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Sick of chipping away at bricks to recover ruined garden; an update on the fallen wall

THERE’S been very little gardening done by me since April. Not because of the wet weather – which hasn’t helped – but because of the couple of tonnes of brick that landed on our back garden two months ago.

Since the huge wall fell (see details here) we found that the insurance company wouldn’t pay out because it hadn’t been ‘hit by something’ (yeah, thanks for nothing Cooperative Insurance), and that the neighbouring Jesus Army house wasn’t covered either.

This means we do as much as we can ourselves, and then pay £2,000 for a brickie to come and re-build it.

Starting to clear into piles

Every weekend, every free time that Bloke and I had, we’ve been out in the back garden chipping away at piles and piles of Victorian bricks, getting the mortar off each one, sorting them into piles depending on whether they are still whole, and covering everything with yet more sand and dust.

Meanwhile my allotment has been completely neglected – prompting a polite but disappointed call from the allotment committee asking why my plot is such a mess. We’ve managed one trip since then to just strum the worst of it back and stick some beans in. I certainly don’t want it this way, I had high hopes for good crops this year, but have completely missed the window of opportunity because of those damn, damn bricks.


Wall foundations intact

We put the majority of the bricks into two big piles and since then have been standing chipping away with chisels and wallpaper scrappers to get rid of the old mortar and leave clean sides. The mortar is like sand, and sometimes comes off easily but mostly needs repeated hitting to dislodge it. It’s boring, mucky, repetitive work.

Pallets filling


Bloke and I have filled a pallet and a half now, and the bulk of the piles have been cleaned. Next door did a load in the first couple of weeks but haven’t moved on since then, which is frustrating. Their garden was untouched by the fall, while ours is destroyed and our privacy removed.

The kids can’t play out and are thoroughly bored because our weekends are spent sorting bricks.

The garden has been remarkably resilient. All the plants in the wall-side borders were completely flattened and under bricks for at least a week. However, two large climbing roses have righted themselves, despite no support, and are covered in buds about to bloom.

The raspberries were all broken off at the ground but have thrown up lots of new shoots, so I’ve dug them up and put them in big pots. Also moved to pots are the un-killable hardy geraniums, a hosta, another shrub rose, lots of crocosmia bulbs and three varieties of clematis. Still in the beds next to the wall are several huge ferns which came back from the dead and the climbing hydrangea petiolaris, which is in full bloom. Even the lawn is trying hard to recover, although very patchy and full of weeds.

Surviving border in May


The surviving border, which has been neglected because I simply couldn’t get to it to weed, is looking great under the circumstances. But there is a lot of bindweed starting to strangle the foxgloves and delphiniums, and the buttercups, while pretty, are taking over. Ivy on the lower left wall is usually cut right back in May but has been allowed to grow unchecked and is shading the border, making the plants lean for the light.

Once the piles are finished, which should be this week on our side, we need to dismantle the remains of the standing wall, which will require a whole lot more chip, chip, bloody chipping. Then we can get the brickie in, if he’ll still come,  to decide what to do next. The soil on the neighbour’s side is a foot and half higher than on ours and will need digging out and pinning back.

At least the wall seems to have a good foundation. Having expected the bricks to only go down one or two below the soil line on our side, it actually goes down about five bricks deep and even widens at the bottom.

It’s all been a thoroughly depressing process which has really brought me very low over recent weeks. It seems ridiculous to get depressed about a garden but every morning it’s so sad to see the garden in such a state. Allotment guilt is weighing heavy on my mind and I’ve just had to kiss off any chance of actual gardening this year.

Ho hum.

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It’s the 4th Cottesbrooke Plant Finder’s Fair this weekend

This is a piece about the forthcoming Cottesbrooke Plant Finder’s Fair, courtesy of www.northamptonshiregardens.wordpress.com

Hopefully the weather will stay dry, but take a brolly just in case.

Cottesbrooke Plant Finders’ Fair started four years ago in the grounds of a magnificent stately home in Northamptonshire.

The ethos was to be up-market, presumably to entice the wealthy North London-folks up the M1. Potential exhibitors, paying a lot for a stand on which to sell their wares, were vetted before being allowed into what was being pitched as an exclusive club. Garden gnomes and bedding petunias wouldn’t be entertained in such exclusive company.

However, after a slow start, and despite the economic climate, the up-market  ethos seems to have worked. The number of exhibitors at the Cottesbrooke plant fair for 2011 has more than doubled from year one and currently stands at 70.

The plants are good and if you don’t get to go to the likes of Hampton Court and Gardener’s World Live, this is a great way to buy plants from people who actually know how to grow and care for them, and who are usually happy to give you some advice.

