Garden Diary: April 2020

Reading time 30 minutes

April was a bittersweet month. Among many positives were the beautiful weather and being able to spend extra time in the garden with The Beau, Max and Millie. It is hard to conceive of going back to work as I did only six weeks ago, commuting five hours a day. I am achieving so much during lockdown and yet I’m neither as exhausted nor as stressed. I’m also a tad slimmer and developing a healthy tan. Apart from queuing to visit the local supermarket – an utterly hideous experience – and not being able to see friends, there’s not a lot about staying at home that I don’t like.

On the flip side, we lost my dear friend and former partner Alex, who some of you may remember I referred to as ‘Him Indoors’. Alex was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in September 2019. The disease moved with horrifying speed and he finally lost his battle on April 18th. Alex was incredibly brave throughout: I don’t know where he found the strength to go on. The whole ordeal must have been terrifying beyond comprehension. His loss is still keenly felt by all of us who loved him and this is one of the reasons I’ve been a bit quieter on the blog this month. When the time is right there will be a special post in tribute to Alex, who loved gardens like I did, albeit in smaller doses. Taken at Mottisfont Abbey in 2013, this picture sums him up perfectly: he came, he saw, he sat down.

As if that were not sad enough we’ve also had the dreaded Covid 19 in the house. I can normally see the funny side of situations but on top of everything else this has brought me close to the edge at times. I can say with some surety that had it not been for the sunshine, my garden and my family April could have felt very bleak indeed.

Rightly or wrongly staying busy is my coping mechanism. The garden and allotment have obliged by providing us with endless – and I mean endless – opportunities to play, experiment, exercise, indulge, wonder, fuss and forget. I don’t know how we’ll manage next year, assuming everything is back to normal. For now I’m savouring the moment.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention and never has this been more applicable to the world of gardening. During the early stages of lockdown it was extremely difficult to obtain seeds, plants and compost thanks to garden centres being closed and ill prepared for making home deliveries. The Pandemic caught those businesses without transactional websites unawares and highlighted how technologically backward some of them were. Faced with oblivion many, including my own local garden centre, jumped to it and set up websites and delivery services within a matter of weeks. Those who already had capability were swamped with orders and needed to offer extended lead times.

Fortunately The Beau and I are used to buying online. We had almost all of our seeds and a decent stash of compost, although not nearly enough. Over the course of the month I have discovered new sources for compost, seeds, plants, stakes, canes and even books, which has broadened my horizons and shown who is offering a great range and good service. (On my list of topics to write about is peat free compost as I’ve now tried quite a few …. and been impressed.) Shopping online has probably cost me more as I’ve been tempted to make my orders worth the delivery charge, but apart from one very disappointing plant delivery from Messers Thompson & Morgan everything else has been fantastic value for money.

Looking back to the start of the month it is hard to absorb that some much could have happened in just thirty days. Please enjoy a little jaunt with me through the sunniest April on record.

Saturday 4th

Our top bedrooms are crowded with little pots full of damp compost. Beneath the surface lie the seeds of sweetcorn, courgettes, squashes, cucumber and tomatoes, each lovingly sown by The Beau. Every piece of furniture has something on it and I fret about tipping earth onto the white carpet. Unfortunately it’s not quite warm enough to germinate seeds in the greenhouse, although in the propagator just three out of ten hyacinth beans emerge (alas no more germinated, so I still only have three plants.)

I try to repot most plants in the garden every year in order to give them a boost, as well as checking for the dreaded vine weevil. Our Canna indica, labelled simply ‘Orange’ by Steve Edney at The Salutation, has grown so enormous that it needs to be sawn in half and re-planted in 50 litre pots.

The gingers, similarly bulging out of their pots, are now pointing their crisp pink fingers in all directions. They need to be moved outside as soon as possible but will have to wait until the bulbs are over.

We pop to the allotment and plant more gladioli. The soil is much too heavy for planting but we are eager to get going. We plant the cultivars ‘Flevo Laguna’ (lime green with purple edges), ‘Blackjack’ (rich crimson), ‘Shaka Zulu’ (wine red) and ‘Vulcano’ (deep pink). Our spacing between rows is erratic, but this leaves room to sow a few rows of annuals.

