Thursday, 10 July 2014

rope me on for the extreme weeding challenge

Nottingham's Trent Bridge is hosting the test match against India at the moment. The English fielders and bowlers have been toiling in the heat of the sun for two days. Hard, hot work.

Work?! That's not what I call work!! Try weeding a sharply sloping bank, gluteus maximus drawn as tight as the highest harp string while the unforgiving sun fries all around. That's me. And I'm tender.

The next stage in the development of the 'front garden' has begun. Unhappily, I've compromised and sprayed the thick vegetation and now I work through, casting down chunks of concrete and brick as I pull out weed roots. I've come in for a breather while listening to England's bowlers struggle to winkle out the Indian tail-enders.

Our splendid home has a rather uncared for feel as one approaches from the drive:
  • The mounding looks like a wasteland.
  • There's a sea of black plastic covering the ground where I hope to create our raised kitchen garden beds. Wood and rubbish is used to weight the black plastic and this must be disposed of.
  • A pile of stones and mud glowers by the side of the parking bay.
  • The front door approach is uncared for and un-started
  • Weedy patches look at each other from either side of the path.
By this time next year, I hope expect to have:
  • Finished planting the mounding
  • Have removed the black plastic and rubbish and created the raised kitchen garden beds.
  • Moved the lorry load of stones and used them as the paths in the fragrant garden
  • Have tidied and planted the front door approach
  • Cleared the weedy patches on either side of the path, added new topsoil and planted with multi-stemmed Himalayan Birch, in the two patches and also where the stone pile once was. 
I haven't got time to sit here typing!!

Monday, 7 July 2014

I like my lawn to buzz.....

Tony thinks I'm cracked.
'Look at it' he exclaims, looking across the lawn '... it's full of clover'.

Spot on there pal. Job done.

I know that most people will choose a monoculture of grass as their ideal lawn. Moss killer. Worm killer. Weed and feed. Shaved closer than David Cameron's face. Well, that's not my idea of lawn heaven. I garden for biodiversity: I like my lawn to buzz.

These photos show you why.

Today, our recently reintroduced honey bees were very evident on the clover. But also carder bees, red-tailed and white-tailed bumble bees were also stuffing their pollen baskets.

Kris gifted us 'A Sting in the Tale: my adventures with Bumblebees' by Dave Goulson and I'm reading it at the moment. It's as stuffed full of interesting bee facts as bombus pascuorum's pollen basket. Here's one:
  • A queen bumblebee may use her own weight in sugar each day to incubate her brood of baby bees which necessitates her visiting up to 6000 flowers.
I predict several re-readings of this new natural history classic.

Our bees need as much help as we can give them: I'm glad the lawn is buzzing.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

kitchen garden

Out, by the kitchen door, an expanse of black, weed surpressing plastic sheeting undulates like an oily Antarctic sea. This is where the Kitchen Garden will be created before next spring.

This area will contain raised beds, a small pond, Jill's potting shed and a log store.

Last night we visited the Nottinghamshire village of Norwell to see the gardens open through the Open Garden scheme.

These two photos were taken at the Old Bakehouse and give an idea of what may be achieved.

Mine, of course will be slightly out of true.


Couldn't help but add these clay martin nest sites which are presumably an homage to Dolly Parton....

Thursday, 19 June 2014

the golden ticket ..

the best view in Nottinghamshire..?
Just reflecting really.

On the 18 June 1970 our nation was electing a new government. But much more significantly, a pretty girl spoke to me.

bee orchid
I've had this bird fascination forever and at that time had little canaries as pets that had nested and had young. I was out collecting wildflower seeds to feed to the birds with my Jack Russell for company on the Klondike allotments in Wilford near where I lived. I'd seen this pretty girl and her beagle puppy walking in the village. She asked me what I was doing.
spotted orchid

So, there we were together last night, 44 years later on a beautiful cloudless evening and guess what.. collecting wildflower seeds.

Just outside our gate and through the wood there's Nottinghamshire's best view  from which on a fine day you can see across to distant Crich Stand on the edge of Derbyshire's Peak District . And then you're led into a former sand quarry that is now a heath. We found exquisite flowering orchids. And together collected the seed of white campion and a short yellow hawkweed for sowing into our own wildflower meadows.

