Starting to feel like spring

This week it has begun to feel as though we are starting to turn a corner in the garden. We are not quite out of the woods yet, but it is slowly beginning to feel ever more springlike. Apart from a brief visit from storm Doris on Thursday, which shook all of the loose branches from the trees and provided us with more than a years worth of kindling, we have generally been blessed with warmer, sunnier days and milder evenings. Both myself and the garden breathed an audible sigh of relief as we started to wake once again from our winter slumber. 

The days are getting noticeably longer and there is movement in the dew pond once again. The edges are bubbling with the diving newts and we have seen the appearance of two new breeding pairs of ducks who have taken to feeding at the pond on a morning. Even the normally aloof moorhens seem to be spending much more time in closer contact, renewing their bonds and perhaps anticipating the new life of spring once again. 

This weekend, passing through my neighbourhood I saw daffodils ready to burst and the first of the cherry blossom appearing from the dependable blackthorn and black plums. Unfortunately, I am aware from past experience that the appearance of the blackthorn flowers can often be a prelude to a few cold nights, so I haven’t cast aside my warm coat just yet. Autumn sown broad beans and peas are now showing in the kitchen garden and the onions and garlic appear much happier. I have even started to sow a few trays of hardy salad leaves in the sheltered areas around the shed that I can quickly cover with fleece if the threat of frost is forecast. 

There is a comforting inevitability of the seasonal cycle. As sure as we know that January and February will be filled with cold frosty days, the imminent arrival of March signals the start of a new growing season. Life as a gardener seems to have created a unique obsession with timing. My whole year revolves around trying to schedule my tasks as accurately as possible so they can be done at the ideal point of the year when the soil is warm enough and the weather is cooperating. Our lives are dictated by natures calendar and, in much the same way that many flowers only open when they have the correct proportions of daylight, moisture and temperature, we are constantly watching the weather and calendar so we can judge the perfect time to set about our most pressing tasks. 

At no time during the year does this seem more critical than in the spring. Much like Easter, Spring is a moveable feast and seems to appear when it wants to, rather than when the calendar says it should. This year I have noticed that the colder weather in January has meant that many flowers are still several weeks later than when they first appeared last year when it was considerably milder. 

Like many gardeners, I have very little space outside to propagate my seedlings, so need to resort to filling the windowsills of my house with my tender plants. I know that if I miss-judge my timings the limited space will soon become chockablock with young plants eager to make their way outside, and leave me biting my fingernails as to wether they will make it. 

But as ever, the plants know best. They know when it is exactly the right time to sprout and when it is exactly the right time to flower, and they will continue to knowingly mock every one of my attempts to preempt them. For the meantime I will religiously consult my almanacs, calendars, schedules and weather reports in a desperate attempt to foresee what will inevitably remain elusive and unpredictable, and which after all, is the main reason that this is still so exciting after so many years of trying. 


How to grow a gardener?

I was recently asked by a friend how to get into gardening as a career. After many years working in an office, he wanted a change. Horticulture seemed to offer what they were after so I was only too happy to give them an intro as to what to expect. It got me thinking about the many different ways that people come into this profession and how to ensure we continue to develop and grow.

I think I have always been a gardener. We moved house when I was 4, and my parents set about transforming the garden at our new home. I was only too happy to muck in. I even made my first garden for my action man, complete with a lawn, swimming pool and tiny hedging plants. I remember helping in the veg garden spreading manure in the winter and the pride I felt when, next autumn, I could take a marrow that seemed almost as big as myself to the Harvest Festival celebrations. As I got older, in a bid to avoid household chores, I offered to take care of the garden. I would cut the grass, trim hedges and sweep the paths to receive my pocket money. In the summer I would supplement it by helping at the soft fruit farm down the road, although I think I probably ate far more strawberries than I picked.

It was only natural that when it came to selecting my career path I chose Horticulture. I knew I wanted to spend my time outside taking care of and managing landscapes. Whilst I was studying at university, I would spend my free days and weekends working in plant nurseries and alongside landscapers to make extra money. Once I had completed my degree I was able to take on a full time role working as a gardener.

I am a big believer in the master and apprentice model. To work in close quarters with someone who has a detailed knowledge and extensive experience is a great way to learn and develop a new skill. Ken, my first full-time boss, took me under his wing to foster my interest and help develop me. His patience and guidance were a huge influence for which I am still thankful. It was my first experience of the people for whom horticulture is not just a job, but a way of life.