I tidy and clean the outdoor kitchen and give all the pots a thorough watering. The bbq is ready for action and we have rib eye steaks for dinner.

Sunday 5th

The weather is superb; it’s unusually warm and sunny for early April. We get to the allotment for 10am and start stripping the flimsy old roofing felt from the shed. The east wind started the job before we took on the plot and we needed a spell of fine weather to dry out the soggy boards underneath.

The Beau and I are no DIYers so we watch Matt James doing a demo on YouTube and it looks simple enough. We managed to source an excellent mineral-green roofing felt through a well known online retailer and the whole project goes surprisingly smoothly. Apart from a few places where the roof had warped due to damp, the new roof looks very smart. It’ll certainly be watertight. Although I’d put sun protection on my face I had forgotten my arms and by the time I reach home they look like cooked prawns.

Before we retire for the day we plant out The Beau’s crimson runner beans in bed number 15 (see end of post) covering them with net to protect them from the pigeons.

Monday 6th

The coleus I ordered from Dibleys arrive and I unpack them immediately. It’s great being at home to receive deliveries and deal with them straightaway, as one should. The danger is that I find myself feeling disappointed if a day goes by without the doorbell ringing. Max also misses the opportunity to defend me against the delivery men, who are all charming and tolerant to a fault.

Unfortunately the coleus arrive somewhat battered and bruised. I pot them up immediately and stand them in the cool shade of the garden room to recover. (The majority survive, but there are a few too many casualties for me to feel confident to order again.)

Tuesday 7th

During lockdown I have changed my working hours to 6.30am – 3pm in order to make more time for exercise and gardening. I am an early bird so it suits me to rise at 6am and get going before everyone else does. Yet my list of jobs to do is longer than ever. It strikes me that gardening and tending the allotment could easily become a full-time job.

The peas sown on March 23rd are now coming through, and there are ricinus (castor oil plants) basking on the windowsill in my bathroom. Outside the window the Jungle Garden is coming into its own.

Wednesday 8th

The Beau goes it alone and paints the shed in the same willow-green colour we used for the fence around the Gin & Tonic Garden. He really wanted to paint it black and yellow like Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage, but green is the colour we have to hand. The Beau’s arty colour scheme will have to wait until the next refresh ….. if the shed lasts that long. After work I join him with Max and Millie to enjoy the transformation. It’s a flimsy shed but it looks sharp as a pin after all his efforts.

Thursday 9th

We are already in need of more compost and plant supports. I find a company called Suregreen who will do me a big delivery of stakes, bamboo canes, net and compost. Despite being incredibly busy during the Pandemic their customer service is excellent and the product that arrived today is top-notch.

I have decided to minimise my used of peat-based compost and so invest in 10 sacks of Melcourt ‘Sylvagrow’. ‘Sylvagrow’ is composed of fine bark, wood fibre and coir combined with sterilized loam and sand – it feels really good and the plants seems to like it. I’ll be using this in place of products such as Jack’s Magic, which is excellent but almost 100% peat. Now my delivery has arrived we’re all set for a busy Easter weekend.

Friday 10th (Good Friday)

Up at the allotment we instal the tall poles up which we’ll grow cucumbers in bed 8. They are 8ft tall and each has a chunky metal eye screwed into the top for the attachment of supporting strings. I am sure our allotment neighbours are wondering what on earth we are up to. Every day I arrive with a purple wheelbarrow full of something or another to improve our plot. We’ll never get the payback for the outlay in produce alone, but in satisfaction it’s cheap at half the price.

Saturday 11th

The Beau returns to the allotment to paint the poles. He’s becoming a dab hand and I fear that soon everything in sight will be painted green. Whilst he reorganises the raspberry patch, ordering all the canes back into neat rows, I weed the onions. The Beau has been very down about his onions. They looked terribly frail to begin with, but now the leaves are a lovely deep, powdery green and the onions are plumping up nicely at the base. We ought to have a good crop.

