Coming together like a big fat plan

Following on from my excellent cunning plan for aquiring free plants, I had a message from a friend saying he was having a bit of a border sort out and would I like some of the stuff he was getting rid of? The word ‘yes’ came out faster than an angry wasp, and this weekend found me paying a visit and loading my plant booty into the back of my car.

Whilst there I noticed his hostas in tubs were actually the biggest specimins I have ever seen. Massive tubs, with lush foilage tumbling out of them – they were an absolute picture (and slightly impressively, he knew all their proper names too). These beauties were a tad different from my own patio pot, and I needed to know how on earth he’d achieved this. Back came the simple answer:

“I feed them.”

“With what though? Rocket Juice?? I need the secret formula!” I replied.

He then went on to show me the snacks of choice, and his method was simple. If you want lush, green foilage, feed with nitrogen-rich plant food; for flowers and fruit, feed with potassium-rich. The stuff he was using wasn’t even top of the range expensive food either. So simple, and yet so effective.

I vowed to pick up some plant food when next in town, and whizzed home to rehome my haul. He’d gifted me some clumps of Agapantha; one of my favourites which will look splendid at the entrance to the garden, and a plant that will produce big daisy-like flowers. In addition came a bag of Rudbekia seeds.

Looking around the garden, I have to say, it’s gone a bit bonkers. The wild flower seeds sown at the beginning of the season have blossomed into a riot of colour, so much so that I’m struggling to see the soil now. These include cornflowers, assorted poppies, and some mystery guests that I don’t know their name. But it doesn’t matter – they look spectacular, and every day holds a new surprise. One of my favourites absolutely has to be the humble poppy. From a droopy bud on a tender stalk one day, it appears to straighten out and pop its pod overnight, revealing the most vivid, satin petals against a stamen centre. As they unfurl, I can almost hear them shout ‘Ta Daaa!’.  When the flowers fade, I’ll save the seeds and packet them up to share with friends, so we can all enjoy a touch of nature next year.

And of course, in addition to the gorgeous display, the garden is absolutely buzzing with wildlife activity – different varieties of bees, hoverflies and ladybirds, and we even have a family of wolf spiders who appear in a line and bask at the side of the patio.

From an empty patch of soil and a patchy bit of grass, I allowed myself a small, smug pat on the back, as it’s all coming together like a big, fat plan.

Wildlife garden is blooming lovely

Wildlife garden is blooming lovely

All change at Chook Cottage

Well, well, well – we’ve had a busy old time of it, here at Chook Cottage. So much so, there’s been barely time to put pen to paper, or indeed, fingers to keyboard…

The first big change is that we should purely be called ‘Cottage’ from now. The chooks are no more. Looking out on the garden a week or so back, I decided to re-home Liza and Judy, the faithful old chickens. The garden isn’t ideal for them to roam free, and they tend to trash any areas they are on rather rapidly, so I put a few feelers out and they’ve now gone off to a lovely new place with lots more chickens for company. The patch they were on would also make an ideal little vegetable plot: lovely and fertile, and close to the house. I’d originally planned to grow a few vegetables in amongst the borders, but this has failed dismally. The flower seeds planted at the beginning of the season have literally burst into life, and hence tended to smother anything in their path.

On the upside though, all the new flowers and foliage appear to have attracted insects into the garden, so we now have a thriving population of bees and ladybirds. The ladybirds are keeping the greenfly at bay, so I’m delighted to say that it’s a win, win all round.

The next change is that the little patio at the end of the garden now has seating, so we can enjoy the last rays of the sun. The first plan was to put a little bistro set on there, but I figured if you moved your chair back and fell off the edge, it could all end in disaster. So I plumped for a sturdier option: a wooden love seat – two chairs with a table attached between. This was ordered online and arrived the very next day, so without further ado I whizzed off down the garden to assemble it. After a couple of hours wrestling with numerous bits of wood, random screws and allen keys, it’s now in situ and we’re looking forward to many summer evenings out there.

I’ve also decided to install an arch at the top of the garden to frame the entrance, which should be delivered any time soon.

With the new design in mind, this weekend was spent humping slabs about and defining the borders ready for the new arch and vegetable patch. After a sweaty old afternoon digging and raking the area, a quick rummage in my seed collection produced several varieties of carrots and beetroot, some mixed salad leaves, radish, fennel and celeriac. I’ve never eaten celeriac in my life, but if they do grow, I’m sure I’ll find a good use for them.

So now, with the hard work over, it’s time to sit back and watch the fruits of my labour. Preferably with a glass of something yummy. The only big dilemma is which patio do I sit upon?

Garden patio with love seat

Garden patio with love seat

Wormery

Most gardeners are aware that decent compost and a bit of fertilizer always goes down well in the garden. I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a compost bin, but to be honest, with other things going on in the garden, it hasn’t been at the top of the ‘to do’ list.

Wandering around town in the week, I spotted something in one of the charity shops that really did pique my interest. A wormery. For a bargain price. With no further ado (and not a clue what I was actually going to do with the thing) I snapped it up and whisked it off home.

