Hip hip eastrum!

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I hardly know a plant as forgiving as my hippeastrum. I can treat it as meanly as I please, and yet it will still bear the most beautiful blooms year after year. It’s rather like a pet dog: never a trace of resentment, no matter how cross you are or how much it is ignored. If only all plants were this magnanimous!

After my hippeastrum has flowered, I cut back the stalk and continue to water and feed it, and on the first of June I put it outside into the garden along with all my other houseplants for their summer holiday.

This is where the bad times begin for this poor neglected plant. While my other house plants revel for four months in the warm sun and gentle rain, this poor hippeastrum has a miserable time. Beloved by slugs and snails, the first thing that happens is that all its leaves are instantly eaten off. It then spends a great deal of energy fruitlessly trying to grow new leaves only for them to be attacked as they emerge from the bulb, rather like Banksy’s Girl With Balloon being slowly shredded as it exited the frame. Therefore it has to go in the cold frame, where there are fewer molluscs around, though still enough to do  damage. The cold frame is not in such a sunny position, and it tends to get rather forgotten in there, especially on my watering rounds. By September, when it is supposed to go into its rest period, it is has already been as dry as dust for three months and has no leaves to speak of.

At the end of October, all the houseplants come indoors again. Except that last autumn I forgot to bring the hippeastrum indoors, as it was in the cold frame. I recall that I didn’t bring it indoors until mid-December (gasp). But did it hold a grudge, this tropical beauty? No! It immediately began producing its fresh green strappy leaves, followed a couple of months later by its fabulous bloom.

So my apologies for your rough treatment, dear hippeastrum, and three cheers for your beautiful blooms.

In a Vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden, and I do recommend visiting her page to see what she and many other garden bloggers across the world have put in a vase for today. Although this clay pot is most definitely not a vase, I am sure that Cathy will as forgiving as my hippeastrum and allow me to pretend that it is.

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Survey results: Would you use a garden designer?

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Firstly a huge thank you to those who took part in my survey of a few weeks ago (Would you use a garden designer?). I was overwhelmed by the number of you who completed it and shared your thoughts on what is perhaps a neglected topic among gardeners. Reading the responses was an education: not only did they improve my understanding of the attitudes of garden owners towards garden design, but they also gave rise to some unexpected lateral trains of thought regarding other garden-related requirements that aren’t being catered for.

As promised, I’ll now share your responses, which were anonymous and included a mixture of multiple choice questions and open extended responses. You can see the full results here.

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Unsurprisingly, given that the majority of my readers are seasoned gardeners, more than half of respondents were already satisfied with the design of their gardens, and told me that ‘I’m working on it with a spring in my step’ or ‘It’s just about perfect’ (lucky you, whoever you are!). However, that left around 45% of respondents who were less content, in despair, or just too busy with other priorities.

“I would love a professional’s opinion, but don’t think I could afford their services or the list of plants they would suggest I need to supplement current plantings.”

By far the biggest barrier to using a garden designer was the perceived cost. Using a garden designer naturally goes hand in hand with the cost of the proposed work: the labour, the hard landscaping materials, the machinery, any planning permission required, and the cost of new plants, and all of this can add up to thousands. Garden designers usually charge a percentage of the total cost of the garden design budget, or for smaller projects an hourly fee. For many, spending several thousand pounds on their garden is simply not an option.

“The designer we chose was unfortunately very fixed in her ideas and didn’t really listen to what we were trying to achieve.”

Almost a quarter of respondents had used a garden designer in the past. While some were happy with the service they received, others had reservations. A clear concern was the perception or experience that a designer would impose their own ideas and not listen to the client. Many of the keener gardeners were clear that they wanted to maintain a creative input in their gardens.

“I would sometimes like a ‘shortcut’ by asking an expert for some advice about what to plant or what to do with a tricky area instead of having to learn/read/find out myself the hard way! But enjoy doing all the work and planning myself on the whole.”

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Around a third of respondents were interested in a total garden redesign service, and a further quarter in planting redesign. However, some more uncommon design services were also suggested.

“Would love to have informed advice for my intention of gardening for biodiversity.”