Every session at the allotment involves time spent ridding a path or bed of couch grass. Its Achilles heel is that its underground stems and roots are white and therefore easy to spot in our soil. To my alarm I spy bindweed emerging in a few beds. Everything looked so clean in winter: now the true extent of our perennial weed problem is evident.

My Thompson and Morgan seed order arrives with lots of bargain packets purchased for £1. I have not grown from seed on any scale for many years and still marvel at what can be achieved from an inexpensive packet. Although not quite, it does feel like getting something for nothing.

In the evening, after a couple of glasses of wine, I get over-excited and spend a lot of money on hardy orchids from Belgium. Any saving made on seed is obliterated in a matter of seconds. My lockdown saving programme is not going as well as I’d hoped.

Sunday 12th (Easter Sunday)

Since we took on the allotment it’s been evident that our seed-growing facilities are lacking. There is only a short section of staging in the greenhouse and that is cluttered with all manner of tired plants hovering somewhere between life and death. We choose an especially warm, muggy day to take everything out, make a diagnosis and return only those plants that we have genuine hope for. Then we assemble a second section of staging that has been in its box for three years. It is preposterously fiddly to put together but it doubles the capacity we have for trays and pots. Finally it feels like a proper, working greenhouse rather than God’s waiting room.

I feel fortunate not to have fallen out with The Beau given the heat and the restricted space we had to work in. We retreat to the allotment, where it is no cooler, and examine the damage being done to our radishes and oriental greens by flea beetles. These are a new pest to me and they have defeated us during our opening skirmish. We shall be growing any brassicas we need in plugs from now on to give them a fighting chance of survival.

Monday 13th (Easter Monday)

Yesterday sweaty heat, today bitterly cold. That’s more like the April we know! We stay indoors all day, me shouting and swearing at a slow, uncooperative laptop and The Beau maintaining a safe distance.

I sow Ipomoea carnea, the bush morning glory, which have been chipped and then soaked for 24 hours. They are dark, hard, hairy seeds that seem better designed for shooting than sowing. Hopefully something will come of them as the flowers promise to be rather beautiful (4 out of 10 germinate and are currently doing well in the greenhouse).

Tuesday 14th

Back to work but the deliveries continue apace. Today my Dalefoot compost finally arrives, a mixture of different formulations made from wool and bracken and completely free from peat. I have used Dalefoot compost before in my old London garden and it’s terrific stuff – it ought to be given the price. It’s all very well encouraging gardeners to turn their back on peat but it seems that all good alternatives will cost you significantly more.

We are running a competition at work to grow the tallest sunflower. Having procured four packets of Helianthus annuus ‘Russian Giant’ I divide them into 30 wraps of 6 seeds and post them to addresses as far away as Manchester and Bristol. We are scattered to the four winds until lockdown is over.

In the evening I sow more oriental leaves to replace those destroyed by the flea beetles, plus a red cosmos called ‘Rubenza’ that caught The Beau’s eye.

Saturday 18th

When one sits at home for too long one imagines that one needs all sorts of things that one really doesn’t. I decide to buy a gardening apron and find exactly what I had in mind at The Cotswold Hipster. It’s made of a tough, green canvas with nice big pockets and leather straps to hold scissors or snips.

Although this is not an excuse for being a shopaholic, it is so important that we keep supporting small businesses if we can afford to. People have invested so much in building their enterprises up, it would be a tragedy if they failed as a result of the Pandemic. Small businesses add enormous richness and diversity to our country, often going where larger businesses fear to tread. Bravo to The Cotswold Hipster and all those soldiering on in difficult circumstances.

Sunday 19th

If I didn’t have a greenhouse in the Gin & Tonic Garden I’d have a large, free-draining, raised bed devoted to cacti and succulents. Since I do have a greenhouse I have to dot succulents around, often not in ideal places. To remedy that I decide to devote an outside corner, tucked between the walls of the library and the windows of the garden room, to a mixture of sun loving plants. Here they will be baked and sheltered.

