30 December 2011

Nick's Golden Years

Nick started work at Brooke Hall thirty years ago, when he was in his teens. He has adapted and survived and is the only person left from a team of 11 gardeners whose centre of operations was the kitchen garden. It was an intensely productive place, designed to feed people in several households around the British Isles. This was the pre-grocery delivery age.

Nick tends to talk about 'the Eighties' as though it's an ancient time. To me it isn't, but on a country estate which was still clinging to the old ways, the Eighties marked the end of the Edwardian era. A team of gardeners who took three months to rake every leaf, has been replaced gradually by three efficient humans and a minimal collection of machinery.

There is something about Nick which I admire but don't completely understand: he is impossibly quick at everything he does. It's not just a result of no-nonsense training but a leftover from the school playground mentality amongst the mob of under-gardeners. They challenged each other to see who could finish the job first - that would surely make the time pass more quickly. Nick is unquestionably the swiftest as well as most artistic edger and hedger in the East Midlands, but it is speed which motivates him. This of course means that he does twice as much work. It's not something I'd condone, personally, but I haven't worked for thirty years in one place.

24 December 2011

More Tales from the Gutter

After a month of mainly avoiding work I went to Brooke Hall on Thursday for the last day of term. We collected the remaining Paper Whites from the nursery, gathered hazel branches from the wild garden, and enclosed the narcissi in mini fences of twigs and green twine. Some of the blooms which had had their day in the Hall were diverted from the compost heap and came to rest by the privvy, en route to one's own hall. Any place less draughty could lead to asphyxiation from the rather overpowering scent. At lunch time I went to check on the 'decorative bramble' to see whether it was enjoying its moment of glory in the bleak mid-winter (see Garden Clich├ęs 1a). It seemed happy enough but may have been more smug if the scene wasn't so autumnal. Hee hee.

Friday was Market Day in Uppingham and a chance for some people to buy last minute candles before the gales blew in. I had been to a pagan winter solstice gathering the night before in which mulled wine with vodka was served, braziers were lit and an edible Yule Log consumed. By mid-morning I'd finished a bacon butty from Baines but still wasn't feeling 100%. Suddenly two people of the cloth appeared, one female and one male. They peeled back the cover of a large box, simultaneously revealing an industrial-sized thermos. 'We would like to offer you a mince pie and some mulled wine, compliments of the Church.' It was a miracle; I was cured.

18 December 2011

Top Tips from a Head Gardener

On the subject of Propagating
When watering seedlings begin the process before the spray hits the plants and remove the spray before you stop watering. To keep it even.

When making cuttings, carry dug-up plants like oriental poppies as a cat would carry a kitten, ie by the scruff of the neck. It's more important to protect the precious undercarriage than the replaceable foliage.

A pot with root cuttings should not be patted down and neatened and covered with finger marks. It should look as though it has just dropped from the sky.

13 December 2011

From Downstairs to Upstairs...

...via the Outdoor Toilet
Two weeks away from Brooke Hall and I realise that I've missed some gay activities such as spreading mulch on the Terrace Border and the making of seasonal wreaths. The tool shed was stuffed with bags when I came in, of holly, box, skimmia, conifer, moss as well as ivy. On a trestle table were some works in progress, the biggest, most sumptuous, most conspicuously tasteful wreaths I have ever seen. Others were airing on the wall of the privvy, en route to better places. It is simple to make a wreath, and foolish not to if you have a wood which you can raid. Just get a flower arranger's hoop, some wire and moss. Attach moss thickly to hoop using sturdy wire, then tie finer flower arranger's wire around three short sprigs of whatever you like best. Poke it straight through the moss ring and secure so that it doesn't fall out. Repeat all the way around.

Note: to avoid over-elegance, you may want to add variegated holly. Or best of all, variegated box.

12 December 2011

Outmoded objects for the kitchen garden

(A Non-Gift List for the Observer and Guardian)
Loyal tools and aids which have avoided the dump and even the bulldozer would make original gifts for the modern kitchen gardener. If only we could buy them online. Following are some of these indispensable facilitators which are still in use at Marsh Hall, though some are less popular than others. Put them on your Christmas list, and hope for the best.

The Bowser (above). Admired by many though hated by some, due to its phenomenal weight when full. A sloped allotment is useful here: it is important to pull a full bowser down, and an empty bowser up. It's a water butt on wheels.

Barr's Bulb Dibber. Originally intended for tulips etc., allotmenteers could also put it to use in the dedicated potato bed. Designed to be used standing up, with a servile helper at ground level dropping bulbs or seed potatoes into the neat hole created by the dibber.

The glass cloche. Works best in a row. Doesn't look as though it should transport easily but the handle and wire arrangement is fine. Putting it down again and not crashing into another glass cloche is important here.

