Jobs For January

January 14, 2021
Witch hazel coming into bloom

This Monday just passed was ‘Plough Monday’, the day which traditionally marks the start of the agricultural year. The days are already appreciably longer than they were at Christmas. We have a good 30 minutes more daylight in the afternoons now and as the month progresses, the days will lengthen at an ever-faster pace. I try to squeeze every ounce of usefulness out of the extra daylight. I refuse to come in from the garden until the light has completely gone. As the days draw out, we’re reminded that Spring really isn’t that far away at all. Jobs which in November we would happily put off with the words, “We have the whole Winter to get that done”, now seem suddenly rather pressing.

There are four big jobs which occupy us at this time of year. We cut back our herbaceous plants in readiness for new growth in the Spring. We prune the roses. We mulch all our beds with semi-composted bark. Finally, we cut down the trees which will provide our firewood next Winter.

Pruning roses is a huge job. In the Spring Garden we have 5 beds, edged with box which are entirely filled with roses. The Spring Garden has four paths, in the form of a cross, which are covered by pergolas. We have climbing and rambling roses growing over these pergolas. Their pruning alone, is the work of several days. We love roses so, needless to say, the rest of the garden also has dozens and dozens more roses, all of which need attention. Ordinarily, we are greatly assisted in this job by family at Christmas or New Year. This year of course, we are on our own.

Mulching may be the job which has to give this year. It’s another huge undertaking but we have found that it helps hugely, not just with improving our heavy clay soil but also with suppressing annual weeds. It would be a great shame if we can’t get it done this year.

Cutting back the herbaceous plants is not a difficult task and it’s one of those jobs which is instantly satisfying. I’m not a great one for a ‘tidy garden’ but there is something undeniably pleasing about beds which look ‘ready’ for Spring.

Felling the trees which will provide the fuel for next Winter is a job which can’t be shirked. We’re lucky enough to have 3 acres of woodland here and it needs managing. That includes thinning trees to allow others to develop and flourish. It is however, a big job. In normal years, it’s a job the family help with at Christmas but this year we’re tackling it alone.

With so much to do, we really do need these days to keep lengthening!

Why We Need Christmas

December 23, 2020

It’s been a wretched year. In the United Kingdom, even modest plans for Christmas gatherings have had to be cancelled as the virus rages in a new, more virulent form. Here on the Shropshire/Worcestershire border, the rain is hard and steady. It is merely the latest in a long line of wet, gloomy days. The sort of day when the sun never really rises and never really sets. The day just passes from greyer to less grey and back again. This of course, is not untypical of this time of year.

And yet, today has been rather a jolly one at Wharf House. We have spent it making mince pies and sausage rolls. We iced the Christmas cake. All of this to the accompaniment of Christmas carols. It is this great festival of Christmas that lifts the gloom and gets us though.

The Romans celebrated their festival of Saturnalia around the time of the Winter solstice. The pagan Anglo-Saxons are known to have celebrated ‘Yule’ at mid-Winter and the ancient Britons before them similarly marked this turning point of the year, from the dark, back towards the light. And well they might because if ever there is a time of year when one needs cheering up, it is now. To say the least then, Christmas is a well-timed festival.

There was a time, not so very long ago in our history when Christmas was actively suppressed. The puritans of the 16th and 17th centuries slowly worked themselves up into quite a frenzy about what they called ‘Old Christmas’. Disapproving as they did of pleasure, never mind excess, they looked with horror at the last vestiges of pre-reformation Christmas traditions, which still persisted. With the defeat of King Charles I in the Civil Wars of the 1640s, the puritans were able to impose their peculiar liturgical interpretations on their fellow countrymen. It became illegal to decorate one’s home with greenery. It was illegal to attend Church on Christmas Day. It was certainly illegal to feast, drink or generally to show any sign of festive merriness. Christmas Day was not only deemed to be a day like any other but was even made a day of compulsory fasting. It is fair to say that these ordinances were not popular. In 1647, the people of Canterbury rioted and demanded that they be able to celebrate ‘their Christmas’. Up and down the country, quietly and behind closed doors, people risked fines or worse by continuing to make merry. Fortunately for them (and for us) King Charles II was restored to his throne in 1660. As one contemporary noted,

“Now thanks to God for Charles’ return, whose absence made old Christmas mourn, for then we scarcely did it know, whether it were Christmas or no.”

