There has been such a bursting of leaf and life this week, I can almost hear the crackle and pop of burgeoning growth all around me as I work. Trees are suddenly clothed in fresh new growth, the woods are a soft haze of greens and yellows and the verges are bursting with cowslips, bluebells and orchids. At the front of the house, the double lilac is in full scented bloom and, together with a cascade of bright laburnum flowers above it, makes a gorgeous palette against the blue sky. There are baby birds squeaking in every corner and the whole garden is fragrant with the sweet perfume of apple blossom. It feels more like the middle of May and I’m loving every moment.
I’ve spent a lot of time this week wandering about the patch at all times of day, or simply just sitting and absorbing the bustle of springtime around me; an early morning breakfast on the Love Shack ‘veranda’ catches the sunrise now and is a magical thing to do. We’ve also been talking a lot about our plans for this piece of land and how we would like it to develop in the coming years. In The Garden Awakening, Mary Reynolds states that gardens belong to nature, not the other way round, and it’s a philosophy that resonates very strongly with me; we’re seeking a balance between being able to produce the greater part of our fresh food whilst maintaining and improving the environment and ecosystem(s) for all who share it. It’s not always easy, but something we are both very much committed to and leaving space for nature to do its own thing is key. The hazel hedge that Roger laid over winter is bursting with fresh new growth, whilst beneath it there is a riot of wild flowers – stitchwort, celandines, violets, wild strawberries, ground ivy, pignut, speedwell – which in turn are buzzing with insect attention. These ‘wild’ areas are fundamental to our vision and a precious asset in this space.
Although there are many simple ways in which we can encourage wildlife such as leaving areas of grass unmown or making piles of organic materials in various places, other projects need a bit more work. One of the most important habitats which we are missing is a pond but Roger has been working to rectify that situation. He has dug a hole out by hand at the lowest point of the garden and used the turfs to cover a snaking hügel bed which will help to ‘hide’ the pond within a wilder patch we have planted with young dogwoods and willows and should eventually make a turf seat where we can sit and watch the pondlife. Unfortunately, the pond liner we had ordered went astray and was delivered several weeks late so wasn’t in place for the last bout of decent rainfall; now we’re in a prolonged dry spell so we just have to be patient.
Thankfully, we know from experience that it doesn’t take long for the wildlife to appear once a pond is established, especially one that is surrounded by vegetation; we have yellow flag iris waiting in a bucket and I’ve raised purple loosestrife and marshmallow plants from seed so those should give us a good start. There’s no shortage of potential customers in the area, either . . .
Amphibians are an important and welcome part of our ecosystems; they’re always wonderful to see and a strong reminder of why we don’t use chemicals anywhere. There’s a small toad that seems to live very happily amongst the plant pots under the bench in the tunnel and is possibly the reason we don’t have a slug problem in there. I’ve been watching the golden ground beetles in there, too; they’re incredibly smart creatures decked out in metallic green with red legs that scuttle out from under the plant trays when I move them. The insect highlight of the week, however, was spotting a female long-horned bee – the red-listed species I wrote about last time – among the strawberry flowers.
Having recently read a long and detailed permaculture article, it seems that if there is one topic that divides opinion within the community, it’s mandala beds. Permies either love them or loathe them – there’s a definite ‘Marmite moment’ going on! I like them (and just for the record, I like Marmite, too 😊) and I’m very excited to watch ours evolve this year despite the fact that an expert would be quick to point out that I’ve fallen short of the mark in doing things properly. For starters, I should really have opted for looping keyhole beds rather than straight paths and triangular wedges; instead of a pointless rock in the middle, there ought to be a geodome chicken home and somewhere in the vicinity, a hot composting system. Well, I’m not trying to do it perfectly so I shan’t be losing too much sleep over my shortcomings and after all, the whole project is so much more than ticking a permaculture box . . . so why am I doing it?
