Holiday time…..

We have just been on holiday in the north east of England, close by Newcastle upon Tyne.  The sights that have caught my eye whilst up there include:

Northumberlandia – The Lady of the North

This is a wonderful sculpture in the landscape adjacent to the site of a working open cast coal mine.   You can walk round gently curving paths with grasses and wild flowers sweeping in the wind.  The paths are on a landform shaped to be a woman’s body and they gently envelope pools.  It is hard to imagine without seeing it and even the pictures on the website don’t really do it justice.  If you are ever in the Cramlington area do go.  The history and purpose are described on the website:

This project is known as restoration first – taking an extra piece of land donated by the landowner, the Blagdon Estate, adjacent to the mine and providing a new landscape for the community to enjoy while the mine is still operational. ……..The inspiration for the landform comes from the distant Cheviot Hills, which are pulled into the foreground by the curves and shapes of the female form used for Northumberlandia.  We naturally look for patterns and shapes in the landscape around us and the scale of the landform means the female form is not seen as a figure all of the time. As you walk around the paths you have to use this natural recognition of the human form to pick out the shape of the figure. For much of the time it appears just as a series of graceful sweeping curves and interlocking shapes.

When I am on holiday I love to see other people’s gardens.  They don’t have to be fancy or large gardens, I like to just discover little bits and pieces that attract my attention.  I particularly enjoyed coming across these two:

St Mary’s Lighthouse, Whitley Bay

In the very small patch of ground around the base of the lighthouse is a small garden with raised beds.  They are packed with herbs and flowers in a very windy and exposed position, but look great nevertheless.

DSCN6438 lighthouse garden


DSCN6440 lighthouse garden


DSCN6435 lighthouse garden DSCN6438 lighthouse garden DSCN6440 lighthouse garden

This lovely sea kale caught my eye – I think it is probably the variety ‘Lily White’.  It made me want to try growing sea kale again – when I tried before it always died, but I would love one like this.

DSCN6441 sea kale

Bede’s World Herb Garden

Bede’s World is primarily a museum about the ‘Venerable’ Bede – a 7th century British monk and scholar.  It is shows a fascinating account of his life and times which includes a herb garden – unfortunately it was a bit windy and my photos of the garden were blurred.  There is also a fascinating reconstruction of a farm and buildings from that time.

DSCN6451 bw farmDSCN6452 bw farm

Where are the bees?

How are the  bees (and other insects) doing where you are this year?

As I have been watching my Telford garden this year I have noticed that there seem to be far fewer bees than in previous years.  I have all the same flowers (towers of foxgloves, calendula, toad flax, chives, land cress) that bees have loved and could not get enough of, and in some cases even more of them than before.

The Borderland garden is faring a bit better and has some bees and other insects – fewer butterflies than last year, and I think, less bees but more than in Telford.

It would be good to see what other people’s experience is so far this summer.

Nature’s way of ‘planting’

I tend to leave the edges of the garden away from the vegetable polycultures to do their own thing as far as is practical.  I have an ever increasing respect for nature knowing what is best and like to trust her to fill in these gaps as she pleases.  What I have then noticed as a consequence is that nature’s tendency to is towards what we might look on as excess.  Every part of the space is used, plants crowd in upon each other, grow through each other, bunch up tightly, cover all the ground and then spread upwards, laying themselves layer upon layer on top of each other.  Seeing how this happens encourages me in turn to allow the cultivated parts of the garden to fill up with far more plants than I might otherwise have thought wise.

A very small stream runs across the very front of the front garden.  I spent a very pleasant time there one sunny morning last week with a fascinated two year old.  She was discovering that the water moved and exclaiming ‘it’s moving’ every time she threw in another piece of leaf or twig.  Whilst she played I idly considered the plants that had colonised the other side of the bank.  Bearing in mind that beneath them are large boulders with a very shallow layer of soil it is remarkable what nature has planted.

