Slate garden

This weekend I was on a mission to get some shape and plants into the garden. After a couple of comments from readers that the garden looked a bit ‘sparse’ (I think they were being polite and actually meant ‘empty’), I decided to take action.

The first job was to get rid of the long washing line and install a whirligig. The long line is OK but it won’t quite fit in with the end vision: my drawers flapping all over the flowers is not a pretty thought. There’s a little patch of slate by the shed which I earmarked as an ideal spot for the new rotary line. It’s not in immediate line of sight from the house, near enough to be accessible, and in a spot that I’d struggle to grow much on. The plan was to extend this space to look more like a feature and install the new line. My brother was down for a rare visit at the weekend, so I quickly took advantage of this extra muscle power and set him to work.

In no time at all he’d dug me a border for the area, in which we put some bricks I’d saved from the building work last year. These didn’t need to be in perfect alignment, as their job was to stop the slate from leaking into the garden, and I plan to cover them with spreading plants at some point. Weilding my brand new mallet, he then knocked the washing line holder into the ground.

Next, we cut some chicken feed bags up that had been lurking in the shed, and placed them across the entire area, to supress any weeds. Finally the whole patch was covered in some slate tiles that I’d been saving, which he bashed about with the spade to make smaller.

Rather enjoying himself by now, he spotted the assortment of plants and shrubs on the patio and suggested we get them in the garden. After all, the sooner they were in, the sooner they could (hopefully) burst into life. I’d been to a garden centre liquidation sale a week or so back, and filled up the car with as many flowering shrubs as I could lay my hands on. Some, I’d never even heard of – but they were cheap, and they were colourful.

I had actually done a bit of pre-planning with them too – I’d looked up what kind of aspect each one would like, where in the garden they should be placed, and actually had drawn a plan too. My brother and I soon had a marvellous system going, whereby I plonked the plants on the soil, then he dug the holes and planted them all. Looking back at our handiwork, we had to question how a patio FULL of plants soon disappeared when scattered around the borders. No matter. With a bit of warm weather on them, they’ll soon start filling out and should provide my little patch with some lovely colour right through the year.

Slate garden

Slate garden

The dreaded right hand side

After what seems like an age peering out of the window at the garden, waiting for winter to end, it would appear that spring is most definitely around the corner. The days are becoming longer, and elusive sun appears to be making a slightly more regular appearance.

My new garden has no real shape, and I have spent the winter trying to work out what on earth to do with it. I’ve come up with the loose plan of a seating area at the bottom to catch the last of the summer rays, and elsewhere in the garden, great big blousy borders: chock a block with flowers and shrubs to attract insects and birds.

That’s the plan. In my head. The reality at the present moment is very different to this romantic notion. The present layout of the garden is a patch of lawn, an odd assortment of plants I put in last year, and the bane of my gardening life at the moment: the dreaded RIGHT HAND SIDE.

Let me elaborate. The left hand of the garden gets the lion’s share of the sun, being west facing. There’s a passable border, and a half decent patch of lawn – in short, stuff to work on. In contrast, the right hand is made up of patchy lawn interspersed with weeds, and great big bare patches where the chickens have been in situ – and quite frankly have trashed the joint. Together with dips and hollows and being completely uneven, I’ve spent a good many moments despairing what on earth I was going to do with it.

Then with the arrival of the sunshine at the weekend, it came to me. Like a flash of inspiration. No amount of filing, raking and trying to level the ground would ever make it look half decent. So I decided to flatten it and start again. Out came the rotavator, and like a woman on a mission I turned over the patchy grass and bare patches. A quick rake over, and I can already see the potential my hard work has unlocked. I still need to get all the twitchy bits out, and work on levelling out the patch, but now it’s much clearer how the garden might take shape.

A visit to the garden centre later, and I now have a selection of shrubs and climbers to begin designing my garden. I’m starting at the fences and working my way in. The layout will evolve naturally, with shrubs, perennials and lots of cottage garden seeds: and the bits that don’t end up as borders, I’ll turn into lawn.