“Help with lighting, landscape and water features. I would love some design advice, but I don’t want to change everything I have worked so hard to accomplish”

Garden coaching or mentoring was one of the most popular options. I imagine that those who chose this option were gardeners who did not feel that they needed, or else could not afford, a total garden redesign, but who wished for an objective second pair of eyes and an experienced kindred spirit to bounce ideas off and refresh the gardener’s imagination. Another group that emerged were those who did not want a ‘designer’ or ‘instant’ garden, and this is a sentiment that I can relate to wholeheartedly. Aren’t some of the loveliest and most characterful gardens those that have evolved slowly with the owners, with different ideas added over the years? If the vision of the gardener remains consistent, then a sense of unity can develop across the whole despite this more piecemeal approach.

“It’s not that I don’t care about my garden, just that I don’t think having a ‘designer’ garden is important.”

“Gardens evolve and a garden design would seem too instant and manufactured.”

There is no right or wrong style of garden design: for the busy person who has just bought a new house with a run-down garden which they want to be able to use and enjoy as soon as possible, then a complete overhaul may be the only solution. But I’m not sure that the other type of garden owner, the gardener who wants to develop their garden slowly and needs only a light pair of guiding hands, is well served by the sorts of garden design services that are usually on offer.

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Regarding attitudes towards ecologically friendly gardening, almost all respondents agreed that it was ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ important to them.

“It’s the most important point and it can look very nice too.”

Although I wouldn’t need more than the courage of my own convictions in offering a garden design service that prioritises the local and wider ecology, it is reassuring to know that this view is generally well supported by garden owners.

Clearly the readers of this blog are of a certain demographic, as likely as not to be knowledgeable gardeners who enjoy creating their own gardens, appreciate wildlife, and are not so in need of a garden designer. As one commentator neatly put it below my original post, future garden design clients are most likely to have limited interest in gardening, and

“are probably reading blogs on entirely different subjects!”

And yes, I can relate to all of those regular readers of this blog who said they enjoy the process of designing their own gardens far too much to consider hiring someone else to do it for them. One survey respondent summed up my feelings succinctly in response to the question: What kind of things might prevent you from using a garden designer?

“I am afraid my wife wouldn’t want me to use a garden designer.”

Which I can confidently vouch is true, since this answer came from my husband.

Surveys can have their limitations, of course, and this one was not especially scientific. A slight alteration in the wording of these questions, or asking them at the height of summer, may well have produced an entirely different set of results. But it has given me an excellent starting point in ideas, and a fast track to knowing my market just a little better. The best garden designers listen carefully, and I’m grateful to all of you for giving me so much useful material to listen to.

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A flash of winter light

I was trying to leave the house. I roved back and forth from room to room to recruit hat, gloves, rucksack, keys, coat, a large box of recycling to dispose of on my way up the street. Sometimes I have nightmares about not being able to leave the house, stuck in an endless gathering of things and keys and clothing. Anyway, on this day in my real, awake life, right at the point of triumph, just as I’d heaved the rucksack onto my back, the gloves onto my hands, the hat onto my head, the recycling into my arms, the keys in my hand, just as I thought that the wicked old universe had finally aligned its ambitions to mine, a sly slant of winter light flashed through the window and lit up an old metal jug that contained a spray of dried seedheads.

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Down went the recycling, the gloves, the keys, the ambition to leave on time. Winter light never stays long, and it never comes back to the same place again.

My camera was nearby (occasionally it pays to be untidy). Already the light started to fade. I took my pictures, and then watched the light disappear. In no time at all it had gone.

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I put down the camera. I retrieved keys, coat, gloves, recycling. I finally left the house.

In a Vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden, and I recommend visiting her page to see what she and many other garden bloggers across the globe have found to put in a vase today.

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Would you use a garden designer?

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Have you ever used a garden designer, or if not, would you employ one? Would you be willing to share your thoughts in a survey?

The question of using a garden designer might not be one that you have ever asked yourself. Or else it might be on your mind every time you catch sight of your garden through your kitchen window.

Is a professional garden designer something you could afford? Would you feel afraid of losing control of your garden, that the finished project might not align with your style, or afraid that it might look too ‘done’? Or do you feel that your garden is fine just the way that it is? No time for such projects? Too many other priorities to worry about the garden?

I would be so interested to know your thoughts and read your comments. The survey should take no longer than 2 minutes to complete, and is open to everyone, regardless of who you are or where you live. The survey will be available for about a week, and I am looking forward to sharing the results with you. Because it is an anonymous survey, I am unable to offer any sort of gift for taking part, other than my genuine gratitude and some good gardening karma!

