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.'