In like a lion…

The Garden at dusk. The blue light is natural – no filters!

The trees in the Pleasure Grounds, each branch and twig etched in snow

So there I was, last weekend, spurred on by Scotland’s rugby success, thinking spring is here. Time to do some shrub pruning. I had finally got to the end of the apples and pears, and it was time to get my feet firmly back on terra firma. Now granted, there was a chill in the air, but the walls were starting to weave their magic, and it was really quite warm working in the south facing border. It’d been a couple of years since I’d thinned out the blackcurrants, so it had become a bit of a thicket; out came one-third of the shoots, allowing us to actually get to the currants when they fruit. I also lifted the canopies of a stately arching cotoneaster and our mulberry to allow the underplantings more light and moisture come the summer. They had also got a bit too near to the path and were at risk of poking the casual passer-by in the eye. The tree paeonies  too had been practising their ninja skills, steadily encroaching on the grass path.  Armed with my loppers, I was on a roll.

The old apple, with the ‘iced’ yew hedge behind

Until Wednesday afternoon, that is, when spring juddered to a halt and the snow returned. Again. The ‘beast from the east’ this time, though, and it certainly lived up to its name. No light dusting this time, but a continuous barrage of snow for the last 3 days.  10- 12 inches where there is no drifting, 2-3 feet where there is. We were cut off until yesterday afternoon when the kindly farm JCB appeared to dig us out.

The yew hedges have taken on a slightly drunken aspect in places, resembling pantomine scenery!

Hence, I’m inside, doing this. I think the garden will be fine. Some of the hedges have taken on a slightly drunken aspect, their tops pressed down by a foot of snow, but they should spring back a bit when the snow melts. And if they don’t, well, the bulges and undulations add to the charm.  The greenhouse roof seems to have held up and the bulbs will doze, shrouded in the protective embrace of the white powder.

It’s all very quiet and rather magical. A time to savour before spring starts up again next weekend. Maybe.

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Empathising with Mr McGregor

 

I used to think that Mr McGregor in Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit was a rather nasty piece of work.

He was certainly portrayed as the threatening bad guy and Ms Potter clearly wanted us to sympathise with Peter and his Flopsy Bunny chums. (And by the way, if ever you travel to the English Lake District, do visit the charming Hilltop, Beatrix Potter’s Lakeland home, complete with fenced vegetable garden – you can just about imagine Mr McG standing there with a bemused expression on his face trying to work out how to get these pesky creatures out!).

Anyhow, I have to say, of late, I’ve been feeling quite sorry for Mr McGregor. Indeed, for the last 3 years, I was Mr John McGregor, that dour Scot, standing at the front door, despairing. Our much loved hound, Ronnie, is now well over 14, but for 11 of those years kept the Walled Garden completely rabbit free. But Ronnie is now a little creaky and while he still diligently looks for bunnies, it is at a more leisurely pace. Gone are the ‘nought to sixty in 5 seconds’ days, and the bunnies seemed to know this. Over three years, they moved in and gradually, as all bunnies do, increased their family. And of course, they had to eat. Prized plants were chewed to the ground. Rosa ‘Little White Pet’ became ‘Tiny White Pet’, trees were lovingly ringed during the winter and two springs ago, I came out one morning to find every single Primula denticulata flower neatly separated from its stalk.

This was war. Pest control men came, sucked the air between their teeth and shook their heads, and never came back. Game keepers with small dogs that disappeared into the borders and emerged some time later suitably camouflaged in ‘Sticky Willie’ and other random foliage came and never came back. Humane rabbit cages were purchased at great expense on the internet, set up with snagged fingers and much cursing, bated with carrots.  Mysteriously, the carrots disappeared but the traps never caught a single rabbit. Not one.  I even started looking up the addresses of local gun clubs, but, for the Good Lady, this was just a step too far. The bunnies continued to laugh.

