Turning over a new leaf

It is that time of year again. With the festivities of Christmas almost over, and the lazy days before New Year lingering like an extended hangover, we are fast approaching the end of one year and the beginning of another.

This has always been considered a time for reflection. January is named after the Roman god Janus, the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, doorways, passages and endings. He is often depicted with two faces, one facing the future and the other looking to the past. 

This is a good point of the year to ask questions of ourselves. What has gone well this year? Which of my goals have I managed to achieve?  How have I progressed and developed? We should also take time to consider what hasn’t gone so well. Where did I fall short of my goals?  What can I do to make improvements to ensure I achieve them next year?

It is a time for optimism. The New Year is an opportunity to make a fresh start, and many of us will be kick off the year by making resolutions. Unfortunately, it is estimated that by the end of January 33% of these will have fallen by the wayside and 80% will never reach fruition. The key is to start small. Don’t be afraid to set a lofty goal, it is only by stretching ourselves to our limits that we can discover what we are actually capable of, but make the first step on that path as easy as possible. Achieving that will help you to take the next step. Make sure to choose a goal YOU really want, and will contribute to YOUR life, not something you think others would like you to do. This is the only way you will take responsibility for achieving your goal. Find others that have the same goal. Their support will help you stick to the path. Take care of yourself, eating right, exercising and getting enough sleep will all help you feel more capable of reaching your goal. Know your limits, and what could set you off track, then plan how you will deal with them when they occur. Be specific, but be flexible. You should be able to revise your goals when the unexpected occurs. Reward yourself when you hit your targets, but most of all, don’t be hard on yourself. Guilt will not help you to get any closer to the goal.

At this time of the year, most of the garden is laying dormant, quietly waiting for the opportunity to burst into life once again. This is the perfect time to draw up plans, to set objectives for the year and to make preparations. The work we do now will pay off tenfold later in the year.

My New Year in the garden will start on Tuesday when I return to work. I will be setting into motion my own process for ensuring I continue to edge ever closer to my goals. I will spend the first part of the morning walking around the estate with my camera and notebook at the ready, making notes of every job that needs to be attended to, and what I will need to complete it. Any that can be done in five minutes or less will be done there and then. Why leave it? Some will be done later in the day, some later in the week and some later in the month, but as soon as I return to the shed for a warming cup of tea, they will all be written large on my whiteboard, so I can see exactly what needs to be done every day as soon as I arrive, and I can take great satisfaction in striking them off as they are completed.

At the end of every day I write my journal. It serves as a memory of what I did each day, what made me happy, and if something didn’t go too well, how I would like to resolve it in future. I have kept a daily journal for almost four years now. I love to take the opportunity to read back through previous entries, and think how getting those thoughts down on paper helped me to take action towards my goals.

At the end of every week I sit down and go through every project I am engaged in, for work, home, leisure or otherwise. I breakdown each of these projects into all of the jobs that I will need to do over the next couple of weeks, then further still into the next action that needs to be taken so each project will continue moving forward. I try to rate each task on its urgency, difficulty and the time needed to complete it. This gives me a good idea of what my priority tasks are over the next few days, and when will be the ideal time to complete them. 

After a few weeks I get a huge sense of satisfaction looking back through the notebook and seeing just how much I have achieved, and how much closer I am to achieving my goals.

After such a long post about setting goals, you may wonder why I haven’t described my own goals for the New Year? I don’t want to distract you from setting and working towards your own goals by listing mine here, and if I did, I would probably have little left to write about for the rest of the year. Rest assured, I am making my first steps and I have already embarked on the path towards one of my goals by starting my training regime in preparation for a half marathon later in the year.


All I want for Christmas 

Are warm feet. So, if you are thinking of getting me a present, please can it be some thick, warm socks? If there is one thing that is guaranteed to sap my morale quickly in the garden, it is having cold feet. On a cold morning it can feel as though the frost is seeping in through the soles of my boots, and once the ice reaches my toes, there is little chance of warming them up again.

