Most of us enjoy the birds, hedgehogs, dragonflies, frogs, newts and butterflies that visit our gardens but I also have rabbits, deer, moles and voles to tolerate not to mention the large grass snakes that have taken up residence this summer. Surely this means I am a successful wildlife gardener?
There is usually a flip side to success and when it comes to snakes most of us do not want to share our gardens with these cool, long, slick creatures, me included. However these discreet sun worshipers have been squeezed out of their own habitat as hedgerows and woodland are ploughed or built over. I don’t therefore feel it would be correct for me to turf them out of my garden as much as I would like to. There is only one thing for it and that is to get used to the new occupants but it might take me a while.
Surprisingly I have come across a distinct lack of sympathy to my plight “Oh grass snakes are not venomous, I don’t know what you’re worried about”. I can only put this down to the fact that most people are not as intimate with their gardens as I am – or am I just being wimpish? You must agree that it is rather a shock when, after a long days work, you find yourself squatting next to a neatly coiled up grass snake in the polytunnel whilst weeding the tomatoes. However this is the best news ever for the common Natrix natrix if people really are as tolerant of snakes in their gardens as they are trying to lead me to believe. Hoorah!
For a great read on wildlife gardening “No Nettles Required” by Ken Thompson
My productive vegetable garden reclaimed from scrub land 5 years ago – the hedgerows are harvested for logs by coppicing and hedge laying, there are hens, compost bins, fruit trees, log storage, polytunnels willow beds and Phormium (for weaving). Birds nest in the trees and hedges (goldfinch, bullfinch, chaffinch, greenfinch, blackbirds, wrens, pigeons, thrushes, etc…), a huge grass snake has decided to make its home here too.
High labour inputs this time of year but there will be food for the house right through until next spring.
I have been wowed by the perfection of the naturalistic planting schemes presented to us by leading designers at Chelsea this year. This is a style of planting that I particularly like; complex, textural, dynamic herbaceous perennials bolstered by strong structural forms such as carved stone or wood and clipped living buttons, balls, cubes, rectangles, cones, spirals and clouds.
At this time of year it is the herbaceous perennials that are the stars of the show, be that in our gardens at home or at Chelsea. However these are just the final detail in the overall design, put in to soften the functional elements such as pools, paths, hedges and garden buildings. Get the layout right and then you can have fun with the planting.
During Chelsea week I scrutinised my own garden borders which are naturalistic in style but planted in drifts for easier maintenance, not surprisingly they left me with a sense of disappointment. My budget for the garden has not stretched to finished topiary shapes and unless I partake in daily tinkering there will be few days in the year when the beds will look like perfection. Scrutiny is good however, it helps me to see what needs to be done and if I am to be master of my borders that means regular input and time.
Unlike in the house, nothing stays the same for long in the garden, plants don’t stay where you put them, weeds sprout up, things flop, lawns get shaggy, flower spikes fade, rabbits and slugs nibble, etc… None of this occurs in a show garden, gardening at home is a process over time, enmeshing the gardener with the seasons where rewards are directly related to effort.
The magic is that most of us see beyond our efforts, our minds bending what is reality into a beautiful finished picture possibly like one of the gardens at Chelsea?
2014 Laurent-Perrier garden designed by Luciano Giubbilei
“Water is the eye of the landscape” this is what my lecturer Peter Thoday used to tell us. Reservoirs, lakes, rivers, the sea and even our small garden ponds; they never fail to demand our attention, their magical surfaces reflecting the moods of the weather and the shifting shadows of the surrounding landscape. Up close we are drawn to peer into the depths or maybe indulge in a bit of wild swimming.
This medium, the source of life on our blue planet, can be manipulated endlessly to create sound, habitat, irrigation, etc… and the garden at Shute House ( Donhead St Mary, near Shaftesbury) illustrates this rather well.
It was at Shute House that I found myself on a winding path through a lush grove of Camelia and Prunus laurocerassus which opened onto a deep circular pool, squeezing me and the path up against the overhanging greenery. The crystal water was deep with hints of turquoise as it disappeared from view.
In the 1960′s, garden designer, Geoffrey Jellicoe used the water from this spring fed pool, weaving it around the modest sized garden in the form of pools, canals, musical waterfalls and rills before releasing it out of the garden through two more pools in the water meadow below and eventually into the river Nadder at the bottom of the valley. An ingenious use of a natural water source in a hillside garden and described by many as Jellicoe’s ‘masterpiece’.