This year’s fair, which is supported by the Telegraph (Daily, not Evening) and Gardens Illustrated, is set to take place from Friday June 24th – Sunday June 26th and is open daily from 10:00am until 5:30pm

For the uninitiated,the Plant Fair brings a lot of nurseries and horticultural sundries all together in one place selling their wares, plus your admission fee gives you a chance to tour the very lovely gardens.

There are also high-profile guest speakers, including Dan Pearson, Helen Yemm, Stephen Lacey, Val Bourne, Derry Watkins, Juliet Roberts and local garden buffs Ursula Buchan and James Alexander Sinclair. Last year they charged extra for access to the talks but the 2011 entry fee includes the talks if you book in when you arrive (subject to availability (of seats, presumably)).

There’s a plant crèche to stash your purchases, a free plant swap for those organised enough to bring a pot of something with them and help available to take purchases back to the car park.

A word of advice: The food queue was horrendous last year so a picnic might be advisable. It’s not too far from the car park to nip back for your lunch.

A mixture of plant nurseries from as far afield as Ireland will attend, including Crûg Farm Plants from North Wales. This year there’s a print-out of who is on which stand, and a story-teller for the kids

Carla Cooper, Cottesbrooke’s Administrator said “This is all good for the local economy and in time may give the county’s tourism a little boost. In fact next year we hope to offer local hoteliers a preferential ticket price so that they can offer a Fair weekend break deal.”

Here’s the price for up-market though: entry to the fair is £8.50 on the gate. Thankfully, this year there is an advance booking line where tickets are £6.50, although annoyingly, there’s an additional £1 ‘booking fee’ PER TICKET. The booking line is 0845 130 7778 and charged at a local rate. Children get in free.

If the weather stays fine, this could be the CPFF’s best year yet.

Visit www.cottesbrookehall.co.uk for more details and a list of exhibitors and speakers.

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I have moved allotments

After about five years sweat, toil and tears, I have moved allotments. Not completely, but just from one end of a field to another.

I have left my five pole square to move to a 7-8 pole which comes with a small, top-heavy and precariously wobbly shed.

It’s fairly overgrown in places and I feel like I’m starting from scratch.

But it also has loads of fruit bushes and trees – most of which I don’t recognise. I’m actually quite excited about seeing what comes up and plan to invest in a petrol strimmer asap as my cordless one just isn’t up to the job.

 Here’s what it looks like now: (mine is the overgrown one on the right).

Wish me luck and fine weather.

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Christmas veg from the allotment? Snow chance.

Yes, yes, laugh at me if you will. I went to the allotment for the first time in, well, a long while today.
Somehow, stupidly, I’d retained that elusive dream of the gardener that I could have vegetables I’d grown for Christmas dinner.

The spuds ran out a while ago (the ones I’d got around to digging up) and there are about six garlic bulbs left and a string of onions.
However, still in the ground, having had the alleged flavour-enhancing frost on them, sit several rows of fat leeks and a special row of parsnips, just for me (because no-one else will eat them).

Of course, trying to dig them up was impossible. I couldn’t even find the parsnips beneath the foot of snow. A fork got stuck. The spade just hot the surface with a dull thud, sending painful shock waves into my frozen hands (even in gloves).

Meanwhile, two-year-old Bonnie, the only one of my four children to ever volunteer to come to allotment, decided she’d had enough and started moaning. Well, whingeing.
I’m trying to dig frozen leeks from ten inches of rock-solid soil while she’s making that not-quite crying noise. Then she hits me with the killer punch – “I need a wee” – while wearing an all-in-one show suit.

I gave up on the veg. Took her back to the car where the emergency potty lives and went home. With just one frozen leek with a heavy, solid cube of frozen mud stuck to the bottom. Bloke laughed.

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Time to tuck up toms?

HOME-GROWN outdoor tomatoes have been fab this year, and just as we’re getting a last blast of sunshine, it’s probably time to think about bring them indoors.
A couple of beginner gardener mates have been stressing about their toms, having read that they won’t ripen further.
Actually, they might, given the sunny day, and you should remove any faded leaves or those that are shading the fruit.But it’s the night temperatures which could get them. Clear cloudless nights mean cold, and it dipped to just 3 degrees at the end of last week.

green tomatoes may still ripen

To save them from the compost heap, you can cut a whole truss of green tomatoes off the plant and bring them indoors. Put them in your fruit bowl, or in a bag with a ripening banana, and they will, eventually, turn red.

Don’t put them in the fridge as that’s just the same as leaving them outside in the cold – it just stops them in their tracks.

You can still use green tomatoes for chutney (cooking and adding sugar and some riper red ‘uns is the trick) or just chop them up as part of a tray of roasted vegetables with a sprinkle of chilli. Yum.