- I’ve fancied making a garden feature based on a large circle for a long time. For many years, I had a vague notion of a spiral maze floating about in my mind, but never actually got round to making it for many reasons, not least the fact that most of our gardens have either been too small or too steep. Now at last I have plenty of flat space to play with and a mandala bed rather than a maze feels like the better option.
- I wanted to create something a little bit different in our ‘flower’ garden, a feature that would perhaps become a bit of a talking point and capture people’s attention and interest. It’s not the most elaborate of patterns but I like the sunburst of paths radiating out from the centre and the play of light across it at different times of the day and, although it’s not a maze as such, I’m hoping our little visitors in the summer will have fun running in and out of it along the paths. For me, it’s like a giant compass and a useful anchor point for tracking the sun’s path through the year but I want it to be completely open to interpretation. In The Therapeutic Garden, Donald Norfolk talks about seeing a garden feature as the centre of the universe since space stretches out infinitely in every direction from one point and I like that idea, too. Some might see fractions or pie charts or those of a more religious or spiritual bent might think of a Dharma Wheel or a Wheel of the Year. I have a friend who calls it my ‘yoga garden’ and Sam said it reminded him of playing Trivial Pursuit. Good, it’s already capturing imaginations!
- On a less whimsical note, I’m trying to make a case for blurring the boundaries between flowers and food in the garden. Obviously, flowers are traditionally grown alongside vegetables in the sort of potager we are making at the other end of the patch but I think there’s an argument for having plenty of food plants in the flower garden, too. It’s not a new idea but so often consists of highly predictable suggestions (ruby chard, anyone?) which are based totally on aesthetics rather than usefulness. My argument is simple: why grow things like ornamental cabbages and gourds when you can grow equally interesting plants in the same space and eat them, too?
- Finally – and I suppose this is the proper permaculture bit – I’m interested to explore just what is possible when creating a planting area using a no-dig approach and only the materials we have to hand. Apart from some of the cardboard which we scrounged (and which was, after all, other people’s waste), everything else including several layers of organic materials, the standing stone, the wood mulch for paths and the plants have all come from our patch of land and apart from two sections where I have sown annual flower seeds, the beds will be filled with our spare plants. So far, it has definitely been another case of something from nothing.
Like many other things going on in our garden, the mandala bed is a bit of an experiment and as such, I’m prepared for things to go horribly wrong. I’ve covered two sections with soil rescued from molehills plus a bit of compost and sown a mix of nectar-rich annual flowers on them . . . but whether the soil will be deep enough to sustain the growth, especially in hot dry spells, is questionable. I was encouraged to find a couple of phacelia volunteers had appeared there already (what a trooper that plant is!) but even so, I’m a bit doubtful. It hasn’t been all plain sailing with the food plants, either: strawberries, summer cabbages and a ‘Courcourzelle’ courgette are looking fine, but I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to replant lettuces thanks to the destructive presence of wireworms. I’m a bit frustrated that the little orange pests seem capable of working their way up through all the lasagne layers to munch away at roots but I’ve got hundreds of lettuce plants and I’m nothing if not determined so the battle continues. I’m hopeful that by the time the tender plants like peppers, aubergines, melons and cucumbers go out, the beasties (who apparently don’t like warm soil) will have beaten a retreat. We’ll see.
The state of the other two beds in the flower garden has been an interesting situation to consider. One was created by stripping turf and digging, the other was a sort of flat hügel bed experiment and both were mostly planted with annual flowers last year and deeply mulched with leaves and dead plant material over winter. When I stripped back the mulch ready for planting, there were two very different stories underneath. The dug bed was a carpet of perennial weeds (mostly creeping buttercup), so densely matted that I’ve had to dig it all again, and some of the perennial plants in there had taken a real bashing from various pests. In complete contrast, in the ‘pancake lasagne hügel’ bed there were hardly any weeds and the native plants that have appeared and decided to stay such as knapweed, campion, ox-eye daisy, mallow, yarrow and a lone teasel are looking incredibly healthy.
