Tag Archives: vegetable garden

Permaculture versus my lettuces.

For advocates of permaculture, this will probably make them bristle. Although secretly, they will admit (but only to themselves in the wee small hours) that sharing their lettuces with the pigeons, slugs, rabbits and anyone else that wants some is at best irritating and at worst – well let’s not go there. What is permaculture? It started from a principle first put forward by a New Zealand ecologist, Bill Mollison (and his student David Holmgren) who noticed that the greatest amount of useable biomass in terms of food was produced by multi-layered complex ecosystems such as forests. It has long since expanded to cover a whole philosophy of life and way of thinking.

The three core principles at the heart of permaculture are:

  1. Care for the earth: No disagreement here, right?
  2. Care for the people: Well, that sounds pretty sensible too.
  3. Return of surplus: Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics. Needs a bit of clarification perhaps? This is sometimes referred to as ‘Fair Share’ to reflect that each of us should take no more than what we need before we reinvest the surplus.
Plenty for all - come on down! Although if I am honest, these are not my lettuces. Mine didn't get quite this bad.
Plenty for all – come on down! Although if I am honest, these are not my lettuces. Mine didn’t get quite this bad.

The third ethic – fair share – is a great principle, and clearly life would be a lot better if we all lived like that. However, will somebody please tell the pigeons in my garden? They seem to think that ‘fair share’ means all my brassicas, lettuces and young pea shoots. This year, they have been kind enough to leave me the broad beans (although read my blog post from last year – ‘Badly balanced vegetables’ for other problems with broad beans). They have also pointed out to me on a number of occasions that I can also have the nettles and thistles. Negotiations are ongoing, you might say. Meanwhile, I have netted my lettuces to keep them off and also have some (totally ineffective) cloches over my kale and cavalo nero. This also seems to keep the other interlopers (rabbit and his friends & relations) out of the beds. However, this particular year slugs are taking their fair share. Unfortunately, they seem to take it rather unevenly – a bite here, a bite there – and also once they have eaten their fill, like to snuggle down for a little nap between the leaves. This does not go down well with offspring (or anyone else at the table, come to that).

These are my lettuces - complete with plastic slug collars.
These are my lettuces – complete with plastic slug collars.

My solution has been to use plastic soup containers (herein lies an admission that I sometimes don’t make all my own soup – but don’t tell anyone). I cut the bottoms off them and gently thread them over the lettuces. this seems to work, and it is even a bit permaculturey – I am recycling after all! You might notice in the picture mulching with grass clippings and my irrigation system, which runs off rainwater stored in an IBC (International bulk container). All a bit Bob Flowerdew, but it works! Ignore the weeds please.

Of course this acceptance of intervention is at the heart of gardening and of garden design. Indeed, it is what defines it (see my blog post from a couple of years ago – When is a garden designer a landscape designer?). By making interventions we clearly make conscious choices about what we will or won’t allow in our space. The natural world impinges upon that space; it is allowable if it works with or doesn’t directly undermine our choices. When it does, we define it as a pest. So I suppose what fascinates me about all this is that we are very keen as gardeners and garden designers to cater for ‘wildlife’. As long as it doesn’t eat our lettuces, that is. This same view pervades our view of plants as well. The difference between a wildflower and a weed? Well, the old adage is that a weed is just a plant in the wrong place. So by extension, is a pest just wildlife in the wrong place? Squirrels are OK when they eat nuts from your hand in the park, but not from your walnut tree? Rabbits are OK in a hutch but not (as with us this winter) when they cause several hundred pounds’ worth of damage to newly planted trees – all ring-barked. Do I sound bitter and twisted? Maybe a little, but as least with my soup container solution, the slugs and I can live happily side by side! Maybe they will even eat the weeds…

Badly balanced vegetables – diary of a well-meaning gardener

Badly balanced vegEvery year, I start off with the same good intentions. I’m not talking about taking more exercise, drinking a little less, losing a couple of pounds or keeping the bedroom tidier, although God knows I need to do all those things. No, I’m talking about the veg garden. This year (no exception) it ran something like this:

Boxing Day – sit thinking about how this year I will really get things sorted.