Gosh. 39 years married. Two lovely children. An amazing home and garden. And she's just as pretty.

I've won the golden ticket in life's lottery..

Sunday, 8 June 2014

... it's a jungle out there...

the unmown lawn
We are being encouraged by the Plantlife charity to set aside parts of our lawns as unmown areas - 'Say no to the mow'.

Aphid party busted by ladybird larvae in unmown lawn drama.
Traditionally scalped and weedkilled lawns provide little for wildlife - but a few weeks of growth and you'll find all kinds of interesting creepy crawlies in there. A bit like my untrimmed beard in many ways. You'll find you've created a pocket rainforest.

fritillaria seed pods
The area of the lawn we've set aside had been plug planted with cowslips and fritillaria for spring flowers. We need to leave the lawn unmown to allow the flowers to seed. After seed collecting, the lawn will be mown short again. I'm sure greenkeepers will blanch at this treatment of a lawn. Especially when they hear I intend to give this area a bit of a flogging after mowing so that flower seeds can get into contact with bare earth.
"Barbara! Come and read this. The man is an idiot. It's a crime against lawns!"

I guess you may be right. And those of you less entrenched in the ethical left-field will probably simply mow your lawn after its holiday, ready for the family French cricket competition.
But it's my conviction that the enemy of wildlife is monoculture - the growing of a single plant to the detriment of all others. A lawn that is weed and moss killed and excludes all other plants is as much a monoculture as an intensively grown field of leeks. I want biodiversity in my lawn. I love clover! I want other flowers to bloom. It's great for pollinators!

So, I'm pleased that this year's white clover and purple vetch are flowering and attracting bees and other insects. A better cameraman would have captured the long thin wasp that visited us. I'm pleased that the verdant growth is also providing food for aphids, which in turn will be fed on by birds and other insects.And drama too. Those ladybird larvae can certainly munch!

And I'm pleased to support Plantlife. Say no to the mow!

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

'like every English seaside family holiday you ever remembered....'

The rain has bucketed down at times these past two weeks. Like every English seaside family
holiday you ever remembered.

And this has rather slowed my development of the first of our garden beds. This bed is directly outside our bedroom. We expect to open the curtains in the spring to a beautiful, white magnolia denudata. Now I know that magnolias themselves aren't heap big fun for bees but beetles like 'em. And the white of the magnolia will be joined by lots of simple flowers that are 'perfect for pollinators' such as white astrantias, violas, cistus, bergenias and hydrangea Annabelle all interwoven with decorative grasses. There'll be hints of blues and creams within the planting too. We have been growing euonymous on for use as topiary subjects and have an 'Emerald Gaiety' that will bring out my inner Edward Scissorhands in this part. Hidden within and shaded from the sun will be a small pond to meet the needs of the local wildlife such as our local frog and toad population. I'm aiming on building mini-ponds into lots of our garden corners. Mr Happy here says it will all look a picture.

' free rubble with every delivery of soil...'
But until then, there's a mountain of soggy sopsoil laced with couch grass and rubble to sort and to move.

But let's be positive here people and say that stage one is finished.

The bed has been dug over to a spades' depth. Bricks, stones, glass, bottles, metal and wood have been removed. Heavy soil has been turned and broken.

Stage 2 - barrow soil across to raise level. This where we've got to. I'm sitting inside typing while outside curtains of rain occasionally open to show a drenched lawn. I really want to get this work finished today but it's not looking promising.

Stage 3 - rotavate the bed. Despite digging the ground over, beneath the recently added topsoil the ground remains in chunks that need to be disciplined. Roger has been fine-tuning Tony's rotavator. My string like arms look forward to having their joints dislocated as I rotavate across the contours of the new bed like a city boy on a bucking bronco.

Then stage 4 - lets get planting...

We have a few plants in pots that can be planted when my shoulder joints have been relocated. Other plants will have to wait until they become dormant before being moved.

Stage 5 - another barrowthon as I mulch the planted area to create a perfect hens' playground...

Friday, 23 May 2014

what a show .....

