Friday, 18 March 2016

Cheery plants on a dull day

As it's a cold and dull day outside and because I woke up with swollen and bruised ankles and knees, today I am doing some armchair gardening, well, sofa gardening actually.

When Jane and I created the herbaceous border on Sunday, we talked quite a lot about the herbaceous plants that we've had in the past and which ones we liked most and which we'd eagerly have in a new garden. And that's what I've got, a brand new garden, so I thought I'd share my thoughts about some of my herbaceous favourites.

I can't afford to splash out on decorative plants at the moment, until I've stocked the vegetable garden, fruit section and bought the trees that we'd like in the garden, I will have to be content with thinking about the plants I'd like to add the ones I already have and imagining how pretty the herbaceous border might look in years to come.

Geranium Phaeum Alba (above), I found this one on ebay here. I love the neat mounds of foliage with the clean white flowers held above it, it's really easy to propagate by division.

And the dark purple version, like this one. I like to plant them next to each other and imagine that there's a pint of Guiness in the garden. I also like very dark purple aquilegias, easy to grow from seed and prolific self-seeders, although the colours can be very different from the parent plant. I particularly like this one from Nickys Nursery, this has to be worth a couple of pounds to see the cheery little flowers waving in the breeze. I also like the sound of that the dried seed heads make when the wind catches them.

Actually I like nearly all aquilegias except ones with yellow in them, I don't know why, but they just don't look right to me. Gardening is such a personal thing as I know some people love the yellow varieties.

I like to have fresh flowers in the house and make use of lots of foliage to contrast with the flowers, so some plants that provide nice foliage would always make it into my herbaceous border.
Alchemilla Mollis, like this one from Jackson's Nurseries , has a softness but freshness to the green and I like the way the morning dew sits on the edges of the leaves like little jewels. In the past, I've planted an orange crocosmia around the edges of small achemilla plant so as it grows the crocosmia flowers sit high above the mounds of foliage.

There are other plants that I like to plant together, I especially like contrasting colours together because they show each other off. Scarlet red tulips look superb planted amongst pretty blue forget-me-nots or a deep red-purple heuchera Palace Purple with bright orange pot marigolds.

Lysimachia punctata spreads well and at two to three feet adds mid range height, the strong yellow flowers add a splash of buttery, sunny yellow (a colour I don't use an awful lot in the garden, except for the dandelions that inevitably end up everywhere!). Garden Oasis sell a bare-rooted one. They are great for a summer flower display in a jug on the dining table, although the flowers can drop quite quickly.

In my old garden in Mid Wales, I grew several peonies and oriental poppies. I like the blousy boldness of their flowers as a contrast to all the little flowered plants that I usually choose.

Kelways have been the best place I have found to buy peonies, I particularly like Bunker Hill with it's red petals and lush foliage. I remember as a small child being fascinated by ants that climbed over the buds of peonies, a joy that remains even now.

In my mind oriental poppies should be red, but having said that, I also like some of the gentler shades too. This in-your-face red one is splendid, it's Beauty of Livermere from Mr Fothergill's.

I've grown some Lupin Russell Hybrids Mixed from seed this year, they are just at first leaf stage, so I don't expect them to give a display until next summer. They may end up in the herbaceous border, but I've grown them mainly to be companion planting in the vegetable garden as they have such good nitrogen fixing properties. I spotted that Thompson & Morgan have plants which would give a display this summer.

Although not a herbaceous plant, I think that a Leycesteria Formosa (pheasant berry) plant deserves a place in my herbaceous border. They don't seem to be as widely available as I think they should be, but I've found them from Burncoose Nursery and they also have a golden leafed variety which looks lovely. In the past, I have cut the stems down to the ground in spring to give lots of young growth, but  other years I've left it to grown tall and hold it's tiny white flowers are hidden inside the rich deep coloured bracts. It self seeds well and new plants pop up all over the place. Not such a good thing if you are fussy about placement, but I like plants to find their own space, within reason, and am happy to find this plant turning up in unexpected spots. An added bonus is that birds love the berries in the autumn and early winter.

After we had created the herbaceous border on Sunday, Jane and I planted the selection of plants that I had brought with me and some that Jane had given me (thank goodness for gardening friends!). So the basics of the border are in, foxgloves, delphiniums and daylilies each have a place and although they aren't herbaceous, I'll be adding some lavenders from the cuttings I've taken and will lift some of the irises that are currently in the soak-away pond of the reed bed.  I'm going to go and raid my sister's garden for more perennials, she has a sloping bank that I planted up some years ago using divisions from my old garden, so I am sure she won't mind me having a few divisions of plants to help stock my new border.