Pip, arrived April 2017

And then we got the offer of rehoming a Jack Russell. Now, I had heard from the appropriately named Bunny Guiness on BBC Radio 4’s excellent Gardeners’ Question Time that the way to clear your garden of rabbits was to get a couple of Jack Russells. But some of Bunny’s advice can be a little, well, eccentric. Nevertheless, when I heard about Pip, well, my ears pricked up. Surely this was too good to be true. Would Pip really be interested in rabbits, when she had probably never seen one in her entire life. Well, with the garden gradually disappearing before my eyes and this being Year 3 of Bunnygeddon, Ms Guiness’ recommendation was surely worth a try, and if it didn’t work, well, maybe I would take up showing dogs instead.

Pip arrived in April. By August, the bunnies had gone. ‘Find the bunny, Pip’, we would say, and off she went, up and down the hedges. When she picked up the scent, she would ‘pronk’ like an antelope, all 4 legs off the ground at once with excitement. Pip never caught one rabbit, but she gave them all a good run for their money. Gradually, the bunnies left, one by one, and Pip moved onto the population outside the walled garden. And there we have it.

Mind you, I can’t quite believe that’s the end of the story. I just have visions of them all lurking somewhere, waiting and plotting with evil looks of revenge on their faces, planning their next move…

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Is strimming the herbaceous borders a deadly sin?

The cleared west border, with our Mahonia getting in on the action!

Don’t tell anybody, but I’ve been strimming the borders.

With a petrol string trimmer. I know, quite embarrassing…

Recognising that I’ve probably lost you to the RHS site by now and unlikely to recover any gardening credentials I kid myself into thinking I might have had, I’ve started so I might as well finish…

Our elderly but serviceable strimmer!

Cutting down a herbaceous border by hand with a small pair of secateurs can take a bit of time. Our borders travel right round the perimeter of the Walled Garden and they range from 2-4 metres deep. So, pruning by hand can take quite a few hours. Days. Well, quite a few weekends. And at this time of the year, we can get either very heavy frosts, very heavy rain, or even snow, which makes the process even longer. And it’s using up time that I would rather spend on encouraging, well, living plants – spreading compost, pruning shrubs or maybe even planting the odd rose bush.

And I have to say that I find cutting back dead herbaceous just a bit, well, boring. I mean, it’s not that it needs any great care. The stems are after all dead and play no part in the new year’s growth. We’re not talking pruning fruit bushes or indeed roses, where cutting out dead growth, weak or rubbing stems does help to determine the following year’s productivity (although, as an aside, there was an RHS trial a few years ago involving pruning roses with hedge-trimmers that apparently had no lasting effects and may have improved floriferousness! Personally, nothing gives me greater pleasure than a beautifully-pruned rose bush. Quite sad, really, but there may be one or two of you who agree).

The Herb Garden

And yes, one does need to be careful about bulbs peeking through or Primula denticulatas that are starting to build up a heart at this time of the year before they launch their flowering rockets, or snagging a prized shrub by mistake, so cutting height (and clean goggles!) is all important.

But it does allow you to cover the ground, leaving behind quite a nice mulch of disintegrated plant material, although it can look a bit like Armageddon initially as the stuff does tend to come out all over the paths, and the operator, too!

I’ve also found out that I’m not the only Scottish gardener to do this (not that I’m maintaining that border strimming is a Scottish custom, like haggis-eating, caber-tossing or cloning sheep). On reading my copy of the latest RHS magazine, The Garden, I find that the gardeners of Dunrobin Castle, ancient seat to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland, no less, also carry out this modern practice. So there you have it: horticultural credibility returns, maybe!

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A walk in the woods

The Lower Woods, underplanted with rhododendrons, which we’ve gradually added to over the years

It’s been a cold winter so far. Often, the weather is quite kind running up to December, but this year we’ve had more ringing frosts and more flurries of snow. And several more falls so far in January.

Nothing of course compared to what’s been going on in the US recently, but enough to put pay to the over-wintering pelargoniums and give the agapanthus a good fright in the greenhouse. Interestingly, 4 elderly and very prickly cacti, also resident there, are hanging on, demonstrating, I suppose, that deserts can be as cold as they are hot.