Nature puts on a great show at this time of year.

wood pigeon egg 'cached' by carrion crow
A lovely little pair of pied wagtails has adopted Cordwood and we think they're nesting with us. Big commotion in the sky above our house at lunchtime as a pied wagtail chased a female sparrowhawk that was gripping something small in its talons and heading for the Scots pines. Perhaps one less pied wagtail...

Counted 14 wood pigeons feasting on the clover in our lush lawn this morning. Big, cumbersome birds, but beautiful none the less. And performing a useful function. When I can only see their heads above the grass as they feed
I know its time to get the mower out. The UK population of this attractive bird increased by 167% 1998-2010 (BTO Bird Atlas 2007-2011). Most of the increase heads for our garden and they're breeding like billy-oh at the moment. This creates opportunities for other birds. A glossy black carrion crow flew by the kitchen window just now with a wood pigeons egg in its bill. It hid the egg in a patch of nettles and flew away.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

one man went to mow..

the lightweight Austrian scythe and its heavier English cousin
A wonderful floriferous spring. And the birds have been more abundant than at any time since we took over Cordwood in October 2010.
The gardens are shaping up too - but, of course, the weeds are in full vigour too: time to take control.

a mown path using the Austrian scythe
I try and use my Austrian scythe as often as I can. When the conditions are right I make speedy progress with it: demonstrations consistently show the scythe being quicker than a strimmer. The photo shows my progress along the boundary clearing bracken, brambles, grass and nettles. It's a surprisingly nimble tool taking into account its 'grim reaper' connotations and 24 inch blade. As Britains clumsiest man, Jill was concerned that she would shortly be married to a double amputee when I began scything. But it's lightweight and they even produce a scythe for children's use. Imagine your little God daughters face on Christmas morning when she unwraps her scythe....
It allows me to mow carefully around the bluebell patches and the seedling trees I wish to save. I use it to make neat piles of the mown vegetation that can be useful to all manner of small mammals, birds, invertebrates and amphibians.

Importantly for me too, its use doesn't leave the woodland ringing with the screech of a strimmer or hovermower. This year has been the best I can remember on this site for hearing cuckoo calling. I wouldn't hear him with ear protectors and the whine of the strimmer wire.

The other advantage of the scythe is that it is much less harmful to wildlife than a strimmer or hovermower. Strimmers cause horrific and painful injuries to hedgehogs and frogs. Mowers too kill and maim and are given as a reason why our native legless lizard, the slow worm's numbers have declined. The Victorian naturalist Joseph Whittaker described our local Blidworth Vale as ringing with the 'krex krex' call of the corncrake before mechanical harvesting was introduced. Corncrake are now locally extinct.

So in this corner of Nottinghamshire, one man will continue to mow using his scythe while ever he retains his strength!

Thursday, 15 May 2014

why did you do that...?

We've achieved a huge amount since we began this adventure in October 2010. I'm delighted with all of our progress.
work begins : the red chair shows where the magnolia will be planted

Folks often say, 'How do you know what to do next?'

And the answer is that I'm one of those compulsive list makers. There's little to beat the satisfaction of a job ticked off.

I've got my list of priorities: building raised beds as well as all the routine maintenance stuff. Usually framed by the foreman. But she wasn't around today.

So, quite why I decided to open another front this morning and begin digging out the magnolia bed (onto which we'll look from our bedroom) - I don't know. Jill was equally puzzled when she got back from work. 'Why did you do that?'

And, you know people, I'm not sure myself. I had a full day yesterday and should have slowed the pace today. As it is, I chose to dig over the heavy clay of this part of the garden which is laced with shoulder juddering bricks and stones: three barrows full.

I'm about a third of the way through digging the bed over for the first time. After its been dug over I will need to bring many many barrows of soil over to build the levels up. Then add organic matter. Then rotavate or dig over again.

Shows why I need the foreman around.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

pignut ..

Not a childish insult but a plant with an image problem due to its name - pignut (conopodium majus).

Pignut is a pretty little perennial and a member of what Jill and I still call the umbellifer family (although now mysteriously renamed by the botanists the apiacae).

Its leaves are are green and delicate. Its umbel flower is also an understated little starburst of white.