Since then I have had many different roles. I have worked landscaping new-build properties, taken care of historic estates, maintained celebrity’s gardens, and tested new plant varieties. In every different role I was lucky to find many new things to learn to keep me inspired to continue my ongoing professional development.

If we are to develop in our role the constant improvement and refinement of our skills is a must. One of the most valuable skills we can cultivate is learning how to learn. In an era where information proliferates there is no shortage of sources, whether it is from books, websites or our mentors. We need to know ourselves and how we learn best so we can focus our efforts and get the most out of them if we are to excel.

There have been many studies of peak performers and what helped them to become the best in their field. One of the most commonly quoted is the now famous study by Anders Ericsson, popularised by Malcom Gladwell in his book ‘Outliers’ as “The 10,000 hour rule”. Anders’ study stated that, to become brilliant at anything, one must first do at least 10,000 hours of practice. Obviously it is not quite as simple as just practicing for 10,000 hours. The quality of the practice also matters. There should be clear goals, feedback mechanisms and periods of assessment and reflection. These are essential to further refine the skills which, will eventually turn a beginner into a world-class expert.

Some people say that an ‘expert’ is simply someone who is one step further along the path than yourself. It is important that we take time to build relationships with those who have also previously been in our position. These people can act as our mentors, able to help us along our own path, offering help, guidance and contact with the people who will be able to aid our development and progression. 

To be successful in any area, it is essential we also cultivate the right character. In her book ‘Grit’, Angela Duckworth identified some of the key traits that gave people the ‘stick-with-it-ness’ that enabled them to reach the top of their profession.The four key elements she identified were:

Interest – You need to be fascinated by your subject. If you lose this fascination you need to find a way to revitalise your excitement and enthusiasm for it. It can help to find a small aspect of your field that catalysed your interest and really focus in on it with intense scrutiny.

Practice – You will need to practice relentlessly. Not just hours of repetitive practice, but practice that is working towards a real and tangible goal in order to succeed. Make sure you get unbiased feedback along the way, and take action on it to constantly refine your practice.

Purpose – It is important to know exactly what you are aiming for, otherwise how will you know where to shoot? Our lives, even as adults, need space for fun and play, but we should always keep an idea of the ultimate aim in sight.

Hope – Possibly one of the most essential elements. You have to truly believe that you can (and will) improve and get better. 

We often see someone who is brilliant at their profession as a ‘natural’ who was ‘born to do this’. We act as though their innate skills had been awarded to them at birth. We only ever see the finished article. We are usually completely unaware of the many long hours of hard work and practice they have put in behind the scenes to get to this level of performance. It has taken many years of careful cultivation and help from many different people to tend those delicate young shoots and ensure they flourish, developing into the fully-grown specimens that we finally see.

Making a home for wildlife

Our towns and cities have the potential to be fantastic habitats for wildlife.

Over thirty years of studying the inhabitants and visitors to her 741sq.m suburban garden in Leicester, Jenifer Owen, a University lecturer, identified at least 2673 different species including six species of parasitic wasp previously unknown to science. 

The incredible number of different plant species that gardens can support, and the unique diversity of habitats they provide, means they can be home to an astonishing diversity of life, right outside our backdoor.

Last weekend saw the RSPB’s annual ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’. Around the country an estimated 600,000 people took part in one of the largest citizen science projects in the UK. Participants simply observed and recorded the bird visitors to their gardens. 

The RSPB is the largest conservation charity in Europe with over one million members and maintains thousands of hectares of nature reserves across more than 200 locations, protecting some of the most important sites for wildlife in the UK. 

The data received from participants in the Big Garden Birdwatch will increase the data they hold about the state of bird life in the UK and help to inform their conservation plans for the future. Previously the Big Garden Birdwatch helped to highlight the decline of starlings across much of the UK.

Just by spending an hour or two in quiet observation of birds we can gain a unique insight into their habits and activities and an increased respect for the role they play in the local ecosystems. 

These direct experiences of nature help to form our ‘baseline’ from which our perception of the natural world is formed. The many species of plants or animals that we see in our towns and cities are often thought of as ‘common’. It is their ability to utilise the unique niches created by mankind that makes them successful in these locations although, in the wider landscape, they may in fact be much rarer.