Rather than being a daunting task, the garden has suddenly turned into a place of endless possibilities. And I have to say I’m way more positive about it now. To begin from a completely blank canvas, and stamp my mark on it completely, is really quite exciting. I’m intending to do this as thriftily as possible, and do hope to share the journey with you.

Right hand side - flattened

Right hand side – flattened

Autumn tidy up

With the summer drawing to a close and autumn well and truly getting a hold, the garden is showing the signs of the season switch. After a summer of delivering the goods, some plants are looking a bit worse for wear and most definitely past their best. So this weekend was devoted to a bit of a tidy up. First job was to whip off any dead flower heads and dump them in the brown bin.

Next up was the patio: the pots have given all they have to give, and the pallet planters I made earlier in the year were now looking decidedly tatty. The strawberry plants looked dejected and unloved, and the herbs would probably thank me for a tad more root room.

In next to no time I’d whipped out all the plants. The herbs were replanted straight into the border and any strawberry plants that looked like they had potential to perk up, got potted up and put in a sheltered spot near the shed. If they recover for next year, that can only be a bonus.

With an empty planter, and spaces to fill, off I went in search of some new plants.

Now, people of Hinckley, I bring you great news. There are currently great bargains to be had in that there town. In their eagerness in getting the Christmas stuff on the shelves (don’t get me started on that one – we’ve not even had Halloween yet) the shops are clearing out the gardening stuff – and practically giving it away. In one shop I was delighted to find that seeds were down by 75%. Yes, 75%! After a good rummage through, my basket was quickly filled with an assortment of flower seeds: some cottage garden annuals, some that attract butterflies and others that are night-scented. The garden should be an absolute riot of colour and insect activity next year.

In another shop, I spotted some trays of pansies and violas on a trolley. They looked a bit droopy, but nothing a good old drink couldn’t sort out. But my attention was grabbed by the price tag… 20p a tray. Yes, you did hear that correctly. A penny a plant. It would be madness not to take them up on the kind offer!

Chuffed to bits with my garden on a budget, I trotted off back home to finish the project.

Into all the planting pockets went new compost, and into that went the violas and pansies. A good watering has seen them come back to life, and there were even enough plants left to fill some big tubs.

Once they get established and start filling out, they should look amazing. So, for the grand total of 60p, I should have a cheerful display of flowers all through the winter – right outside my back door.

Pallet planters

Pallet planters

 

Seeding the lawn

When I moved from Chook Towers to Chook Cottage, the garden was nothing but a scrap of lawn with an old path down the middle. The first job was to dig up a bit, get some veggies in, and install a seating area at the bottom.

Standing back, I was pleased to see it was coming along like I’d planned it (I hadn’t much) – but the path was bugging me. It was old, it was tatty, and it chopped the garden up into two distinct halves. So I stuck it on a Facebook free site and some kind people nipped round, dug it up and took it away with them.

Then came the next challenge. One side of the lawn is pretty much there – quite level, and grassy. The other side – where the chickens live – is uneven and weedy. Not sure quite how I’d marry the two up, I’ve decided to dig over the weedy bit, level it all up to the grassy bit, and sow seed. I should then end up with a nice lawn which I can then chop about into a country cottage type shape, and whack some plants in.

So, wellies on, I set to work. The chooks were moved up the garden a bit to give a bit of space, and in no time at all I had a weed/grass free patch, which I raked, trod over, raked again and sprinkled grass seed on the top. A gentle rake over to incorporate the seed into the soil, and hopefully my new bit of lawn will start sprouting any time soon.

The biggest challenge will be to keep the new puppy off it – she LOVES to dig :)

Gardening over, I glanced at my watch and discovered I’d actually been on the job for a while, and I’d only just left myself enough time for a quick shower and spruce up before I was getting picked up. Yes. Picked up. By a man. With a pulse, and a cheeky smile to boot.

It seems I must have managed the transformation from grubby oik to glamour puss quite well. When I opened the door to him, I definitely got a low whistle and a “Wow!”.

