Show The Love With A Green Heart

February is ‘Show the Love’ month. People across the country are wearing and sharing green hearts to show our love for the natural world in the face of climate change. ‘Show The Love’ is run by the Climate Change coalition, a Non-Governmental Organisation dedicated to action on climate change made up of 100+ member groups with over 15 million members all over the UK. On the Climate Change Coalition website there’s an interactive map showing activities around the UK and places where green hearts are available. There are some interesting mini-stories, with links to more detailed articles on the way climate change might affect such varied topics as tea, the arctic, herons, coffee, gardening, coral reefs, bluebells, hot summers and chocolate.

As a tea-drinking, bird-watching gardener the facts behind these stories make for uncomfortable reading, but obviously there’s much more to it than that. It’s about respect, about safeguarding our planet for ourselves, our wildlife and those who will inherit our world with all its wonders and all its problems. On the Climate Coalition website you can sign up to be part of campaigns or you can follow the campaign on Facebook or Twitter. Individual member organisations also often have campaigns which you can sign up to – helping spread the word and increase pressure on politicians by writing letters and joining peaceful protests.

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Show the Love for our natural world

I’ve struggled recently, like many others, to maintain a positive attitude in the face of political and environmental news. The relationship between humankind and the natural world, and our understanding of its importance, not just to our emotional well-being but to our survival as a species, seems to be degenerating by the day. Thinking about these big issues is overwhelming, leading at times to paralysis, a state where depression can affect the ability to act. So I’ve been trying to focus on the positives, trying to stay rooted in the here and now, concentrating on actions I can undertake which make a small difference.

I think about all the people around the country volunteering in community gardens, in public spaces where people can engage with nature and focus on its importance in our lives. Our community garden helps local people develop relationships with plants and the natural world. This is just a small step towards avoiding ‘plant blindness’ – a lack of awareness of the fundamental role plants play in feeding us, helping maintain our environment and treat our diseases. I think about my kids and the primary school children I work with, about the way nature opens their eyes, connecting them with the natural world – its beauty, complexity and importance.

I’ve been focusing on just two or three organisations which I can support by donating and writing campaign letters, rather than feeling I somehow have to support every cause and fight every corner. I don’t feel that focusing on the positives is evasion or delusion – it’s a coping strategy which allows me to continue fighting whilst maintaining a degree of sanity and a better quality of life.

What are your coping strategies and how helpful have you found them? What do you think are the most important steps individuals can take towards improving the way we view and safeguard wildlife and the environment? 

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I picked ivy for my green heart as it epitomises the every day plants which surround me. They aren’t unusual but they form the basis of my love of nature…

If you’d like to follow the blog to read more about the plants which have inspired my love of the natural world, just click on the link below…

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How to Engage Kids in a Small Family Garden Part 2: Wildlife Wows

We want our kids to engage with nature, to learn to respect animals, plants and natural environments, but sometimes in our busy, modern lives this can seem a difficult task. Gardens are a great place for children to develop a meaningful relationship with the natural world and even the smallest garden or courtyard can play a fundamental role in creating the wildlife ‘wows’ which can kickstart a lifelong love of nature. Here are a few simple ways to bring nature into the garden and how they’ve helped us appreciate the wildlife around our local patch.

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My kids love the I Spy books – they are great for simple ID information

 

Our Feathered Friends

Birds offer accessible wildlife encounters. They are widespread, large enough to see clearly at a distance and most are fairly easily identified with a basic birdbook. Attracting birds to the garden is quite easy with a feeder and simple birdbath. A birdbath can be created with a large plate or plant saucer. (It’s helpful if the edges slope or if a ramp is constructed from something like a small piece of wood to allow small creatures to get out of the water if they fall in.) Fat balls can be bought and hung in feeders or from strings, or they can be made with kids by melting fat (suet or lard) and incorporating seeds, nuts or dried fruits before it cools – about one-third fat to two-thirds mixture. It can then be set into the required shape and hung in the garden or laid on the bird table. We have kept the plastic trays from recently bought fat blocks to use as moulds for our own bird treats. (NB: If fat balls are sold in mesh bags, always remove the bag before hanging them out for the birds as it can trap and injure them.)

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Sunflower hearts in our feeder…

The starlings which nest in next-door’s roof are particularly fond of the fat balls and visiting tits and finches like sunflower hearts. We did used to put out niger seeds for the goldfinches, but over the past few years they seem to have rejected these in favour of the sunflower hearts, so we have stopped providing them. Birds can easily be watched from the window or a concealed place in the garden, although this week a very scruffy robin has been down within a couple of metres of me and the kids to collect insects from the lawn.