As part of the project to help make London the worlds first National Park City I was involved in setting up a website to help Londoners become more aware of the wildlife all around them in the city  . 

The website acts like an estate agent for homes for wildlife, with listings of bird boxes, bug hotels, log piles and ponds all over the city. The site features lots of helpful information about how you can provide a home for nature in your own garden, and a few ‘guest blogs’ from some of the wild Londoners looking to find a home. You can upload your own properties to the site. Simply take a photo of your wildhome, share it on social media with the postcode, including the hashtag #wildhomes, and the property will be automatically uploaded to the site.

In a stable ecosystem there is a dynamic web of interactions between many different organisms. When mankind chooses to utilise some aspect of the ecosystem to provide for ourselves, if we do not acknowledge and respect the ability of every organism in the ecosystem to support and provide for itself then we will always end up with a result less than the optimum, possibly jeopardising our own ability to provide for our own needs in the future.

Gardening is an instinct to cultivate the wilderness. To subvert the ecosystem to serve our own needs, whether it is for food, shelter, raw materials or aesthetic values. We have a unique ability and opportunity to alter our environment and a responsibility to do so in the least damaging way we can. 

We should use our interactions with nature as a way increase biodiversity. We can provide more sources of nectar for bees and butterflies, more habitats for bugs and beetles and more nesting points for birds. Our activities need not subtract from the whole but can in fact strengthen and reinforce it.

Prepared for anything 

I should have been a Boy Scout. I would have loved all that camping, tying knots and doing good. My mum was a guide leader, so I guess some of that must have rubbed off on me. I am a big fan of preparing for EVERY eventuality. Just look in the boot of my car and you will find almost everything you would need to survive if, for some unknown reason, society sudden collapsed tomorrow.

Recently I have been planning a lot. The cold weather this week has limited my options somewhat in the garden. There is always something that needs to be done, but when the frosts are so hard and prolonged not everything can be done. On most days it has taken until the early afternoon to warm up at all so my work outside has been restricted to mainly tidying up jobs and moving things around. There are only so many times you can turn a compost heap before it becomes a compulsive disorder.

I decided to spend some of the colder mornings tucked up in my cosy shed organising and laying plans for the year. The tools were cleaned, lawnmower serviced and hedge cutters sharpened. The forgotten corners were cleared and swept and all the detritus collected from the year was reorganised or recycled.

I find January can be the month of spreadsheets. Once the arduous task of submitting the tax return for the year is complete, I find them a great way of organising all my other tasks. My plans for the veg garden quickly become more detailed when I can make calculations of expected yield, space required, number of plants needed and even approximate sowing dates. Over a few hours it evolves from a haphazard and chaotic experience into a precisely timed exercise where I am aware of exactly what is meant to be happening, where, when and why.

But as with all good plans we need to accommodate two vital aspects; flexibility and contingency. Things will never be exactly the same from year to year. Last frost dates can vary by several weeks and sowing dates will need to be adjusted accordingly. Unpredictable rainfall and temperatures in the spring can be protected against, but we can never have a 100% guarantee when it comes to germination. Some of our plants will never make it to adulthood to fulfil their destiny, so we must use our previous experiences to try and predict the range of possible outcomes, and have a course of action suitable for each.

There are always things that will be beyond our control. Things will occur which are completely beyond our abilities to predict or protect against. It is at these times we must surrender to the chaotic nature of the world and accept that shit happens, sometimes. 

My new favourite tool

This week, I discovered a new favourite tool. I am sometimes a bit fickle and depending on the time of the year, I always seem to have a different favourite. 

This time last year I was amazed at the efficiency of the Billhook for preparing the hazel stakes for the garden. In the spring, I became a vocal advocate of the Hori-Hori; a small Japanese gardening knife with a multitude of uses. It is surprisingly deft at removing tap-rooted weeds from borders without disturbing the surrounding plants and for the majority of the spring, it never left my side. 

As we moved past the midpoint of Summer I became besotted with a new pair of Long-nosed Snips I had purchased. They have precision-trimming abilities and were perfect for dealing with cut flowers, delicate pruning jobs and all the deadheading that’s needed at that time of year. 