Mahonia, dusted with snow

And yet, despite the cold, plants are starting to move. Our large Mahonia in the walled garden has been covered with yellow, lightly-scented blooms for some time now. It is now approaching 12’, though, with most of the blooms in the upper half and some of the branches starting to bend over with their weight, so when the flowers are over, we shall cut it back to more manageable proportions, as it is shading out the pillar apples growing behind it.

 

 

Winter Aconite

The bulbs too are really starting to move. I noticed our first winter aconite out on January 3rd in a sheltered corner of the walled garden under an apple tree – surely a sign that spring is on its way.

Variegated Holly

 

 

 

 

 

The path through the woods, with the dormant Tree Paeony on the left, leading down to the Blue Spruce

In the woodland, too, the snowdrops’ bright green noses are starting to poke up through the leaf litter. When we cleared the woodland of shoulder-high nettles some years ago, we discovered a couple of nice hollies, a Philadelphus (Mock Orange), a Viburnum bodnantense, and a rather nice dark-red tree peony, all waiting to be rescued!

and back again, showing the north west corner of the Walled Garden. In a few weeks time, the leaf litter will be studded with snowdrops

As well as a lot of snowdrops which we think may have been growing quietly there for well over 100 years. I always get worried, though, about standing on these delicate little harbingers at this time of year. So, a winter project this Christmas holidays has been to mark out a path through the woodland, which will provide a framework for us to plant some more woodland-dwellers into during the spring, as well as ensure that the current residents aren’t trodden on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Galanthus nivalis, the Snowdrop

Only a few weeks to wait until the first snowy pearls appear!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Up the apples and pears!

Pruning the espalier…half way through.

No sooner had I finished the hedges, it was back up that ladder again – fruit trees this time. In the Walled Garden, we have a variety of espalier, fan-trained, pillar and free-

A freshly-pruned Pillar

standing apples, pears and plums, some, we think, dating back to when the garden was originally planted around the 1850’s. All have to be hand-pruned with secateurs each year, as otherwise their tops will become too heavy and they will succumb to high winds. They would also become less fruitful, putting their energy into growth and not flower, and I don’t fancy teetering on yet higher ladders to reach the prize! That said, some varieties are clearly on more vigorous rootstocks than others, judging by the amount of growth they put on each year, ranging from almost none to 60cm plus.

Incidentally, we only do an annual winter prune, although the books tell you to do a summer prune too; time doesn’t allow this, but it doesn’t appear to affect the productivity of the trees.

And yes, it’s fiddly and time-consuming, you get cold feet and hands even if you’re wearing warm socks and gloves but it’s worth it in May when they all come to life, one after the other – a mass of white and pink scented blooms followed by just the freshest apple-green foliage.

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When May comes around…

 

 

 

 

 

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Living the High Life

The new fountain with the west end of the Yew hedge in the distance

Since August, I think I’ve spent more time in the garden above the ground than on it. Perched atop ladders of varying heights and invariably encased in a cloud of 2-stroke exhaust, it’s hedge-cutting and fruit tree-pruning time.

The south east run of the Yew hedge, with the vacated sunflower border in the foreground, itself surrounded by a low Lonicera hedge

As I’ve discovered, yew grows quite fast when you don’t want it to, and tends to die when you do.

Our elderly yew arbour has certainly been doing quite a lot of growing these past three seasons and the trusty Castelgarden trimmer has been contending with fronds of some 60-80cm, although interestingly the hedge is made up of two or three varieties of yew, with some growing less vigorously than the rather less hesitant ones of a more wiry consistency. By the time I had got to near the end of this herculean task (started in August, completed in late November – later than I would have liked), some of the fronds had turned a rather nice bronze colour. Still, worth doing despite the lingering back-ache, as the hedge’s now clean lines give an architectural crispness to the winter garden and a rich dark-green foil to the hoar-frosted grass.