If you think I've left out any herbaceous border essentials, please let me know in a comment. Have a good gardening weekend!

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Feels like home

So tomorrow is a hump day. In our corner of this great big planet we will finally have as many hours of daylight as of sun down. According to the BBC Weather app, tomorrow we will have twelve hours and one minute of daylight. Like so many people, I struggle with the dark of the winter months and each year from mid-August onwards, slip quietly into depression without really realising it. Some years are worse than others and thankfully this year hasn't been too bad, but I suspect that's because I have been on a new medication for my thyroid which has had a positive impact on my mood and I've had a fairly major project to keep me focussed on things other than how low I feel. And because, all in all, the weather has been pretty mild (if you exclude the frantic storms that have battered us this autumn and winter) which means that I have been able to get outside in the fresh air and wintery sunlight more than other years. But rather than focus on the negative impact of winter, I want to celebrate just how much Mr J and I have achieved in the four months since we bought our new home.

When we got the keys, we took about three weeks to move our belongings across the Severn Bridge from our previous house to what we plan to be our last home.  I should rephrase that really to, for Mr J to move our things here because at that point I was still very unwell and a week before we moved I was still bed-bound and wondering if we were indeed doing the right thing by moving to a smallholding when I was in so much pain that I couldn't see straight and could hardly walk unaided. But we did and I am so pleased that we did.

We have now almost finished unpacking, at least our most basic personal belongings, I'm still finding the occasional bag that has been tucked away without being unpacked. Inside the house we've draft proofed, fixed and tweaked the house so it suits our way of living. The house had been fully renovated over the last few years by the previous owners, so fortunately we had nothing structural to do. We've found additional kitchen units being given away and created a kitchen island to house my cooking utensils and those kitchen units have also been used to create additional storage in the boot room, to hold all those bit and pieces that otherwise just end up sitting around somewhere. We've made the house look like the way we feel about it, it's our cosy sanctuary and although we have fairly differing tastes in internal d├ęcor, we have found a style that works for both of us.

Outside the house has seen more changes than inside. We've moved plants from the back garden and the area at the back of the boot room and used them to plant a shrubbery, glazed the greenhouse, started converting the stables into a chicken condo, built large compost bins, divided the paddock into animal and productive garden areas, laid pathways and started to create raised beds. We've planted trees and native shrubs. A hedge has been planted around the paddock and a herbaceous border created. Both of these projects were done with the help of my friend Jane, who is a brilliant gardener and has tons of energy and enthusiasm, we laugh a lot together and Jane keeps going when I have run out of energy.

We've lost Archie, our beloved cat, who we haven't felt ready to replace and gained a bunch of chickens and a pair of ducks. While the birds hold great entertainment value and are starting to earn their keep, they aren't as cuddly or soft as a cat and they don't keep our toes warm at night!

Now if we were twenty years younger, no doubt masses more would have been done already, but we are where we are and I am so proud to have achieved this much in so little time. There are still plenty of days where I am unable to get off the sofa or out of a chair and have to just sit and let the pain do its thing until it passes. There are days when I start out well but by mid-morning I am hobbling around using a walking stick and every day I am worn out by mid-afternoon and have to slow down, take a few hours break or just stop for the day. So anything and everything I do feels like an amazing achievement. Ironically, being unwell has given me a fresh perspective of how fortunate I am.

For a couple of mid-lifers who've spent most of their working days in offices, we are starting to get into the rhythm of working with the day, the weather, the animals and the soil. We have created a place that we are proud to call home, filled with laughter and love. And that's really a rather nice place to be!

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Learning how little I know

Since we made the decision to embark on a new way of life, I have been reading. Voraciously reading, watching back to back homesteading and smallholding videos on YouTube and asking questions, lots and lots of questions. I wanted to have a pretty good idea of what we were letting ourselves in for. And to a greater or lesser extent I felt prepared for what was to come.

We've bought a small, very small smallholding, in fact it's a tinyholding, but the principles are the same and the needs of the soil the same, any animals we keep will need the same care. We plan to grow enough fruit and vegetables to meet most of our needs and to have poultry for eggs and later on meat.

So I've read and read and researched and learnt. I have some gardening experience having grown most of our vegetables in the past, so I was comfortable in my ability to feed us this way. What I didn't expect to learn was how careful I need to be in the way I phrase the questions I ask. And then to ask for clarification and confirmation of the answers.