In the autumn I became a raving fan of my heavy Splitting Maul. It’s 3.5kg head makes it a foreboding and cumbersome tool. It’s very heavy, and useless for felling trees, but is unsurpassed when it comes to breaking large, hardwood rounds into suitably-sized chunks for the log-burner in the house.

Over the next couple of months, I will be working through the large herbaceous borders cutting back all the perennials and grasses that have managed to remain standing upright through the winter months. It can be a long-winded job, slowly cutting through each stand of plants with Shears or Secateurs, but earlier this week I discovered a great way to make the job even easier – a Sickle.

A Sickle is similar to its bigger brother, the Scythe. It has a curved blade, sharpened on the inside edge, and would traditionally be used for cutting the stems when harvesting corn. During the latest spell of cold weather I have been tidying and organising the tools in the shed. Stuffed down the back of the bench in the workshop, looking as if it had not been touched for many years was an old Sickle. 

With a bit of careful cleaning and plenty of effort sharpening the blade it was ready for a new lease of life. After practicing on some less prominent clumps of grasses I quickly started to get the hang of it and before long was cutting my way through the border with surprising ease, collecting huge sheaves of grass and stems as I progressed. A job that would normally take me hours to complete, taking its toll on myself and my secateurs, flew by with ease. It will take me a bit longer to work all the way around the garden as the spring approaches, but this new, more efficient approach has massively reduced the time it will take me.  

Often when we are thinking about our work, we can find ourselves stuck in a fixed mindset about the way it should be approached. We think ‘It has always been done this way, and so it should continue to be done that way’, even if it isn’t the easiest or most efficient way. Whilst it is good to know the current thinking and practices we must ensure we do not slavishly attach ourselves to them, and are always open to thinking about our work in new ways.

In 1962 American physicist Thomas Kuhn coined the term ‘Paradigm Shift’ to describe a fundamental shift in the concepts and experimental practices of a scientific discipline. Although the term has since slipped into common parlance, and is now more often misused than not, it is worth considering its meaning in detail. A paradigm is when a group have an idea, technique or value in common. Previously science was dominated by thoughts about the way it ought to develop (‘the scientific method’). In the paradigm that existed more truths were gradually added to the stock of old truths as the scientific community steadily marched towards a greater understanding of the world. 

Kuhn saw scientific progress as a more discontinuous process – a series of alternating normal and revolutionary phases. Presented with a new way to consider the implications of old findings, communities in a field of study can find themselves in a state of turmoil and uncertainty as the new idea they are presented with radically changes the way the old learning is viewed. 

It is worth bearing in mind that whilst we are always in a state of gradual change, it can also sometimes be sudden and unexpected. Like the stems of the grass I am currently cutting a swathe through with my sickle, we must be strong yet flexible, able to remain rooted, but move easily with the changing winds, otherwise we risk only ever discovering exactly what we expect to discover. 

Making a bodge of it

One thing I hope to do more of this year, is be more creative with the products from the garden. After my work in the coppice before Christmas, I now have a considerable number of hazel poles. I already have plenty of wood split and stacked in the sheds, drying as fuel for the house and more than enough stakes prepared to use as supports in the garden so I have been racking my brain to find ways to use it all up. 

The straight poles from the coppice are great for making woven fence panels, often called hurdles. Some of the thinner pieces can be used in conjunction with the pliable stems of willow to make wicker baskets. Hazel is also used to form the curved handle and rim for the traditional ‘Sussex trug’, a traditional basket for harvesting fruit, veg and flowers (although I think this might be a bit beyond my skills just yet). I have carved the odd spoon from some of the offcuts and I am hoping to use some of this years crop to make some furniture, in particular chairs. Whilst the wood is still full of moisture it is softer and easier to work with hand tools. As the moisture starts to leave the wood it will shrink slightly, causing any joints to tighten and bond, so the chairs will not need nails or glue to fix together. 

In the past this work would have been undertaken by a group of crafts-people called ‘Bodgers’. These skilled wood-workers would spend the summer months living in temporary huts in the woods of the Chilterns converting the timber they had harvested from managing the woodland into legs and stretchers for the chair-making industry. These would be taken to workshops in the local village to be fixed to the seat which was often made of Elm. Over the years the word ‘bodged’ has come to mean a job done with whatever is at hand which, whilst not necessarily elegant, is serviceable.

