Finally starting to look like a pond, although the water level will eventually be up to the top of the liner right the way across.
I know, I know – it’s been three weeks since an update. The principal reason for this was that not enough had happened after two weeks. And the principal reason for that was that some of the gang were pulled away on to other sites to do something a little more productive. But it never ceases to amaze me what a difference it makes to a site when the turf goes down. It suddenly changes in one go from a landscape site to a garden.
As you can see from the photo, we incorporated the famous ‘molemesh’ as it went down – fingers crossed. This allows us to share the lawn with the local mole population on the basis that they agree not to make any molehills. We have a signed agreement with the moles to this effect.
The line of the stepping stone path was ‘adjusted’ (that’s a great word for lifting and relaying 11no 115kg slabs of stone) to a slightly sharper curve, which we feel works a lot better. In fact we are delighted. Which is just as well, ’cos they sure ain’t moving again! The grass will be laid between the slabs at the very end of the project, once we have finished wheeling stuff down there.
We had a minor leak, which the liner guys came back and fixed for us. Note to self – make next pool a simple shape. The leak was luckily in the most accessible part of the pond, in trying to install the liner around the concrete buttresses for the metal edging.
The planting of the marginals is happening at the moment – see photo. The beds are first filled with special soil, mixed with light expanded clay aggregate balls to bulk it out (LECA, or Coco-pops as my sons call it). The plants are then carefully planted and a sealing layer of clay is placed over the top. Finally, a thin layer of limestone grit (otherwise known as cat litter by my sons) is laid over the surface. We have positioned some slabs to act as standing points within the lower beds for maintenance access. The lower beds are planted with lilies and other nutrient hungry plants. The upper beds are mostly ornamental. When complete, the water level will cover all the beds to the top of the liner – the pool is still filling at the moment.
It is such a huge relief to see green things arriving after so long with just mud, concrete and stone. Even the dogs have cheered up with the lawn going down, although they can’t understand why they are not allowed on it.
And some of you may have picked up from twitter that during that really hot bank holiday weekend, we had an inaugural swim in the pool (only about one-third full at that point). It was freezing, but felt great!
Just two weeks left to go now, and almost there… (I keep saying that, don’t I?)
Despite the weather (and there has been plenty of that, if you know what I mean), we are nearly ready for the liner. In the two weeks since I last posted on this blog, it seems to have been alternately too wet or too cold to do anything! Luckily, we got most of the blocks laid before the really cold weather set in, but we still had to take our chances with the few remaining stretches, as well as concreting around the sleeper walls. The results, as you can see below are almost starting to look like something recognisable as finished instead of random piles of earth and the odd block wall.
The money pit.
The costs have mounted up fairly alarmingly. By necessity, when we started on this, the design drawings had to progress pretty quickly leaving the finer points of the detailed design to be sorted out as we moved forward. As a result, although we knew roughly what the cost would be, there have been a few additions and we seemed to have forgotten one or two things…
Plants are people too.
Doing the planting plan for the big border to the right of the pond was a challenge. Plants are like people. They all have different characters. Some we have a sentimental attachment to and can’t help inviting to every planting plan. Others are old friends that we haven’t seen for a while, but bump into again. Planting plans for small spaces can be a bit like planning a difficult dinner party table! When its your own garden, it is even worse. I had to work really hard to keep reasonable sized blocks and sweeps of plants. My instinct was to try and squeeze in as many of my favourites as I could, but I knew space was limited. In the end, I limited myself to three grasses (not including the small patch of Helictotrichon I have sneaked in at the front): Muhlenbergia capillaris, Eragrostis spectabilis and Miscanthus gracillimus. This last is not definite but it was either that or Pennisetum.
Pink Muhly grass. In autumn, this beautiful grass creates a spectacular, billowy of mass of pink, airy flowers on 1m-1.2m stems.
We are lucky to have a fairly deep sunny border, on a well-drained gravelly soil. Whilst this does not suit all plants, it does mean that I can finally plant Eremurus robustus with some hope of it succeeding! I can’t wait! I have also found room for two of my favourite large perennials – Cynara cardunculus and Crambe cordifolia which should punch up nicely amongst some of the lower herbaceous material. There are few places in the garden where we really have the right environment and space for herbaceous material, so it is a delight to have some freedom. Nonetheless, there is still a framework of taller shrubs towards the back of the border and through some of the deeper stretches.
With the end now in sight, the first celebratory party is already booked. I always groan when clients mention this – “We’re having a party on xx; can you be finished by then?” As before with this project, now I can see why they do it.