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This is the favourite book when learning letters at the moment…

Red kites soaring overhead are another favourite in the garden, but nothing can beat the experience we had a couple of years ago when a pair of great tits were nesting in the bird box outside the shed. The children had been watching the pair feeding young for several days and we’d listened, entranced, as the young greeted each adult visit with very audible cheeping. Then one day we were at the end of the garden when the youngsters decided they were ready to leave the nest. They came out one by one over a period of about ten minutes and the kids saw each one leave, the last emerging and flying over to the fruit cage where it landed on my shoulder for a few seconds before fluttering off over the fence. It was a really magical experience – a wildlife ‘wow’ which will be remembered by all the family for many years to come.

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Our well used bird box

To see the YouTube video of our great tit flying from the bird box to the window feeder to collect sunflower hearts, click here…

I love the fact that my kids notice birds and deem them worthy of close attention. My father is a keen birdwatcher and I don’t remember a time when my experience of place wasn’t inherently coloured by its birdlife. Wherever I go, I’m aware of the birds I can see or hear (both those I can identify and those I can’t) and the habitats that indicate which species might be around. This awareness has been developed through years of observing very ordinary birds in very ordinary locations, but it is a large part of who I am when I’m outside and I hope my children come to feel this way too.

Magnified Mini-Beasts

A couple of years ago I bought the kids an explorer outfit and it came with a magnifying pot which has been a big success. Bug hunts around the garden have uncovered all sorts of creatures which live nearby, but which we have never seen in such detail. It has also taught us about the value of watching and waiting, for the first worm to emerge from the vegetable bed or for the spiders to crawl out from under the greenhouse staging. Observing and discussing is easier when the insect can be studied for a little while before it is released back where it came from.

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What have I here?

There are excellent, free or cheap resources to help kids and parents identify mini-beasts such as the Woodland Trust’s ‘Creepy Crawly Spotter Sheet’ which can be downloaded for free or their Minibeast Swatch Book, which we gave to the kids for Christmas, and which has handy little flaps which show pictures of a number of common species with helpful information on the back. The Guide to the Butterflies of Britain laminated fold-out chart produced by the FSC and available from sites like the RSPB shop is also handy to carry around and really informative. My kids also like looking at all the colourful pictures. (These suggestions are purely based on personal experience. I derive no financial benefit from any of my recommendations.)

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Minibeast Swatch Book

 

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The Guide to the Butterflies of Britain

One of our favourite mini-beast encounters in the garden was with a snail so large it didn’t really deserve the title ‘mini’-beast. We found Roman the snail, who was a Roman, Burgundy or Apple snail (Helix pomartia), in our garden about 5 years ago. I discovered him on the side of our raised beds with a small army of less enormous snails in attendance. Once we’d identified him we decided Roman was an appropriate name due to his species and seeming leadership qualities. We watched him over the following 3 years as he munched his way through our lettuces.

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Little hand, big snail

He used to hibernate on the outside of the raised bed by the fruit cage and then appear in the spring, ready to be spotted every few days around the garden in a good-natured game of hunt the snail. Then a couple of springs ago he seemed slow and wasn’t even interested in the lettuce we left out near him. A few weeks later I found his empty shell and we sadly said goodbye to our loveable garden companion. We kept the shell and the kids like to compare it to our normal garden snails – an example of the fascinating variations in nature.

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Our molluscular friend

 

Plants for Pollinators

At this year’s school summer fete (at my children’s primary school) I choose ‘Plants for Pollinators’ as the theme for the plant stall to encourage the kids to learn a bit more about these essential creatures. We had a visit before the fete to a local community garden for a tour of the pollinator area and to plant out some sunflowers for pollinators. I grew 45 dwarf sunflowers (an almost impossible task due to the local ninja slugs) for the fete along with many other plants for pollinators, and most were bought by both parents and children to be planted in gardens and containers. We also had a pollinator quiz and sold cakes which highlighted which insects were our key pollinators and what their role was in our food production.

 

Busy week in the kitchen baking for the fete

I was aiming to get kids thinking about our reliance on these important creatures and I believe we can all do this by growing and planting sunflowers or other flowers to attract pollinating insets to the garden. A dwarf sunflower (I grew ‘Waooh!’ and ‘Little Leo’) has the advantage of large seeds which are easy for children to handle and plant, it doesn’t need staking and the flowers are produced close to eye-level on a plant which will be equally happy in the ground or in a pot. The seeds should be sown between March and June, either in a greenhouse or on a windowsill. They flower from July to September. I find it is best to get them well established with sturdy stems before planting them out as then they are less susceptible to slug damage. If planted in a container I have found using copper tape (easily purchased from nurseries, garden centres or online) around the perimeter of the pot to be extremely successful in warding off unwanted hungry visitors.