As a garden design student, I am keen to understand the attitudes of garden owners towards garden design. I am also planning to introduce some design focus to this blog, and so any insight into the sorts of topics that might be of interest to you would be of splendid help. Please leave any extra comments in the usual place below!

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My garden diary in 2018

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In autumn 2017 my aunt gave me a little notebook as a belated birthday present, and I decided I would use it to start keeping an ‘analogue’ garden diary. After all, my online ‘Edinburgh Garden Diary’ had been going for four years, and I had been inspired by various other garden bloggers who keep written diaries (such as Green Bench Ramblings) to keep a written record. To my surprise, writing in my notebook about the garden became a habit as effortless and enjoyable as making a cup of tea. I treasure the delicous moments when I pick up pen and notebook, settle into my seat on the garden bench, or pull a chair up to the window, and lose myself in thoughts about the garden. There’s always something to say, and the words flow easily. Now a year of my diary has passed and I enjoyed reading back through so much that I thought I would share some of my writing with you. I have edited it for brevity, though not for style. I hope you enjoy this little review of mine of a year in a small Scottish garden.

January

2.1.18 A good 90 minutes in the garden today. Very pleased to get my last bulbs in: Woodstock hyacinths in narrow terracotta pots with ‘Peppermint’ muscari, and the rest of the muscari in the maze. Rainy and a slow dusk. I was able to carry on until after 4pm. Buckets of ferns, primulas and hostas drowning in water, but the first day back at work tomorrow so nothing I can do.

7.1.18 Another severe frost of -4 last night, and today a bright blue, clear, freezing day. The clay pots of violas are troopers, blooming away regardless. Incredible things. Old dried flowers on the ‘Tess’ rose by the back door. I should have deadheaded them and pruned this rose in November, but I declined to… Each square brick in the path is rimmed with frost. I have topped up the bird feeder, and the birds are waiting for me to go indoors. The city is quiet. Birds sing in distant back greens.

27.1.18 I have managed a Saturday morning wander and noticed the purple tips of the iris ‘George’ spear, which may flower this week, new tips of returning tulips, and plenty of snowdrops. The snowdrops in my window boxes are in various stages, but the oldest had their petals open beautifully today.

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Old flowers on ‘Tess Of The D’Urbevilles’
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Snowdrops under a hedge at Humbie Kirk Woods, a few miles south of Edinburgh

February

11.2.18 A sparkling early spring weekend. Snowdrops in the hedgerows at Humbie Kirk Woods where L and I went for a deliciously squelchy walk today. Snow on the high ground, and bright blue skies, and sun slanting through the beech woods. I was surprised and gratified that my Clematis montana ‘Miss Christine’  has survived an undignified winter in an old compost bag. She is now planted under the arch and will no doubt make it look most pretty in the summer. To my horror, I found two New Zealand flatworms underneath an old sack near the compost heap. I have often wondered if we had them. Bulbs (including repeating tulips) popping up all over. Gave the roses and Hydrangea petiolaris a good mulch. Hope they will do wonders this summer in their new positions (the roses, that is).

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Brick tiles of the garden path rimmed with frost
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Birds in the snow

March

3.3.18 We are snowed under. I don’t have a garden anymore, just a white blanket with some twigs sticking out of it, and a few hungry, desperate birds sitting in trees, tweeting weakly. I have been feeding the poor birds, first with bird seed, and then when I ran out of that, muesli with the larger nuts taken out, and sesame seeds. They liked the muesli very much, but many sesame seeds were remaining on the path this morning when I had a look (pyjamas, snow boots, bobble hat). I also realised that besides having nothing to eat they would have nothing to drink, so put out two containers of water for them.

It has been light enough to step outside into the garden before work this week therapy. My ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ irises , a whole two clumps, a lovely surprise, are looking tip-top by the arch. [Drumstick] primulas are starting to form their rosettes, rising from deep down in the earth like slowly emerging sea monsters. The snowdrops in the front garden have been a most cheering sight, especially when all else looks bare, and a mess.