So, although it may not be the Christmas we either wanted or expected this year, it is still Christmas and we wish you all a merry one!

Christmas: when we bring the outside, inside.

December 21, 2020

We are told that the tradition of bringing ever-green foliage indoors to decorate homes in preparation for the celebration of a mid-Winter festival, is a very ancient one. Whatever our pagan ancestors did or didn’t do, we do know for sure that in ‘Merry Olde England’, our pre-reformation celebration of Christmas started with the bringing of the outdoors, indoors. Homes would be brightened with holly, ivy, mistletoe and presumably whatever greenery was available in the locality. Much more recently of course, here in Britain we imported the German tradition of bringing a pine tree indoors and decorating that. Described as a ‘new’ tradition, it is actually just the revival (with a twist) of a very old one.

Here at Wharf House we collect traditional (and less traditional) Winter greenery with gusto! We have holly and ivy from the hedgerows and we enough of a smattering of different pine trees about the place, to give us a good variety of aromatic ever-greens. Neighbours with an old orchard are kind enough to furnish us with as much mistletoe as we can fit in the back of the landrover.

Then begins the job of making garlands to festoon the staircase and mantlepieces. It’s not a difficult job, with a bit of patience and a lot of wire, the garlands are easy enough to make but it is quite a time consuming one. Then we bring our creations inside and ‘deck the halls’. It is remarkable the change that these simple garlands make. It isn’t just aesthetic. There comes with the greenery an aroma of earthy-pine which is simultaneously refreshing and comforting. There is also an unmistakable change in atmosphere. The house suddenly looks and feels ready for Christmas. It is unmistakeably festive.

In Merry Olde England of course, our ancestors would have considered their ‘decorating’ complete once their homes were filled with greenery. And perhaps that ought to be enough for us too? We have the opportunity however to enhance what nature offers us with candles, lights and myriad other ‘decorations’. Our fore-Fathers had one great Christmas advantage over us however. They observed all twelve days of Christmas with unceasing celebration. Not for them the gloomy return to work on 4th January!

Winter Thoughts

December 17, 2020
Wharf House in December 2018

As I write, the rain is lashing against the window. The wind is swirling. It’s dark, gloomy and cold. All things considered, one would have to have an especially sunny disposition to regard this as one of the best days that Winter has to offer. Sadly, this is far from being an atypical day, so far this Winter at least. On the other hand, the picture above shows that rarest of Winter days in the midlands of England in this era of global warming: a day of deep (for us) snow. We do of course get cold, dry, sunny days as well, yesterday was one and it was glorious and life-affirming. Even so, at the moment the light fades here at about 4.30pm and the dawn doesn’t come up until 7.30am. These are very short days.

There are aspects of Winter which I love. There is something deeply, deeply satisfying about settling down in front of a roaring fire in the late afternoon, book in hand, cat on lap, safe in the knowledge that one is not shirking any jobs outside because it is already too dark to do anything. On a sunny, cold day, there is great beauty to be seen in a bare tree against a deep blue sky. It is the pheasant season and every Sunday our local gamekeeper brings us a brace for supper. Last but by no means least, it’s Advent and shortly it will be Christmas. We enter into Christmas with considerable enthusiasm at Wharf House. We will festoon the mantelpieces and staircase with evergreens from the orchard. As we light the fires and the rooms slowly warm, a sweet scent of pine will infuse the whole house. Ordinarily, the house would be filled with family, friends and dogs. It will just be the two of us this year but even so, we will thoroughly enjoy our country Christmas.

In the garden, one must search out beauty but it is there to be found. The ‘Garrya Elliptica’ in the kitchen courtyard looks better by the day, with long, smoky white racemes. The hellebores are just starting to come into flower. They will get better and better. Elsewhere, there are signs of the Spring to come. As early as next month, large swathes of the garden will be filled with snowdrops. A week or two later, pots of bulbs will start to perform. ‘Iris Reticulata’ will be first, followed by crocus and chionodoxa. Later still there will be daffs and tulips. All this is still to come however, for the present, the garden is mostly bare, often muddy and on a day like today, rather dispiriting.