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And a busy few months in the garden raising my army of dwarf sunflowers

Although the sunflowers aren’t blooming yet, earlier in the week a hummingbird hawk moth visited the flowerbed, alighting briefly on the borage and calendula flowers before speeding off to grace another garden with its presence. It’s the first time I’ve seen this species in the garden and luckily my daughter also caught its quick floral tour. I even attempted to film some of it, but due to my inept videoing skills, only filmed the bark path along with my excited commentary!

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Our edible flowers are also loved by the pollinators

 

Create Habitats

One final way to encourage wildlife encounters in the garden is to create habitats for our native species. This can be done in even the smallest of space by inserting a few drinking straws, bamboo canes or some straw into a cardboard tube and hanging it up to provide nesting sites for beneficial insects like lacewings and ladybirds. A small pile of sticks on the ground or a larger log provides a home for beetles, woodlice and other ground dwelling creatures. On a slightly bigger scale, hedges provide nest sites and shelter for wildlife and long grass creates habitat for insects like caterpillars (a good excuse if you never get time to mow the lawn!)

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The kids made a bug hotel

Getting kids involved in creating habitats leads to interesting conversations. It helps them understand what wildlife requires in order to thrive (places to shelter, breed, forage and feed) and how we can help to provide these habitats in our gardens. It’s exciting when animals discover the habitats and begin to use them – when great tits decided to nest in the bird box for another year or when the solitary bees found the holes in our binstore and sealed up the entrance with mud to protect their developing eggs, the children felt that they had made a real connection with nature.

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The kids watched the bees for ages flying in and out of the holes

Small children are the most amazing sponges and they get excited about anything which excites those around them. When they experience amazing wildlife encounters in the garden, they realise that nature is all around us. They build up a relationship with this natural location over a period of time – seeing it develop through the seasons and watching the development of the plants and animals. They make simple discoveries which reveal the wonder of the natural world and they create memories which will influence who they become in later years.

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Ladybird in the limelight

If you have found these ideas interesting and useful, do check out the first in the series ‘Building a Willow Den’ and subscribe below for notification when I publish the last two posts in the series: ”Sowing and Growing’ and ‘Magical Lands’. I’d also love to hear about the Wildlife Wows you have shared in your garden. Thank you.

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Binstore Green Roof (Part 3): Plants, plants, plants…

We’ve had our binstore with its green roof since March and it’s been lovely not to return home each day to our recycling bins lining the drive. In that respect the binstore has been a great success, but until this week the green roof was only very partially planted, waiting for me to source more plants and get round to putting them in. The substrate had been added and the binstore even has resident bees nesting in the holes in the side, so now it’s time for the best bit – choosing and adding the plants.

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The thyme corner

The first plant to go in was Thymus vulgaris ‘Silver Queen’. Thyme seemed a natural choice as the site is in full sun and the substrate purposely low in nutrients to make it suitable for sedums and other alpine plants. Next I added two small sedums which I found at my local nursery – Sedum spathulifolium‘Cape Blanco’ and Sedum spathulifolium ‘Purpureum’.

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The first few plants arrive…

To Eat or Not to Eat?

I had a few Dianthus deltoides and Armeria maritima left from some planting in the front garden and gravel path, so I also added these to the roof. By this point I’d abandoned the principle of only including edible or otherwise useful plants and decided that aesthetic appeal could also count on the ‘useful’ front as they make me feel good, especially when the Sedum ‘Cape Blanco’ flowered and then retained its yellow flowers for weeks and weeks. I’ve also decided not to grow alpine strawberries on the roof this year. I was intending to dig up some Fragraria vesca ‘White Soul’ which I’d grown from seed last year and planted temporarily in the front garden, but their temporary position seems to be suiting them and they’re thriving, so it seems a shame to move them. Instead I’m going to grow some more from seed and plant them in the roof next year.