17.3.18 Another icy weather front moves in from the East. Will this winter last forever? Occasionally a flash of sun intercepts the snow, which has been falling languidly for most of the morning. Not serious snow, and there is no settling. I rushed out during one sunny spell to rescue some quince blossom, but couldn’t stay out for long, and there is little to stay outside for anyway. This time last year we already had forget-me-nots, but not a sign today. But I was happy to see that my Helleborus ‘Winter Bells’ is out of its sulk and producing new flowers…

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Erythronium ‘Joanna’
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Primula denticulata in the front garden
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Narcissus ‘Thalia’ in the front garden

April

22.4.18 The weather has been suddenly so wonderful for the past weeks that I have done immense things in the garden and it’s hard to keep up or remember everything that has happened. I’ll start by describing the wonderful things that are to be seen as I look out of the window.

Firstly the front garden: The snowdrops are well and truly over, and now we have Narcissus ‘Thalia’ in three generous clumps (a fourth less generous clump towards the back). The bigger clumps contain perhaps ten bulbs each, demonstrating how well ‘Thalia’ bulks up, and the effect is of course doubled as each head contains two flowers. . Complementing these in a perfect match are the lilac pompoms of Primular denticulata, another plant I could never get tired of. Towards the front, Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ is looking exceptionally pretty, and Erythronium ‘Joanna’ is underneath the cherry tree (‘Morello’) which is about to burst into blossom. (I was afraid it would have none given its maltreatment in December but I have seen the buds I do not deserve them!). My little Sorbus cashmiriana has come charmingly into fresh green leaf and flower buds are visible. The habit of the upturned branches is so uplifting … it is such a pretty tree that R noticed it and remarked upon it.

Not looking good: the Iris foetidissima… no fresh new leaves at all yet just sulking. I wonder if a feed would kill it or cure it. Also not looking good: the piles of topsoil, the piles bricks lying around, the big white sack of sub-base. The camellia needs moving … it is in the wrong place, but has two white buds that are promising to burst. Again, a dowsing with feed and water may help it decide to go ahead with this seemingly onerous task (everyone else’s camellias are almost over).

Now for the back garden. It is hard to see through the window for the enormous window box before my eyes, containing Primula vulgaris, Primula ‘Wanda’, and tall fat blue muscari. It has been my most successful w.b. yet, especially along with the snowdrops that started out in there. Such a scene it is! Anyway, the garden beyond, which had a big tidy-up, is looking pretty nice too as it springs into life. The most noticeable thing is the cerise P. denticulata. I also have some Tulipa ‘Purissima’ … Clematis ‘Miss Christine’ is coming cautiously to life by the arch. Under the roses, tulips, and all around are forget-me-nots, which I allow to spread at will because they are so useful and delightful. The Icelandic poppies I bought at Chatsworth have fat buds on them, and so does the geum at the front of the garden, but not the back geum. The delphs are looking bushy and fabulous, as are the foxgloves. The best thing is that the [white] peony has many buds on it. When I say many, I mean two so far, but that is many for me my first peonies! In four years!

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First peony!
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The back garden in spring

May

10.5.18 The tulips are in full bloom. Some ‘Belle Epoch’ popped up in the cutting patch along with numerous ‘Purissima’. Combined with Narcissus ‘Cheerfulness’ (or is it ‘Winston Churchill’?) and forget-me-nots it makes a very pretty jug for the dining room table. I have been ordering my perennials for the front garden. I am very excited to be getting such gorgeous plants for the front garden. The Euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Purpurea’ is a real risk  I fear it may be too red rather than dusky purple. Time will tell. R and I have been enjoying a lot of rainbow chard, which is just beginning to bolt. The sweetpeas are in and the courgettes are germinating. Seeds need pricking out and plants potted on. Nematodes all watered in last week. I wonder if the positive effects on the plants have as much to do with the watering as the nematodes themselves, as I used litres.

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Icelandic poppy

July

5.7.18 The RHS exams and my college application took all my time and energy for most of May and June. It has been the hottest, driest summer we’ve had so far in Scotland. Beautiful days of no wind and temps in the mid-twenties for weeks. The garden is not looking too parched; it is Scotland after all. But things are worse down south. Now, thinking back to May, once the tulips finished there was a gap, and suddenly the geraniums sprang into being, as did the geums. The foxgloves emerged, and the roses (‘Tess of the D’Urbevilles’ always first). Then my delphiniums, all mixed in with the white and pink foxgloves, oh, and the best poppies, Icelandic bright orange with big creamy yellow centres, just keeping on and on all summer, and the perennial wallflower ‘Winter Orchid’. No bearded irises for me this year. I wonder what has got their goat? Two flowers on my peony ‘Avalanche’. The buds took weeks and weeks to develop and open up. It really was quite painful to watch. I am not sure I would plant peonies again. I don’t go crazy for them like other people seem to. My lovely Geranium pratense now there’s a plant that gives good value. Covered in bees, wafting elegantly in the breeze, it is gorgeous every year. I am thrilled to have masses of dill. Broad beans are doing marvellously and have been the easiest vegetable I have grown by far. Just stick ’em in the ground and stand back.