Week three of the swimming pond saga and the garden still looks like the outskirts of a Welsh mining town.
The blockwork walls of the deep swim area are almost complete and now stand proud of the surrounding ground – although eventually they’ll be about 300mm below water level. As our garden is on an appreciable slope, we have planned this ‘perching’ of the pool in order to minimise the dig but also to redistribute what was in the hole around the garden.
So where our lawn was sloping it will be flatter, and beyond the pool the ground will need to be terraced to take it back down to existing levels. How this will be achieved when there are spoil mounds on almost every inch of ground remains to be seen…
Plans for our food forest
John has asked me to write a bit about our forest garden plans this week so here goes:
For those unfamiliar with forest gardens they are basically self-regulating, food-producing ecosystems designed to mimic the structure of a woodland edge – optimum light, shelter and layering of groundcover, shrub, understorey and canopy to give abundant production.
This is based on the principle that nature is always pushing towards climax vegetation (woodland in the UK) so why not harness that energy and work with it, adapting nature’s tendencies for our own ends.
How it should work
Briefly in an ideal forest garden all your resource inputs are minimised:
minimal weeding as planting or mulch covers the ground completely
minimal watering once established due to the woodland microclimate
minimal pests and diseases due to the biodiversity
minimal feeding as the design incorporates sufficient nitrogen fixers to feed the rest via microrrhizal activity. Potassium is added via comfrey mulches, etc
All of which is just as well as between us John and I are pretty rubbish at nurturing our own garden on the whole. Looking after three children, two dogs, a business, a community garden, a neglected house still in need of major renovation, four ducks, eleven chickens, some raised veg beds and a lawn that seems to be the mole-magnet of the county seems to fill most of our time…
Factoring in existing ‘challenges’
And as with everything we do at home, our forest garden will be a bit of a compromise: partly since we’re working with a set of existing trees, none of which fix nitrogen, partly because our garden is quite exposed with the sun and wind both coming mainly from the west, and partly because the forest garden is where our chickens roam – good for fertilisation, bad for growing a productive herb layer. Oh and then there’s the rabbits that pop over from the field next door for a little ‘silflay’ every morning…
How it will work – we hope
The idea is to plant some Italian alders along the northerly boundary where they will add shelter and fix nitrogen but not shade the already dappled forest garden too much – luckily the existing trees are birches so there will be some sun getting through. An Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) planted for its flavoursome berries next to the southerly hedge, will also fix nitrogen. Altogether this should give us enough nitrogen to satisfy the existing trees and our proposed fruit layers.
As our soil is very sandy and free draining, the terraces we’re planning will help to retain runoff in the forest garden. Along the edges of the terraces we’re going to use the bulky tree waste and hedge trimmings we’ve stockpiled at the bottom of the garden from the removal of numerous unwanted or elderly trees and shrubs. These tree waste bunds will be covered with the turf from the old lawn to create ‘hugel’ beds; the slow break down of the tree waste will release nitrogen over a long period and enhance the soil structure. Rebel farmer Sepp Holzer uses this technique on Austrian mountainsides to great effect.
As well as fruit and nut trees, we’re planning to grow some bamboo near the pond. This will not only act as a much needed shelterbelt but we hope to harvest the shoots for eating.
It’s all happening so fast!
The apricots, almond, hazel, quince, medlar, gage, damson, Mirabelle, plum, blue honeysuckle, cherries, fig and berries-too-numerous-to-mention, have started to arrive from Martin Crawford’s Agroforestry Research Trust in Devon and various other specialist nurseries, and we’ve been busy heeling them in until the areas are ready for planting. And before you ask not all the plants are going in the forest garden – some will go nearer the house and some in the front garden.
And we haven’t even started on the planting plans for the pond itself and its immediate surroundings! Looks like a busy weekend ahead with another round of decisions and compromises…
Recommended reading on Forest Gardening and Permaculture in practice:
This spring it seems Britain is a-buzz about bees … many of us have suddenly woken up to the fact that bees are more than just our honey-slaves, and that if we don’t look after our pollinating insects, our food production system could be in serious trouble. If this sounds melodramatic then stop to consider that in the UK alone, pollination is calculated to be worth about £430m to the national economy – food for thought!
Paradoxically it is modern farming practices that have swept away so much of the natural foraging grounds for our bees. Bees feed on pollen and nectar which they collect from flowers, and there are simply far fewer flowers in the countryside these days. Hedges have been removed, marshes drained and over 97% of flower-rich meadows have been lost from the UK. Add to that new research from France suggesting that common pesticides damage bees’ ability to navigate and dramatically reduce the numbers of queens they produce, and it’s little wonder bees are struggling!