For me then, Winter is my least favourite season. That is not to say that I dislike it. I savour its pleasures but in truth, it is for me principally a staging post to Spring. The gardener in me hopes for at least a few days of sharp, persistent frost. We know all too well the effects that our increasingly frequent mild and wet Winters have on the local slug population! A short snowy interlude would be lovely (although at a weekend please!) but hosing-down two muddy labradors every day, is a pleasure that I could cheerfully pass up and let’s face it, a garden without flowers, is like a stage without actors.

The Garden Seven Years On

November 30, 2020
The Bright Garden July 2020
The same view, July 2013

We moved to Wharf House in September 2012 and immediately set about renovating the garden. Over the course of the last seven years we have made some pretty big changes, with perhaps the most dramatic being apparent in those areas where we have added entirely new beds and structures. Throughout the process, which is ongoing, our aim has been to create a series of discrete spaces, each with their own distinctive character. Our ambition is that visitors to the garden will wander through the ‘garden rooms’ we have created with a sense of (we hope, pleasant) surprise as they progress from area to area. An important part of creating this feeling of intimacy, is screening parts of the garden, one from the other. The ideal is that, at no time, when in one part of the garden, can one have more than an enticing peek into another.

The photographs above hopefully illustrate the development of these ideas. In the first photograph, taken in July 2013, almost the whole of the largest part of the garden can be seen from one end to the other. In the most recent photograph, snapped in July 2020, the evolution of a distinct garden room is hopefully apparent. The pergola, the top of which can be seen, was only built at Christmas 2019. It does still therefore look a little ‘raw’ but it will soon be clothed in roses and clematis. The new island beds which make-up the ‘Bright Garden’, one of which can be seen here, were dug in 2018 and the planting still has a good way to go before it reaches a satisfying state of maturity. That is part of the pleasure of gardening of course. One can paint with the boldest of strokes, digging entirely new beds and merrily erecting new structures but then one has sit back and wait for the years to pass and for the garden to grow into itself.

Composting Theory Vs. Composting Reality!

November 24, 2020
Adding Wood Ash To Our Compost Heaps

We are enthusiastic composters. We’ve got (and read) a couple of books on how to compost and have a reasonably firm grasp of the principles. We’ve built five compost bays out of wooden pallets. We invested in a ‘Hot Bin’ to compost our kitchen vegetable scraps, because our local council doesn’t collect food waste. But, but, but it’s all still rather unsatisfactory …

We generate a huge amount of compostable material. Far too much to be manageable in fact and what’s worse, it arrives at the wrong time. In the summer, we put a tiny fraction of our grass cuttings onto the compost heap. There’s just far, far too much of it and our heap would rapidly turn into a black sludge if any but a tiny fraction went onto it.

Right now, we’ve just started the winter cut back of our herbaceous plants. Again, we’re generating huge quantities of compostable materials. But in the same way that the summer produces a glut of ‘green’, the winter creates a glut of ‘brown’.

Another problem we have is that the composting process itself is just so darn slow! We turn our heaps probably three times per year. It’s a big job and I really don’t think we could manage it any more frequently. We carefully layer the heap, trying to mix green with brown. We water the heaps when they are dry. We try to keep them in full sun. Even so, we think it takes about two years to move from raw material to usable compost.

Overall then and much to our frustration, we generate far, far less usable compost than we ought and we consequently spend a small fortune each year buying bags of compost from our local garden centre.

How to improve our composting? We probably need huge composting bays, far, far bigger than our wooden-pallet efforts. But even then I can see no way round the slowness of the process, other than by making a significant investment in a shredder. A decent petrol shredder costs at least £1,500 but only by shredding all the material that goes onto the heaps, do I see any way significantly to speed-up our painfully slow composting process.

Winter Jobs

November 18, 2020
Garrya Elliptica providing winter interest

Winter is almost upon us. A couple of frosts last week put an end to our dahlias for this year. We never did get the ‘last cut’ of the lawns done and the time we have for gardening at the weekends, is becoming less and less as the days shorten. And yet there is so much to do.

