Spring brings increased vigour and determination, as winter’s sleepy plans are discarded, refined or set in motion.
Life on our hilltop these days is rather a juggling act. Our weekdays start in earnest around 5a.m., spiralling headfirst into a relentless tumble of feeding, dressing, entertaining, getting out of the house, commuting, working, commuting, hasty cooking (or reheating the weekend’s batch cooking), bathing, reading. Our evening meal is often likely to be eaten in shifts, unless we’ve managed to be home and prep our own meal in time to join the toddler. Who is full of energy and chatter, requiring lots of assistance winding down towards sleep. If we’re lucky we may both manage to be free by some time between half seven and half eight. Just in time to wash up, load the dishwasher, sort out bins or bills or heaps of washing, before accepting that we should have been abed half an hour ago ourselves, as the start of the next day looms large already. (Yet still we often rebel, and spend a precious ‘late’ half hour or so together before giving in to this unremitting cycle.) And then there’s the very broken sleep, which naively I had expected to pass with the baby stage: ha! Many nights we are up and down like yo-yos, trying to console a small person who can’t even explain to us why he is shrieking like a banshee and beating his tiny fists.
On the plus side, we seem to just about get by with far less sleep than I would once have believed possible! And of course I’ve not even touched upon the delight and joy that our son brings us, which makes it all bearable. On the downside, there’s not even the remotest chance of anything you could class as free time. Coupled with a permanent state of confusion and dazedness (is that even a word?) from eighteen months of scant sleep.
Our weekends… still start at 5a.m. Sigh. Then it’s a balance of time spent together as a family, versus time spent one-with-toddler, one-achieving-something on the ever mounting to-do list that life/house/garden demand. And just occasionally grandma-with-toddler, both-of-us-managing-to-achieve-something-together. You would be forgiven, then, for thinking that the garden would have faded into the background somewhat, our focus on maintenance rather than innovation. But no! we still have an ambitious list of changes in mind.
It is seven years now since we took on the overgrown old garden here and began to reshape it, and inevitably along the way we have found things that we would have done differently with hindsight. It may seem misguided to direct precious energies to changing things at a time when life is already so over-subscribed, and yet time invested now should save us further time and effort in the long run. That’s the hope, at least!
We sought refuge in those early days from our major construction work in the house, by working to renovate the garden when we could. Fired up with dreams of a productive kitchen garden, our early focus was on transforming the end of the garden from an overgrown dumping ground towards the plot of our dreams. We reclaimed substantial space by pulling out a bloated Lonicera nitida hedge that sprawled along the boundary with our neighbour, in time building a slim woodstore here instead and adding two open compost heaps at the far end beneath the hawthorn tree. We dug over the ground that we freed alongside the greenhouse here and planted it up densely with trays full of seed-raised vegetables that we’d filled the greenhouse with.
With the first crops in place, we then removed the wall that ran along the back boundary and swept round to the nearside of the greenhouse, levelling the raised area contained behind this wall to match the rest of the garden. This was quite a labour, as the raised section behind the greenhouse comprised a mix of old construction and household rubbish, boulders and broken glass, all tethered by brambles and rampant shrubs. We also removed a large dead elder tree festooned with ivy and more brambles from the corner, opening up the views across the valley beyond. With the ground levelled, we scraped every inch of earth that we could into use – even wondering in the first year or two about securing an allotment to free up the space required by greedy potatoes and squashes.
After working this reclaimed ground for a few years, we adapted our plans slightly. We conceded that maincrop potatoes lay in the ground too long for us, such that they were completely riddled with holes by an onslaught of slugs by the time they reached maturity, with no clear advantage over bought varieties to justify persevering with them. Thus our previous array of first earlies, second earlies and maincrop varieties was reduced to just a few rows of early potatoes, which we harvest before the summer spate of gastropods sets to work on them, and where we can truly taste the difference between our freshly harvested crops and bought tubers that have travelled further for longer.
Likewise we accepted that every spring found us throwing away one or two winter squashes that hadn’t been eaten, so we reduced the number of plants we grew (and trailed these up and over a teepee of sturdy logs to reduce their footprint on the ground further). With our reduced space requirements, we added more paths to split up our one-large-planting-space into separate beds: a large one spanning the width of the garden from the compost heaps to the field boundary behind the greenhouse, another lying between the greenhouse and woodstores and a small bed between the greenhouse and shed.