The west end of the Yew hedge with one of the Laurel roundels in the foreground

And then it was on to the Laurel roundels at either end of the yew hedge. Again original features, these 4 Portuguese laurels had put on around 90cm of growth on top  with stems approaching 6cm thick, so this proved a tough job for the trimmer as well as its operator! Incidentally, for all this high work I used a Henchman Hi-step ladder. We have an old steel one, which is quite heavy, but they now do lighter aluminium ones. Individually-adjustable legs and a non-slip platform with guard rail allow you to lean out over the hedge without fear of toppling. Not a nice feeling if you are working with power tools.

Inside the “T” of the hedge!

And then, just before Christmas, I finished the beech hedge which runs the full length of the Drying Green and the Secret Gardens. Half the length of this hedge had been allowed to grow to full tree size under the previous owners; we chain-sawed it back around 7 years ago and in the intervening period, it has returned to being a hedge again, producing new shoots from the old wood, such that you can’t easily tell the ‘new’ hedge from the old!

Time now to sharpen the trimmer!

The beech hedge that runs the full length of the Kitchen and Secret Gardens, with a large variegated Holly in the distance. The bantams get an early visitor!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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New Year’s Resolution?

The Pleasure Grounds in the Snow

“So, Dad, when are you going to bring back your blog?”, my youngest asks me every so often.

I find myself reaching for the usual book of excuses. “Too busy” or “Well, I did it for a whole year, so there’s really nothing more to say”, or “Not got time to do the garden these days, let alone the blog”.

Youngest shrugs shoulders and goes back to Plants vs Zombies.

But each time he asks the question, it gets me thinking.

I started this blog back in autumn 2012. It arose out of a half-term project my older son came up with, to create a WordPress blog, which launched him into the world of social media and generated a real passion for photography which he has taken to an advanced level in the past couple of years. Well, half-term ended and I was left with a rather content-light outline blog, which I felt obliged to keep going, but which I got rather hooked on as time went on.

The New Fountain

I charted just over a year in our garden, until February 2014, revisited it in winter 2014/15 and then decided to call it a day. I had too much going on at the time both at home with an elderly relative and with incremental pressures at work, and something had to give. I didn’t have much time for the garden and a family of rabbits found its way in, taking advantage of our aging labrador’s dwindling rabbiting abilities. As the rabbit population started to grow, our enthusiasm faded. The garden had become a bit of a chore.

Since then, we’ve kept the garden going on a care and maintenance basis; we’ve kept the grass cut and the worst of the weeds pulled, we’ve even added one or two new plants and trees and we installed a new raised pool and fountain, but we haven’t been able to find the time we once had. Until this autumn, perhaps, when the elderly relative’s estate was finally wound up and I took on a new job of fewer hours and significantly less pressure.

Pip, who arrived April 2017 (Photograph: Lorimer Macandrew – http://www.LMacandrew.com)

Oh, and Pip joined the family. Pip likes chasing rabbits, so the rabbit family has moved out. Things that we plant no longer get eaten.The garden has started to become a more attractive place. We also managed to cut the hedges this autumn, removing the substantial growth of the past three years – a major exercise and perhaps the turning point.

So, what prompts this post, nearly two years on from the last one? Well, I need something to motivate me and to help me measure progress. The old blog certainly did that. After all, I needed to do something in the garden to give me something to write about! So, things got done.

But I also had to post some pictures so I had to make time to actually look at the garden we were tending – what’s growing, what’s flowering, what shapes and forms look interesting? Before I had the Blog, I became very aware that all I looked at was the ground – the next weed to be dug up, or the next shoot to be pruned. I wasn’t really benefiting from the fruits of my labours. I couldn’t see the wood for the trees.

Some of the current Garden volunteers

Most of all, I miss the chat of the blogging community all working out there in the global garden. The wonderful comments, the words of encouragement, the contrasting and very often similar garden notes from across the world. And the great hints and tips.

Will I be able to keep this going? Well not as regularly, perhaps, as I did before. But there’s no harm in making it a New Year’s Resolution.

Wishing you all the very best for a happy and prosperous New Year.

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