first few tulips are showing hints of colour in their emerging buds.

I change my bulb plantings every year, but Hyacinth ‘Woodstock’ always features. The purple colour deepens to a rich aubergine with age.

Saturday 14th

Although we had no idea at the time, this was to be the last weekend we would be free to go out and about at will for the foreseeable future. At home The Beau sowed seed of a variety of castor oil plants, including Ricinus communis ‘Carmencita Pink’, Ricinus communis ‘Carmencita Red’, Ricinus communis ‘Zanzibarensis’, Ricinus ‘New Zealand Purple’ and Ricinus communis ‘Blue Giant’. Quite where we are going to plant them if they all germinate I do not know!

The edging around most of the allotment beds is made from old palettes and is completely rotten. It serves no purpose other than to keep bark chippings from mixing with the earth, and that it does poorly. I repair the edges as well as I can using treated hardwood pegs, but a time will come when we need to either take them away or replace them with properly treated timber.

We plant the potatoes that have been chitting in the top bedroom, including ‘Anya’, ‘Pink Fir Apple’, ‘Cara’ and ‘Kestrel’. At the bottom of each trench we lay a decent amount of cast seaweed, collected that very day from the beach. (You can read more about using seaweed in the garden or on the compost heap in my post ‘From Coastline to Compost Bin – Using Seaweed as a Garden Fertiliser and Soil Improver‘ on March 13th). The potato bed is now full, so that will be our lot for 2020.

I’m amazed at how quickly we are filling the beds. As we finish planting we hear a rattling at the allotment gates and there’s a chap wanting to know if anyone can make use of two oak planters, still with soil and bay tree stumps inside. We are getting accustomed to finding uses for things we’d previously have turned our noses up at, so we gleefully take them off his hands. The tree stumps go on Bed 1, otherwise known as the ‘Mount Doom’ since it’s riddled with bindweed, brambles, docks and couch grass. Any compost that falls away is spread on the dahlia bed.

Back home with a G&T in hand we order yet more dahlia tubers from Sarah Raven. Buying dahlias, as you will soon discover, is an addiction neither of us can shake off.

The Beau rakes well-manured earth over seed potatoes arranged on top of nutritious seaweed. A rich mix for greedy growers.

Friday 20th

Although the office where I work has been closed since Monday, I have been visiting a supplier in Dorset all week and have yet to experience sustained working from home. I return home to Broadstairs to find half the local businesses I rely on closed for the foreseeable future. The other half display defiant posters in their windows declaring that ‘Broadstairs is Open for Business’. For the first time I start to feel rather alarmed by the situation. It’s suddenly very close to home, affecting people I know and places I go.

We had already booked the day off as holiday to spend time with The Beau’s family in Somerset. Given this was technically ‘unnecessary travel’ we decided to stay at home and go to the allotment instead. In another fit of neatening we increase the size of the beds on the western boundary of the plot by 30-50cm to create strip beds in which we’ll plant the extra dahlias purchased last week. Every bed is fringed by couch grass, which The Beau calls ‘squitch’. Getting the white roots out is hampered by the wretched wooden edging.

Since our local garden centre is one of the defiant group of retailers staying open, we stock up on compost which we store in the workshop (as it turns out this was not nearly enough, which I am still cross with myself about). I check the propagator and find that the nasturtiums and calendulas I sowed last weekend have already germinated. They are promptly moved to the unheated greenhouse to prevent them from getting too drawn.

These narrow strips of soil will be planted up with dahlias in May

Saturday 21st

The weather is marvellous and we have time on our hands, so we decide to crack on with the painting of the fence in the Gin & Tonic Garden. This job was started by The Beau last summer, but very quickly the plants became too tall and we decided to suspend the project until later in the year. Autumn and winter were then so wet that we had to wait until now to resume. Nevertheless, there are tens of plants to be moved, some in very heavy tubs, and getting behind the greenhouse is challenging.

While The Beau paints I clear the back path of a pelargonium named ‘Orange Fizz’ that has flopped over the paving stones. The scent of the cut stems is reminiscent of orange peel. I tie in vigorous new clematis growth: some of the shoots are 5ft long already, but one or two plants need replacing.