We transplant the majority of my aeoniums into one large pot. This was an idea I picked up at Sissinghurst where they looked fabulous. Having been stuck in the greenhouse all winter my aeoniums are looking a bit moth-eaten but will come good after a month or so in the sun. Around the aeoniums I group Lobelia tupa, Anisodontea ‘El Royo’ (never stops flowering), Polygala myrtifolia (ditto) and Paeonia ‘Sonoma Velvet Ruby’ which has some nice big buds on it. With the structure in place I pop small succulents, including Kalanchoe beharensis ‘Fang’, Aloe arborescens ‘Variegata’ and Dyckia leptostachya at the front. I will no doubt spend the whole summer rearranging them as they grow and develop.

Friday 24th

It’s been a week of tears and quiet reflections, but today is just a beautiful day and no time to be sad. After work I pack a small, insulated bag with cold beers and kabanos (Polish sausages) and we meet up at the allotment to sit in the sun and enjoy what we’ve achieved so far. I barely ever sit down and do nothing, but when I do I enjoy it. I count my blessings for the umpteenth time this week.

Saturday 25th

We spend all day at the allotment although we had not intended to. I incorporate wool compost into the beds that were not manured earlier in the year. The earth is extremely dry so the rain forecast from Monday cannot come soon enough. I plant out eight clumps of curled parsley created from a single pot of growing herbs purchased from Waitrose – a very easy way to grow parsley if you don’t want to be bothered with germinating seeds. At home I have French parsley that I have grown from seed. This will be planted alongside when it’s big enough. I adore parsley but The Beau isn’t keen. We shall probably have a surfeit as a result. I have threatened to make parsley soup, the idea of which makes him pull faces.

We line the planters that we claimed at the allotment gates with old compost sacks, making multiple holes in the bottom for drainage. We use wool compost ontop of a layer of spent compost transported up from the garden. Even so each planter requires two-and-a-half sacks to reach 5cm below the rim. Once the compost has settled we plant up with purple and yellow-podded French beans and a mixture of nasturtiums for their flowers and edible leaves.

Finally the kale in bed 5 has had its day. The elderly plants are riddled with aphids and white spot but are anchored to the ground like ancient oaks. Clearing the bed is hard work and the earth is bone dry. After a few hours digging the bed over, removing stones and incorporating yet more compost it is ready to be a cutting bed for flowers (The courgettes are being moved to bed 2). A week later the texture of the soil has been transformed by the compost and gentle rain.

Whilst I am toiling at one end of the allotment The Beau is earthing up his potatoes. They have come on a treat. There is no difference in speed between those we chitted and those we didn’t, so I am not sure we shall bother with this step next year. The ridges of dark earth look mighty impressive when they are done, ready to be re-forested with lush foliage.

Sunday 26th

We stay at home and pot up tomato seedlings. I potter in the garden and start making plans for when the tulips are over. It’s therapeutic work. The Beau has grown enough tomato plants to supply the entire allotment site so we will have plenty of spares to give away. The varieties are ‘Black Opal’, ‘Tigerella’, ‘San Marzano Red Plum’ and ‘Golden Crown’. As May approaches I’m already looking forward to colourful, home-grown salads every day.

The month ends with some very welcome April showers that mark the beginning of the end for the tulips in the Jungle Garden. As May begins we’ll be bringing out the gingers, cannas and dahlias to create a vibrant summer display. Typically the busiest month of the year in my garden and most others, I wonder where we’ll find the time.

Stay Safe, Stay Well and Enjoy Your Garden. TFG.

N.B. This post was exclusively published on The Frustrated Gardener. If you are reading this on any other blog, it has been illegally ‘scraped’ by some unscrupulous folk who don’t have the talent or knowledge to write their own material. Come on over to The Frustrated Gardener and leave the pale imitation to shrivel on its virtual vine.

Categories: Annuals, compost, Container gardening, Flowers, Foliage, Fruit and Veg, Garden Diary, Our Allotment, Our Coastal Garden, Photography, Seeds and Sowing, Weather

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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36 comments On "Garden Diary: April 2020"

  1. Thank you so.much for sharing this post, Dan! I’m sad to read of your loss. So glad you have the garden and allotment. I also hope you and The Beau are now healthy and remain so.