Here it is, growing against the thorn hedge we planted along the boundary in February 2011. You can see that the scythe operative needs to have his wits about him or all kinds of treasures could be mown down.

The pignut name comes from its chestnut sized tuber, loved equally by pigs and other foragers. Pignut is not the prettiest name for what is a lovely, often overlooked little plant. I'll leave it to establish a good patch - but hope to harvest some of the seeds. They'll make a pretty addition as the wildflower meadows develop.

Along most of its length, the hedge of hawthorn, field maple, hazel, yew, holly, spindle and scrambling honeysuckle is flourishing. An understory of wildflowers will only add to its appearance.

Friday, 25 April 2014

wildflower meadow

Trev in action ...
An exciting new chapter opened at Cordwood over the Easter weekend: we began preparations for our wildflower meadow. Our plan is for there to be 2 acres of wildflower meadow stretching in a crescent around our two gardens.

To be honest, I didn't even have the creation of the wildflower meadow on my list. The job was sooo big and my list was already tooo long. But I spotted that Roger had hired a mini-tractor. It looked too much fun to miss so I hired a cultivator attachment. And the project that will be 'my baby' for my remaining years began.

And we were away. Like an agricultural labourer at the beginning of the industrial revolution, I am always amazed by how much work machines can eat up. This little tiger of a tractor and its rotavator pal did work in a day that would quite literally have taken me about half a year of back-breaking work to accomplish.

Compacted, impenetrable ground became a tilth. The substrate that had remained from where the old service road once laid, was no longer rock, but a soft seedbed.

We've got a fair old mix of soil types and aspects around the area that will become the meadow. We have the crushed concrete remaining from the removal of the old mushroom shed bases that will favour lime loving plants. We have the ground beneath the old pine trees giving acidic conditions. Then we have our own sandy soil, the sandy soil brought in from Kirkby and clay soil from Brackenhurst college. Plus partial shade through to full sun. And we hope that the diversity and impoverished nature of the soil will help us produce a diverse and rich flora over the coming years.

We don't have the budget to sow the entire area with purchased seed and so must nibble away at the job.

We'll sow what seed we have in a couple of small areas and see what comes up. So into a sack of wildflower seed go a whole lot of seeds we've collected or acquired: calendular, Welsh poppies, Aldi wildflower mix, white campion, little packets of 'mini-meadow' mix and many other assorted envelopes. We'll also watch with interest to see the wildflowers that emerge whose seeds have lain dormant in the soil until we cultivated it.

I'll continue to hunt waste ground and roadside verges for wildflower seeds.

We'll sow trays of seed and bring seedlings on to be planted out as plug plants.
the old service road, sown with seed

I hope to collect hay from other wildflower meadows and bring it back to Cordwood to shed its seed.

And we'll continue to welcome gifts of wild plants from friends gardens.

Let's not pretend that the creation of a wildflower meadow will be quick or easy. Or ever end.

But picture it. On a sunny summers day. Buzzing with insects and vibrant with colour.....

Saturday, 19 April 2014

say no to mow

Gardens take up more space on this small island than do all our nature reserves.

So wildlife gets a real boost if our gardeners help.

And this year I am helping by doing absolutely nothing. That shouldn't take much time during a busy week.

I'm leaving a sunny patch of the lawn unmown as part of the Plantlife charity's 'Say no to mow' campaign. Great for flowers. Great for invertebrates. We'll leave it unmown until high summer then get the mower on it to tidy up for winter.

And to help matters along we've planted baby cowslips into our lawn that Sarah wanted to rehome. And we've been given exquisite snakeshead fritillaries which flower in pots this spring. we'll plant them into the damp, unmown lawn.

I could do nothing for England!

Thursday, 17 April 2014

beesy peasy - our new bee hotel

We are encouraged to assist our buzzy friends by making 'bee hotels'. These are collections of natures tubes and stuff that will provide nesting sites for solitary bees.

Having cleared the 'tops' of our perennials, I spotted that lots were hollow-stemmed and would make a great contribution to a Cordwood Bee Hotel if cut down to short lengths.

Next, some scrap wood for the structure.

Sawn lengths of rotting wood.

Old bamboo canes.


Plant pots.

Then add two eager assistants.

Site finished work of art on a south facing surface.