We’ve spent the whole of the last couple of weekends trying to get the garden ‘winter ready’. For us, that means putting away or covering all the garden furniture and any frost-sensitive statues or ornaments. It also means moving all the tender plants into the greenhouse or polytunnel. Moving the pots is a massive undertaking. So far, we have already moved over 60 pots, with more still to do. Yet more, the biggest ones, need to be bubble-wrapped and fleeced. Only then do we start to dig up the tender plants in the borders themselves and move them to their winter quarters.

Once the tenders plants are safely moved or covered, we start cutting back the herbaceous plants. That will keep us busy until the early Spring. We’re not obsessed about neatness and we certainly don’t go in for ‘putting the garden to bed’ for the winter but cutting back what needs to be cut, will take us weeks, so a start needs to me made.

In between all of this, we must also find time for felling trees and processing the wood which will provide us with enough fuel for the log burners next Winter but that’s another blog …

Autumn Storms

October 5, 2020

We had our first proper Autumn storm this weekend, with the arrival of Storm ‘Alex’. It started raining overnight on Thursday and didn’t stop until Sunday lunchtime.

This was tiresomely reminiscent of last Autumn and Winter, which was remarkably wet, culminating in our local town, Tenbury Wells, being flooded at the beginning of March.

We’re lucky that our house has never flooded and is significantly higher than the stream which runs past the house. But the very wet weather is not without its problems. The stream does break its banks when the weather is particularly wild and this can cause damage to the track leading to the house. Flooding can also cause the weir to break, which holds back the water in the pool photographed above.

In the garden, waterlogging can cause the loss of plants and since we grow on heavy clay, this can be a particular problem. More problematic for us at least is that run-off from surrounding fields washes away top soil. Like many others, we also find that these increasingly common wet, mild winters, lead to an explosion in slug numbers.

The very wet winter was followed of course by an exceptionally dry Spring and early Summer. It seems that we must get used to this increasingly extreme weather and as gardeners, adapt as best we can.

The Productive Garden

October 2, 2020

It’s fair to say that our principal focus as gardeners is on what might be called the ‘decorative’ part of the garden: borders filled with flowering plants and shrubs. That’s certainly the aspect of the garden we mostly blog about. But there is another important part of our garden and that’s the productive side. We have a veg patch which is about the size of the allotment we used to have in Birmingham. We have a polytunnel which is currently filled with tomatoes, cucumbers, chillies, melons and basil. There is a fruit cage which ought to have raspberry canes in it (that’s another story) but from which we did get a good crop of black currants at mid-Summer. Last but by no means least, we also have a cutting bed, from which we are continuing to get a really good ‘crop’ of cut flowers.

At this time of year though, our thoughts turn to our small orchard and the hedgerows which surround us. The orchard was in a pretty poor state when we inherited it. We were really down to just a couple of large, old apple trees, three plum and several gnarled damson trees. We’ve since lost one of the apple trees and some of the damsons. We’re trying to restore the orchard however and have planted a dozen new apple trees, together with pear, plum, mulberry and medlar.

What to do with the crop? Well, this is the time of year we get out the maslin pan and start some serious jam, chutney and pickle making. Damson jam is one the finest things there is! But damsons also make a great tangy chutney. We take a lot of apples to a local press, which gives us a year’s supply of apple juice. And last but by no means least we love damson and sloe gin, which we lay down for drinking the following year.

As for the grapes in the picture? They’re an unexpected bonus from the vine we planted, for purely decorative reasons, against the summer house. The grapes actually taste pretty good but those are the only two bunches, so we won’t be making any wine just yet.

A Summer Of Garden Visits

September 23, 2020

We’ve been opening our garden in support of the National Garden Scheme since 2018. This year, instead of opening for a single weekend, as we have in the past, we decided to open ‘by arrangement’ throughout the Summer. That decision was taken in September 2019. Little did we know what was about to happen!

When the pandemic hit in March, we assumed we would have no visitors at all this year. Sad for us but devastating for the charities which rely on the NGS for support. We were delighted then when, in early June, we were able to re-open the garden for private visits.

June was our busiest month for visitors. With very few other venues open and pent-up demand to get out of the house, we had visitors most days. We were told by many visitors that they chose a scheduled garden visit as being a particularly safe day out.

Sadly, we were not able to offer refreshments this year, which always add significantly to the funds we raise. Even so, with about 150 people through the gate over the last 3 months, we have raised about £700 for the nursing charities the NGS supports.

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