May moments #2

Developing the vegetable garden has been a top priority ever since we moved here, and I have to admit the flower garden has felt like a relatively slow burn in comparison. Food obviously has to come first and I love the challenge and satisfaction of growing fruit and vegetables, but I am passionate about having a garden full of flowers, too. In Asturias, where our garden was so steep and growing areas were limited, I planted and encouraged flowers in any little space I could find in an approach that was very much the local way. Here, we have completely the opposite situation, a totally flat garden and masses of space, and as we started with what in essence was a blank canvas, the challenge has been how to make the best of it.

For a start, the last thing I wanted was anything that smacked too much of ‘formal’ flower beds or gardens. Giving nature free rein wherever possible is an important part of our approach, partly because wild flowers are so beautiful in themselves but mostly because they are so beneficial to the resident wildlife and an essential part of a healthy, balanced ecosystem. We have left large swathes of wild corridors uncut, several metres deep in places, and allowed the wildflowers to flourish; this in turn encourages biodiversity, including ~ we hope ~ plenty of pollinators and a wide variety of useful predators which will in turn help to control less-than-welcome visitors to our food crops.

These metallic blue day-flying forester moths feed on common sorrel and are a beautiful sight in the garden.

In other places, we just let the wildflowers grow as they want and if they mingle with ‘official’ plants, so much the better; at the moment we have several clumps of ox-eye daisies growing with calendula, such a lovely combination and one which I smiled to see had been used in a municipal planting scheme in a local town.

Perhaps society’s obsession with ridding the environment of ‘weeds’ is finally waning? If so, that’s a wonderful thing. Time for a walk on the wild side . . .

I’ve always had a soft spot for foxgloves and can’t imagine having a garden without them. I’ve known several people who pull them out of the ground on sight, refusing to tolerate them because they are poisonous. Well, yes they are . . . but only if you eat them! (Ironically, the same people happily plant daffodils and rhododendrons in their garden . . . ) Foxgloves are obviously not a safe candidate for home herbalism but their use in mainstream medicine to treat heart conditions is well-established; they are also an excellent companion plant for apple trees and therefore a helpful addition to an orchard. For me, their bright, untamed spires represent one of the great natural beauties of the season and I love to watch the visiting bumble bees disappearing deep inside the speckled flowers. I’m happy to let them seed themselves freely around the garden ~ which they certainly do! ~ and grow where they are happiest, rather than try and create a contrived setting for them. How could I improve on this?

Roger’s log seat with feature foxglove . . . a favourite contemplation spot.

Without question, one of the biggest ‘wild’ stars of the spring has been this campion; it has bloomed for weeks, and I love the way its pretty pink flowers obediently track the sun during the day, then turn back to the east in the evening ready to start again the next morning. Fascinating!

Much of my flower gardening relies on self-setting and one of the benefits of having scattered several varieties of annual seed in our first summer here is that we will have them for evermore. Californian poppies, both in traditional orange and more muted pinks, are certainly at home here and we have sunny banks of them in several places; they are currently marching at speed across the gravelled areas which is just the enthusiastic laissez-faire attitude I love.

Speaking of gravelled areas, our decision earlier this year to try and turn a former car parking area at the front of the house into a gravel garden felt like a slightly risky one; it’s not something we’ve ever tried before and we had no guarantee it would work, especially as beneath the gravel there is packed hardcore and heavy clay. Let’s just say planting starts with a pickaxe! However, it’s a case of so far, so good, and the young plants that have gone in are at last starting to make an impact. Next year, it should all look much fuller and as I’ve deliberately included reliable self-setters like granny’s bonnets, lady’s mantle and verbena bonariensis to join the foxgloves and verbascum that have already arrived of their own accord, it should continue to evolve to its own rhythm in the future.

When we started mapping out a flower garden at the back of the house early last year, the biggest challenge as far as I was concerned was getting the scale right. Basically, we are creating a garden by carving up an acre of what was little more than a field with a few apple trees in it and we’re lucky to have so much space to play with. Scale, however, can be a problem: make planting areas too big and they become unmanageable, too small and they just look ridiculous. I also disliked the fact that everything seemed so open and stark, so another problem was how to create a sense of gentle enclosure, to create a space that felt more contained and intimate without feeling too constrained or shady. Lastly, I wanted everything to curve and flow in an area that encourages wandering and weaving rather than marching in straight lines. Fine. We made a start . . .