    1. We are getting there, thank you! May is my favourite month of the year so I am keeping my fingers crossed that we are both fighting fit and able to enjoy it. All the best to you Stephen.

  2. Sorry for your sadness. The garden and allotment are looking lovely. I’m trying tomato red brandy wine for the first time which is an heirloom cultivar and has potato like leaves. Looking forward to tasting it. Stay safe and I’m loving the joint blogs.

    1. Oooh, that sounds lovely Elaine. The Beau has grown that variety before and thinks you’ve made an excellent choice. He knows his tomatoes and got very excited when I read out your comment. Good luck with it.

      Apologies for the lack of posts this month. Hopefully there will be more in May. All the best to you. Dan

  3. Hi there Loved your update Any tips on hardy orchids? Could be tempted! Diana

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. Hello Diana. I’m no expert when it comes to hardy orchids. However, here is a post I wrote last year on the subject. My advice would be to be brave, start with cheaper cultivars just in case, to use very, very free draining compost and to water regularly. That seems to have worked for me in general.

  4. I loved reading this, almost felt I was there with you. You certainly are hard workers. I only have a little garden here in North Dorset, but enough to keep me busy. I look forward to seeing your garden in bloom in the summer. Thank you very much.

  5. So sorry you lost a friend, Dan. There’s nothing like a garden for solace, however. As someone not terribly well and nearly 79. it is lovely to see what you are achieving. I once had an allotment and really enjoyed it. I grew some magnificent delphiniums, and also battled the flea beetle. I remember being told that supporting the health of the plants was more effective than battling the beetles themselves, not sure if that’s true, probably depends on the level of infestation amongst other things. Have you seen the delphiniums at Godinton? I helped start those in the walled garden, but that was quite a long time ago. Now it’s quite difficult to manage my little patch, especially as I can no longer have help. So making a virtue of necessity I am letting the wildlife take over quite a lot.Surprising how well Agapanthus spring up from seed amongst my pebbles, however…. keep up the good work while you can.

  6. Hi
    Love the piece
    I planted out beans last week but they are wilting and turning brown ,too early here I think in Liverpool

    Have you tried strawflowes, so cheerful

    1. I should really have posted an image of my inspiration but my effort would have looked very poor in comparison. By the end of the summer I should have something to boast about.

      Thank you for your kind words Paul, they are much appreciated. Dan

  7. Enjoyed the post as always.
    Very sorry for your loss of Ashley. I think these times ground us and make us grateful for every day.
    Purchases after a drink are always risky. I don’t mind the plants but half my wifes jewelry collection came from me having a drink.
    Keep well, keep safe, keep gardening.

    1. Ha Ha! I hope your wife counts herself very lucky Peter. That comment got The Beau asking why it’s only plants I buy after a drink (actually it’s books as well). I think he’s angling for something 😉

      There as aspects of the last six weeks which have been sobering, but as many that are uplifting. I agree with you that I am far more grateful for what I have than before the outbreak. I hope I can hang onto that.

      All the best to you. Dan

  8. You have certainly kept busy and the amount of plants you support is unbelievable. I was very sorry to hear of your loss of such a special friend. There are numerous blessings found in a garden, and one of them is the stress relief from hard work. Take care.

    1. You are absolutely right Judy. I hope all is well with you in New England. Pleased to see you have daffodils out now. The last of mine are now in a vase and we’re starting to plant out annuals. That will certainly keep me busy! All the best to you and your family from sunny Kent.

  9. I am sorry for the loss of your friend. I would say that I know how it is, but I also know that it is always as unique as those we lose.

  10. What a great time you have been having in the allotment and garden. Very sorry for your loss. Spending time in nature and gardens is the best antidote to sorrow.