Gardens are just about the only place left to them and even they are becoming unwelcoming: the fashion for sleek lawns, monoculture planting and everything clipped to within an inch of its life does not make for an attractive world to pollinators. They need flowers – but not just any flowers – sadly most annual bedding plants (eg Pelargoniums, Begonias, Busy Lizzies) have no nectar in them – you might as well be planting artificial flowers for all the use they are to bees.
So, aside from campaigning to change the way Britain is farmed (good luck with that one!), how can we help the nation’s pollinating insects? Well there’s hope for bees in even the smallest garden:
Instead of filling your pots and windowboxes with bedding, why not plant flowering perennials or shrubs instead – lavender is the classic bee plant and there are many different types, but also think about catmint, lilies, sedums, hebes and heathers. If you’re absolutely wedded to bedding try wallflowers, sweet peas, cosmos, heliotrope or nicotiana – bees love them.
Herbs can be great for pollinators too: rosemary, fennel, hyssop, mint, oregano and sage are all nectar-rich and no kitchen doorstep should be without them. You could even plant up the joints between paving slabs with herbs and flowers – like thyme, thrift or erigeron daisies.
But if space is really at a premium think vertically: climbers are great way to add nectar – and texture – to a small space: favourite plants for pollinators include wisteria, honeysuckle, open-flowered roses, climbing hydrangea or if you’ve got room, wall shrubs like Ceanothus, Cytisus battenderii (the pineapple broom) or any of the Buddleias.
For the medium-sized garden, why not create an area for cottage garden flowers? A sunny border filled with achillea, campanula, hollyhocks, delphiniums, penstemons and asters will be buzzing with insect life; or for shadier areas plant lungwort, bugle, foxgloves and astrantia. If you have gaps in existing borders, why not fill them with easy annuals like cosmos, cornflowers, love-in-a-mist, eschscholzia or calendula – there are some great colour coordinated bee-friendly seed mixes about. Or go wild and sow some native wildflowers: bistort, verbascum, teasel and viper’s bugloss – a brilliant bee plant.
But the mayhem of the cottage garden isn’t for everyone. If you like your planting strong and structural, you can still benefit bees by using statuesque plants like angelica, cardoon, globe thistle or drifts of iris, alliums, and the ever-popular but wonderful Verbena bonariensis.
For the larger garden there are several different ways you can improve your bee-friendliness, from tree or hedge planting to meadow creation (a subject so complex it merits a blog of its own).
Fruit tree blossom is very attractive to bees, so creating an orchard or forest garden (the more natural equivalent) would be a great idea if you have the space. If that’s not possible, why not plant a crab apple, cherry or Judas tree and enjoy it for the blossom alone. And, while people tend to either love ’em or loath ’em, bees adore laburnums, so if you’re that way inclined, a laburnum arch would be a pollinator’s dream. And for the yellow-phobes among us, wisteria is a more restrained alternative.
Hedgerows are great places for all sorts of wildlife, but they can be a really important food resource for pollinators especially if wildflowers are encouraged to grow up along the base. They also provide good nesting sites for bumblebees. If you’re planning on planting a new hedge, think mixed and native: the hedgerow blossom of hawthorn, blackthorn, wild plum, dog rose, and honeysuckle are all well-loved by pollinating insects – throw in wildflowers like ox eye daisy, knapweed, red clover, scabious, sanfoin and viper’s bugloss at the base and you have a year-round supply of nectar.
Which brings me to a few important considerations: bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects need a regular supply of nectar all year round, so it’s important to plan your planting so you have several plants flowering at any given time right across the year. Pollinating insects come in all shapes and sizes, and different shaped flowers suit different species so mix it up floristically-speaking. And as a general rule of thumb, it’s best to avoid plants with double flowers – they keep their nectar hidden away making harder for bees to get at.
Any good garden designer will be bearing all this in mind anyway: providing seasonal interest for their client and ensuring that sustainable, environmentally-friendly options are given full consideration. If you feel inspired to take on transforming your patch into a pollinators’ paradise, there is plenty of information on the following websites – enjoy!