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Sedum flowers shining in the sun

Handy Herbs

Then, earlier this week, I was ready to add the rest of the plants. I planted an Indian Mint (Satureja douglasii) which is a lovely trailing herb with light green leaves and dainty white flowers. It can be used as edible edging in hanging baskets and containers, and although it isn’t a true mint (it’s a tender perennial), it can be used to make an aromatic mint tea. I also planted another Satureja – Satureja montana or Winter Savoury. This hardy perennial is great with mushroom dishes and in stuffing. It can also be used as a replacement for thyme in many recipes. Salad Burnet (Sanguisorba minor) joined the herb collection, to be used as a cucumber flavoured addition to salads, sauces and sandwiches, along with French Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) for adding flavour to chicken dishes.

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Thyme and dianthus settling in nicely

Edible Flowers

I’d grown two varieties of nasturtium from seed – Tropaeolum ‘Tip Top Velvet’ and Tropaeolum ‘Salmon Baby’, so I added my small plants around the back and sides of the roof. These will hopefully trail downwards to create colour and also provide spicy leaves and petals for salads. Previously I’ve grown nasturtium in the veg beds with the kids and they haven’t flowered well, possibly because the soil is too high in nutrients. I’ll be interested to see if they flower more prolifically in the lower nutrient content of the green roof substrate.

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Nasturtiums ready for planting

 

Local Treasures

Last weekend I spent 12 hours over two days selling plants I’d grown from seed at my son’s school fete and at our local community garden open day. I love meeting people who are interested in plants and helping to raise money for good causes. I also get to explore other people’s plant donations and add to my own stocks by buying a few lovely specimens. This year I bought some Sempervivum arachnoideum to add to the green roof and some cheerful dahlias for the pots at the front of the house.

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At head height the sedums and sempervivums can be appreciated in all their fine detail

Thyme and Chillies

I added another thyme – Thymus x citrodora ‘Aureo’ next to the silver thyme and then I selected several chillies from my seemingly endless collection this year – ‘Piri Piri’, ‘Habanero Red’, ‘Habanero Big Sun’, Prairie Fire’ ‘Albertos Locoto’ (tree chilli) and ‘Jalapeno’ and planted them in the middle of the roof. I’m not sure whether they’ll thrive – it’s a bit of an experiment. I’m going to feed them to encourage flowering and fruiting and we’ll see how it goes.

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Chillies in their new home

Climbing Companions

Finally I planted some Thunbergia (Black-eyed Susan) at the base of the binstore where they will hopefully climb up the trellis, covering the front with summer colour and meeting the nasturtiums as they trail downwards.

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The thunbergia began to climb almost immediately

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And within a week has produced its first flower

An Inspiration Gap

There is still one space at the back of the roof which is empty. I’m not sure what to add to finish the roof for this season – it needs to be happy in full sun, be able to tolerate fairly poor soil, look attractive and, if possible, be edible. I’d love to hear any suggestions for this space as it’s always great to grow and learn about new plants.

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The final space…

Over to You…

Please leave me your plant suggestions in the comments and I’ll pick one or two to plant in the roof. I’ll include a comment below in a week or so, to explain which suggestions I’m going to get and why. Then I’ll post again later in the summer when I’ll hopefully be able to share images of the plants in at their best, including the selections offered by my readers.

Thank you in advance and do subscribe to my blog so that you’ll hear about the progress of the green roof in a few weeks’ time.

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Chillies and nasturtium waving in the wind

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The (mostly) completed green roof

Allotment 96B: New Beginnings

Ten years ago I went on the allotment waiting list. Local sites are heavily oversubscribed and I was expecting a substantial wait. Five years later, with one small child and another on the way I decided to come off the list as allotmenteering seemed unfeasible in the blur of family life. Instead we worked on our new garden, trying to include as much space for growing as possible.

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The mini-potager in our back garden

Put off but not forgotten

But I still had a secret hankering for more space – for growing brassicas, potatoes and other crops which aren’t really worth the space in our small raised beds, for experimenting with new plants, for a cutting garden, for oca trials, for experiencing gluts … the list went on and on! Then, this year, with school for my youngest on the horizon, I decided it was time to rejoin the list. Perhaps in a mere six years we would have our own allotment waiting for us… Three months later I received a phone call and within a week we took over Plot 98B with a certain amount of trepidation.

Initial plans for the allotment – the 3 central beds have now been made into 4

The plot in early April… then dug over ready for potatoes

Plot 98B

We chose 98B out of 3 possibilities. Plus points included 4 established rhubarb plants, 2 long rows of autumn raspberries, 3 blackcurrants (or some may be reds), 2 compost bins, a shed, a strawberry raised bed and resident celeriac and broad beans. Also one of the other plots had swede and leeks – ours didn’t (another plus point).