As anyone who spends most of their day on their feet will tell you, it is worth taking care of them. Feet are one of the most complex structures in the body. They need to be tough enough to bear our weight, delicate enough to absorb shocks and grip uneven surfaces yet resilient enough to keep going all day. There are 26 bones, 33 joints and more than 100 tendons and ligaments in this wonder of nature and, as with all of our most useful tools, they need taking care of. 

This starts with the right footwear. A good pair of boots should have a grippy sole and plenty of ankle support. The majority of injuries in the garden come from slips trips and falls, so just starting with sturdy footwear will set you on a sure footing. It is worth getting some with toe protection. I always have steel toe caps, as it is a legal requirement when operating machinery, but it is surprising how easy it is to lose a toenail if you manage to drop something on your foot. I also get boots with mid-sole protection. This is often a steel plate running through the sole of the boot. It won’t be in walking boots, as they need to be light and flexible, but will protect your foot from damage when digging. The edge of a spade can make short work of a boot’s sole. Top of the list of demands though is that they are waterproof. Wet feet get cold quickly and can be prone to all manner of problems. Take good care of your boots. Clean them regularly and feed the leather to keep it waterproof and prevent it cracking. If they are wet, don’t be tempted to dry them on a radiator; it will cause the leather to harden and cracks will quickly develop.

To stay warm, it is also essential to have good socks. I prefer natural fibres like wool and cotton as they are warm and wicking (taking moisture away from the feet) although there is a huge range out there (including anti-microbial ones to keep odour at bay). Don’t ever underestimate the power of fresh socks. I often carry a spare pair, and a quick change will refresh the feet, giving me a new spring in my step. 

Most of us will spend hours every day on our feet and they can take a real hammering. It is well worth spending a few moments each evening to take care of them. Trimming toenails and filing down any hard skin on the contact points of the feet will reduce rubbing, discomfort and the wear and tear on your socks. Make sure they are clean, and thoroughly dry after every washing, using talcum powder if necessary. Check them for any cracked skin and apply moisturiser or balm where needed. Cracked skin can easily become sore or infected in the warm, moist atmosphere around our feet. 

Our feet are our direct connection with the Earth. We need to be aware of what they are telling us if we are going to be able to stick to the right path, without stumbling or stepping on others. 

I’m going to put mine up for a few days now.

The Coppice

My favourite part of the estate I take care of is the coppice. The estate is made up of two properties with joining gardens. The coppice runs up the middle of the two, like a dividing line, or ‘spine’. It consists of a narrow strip of land, with a path up the middle, and around 20 or so old hazel stools dotted either side of the path. 

The coppice connects my parking spot on a morning, to my shed in the shelter of the grand old oak at the back corner of the garden. This means the coppice is always my first introduction to the garden on a morning. It isn’t as glamorous as the herbaceous borders, as perfect as the lawn or as productive as the veg garden, but it has a charm all of its own. 

The coppice is the closest thing we have to a nature reserve on site, with a diverse community of plants and insects. It is where I am most likely to encounter the foxes or rabbits that also inhabit the estate and provides a natural hide for watching the birds from. In the summer, the shade of the hazel is a pleasantly cool place to sit and read a book, and in the winter it has a uniquely sheltered and cosy feel. 

It is the simplest area to maintain on the whole estate. At the end of summer, the long grass is cut and raked away to be composted, and in winter a few of the twenty or so hazel stands are cut to the ground. 

It plays host to some of the most abundant life in the garden. The display starts early in the year. In January the hazels are covered in yellow catkins, hanging from their branches like furry caterpillars. The ground is carpeted with hundreds of smiling primroses. They are predominately cream and white, but the odd pink garden escapee creeps in to add a splash of colour here and there. The short grass soon reveals a stream of simple white snowdrops running under the trees, which will be followed by daffodils and eventually bluebells. 

As the bulb display starts to fade the meadow comes alive with forget-me-nots, cow parsley and tall grasses mingling effortlessly. These are superseded by dramatic spikes of hundreds of martagon lilies which reach for the skies. The floral display starts to die down in the heat of July as the grasses start to mature and set seed. It is then time to cut the meadow. This year, immediately after cutting, I sowed a little yellow rattle, it is a parasitic plant which should add some colour to the meadow in midsummer and reduce the vigour of the grasses, allowing the establishment of a wider range of flowers. 