One final thought – if you are keen to attract and encourage pollinators, but can’t completely kick the pesticide habit, then please check the ingredients of the products you use very carefully and keep your eye on the news. Several commonly used chemicals: Imidacloprid, Acetamiprid, Thiacloprid and Thiamethoxam, have already been potentially implicated in bee decline, and I doubt they’ll be the last…
A conversation in the office the other day between John and Jeff went something like this…. John ‘ I met up with Mr A.nonymous designer last night’ Jeff in reply ‘Cotinus Grace!’. Jeff is a passionate horticulturalist but he has a broad vocabulary and frequently uses words that are not plant names to communicate a point. So why the reply … well this was the plant that Jeff associated with the Mr A.nonymous when he used to plant his schemes back in the 1990’s. Thereafter the conversation spread and the question.…what plant do you associate with schemes of a certain age became the topic of the day!
Do certain plants really identify a planting scheme, can a Cotinus Grace be used as dating evidence like a pottery shard on an archaeological dig? Well no, Cotinus Grace still provides a lovely splash of purple today and we have planted it in several schemes without fear of being branded passé. There is however definitely something to this, I have certainly visited a landscape in need of a refresh without a precast slab or shoulder padded client in site and still with a swoosh declared it so 1980’s!
So plants are probably associated with a time or fashion in the same way that a mini skirt is associated with the 60’s but still finds its way back into fashion and certain high streets on a Saturday night. Some fashions and plants are probably best left in the era they are associated with such as Houttuynia cordata Chameleon and super glue spiked hair – the Bowles & Wyer publicity shot of 1977 should definitely not be repeated…..
Best left in the archive…..
A bit of a B&W office poll and the following plants were listed:-
1950’s Roses, esp hybrid teas Ena Harkness, Prunus Kanzan, privet, monkey puzzle, fruit trees as Britain started to try and feed its self again after the war
1960’s Heathers, dwarf conifers (esp Elwoodii), Mahonia aquifolia, variegated plants in general, ‘Japonica’ (Chaenomeles), pampas grass, bare root roses (in the post)
Glorious weather, a weekend of gardening with blossom on the cherry trees and magnolias in bloom – perfect! Well apart from when I glance at the hose reel and realise my trusted tool and fellow reviver of greenery on the sandiest of soils is about to be confined to the shed, incarcerated, and forbidden by the hosepipe ban from the 5th April. A second glance at my splendid multi jet sprinkler with its variety of sprays has me on my knees howling why, oh why, oh why…..like the most agitated of points of view correspondents.
After a strong coffee, some apologies to the neighbours and a brief discussion with two chaps carrying a fetching white jacket with fancy buckles I gather my thoughts…
Well the why is simple after two dry winters the reservoirs and aquifers are low in the south east forcing seven water authorities Southern Water, South East Water, Thames Water, Anglian Water, Sutton and East Surrey, Veolia Central and Veolia South East to introduce a hose pipe ban. With my fanciful garden sprinkler using around 600 litres an hour I can see the need.
But what to do! ….. In fact this need not be the complete disaster I feared; my garden is established and there are steps to take that will keep my plants alive:-
• The use of a watering can is allowed when filled directly from the tap, use it in the early morning or evening to minimise evaporation and the amount of water needed.
• Install a water butt, this is the UK it will rain so store this precious precipitation.
• If you are planning major works to or around your house consider installing a grey water system which also will help stop that water meter spinning round at an alarming rate – watch this space for a more detailed blog on this.
• Install a drip or leaky pipe irrigation system with a timer set for the night or early morning. The efficiency of these systems has been recognised by all water authorities and is now permitted during hosepipe bans – but only with a timer. I am afraid any irrigation system which puts water into the air with a sprinkler head or micro spray is not allowed even with a timer.
• Apply mulch to the borders to keep the water in the ground.
• Mow the lawn a bit higher and make sure your mower blades are sharp and if the lawn does go brown don’t panic!! As long as it is established it will survive and be green again soon! See www.turfgrass.co.uk for more information.
• Save water in the house too, the water shortage is not just a problem for gardeners!
Drought tolerant plants
It seems clear that this will not be the last hose pipe ban and by selecting plants that are adapted to survive in periods of drought the effects can be minimised. Look for plants that grow or can trace their origins to coastal regions or sunnier climes.
These plants will have leaves that are adapted to minimise the loss of water this can be with narrow leaves, leaves with fine hairs to trap moisture, grey leaves to reflect the sun or with waxy leaves to hold the water in. This of course is not just a case of buying a drought tolerant plant, popping it in and job done. A drought tolerant plant will be as likely to shrivel up and expire as any other until it is established and gets its roots down so as ever preparation is key plant well and use a good compost to retain moisture. Make sure you plant early while the soil conditions are moist and keep the watering can handy.