The front garden is so dry that nothing is settling in properly, and some things are looking quite sad. But I cannot water them very frequently it seems wrong when we are so short of rain to use tap water on the ground. One plant I am terribly pleased with is Luzula nivea such a lovely, soft white flower that complemented Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ quite brilliantly.

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Foxgloves in June

August

12.8.18 At last, the Scottish summer we are used to has arrived. Rain, temperatures in the low teens, a cold wind… all in time for the Festival as usual. But I don’t care. The weather can do what it likes we’ve had our hot summer and it was wonderful. Most of the plants survived pretty well regardless. I shall forever remember the summer days of 2018 spent on the terrace with a cup of tea, just looking at the tall, green plants. Now many of my favourites have gone over the foxgloves, delphiniums, roses, geums, wall flowers all stopped, and the far back corner is a green mess of not terribly attractive foliage. It is a corner that does very well in spring and summer, but not very pretty at all after July.  I spent a lot of time on that corner last autumn, but I think some more work is needed.

Looking really lovely at this time of the season are the following:

Echinops: covered in bees, beautiful purple-blue drumsticks.

Crocosmia: I always dismiss it rather, but it does perform superbly in late summer and it is so reliable

Persicaria: so reliable

Thalictrum: high clouds of purple dots love them!

Calendula and cerinthe

Cosmos ‘Purity’ hooray!

21.8.18 The signs of autumn are everywhere: dew on the grass, the first cotinus leaves turning that incredible burnished fiery copper colour, the whitening berries on the Sorbus cashmiriana. That tiny sorbus is just about my favourite thing in the garden at the moment. So small, neat and pert, its branches heavily laden with huge clusters of pale green, soon to be white, berries. They hang down like too-heavy earrings. I just adore this little tree. It has been a pleasure every day of the year so far. The ‘Limelight’ hydrangea is looking good in the far corner by the house. In full bloom with its green flowers, it is most elegant. In other people’s gardens these flowers turn white in the sun, but I prefer the subtle colours of mine, which stay green, then pinkish. The Luzula has turned brown, though I forgive it because it was the loveliest plant in June.

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The back garden in July
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Cosmos ‘Purity’

September

3.9.18 I am sitting by the back door, which is open, and looking on the wet garden, hearing the splatter of rain and feeling the cold breeze on my ankles and it is lifting my page as I write … I see the pale pink Japanese anemone I planted last week, along with Lizzie’s Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ and behind the crocosmia (so I can’t see it but know it’s there) a small Ceratostigma plumbaginoides that is flowering a very pretty blue and will bring much needed colour to that far corner. The poor sunflowers are waving violently in the breeze, so heavy are they with their large, wet flowers on stalks that are too tall and dare I say, too spindly. I think I shall go and rescue those sunflowers. There, I have just brought in two perfect, large sunflower heads. They are a yellow merging with dark bronze and just the sort of colour I should hate but I love them they are so cheerful. High on my list of annuals I should continue to grow, along with Cosmos ‘Purity’, calendula, nasturtiums and this gorgeous, cloudy gypsophila.

30.9.18 Today a bright blue day, for the most part, and I seized upon the whim to move some plants around that had been annoying me. ‘You need to move plants a dozen times before you get the position right’, said Christopher Lloyd, and he’s right.  By the way, if ever there was an argument for cryogenic preservation, he would have been it. I’m most delighted to have got that camellia into the ground. And that the scrappy bases of the echinops will be hidden henceforth behind geranium, acanthus and peony. A good sweep of the patio and all is well with the world.