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Our handy little shed

Our weeds

The shed needs some sorting (tidying, water butt fitting, minor repairs), but overall is in pretty good nick. The plot does have quite a lot of perennial weeds, mostly couch grass and poppies with some bindweed thrown in for good measure, but the poppies look stunning and were covered in bees this morning, so at least we’re doing our bit for pollinators!

Poppies smothered in bees

Our crops

The celeriac was swiftly despatched into several batches of soup and I’ve been harvesting the broad beans with the kids to be eaten young, barely parboiled in salads. The broad beans and poppies seem to be harmoniously sharing the same space – we’ll have a go at digging out the poppies and their long tap roots when the beans are over. The rhubarb has already manfully supplied several crumbles, pots of stewed fruit and 4 or 5 rhubarb sponges (my favourite). It’s now destined for cordial and jam.

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The poppies and broad beans happily coexisting

The plot is split up into 6 beds and the fruit takes up 1 1/2, leaving 4 1/2 beds to play with. Today I’ve dug over the 1/2 bed between the rhubarb and Jerusalem artichokes and planted 2 courgette ‘Tricolor’ and one Fuchsia berry which we’re trying this year for its fruits. We have four more to plant but this one is the guinea pig (I didn’t tell it) to see if anything eats the plant (slugs, snails, birds, deer…) If so, I’ll need to protect the others when I plant them out.

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Courgettes and fuchsia berry planted out

One bed has already been planted with potatoes ‘Lady Christl’, shallots ‘Picasso’ and onions ‘Red Baron’. That leaves 2 more beds to dig over and plant – with my trial oca plants (all 14 of them!), a runner bean, cucamelon and trombocino wigwam, brassicas (Brussel sprouts ‘Rubine’ and Kohlrabi ‘Olivia F1’) and root crops (Celeriac ‘Monarch’ and a mix of rainbow carrots and beetroot). I feel very behind where I’d like to be, but having only taken on the plot in April and with a small family in tow most of the time I guess I should be pleased with any progress we make!

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Potatoes and rhubarb

Jerusalem artichoke ambivalence

One happy chance find (or possibly not – I’ll let you know) is the large clump of Jerusalem artichokes in the corner of the plot. I’m ambivalent about their taste and have not really found any super successful recipes, but judging by the amount we will be unearthing in November I’d better get working on a range of delicious ways to cook them! We dug out a large area which had encroached on the path last week and passed a couple of bags of tubers on to other people courtesy of a local facebook gardening swap site (not without the warning that it might be better to plant them in a big pot rather than in the ground).

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The Jerusalem artichokes are big, bold and a little intimidating

Our small allotmenteers

The kids are enjoying their allotment experience. They’ve made new small friends on neighbouring plots, ‘helped’ digging holes, watering and we’ve been working on their own dinosaur garden. They chose the plants (the most yellow form of heuchera they could find – ‘Electra’ as yellow is their favourite colour) and planted them in a tyre which we got from the local garage.

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‘Planting’ trees in the dinosaur garden

They’ve collected stones to put around the edge and we’ve started painting the tyre with acrylic paints (yellow) to live it up a bit. Then the big pot of dinosaurs comes out every visit and they create a Jurassic scene. We’ve also had the bug box out examining the mini-beasts on the plot (snails, snails, snails… and slugs) and they’ve both got grubby and tired – result!

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The dinosaurs have found a new home

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The heuchera in the dinosaur garden

All in all the first few weeks of having an allotment has been fun, we’re already eating the proceeds and I’m looking forward watching it grow, weeds and all.

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I found this little beauty, Tragopogon porrifolius (Purple Salsify), growing wild in the meadow verge adjacent to the allotment path

What hints and tips would you give to newbie allotmenteers like us? Please leave a comment for us – we’d love to hear your thoughts. To see our allotment as it develops, follow the blog here:

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Currants, raspberries, rhubarb and strawberries

Onion/shallot bed and the rest of our, as yet unplanted, growing space

My Hard-Working Garden: An Ongoing Transformation (Part 2)

Welcome back to my potter through the changes in our back garden over the past 6 years. In the last post I considered the diverse aims of many modern gardens and their similarity to the older styles of cottage, potager and walled gardens – that of combining utility and beauty in one place. My garden is no different. We wanted a space to provide fruit and vegetables for the family, to have flowers (some for cutting), to provide a place for the kids to play, grow (in all senses of the word), explore and have fun, and to give us somewhere to be outside with friends and family.