Pointy spade, or perennial spade. It is smaller and shorter than a border spade and is designed for people who don't mind getting close to the earth. (warning: may be heavy).

Small border fork, ditto. Lower ratio of cast iron to wood, so lighter.

A handy peg and line. The weight, length and narrowness of the iron peg is part of the appeal, as is the vertical 'brake' at the top to prevent the thing unravelling. Old painted metal pegs just get better with age.
Long brick wall to grow things against. South, West, or East facing preferred. North acceptable.

Lead sink. This one at Holkham Hall in Norfolk comes with a tap: it's a perfect receptacle for watering cans.

Does it have to be beautiful and useful? The brambles are a giveaway for this lovely lawn roller.

02 December 2011

My Nest is Best

Something about this bird's nest, built amongst pleached limes, reminds me of my mother. Perching improbably in a manicured spot, within the inner sanctum of a formal garden, everything could go wrong, so easily. But it's all rather grand, so what does it matter. The plight of this ambitious bird's fledglings reminds me of my own when I complained about having to study for A-levels while living on yet another building site in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea. 'You should be glad,' she said without irony. 'You always live in the best addresses.'

28 November 2011

'A Cottagey Stately Home Kind of Feel'

An interesting way of seeing a longed-for place for the first time is ten minutes before closing, with a car full of stuff to unload and very little daylight. The atmosphere of Great Dixter, where I spent the weekend with Folk at Home selling our functional and fancy goods, was pretty powerful at dusk and in the dark, when the front door is normally closed. After the manicured lawns of Northamptonshire the feeling was the opposite of solemn, with a purple-haired youth throwing grass seed around in the twilight.  I'd been lulled already into a holiday mood by the weatherboard cottages of Rye and as I arrived in East Sussex the radio switched automatically to a French station and I knew I was somewhere near the Channel.

The garden at Great Dixter was originally designed by Christopher Lloyd's father with Edward Lutyens in a grand cottage style, and it is rarefied but friendly. With its Great Hall and Yeoman's Hall the house is Medieval and large but feels more like a rectory. From the garden entrance it looks almost like a tall bungalow... There was a very tantalising kitchen with antique fridge and oven from which we were forbidden, but the whole place was ridiculously charming. No gilt or coronets but an anti-witch symbol carved into the massive fireplace, simple medievalist light fittings and hundred-year-old cobwebs high up in the beams, which no Cobweb Lad could have reached in the days of servants even if he were standing at the top of a specially-made ladder.

The bottom of the roof of one of the outbuildings was level with my waist, with space inside to stand up and read the educational notices, having crawled in on hands and knees. The shop (above) is one of the most perfect I've ever seen, whatever goods happen to be on sale there, functional or fancy.

25 November 2011

What to do in Winter with...

... Gunnera
Cut down a grove of gunnera with a machete. Place the leaves over the crowns like umbrellas, to protect them from frost and slice off the stalks to use as weights, holding the umbrella-leaves down. Stout gloves recommended to protect against gunnera spines and stout boots for the long knife.

24 November 2011

What to do in Winter with...

First take the precaution of planting them into large plastic containers with rope handles, and place these into more picturesque pots. At the end of the season be sure to use a sack trolley to take the hoisted out plants to a trailer. Drive to glasshouse(s).

20 November 2011

Peter's Trail of Tears

It has a sad story and an evocative name. It is also a 'heritage' bean so the climber Cherokee Trail of Tears is cherished now in a way that the Cherokee Nation never were during the forced exodus from their homelands, taking the black bean with them.  But like the Native Americans, the bean survived - just.

Peter is a custodian of heritage seeds at Garden Organic and had his original beans from there, but they have become more mainstream and are readily available these days. There is a large pile of them in his garage, surrounded by a ridiculous amount of preserves - so envious - plus a harpsichord. He has just picked the last ones. Being a scientist there is nothing random about this pile of beans. It is a small part of a much greater yield of about 7000 beans and they have been weighed, counted and had scientific thoughts applied. Each Cherokee Trail of Tears plant (above and top) has produced on average 205 beans, with 36 pods per plant. For storing and cooking it's a good prolific bean. However, there is an irregularity which occurs in 10% of them and they are white. 

It is an impurity, a throwback, in other words a sport. 'And it's a damn sight more interesting,' says Peter, than the original purpley-black bean. Each plant from this white sport has yielded about 232 beans (that's almost 30 more per plant than the original - do keep up). Peter has called them White Tears (above and below). Each bean is heavier in weight, and although there are the same amount of beans per pod, there are more pods per plant, so the beans weigh in at about 25% more than the Trail of Tears.

 Both plants produce between three and ten shoots near the base so they are more vigorous and bushy than other heritage varieties which can be notoriously precious and mean. Attractive as the Sezma Zebra is (below) it only produces one vine and wouldn't feed many. The weight of beans per plant is a quarter of that of White Tears.