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Planting my bulbs in autumn
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My little Sorbus cashmiriana and its white berries. Next to it is a potted Cotinus ‘Dusky Maiden’, its leaves turning to a burnished copper

October

7.10.18 Some plants in the back garden feel as though they are winding down, while others are still soldiering on despite the lack of sun and the cold temperatures. The roses are doing fantastically, beautifully. Moving them was most certainly the right thing to do. I would love to attend a class on pruning my climbing roses correctly. When? How? (Those questions apply both to the task of pruning and to my ability to attend a class as I’ve failed to find one nearby and have no money anyway). My dahlias are suffering from a lack of light and water and probably nutrition too. I am seriously considering buying in a big sack of organic horse manure and mulching the entire garden front and back.

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Those Cotinus leaves again…

November

27.11.18 Multiple unavailable weekends have kept me from the garden, but at this time of year it hardly matters. The weeds don’t grow; nothing grows, except the mounds of leaves. At this time of year, every year, I ask myself, to leave the leaves on the ground (the beds, I mean) or to collect them? Collecting them would be neater, and I could make leaf mould. But they are protecting the soil in the absence of any mulch. Today I took the veg waste out to the compost in the darkening afternoon. I pulled out the cosmos, now just stalks, and the hollyhocks, which were quite annoying this year. A few weeds too. I cut some roses for the house as many buds were there, and put them in a jug with some nasturtium plants, leaves and roots but no flowers. This looks pretty good. The acanthus is back with a vengeance, all glossy-leaved and boisterous, too much for November. All the window boxes need sorting out, and my snowdrops and muscari need to be dealt with. The afternoons are so short that it is hard to do anything that takes more than half an hour, or jobs that lead on to other jobs.

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Helleborus niger (Christmas rose) in the front garden in December. Sadly enjoyed by slugs, so better viewed from afar.
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Old hydrangea flower catching the pale winter light of December

December

2.12.18 Everything is damp and rotting, except Geranium ‘Rozanne’, which flowers on and on. I like the damp, rotting part of the year. You feel in control. I like putting the rotting stuff on the compost heap, although I am treading the line between clearing and leaving habitats. There has been a lot of wildlife in the garden this year and I want it to keep increasing. Mulched ‘Shropshire’ and ‘Tess’ but the other roses still to mulch with the horse manure I brought back last week. First I have to tackle what’s beneath them dead leaves, far too many wallflowers etc. Need to tackle the delphs area and sort that clematis out. I have a frame for it, if I can get it fixed to that impossible wall. First bulbs already showing their tips under the cherry tree. Best sight in the world.

9.12.18 More bright blue winter skies, temps in the low single figures, and it is most definitely winter now. I shifted some pots around, which I hadn’t touched since last year’s bulbs. Miraculously the bulbs are reappearing already. I wonder if they will be any good this year. I think a judicious feed could save the day. I have ordered my mulch … I have learned my lesson from previous years. [The mulching] needs doing before the snowdrops make their appearance. I aim to apply it this week.

27.12.18 Mulch done! I would have chosen it to be less whiffy. It should really have no smell at all, but it is only being used as a mulch so I expect no harm will come (I will scream if all my snowdrops come up with nitrogen burns!). I am in Derbyshire now, but I am hoping for sightings on snowdrops when I come back. There was already a good clump of Iris ‘George’ visible before I left. My planting design needs a total overhaul in that front garden this is a place-marker for that intention.

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Mulch ado

There are two types of jobs in the garden: those that require a great deal of careful thought in either the planning or the execution, and those that require little or no brain power at all. Mulching is the latter kind, which one might categorise as ‘drudgery’ or ‘simple pleasure’ depending on your mood, the state of your back muscles, and the prevailing weather. Personally I place mulching in the simple pleasure category: a perfect job for the end of the year when one’s brain is saying ‘no more’; a somewhat mindless task that feels virtuous, requires no decision making, and has a pleasing aesthetic result. You can listen to music or an instructive podcast while mulching, or ruminate on higher thoughts.

For those who have never indulged in the pleasant occupation of mulching a garden and are wondering what on earth I am talking about, mulching is the application of organic matter to the surface of the soil in order to protect the soil from erosion, raise the temperature of the soil, and aid water retention. It replaces the organic matter lost through digging, and is taken down by earthworms to act as a food source for the soil microbiome, ultimately providing nutrients to the roots of your plants. Adding organic matter to the soil will help to break up a heavy clay soil, and equally help to bind a sandy, dry soil. It also buries weed seeds, and certain mulches can make life harder for slugs.