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Stunning sunflowers  – beautiful and edible

Fruit Cage Protection

Previously I looked at the side espalier/herb border and the spring garden. This leads on to the fruit cage, which has now been established for 5 years and which provides us with raspberries (‘Joan J’, ‘Allgold’, ‘Glen Moy’ and ‘Glen Ample’), currants (red ‘Rovada’, white ‘Blanca’ and black ‘Ben Connan’), blueberries (‘Patriot’, ‘Chandler’, ‘Earliblue’, ‘Bluecrop’ and ‘Pink Lemonade’) and rhubarb (‘Timperley Early’ and ‘Early Champagne’) throughout the summer. I had grown fruit in our previous, extremely small garden and remember vividly the morning I pottered outside in my pjs to pick the gooseberries which were perfectly ripe – only to find the bush had been stripped by creatures unknown. I blame hormones for the tears I cried over this mishap (I was pregnant with my first child at the time), but to be honest I think I might still react the same way now.

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The fruit cage – worth its weight in raspberries

So I determined to investigate small fruit cages for our new patch to give me a head start in the fight to save the fruit. We decided to buy a walk-in 2m x 3.5m aluminium fruit cage from Harrod Horticultural. It was a bit of an investment, but five years on it is still looking great and we’ve lost no fruit in all that time, so I reckon it’s paid its dues, especially when you consider soft fruit prices and the amounts we’ve picked. It just needs the netting roof removing in early winter and replacing in spring. Occasionally young dunnocks get in under the pegged down netting and need to be chased out again. Never any other birds – always dunnocks, presumably because of their habit of footling around in the undergrowth. But apart from that it’s pretty maintenance-free.

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Sweet peas and sunflowers in front of the fruit cage

One of the disadvantages in a small cage is having enough room to move between the plants. The raspberries are planted in two rows so I can get between them to pick – just. But a couple of years ago the gooseberry ‘Invicta’ I’d grown from a cutting had to be donated to a friend because of its antisocial habit of lacerating me every time I squeezed past to get to the rhubarb. Now I’ve got an allotment we’ve been able to plant a new gooseberry, a red ‘Hinnonmaki’, so gooseberry crumble will be on the menu again – a very small one this year – provided I get round to erecting some kind of netting round it!

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One of last year’s colourful fruit harvests

Raised Vegetable Bed Bounty

In front of the fruit cage are my two raised vegetable beds which I designed to allow a small path between the beds and the lawn/flower border. They are constructed out of wood, which despite being sturdy and treated, is badly rotting at the base after only 5 years and looks like it will need replacing in the autumn.

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Protected growing in spring

Over the past few years we’ve grown a range of different crops in the raised beds, including oca, potatoes, flowers for pollinators and for cutting, salad leaves, courgettes, beans, peas, brassicas, tomatillos, onions and garlic, carrots, beetroot, a strawberry bed – the list goes on… I’ve never had as much room as I’d like, so this year, for the first time with the allotment, I’m just using the garden beds for salad crops and the children’s vegetables, and anything which needs to be in the ground longer term can be installed in the allotment (more on the allotment growing in a later post).

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Summer brings the greatest rewards

Flower Border Fun

In front of the spring garden is the only flowerbed (flowers are often unfairly relegated to smaller spaces in my garden unless they are edible as well as beautiful), but I do love growing flowers for their own merits wherever possible. We extended the border into the lawn to create more growing space and to separate the lawn from the back of the garden, creating different areas of interest. Here’s how the flower border has developed over the past six years in six photos…

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Established shrub borders, but no space to grow…

 

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Early days in the garden…

 

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Clearance time

 

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The extended border, fruit cage, raised beds, new shed and willow den

 

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Spring tulip glory (Tulipa ‘Queen of Night’, ‘Ballerina’ and ‘Purple Prince’ with Myosotis sylvatica underneath)

 

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Summer bounty – I love the frothy effect of the Verbena bonariensis, Festuca glauca flower spikes, Knautia macedonica and Ammi majus

We kept an established Spirea japonica ‘Goldflame’ for the foliage colour, although I remove the pink flowers as they don’t fit in with the more dramatic colours of the border. This shrub also works well with the willow den to add structure to the border in front of the shed. Initially the border had predominantly crimson and white flowers, but over time it has developed to include more purples and blues. We planted Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ for winter colour, Salvia ‘Caradonna’, Monarda ‘Gardenview Scarlet’, Echinacea purpurea ‘White Swan’, Knautia macedonica, Centranthus ruber ‘Albus’, Hesperis matronalis ‘Alba’, Sedum telephium ‘Purple Emperor’, a selection of different Dianthus, Centaurea montana ‘Jordy’ (with flowers which are gorgeous for cutting, but tend to get rather lost in the flowerbed) and ‘Amethyst in Snow’ (one of my favourites at this time of year.)