At the base is a layer of a green mat like plant that colonises very damp patches (I don’t know the name).  Then there is wild strawberry, campanula, ferns, dandelions, wild garlic, three cornered leek, buttercup, bramble and a few blades of grass.  Above this ‘layer’ comes more bramble with hypericum, ferns, nettle, hedge woundwort and clove root.  Poking through the top is dock running to seed, cleavers topped by a mass of honeysuckle.  That’s about sixteen plants in a few feet of stream side.  I am responsible for the wild strawberries, three cornered leek and wild garlic being there, everything else was brought by nature.

DSCN6338 layers of streamside vegetation

I would not want most of these plants in the vegetable polycultures, but allowing them space on the wild edge of the garden increases the scope for biodiversity and as far as I can see must be a good thing.  Unplanned and largely untended as it is this steam bank is nevertheless one of the loveliest parts of the garden and I can’t take any responsibility for that at all!

DSCN6340 stream bank

Of edges and hedges

Edges are recognised as important habitats within permaculture.  This is because they represent a zone of change between two different habitats or environments and encapsulate some of the identity of each.  They therefore have the potential to provide for a wider range of biodiversity than either of the component parts.

In the Borderland garden I am using edges for practical reasons – mainly to provide a place to house plants I am bringing from the other garden (which, with its house is for sale) whilst the main body of the garden is under development.  It began with the ‘hedgetable patch’ last year and has progressed to using the outside (roadside) edge of that hedge this year.


The borderland garden is itself bordered by a mixed hedge.  To maintain and manage this there are a number of options.  One of these is to lay the hedge; which it appears was done to this one at some time in the past.  However all that remains of that are a number of horizontal dead branches and a few live ones growing sideways in the thick of the hedge.  Since then I believe it has been cut by a local farmer using the standard hedge trimming equipment that fits to tractors.  That could be done again, or we could use hedge trimmers on it or get someone (younger and stronger) to do this for us.

The original hedge comprised a mixture of hawthorn, hazel, blackthorn, sycamore, rose, elder, holly and damson.  To this I have added loganberry, tayberry, raspberry, blackberry, honeyberry, clematis, mallow, broom, gooseberry, flowering honeysuckle, blackcurrant, golden hop and jostaberry.  With so many edible fruits and flowers intermingled in the hedge (and plenty more to come) I wanted a more delicate approach than power tools ripping through the branches.

Last year I pruned and sawed a lot of surplus branches and trunks out.  In places the hazel had grown too many trunks too close together and they needed thinning out.  The hawthorn and blackthorn bushes had managed to twist and turn and grow sideways and downwards so I removed lots of tangly growth.  There was also a lot of dead wood that had simply fallen into the hedge from the mechanical cuttings.

As it is central to my gardening philosophy to keep all potential fertility on site and use it to enhance the garden I never remove any kind of garden ‘waste’.  Last year’s branches and tree trunks were used to edge the new polyculture patch and those that could not be accommodated there were simply laid down at the foot of the hedge to decompose in situ where it will in time form humus.

I have taken the same approach this year.  There is nowhere near as much to prune out of the hedge, which is a mercy as I found it hard work!  However this is the time of year when everything has a growth spurt and the hedge is no exception.  Using mechanical means to cut hawthorn tends to make it send out lots of shoots in all directions.  Over the years as this is repeated on a bush or section of hedge you an almost infinite number of shoots growing off shoots growing off shoots and so on.  It tends to end up as a tangle on the inside and too much growth (for my liking) on the outside.

Although we did use a hedge trimmer on the sides of the hedge last year I didn’t want to do this again.  Instead I have been using a pair of secateurs to clip back behind where the previous years’ cuts have been made to take it back to a lesser number of branches.  This has been very easy work and has tidied the hedge up quickly.  It will, of course, still sprout in several directions from the branches I have cut, but this will be much less ‘sprouty’ than if every single branch and twig were cut and thus invited to multiply fourfold.  The trimmings have just been laid at the foot of the hedge to decompose (see below).  I have taken the photo up close but unless you are close it does not really show much.  The blackthorn is getting similar treatment to the hawthorn and the other bushes such as hazel are being thinned by taking out the overcrowded and crossing branches.

