Garden Diary: April 2020

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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.