January 1st: decide to sow an early batch of tomatoes in the propagator before the end of the month.

February: sow mangetout and broad beans in the garden (the ones that I intended to sow in October). Look half-heartedly for propagator but cannot find all the bits.

March: discover mice have eaten the broad beans and peas I sowed last month. Sow some more.

Early April: actually sow first batch of tomatoes, along with courgettes, French beans, lettuces, gherkins and various vegetables that I don’t even like. There doesn’t seem to me to be a real argument for planting potatoes – I am infuriated by all the leftover potatoes that come up all over the veg garden from previous years.

Late April: despite misgivings I sow loads of seed potatoes, mainly because they looked a bit lonely sprouting on the shelf at the garden centre (plus I have a soft spot for Red Duke of York). Peas come up, but mice have eaten the broad beans (again). The pigeons have broken all the branches on the cherry trees eating the new shoots in the Spring.

May: after inspecting the seed trays every day or so for about five weeks, I discover that the lettuce seeds from two years ago that I sowed last month are no longer viable. This could have something to do with being stored in a non-airtight container in the warm conservatory, but personally I think it is just spite. Buy more lettuce seed and so that I will not be caught out again with dud seed, sow the whole lot. In desperation, buy broad bean seedlings and plant them out. Pigeons eat the pea seedlings. I think about how nice pigeon pie with peas might have been.

Early June: plant out about 400 lettuces. Discover that I have enough tomato plants to feed Italy, but not that bothered as I know they will all get blight before I can harvest them anyway. Courgettes doing really well! Discover a tray of climbing French beans at the back of the conservatory with a another seed tray on top of them. Amazingly, quite a few have survived (perhaps plants fare better with my neglect than my care?) I plant them out in the vegetable garden.

Late June: enjoying lettuces. Looking wistfully at stumps of pea plants. Broad beans doing OK, but showing signs of chocolate spot (they always do this, not normally too much of a problem if you pick them soon). Courgettes romping.

Early July: Getting a bit fed up with lettuce, which is also starting to bolt in the hot weather. Pick all my broad beans, and with great ceremony pick the first courgette. I always feel summer has properly arrived when I pick the first courgette. Mention airily when I am cycling with friends on a Sunday – ‘Oh, aren’t yours ready yet? I’ve started picking mine!’ All the raspberries seem to have ripened on the same day. I pick loads early one sunny morning, which would be a pleasant task if it wasn’t for the tall nettles which seem to have sneaked up between the canes, resulting in some nasty shocks when searching through foliage for just-reachable berries.  Also – a huge success with artichokes. In the winter I found some artichoke plants lurking at the back of the veg garden that I had forgotten about and transferred them down to a sunny border next to the deck. Not only do they look very statuesque, they have also produced about ten good-sized artichokes!

Lots of courgettes – but no beans!
Lots of courgettes – but no beans!

Mid July: Courgettes producing well, although beginning to get a bit worried that I have planted too many of them. I planted half of them in the vegetable garden and the other half down in the what we laughingly call the ‘forest garden’ – actually a bit more polyculture than permaculture. I think because they were in two different places I didn’t realise quite how many there were. Disappointed to see that the apricot tree at the Triangle Community Garden is laden with apricots whereas our own tree has none.

Late July: I can now barely get into the conservatory for tomato foliage. There is no sign of any tomatoes on these, although the outside tomatoes in the vegetable garden are heavy with trusses. I always plant some outside for the one year in ten when we get a dry end to the summer, and also because I pretend to myself that I like green tomato chutney, of which I seem to have rather a lot in the larder. We are now drowning in courgettes. I am picking them at the rate of about four a day (work it out – twenty-eight a week). The family are showing signs of courgette wilt. Potatoes now ready to harvest. I always think they look so sad at the end when they all collapse. I remember one year going on holiday and my daughter (who had stayed behind and was kindly doing some watering) thought she had killed them all. Genuinely disappointed (no, really) to hear that someone has pinched all the apricots off the tree at the Triangle Community Garden.