DSCN6300 branches laid under the hedge

and edges

I am continuing to create a border beneath the hedge on the roadside to accommodate some more plants.  This will take some time I think!  The verge is very keen on growing cow parsley, hogweed and buttercup in profusion and it takes some work to remove them; true to my usual way of managing green ‘waste’ I am just piling this up beneath the hedge to decompose.  In time this border will be fertile and sunny and there will be plenty of candidates for planting.  This weekend I added witch hazel, lovage, angelica (because I really like the angelica plant in the other garden), daffodils and other bulbs from pots and two tiny hollies.

Last year I created an edge in the main part of the garden.  It is just a plain, narrow border alongside a straight path – pretty bog standard really, apart from what is in it.  At present it is home to chokeberry, blackcurrant, redcurrant, gooseberry, rosemary, Jerusalem artichoke, yacon, scorzonera, carrots (left to flower for their second year), foxglove, calendula, chives, Welsh onion, tree onion, nodding onion, bunching spring onion, wild rocket, land cress, fennel, garlic, penstemon and day lilies.  These plants are happily entwined with one another.  In part this is another holding bed, accommodating plants whilst the ‘main’ polyculture patch is developing (it had to be moved from original position so is in effect in its first year again).  This is certainly much more diverse than the strip of lawn and the path either side of it.

DSCN6312 garden edge

DSCN6313 garden edge

I can feel a buzz about the garden.  Not just the buzz of bees and hum of other insects, but the silent buzz of something gestating, brewing, gelling together; something becoming manifest.   I have confidence that this is happening because I have observed the other garden so closely for years and I know that observing what is here and applying what I have learned so far will help this garden towards a healthy, fertile and abundant future.

Seen on holiday …..

Just a mention of a few things I noticed whilst having a short camping break this weekend.

Firstly, I know it must take a lot of effort to keep camping grounds in order and many sites work hard to landscape with trees, shrubs and flowers to make the site look nice.  Where we stayed at had gone to a certain amount of effort to put some flowers in a bed (see the first photo below), but really given that nature is well able to make a wonderful display without human intervention (second photo below), the owners of this site could have just left it to nature and not bothered with the pansies.


Whilst away we called in at the Dyfi Osprey Project run by Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust.  As well as a gorgeous situation and live cameras trained on a pair of ospreys incubating their eggs we caught a glimpse of this wonderful creature in the swampy undergrowth.  Not known for being native to Wales, and I am not sure what exact purpose they fulfil in this context but it was a lovely sight:


a water buffalo!

PS I’ve just seen why they have them – this is the link to their website.

Exuberant angelica

Reviewing recent photos confirmed what my senses told me – that when the angelica came up this year it veritably exploded from the ground!  One week it was a relatively small hummock of leafy growth, eight days later it had grown a couple of feet and was bearing flowers.  Another couple of weeks on and it was about my height!  I know this is the time of year when gardens are exploding with growth, but mine seems to have even more energy than normal.

This photo shows the garden on 16 April 2014.  The angelica is part of the hummocky greens in the lower middle ground.

DSCN6148 side garden 16 April 2014

And this shows it eight days later on 24 April 2014.

DSCN6178 angelica 24 April 2014

By 12 May the whole garden is transformed!  Much of what is visible is early spring flowers that bring a wealth of bloom and attract plenty of insects.  They will soon be gone (having generated lots of biomass to feed future fertility) and there will be space for more edibles.