We retire, sun-kissed and with aching backs, to enjoy fish and chips for supper.

Sunday 22nd

Still recovering from yesterday’s exertions we punish ourselves with a full day at the allotment. Bed 12 was the last to be cleared of weeds so is doubly satisfying to see completed. The neighbouring plot is infested with bindweed, so this is something we’ll need to keep a watchful eye on.

Some of the purple sprouting has been mutilated by wood pigeons so we remove these plants and add them to the compost heap.

In the evening I start devising a planting plan for our dahlias, grouping similar colours together but trying to vary the form of the flowers. There are a few gaps in our scheme so we hedge around the subject of buying more to fill them. We’re incorrigible.

I’ve finally found a good use for my unused watercolour pad

Monday 23rd

Following Boris’ broadcast isolation begins in earnest. In the evening we sow sweet peas (The Beau’s favourite, ‘Cupani’), Purple magnolia sugar-snap peas, purple snow peas, ‘Tom Thumb’ peas, Persicaria orientalis (aka ‘kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate’) and mixed lettuce.

Whilst walking the dogs I make my daily collection of seaweed to enrich the compost heap. Our wonderful local garden centre closes in line with government advice bringing life as we know it to an abrupt end. I am devastated for all retailers having to shut up shop, but especially those smaller businesses without means to sustain them. What, I wonder, will happen to all the plants being grown by nurseries for summer? Will we ever have the opportunity to buy them?

One of The Beau’s favourites, Dahlia ‘Spartacus’

Wednesday 25th

I’ve been catching a faint whiff of gas in the passageway leading to the front door for a few days and finally conclude it must be a leak somewhere. Within thirty minutes of phoning the emergency number a man is here to assess the leak and concludes, like me, that there must be one. A crew arrives around an hour later to dig up the path and fix the leak, another comes in the afternoon to reconnect the supply and check our boiler is working. It’s all terribly efficient. The workmen place bollards and barriers everywhere, which I remove as soon as they’ve gone. This is The Watch House not the M2 roadworks.

Already bored with self isolation we drink wine and order a dozen dahlia cuttings from the National Dahlia Collection in Cornwall. What is wrong with us? One of my choices is Dahlia ‘Tour du Monde’. I like dahlias with a slightly more informal shape and the potential for cutting.

Dahlia ‘Tour Du Monde’

Thursday 26th

Today I help out at my local Waitrose branch, which is a serene affair given the maximum number of customers permitted in the shop at any one time is thirty. I think we all rather enjoy the experience. Unless one wants crisps, flour or pasta one can dine like a king and drink one’s self silly. Just be sparing with the toilet roll afterwards.

At the end of my shift I purchase four hollyhocks (Alcea ‘Halo Apricot’), just because I can. After all, the garden centres are closed so where else is a boy to indulge? The hollyhocks will be planted randomly within the allotment beds to give the impression that they have seeded themselves there. It’s important to me that our allotment plot is pretty as well as productive.

Friday 27th

More men come to reinstate the garden path following the gas leak. Alas they don’t take the barriers away with them; that’s someone else’s job.

In the Jungle Garden Geranium maderense is building up to a crescendo. We have five plants ready to bloom, three pink and two white. They’ve reached a terrific size, over 6ft across, and have come through the winter unblemished. For now the buds are teasing us with glimpses of the confetti-like petals within. When they go, they’ll go off like an atomic bomb, forming mushrooms clouds of Barbie-pink or blush-white blossom.

Those tight bundles of bud will soon explode into a profusion of flowers

We ordered a new freezer to store allotment produce and it arrives today. It will now end up filled with supplies to see us through the immediate crisis. When the delivery men depart (they’ll only come as far as gate in case we are ‘unclean’) we set off for the allotment. As usual I am wheeling a barrow full of garden waste and seaweed for the compost heap. If anyone could actually see me I’d be earning a reputation for being ‘that weird beardy man with a purple wheelbarrow who goes up and down the street all the time’. (When I purchased the wheelbarrow the only one available was purple and, although I was extended an opportunity to change it for another colour at a later date, I decided I’d keep it.)