As summer moves into autumn the hazelnuts start to ripen providing a delicious bounty for both myself and the squirrels and as winter approaches the work changes again. December is time to start cutting the stools. We have them on a short cycle, so about four of the twenty will be cut each year. 

The long, straight wood is great to use in the garden. The longest poles are ideal for building structures for growing beans and sweet peas up in the veg and cut flower gardens. The brash from the side-shoots provides the ideal material for growing peas up, next spring. The most flexible material can be bent to form hoops that will prop up taller plants in the herbaceous border, stopping them from smothering their neighbours. Other sections will be used to form low hurdles along the edge of paths to stop the plants creeping their way out of the borders. 

I have even started to use some of the wood for my own projects. Last winter I made myself a stool for my shed from some of the thicker stakes, and I have used some the offcuts to carve rudimentary spoons. I even replaced the indicator stem in my car with a lovely section of hazel when it broke. My ‘bodge’ makes me chuckle almost every time I need to turn.

The process of coppicing seems harsh. Cutting the trees stems down to just a couple of inches from the ground every few years would seem counter productive, but it seems to instil in them a renewed vigour. It is almost impossible to guess how old the trees might be. The wood they produce is never more than a few years old, but the stools themselves are probably hundreds of years old, possibly thousands. Yet every time they are cut they respond by throwing up strong fresh new shoots in the spring. This process is much more productive than trying to grow from old wood. 

The coppice provides us with a good metaphor for our own lives as we head towards the new year. Sometimes we need to be prepared to cut back all the old wood, leaving just the roots, so that we are also be able to sprout forth with refreshed strength and vigour as spring comes. 

The Character of Trees

We are approaching the period when many of us will take the unusual action of bringing a tree into the house. At any other time of year this would be considered insanity yet, for some reason, this month it will be overlooked. In a few weeks our streets will be strewn with the carcasses of our brown and no-longer welcome Christmas houseguests, which will surprisingly raise little more than just a tut. Should the act of inviting a tree into our life become more of a year round activity?

Trees are a fundamental part of our landscape, and their impact has been wide spread, embedding their roots into our culture. For generations they have provided us with sources of food, fuel and shelter. The Norse legends describe ‘Yggdrasil’ as a giant Ash tree that supports and connects the nine worlds. The Banyan and Bodhi trees have achieved similar status in Eastern cultures. In our modern world, we still use the tree as a model to describe the interconnectedness of life. 

Trees support a huge amount of life. The oak tree supports more biodiversity than any other type of tree in the UK. Its branches can be home to hundreds of species of insects and birds, and its acorns provide food for mammals like badgers or deer. It is estimated that on average a tree can absorb around 20kg of carbon from the atmosphere every year, and produces enough oxygen to support two people.

Despite the clear benefits they provide, tree planting in the UK is at an all-time low. The UK government set a target to plant around 5000 hectares of trees every year, but current estimates place the area planted much lower, at around 700 hectares. This means we are currently cutting down our trees faster than we are planting them, and as a consequence the UK is now in a state of deforestation. 

In many cultures characters are assigned to the trees we are well acquainted with. In the garden where I work, I find myself thinking of the enormous oak tree that shelters my shed as a wise and benevolent grandfather, yet the smaller, more slender Oak at the far end of the garden, sheltered by the taller conifers surrounding it, seems to have a more feminine character. 

The way our lives intertwine with these trees is something to be celebrated. The Woodland Trust has started the Charter for Trees, Woods and People ( https://treecharter.uk ). Many of our trees have connections to our lives and history. It could be the oak trees, grown from acorns collected at Verdun to commemorate young soldiers lost in the First World War, the Glastonbury thorn, reputedly grown from the staff of Jospeh of Arimathea, or the Ankerwycke Yew, possibly the only living witness to the signing of the Magna Carta.

