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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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How my garden was obliterated in less than three seconds

IT has taken eight years to develop my shady, urban, child-infested back garden, but it took less than three seconds to destroy it.

At around 1.30am on Sunday, I was woken by what felt like the house shaking. Or was it just a dream? My nocturnal other-half came to bed a few minutes later.

“The wall in the back garden has collapsed,” he muttered, before rolling over and attempting to go to sleep.

That wasn’t going to happen. I was wide awake. I went to peer out of the children’s bedroom window to see what he was talking about. It was too dark.

Downstairs to the window nearest the garden. All I could see was a sheet of the climber hydrangea petiolaris, hanging forlornly in a sheet, not clinging to much at all.

As I peered I could see . . .well, not the garden anymore. Just a sheet of bricks. It was an extraordinary sight. Like an instant patio.

. . . after

To be honest, I cried. Yes, I know it’s just a garden and the fact it happened in the night meant everyone is still alive (it would have killed anyone in the garden, it fell so fast), but after recent nocturnal misadventures, like the car getting squashed and finding a strange drunk man asleep in the dining room, it just feels like we are cursed by bad luck.

Self pity? Yeah, but it took me eight years to build that garden. I write about it as a garden journalist. So no, I don’t feel very laid back about it at all.

The wall was too tall. A Victorian garden wall, bordering the large garden of our neighbouring house’s garden really, all the way around their’s, just one border on ours. It had stood for over 120 years, and yet collapsed in one devastating sheet of bricks, covering the right hand garden border and our entire lawn. A lawn the kids had been playing on just 36 hours earlier.

The following morning it felt unreal to see it. Huge amounts of brickdust covered all the plants and the neighbours’ outside lights, strung presumably on their side, where the ground is a foot or so higher than on ours. Like a horticultural Becher’s Brook.

I couldn’t even start to organise what to do next, as sons needed taking to rugby matches and general life needed to go on as normal.

Bloke spoke to the neighbours the next day. Discussions, apparently, that involved talking to our respective insurance companies. I rang them, they said they’d get back to us. They did, only to tell us the wall wasn’t covered because nothing had hit it, “like a car or something.” Unsurprisingly, getting cross and emailing them the photos didn’t make any difference.

Since then it’s been raining solidly, and each morning when I get up and look out of the window at the missing garden, a little part of my soul wizens. Under all those bricks, somewhere, along with all the other crushed plants, is a snowdrop named ‘Bonnie Scott’, named after my daughter.

What to do next? I can hardly face it.


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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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Gardening karma at the allotment

See this? This is just a small section of my new (moved down the field) plot.

I’ve been tackling it bit by bit over the past few weeks and just when I thought I was going to get a clear couple of hours to do more, some cantankerous old b*gger threw a spanner in the works. (To avoid litigation, I’ll spare you the boring but annoying details).

Anyhoo, along comes an avenging angel in pensioner form. An allotmenteer so up-to-date with his own plot that he offered to help out with mine.

Not only did he identify weeds/plants I didn’t recognise (horseradish, unfortunately), he helped bag up rubbish, dug-over and weeded several rows and even commandeered an unwanted incinerator for my growing pile of burnable prunings.

In short, his help in a few hours has accelerated the plots readiness by a couple of weeks.

We’re all very suspicious of strangers, but on the allotment field, everybody needs good neighbours.


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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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“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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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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Buffalo-burs go around the outside

HERE you go then Mr Tapp. It looks like your mystery plant, photographed here last week, is an American invader, Buffalo-bur, or solanum rostratum.

It’s a member of the nightshade family, solanaceae, which includes potato, aubergine and nettle, but is very, potentially fatally poisonous. It’s not uncommon but gets brought in on animal fur and in birdseed and enjoys a very dry summer, which may explain its sudden arrival.

Many thanks to the readers who sent in suggestions, and to one who spent a long time searching Google images. I’ve learned a great deal about yellow-flowered, prickly plants this week! Feel free to email any other plant queries you may have.

solanum rostratum. Poisonous weed. Remove

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Name that plant

Mystery plant?

I NEED your help solving a mystery. What on earth is this plant? I know it looks like a courgette flower, but it’s very small, about 14 inches and the leaves and stems are literally covered in quite vicious white thorns.

It was sent to me by a reader, Mr Tapp. I’m not the greatest of plant identifiers but had started to recognise more and more plants and flowers, if not the exact variety, then at least the family. But I’m stumped, and asking other gardeners for help!

I had better luck with another query: Lindsey’s tree. It’s a great big spreading thing at a house she’s only been in a couple of years and this year it has beautiful, huge white flowers all over it, which turn brown and fall off, leaving an unusual spiked ‘cone’.

magnolia grandiflora

It’s a magnolia grandiflora, and I only recognised it as I saw one at Cliveden gardens which covered an entire stately home wall! These magnolias flower in summer rather than spring, and the flowers come alongside the leaves, rather than before. They are evergreen too, which makes them ideal for a sunny wall where you can train them by trimming each year’s growth back to a healthy bud. plant. If yours has become a large tree, with the flowers out of sight above the canopy, then start to hard prune back a third of the tree this year and so on until it’s a manageable size. They can grow to 15 metres by ten wide if you don’t prune. You can see this year’s growth as it will still be green and slightly bendy. It may sulk for a season or two after hard pruning, but should recover.

Philadelphus, or Mock Orange

The next picture is philadelphus, or mock orange, emailed by “Mrs Toodles.” She said: “It looks quite dull most of the year at the back of our garden but this July it was totally covered with lots of white flowers with a strong scent.” Philadephus also need hard pruning too and flowered particularly well this year after the snowy winter.


 This “big daisy flowers with fluffy foliage” sent by Jane and James is annual cosmos. Usually sown indoors in spring and transplanted into place in May/June. There are perennial types, like the delicious chocolate cosmos.

One of the most frustrating things for the beginner gardener is not knowing what you’re actually growing. You may have inherited plants when you move house, or have lost labels or seed packets. The best thing is to get a good book, like Hessayon’s New Flower Expert, and just go through the garden comparing pictures with the real thing. Online gardening forums are great too, if you can take a snap and upload it.

It’s not been a great year for the new gardener, thanks to the drought, so don’t beat yourself up if things haven’t gone as well as you’d hoped, even the most experienced gardeners have had some disappointments this summer. It’s not you, it’s the weather!


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