So what has brought on my ponderings this morning? Well, there have been a few times recently when I have been talking to someone and come away thinking that I know what was meant during the conversation, only to discover soon afterwards that both Mr J and I had misunderstood the meaning of what was said. If it was only me who misunderstood, I would put it down to brain fog caused by having a bad day with my thyroid or adrenals, but when it's both of us well, there's probably a communication issue.
For example, on Saturday I contacted the breeder of our new ducks to ask if a couple were still available having seen an advert a month or two ago. We exchanged a few texts and we agreed to go and see the ducks (with a view to bringing them home with us) yesterday afternoon. She told us that she had a pair and that they were laying well and we were looking forward to eggs aplenty. At this point, we should have asked 'are they both laying well?' but we didn't, we both took the 'they' in her sentence to mean both of them.

Now, I am a total sucker for animals (well, most of them) and there was no way we were leaving there without a couple of Aylesburys in tow (no not in tow, in the brand spanking new dog travel crate we'd just bought for the safe moving of birds). I would have happily taken a few geese with us too, but that's for another day. Anyway, the breeder kindly rounded up the ducks and brought them over to us and put them in the sturdy crate. At a quick glance over they looked healthy and happy and had obviously spent most of their days up to now waddling around, free ranging over their entire farmyard. Happy ducks with good looking shape, bills, webbing and feathers. That is, happy looking duck and drake. It doesn't matter, in fact I am quietly delighted to have a drake too, it means the potential for ducklings and that would be fabulous (Christmas dinner springs to mind), but surely 'they are laying well' implies two females? This error in understanding is our fault, I am not criticising the breeder in any way, in fact, she has been really helpful. So our lesson from yesterday is to double check what is meant by 'I have a pair' or 'they are laying well'. I've contacted the seller today to let her know that the birds are settled in well and that we've had an egg this morning and that we'd like a couple more females a bit later in the year.
There have been other conversations too, where I have misunderstood what was being said, with Mr J, friends, colleagues, doctors, solicitors and folks from all walks of life. Mr J and I still sometimes misunderstand each other, but I think he's probably learnt to clarify things with and for me as any confusion between the two of us happens less often nowadays. I've always thought of myself as reasonably articulate, of being able to hold a sensible conversation when needed and to be able to juggle some complex ideas. The impact of my illness last year has hit me in different ways, one of which is the level of mental agility that I had. I know that I can't deal with the complexity of task that I used to (hence not working in my old field of work until my brain is back to firing on all cylinders again), but misunderstanding simple conversation is a different thing altogether. It seems to me that this is just about not having the correct vocabulary. In my example with the ducks, it's about me not realising that 'a pair' means one male and one female, when I had been looking to buy a couple of ducks - meaning two ducks, two girlie egg-laying ducks.

Every new job or career means learning a new language, a new set of jargon and new nuances of speech and it seems smallholding is no different. So here I am, back at 'Vocabulary 101' rediscovering just how much I have to learn.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Spring has sprung

There's definitely a change in the air and although the mornings are still nippy, there has been a period of warmth most days this week. Having had a really busy few days, I had a sofa day on Wednesday, but the rest of the week I have managed to potter about the smallholding for a while each day. Pottering, obviously, is a relative term. I'd like to be floating through a perfume filled garden, gently snipping at this and that to make it look a picture. The reality is that I am still laying pathways, moving soil around and wondering what to put along the stock fence on the south side of the paddock to help protect us from some of the howling winds that blast across the garden from the estuary. I may just get to plant something this weekend, but I don't want to start putting plants in until the basic structure of the garden is ready. It would be frustrating to settle a plant into the ground, just to move it again in a couple of months.
Lupins (Russell mixed) are at seed leaf stage and will be transplanted into the cut flower beds in a few weeks and organic leeks (Large American Flag) are just starting to show themselves, these will probably have to be potted on in a month or so unless we have managed to create their raised bed by then.