It is also important to remember the winter – there is little point in planting that lovely Aloe with its waxy leaves or that silver leafed olive in that cold spot in the garden. They may well resist the drought only to be frozen to death in January!
Some of my favourite drought tolerant plants are Lavendula, Cercis siliquastrum, Arbutus unendo, Rosmarinus, Quercus ilex, Pinus mugo, Vitex agnus-castus, Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii ……. I’d better stop… there are lots to choose from and I will go on and on!
One element of the hose pipe ban that carries uncertainty and has me back in the why oh why mode is that of exclusions. All water authorities state that the ban should not affect commercial activities and yet at this stage the professional landscaper is not universally exempt from the hose pipe ban. This is still the consultation period and the Landscape related professional bodies the SGD, BALI, APL, HTA and TGA are currently lobbying to have an exemption for the use of a hose pipe by the professional on newly planted schemes and newly laid lawns.
The landscape industry is a substantial contributor to the UK economy with for example BALI (British Association of Landscape Industries) members employing around 25’000 staff with an annual turnover of £1.5 billion and the HTA (Horticultural Trades Association) estimating growers and plant wholesale/retailers employ 300,000 staff and an annual turnover in the region of £9 billion. These are significant numbers and sums and I hardly need say that in the current economic situation they should not be put at risk.
The exemption should not be an open invitation to splash water around with abandon, indeed all professional bodies offer guidance on how to minimise water use, but a chance to keep trading!
Saturday 25th February, a beautiful spring sunny day. Parental duties on the touch line completed, a thrilling cup game but that is another story, it was snowdrop time!
This was not as you might think a trip to Bennington Lordships, Anglesey Abbey or one of the other large gardens renowned for stunning swathes of beautiful snowdrops but an open day in a small suburban garden in Leighton Buzzard.
Had I dragged the family along to see a clump of Galanthus nivalis in a neighbours garden nestled between the potting shed and compost bin? Was this a repeat of the later deemed inappropriate father and son trip to the V&A Modernism Exhibition – why would a 5 year old have preferred to have gone to the Natural History Museum I protested. Well this was no ordinary suburban abode but the home of the Owens and their NCPPG national collections of some 900 varieties of snowdrops – we were amidst the Galanthophiles!
I have always been cautious of such plant collectors and their train spotter like behavior, all that ticking names of lists and focusing on one group of plants at the expense of others seems alien to me. However after a short time spent in the garden my fears of having to don an anorak passed ……these Galanthophiles were just passionate plants people!
The garden although not at the cutting edge of design was charming with every corner full of interesting plants and not only snowdrops! Indeed there was a beautiful Prunus Beni-Chidori or flowering Japanese apricot in full bloom, a small tree that we recently planted to mark the birth of a Japanese client’s first child so it was great to see a mature specimen. The Owens were at hand to share their knowledge and passion with cautionary tales of battles with stagonospora, botrysis, narcissus flies and swift moths – which anyone who is going to grow the more delicate hybrids will need to be prepared to stave off. If a question was not being asked of Mr Owen he immediately had a trowel in hand and was on all fours in the borders – a true gardener never wastes a minute of a sunny day!
The snowdrops in the garden were planted in groups; nivalis, elwesii, plicatus and hybrids and the small scale of the garden meant the range in flower sizes, flower shapes, markings and colour could be easily seen and enjoyed – even by a muddied young footballer. And the more you looked the closer to the ground you got and indeed I found myself laying down so I could look up into an interesting double or two.
An enjoyable afternoon ….would I be joining the ever increasing number of Galanthophiles …well with some 2000 named varieties of snowdrops there are plenty to collect although with rarer hybrids now traded on ebay for high sums with a single Galanthus Green Tear bulb recently selling for £360 it could be an expensive hobby. Well it is probably not for me but I may be tempted to try a hybrid or two ……..or is that how it starts!
I was reminded of this plant recently when visiting a garden in Surrey. I bring it to your attention simply because I always think of it in terms of a shrub growing to about 2m or so. These were two beautiful specimens, each about 7-8m tall.
Not only that but they had unusually graceful, twisted stems and a low-branching form that most designers would kill for. They were tucked away in the corner of a somewhat overrun garden in Surrey. What attracted me initially was the pale haze of the flowers visible from some distance away.
At first I thought it was a Corylopsis pauciflora, it was only when I got closer that I noticed the familiar pale thread-like petals and the delicate fragrance, discernible even on a damp, cold, January day. A real delight and certainly a plant that will find its way back on to my ‘must use’ lists.