Be inspired! Water in the garden does not have to rely on a natural spring or stream, nor on a pumped system from the mains tap. It falls freely from the sky, can be captured and used in our gardens creatively. Nigel Dunnett, of Sheffield University, designs with rainwater to create “rain gardens”, magical! http://www.nigeldunnett.info/Raingardens/
“Never do anything without having three good reasons” this is a permaculture principal I prefer to follow. As a result I have been holding off tidying my garden beds all winter aware that all the dead stems and leaves from last year’s growth have been helping to protect the soil from the pounding rain, that they have provided shelter for insects and amphibians as well as protecting the crowns of my plants from the worst of the weather. I know that a tidy garden is not the best wildlife garden but people do judge me by my garden so I try to aim for a happy balance. I have been missing my garden for months now so I am itching to get out there and do a bit of gardening and I want to enjoy the effect of the spring bulbs when I look out from the window.
Every action has a knock on effect so scooping up all the dead stems from around my collapsed herbaceous perennials exposes hiding weed seedlings and makes the beds look tidy but my action breaks the carbon cycle removing the nutrient source for all the associated micro-organisms in the decomposition process. My soil will be more prone to ‘capping’ (surface compaction), weed seed germination, loss of soil micro-organisms and the associated humus and fertility but not all is lost, my dry twiggy debris is added to my compost bins and last season’s compost (which is ready) is returned to the beds so ‘mending’ the carbon cycle.
Having spent a few hours today, out there in the crazy wind, I can now enjoy the dainty snowdrops, Eranthus, Crocus and primroses in tidier beds, I have exposed weeds and made a start on dealing with these; the ephemeral, peppery and edible Hairy Bittercress and the irritating Poa annua undaunted, merrily pushing up flower heads, the tiny dandelion rosettes doing their best to get a hold without my noticing. Now I am motivated to get an early start on my weeding and whilst tiptoeing through the beds I see the tell tell signs of rabbits, grrhh, I get excited about plants that I will take cuttings from any day now, plants that I will divide. I prune the roses and the apple tree whilst I am there, the spotted purple apple prunings will be woven into something in my workshop. Oh it is very cold and blustery but whilst the rain holds off it is such a treat to get out there and to be up close to ‘spring’.
My 3 good reasons, well 3 or more reasons: gardening makes me happy and feel alive, material for the compost bin, getting a head start on the weeds, ‘taking off a load’ from some of the perennials in this strong wind, getting ready for propagation, collecting weaving materials, planning pest and disease control measures…
A beautiful bright sky this morning, cotton wool clouds sailing across a pure blue background, a strong biting wind ruining any plans of enjoying some gentle pruning in the orchard. This morning I was scheduled to welcome Shepton Mallet Horticultural Society to my orchard for a pruning practical but the weather forecast of chilling winds and heavy rain led this to being cancelled; this is the gist of what I was going to talk to them about.
Spacing is a funny thing, books tell you one thing and yet horticulturists constantly bend the rules – and you can if you have a plan. Traditional cider orchards are planted at approximately 10m x 10m with the plan that the grass is managed by grazing animals. It is an extensive and relatively low input system which works beautifully (other than risk of physical damage to the trees and soil compaction if badly managed). In other orchards you will find spacings anywhere from the 10m to an in-row spacing of 2.5m or even less (i.e. the hedgerow system). Inputs increase proportionately with closer spacing as there will be more pests and diseases, more trees to purchase and plant, more supports will be required, more spraying, more mowing, etc….
I find in my job that fruit trees in gardens cause a lot of misery; ‘the tree is shading my garden’, ‘this tree was planted too close to this one what should I do’, ‘my tree is growing too big’, ‘the tree produces far too much fruit’, ‘the fruit make such a mess’, ‘If only I knew how to prune’, etc… Gardeners tend to fear trees that grow beyond their reach and respond aggressively yet horticulture is all about understanding plants and responding or manipulating growth accordingly, it is a fantastic occupation whereby you develop a relationship with each plant through the seasons.
Some knowledge and courage, a good dose of patience along with regular interaction are key when it comes to managing fruit trees. First, rather than be swayed by romantic notions or impulse buying (1) be sure you do want to plant a tree in your garden bearing in mind its mature size (2) do your research; find out which rootstock is appropriate to your conditions as this will give you an idea of how big the tree will grow, of what sort of staking is required and it will help you decide on an appropriate spacing (3) decide from the outset on the shape of the tree you going to prune to, this will also be influenced by the shape of the tree you are buying. Plants are among the most forgiving of living organisms, they will grow despite your mistakes or neglect, they will usually give you a second chance however the more knowledge and practice you have under your belt, the more beautiful and fruitful your trees will be.