March 2021
May 2021
May 2022

Sorting out some boundaries was the first job and here we plumped for an eclectic mix: a curved hedge of rugosa roses, a rustic support covered in clematis and climbing roses (this year I’ve planted a row of sunflowers behind it), another curve of cardoons and an area planted with a range of shrubs which will eventually fill the space. Along the front of the area, Roger built a low drystone wall ~ now home to a very healthy lizard population ~ and beyond that we have put up posts and wire to support a grapevine and thornless blackberry to create a living, edible screen. As the ‘hedges’ fill out and gain in height, the sense of an enclosed space is slowly developing; our plan is to put two small wooden arches covered in climbers to mark the entrances to the area and then all we need is to add a seat to sit and enjoy it.

Probably my biggest indulgence in planning this garden area was the inclusion of a mandala bed and I know I’ve written copiously about it before but please indulge me again because I’m just a tiny bit chuffed with how it’s turning out! This, I must admit, was another gamble and one where I could quite easily have fallen flat on my face, as I really had no idea what I was doing. That said, I’d still rather engage a sense of adventure and curiosity (however foolish) in the garden than simply trot out the same old predictable stuff all the time; if nothing else, it’s a great exercise for my grey matter and a wonderful opportunity to learn new skills and embrace different ideas. So, it all began last summer with a rock and a huge pile of cardboard . . .

June 2021
August 2021
March 2022
May 2022

The circle has an area of roughly 28m2 although obviously the planting area is less than that when the paths and rock space are taken into account. It’s more or less orientated to the compass points which gives me a handy way of labelling each of the eight sections. This is how they are currently planted:

  • North: climbing borlotti beans, strawberries, calendula, basil, dyer’s chamomile, red sorrel (self-set).
  • North-east: cucumbers, aubergines, chillies, sweet peppers, nasturtium.
  • East: annual flower seeds, strawberries.
  • South-east: courgettes.
  • South: lettuce, rainbow chard, strawberries, dyer’s chamomile.
  • South-west: summer cabbage, purple French beans, flat-leaved parsley, calendula, lemon bergamot.
  • West: annual flower seeds, strawberries, dyer’s chamomile.
  • North-west: melons, heartsease.

In all, there are 131 plants (excluding several phacelia and buckwheat volunteers and any other annual flowers that ~ hopefully! ~ will appear fairly soon), most of which are edible; the dyer’s chamomile is an exception, but it’s a useful plant, and the phacelia and buckwheat will become green manure. These are my thoughts on Project Mandala Bed so far:

  • It’s growing. A bit of a daft one to start with, perhaps, but quite significant all the same. Having spent the greatest part of my gardening life planting conventionally into carefully-prepared soil, I was highly sceptical that anything would grow ~ yet alone flourish ~ planted into what amounts to several layers of pretty rough organic material. No matter how many videos I watched of the wonderful Morag Gamble throwing coffee grounds around her no-dig garden in bare feet, I half expected everything to fail but didn’t want to write it off until I’d tried. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’m astounded . . . and converted!
Here come the cucumbers.
  • It’s easy to look after. I don’t like the concept of a ‘low-maintenance’ garden, because I believe passionately that, like raising a family or cooking a beautiful meal, a garden should require a bit of effort and a lot of love. However, that shouldn’t mean it’s all work and no play! There is no point in creating a garden that is one unbroken list of tedious chores: time to relax and enjoy it, to calm the mind or awaken the senses, are just as important. Also, I know I’m very lucky in that I can spend all my time gardening if I so wish but in my previous life spent raising a family, studying and working, a productive garden such as this that is a pleasure to be in but requires minimal attention would certainly have been a blessing. One of the things I love the best is that it’s so easy to check on everything: simply stand by the rock and turn round!
Freshly mulched and watered: the grass clippings won’t stay green for long and the damp earth soon dries . . . but together they bring a new, if fleeting, feel to the space.
  • It’s very clean. There are hardly any weeds and the few that appear are easily lifted. The worst area is around the herb hedge but trimming the grass now and again and keeping the plants heavily mulched helps to solve that problem. The size of the sections means I can reach all parts from the paths so it’s very simple to plant, water and check individual plants without treading on the planting areas. This is pretty important in a lasagne bed because I don’t want to cause any sort of compaction to the developing soil. The grass-mulched planting areas and wood-chip paths mean there is no mud which makes it a pleasure to work in; not that I mind getting my hands dirty, in fact I love the tactile experiences that come with gardening, including burying my hands in the earth, and rarely wear gloves for that reason. This patch is so clean, however, I could easily work in a ballgown if I felt the need. That’s if if I had such a thing, of course. 🤣
  • It’s full of life. When I open up planting pockets through the layers, they are teeming with earthworms which is good news since they are doing all the hard work of transforming the organic materials into nutrient-rich soil. The herbs that are currently flowering, namely sage, thyme and Welsh onions, are attracting a wide range of insects which then (theoretically) will be encouraged to visit the food crop flowers, too. As there is absolutely no need for digging, hoeing or raking, all the ‘work’ I do is at ground level which means I have the perfect opportunity to observe these essential visitors as they go about their business. I also like to watch from the balcony just before bed as that is when the birds take over. A robin dominates the rock, a redstart sits on the cucumber supports and a spotted flycatcher on the beanpoles, all staking claim to their personal territory and using them as a vantage point for spotting the next snack. Blackbirds rummage through the mulch, scattering it all over the paths (bless them), and a huge song thrush bounces through on kangaroo legs. A pair of pied wagtails runs about picking tiny insects from the surfaces and there are often goldfinches in the mix, too . . . which may well explain where some of my annual flower seeds have gone. I’m not grumbling; last year, this was a patch of sterile grass growing in compacted earth and now it bustles with a diversity of living things. I love that.
  • It’s evolving. When I set out on this great experiment, I had no planting plan in mind whatsoever and knew from the start that I didn’t want to become too precious about it. Geometric shapes don’t have to automatically mean formality. The herbs around the edge were planted totally randomly ~ they had to be, since I needed thirty two plants from five different varieties which didn’t lend itself to any precise maths or patterns. Of those plants, only one (a hyssop) failed to make it through winter, so I’ve replaced it with a spare sage plant and no-one will ever guess. The plants go into the ground as and when they are ready; I’ve grown nothing specially for the bed, everything has simply been leftovers from the main vegetable garden ‘nursery’. I refused to lose the Battle of the Lettuce, especially as I had hundreds of plants, and eventually the wireworm decided to give up but where I’ve lost a few other bits and pieces, I’ve simply popped something else in. A tiny basil crumpled, so I replaced it with lemon bergamot, and a cabbage that withered and died is now flat-leaved parsley. When we harvest the plants ~ and we will be doing that, this is not a purely ornamental activity ~ there will be other stars waiting in the wings for their turn; for instance, when those lettuce and cabbages are finished, they will be making way for tomatoes. I love the fact that phacelia, buckwheat and red sorrel have moved in of their own accord and self-setting is something I shall be encouraging.
  • It’s a place of peace. When I first started out on this adventure, I was toying with the idea of putting some sort of simple bench seat in the middle, but when Roger found that beautiful quartz rock there was no argument as to what should be the central feature. The lack of seat doesn’t matter, because I have discovered that the wood-chip paths stay warm and dry and there is enough room for me to sit in comfort on the ground with my back against the rock and enjoy the space; what’s more, there’s no excuse for being bored, as I have a choice of eight outlooks. At that level, I can either observe the fascinating minutiae of life going on around me ~ the honey bees, bumble bees, carpenter bees, miner bees, solitary wasps, hoverflies, butterflies, beetles, spiders, ants and a whole host of other creatures busy within the circle ~ or I can close my eyes, listen to the chatter of the swallows overhead and the gentle purring of turtle doves in the trees around me, breathing in the scent of the aromatic plants being stirred by their insect visitors. I find myself drawn there more and more. It’s simply beautiful. I really can’t ask for more than that, can I?

April showers? I wish!

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? 😉