Thursday 28 April 2011

Muck & money

You may have guessed by now that as my life stumbles along like a clumsy bus conductor, I’m using these musings as some sort of therapy, concentrating on the beautiful things around me and experiences, good or bad to stop life’s bus from rocking so much.

It’s made much easier this week as the weather is still gorgeous, if not a little worryingly so and I’m off work so spending time away from London and soaking up the garden and countryside.

I’ve just been for a walk through Rigsby wood, locally known as the Bluebell wood (clues in the name). Every year around this time a blue wash floats over the undergrowth like Monet shading, lightening the floor and the mood.

It always amazes me how these delicate looking blue flowers manage to stick their head above the tangled carpet of the wood but even though impressive, I think they may not have won the race this year. Nettles, brambles, ferns and the like seem have stolen their light, possibly due to this enjoyable but slightly freaky early summer weather.

I’m finding it much easier to enjoy these simple seasonal pleasures as I’ve had time and distance to help me appreciate them, seeing rather than just looking.

I have to be honest I couldn’t wait to move to the city feeling the pressure of community and the fear of the unknown weighing me down. It took me twenty years or so to realise people in London are just the same, whether North, South, East or West, the villages are just bigger.

Over the last couple of days I’ve had some David Attenbourgh moments, seeing a flock of heron (not sure what constitutes a flock and I know they are not supposed to but there were about eight of them), a pair of buzzards and our ever-punctual barn owls, which also against popular belief hunt most of the day. 

Just in case I seem to be painting too much of a rural idyll, I must admit that our little slice of Lincolnshire is a lot more friendly now for the flora & fauna than when I was a kid. It was not the same countryside as that depicted in the Enid Blyton books, it was working land so while the hippies were having their love ins, some of the farmers were having their own chemically induced experiences, wiping out friend and foe alike.

I remember my older brother and some friends finding a Heron with a broken wing in the field which they dutifully took to the farmer, who opened the door listened to their sad story and swiftly grabbed it by the neck spun it round and gave the floppy corpse back to them.

Tuesday 26 April 2011

Seven to one

So I’ve just been for a walk through Swaby, 4 miles I guess, a walk Holly used to take me on most weekends in those glorious days when we were similar ages.

Even though the sun is shining and spring is bursting through every plant I pass, I did have a sense of melancholy as every stream, spinney and field reminded me of the long constitutionals me and my girl would take.

She was always the finest of companions on these adventures, busily pointing out places of interest that she was sure I would miss and leading me excitedly to her favourite watering holes to help me practice my stick location and throwing skills. She tirelessly indulged this hobby of mine, selflessly jumping into any amount of water no matter how deep or dirty just to fetch and chew up these sticks so I could go and find a new one to start the process again.

Holly’s not a great conversationalist but a good listener, however, saying that, she does convey more with a look than a lot of people I’m forced to endure hours of chat with.

She is still a huge fan of the garden and the great outdoors and does what she can, hoovering up the bone meal when I’ve dropped it and encouraging me to deal with the enemy sorties  (see earlier posts) but as conscientious objector she doesn’t really enter into the battle, morals which I definitely admire her for.

The sad thing now is when it comes to the customary time for walks I can see in that look she gives me from the sofa, that the minds willing but the body is letting her down. Its obvious she’s worried about how I’m going to manage on my own, finding a way through that journey of a thousand sights and million scents.

I do think that if it is true and one human year equals seven dog years, I wish I could give her one of mine so she could keep me out of trouble for another seven of hers.

Monday 25 April 2011

Agonies and aunties

One of the problems with inheriting the start of someone else’s garden, especially when coupled with a distinct lack of knowledge and foresight, is trying to get colour and vibrance all season long.

My ‘make it up as you go’ and ‘whatever takes my fancy’ attitude to gardening gets me quite a long way, but has meant my back flower bed has a magic bushy, bold and beautiful moment around June, before suffering from a little floral alopecia in the later summer months.

Well I’ve tried to remedy this by interspersing those luscious ladies the lupins and dazzling damsels the delphiniums, with some wild flowers, cosmos and gladioli, which I’ve staggered the planting of to hopefully mean a longer blooming period.

Gladioli is such an old fashioned sounding flower, harking back to simpler times, like a slightly batty auntie, that didn’t bring you your favourite chewy sweets but more those of the boiled variety, which though didn’t get your heart racing turned out to be just as tasty anyway.