The remains of  a chocolate courgette cake
The remains of a chocolate courgette cake

Early August: Have a very successful courgette cooking session. I make a rather unusual courgette chocolate cake, which Vicky proclaims to be ‘a bit odd’ but to my surprise my elder son says it is ‘lovely’. Also manage to burn a load of courgettes while softening them for soup, which is great because I can bin them and use four more. I have also discovered the inevitable marrow which some escaped notice under the leaves of one plant. This is good news as it means I can make my favourite Zucha parmigiana dish, which is ridiculously rich, but delicious. Dip slices of marrow in egg and seasoned flour before frying and layering with Taleggio cheese and tomato sauce, then bake in the oven – Yum!

I will update this as the year goes on. Next year I might even do it month by month, who knows. Then again, I might be too busy gardening (and cooking courgettes).

How do you solve a problem like a garden designer? Writing a brief – a guide for clients.

As the weather improves this week, the temperature climbs and we all begin to look outside again. At this time of year, I frequently go into the garden and think ‘what a tip!’ All those odds and ends, badly coiled hoses, un-pruned plants, and scrappy undergrowth – how could I have not noticed it before? It is true that without the kind veil of foliage, gardens can look particularly grim at this time of year. If all this is familiar to you, then cheer yourself up by leafing through magazines and books with their summery pictures of tranquillity that we all associate with gardens. Perhaps it is finally all too much? Maybe it is time to start again? After all if you’re not going to move house you might as well sort the garden out.

Where do I start?

But where to start? Most people really struggle when it comes to writing a coherent brief for a designer. As they are unfamiliar with the process of design, or what a designer might propose, they feel intimidated by the whole procedure. If you’re thinking of making changes in your own garden or have a new project, why not start by tagging images that you like, even if they are wildly diverse. This will help to get you thinking in order that you can write a simple brief. Start with a few simple bullet points:

  • When you are there: do you look at the garden all day or only evenings/weekends? Is it a second home, perhaps used seasonally?

    How keen a gardener are you? How much time do you think you can (or want to) devote to looking after the garden?
  • Think how you will use the garden: do you entertain? Do you have children, pets?
  • Are you a keen gardener? In all honesty, how much time are you likely to spend out there? If you haven’t shown much interest so far, then don’t lumber yourself with a high maintenance scheme with lots of herbaceous plants – leave that to the National Trust! If you are keen, perhaps you might consider an area for vegetables or fruit.
  • Instead of using clichéd phrases like ‘year-round colour’ or ‘lots of evergreens’, try instead to think in terms of how the garden will look and feel. Maybe you like things wild and romantic – scrambling roses, long grass with wild flowers, apple trees laden with fruit. Or perhaps you are more controlled – clean swept paving, topiary, clipped hedges, splashes of colour or white flowers kept to occasional containers. If there is a particular style or image that sums it up – cottage garden, Mediterranean, urban chic, or family friendly, then add to your brief.
  • Are there any particular features that you want in the garden hot tub, fire pit, water feature, swimming pool?
  • If there are any facts that the garden designer might not know at a quick visit – tell them – like: ‘It’s always sunny just here late in the morning’, or ‘I’ve never liked that house next door can we screen it’. Other than that, try not to lead your designer too much – no ‘I’ve always fancied a circular lawn’ or ‘I just thought a raised bed here would be nice’. Let them come up with the ideas – you will be pleasantly surprised!
  • Finally – BUDGET! Always a tricky one! In my experience most clients say that they don’t have a budget in mind or that they have no idea. In practice, everybody has some idea and most clients actually do have a budget in mind. It is supremely unhelpful if you don’t share your thoughts on what you want to spend with your designer. You would walk into an estate agent and say you had no idea of budget. In the end, the more detail you can give a designer on cost, the less of everybody’s time is wasted. This is especially important if you have an over-riding cost limit – you only want to spend the £40K granny left you and not a penny more. And do be clear whether you are talking VAT inclusive or excluding VAT.