I recently visited the village where I grew up in North Yorkshire and was shocked to discover the horse chestnut tree at the centre of the village was no longer there. For generations it had been the focal point of the village, the centre point where three roads converged and the village had radiated out from. It was both the physical and social hub of the village, with a water trough for horses nearby, and later the parish noticeboard, public telephone and bus-stop by its side. I remembered back to the Christmas celebrations when the villagers would decorate it with lights and, fuelled by mince pipes and mulled wine, sing carols. It had recently contracted a bleeding canker and was quickly deemed as unsafe so was removed. There is now little more than a stump remaining where it once stood. I don’t know what this will mean for the social life of the village, but I felt as though I had lost an old friend and had to spend a few minutes there, mourning and coming to terms with its loss. 

My thoughts are currently with the residents of Sheffield, trying to fight the decision by their local authority to remove many of the street trees ( http://www.savesheffieldtrees.org.uk/petitions/ ). The recent weeks have seen clashes between council workers and residents as they desperately try to preserve these sentinels that have watched over their communities for generations. 

In 2013 officials in Melbourne, Australia decided to assign email addresses to their street trees. The intention was that residents could inform the council if there were any issues regarding the trees that needed to be dealt with. Surprisingly they found that the residents didn’t end up sending complaints about leaves or low branches, but instead used the email addresses to ask existential questions of their arboreal neighbours, even sending love letters to the trees, stating just what they meant to them.

First celebrated in 1975, the first week of December has been designated as National Tree Week to celebrate the start of the tree planting season in the UK. The culmination of the week is tree dressing day (https://www.commonground.org.uk/tree-dressing-day/) This annual event was first organised by the charity Common Ground in 1990. Common Ground seeks to find innovative ways for people to interact and engage with their local environment. The tree dressing day tradition of tying messages of thanks to trees echoes the Celtic tradition of tying cloth dipped in water from a holy well to a ‘clootie tree’ or the Japanese tradition of decorating trees with strips of white paper bearing wishes and poems. 

These cultural traditions can create a powerful way in which we can express our relationship to these trees and the roles that they play in our lives and communities, helping to further strengthen our bond with nature. 

Dispelling garden myths

We all love a ‘myth busting’ story. One of those that shows us, by scientific explanation, how a long-held gardening belief is untrue. It may be the fact that putting crocks in the bottom of our pots doesn’t actually improve drainage. It could be the advice of planting according the phases of the moon, which varies according to who you listen to, but rarely shows any benefit in tests. It could be the age old tradition of planting snowdrops ‘in the green’, placing these delicate plants under incredible stress at the toughest point in their yearly cycle.
Scientific study and rigorous testing can be applied to many areas of the garden. We like to see our horticulture as a science and by carefully monitoring, measuring and quantifying action and reaction we can advance our understanding of how the garden works, becoming better gardeners.

I would like to pause for a moment to consider what these myths actually mean. 

For them to have become so widely accepted and repeated there must be a kernel of truth somewhere in them. There must be some precedent that for some people, they did actually work, once. 

In the case of snowdrops, the long process of importation meant that by the time the thin-skinned bulbs arrived in the UK they were so dried out they had little chance of living. To get bulbs with green leaves was a guarantee that they were still alive. In the days of improved storage and supply chains, buying from a good supplier means you can plant healthy bulbs at almost any time of the year for good results, although if you are paying £300 or more for a special variety, I might be inclined to buy the plant only when it was in flower, so I knew exactly what I was getting.

For those who like to garden according to the moon, the fact that this celestial body affects every molecule of water on earth means it must have at least some influence on our plants. I know of many carpenters who like to ensure their timber comes from trees that are felled on a waning moon. They believe this reduces the amount of sap held in the wood so it will cure better and be easier to work with in the long run.

Only last week I was telling a fellow gardener the tale of the popular eryngium ‘Mrs Wilmott’s ghost’. Named after Ellen Wilmott, an early member of the Royal Horticultural society and recipient of the first Victoria Medal of honour. She was a keen gardener funding plant hunting expeditions and even reputedly distributing her bulbs for planting from the back of her Rolls Royce as it drove around her estate. She was particularly fond of this pale eryngium and was keen to distribute it further. In every garden she visited she would sow a handful of seeds from her favourite plant, and months later when they popped up in the borders the gardeners would declare ‘that is Mrs Wilmott’s ghost’. I doubt that there is much truth in this legend, but it has bound the plant in my memory and I will never forget it.