So Peter is very excited about this sport and has been known to give away some of the white beans for Christmas. However... there is an even more exciting experiment taking place and that is the bean which Peter calls Black Tears. 'There is a spontaneous production of black beans FROM THE WHITE BEANS!' he says. 'This I think is truly amazing.' This double throwback takes place 5-10% of the time and grows in the same way as White Tears but is slightly less prolific.

Clearly, there is a lot more information to be had from Peter on the perplexing mechanism involving recessive and non-recessive genes. Can it wait? Method and Observation I always quite enjoyed at school but Conclusion, well. The results from the latest sport Black Tears are still being concluded, so Conclusion itself might have to wait. An extension please.

16 November 2011

What to do in Winter with...

...One's statuary (a)
 If susceptible to frost, it could be tied up in an all-weather duvet.

What to do in Winter with...

...One's statuary (b)
 Allow it to provide a service for sheltering ladybirds, etc.

12 November 2011

Ode to Uppingham Market

It's a good place to be on a Friday, even in the freezing fog. Its name is fitting: 'the town which is up'. The market square is the highest point of the hill that Uppingham sits atop and there is a devilish little alley connecting the hill and its wind directly to my stall. Yesterday, on the eleventh of the eleventh in the year eleven, there was nowhere I would rather have been. My 'pitch' is next to the Church in the corner of the square, and the bells rang out and the market place fell silent. People had gathered round the church entrance and they looked up at the steeple or down at the ground. It felt disrespectful even to look sideways. During the day aged soldiers walked about in their regalia and there was no one without a poppy.

Although I am not at the front of the market with the essentials (cut flowers and fruit) I have passing trade en route to the Post Office, Church and pub. There is also a barber and a Chinese takeaway, so all the world is here. All the people, often delightful, sometimes mad and occasionally grumpy are here too. A woman dressed in tweeds looks through my hand-printed cards, which she wants to buy, before fiddling with my oiltreated oak nail brush from Sweden, which attracts attention every week. 'This is a lovely nail brush,' she says. 'I'll just find my other half.' My heart sinks. Husbands are fine on their own but are not persuadable when accompanied by wives.
The browsing woman pulls a similarly be-tweeded man over, amongst protests of 'Don't be ridiculous!'
They stop and she points. 'Not even as a present for you?'
'No! don't be ridiculous! How much is it? That's ridiculous!'
'But you normally spend £4 on a plastic nail brush... '
'You're being ridiculous!' he shouts before hurrying away. She follows him and later they pass by again, still arguing.
A thick fog descends on the square up on the hill, and it's not even one o'clock in the afternoon.

10 November 2011

Keep Britain Tidy

Gardening can be like housework and for those of a tidy bent, this is a frantically busy time of year. Leaves must be removed from pathways, and they must be removed from steps. Yesterday I managed to turn the 'wild garden' at Brooke Hall into a kind of sitting room, and very tidy it was too. In a garden of 13 acres it would be demented to get over-concerned about tidiness in all areas, but still the leaves must be dealt with. It's really a matter of 'keeping the leaves on the move' as the head gardener puts it, and not allowing their accumulation to kill whatever is trying to survive underneath. The best way to do this is by blowing them away. Hoovering does happen, but in smaller parts of the garden. Even then it feels like a ludicrous thing to do, vacuuming around box parterres, underneath pleached limes which are surrounded by beech hedges. Whose insane planting plan was this? Didn't they think about all the leaves?

In order to master the fine art of blowing, certain rules must be observed. Never make a leaf pile. We don't use rakes, and we don't pick up piles of leaves either. Leaves must be blown to an appropriate place, either under bushes, or out into a neighbouring field. Pushing leaves under dense or unwieldy shrubs like the gunnera above, can feel like sweeping dust under the carpet. Too much volume, too little cover. Flower beds with hardy perennials in them are not much good for smothering either. If blowing into an adjacent field it is important to blow carefully over the top of whatever leaves are already there, spreading all the leaves out in a considerate manner. Piles of leaves would act like parting waves when approached by a machine. Evenly spread leaves on the other hand can be crunched into instant mulch by a ride-on mower. Underneath the many trees at Brooke Hall are circles of brown, which comprise bite-sized leaves ready for the breaking down process. 

It's a feast for worms. Sometimes, while pushing debris around, bigger leaves with pointy ends can stick determinedly into the ground. Despite the use of engine-powered equipment from Germany which I have been trained to operate at full throttle, it's a happy thought that the leaf is already being pulled quite a long way underground, and that there is an earthworm at the other end, holding on tight.

08 November 2011

Appreciating... Berberis & Co

Some plants have more of a point in Autumn
 Autumn has this effect: berberis pretends to be a bit more friendly...

... And pampas grass gives elegance a try, looking refreshingly cool amidst the red and yellow chaos.