And beesy, peasy. Our new Bee Hotel.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

rain chains and whisky barrels

one mans rain isn't necessarily another mans flood ....

Here's radical - I hear you say.

filling the dried, colander-like barrel
Most of the rainwater from Britain's homes flows down from our gutters, into drains - and into rivers. The speed of this run off leads to problems with flooding. At times of heavy rain the excess rain water also rushes into the sewers. The force of this causes storm drains to flood into our rivers and seas, polluting them with raw sewerage.

Aware of this, we've done it differently at Cordwood.

My favoured idea during the design stage of Waxwings was for the roof rainwater to go down the garden into a series of ponds until it softly dissipated into the soil.

This proved an expensive option. But we have a fun solution...

Instead of boring old down pipes, we have put in plastic chains for the rain water to flow down - rainchains! The rain is now a feature as it tumbles down the rain chains. Great to watch on a rainy day! We saw this use of ordinary garden chains at RHS
water exits the barrel down this vertical pipe
Rosemoor. Thanks for this idea and I was very pleased to pinch it.

At the end of the rain chains, the water will now collect in a re-used half whisky barrel. there'll be lots of dramatic splashing. And ever on the look out for different planting opportunities, there's chance here to plant the barrels with some attractive aquatic plants. An interesting patio feature......

As the rain keeps falling, the danger is that the barrels overflow. As the rainwater level rises the surplus water shoots down the pipe which is set into the base of the barrel. This pipe feeds directly into a drain. The water then goes down the drainpipes under the lawn ... and fills the pond.

When the pond is full, the surplus pond water percolates away through our sandy soil into the water table below.

Practical note:
To drill through the base of the barrel for the water pipe I wanted the wood as dry as possible. Then when the pipe was inserted, the wood would swell and make a tight seal around the plastic pipe.

When I subsequently filled the dried barrels, the slats had dried and opened, leaving gaps. They were like wooden colanders until the wood had taken up the water and swollen back to fill the gaps and make the barrels watertight again.

Never fear, dear readers, I will post a picture of the filled barrel when the barrel is fully watertight. And keep you posted as we plant our aquatics.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

orchard meadow

We hope that we will be able to create up to 2 acres of beautiful wild flower meadows here at Cordwood.

plantain and cowslips
When we arrived, our 'orchard' was a 28 foot high jungle of suckering cherries, blackthorn, sycamores, nettles and strangling brambles. Having cleared that lot with hand tools, we began the process of creating a wildflower meadow beneath the venerable recovered apple trees. From bare soil, grass appeared and I took a hay cut in late summer 2012.  The building of our new homes in 2013 took our attention away from the orchard flower meadow and I didn't mow the grass at the season's end or remove the hay.

Will anything struggle through the thatch of aggressive Yorkshire Fog grass this year? 

greater knapweed
Delighted, first of all to see some of the seedling hay rattle  plants coming through in patches. This parasite was introduced in 2012 from seed we had collected with Mike. It sucks the life out of the over-competitive grasses, leaving space for less vigorous meadow flowers.

We planted cowslip plugs and scattered a bag of seed collected from our old allotment in 2013. In April 2014 plugs are flowering and seedlings are fighting their way through.

I collected red campion seed in 2012 and successfully grew lots of plugs. I've transplanted plants into the orchard this year.

We also collected greater knapweed seed during our evening walks and transplanted plants and scattered seed. Somethings happenin'.

And finally, the American quamash or camassia was introduced as bulblets in spring 2013. They seemed to have disappeared and I cursed our vole neighbours and their sharp hungry teeth. But the camassias are back and stronger than ever!
red campion

Unfortunately our spring flowering crocus flowers were eaten by the wood pigeons...

I've scattered lots of other seed but it's too soon to crow. But, from nothing, we have now got the beginnings of some floral diversity.

Much more to be done. Of course and I'll be collecting seed and growing plug plants to enrich the meadow during this year. Also looking to find ways of increasing the invertebrate population.

And, then,
in high summer, Mike and hope to be using our Austrian scythes to clear the hay. Scythe training. A load of laughs. Sunny day, gentle exercise. Frothing ale or refreshing cider. It's yours for the asking......