    1. How right you are Deryn. For me there is nothing better for diverting my attention and lifting my spirits than time spent in the countryside or the garden. I appreciate your kind comment very much. Dan

  11. Dear Dan, I’m so sorry to read of your loss of Alex. So sad. I re-found my password in order to comment on here rather than instagram, as I wanted to say that. And also to say how much happiness your posts bring. You express yourself in such a lovely way and your garden skills make me want to try harder! I wish you a year of continued richness in your family and with your plants. (Also, your last sentence is genius 🙂 All the best, Bethan

    1. Thank you Bethan. It’s lovely that you took the time and trouble to comment. I appreciate it greatly. I hope to get back up to speed with the blog very soon – so much to write about, so little time! All the best to you too. Dan

  12. I’m so sorry about Alex. I think the photo of him that you included is very clever, looking angelic with his wonderful, white wings.
    I just wanted to say how very much I always enjoy your blog and your more frequent photos and comments on Facebook. They’re entertaining, inspirational and so well written. The photos are brilliant! Thank you.

    1. Thank you Jane. I had not thought about the photograph that way but you are quite right. I like it all the more now you’ve made that celestial comparison. Believe it or not the picture wasn’t posed and I don’t think Alex knew I had taken it. That was him. He loved a garden bench and sitting in the sun.

      I very much appreciate your kind comments and am glad you’ve found me on Facebook and perhaps Instagram too? I tend to be a bit more active there when I have less time to post on the blog. Take Care and thank you again x

  13. I am so sorry for your loss. You have certainly been super productive, shopping on line is a curse and a pleasure and I must admit it has kept me sane (that’s my excuse and I am sticking to it😳). I Love the idea of growing Aeoniums in one pot, I think I might give that a go 😁 . Stay safe both of you 🌈

    1. Hi Sharon. Over the years we’ve built up quite a collection of aeoniums so this is a good way of condensing them down. They can also be terribly unstable when they get tall so this way they can support one another.

      I keep finding things online and having to step away from the computer for a self-imposed cooling-off period! It’s terrible, but fun. And I am still not spending as much as usual. If it keeps you sane and you’re solvent, what harm can it do?

  14. You and the Beau have been incredibly busy. I must try to find that Amazing Parrot tulip. Surely as beautiful as it is it will be available here. I am sorry to hear about your friend. Try not to be too sad. You have so much to look forward to. Cheers and Big Hugs.

  15. Dear Dan,
    I have been enjoying your and The Beau’s posts for months, without ever commenting. Now I will, in order to say I am very sorry to learn about Him Indoor’s passing! The death of someone close is always horrible, even if that closeness has been diminished a bit lately and grief tends to bring up so many memories. I’m glad you have The Beau in your life, especially now. And yes, gardening is probably the best therapy one can find as it is not just occupying and absorbing but inevitably a positive, uplifting pursuit, whether so intended or not. I know, as it was the thing that brought me back after my dad’s death last year.
    Sorry, too, to hear you and/or The Beau have had Covid 19 – truly hope you are well again.
    You have done an amazing job since taking on the allotment, I am in awe. Have unexpectedly ventured into edibles, too, lately: a little less than 1 sqm of ground on the edge of a huge old beech canopy for my little one who wanted to sow salad leaves and carrots. Luckily had seeds of those, plus radishes and peas, albeit long since past “sow by” dates. As all shops were closed and I’m not keen on purchasing online we just gave it a try and crossed fingers. Seems to have worked.
    All the best, stay well and safe and enjoy your family and the garden/ allotment (plus a cold beer or G&T).

  16. Sorry to hear of your very difficult month but thanks for sharing your wonderful garden and allotment works with us. Take care and stay well.

  17. Sir, this is first time to come here, and send to You my condolences, and send to holy memory Your dear friend Alex my prayers. Very nice garden, not wasted a single square meter of ground. And like these few weeds here and there, they look funny. Godbless.

  18. Really sorry for your loss Dan. I do remember’Him Indoors’ on your old blogs. Look after yourself and celebrate the times you had together in time . You will have heard this 100’s of times but Gardening ..atleast being in the garden was my therapy when I lost both my parents quite young. It will always give you what you need when you need it. Love.

  19. Stumbled upon your site today and am hooked. Love the tone and sensibility. Keep up the good work!

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