03 November 2011

A Classic Weepie

The leaves of beech, and the trunk and bark of beech, are quietly beautiful for much of the year. It takes a while to come alive in spring, which is only really noticeable in beech hedges and topiary, still brown and crinkly when everything else has gone green. The late canopy in a beech wood suits bluebells just fine of course. At this time of year in the Wild Garden at Brooke Hall the acer and sorbus have gone a reliably mad red and supernatural orange-pink. But the beech sports every autumn colour, on one tree. When the sun shines horizontally across a cathedral-like beech it looks flood-lit. And a weeping cathedral-like beech (above) well, it's value-added, all year round.

For the perpetually confused: Beech left, hornbeam right. It's textural.

This beech column stands with another, beside a group of equally blameless yew columns. They bring a bit of structure to the front (or is it back?) door. But now, for a short time, it's discreetly wigging out.

01 November 2011

A Heated Debate

Most people love or hate a bonfire. It's unusual to quite like them. Some people aren't allowed them (Londoners, on health grounds). Others can only have them if they are land-rich (people from Connecticut need at least an acre of land, to protect the neighbours). But we country bumpkins in Middle England can muddle along how we like. Science with Peter has set up camp over at the Guardian and Observer allotment blog this week, and the theme is fire heaps, or bonfires. The Guardian likes a good row, so do join in. Just check for hedgehogs first.

31 October 2011

Notes from the Fire Heap

The fire heap at Marsh Hall is tucked behind one of the long walls of the kitchen garden. It does get lit sometimes, when the house is closed to the public. Away from the aesthetic perfection of a manor house however, allotments and back gardens across the country have their bonfires on full view (above), and they are smouldering away at this time of year without apology.

Some people hate the idea of fire heaps and worry that they may be illegal in some way. They cram as much as they can into their green bins and wait patiently for the fortnightly collection. Other people build heaps for burning, to complement their heaps for composting. They know that they will have a good source of potash by burning woody plants (which take years to break down), and weeds both annual and perennial, which could easily survive a domestic compost heap. These pyro enthusiasts tend towards the slightly older, more traditional person. I am not making any judgments on my friend Peter, who is a friend from Marsh Hall and a knowledgeable gardener, with a double-sized allotment in Northamptonshire. But Peter is passionately pro-fire 'with reservations'.

'I would say that the fire itself is carbon neutral,' he declares. 'It releases as much carbon dioxide as the burning plants removed when they were growing. Although... We are releasing it back into the atmosphere and that in itself is bad I suppose. But,' he continues rebelliously, 'those people who complain will gladly use a wood fire stove at home and take their children to a local bonfire party. AND an occasional fire to get rid of pernicious weeds is very small beer compared with a Chinese coal-fired power station!'

 I sense that people like Peter enjoy everything about fires. But, he says, the soil enjoys it too.

'The bonfire ash is extremely good as a soil structurant,' says Peter, who uses words like 'structurant' quite freely. 'The soil here is very clayey and the calcined clay particles in the ash heap help to separate the clay platelet structure, making the topsoil more workable and friable.' Also, the potash created from burning the plants is in itself is a good fertiliser. 'Remember though,' he adds. 'Always store bonfire ash under a plastic sheet as the potash is soluble and will easily wash out with rainfall.'

Many allotments have their own Bonfire Code, naturally, which will include some of the following points: 
Check that you are allowed to have them; it helps if your allotment is on the edge of or just outside a village/town/city.
Do not light a bonfire when the wind is blowing towards the inhabitants of said v/t/c. Monday is absolutely out, as some people still do their washing on Mondays, here in the middle of England.
Ditto allotment neighbours: they don't wish to inhale your smoke.
Look after your fire and prevent it from getting out of control and burning down hedgerows, etc.
Do not burn plastic, which smells extra bad, or other more ambitious objects like bedsteads which should go to the local dump.

26 October 2011

Hots in the Cots

It's hard to say whether the people of the Cotswolds will ever fall out of love with Elephant's Breath or any colour offered by Messrs Farrow & Ball. So it is always a disproportionately massive relief to find something striking a different note. Like this pot of chili peppers. For the sake of symmetry there is another one on the other side, containing a different variety in a slightly mismatched Spanish pot. If the chatelaine had consulted the manual of good taste she might have put out some politely eccentric topiary, or a couple of safe standard bays. But with chili, it's a discordant look which is all the better for being temporary, and the Cotswold stone with fabulous lamp looks even better for it.

23 October 2011

Tough Cluck

Hen houses are a bit like people houses: the most attractive are not always the most practical. My friend Fran has sixteen rescue chickens and they live in a couple of wooden sheds. They prefer to lay their eggs in a large cardboard box and they dine out of old saucepans, tucked underneath one of these sheds. They would feel as unappreciative of a freshly-painted chalet as she would.