My auntie was always a bit like this, on the occasions that she visited when I was a kid, never showy but always worth the wait. Quirky and hilarious and like a lot of people from that era and class, very matter of fact, managing to tell you the most stressful of tales from her life and still have you in stitches. She didn't bother with suitcases instead carrying her clothes piled high in her arms, as she didn’t see the point if she was getting a lift in a car as they would just go in the boot anyway.

A woman less suited to the country I can’t imagine, scared of the dark (there were no street lights in the village) and a fear of anything that flew, crawled or fluttered, meaning sitting in the house, roasting on  summer days viewing the countryside through tightly closed windows and doors. 

Saturday 23 April 2011

Belleau and I

The 13th century church, 16th century dovecote and eleven houses of various ages that make up Belleau, sit at the foot of the Lincolnshire Wolds (the hilly bit) next to a spring fed river and about five miles from the sea.

For those of you who don’t know Lincolnshire and it seems like there are a lot of you, it’s a very big county, which in basic terms is flat in the south ‘the fens’ and hilly in the North ‘the wolds’

It’s strange how I’ve ended up back in Lincolnshire, as I spent most of my early adult life trying and succeeding to escape it.

I was born in the village of Aby, which I can see from our front windows as it snuggles cosily up to Belleau, with just a couple of fields and a chalk stream separating them.

I left Aby when I was ten or eleven and remember the wrench of it to this day. Dad had finally got a job, he was deaf and this was long before any sort of equal opportunity had seemed to filter its way to the countryside.

As I remember the gardens were large and apart from the occasional mowing of the lawn so we could play cricket with a bat dad had almost deftly cut out of an old plank, they were left for nature to take her course.

The front lawn or pitch was bordered down one side by tangled dog roses, while in the back we had a small orchard, where gooseberry and black currant bushes nestled among the apple trees. Our dog Lady had a taste for goosegogs and had worked out how to pucker her lips just so to pluck them off the bushes.

I’m sure there must also have been a rhubarb patch as I distinctly remember wincingly chewing on giant raw sticks of it that I had made myself even more unpopular by dipping in the sugar bowl.

There was also a large old walnut tree that never seemed to have any walnuts on it but made an excellent holder for the simple swing dad had made by throwing some ropes over one of the branches.

So when the dreaded moving day came we loaded our stuff on the back of a lorry and moved the four miles up the road to Alford, a short journey but a million miles to me as a nervously morose kid.

Before this upheaval could take place, mum had decided to decorate the whole house. She didn’t want people to think we lived in a ‘mucky home’ not that she seemed to mind in the time we lived there. As mentioned before she couldn’t be called house proud, though if you’d known my dad you would understand the problems with any type of fastidiousness

My family were originally from Hull and managed to keep their status as the new people for the ten or eleven years they lived in Aby.

They had moved to Lincolnshire some years before and mum hadn’t helped to ease the family into the village community when she had turned down the offer of a bed by a helpful neighbour, as being a city girl, she had not recognised it’s archaic design (probably very trendy now though), saying “we already have a gate thank you”.

Mum grew to love the countryside but never lost her fear of cows, not a great trait when fields of ‘beast’ surround you. One story that was told to me, was that when I was very little, she had been walking down the road with me in my pram when she was confronted with a farmer moving cattle between fields, she swiftly jumped into someone's garden, leaving me to float along road with this sea of livestock in something resembling the scene from Battleship Potemkin, while she screamed for me to be rescued.

I don’t know what would have happened if someone hadn’t leapt in to deliver me back to this crazed woman I’d have probably been brought up Tarzan like by cows, which may have been a factor which started me down the road to vegetarianism.  

Friday 22 April 2011

'Should I stay or should I grow now'

You may have noticed that a lot of these musings are about the garden, well I make no apology for that as at this time of year this is where I live, interspersing the plant ogling and medaling with long country walks and visits to the beach.  That is of course when I’m not having to make the miserable journeys up and down the A1 to London.

So sorry for the bombardment of posts but as I’m still forced to spend my weekdays away from bucolic Belleau, where the rush of growth is matched only by my eagerness not to miss one tiny unfurling leaf, swooping swallow or trampolining lamb, I have a lot to get out of my system.

Seasons are time, a constant commodity that we counterfeit, trade, fritter away and even though we try to save it, never have enough for our later years. Being back in the countryside and watching everything spring into life through time-lapse eyes at least makes it easier to try and live in the moment.

I don’t know if anyone else has noticed but the unusual early balmy weather seems to have in turn sent a lot of the flora and fauna barmy to. The Red Campion in the front border has grown to monstrous proportions and is already in flower, as is my lovely blue thistly looking plant, that for the life of me I can’t remember the name of. Both of these beauties were much later in the season last year.