#StillGotIt

DSC_3908

Broody Judy

One of the top priorities when moving house was making sure we had a couple of chickens. I’ve kept chickens for a good few years now, and they make excellent pets. They have simple needs: water, food and somewhere dry to roost – and you get fresh eggs to boot.

So at the bottom of the garden live Liza and Judy: one black, and one white chicken. They’re happily ensconced in their Eglu (posh chicken house to you), and although a bit skitty to the human touch, they’ve been delivering the goods on a daily basis.

Until this week. Wandering down to collect said eggs, I discovered that Judy was spending longer than was really necessary in the nest box. Hour upon hour went by, and still she sat..

It would appear that Judy had indeed gone broody.

A broody chicken thinks that the eggs she’s sitting on are going to hatch, so will sit on them continuously, only coming out for a sporadic bite to eat. Obviously, with no cockerel, our eggs are not fertilised, so will never, in a million years, turn in to fluffy little chicks.

Apparently this can go on for three weeks, and apart from Judy maybe not getting enough nutrition while she’s lounging around in there, it means that Liza has to practically climb on top of her to lay her egg. Not ideal, so I decided to try to break the pattern. The internet says to gently lift the chicken off the nest box and close the door so she can’t get back in.

Opening the back door to do the deed, I got a distinctly frosty reception as I leaned in to lift her off. She puffed herself up, fixed me with a steely glare, and growled to warn me off. I had no desire to get my hands pecked raw, so executing Plan B, I donned my thick gloves, and shooed her off the nest.

This went on for a good few days, and the system was working marvellously. Up until the other night. Dusk had fallen and I suddenly remembered I hadn’t let the girls back in to the coop to roost. Out in the garden I discovered them crouched by the door, obviously settled down for the night. I couldn’t leave them to the elements in case the weather turned or a predator decided to make a play, so they had to be moved. Slight problem. The run is only 3’ high, and the only way I could get to the girls was through the main entrance at the bottom. So, there I am, crawling commando-style on my belly, up the run. In my pjamas. Through chicken poo and yesterday’s grass cuttings. Glamorous, not.

Eventually I managed to get them to bed, and backed out from whence I came, looking slightly more bedraggled and smelling a tad nastier than I had half an hour ago.

But the girls were safe. Judy’s not broken the broodiness yet, but I turf her off the nest each morning in the hope that her motherly instinct will disappear any time soon.

broody hen

Not quite gardening, but the start of a new era

So, I started this blog about the garden, thinking I was going to bring you tales from the veg patch, cataloging both the successes and the failures. I thought I was smug and married, and about to stay that way for a good while to come. But other plans were afoot.

Married for 23 years, no way were we swinging from chandeliers or jumping off wardrobes (who is?), but I thought we had it good. We were a great team, fab parents to our kids, and always up for a new adventures and holidays. So yes,  I thought life held great promises, and this is how it would be into our twilight years. With the finances all in order, I honestly thought we were coming into ‘our time’, where we’d be off on some wild adventures; travelling the world and sampling new cultures.

Seems we had let things slip without us knowing. Seems other half wanted more, but couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me that. The person I thought was my best friend for as long as I can remember omitted to tell me that he felt invisible in his own home and that things between us had been ‘lacking for a while’.

I did not see that coming at all…

Crop a load of this harvest

The latest update from the garden comes from me peering out at a dank and dismal day, but on the up side, the weather for the carnival was splendid, and the patch is getting a good old drenching.

This week I’m delighted to announce that we’ve had our first real harvest from the vegetable plot. After the broccoli heads bolted and turned to flowers earlier in the season, I chopped off the non-edible stems, but left the plants in situ. It appears this was the right thing to do, as they are now throwing up small heads on a regular basis, and we’re picking these as cut and come again vegetables. With any luck we’ll be harvesting for a good time to come.

I’ve also done a bit of digging around in the history of the house, and it seems a farmhouse stood on the plot in the mid 1800s. This could explain the rich crumbly soil, (an absolute joy after 20-odd years of gardening on clay) and why after a somewhat slow start, once established, the plants appear to go a bit bonkers.