The Beau starts putting up bean poles (we don’t have quite enough, which is annoying) and we pull up spent purple sprouting plants in Bed 6. I begin digging it over ready for the next crop, which will be salads, beets and edible flowers.

A feature on Gardeners’ World explains that dahlias grown from cuttings are more vigorous than plants grown from seed, which we graciously accept as divine justification for the purchases we made earlier in the week.

Saturday 28th

Another full day at the allotment, complete with thermos flask and sandwiches wrapped in foil. Being allowed one spell outside a day makes one very organised indeed. It’s sunny but extraordinarily windy and when the sun goes in it’s perishing. We harvest the remaining purple sprouting and pull out all the plants bar one. I spend a satisfying couple of hours painstakingly preparing the bed for seed sowing. As the wind strengthens we quickly sow Radish ‘French Breakfast 3’, mixed beetroot, rhubarb chard ‘Peppermint’ and Papaver somniferum (opium poppy) ‘Black Single’.

Working up a fine tilth

Meanwhile The Beau paints our salvaged planters with left-over wood preservative from the Gin & Tonic Garden and suddenly they look as good as new. Sadly they are not as solid as they look so we’ll line them with plastic sheeting before filling with compost. We have two large tree stakes left over from another project and we turn them into maypoles from which strings will come down to support climbing French beans. I may have to tuck a few nasturtiums in around the bottom.

By now the sun has disappeared behind the clouds and we are frozen to the core. After planting four rows of Gladiolus ‘Shaka Zulu’ and G. ‘Bimbo’ we call a halt to proceedings and head for home to warm up.

Our new maypole bean planters on the allotment

Sunday 29th

A ferociously cold wind blows in from the north. It’s a very long time since I’ve seen such big waves in the English Channel. We’re too tired and lily-livered to go out in it, so we stay indoors and blog.

The Alexanders pictured here, on the cliffs above Dumpton Gap, were blasted to smithereens by the wind on Sunday. Instead of green and lush they are now black and wilted.

Monday 30th

The contrast between yesterday’s bitterly cold wind with snow flurries and today’s benign warmth is typical of springtime in England. During last night’s dog walk we could barely breathe as we battled a north wind straight off the arctic. Today, after a chilly start, it was ‘T-shirt weather’.

Following a morning of sowing seeds in the workshop – exotics including Wercklea ferox, Solanum quitoense and Deppea splendens – we enjoy lunch in the garden. Our pups are adoring this ‘stay at home’ lark as they have their daddies around all day, plus they love the sun.

The afternoon is spent repotting cannas, lilies and eucomis and potting up begonia tubers. I can’t stress enough how important it is to pot bulbs up in fresh compost each year as we found several pots riddled with vine weevil larvae. We must have sifted a couple of hundred out of the compost, vile little things.

Tuesday 31st

After a very stressful day being ‘modern’ and enduring a technological bombardment about as comfortable as a meteor shower, I make a beeline for the garden. The compost sifted yesterday is transported by wheelbarrow to the allotment. I count this as my daily exercise. The broad beans that The Beau planted last month are hardening off on top of the compost bin and are almost ready to be planted out.

When I get home I pot up 12 fuchsias ordered from Potash Nursery by The Beau last year. They include Fuchsia boliviana var. ‘Alba’, Fuchsia denticulata, Fuchsia fulgens ‘Variegata’ and Fuchsia ‘Scarlet Jester’. The cuttings arrive well packaged and in perfect health and we are delighted with them.

As this tumultuous month draws to a close the Jungle Garden is looking as good as it has ever done, enjoying the extra light created by the tree which was blown down a year ago. I have a good feeling about the year ahead, in gardening terms at least. Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention.

I leave you with Maximillian Sydney Bruiser, our totally adorable and epically needy Chihuahua / Jack Russell cross. TFG

Maximillian Sydney Bruiser, my constant and adoring companion