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“Rip it up and start again, I said. . .”

I love my allotment, I really do. It’s a proper sanctuary, where I can sit and hear nothing but birdsong and the wail of police sirens bombing up the Welli Road.
However, it’s also stressful. More often than not, I arrive to find whatever good work I did on my previous visit has been eradicated by weeds and pests. One step forward, two steps back.
An example: The Italian kale I planted out and covered with a cloche a few weeks back is now a row of devoured stumps. I can feel the disapproval of the army of Old Boys whose plots look immaculate, all year round.
At this time of year, even though lots of things are still cropping – beans, pumpkins, toms, raspberries, sweetcorn, peppers, chillies, carrots, beetroot and peas – I feel like ripping it all up and starting again. I must resist the urge for a month or so more.

Having four kids in tow, and a Bloke who doesn’t set foot inside the padlocked gates, means time at the allotment is short and erratic. The children have phases where they love going and hate going in equal measure. The filth factor must be taken into consideration. Is it an appropriate time to let them go feral when they are due somewhere later looking clean and tidy?

Despite the drawbacks, the pleasure gained from seeing piles of produce which would have cost stupid money at the supermarket makes it all worthwhile.

Maybe I just need to stop giving a toss what others think and enjoy it for what it gives us.

Peace and vegetables. I might make that my mantra. All together now: Peace and vegetables.

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Snot-face and the two-year health check

BONNIE’S two-year health check went OK. It’s the appointment where the nurse makes sure a child is reaching developmental steps by playing with picture books, building brick towers and drawing circles.

Since then, she’s decided she doesn’t need a daytime nap anymore, and just stands shouting at her gate.

Raspberries and tomatoes don't last long when Bonnie's at the allotment

This means she’s grumpy at tea-time and bonkers before bed.

It’s also left her a little run-down, and the cold has hit her quite hard. We had two quite tiring, miserable days where she didn’t want to do much except be left alone to watch repeats of Peppa or Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom.

She’s recovered a little this week and perked up at the allotment, where she stripped the bushes of raspeberries and squished tomato pips all over herself.

Now it’s just the streaming, sore, snotty nose. “Bogies Mummy!” she shouts, smearing it across her face and into her hair, just before you can lunge at her with a tissue. Delightful.

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The not so Virginal Gardener

Many, many weeds

ALMOST ten years ago, as the Northampton Chronicle & Echo’s ‘Virgin Gardener’, I started writing about my new-found passion for horticulture, admitting my gross ignorance and frequent failures.

I was a mother-of-two and had just started to take an interest in the very small, but sunny garden at the back of our first terraced house, in Kingsley.

Forward to today, and I’m a mother-of-four with a slightly larger, shady garden at a terraced house in Semilong and an allotment.

The name-tag may have gone, but the mistakes remain frequent: how long does it really take to become a gardener?

When I started, the first issue that I didn’t recognise anything. I didn’t know the difference between annuals and perennials, what were weeds and what were seedlings, and I’d never eaten anything I’d grown myself.

So in that respect, I can tick the ‘done’ box.

Just being around plants, at nurseries, open gardens, in books and my own plots, broadened my knowledge more than I could ever have imagined back when I couldn’t tell a pea from a passion-flower.

These days I rather like going to the homes of beginner gardeners, being able to help them identify their existing plants and weeds. I might not know the variety, but the basics are there. And I can always check in books later.

I used to be embarrassed to ask what a certain plant was. Now I’m beyond caring about looking stupid. (It’s been proved). I can sow seeds that actually produce plants and take cuttings from ones I already have. It’s all progress.

It may take up a lot more time than I ever anticipated, but gardening is still thrilling for me. Really.

From the excitement of the first bulbs popping up in spring, to the crops in summer and even the cold, damp, digging-chores of winter, it’s an addiction.

The children have all grown up with gardening. The older two have wavered: some years they’ve dug and planted and weeded and waited and scoffed. Often they’ve just not been interested. The younger two have helped and hindered, but I hope they all grow up with that little dormant seed of garden experience waiting to germinate. They already understand where their food comes from, the life cycle of a plant, and that you should never touch foxgloves. Or aconitum. Or stinging nettles.

As the summer swings to a close (and we did have a good one this year) my gardens are looking a little tatty and neglected, but they’re still giving. A second flush of roses have started to bloom, the sweet-peas are still producing, and an unusual, non-climbing clematis, given to me some years ago by plantsman Jim Leatherland, is covered in tiny blue, highly-scented flowers.