In another bid for improved maintainability, a couple of years ago we stopped cultivating this smallest, shadiest bed for annual crops and planted out two staggered rows of strawberries here instead, which we had previously trialled growing in planters on the roof of the woodstores for a couple of seasons.
For a year or two, we once more expanded our planting space slightly to include the area in front of the shed, but the crops we tried here performed poorly, so we soon revised the area into a more permanent fruit bed, planting our two rhubarb plants, two blackcurrant bushes and some more strawberries here. These have gradually been eroded a little by creeping lawn – and most recently a pile of timber!
Despite reducing both our crops and our productive space, we have still not been able to maintain our vegetable garden throughout the year as well as we would like. As well as compacting our heavy clay by having to walk upon it while working the ground, we have been continuously struggling to dig out the perennial weeds by hand each spring and break up the clay into manageable chunks before it could then be rotavated. By winter, the bottom of the garden has always looked unkempt and unloved, as somewhere around mid-summer we have lost the fight.
Not such an eyesore when the vegetable beds have been mostly taken over by self-sown borage and calendula, as this shot from October 2012 illustrates.
But rather depressing a couple of months later, as in this shot from December of that year, when the top growth has been stripped back – it was a lot of work to restore this ground for the next year’s planting: the following shot was taken of the top bed in March 2013 before we began the annual job of digging over the beds by hand to remove the weeds before rotavating.
A plan has been coalescing over the winter to address these issues: the main premise being to divide our planting space further, into manageable beds that we can maintain without having to walk upon them, and to concentrate on the crops that give us the best value-for-space. This is also the ideal opportunity to unify the layout of this area of the garden too, as the mishmash of paths and beds and misaligned features have been nagging at us.
After contemplating the existing layout for some time, we decided that the woodstore that we built down our northern boundary, adjacent to our neighbours’ shed, to which they have since added a rather higgledy piggledy collection of other storage structures, would be better replaced with a fence separating us from our neighbour, giving space along here for a long south-facing border for fruit. The strawberries, blackcurrants and rhubarb should do better along here than in their current positions, and some espaliered apples along the fence would be a good addition, an idea which I’ll explore further shortly. The following rough sketches illustrate the old layout on the left, and our proposed changes on the right. The greenhouse door is at the far end.
We have always struggled to work the ground in places here: as the garden falls away towards the field at the end, the layer of topsoil becomes barely a spade deep on top of the splintered rock that underpins us; also bindweed, couch grass, goosegrass and creeping buttercup are so much faster than we at colonising this ground, with nettles and other weeds creeping in from the adjacent field as we sleep. The hardest ground to cultivate is that in the far south-easterly corner, beyond the greenhouse and the holly tree. Here, then, on this thin rocky ground where even our hedge has struggled to establish well, is a far better site for wood stores and the compost bins that also previously nestled at the end of the old stores. This area is mostly out of sight of the house and rest of the garden too which is a bonus for a utility area.
So earlier this spring we began to put our still-fluctuating plans into action: first the long wood store was partially dismantled and two sections reinstated and re-filled beyond the greenhouse; the compost heaps were moved against the boundary between the two stores, and much of the bottom section of the garden was dug over and rotavated.
The next step involves replacing the indirect paths and over-large planting areas with a central path running from front-to-back, with four equal sized vegetable beds, narrow enough that we can reach the centre from either side without walking on them. Raised beds would be optimal, but both the timber and the amount of topsoil they would require exceed our budget, and there is already a reasonable depth of soil here for growing, so instead King of the Hill has built semi-raised beds with 4-inch pieces of timber. Placing these in a row to one side of a central path creates a fifth narrow bed between path and greenhouse, which has also been bounded with a timber frame. Since taking the photos below, the closest bed has been dug out, one of the beds already planted up with our early potatoes, and into the furthest one I have sowed rows of salad seeds, protected from digging cats by temporarily covering with our old cabbage cages, which need resizing slightly to fit these beds.