We must be careful that the dissection of our craft by science doesn’t strip away all of our myths. These stories and legends are powerful memories of the way we used to try to make sense of and relate to phenomena we didn’t fully understand. The stories and language we use to describe the world around form a strong bond between our culture and our environment. There are hundreds of words just to describe something as simple as a right-of-way, and each one will tell us a little something of its size, surface quality, region and perhaps even the surroundings. To preserve and create new myths is to improve or links to the greater world around us and to start to create a new mythology to help us come to terms with how our interaction with the natural world around is causing it to change and evolve at an ever increasing rate. 

A time and a place

There is one thing I think we all wish we had more of; time. This elusive concept has the potential to dictate the pace of our lives, and yet it is impossible to see or hold. It is completely elastic, stretching and distorting dependent on the point of view of the observer.  

This week, I had the pleasure of attending a speed awareness course. I admit I had been careless, and had driven faster than the speed limit. Over the course of the evening it gradually became clear that time had been key to the action that caused everyone to be there. We had all been caught in the act of trying to get more time by rushing to our destination; trying to regain something we never had but felt we had somehow lost. 

We all have the same 168 hours in the week. It is how we choose to spend them that is important. I like to spend the largest portion of my time in the garden. At eight hours Monday to Friday (and a little bit on evenings and weekends) it knocks sleeping into second place. This still leaves me with a whopping 70 hours every week to play with, but what do I spend it all on?

As someone who works outside, my life is intrinsically bound to the passing of time and the changing of the seasons. Timing is an essential skill as a gardener and learning how to time tasks is a necessity. I am often asked by my family and friends when a shrub should be pruned. I am tempted to give the answer Christopher Lloyd would in this situation; “if it looks like it needs pruning, it probably needs pruning”. I resist, knowing that this would only elicit a raised eyebrow and a frown. 

Truthfully, most shrubs need pruning after they have flowered. If they flower before mid-summer, they should be pruned almost immediately afterwards. This will give them the longest time to recover, putting on new growth which will flower on next Spring. If they flower after Midsummer, it is best to wait until next spring to do the main cutting back. This promotes the production of new wood, which the shrub will flower on this year. If the shrub is grown for its foliage (like a hedge) the best time to prune is when it is most actively growing in midsummer to promote dense branching and lush foliage. 

The oak tree in the garden is a kind of time machine. Its lifespan bears little correlation to our own. It has stood at this spot long before the garden ever existed, before even the house, and long before before any of us were born. It will probably still be standing here long after we are gone. I often find myself gazing into its branches and wondering what stories it could tell.

As gardeners, we often find ourselves thinking ahead to the next season. In Autumn, we are planning the bulb display for the spring. In Spring we are sowing seeds in preparation for harvesting in Autumn. We are at risk of missing the current season as we plan ahead for the next. 

In this last week the change of weather to much colder and wintery conditions brought a change in the work. For three days the ice never quite lifted from the garden, so instead of chasing leaves across the lawns my working area suddenly shrunk to just a few feet and I spent my time splitting and stacking logs in the wood stores and starting work on the hazel coppice. 

Whilst I’m no longer walking huge distances trying to cover every corner of the garden, the work is far more intensive, requiring a focus of energy in a smaller space. Personally, I don’t enjoy having cold feet, but I do find it immensely enjoyable to be able to concentrate intensely on a practical task immediately in front of me and become completely absorbed in it. It demands that I am entirely present in this moment. 

All too often we can find ourselves thinking about the next task or what happened previously. The past and future don’t actually exist and are just concepts that depend on where you are at present. The only time that has ever existed is now. Perhaps the best advice I can offer are the words of Alan Watts, (famously quoted by John Lennon and more recently, the Gallagher brothers) “Be, Here, Now”.