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Centaurea montana ‘Amethyst in Snow’

Then I add to the seasonal interest by growing annuals in the border, either sown direct (or self-sown) or sown initially in modules and planted out later. Stalwarts include Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Purity’, Ammi majus and Nigella papillosa ‘African Bride’. I also plant out my Dahlia ‘Bishop of Canterbury’, ‘Scura’, ‘Happy Single Date’ and ‘Wizard of Oz’ for some extra zing.

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My favourite dahlia – ‘Bishop of Canterbury’ – such vibrant flowers and deep purple foliage

On the edge of the border is a low hedge of Lavandula angustifolia ‘Dwarf Blue’ interplanted with Aubretia ‘Red Cascade’. The aubretia begins to flower in April and just as the flowers are fading the lavender reaches its best. In this way, the hedge provides colour from spring right through to later summer.

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The aubretia ‘hedge’ bursting into flower last week

 

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The lavender hedge later in the season

The Working Areas

These are the main elements of the garden. Other important features include the greenhouse, the compost bin and the cold frame. These provide the fuel and growing spaces for the garden – allowing it to work at full capacity.

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When we arrived the greenhouse thought it was for storing bikes

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We soon taught it otherwise

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Our compost – the most valuable commodity in the garden

Time To Enjoy

At the beginning of the first post I set out to retrace my steps through designing and building this garden. I also intended to look forwards to where I want it to go in the future. Whilst I’m sure there’ll be more plants added and taken away, more harvests of fruit and vegetables and more learning to be done, the main aspiration I have is to make more time to share the garden with those I love. I’ve created a lovely outdoor space with the help of friends and family, and now I’d like to spend more time enjoying it with them.

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Friends and family enjoying the garden

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My Hard-Working Garden: An Ongoing Transformation(Part 1)

Potager gardens, walled gardens and old-fashioned cottage gardens – all styles I love for their eclectic mix of vegetables, fruit and flowers. They can be seen as nostalgic, whimsical, outmoded; gardens which exist in an historical context, from time to time tempting modern gardeners into grand estates or rural open garden shows, but without contemporary relevance. Their visual, almost casual beauty belies the amount of hard graft behind such dual purpose gardens, which needed to create an aesthetic impact whilst also fulfilling a practical role for the household – whether that be a cottage with two occupants or a grand estate of many hundreds.

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My veggie bed with a mix of edible flowers, flowers for cutting and vegetables (plus Billy the Scarecrow!)

Modern gardens don’t have to provide us with medicinal herbs which are unavailable elsewhere, they rarely need to feed large estates, or provide food for families who have no access to other sources of nourishment. But they do have to work as hard as in the past, especially modern small gardens which are required to fulfil a number of purposes. Many have an assortment of children’s toys sprawled untidily across the centre (ours often does), they are required to provide aesthetic appeal with flower borders, containers and other key features. They are intended to attract wildlife, to create space for entertaining, cooking and relaxing,  and some even have to provide fruit and vegetables for the table. As our requirements for our gardens increase and their size diminishes, the pressure on outdoor spaces to cater for many purposes grows. In this way we could be seen as returning to these older styles of gardening where the garden has to work hard to earn its keep. In spaces too small to allow different areas for each function, the potager style works well as each part of the garden can be used in multifunctional ways.

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Our much-loved, but enormous slide and swings

We moved into our current house six years ago and have just finished the major changes on the garden (although I know it will always be changing and evolving and that’s the fun bit). Now there’s no major designing and restructuring to do, I thought it might be good to look back over the past six years at what we’ve achieved and where I hope it might go next.

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Original tidy but rather dull border

Six years ago our back garden was uninspiring, with established shrub borders, a small rotting shed, a lovely little greenhouse and a fair-sized lawn. The garden is about 9m by 13m and is north-east facing, without much shading tree cover and fenced all round. I guess many people would have viewed the garden as low-maintenance, finished and tidy, but I saw it as an opportunity to create a garden which packs as much in as possible without seeming too busy or chaotic.