DSCN6228 side garden 12 May 2014

I bought the angelica years ago from a garden centre as a diminutive looking herb.  I knew it might get quite big, but not this big!  I have never used any part of it but am happy it is there for the insects and also for the biomass it generates.  I have just checked the entry on the Plants for a Future database and found out all parts are edible, so I should make more effort and use it.  Anyway I like it so much that I have bought another plant for the Borderland garden, where I plan to plant it in the hedge, hoping it will help fill up a bit of a gap.

Plants for a Future  says it is normally biennial but can be reliably perennial if prevented from setting seed.  I usually set it back by removing flowering heads and it comes back year on year.   Last year I let the seeds ripen, which was a big mistake as it generated approximately a trillion tiny seedlings.  However I despatched almost all of these by covering them with an ultra massive dose of mulch from the compost bin and also some ‘slabs’ of upturned bedstraw from another bed which had got equally out of hand.  After a couple of weeks the bedstraw ‘slabs’ had almost completely decomposed into a dark brown mulch.  I was surprised they had done this so fast, but checked my notes to verify the dates.  I have noted before that plants left to decompose on the soil surface disappear remarkably quickly which I am putting down to very active micro organisms.

Plans and Priorities for 2014

My general aims for both gardens this year are:

  • To increase the amount of produce from the perennial vegetables already under cultivation – essentially by having more plants.
  • To extend the area under cultivation – in the Borderland garden.
  • To try some new crops – mainly different varieties of peas and beans, plus some grain and seed crops.

Extending the area under cultivation

In the Borderland garden the new polyculture patch has been extended further using multiple layers of turf (removed from lawn near the house) laid on top of hawthorn hedge trimmings.  It has been sown with pea and bean seeds and will have some flowers sown or planted soon.  I found last year that peas and beans grow well in upturned turf.  I am not in a hurry and just want this area to have a chance to bed down, for the turfs to decompose whilst allowing nitrogen fixers and other beneficial plants to play their part in enriching the soil.

On the roadside along the boundary hedge I have taken up the rough grass and other plants to make a bit of a border.  I turned the grass / plants upside down and put them under the hedge to decompose and planted oca, beans, peas and flowers in the new border.  This soil here is already very deep, soft and it certainly appears fertile so I have not felt the need to allow it time to build fertility before planting.


photo 8 before

and after:

photo 50 after

Earlier this year I planted this hedge edge with golden hop, jostaberries, blackcurrants and primroses (from the other garden) together with a small plum tree and day lilies (gifts) and a bought loganberry to join mallow, wild garlic, broom, wild flowers and a few other bits and pieces already in place.

Beside the house where the lawn has been removed I am planning a conglomeration of flowering things.  These will be for the benefit of bees and other insects, for visual delight and possibly with some edible bits as well.

Increasing the amount of produce and trying new crops

In the Telford garden I have planted out shallots, oca, yacon, potatoes.  Corn and peas are sown, with beans and more peas to come later.  Because of the house sale I am keeping it simple as I cannot be sure how long we will remain here.  Although having said that there has been very little interest so far as unfortunately I live in an area that is being utterly swamped with new housing and it is proving harder for people to sell older properties so we could be here for a very long time to come.

As far as trying new crops goes I would like to grow plants that provide as wide a range of nutrients as possible.  Most vegetables are very watery in content and their nutritional value lies primarily in the vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients they encapsulate; although some roots, like potatoes, are carbohydrate rich.  I want to grow more of my own carbohydrates, protein and oils which means more grains, peas, beans and seeds.

So far I have put in a few sunflower seeds, but plan to plant as many sunflowers as possible in the next few weeks.  Where I have removed some ‘weeds’ I have scattered flax seeds and plan to go round tomorrow scattering some more.

This is, I think, just about the loveliest time of year.  Today’s early morning dappled sunlight, birdsong with the joy of so many flowers and the attendant buzzing of insects was just divine!  Here are two pictures from the Telford garden:

DSCN6243 dappled light May 2014

It doesn’t look like there is much room for vegetables, but I just slot them in between the flowers (or take the flowers out if they are over or in the way).

DSCN6258 garden in sun May 2014

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