I’d heard about wormerys, and how they could be an alternative to a compost bin. I did know that the worms eat waste and convert it into a liquid fertiliser that apparently is great for the garden. Other than that, I was a tad clueless. On arriving home, I consulted my old friend Google (he knows EVERYTHING) and spent a pleasurable afternoon researching my new addition to the garden.

The first thing I found out is that you can’t use common old garden earthworms – you need special composting worms. These were found easily enough on a popular auction site, and should be arriving in the post at any time soon. In preparation for their arrival I whizzed out to set up their new home.

According to the advice on the web, worms are pretty undemanding, just needing a sheltered spot (not too hot in the summer; not too cold through winter), to be kept moist, and fed carefully.

With this in mind, I sited it in a lovely sheltered part of the garden which is luckily also quite close to the house which will be handy for me to nip out and feed them.

The wormery consists of a section at the bottom which collects the liquid fertiliser, followed by three compartments that sit on top of this. The theory is that you start the worms off in the first compartment, gradually utilising the ones above as it starts to fill up. The worms should move up during time, and the bottom compartments should then be full of compost to use on the garden.

Being second hand, my wormery came complete with a layer of compost in one compartment, which should provide an ideal substance for their bedding. On top of this went a little kitchen waste – apparently you feed sparingly until they’re established – a sprinkling of water, and the whole thing is now ready for its new inhabitants. They appear to be unfussy creatures, and should happily eat any kitchen scraps apart from onions, citrus peel or meat and fish. Once it’s up and running, they will also benefit from some ripped up cardboard.

It’s all rather exciting to think that a bunch of old worms will soon be chomping through our peelings and leftovers, creating compost and fertilizer in the process.

Nature at its best.

Wormery

Wormery

The unruly bush

On a visit to my sister’s at the weekend, I found her in the garden, pondering what on earth to do with a large, unruly, overgrown bush.

Her Rose of Sharon evidently hadn’t been pruned for a very long time and the years of neglect meant it was now in danger of taking over the place. It looked healthy enough, but it now consisted of leggy branches with bits of greenery waving around on the end of them. And it was massive.

In short, it needed a blooming good haircut.

This was the ideal time to prune it, as it had already begun to sprout this year’s new growth, and a tidy up now should not sacrifice the flowers later in the year.

Peering into the centre of the plant we noted that further down the leggy twigs there were indeed signs of new leaves emerging. I told her the basic rule: cut back the plant, but make sure there’s growth before the cut. Also, cut out any branches that were dead, to let more light and air into the centre.That way, we could give the plant a jolly good tidy up, and the plant could still throw up new shoots and survive.

Having a new garden now, where I’m willing and waiting for everything to grow and flourish, I relished the thought of getting lary with the loppers and  and off we set to work.

In no time at all we’d whipped out the dead and leggy branches, and now had a plant that was a fraction of the size but now had the potential to grow into a better shaped specimen which wasn’t overpowering the garden. We also had a garden full of chopped off shrubbery which would take a good couple of trips in the brown bin.

Now that the plant was a more manageable size, I noted that it had become so well established, that it had actually thrown out runners, and these in turn had rooted and were shooting from the soil. I dug one of these out, making sure I got as much of the roots as possible, and potted this up to replant in my garden.

Once home, I earmarked a nice sunny spot, dug a hole, popped it in and firmed up the soil around it. After a good watering, I then trimmed my mini version to about half its size. This was so that while it was bedding in to its new surroundings, it could focus its energy on producing roots, and not be trying to sustain all the greenery as well.

So, for a good afternoon of pruning, my sister has a bush that’s neat and tidy, and I have a brand new, free addition to my plot.

Win win.

Runner plant Rose of Sharon

Runner plant Rose of Sharon

Herb garden

On a regular wander around the garden centre a week or so back, I spotted they were selling off the wooden crates that the spring bulbs had been delivered in. At just a couple of quid I saw the potential to make an original, quirky planter, so I whipped one off the shelf and scurried off  home with it.

Not wanting to paint over the words printed on the side, I sprayed the whole thing with teak oil to protect the wood, and rummaged around in the shed for an empty compost bag. I then lined the crate with the bag, stapling securely and trimming off any excess polythene. A couple of holes were then poked in the bottom for drainage, next in went a layer of stone chippings, then last of all up to the top with compost.

Now for the fun bit…

Herb garden and pallet planter

Herb garden and pallet planter

Off I went to our local hardware store in search of herbs. I picked up a healthy-looking thyme plant and a rosemary. I already had some chives and parsley in a pot at home, and in no ‘thyme’ (sorry!) at all, my plants were all a-planted and – in my opinion – I have a unique little addition to my patio.

Looking around, with a bit of imagination, there are all sorts of everyday items that could be cunningly converted to grow plants in. Last year I recycled a couple of old pallets, painted and lined them, and they are now home to violas and pansys.

A pair of old boots would make an ideal plant pot for strawberries and an old sink could quickly become a miniature alpine garden. The possibilities are endless!