Rootstocks are not just about final size of tree, more vigorous rootstocks should be chosen on difficult soils (e.g. clay). That said it is a complex balance between choice of rootstock/ soil conditions, vigour of variety (e.g. Bramley and most other large apple varieties are very vigorous trees ), pruning and cultivars that you like to eat and have a use for.
So we come to pruning, traditionally fruit trees were grown as lovely open centred, bowl shaped trees, these allowed good air flow and sunlight into the heart of the tree however these days the trend (particularly in orchards) is for a central leader. Open centre trees require a lot of regular pruning and can suffer from poor (weak) branch angles whilst trees pruned to a central leader will tend to grow taller with good branch angles and a gentle taper from base to tip. I am growing my 500 cider apple trees with a central leader and I am aiming for spiralling layers of branches, about 3 branches per layer, so as to allow good light levels around each branch.
My trees are young and I am in the early days of developing a relationship with them. Some of them are growing ‘text book style’ whilst others can’t decide which shoot is going to be a leader, it is up to me on chilly winter days to make executive decisions as to which stem I elect as leader and which I cut out. My choice may not look obvious right now and my decision will be revisited next winter once I see how the tree responded to my cut(s). It is also now that I can evaluate the quality of the taper on my trees, if the trunk constricts too severely at a point that means that I have too many branches in a ‘layer’ and that the sap is taking the easiest route and being diverted into the branches of that layer rather than flowing evenly up to the tip of the tree. I want the sap to feed each branch equally and I want a gentle even tapering trunk for strength.
I have planted my orchard with an aim, I have an outlet for the fruit (piltoncider.com) and I love the idea of transforming a flat field into a dynamic bio-diverse environment knowing that what I am doing has its roots in the Somerset tradition. Since I have an outlet for the fruit, I want to grow a big a crop as possible; I am farming light, light which will interact with the leaves to produce sugars which are converted into woody growth and apples. The taller the tree with beautifully spiralling well spaced branches, the more potential for a good harvest. All I need to do is cut out branches at the trunk in order to preserve the ‘taper’ of the trunk, this is called replacement pruning, it is simple to do and I don’t have to worry about shortening side shoots. If the tree is well pruned in its formative years then it will have the best start in life, just like us. A neglected tree but one which was given a good shape to start with can usually be brought back into shape over a few seasons by appropriate pruning but never remove more than 25% in any one season (little and often is best).
I understand that in a garden setting the aims are usually different and a glut situation is very rapidly reached so you might not want a big tall tree however a big tree is good for wildlife. Trees in the garden significantly contribute to biodiversity and the bigger the better! The more layers of vegetation (height) in the garden, the more habitat, shelter, the more food, the more creatures both microscopic and bigger, the more complex food webs. If you don’t have space for a tree, or trees, you can still have layers of vegetation from short grass to long grass, through to herbaceous perennials, small and larger shrubs plus a few bug hotels strategically placed around the garden.
An apple tree can live 100 years, when you plant a tree you are planting for the future, your choices (of variety, rootstock and spacing) will have a bearing on its chances of growing into a majestic specimen.
Summer management – this is another subject but for now just to say that… young trees (and shrubs) must be kept weed free around their base for at least 5-10 years or longer depending upon the vigour of the plant, this is a very common problem in gardens. If you have a plant growing in the lawn which just doesn’t seem to be putting on any growth it is because of the competition from the grass – hard to believe but true, a very common mistake in gardens.
A multi approach to gardening is always the best approach – the diversely planted garden will give you year round harvest of flowers, stems, foliage, fruit, seed heads; it will provide for wildlife on all levels throughout the year (shelter, food, hibernation…); it will protect the soil structure and the tiny soil micro-organisms; it will look more interesting and will be so for everything and everyone… This time of year, I harvest Christmas decorations from the garden such as the lovely fruit of Crataegus prunifolia, Iris foetidissima, the exotic Buddleia and Actaea seed heads, scented sprigs of rosemary, sage, bay and lavender.
The recent spell of dry weather has allowed Dave and his team to make good progress on this exciting project. It is a year since I started work on the plans, now plants have been lifted, the site cleared, top soil and subsoil relocated into neat mounds nearby, all the marking out is done plus some of the leveling, the concrete foundations for the rill, pools, canal and upper pool are in, the topiary and pleached hedges have been chosen….
During my site visit earlier this week a JCB gently hummed away as it excavated trenches for new yew hedges, blocks were being laid for the rills closeby and lazer levels beeped at all corners of the gardens ensuring the design is implemented to +/- 3mm precision.