My three Bleeding Heart plants are in various stages of flower but as always growing like something out of Jack & the Beanstalk. I admire these early risers for their determination. They are not the prettiest when first putting their heads above ground, so the first Spring we were at the cottage I kept ruthlessly attacking the one in the back border thinking it a weed, but it persevered until it finally got the chance to show me its amazing flowers, beautiful pink and white heart shaped lockets.

One of the Delphiniums that usually comes in second in the first to flower race with the surrounding Lupins, has leapt ahead, while the those I grew from seed last year in the front border are already showing their flower spikes.

Anyway lets hope this means a long flowering season or the plants have at least a couple more opportunities this year to show off.

Thursday 21 April 2011

'We will fight them on the peaches'

I thought there would be more time but it’s already started, the casualties are piling up, the wounded begging for help, I’m not sure I’m ready. They come under the cover of night, using stealth and subterfuge to select their targets.

These voracious vandals show no mercy for the maimed and mutilated victims they leave behind.  This is a three-pronged attack, slithering, tunnelling and hopping.

My main opponents are those mucus mercenaries, those rasping rascals who mow down my plants before the flower of their youth.

They seem to be selective in their slaughter, they always used to prefer the higher ranks of delphiniums and lupins but now seem to prefer the infantry of hollyhocks and foxgloves before they reach their lofty heights. 

Titch of the Marsh always says to know your enemies and don’t overreact, a philosophy that I whole heartedly agree with, so with cider bolstering my resolve and in full battle gear; head torch, Marigolds and a Tupperware bowl, I took my position sniper style late on Saturday night.

After clearing each plant of the little grey or brown buggers with a marksman's accuracy, I belly crawled through the borders to rescue the next beleaguered bloom.

As always it was with a sense of sadness that I laid these valiant enemies to their salt watery grave.  It had taken me a while to realise that my humane and slightly daft method of catching them and putting them in the green waste bin didn’t work, as against common theory, slugs and snails move a lot faster than you think, managing to escape quicker than you could say Steve McQueen.

I think its time to back up the beer traps with some biological warfare in the shape of nematodes.

My second nemesis is that tunnelling terror the mole. Two years ago it was the back lawn where I could trace his meandering progress in some sort of stop motion animation style. No amount of expensive sonic or chemical deterrent even fazed him. His drunken journey was only finally stopped when one of my neighbours set a mole trap, something I really don’t like to resort to as even though it sometimes feels like they are persecuting us, they are only trying to grab a bite to eat.

Apparently, getting rid of the culprit isn’t enough, as moles show no respect and take advantage of the labour of others and use their fallen comrades tunnels, so I carefully sliced the lawn folding the grass back like a toupee, and filled the gaps with sharp objects like old screws and stones before back filling with topsoil and finishing off with a grass comb over

My latest guest seems to be loving the back flower border, which I would be happy to share with them if it wasn’t for the fact that he seems to using my new tender plants as some sort of grid reference points, lifting them as he maps out the area. (I don’t know why I keep referring to the mole as a he, but for some reason it just seems thats what he is)

Anyway I’ve reverted back to my humane tactics, using smoke and linseed granules to hopefully send him into retreat. I was given another piece of advice today however, that was to use children's windmills as they cause a vibration when they spin which apparently moles don't like, so it's off to the beach tomorrow to buy some and hopefully have my own mini mole deterrent wind farm.

Finally, a fluffy fur coated fiend, a nibbling nightmare that is as brazen as they are brave, safe behind enemy lines in a cute cartoon character disguise.

She sits on the front lawn, watching us through those actual big doe eyes, oohing and ahhing at her, while all the time she is reconnoitring the territory, so that she knows where the juiciest targets are for when she comes back with her hit squad later that night. (again I don’t know why I think this bunny is a ‘she’)

Without getting too drastic in my retaliation and retribution I’ve gone for simple defence, using some garden netting to protect the vulnerable, not pretty but what barricade is?

Sunday 17 April 2011

To cut or not to cut, that is the question?

I love simple unfussy flowers, so it was with a sense of dread that I had picked over the tangled brown remains of my Osteospermums that up to this year had survived everything that seven years of Lincolnshire weather could throw at them, but now seemed to have met their maker.

These plants have always delivered their bobbing pinkish daisy like flowers with the littlest effort on my part; simple therapeutic deadheading keeps them in flower till well into the autumn.

However, with this unusually balmy weather and a bit of love and care, in the form of compost and seaweed spray, lovely fresh green shoots are working their way through the dead looking nest of stems.