In the wild, nutrients are returned to the soil through a combination of leaf-fall, dying plant material, animal excrement, and animal carcasses (both large animals and tiny insects). However, in our gardens we tend to harvest or tidy up and remove fallen leaves, plant material and animal waste. The ecosystem of the average garden is greatly limited and impoverished in the name of tidiness, and therefore we are obliged to add back to the soil what we take away.

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There are various good organic mulches that can be used: farmyard or horse manure is ideal, but it must be well rotted. Others include green waste from the council, finely shredded bark, garden compost, leaf mould, shredded seaweed, composted bracken or sheep’s wool, and commercial products such as Strulch. It pains me to say that plastic sheeting and weed control membranes such as Mypex also come under the category of mulch, though the onomatopoeia is a damp squib when applied to these rustling, unnatural and most unsquelchy of items. Though sheeting can protect large areas from soil erosion, they clearly do not supply nutrients to the soil, and are frankly far less satisfying to apply or gaze at and what is gardening for if not for satisfaction and gazing?

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I am lucky in being able to source small quantities of horse manure from Emily, my grandmother’s horse. It’s always well rotted, but contains a lot of nettle seeds, and I can’t bring back enough for the whole garden. So as an early Christmas gift to myself, I ordered eight sacks of organic enriched manure from Garden Solutions, a local company that sells a variety of mulches and soil enrichers (their website is here). It duly appeared in my front garden as though delivered by Santa Claus, and the following Saturday I leaped eagerly from bed and got to work. First using a hand cultivator to gently break up the soil surface and dislodge any weeds, I then applied double handfuls of the lovely mulch and spread it over the surface of the soil in between the plants, about two inches thick. There is no simpler pleasure than the handling of dark, rich organic matter in one’s bare hands, especially if the sun is shining and it’s almost Christmas.

It is said that a clay soil should be mulched in spring, and a sandy soil should be mulched in autumn, but in fact a mulch can be applied to any soil at any time of year. The reason I apply mine in December is a combination of factors. The bulbs are all in, but have not come up yet and so do not get in the way. Rather, they come up through the mulch about a month later. Take my word for it that trying to apply a mulch around bulbs that have already sprouted is a challenge, especially where those dratted flopping allium leaves are concerned. In December there is not a lot else to do in the garden anyway, the bare soil exposed by plant die-back looks bare and vulnerable to heavy rains, and a clean, dark mulch is the perfect foil for the virginal white flowers of my beloved snowdrops and Helleborus niger.

The soil in our front garden is dry and poor due to the proximity of the street trees and also due to the privet hedge, which is the main reason that I redesigned the front garden with its path around the edges. This is how the garden looked before I mulched it:

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And below is the garden after mulching and a tidy-up. As you can see, the soil is now much darker, which will help with heat retention. And if you can just about see the hellebores below the Sorbus cashmiriana you might get an idea of how nice they look against the darkness of the mulch.

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Now that the brick maze is finished,  I am looking forward to writing a post all about the design and execution. In fact, this would have been the post you’d be reading now, except I’m writing this from Derbyshire and all my ‘before’ photos are on a hard drive 300 miles away in Edinburgh, so it will have to wait. Meanwhile, I am off outside to feed Emily her breakfast, with a mind to many more satisfying manure-spreading operations in Decembers for years to come.

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Christmas Roses

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The flowers that appear at this time of year seem so much more precious than those that appear during the abundance of summer. It’s not yet time for my favourite, the snowdrop, but the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is a close second on my list of appreciation. Last year I divided up my single plant to give three, and they sulked like nobody’s business for the rest of the year, only to spring forth in a multitude of white blooms this Christmas.

Any white flower would be welcome at this time of year. White flowers glow out of the darkness, and are easily appreciated from the light of a kitchen window at seven-thirty in the morning before a winter’s sunrise. They look good against a black mulch, and their delicate features belie the sturdiness with which they resist the winter storms.

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A single flower of the Christmas rose looks  with the last few rescued rose buds from one of my real roses. I wish all of you, dear readers, a most merry and bright Christmas full of good cheer and all the seed catalogues that the postman can bring.

In a vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden, so do visit her page to see what she and other garden bloggers across the world have put in a vase on this Christmas Eve Monday.