There was also a good crop of young oak trees from the acorns that went in with a brown layer, so we’ve lifted several to add to the tree nursery. I want to keep this border on the wild side so I’ve sown it with all sorts of annual seed for an unapologetic splash of summer colour and wealth of wildlife busyness. The dug border will make the transition to a mostly perennial one this year which, apart from anything else, will allow me to keep it mulched to help improve the soil; I’ve sown a narrow strip along the front with annuals and added a few dahlias but otherwise my plan is to fill it with perennial plants as I go along. I’m raising lots in the tunnel, favourites like scabious, aquilegia, globe thistle, gaillardia and echinacea, but they won’t be big enough to plant until later in the year. On the bright side, the soapwort, Michaelmas daisies, madder and cardoons are all going great guns so I’m wondering if maybe this needs to be a bed for thugs? When we visited the medieval garden in Lassay-les-Châteaux last summer, I liked the way the cardoons there had been underplanted with wild strawberries so I’ve done the same with ours and hope it will look as effective once the little plants are established. Whatever happens, we should at least be guaranteed a bit of summer colour once again.
Shifting to the vegetable garden and, given the wireworm issue in the mandala bed, I’ve been fretting a bit about the asparagus. I must admit to having had severe reservations about sheet mulching an asparagus bed, knowing how perennial weeds (and grass in particular) can be a major problem but several leading authorities on the matter convinced me it was possible so the lasagne bed was built, the plants raised from seed and 30 of them planted in deep pockets of rich compost. The apparent lack of life this spring has been bothering me, and I’ve been wondering if maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all; it takes three years to establish plants big enough to harvest, so a year’s setback is the last thing we need. Well, I should know by now to be a little more patient and have more faith: this week, tiny purplish spears of asparagus have shot up from all but one planting hole (and I have spare plants in reserve) and I am so happy. I’ve lifted the few weeds – mostly sorrel – from around them, mulched them heavily with grass clippings and told them what beautiful plants they are: a little encouragement and flattery goes a long way.
Where the weather is concerned, it’s a tricky time of year as the wind has a habit of going into the cold east and a frost is still possible; it’s still too early to plant out tender things but this is where the tunnel comes into its own. Having nurtured far too many young plants on windowsills and then in the tunnel, the time came to get them in the ground so I spent a very happy (and incredibly hot!) afternoon planting the whole of one side with peppers, chillies, aubergines and melons. I’ve got plenty of spares in case they’re needed, and if not, they can go outside next month. I shift all the plants-in-waiting and trays of seedlings out every day as the tunnel is hot and they need to harden off, then tuck them up safely back inside at night. Some of the courgettes had grown so big that they really had to go into the ground this week so I’ve made some windbreaks from slates again and if there’s a hint of frost, I’m covering them overnight with buckets; it’s a bit of a gamble but I think they’ll be OK. The squash are desperate, too, but they really do have to wait a bit longer. No such problems with onions, the seedlings seemed big enough to go out so I’ve planted three rows (about 75) so far with more to come. Now what we really, really need is some rain.
The protective climate of the tunnel is a good reminder now of how the whole garden should look later in the year. I love the way that baby mesclun leaves are nestled next to radish under peas, all one big jostling jungle. I’ve just watched our neighbours making an incredibly impressive and precise job of their potato patch, digging in muck, rotovating twice, raking down to a very fine tilth and then using a tape measure to ensure the exact distance between each plant. I wonder what on earth they must think of my wayward, messy ways? 😬
I was just about to publish this post when we had a freak storm. It was nothing really, a few rumbles of thunder, barely enough rain to dampen the seed beds yet alone start filling the pond and a single ferocious crack of lightning which tripped the power and fried the phoneline. End of internet, end of blogging! It’s taken several very frustrating days trying to report the fault and get it fixed but we’re there at last, back on air and I can hit the ‘Publish’ button bearing in mind my photos are all well out of date now. I wouldn’t have minded if the storm had at least delivered the rain we so desperately need. I’m just off to bail out the bath water in the hope of keeping some seedlings alive. Time for a rain dance, perhaps? 😉