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This side had an empty gravel border which emphasised the concrete fence base and an overgrown Ceanothus

My first aim was to replicate the semi-wildness of my childhood garden for my kids. I grew up in a 1/3 acre garden in Cheshire with several mature trees, a vegetable and fruit garden and a wild patch at the bottom. The wild patch existed quite happily without having an impact on the rest of the garden as it was unviewed fron the house and therefore an ideal place for secret club meetings, wildlife watching and endless hours of tree climbing with an apple and a book. We have no trees big enough to climb in our current garden, nor much likelihood of growing any, so I decided to create a willow den in the flower border to give the kids an area where they could exist unobserved.

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Behind the shrubs, the border was empty and unused

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The garden had a good-sized lawn

We kept the lawn (although we extended the border area) and the greenhouse, which had been one of the things which had initially attracted me to the garden. I replaced the shed with a larger potting shed, in which I’ve spent many productive, happy hours in the past five years, creating a small plant empire and generally pottering, in teeming storms, muggy afternoons and evenings so dark I’ve needed a headtorch.

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Love my potting shed…

Initially we removed the large Thuja which were blocking light from the garden and then cleared out the back border, giving many of the plants away to local people though Freecycle. My main aim was to get the fruit trees and bushes established first as these would take the longest to become productive. Now, five years on from planting, the plum, apples, greengage, cherry (in a pot) and pear (in a pot) are really getting into their stride and we’ve been harvesting superb crops from the raspberries, currants, blueberries (in pots) and rhubarb for several years. We chose espalier apple trees along the side fence (‘James Grieve’, ‘Egremont Russet’ and ‘Bountiful’), two dessert apples and one cooker/dessert. ‘Bountiful’ went in the shadiest spot near the house, as cookers can tolerate more shade, and we planted short hedges of lavender and rosemary to create areas for herbs between the trees. We now have three modestly productive espaliers, now with four tiers, and a thriving herb border with sage, chives, garlic chives, assorted mints (sunk in pots), thyme (which has been fabulous for the past five years, but didn’t like the wet winter so now needs replacing), majoram, chamomile, lavender and rosemary.

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After planting the espaliers

I’ve also added bulbs with varying levels of success. The snowdrops along the side of the lawn are thriving and the white hyacinths which I planted around the base of each apple tree have increased threefold and look and smell stunning in the spring. Tulips were less successful as the area is mulched with bark and slugs (the latter not intentionally) so I gave up the tulip struggle in this border as they emerged eaten and misshapen year after year. Alliums are more successful and the Allium sphaerocephalon increase each year. This year, however, the stock of larger allium like Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ and Allium christophii looks diminished and I wonder if the wet winter is again to blame (we do have quite heavy soil here, but I usually use grit under bulbs when planting which seems to help with longevity.)

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Espaliers, herbs and Lonicera ‘Hall’s Prolific’ on the house wall beginning to get established

 

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The alliums at their best in the herb/espalier border

Winter clematis (‘Freckles’ and ‘Jingle Bells’) thrive up one of the espalier poles and Clematis ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Artic Queen’ up another. The final post supports Vitis vinifera ‘Reliance’, which last year gave us our first harvest of sweet, seedless pink grapes.

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Clematis ‘Freckles’ flowers non-stop throughout the winter

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Clematis ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Arctic Queen’ twine together up the post

At the back of the garden around the fruit trees I’ve planted several varieties of Narcissus which look and smell lovely in the spring, along with Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, Primula vulgaris, Fritillarea meleagris and two Cotoneaster horizontalis which were found in the garden as seedlings and have been trained up the shed wall as coverage for insects and berries for the birds.

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Fruit trees becoming established

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Daffodils at their best this year

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Early dwarf daffodils emerging – the logs are sections from the tree in the front which we removed as it was too large, too close to the house

 

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Plum heaven…

On the back fence, between the dogwoods and primroses we have a blackberry ‘Apache’ which gives us lovely blossom followed by huge, sweet fruit which form the basis of sorbets, stewed apple and blackberry and fruit leathers in late summer. It fits in perfectly with the potager style – combining beauty and utility, covering a boundary with foliage, flowers and fruit.

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This bench catches the afternoon and evening sun – perfect for a late cuppa and a book

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Other pop-up structures the garden has to contend with…

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Our DIY tent

So much for the herb/espalier border and the fruit tree area which I, rather grandly, call the spring garden in reference to the blooming of the daffodils, primroses and fruit blossom from March to May. In the next post I’ll take a look back at the development of the fruit cage, vegetable beds, willow den and flower border. All testament to the fact that you can include much of what you want in a garden, if you are prepared to think a bit outside the box (willow den in a flowerbed), embrace the potager style and let your imagination run wild…

Read about the transformation in the rest of the garden in next week’s blog post…