The raspberries were next for relocation: the ground is too dry for them competing with the roots of our large beech and horse chestnut trees, and the canopy of these trees in summer shades the area a little too much, so that the canes have not truly flourished here, despite fruiting reasonably reliably. It was another struggle to keep these rows tidy and weeded, as well as restricting the new canes from popping up between rows – and outside the patch. To address this, we potted the summer-fruiting raspberries up into large containers a year or two ago, leaving them now easily movable to join the other fruit along the new south-facing border-to-be, along with their autumn-fruiting cousins which we have also dug up, and sit in a wheelbarrow awaiting transplant. First we must erect the fence however!
Marking one corner of the raspberry patch stands an old peach tree that we inherited in the middle of our kitchen garden. Or perhaps I should say ‘stood’. It had fallen into decline, not producing more than one or two edible fruit since a ‘bumper crop’ of perhaps a dozen juicy peaches in the summer of 2010. Originally it was supported by a ramshackle wooden summerhouse which looked out to the bottom of the garden and over the valleys beyond (though blocking this view from the house in the process). You can see the structure in the following picture taken in April 2009 (looking beyond the building detritus that spilled onto the closest parts of the garden during work on the house).
This was sadly dilapidated; upon entering the structure in our first spring, we stepped straight through the wooden floor which crumbled away beneath us! We tore down the rotten structure, and its concrete base was broken up while we had a digger for the foundations of our extension that summer; the ground was then planted up with the four rows of raspberry canes that have now been transferred to pots.
It is perhaps no surprise that the peach tree has declined without the support of the summerhouse; standing alone and unsheltered in the middle of the garden it is continually at the mercy of the harsh winds that sweep unimpeded across our hilltop. I have argued continually to retain the peach tree as the garden has evolved, but have finally conceded that it stands awkwardly and does not earn its place, and so King of the Hill cut it down and dug out its roots by hand a week ago. Farewell peach tree.
Running along the edge of the raspberry patch from the peach tree towards the house, we planted and trained a young espaliered apple six years ago, with a second planted perpendicular to mark the front edge of the raspberry patch. Again, these have not fared quite as well as hoped due to competition from the roots and canopy of the mature trees nearby. Now with the relocation of the raspberries and the removal of the peach tree, their purpose lies redundant and their positioning has become undesirable. We are particularly aware that the front-most one is not level with the two double-u pear cordons that separate kitchen garden from ornamental garden on the other side of the central stub of path that leads between the two, making them the next casualties in our parcel of changes. Our plans to improve the layout include addressing the asymmetry of the junction between the two parts of the garden; moving the apples makes more sense than relocating the pears. We’d prefer not to lose these trees, hoping that we can relocate at least one of them along the new fruit border, and did ponder trying our hand at re-grafting shoots from them onto new root-stocks just in case, but time and opportunity dwindled and in the end we have decided to let them take their chances. King of the Hill dug out as much of their root systems as he could last weekend; one we temporarily planted into one of the new semi-raised beds, while the other sits in a large recycling bag awaiting a new destination. So far they seem unperturbed, but I’m not sure what chance of survival they truly have: it was hard to tell how much of their root was left behind, the tree furthest from the boundary certainly seemed to have rooted pretty deeply. In the worst case, we will have to start again with maiden whips. What are a handful of years in gardening terms, after all?!
Here we are then, the ground has been cleared and much of it levelled; five out of six part-raised beds have been prepared and installed. We have a fence to build before we can complete the long fruit border, and fruit bushes and the apple trees to re-plant, if they make it. The new path layout needs seeding or turfing, along with the reclaimed raspberry patch, and we need to try and shift about some of the earth near the boundary between kitchen and ornamental gardens to make it more level, before re-establishing a straight division across the garden here – possibly re-using one of the espaliered apples. We think that a bench beneath the hawthorn tree in the far corner adjacent to our neighbour would be good, to catch the last sun of the day and look back along the length of the garden to the house. Already, the garden feels bigger, and yet somehow closer too; such is the power of perspective, and walking down the central path-to-be to reach the greenhouse feels so much more intuitive than the old staggered walkways.
I also have plans for the ornamental part of garden, which I will ponder in a future post, but these are far more modest in nature, mostly concerning my planting schemes!