I've sown plenty of seeds that are now quietly sitting in the boot room, sheltered from the frost, wind and rain and inspected daily by Mr J and I as we walk past them. It's been exciting to see them start to germinate, poking fresh green shoots through the compost with a promise of something more to come as the months go by.
I've also taken some cuttings of lavender and box. They have gone straight into the greenhouse and I am covering them each evening in a bubblewrap duvet and opening it up again during the day.
Normally I would just push box cuttings straight into the ground where they are to grow, I've been very successful doing this in the past, but as I am not entirely sure exactly where I want these to go, I am starting them in modules.
I've started placing some of the herbaceous plants into the spot where they might be planted. The grass along this border is yet to be lifted and I am hoping that it may be done today. My friend Jane is coming today for a day of gardening, chat and laughter (I hope) and this is the area that I'd like to tackle. Having decided that this is definitely the place that I want to have the perennials and having marked out all the pathways around it, I am happy to get this area finished, or as finished as it will be for the time being. Behind the green screening is the shrubbery that we've just finished and I imagine it will be lovely to see tall flower spikes peeking over the top of the fence. Many of the plants going into the perennial border have a sentimental meaning for me. Some have come from my parents' home, some from Mr J's parents' home, some from Jane and some from my previous Mid Wales garden (which I lifted and put in pots when I left that house in 2011). Others will be purchased or grown from seed as Mr J and I decide what we'd like to use to fill the gaps.
Next to the perennial border are four large rectangular beds and a triangular bed which will have herbs, scented plants and cut flowers in it (including the lupins that I've sown) and beyond those will be the raised beds for vegetables. Originally I had planned to use our inherited rotavator to turn over the grass and create beds for this year and then to build raised beds over the next year or so and build the soil up in each bed. Unfortunately some simple excavation has made it clear that this is not an option. The soil is very stony and has a lot of glass in it, it also has quite a lot of sub-soil on it (directly under the grass) from when the foundations were dug out for the kitchen extension. It therefore, seems to make more sense to build raised beds straight away. They may not all have wooden frames this year, but I will lay down cardboard to kill off the grass where the beds will be and pile soil and compost on top to grow vegetables in this year.
When my brother and nephew (who are visiting from America) and brother-in-law called in for a visit on Tuesday, my brother-in-law mentioned that there was a large pile of wood chippings in their field that we were welcome to help ourselves to and that if we did take it, we would be doing them a favour. Well, not wanting to let them down Mr J and I have trundled the twenty minutes to their house to bag up some bark chippings and bring them home. I've used them to cover the pathway between the herb beds and the vegetable beds.

This is the start of the first raised bed. I'm using lengths of wood to guide me where to put the cardboard, soil and compost. In this part of the garden, there will be a central path and a path each side of the beds to make it easy to move around the large vegetable garden. These raised beds are quite big, each will be four feet across so that I can reach to the centre easily and around fourteen feet long. We plan to grow far more vegetables than we need so that we can join the local food co-operative scheme and we hope to be able to swap surplus vegetables and fruit for locally grown meat. We also plan to provide a regular veg box to my daughter's family and my sister and brother-in-law.
Mr J and I popped out for a couple of hours on Thursday (to collect more wood chippings from my sister's field) and came home to discover that a flock of sheep had been put into one of the fields by our garden. The chickens were, well, chicken about them being there and hid in the chicken condo. It has taken a couple of days for them to get used to the sheep being there. I, on the other hand, am delighted to have these new neighbours. I like the sound of their gentle bleating as an added background musical contribution to the bird song in the garden.

It's been a week of animal magic here, the crested cream legbar chickens are growing rapidly now and have started enjoying scratching through the compost heaps in the paddock, Jack and Diesel have returned to laying one egg each a day, the sheep have arrived next door, we have organised our next new arrivals and yesterday, as we ate our supper, we saw a barn owl flying low through the yard and settle in a plum tree at the end of the paddock. I was so excited and I very carefully and quietly made my way down the paddock to try to take a photo or video of it. I feel very lucky to have seen such a lovely bird wend its way through our garden and hope that it has decided to build it's home somewhere nearby so that we can see it regularly.

Jane and I have spent the day in the garden tackling the herbaceous border. The turf has been lifted (thank you Jane) and wheel-barrowed over to a corner of the garden to be used for a project tomorrow. After lunch we started to plant out the herbaceous plants, as we put each one in, we talked about where it had come from or the memories that go with it or Jane explained to me about the plants that she had brought over and that I am not familiar with. This photo shows how the herbaceous border backs on to the shrubbery and just how much work we have done today. From the photograph I took yesterday with the plants placed on the ground in their pots of where I'd like them planted to a finished border just waiting for us to add in a few more plants when they are ready.

We lifted what we think is an acer (hopefully with red leaves as it has red bark on the younger growth and little red buds just waiting to open when the weather improves) from the courtyard behind the kitchen and moved it to the corner of the herbaceous border where it will add height and colour. We under-planted it with foxgloves, daylilies and a deep red cordyline. Once the seeds that I've sown get large enough to plant outside I will add aquilegia and alchemilla mollis to the area under the tree and some cheerful spring bulbs and corms. Now I am ready for a tasty supper, a soak in a hot bath and an evening relaxing in front of the fire.