Although it is not quite 100% self-sufficiency, being able to grow some of my own fruit and vegetables and making useful things gives me a great sense of self-reliance and confidence in my ability to survive in the world. The simplicity of using what materials you have to hand encourages a more creative and resourceful process, which can often result in a much more interesting and characterful end product. 

I take great inspiration from the American writer, Henry Thoreau. Thoreau is best know for his work ‘Walden’, which documents a 2 year, 2 month and 2 days period spent living in a simple cabin in the woods. Through his meticulous observations of the passing seasons and his records of providing for the necessities of life he gives a detailed account of his own personal and spiritual development. It is a fantastic work and a unique fusion of both natural history and environmental philosophy. Through his reflections on life stripped back to the simplest essentials the reader gains a sense of his strong feelings of independence and self-reliance.

Whilst I haven’t decided to take up residence in the shed at the bottom of the garden just yet, I feel an affinity for how through this direct experience of life he was able to find a way to reconnect to both the natural world and his own true self.

Pruning the apple trees

The first week back to work in the new year is often one of the coldest, and this week the garden has seen more the usual number of frosty days. Most mornings have started with a fine dusting of ice crystals covering the garden. Whilst this means I am unable to start some jobs I have been planning, it is the perfect time to start my winter work in the orchard. Being off the cold ground and up in the canopy of an old apple tree, just a few meters closer to the winter sun, can be a rare delight. 

Apple trees can be productive for many years. The original tree that all ‘Bramley’ apples were cloned from is now over 200 years old. While it is now starting to succumb to the effects of old age, most trees can remain productive for 100 years or more given the proper care and attention. Part of this process is pruning. By selectively cutting the new growth, we stimulate the production of more young and vigorous growth, and the production of more flower buds to ensure a good crop of apples.

The first task is to remove any dead, diseased or dying wood. Any branches that are crossing or rubbing should be removed to create an ‘open’ structure. I was told once by a gardener I was working with to “image you are a bird, and give enough room so that you could fly through the tree with ease”. I imagine he meant one of the small blue tits that love to visit the trees, pecking over the buds in search of aphids, and not the huge Red Kites that circle overhead like vultures, watching while I work.

The long, thin straight growth from the summer needs to be shortened to encourage the tree to focus it’s energies into producing more flowering buds. The branches are shortened by around 2/3rds, taking care not to cut off any flowering buds. These can be distinguished as they appear much, shorter, plumper and rounder than the thin, pointed growth buds.

I work as much as I can from the floor, first with secateurs, then loppers, then an extendable pruning pole. Once all the growth I can reach from the outside has been removed, I clamber up into the heart of the tree and start to work from the inside out, shortening and thinning back the years growth like an annual haircut. After a couple of days the ten young trees and three old masters appear more open, and able to breathe again.

Next week, the smaller trees will be treated to a dose of winter wash, an emulsion of fish oils, which helps to reduce any bugs that may be nestling in the tree, waiting for their moment to pounce later in the year. I will also apply a grease band that forms a sticky barrier to prevent the wingless female of the winter moths climbing these trees and using them as a nursery to raise their young. 

With all the work in the orchard done for the year, it would now be time for the ‘Wassail’. This is a ceremony to bless the orchards and has been re-enacted for many years. Traditions vary from area to area. Some will push a handcart containing a sapling around the town, but most will tend to involve drinking copious amounts of cider. Villagers are lead by the Wassail King or Queen through the orchard rattling pots and pans and singing:

“Apple tree, apple tree, we all come to wassail thee,

Bear this year and next year to bloom and to blow,

Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sack fills,

Hip, Hip, Hip, hurrah,

Holler biys, holler hurrah.”

The aim is to make as much noise as possible, to scare away any bad spirits and waken the apple trees again, hopefully ensuring a prosperous harvest. The branches of the trees are decorated with bread soaked in cider and the evening is rounded off with a bonfire and plenty more cider. It sounds like a jolly good party.

I’m not sure of the science behind it, potentially the bread could attract birds that would clear the trees of any pests and the bonfire ash is a great source of potassium that will definitely help the trees to form fruit when they do come into flower. 

Perhaps the most important aspect of celebrations such as the wassail is that the villagers would all be engaged in a collective task of clearing and preparing the orchard for the next year. The subsequent bonfire, cider and singing are just the social lubricants that help to develop and strengthen the bonds that will keep the community together long into the future.