The runner beans – looking decidedly dodgy just a few weeks back have now flourished and sprinted up the canes. In no time at all, they bushed out, flowered profusely and are now giving us a steady supply of lovely succulent beans.

I’m also thrilled to report that the other slow starter – the courgette plant – has now picked up and is pushing out fruits left, right and centre.

My peas are also looking lush and healthy, and it won’t be long now until we’re picking stuff that’s ‘as sweet as the moment when the pod went pop’.

Whilst this is all excellent news, the star performers in the garden have to be the pumpkin plant and the French beans. The pumpkin has snaked its way towards the bottom of the garden, and is now fanning itself up the fence panel; with two decent-sized fruits forming already.

The French beans have foliage now so thick, and so dense that I have to do a fair bit of rootling around in there to uncover the beans. But what a treat when I do. They are so sweet, that many just get chomped raw in the garden, and don’t even make it to the dinner table! And if the amount of flowers on the plants is any indication of the potential harvest, we’ll surely be bi-lingual by the end of the season.

So, this weekend, after removing a couple of stray caterpillars, we enjoyed laughter-filled feast of beans, courgettes and broccoli to slap by the side of the Sunday roast*.

Although I’m biased, the flavours were out of this world.

*the ‘ahem’ company may have had a lot to do with that ;)

Harvest from the garden

Harvest from the garden

 

Project patio

Now that the greenhouse has gone to pastures new, the space I’d earmarked for it stood barren, neglected and bare.

A rootle around the garden soon produced an odd assortment of reddish-coloured slabs, so I thought, “Aha! I’ll build myself a patio”. It made perfect sense. The area gets the last bit of sun in the garden, and already I was imagining myself sitting upon it, floaty dress and floppy hat at the ready; trashy novel in one hand, chilled white wine in the other.

With that image in mind, I weeded the area, then levelled it off the best I could and chucked the slabs down in a rough diamond shape. “Sorted”. I thought, as I stood back to admire my handiwork. All it needs now is something to sit on, and Bob’s your uncle. I proudly shared my newly acquired slab laying skills to all my friends on Facebook, and one of them replied back, “Err… it’s a bit wonky”.

slabs chucked down on the ground

The wonky patio

“A bit wonky?”  I countered. “No, I think the word you’re looking for is ‘rustic’”

Standing firm, the reply came back “I’ll help you level it”. He continued, “I’ll have a think, and bring some stuff round at the weekend”.

The weekend came, and the stuff duly arrived, namely four thick planks of wood, weed suppressing membrane, an assortment of tools and numerous bags of pea shingle. He’d obviously had a think, and meant business.

The first task was to fetch up my wonky assortment of slabs, then level the area properly. We then sawed the planks into six foot lengths and I happily screwed them together with my woman-drill to form a square frame. After digging the same shape in the garden, the frame plopped in, and we performed a bit of last minute levelling off.

Patio frame

Patio frame

Next we lined the frame with the membrane and put a good layer of pea shingle inside. The slabs were then put on top, and spaced out so it looked like we’d actually planned it out like a dream. Another layer of pea shingle went over the top and I merrily set to work sweeping this into the gaps.

A good watering over the top cleaned it off nicely, and brought out the colours of the shingle beautifully. Standing back to admire our afternoon’s work , I had to say that it did look remarkably good. And I grudgingly had to admit to myself that, yes, it did look more inviting than my assortment of ‘slabs chucked on soil’ arrangement.

I’ve since planted an assortment of cottage garden plants around the back, including delphiniums, lupins and poppies, which should add a bit of height and look great when they all fill out.

So, for little cost, a bit of effort and a lot of sweat and toil in the blazing sun, I have myself a lovely little area to soak up the last rays and enjoy a glass of something yummy.

The finished patio

The finished patio

Cabbage whites – the brassica massacre

Gazing out to the garden the other week I spotted the first Cabbage Whites of the year. These innocent-looking little butterfies gently fluttered in and around the vegetable plot, but I know from past experience how much utter carnage they can create in the blink of an eye.