Elsewhere in the garden, I bring good tidings. The plants in the mini greenhouse have all popped up, and as soon as the last risk of frost is over, I’ll have sweet peas, French beans and cherry tomatoes to plant out: it really does feel now as though summer is just around the corner. And I for one, can hardly wait.

Not only do I have seedlings popping up all over the place, the big announcement of the week is…

Drum roll…

I have grass.

Yes, you heard correctly. It’s hardly conceivable that after peering out for so long at my patchy bit of lawn, the grass seedlings I chucked down a while back have FINALLY begun to sprout, and although still sparse, If you squint a bit the whole garden looks lush and green. So I have high hopes indeed. Once the lawn is well established, I’ll then be able to work on the shape of the garden, and chop some lines into the borders.

For a fairly new garden, it’s all coming along marvellously.

Rose arches

Now the lawn has been sown and I’m waiting for my cottage-garden seeds to germinate, it was time to turn my attention to elsewhere in the garden. The borders are a bit of a no-go area at the moment – I don’t want to be pulling out any emerging flower seedlings by accident, so I’m staying well away until it’s apparent what pops up.

Last year a friend and I created a little patio area at the end of the garden, where the last of the sun’s rays shone each evening. It was to be the ideal spot to relax of an evening, but at the moment it looks a bit out on a limb. I wanted to create some height around the area, without closing it off completely – so I pitched for some garden arches along the bottom edges. There should prove ideal for some ross to scramble over, providing a semi-screen, with the added bonus of some gorgeous flowers and scents.

Off I trotted into town, where the shops are increasing their garden ranges by the day it seems, and purchased two cheap metal arches. Assembling them quickly, they were soon in place at the end of the patio. Now for plants. I’d bought some bar rooted roses a week or so back, and I was itching to get these into the ground. I’d plumped for old-fashioned varieties to match the emerging theme, and the roses of choice were ‘Albertine’ a rambling variety, and two climbers: ‘Clementine’ and ‘Paul’s Scarlet’.

Bare rooted plants are much less expensive than plants for sale in pots, but they do need a little extra tender loving care. First you need to carefully remove any packaging they arrive in, and then give the roots a really good soak in a bucket of water. The hole you dig should be big enough to spread the roots around in, and the soil should be replaced firmly, to help the plants get a hold and stop them rocking around. That all done, give them a jolly good water in, re-firm the soil, and they should soon romp away. I’m happy to report that my plants have begun to show signs of life after only a week in the ground.

With any further gardening in the borders on hold for the moment, I thought I’d give the shed a quick slash of colour. The fence outside the back door is painted a lovely sage green, so off I popped to the hardware store to get the same for the shed. A most enjoyable afternoon was spent painting, and although it will need another coat (why is there always another job?), I’m happy with the result.

Little by little my patch of garden is beginning to take shape, and I have to say, it’s all rather exciting.

Rose arches

Rose arches

Growing from seed

There’s a lot to be said for growing things from seed. True, you don’t get an instant garden like you would with buying plants, but it’s cheap, rewarding, and actually quite good fun.

As the weather seems to be warming up nicely, I dug out my seed collection at the weekend. I appear to have acquired a vast collection of flower and vegetable seeds: mostly bought for a fraction of their original price in ‘end of season’ sales. There’s everything from beans to peas, from cosmos to cottage garden mixed. Some will be able to go straight out into the garden very soon, but others benefit from an earlier start inside. Looking around, it soon became apparent that I had nowhere near enough windowsills to house my collection, so off I popped and purchased a tiny greenhouse with a plastic cover.

I’d decided when I began to plan the garden that there wasn’t space nor need for a big greenhouse, so this little one do the trick quite nicely. I positioned it in a sheltered spot that also had the benefit of good light and sun.

A quick rummage in the shed produced some seed trays which I filled with compost, duly sprinkled seeds on the top and covered with another thin layer of compost. After firming all the soil down, the trays got a good water, and into the greenhouse they all went. So far I have Cosmos (brilliant for late summer/autumn blooms), Tagetes (apparently great for discouraging green and whitefly), some cherry tomatoes, and a couple of pots of sweet peas.. I’ve also sown a pot or two of dwarf French beans: the French beans I grew last year provided absolutely corking results, so I’m hoping for a similar re-run this year.

Reading the remaining packets in my collection, some of the mixed seed collections instruct to sow straight into the ground. I’ve learned over time that certain plants don’t like to be messed about with, and don’t like to be started off in pots and then moved.

So the next job was to tidy the areas that these seeds would be scattered in. The next couple of hours were happily spent grubbing around in the garden, digging out any weeds and grass from the borders: they are a lot easier to get out now than trying to negotiate around emerging seedlings later.

That done, the mixed seeds were scattered around, and the borders got a quick rake over to bed them in. Next up was a water, and now I just have to sit back and wait for the results. Well, that’s what would happen normally. Me? I’m out there now every half an hour, it seems, peering into seed trays and soil, willing my little plants to grow.

And today we had lift off. I present you with… the tiniest tagetes in the world!

In no time at all I should have a myriad of colourful plants, and a garden that has the ideal ambience to attract butterflies, insects and bees.

Tagete seedlings

Tagete seedlings

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

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

 

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