Up at the allotment, the weeds are coming through in earnest now there’s been rain, but we’re still cropping lots of vegetables and raspberries. For a change, lots of other plots look as scruffy as mine as the plants yellow and fade. I’ve thrown about a lot of green manure seeds, phacelia tanacetifolia, on bare ground before the weeds take hold. They are quite feathery already and should look pretty, although their job is to be dug into the soil after winter.

This week I’m thinking about which bulbs to start planting, all ready for that first flush of excitement next spring when the whole exhausting, demoralising, time-consuming, intoxicating, joyful, wonderful cycle of gardening starts all over again. . .

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A beginner gardener’s guide to failure

Jed hopes the Great Pumpkin will come

I’d like to give you a reassuring back-slap if this has been your first year as a gardener. It’s not you, it’s been, er, unusual.

Did you spend your bank holiday reviewing your successes and failures objectively? Or wringing your hands and feeling like it was a complete waste of time? Cut yourself some slack – you’re new at this, it’s been a bone-dry season, and hey, there’s always next year.

I’m pretty sure if this beginner is you, you’ll have mixed emotions about your first foray into green-fingeredness.

I expect you will have grown a few things that really, really make you proud of yourself: a few spuds? Some peas or beans? Tomatoes?

Or maybe you spent rather too much money at the garden centre back in spring and have watched as some of your floral purchases have responded to your tender-loving-care by tripling in size, and providing blooms for months. While others, perhaps, lasted as long as a footballer’s fidelity.

If you took the vegetable route when you decided all those months ago that you’d quite like to grow stuff, then 2010 might have had mixed results.

On the one hand, you won’t have had half as many weeds and slugs to deal with as in previous, wet summers. Lettuces and potatoes have cropped well, without being scoffed by the usual slimy things. On the other, the things you’ve grown will have needed daily watering and probably bolted into seed as soon as your back was turned (refilling those watering cans, no doubt).

Hopefully enough things will have gone right to fuel your enthusiasm to start all over again next year.

My firm favourites are, naturally, the things that I manage to get to work each year without too much effort on my part. In the flower garden, that’s the roses (not too much aphid damage or blackspot this year), many hardy geraniums and ferns (which like my shady plot). Well-established delphiniums, two year old echinacea, deeply-planted bulbs which have avoided spade slicing and clematis which just go on giving.

At the allotment, it’s a more hands-on approach. Strawberries, blackcurrants and gooseberries have been abundant. The raspberries and recently-transplanted apple tree have been disappointing. But they can be left in over winter to try again next year.

The vegetables that don’t work are more tricky. There’s more wasted man-hours involved. You have to sow it at the right time, pot them on properly, plant them out early enough for them to be productive without killing them with frost. If you don’t eat a lot of something, don’t grow it.

Winners in my personal allotment show have been onions, garlic and shallots sown last autumn, one variety of potato (Sarpo Mira good – Blue Danube poor), and for the first time, tomatoes grown without blight and with enough sunshine. I’ve got more sweetcorn this year than before, which is satisfying. Every new gardener should grow curcubits: courgettes, squashes, pumpkins, marrows and cucumbers. They are the plant that keeps on giving. Hell, you might even start to like eating them.

And those pumpkins can hide the weedy ground and give you something to attempt to carve into a face in two-months-time.

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Kale is keeling over

rather droopy kale

In between showers this week, the allotment has had the attention while the home garden dwindles into late summer.

There’s cropping to do every time we visit: beans, courgettes, marrow, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, beetroot, spring onions and raspberries. Even the children don’t mind going when there’s things to eat.

But it seemed a good time, as the ground is getting cleared, to try and put at least a few brassicas in for winter leaves. Hail to the Kale.

The kids, very surprisingly, love a bit of curly kale. Despite its reputation as bitter animal fodder, when steamed for just a few minutes, or pan-fried with garlic and bacon, it’s just delicious. But I’ve not actually successfully grown any yet.

I’ve tried direct sowing various varieties of kale this year already, and only around three have survived, looking very peaky under single cloches to keep the pigeons off.

Back home, earlier this month, I sowed a tray of Italian Black Tuscan/Nero di Toscana kale, which comes up with strappy dark leaves which are delicious picked young.

Kale just keeps coming with new leaves despite cold weather, so is a good crop over winter. The Italian leaves are crinkled like a savoy but without any of the layers and crannies for bugs and slugs to hide in, so easier to prepare.

My seedlings have outgrown their spot in the cold frame, so some have been planted out at the allotment where the spuds have come out, watered-in well, and then covered with a net cloche. They look a little pathetic, but hopefully they will mature for winter without fuss. I’m going to try a few in the flower border gaps at home just to see if they grow. They are attractive enough on the packet, lets see how they shape up in the flesh. . .

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