As I clocked them, I made a mental note to be totally ahead of the game this year. Instead of watching my cabbage patch get munched by very hungry caterpillars, I decided to be one step in front, and destroy the eggs before they even had a chance to hatch. Cabbage Whites lay clusters of tiny yellow eggs, normally on the undersides of brassica leaves. Whizzing off down the garden to execute my plan, I eagerly began systematically turning each leaf over in my search.

Imagine my dismay to find that I’d been out-scuppered by the little blighters. They’d evidently sneaked in to the patch without me noticing, and the eggs I was looking for were now miniscule caterpillars. In their droves. All over the plants. And I had not got a chance of finding them all. I then decided that the next logical course of action would be to spray the brassica plants to kill the bugs. I’m not normally a fan of insecticide, knowing I’ll be eating the end produce at some point, but in this case I had little option. But before I’d even had a chance to nip out and get some, I noticed something else was amiss. A closer look at the broccoli plants revealed not only munch-holes in the leaves, but something else was going very wrong with the actual heads that were forming. I can only assume this has something to do with the freakishly hot weather we’ve been having, but the heads that had started to form beautifully were now looking decidedly sick and wizened. And certainly not fit for the table.

Brassica slug damage

Err… I don’t fancy that for my tea

There was nothing for it, so dejectedly I cut off the manky heads and the worst affected leaves, which became free food for the chicken run – complete with extra protein. In the joins between the leaves and the stem it looks like more little heads are forming, so I’ll leave them alone for now and see if they grow into anything half-edible.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. On the up side, the runner beans have caught up marvellously, and I have the first tiny beans beginning to form. The French beans have their first flowers, and the pumpkin plant I bought earlier in the year has begun snaking its way towards the bottom of the garden. A friend gave me some pea plants a week or so back, and these too are looking fine and dandy. So if nothing else, we should have plenty of beans and peas to eat.

Goodbye greenhouse

This week I’ve made a groundbreaking discovery. I don’t actually need a greenhouse. Yes – true… after a couple of years of pottering around and potting up in my old one, my new house doesn’t actually need one at all!

When I first moved to the new pad, a greenhouse was definitely on the must-have list, so I bought a second hand one which my brother in law very kindly helped me to dismantle and bring home. This has sat in bits in the garden since, although I did spend a frustrating and head-scratching afternoon assembling all the side panels.

Then a visit with my friend to some open gardens last weekend changed all of that. The gardens were part of the National Gardens Scheme (NGS) where villagers open up their pride and joys, all in the name of charity. Off we trotted to the Cotswolds, hoping to be inspired and delighted. And inspired I most definitely was. Within these gardens were riots of colour, sweeping lawns, grand water features, rambling climbers… and hardly any of them contained a greenhouse.

So I decided that that’s the way my garden would go. Old, rambly, cottagey… you get the picture. The main priority is to fill the garden with lots and lots of flowers, and the vegetables can be put in alongside them. I think it will look marvellous.

The greenhouse is now sold on to its lucky new owner, and I’m itching to dig up some big borders. I have to say at this point that when I mentioned the demise of the greenhouse to said brother in law, he fixed me with a steely gaze that could have actually burned the retinas off my eyeballs. He clearly remembered with fondness the long sweaty afternoon getting the thing down. I did a bit of emergency grovelling, and I think he’s over it now…

Meanwhile on the plot, the two surviving runner beans (out of 12) are SPRINTING up the canes, and I’ve already spotted the first red flowers beginning to form. I may plant some bean seeds at the bases of the empty canes to try their luck for a late harvest. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

However, I’m delighted to say that the French beans all appear to have avoided any slug damage, and they are looking thick, healthy and lush. An added bonus, as I’ve never had any luck with Frenchies in the past. The rows of broccoli are also doing well, as are the leeks.

French beans

French beans

On the down side, the cabbages, cauliflowers and turnips are looking decidedly sorry for themselves. Although I’ve managed to cut down the slug population a little, the ones I have left are definitely sneaking out for a midnight snack still. There lies my slight dilemma. Do I cut my losses and have all the ropey-looking stuff out, or do I leave them in to act as sacrificial veggies?

Because if the slugs are eating them, they’re staying away from my good stuff for now.