The plants are still a bit too big for their position but fear has gripped me so I think I’ll wait to see what happens before I do anything else. I did cut them back last year at the end of the season for the first time ever, which may have been why the winter weather got to them.

Violence for a vista

One big scary job that I’ve undertaken is to cut the copper beech hedge at the front of the house. A job I’d been putting off for most of last year, but prompted by looking at an old photograph and the desire to enjoy the commanding views from the front of the cottage, like an executioner I took the saw to them. A necessary tool seeing that they had grown into trees and a hedge trimmer just wouldn’t do.

Anyway, as they are semi deciduous and drop the leaves when the new ones come through, I’m crossing everything in the hope that I haven’t murdered them.

Staying with the front, the new boarder I made last year, has suddenly burst into life, with a few casualties but not as many as I thought. 

I really wanted to attract insects to the garden, especially bees, so I used a lot of wild flowers that worked so well we ended up with a bees nest and so many of the little chaps landing and taking off it looked like the skies over Heathrow airport.

For the first time I tried my hand at growing flowers from seed last year, mainly Lupins and Fox Gloves and to my amazement they grew and survived to such an extent that even after sharing them among interested parties, I ran out of places to put them, so all the boarders are looking a little un-balanced.

What I thought was strange was that none of the plants flowered last year but are looking very whole and hearty at the moment, even if they are stuck in some odd places.

lawn warfare

I love this time of year in fact it suits me down to the ground, (pardon the pun). As a glass is half empty type of man, summer from June on can often fill me with dread of the impending long nights.

As a kid I thought my mum was mad when she used to say Easter was her favourite holiday, how could it compete with the glitter and gifts of Christmas? But now I totally understand, everything is coming to life and no amount of baubles and boxes can compete with the bulging buds and bursting blooms of spring.

My mum was really not a homebody; she hated being indoors summer or winter, which I’ve inherited from her. I find it amazing when the nights get lighter, how many people are still happy to sit in front of their telly’s or computers, when the outdoors is putting on it’s very own technicolour  musical outside your window.

Anyway back to the jobs, I’ve mown the lawns a couple of times, which always frames everything and I’m desperately trying not to be so neurotic about moss and other unwanted grass guests.

The funny thing is that my grass, moss and I were living perfectly happily together, blade, body and soft bouncy lump, until Mr Titchmarsh pointed out via the pages of a book that it shouldn’t be there. So in McCarthyesque style I went on the offensive, tearing our green and soft neighbourhood apart in my attempts to root out this interloper, bombing it with moss killer and leaving napalm like scorched earth behind me.

Don’t get me wrong I love the Titch of the Marsh, but as with life and art, what I’ve found with gardening is that what you don’t know leads you to do things in a way that your not supposed to which in turn can lead to new and exiting discoveries.

Therefore, my grass and moss are slowly drifting into some type of equilibrium, with the crazed power of my dictatorship, giving way to a sort of d├ętente. Obviously, like certain nations I’m covertly providing arms in the shape of grass seed, lawn food and the occasional air attacks with a fork.

Saturday 16 April 2011

Spring is in my mind

So February passed with its traditional drag of cold and hope, March arrived and left like a lamb as best recalled, leaving its customary smear of yellow.

The daffodils on the front verge that collect so many admiring looks, creating a smile on the ground as well as on the faces of the passers by, seemed to be more abundant than ever. It’s a pity but I can’t own the compliments this crowd of yellow flowers bring, as along with a lot of the plants at Belleau Cottage, they were here when we bought the place nine years ago. We moved in, in September so the daffodils were a fabulous spring surprise the following year and have never failed to delight ever since.

Over the last few weeks I’ve emerged from my depressed stasis, popped my head above ground and got on with some garden jobs, mostly surveying what has survived the winter, the worst winter since blah blah and all that.

I think that part of the problem was the mildness right up to the cold snap a lot of my plants were still in bloom in November, providing perfect little platforms for the falling snow to rest on.

Now a couple of things about my gardening skills or lack of them, mostly I have no idea what I’m doing, but love doing it anyway. The nature, the nurture and the power of the plant, the happy accidents and the tingle in my tum I get from new shoots and buds.

As corny as it sounds, I like the honest labour, where the results shine out from the boarders, especially having a job where the fruits of my effort are becoming less satisfying and more and more unappreciated.

I think the way I garden is much more shop floor than managerial which suits my working class roots and faltering ambition.

I’m not neat and like my garden to have some sort of wild order at best.