 

Finally - that's a weight off my mind!

Presumably, if you have come as far as reading this blog, you are interested in employing a garden designer, either now or in the future. if you want to compare people, do try and start with suitably qualified and professional designers. Of course it goes without saying that B&W are the best, but if you want a comparison, go to the Society of Garden Designers website (www.SGD.org.uk) and look through a few designers in your area.

John Wyer

Why are Landscape designers different?

Landscape and Garden design are different from other forms of design. Why? Well, there are two reasons; firstly because we design with living things. This means our designs change with time. They are not ephemeral in the usual sense of the word, tending instead to improve with time. However, the other reason we are different is that we are always site-specific. This is sometimes true for other professions (architecture for example), but always true for landscape design. Sometimes I think that we do not sufficiently realise what a rare opportunity this represents.

A few months ago, we looked at a site in the Gade Valley in Hertfordshire. We already have other projects in this valley, notably at a grade II* listed manorial house called Gaddesden Hall. The new plot we were looking at was different because it was a greenfield site where the client was planning an application under PPS7, which allows new houses to be built in the countryside if they are of exceptional architectural quality. 

This new site really got me thinking about what it meant to be site specific in terms of design, and also how that related to the client. I suppose what defined it was not so much the views (which were fantastic) or the approach through the tree-covered lane, which I also really liked, but the way the site connected to the broader landscape. One of the things that I learned from working at Gaddesden Hall is that the Gade Valley has a rich history going back at least a couple thousand years, and probably longer. That is why the approach through the little lane overhung with trees was so important, because the feeling one gets walking up the track is of stepping backwards to something forgotten.

In landscape terms this would mean that our approach would not be to create a ‘garden’ as such. Neither would it be to try and ‘hide’ the house. In any case, in order to succeed the architect’s design would have to strike chords with its surroundings. In the simplest terms we would be looking at integration, but this works at a more fundamental level than a cosmetic or visual approach.

When we were standing on the site, I remarked to the client that although we were surrounded by classic English ‘countryside’, everything that we could see around us was a ‘manmade’ landscape. In effect of course this means a balance between human activity and natural forces. Ultimately any landscape that we would create would be the same – it would seek equilibrium between human activity and nature. How this will look depends partly on the activity – lawn, vegetable gardens, orchards, pasture, hedgerows, woodland and reedbeds all occupy different positions in the tapestry of the broader landscape and represent varying inputs of activity.

 The skill would be to weave different elements (however few or many they may be) together into a whole that feels right, that feels as though it has always been there. It will be neither a pure expression of the site any more than it will be a pure distillation of who the client is (or the designer for that matter), but a manifestation of how we interact with the land, how we live in the place. In this way it will not only be unique but will change with time as our circumstances change and with every decision that we make.

John Wyer

The kid in all of us

I had a refreshing meeting with a client the other day and it was the last thing I expected. The client was a Russian businessman and his family; the location was a very exclusive private estate in Surrey. We have been involved in the project for a little while now, but this was the first meeting that we were presenting serious proposals. The first surprise was that top of their list on the brief was a decent sized vegetable garden. We had anticipated this and incorporated a quaint potager and fruit garden.

 

When we were going through the plans there was a lot of discussion (in Russian) before he turned back to me and said ‘This is fine for a few vegetables, but it is much too small – at the moment my mother in law looks after a kitchen garden of about 600m2 – where is she going to grow her potatoes?’Although I have quite a large vegetable garden at home, I was not used to this from most of my clients, and it was an interesting change. From there the discussion moved on to the play equipment for their three young children. ‘This looks a bit tame’ he remarked, ‘Can we have something a bit more adventurous? Also, will this trampoline take adults?’

I must confess that I never thought I would hear one of my clients say ‘Will this trampoline take adults?’ It just goes to show that you should never make too many suppositions or pre-conceptions about people. This was a client who despite all his wealth, clearly had his priorities straight! Nothing like a quick bounce on the trampoline after a hard day in the veg garden, I always find…