Friday, 30 October 2009

More muck

"Are you still interested in horse muck?" the neighbouring farmer asked me yesterday afternoon. Last year I had asked him and he hadn't been able to come up with any good ideas. But this morning he arrived with a huge trailer full of five-year old rotted muck, then another trailer, then two more. We now have to negotiate the price, but I'm sure we'll come up with something satisfactory to both parties! We haven't finished spreading the municipal stuff yet, but most of the bare areas are now covered and we may finish weeding the rest by christmas and will then spread the black stuff around.

My last seasonal farmer's market yesterday went surprisingly well - I wasn't very positive as I set out as I didn't have a vast amount and some of my bunches were decidedly odd, even by my standards. But I was sold out very early and met dozens of people I knew as the town was buzzing, partly half term, and partly an influx for the weekend as this weekend is the annual Hay on Fire festival. It's created and organised by my husband and has a cast of several hundred, so usually I'm completely hectic running around for it but this year I have been so busy with everything else I haven't got involved at all which is oddly tranquil! However, the theme this year is giants, based very loosely on Jack and the Beanstalk and  in a very weak moment I did agree to be the front half of Jack's cow Daisy. This afternoon I must whip into town to buy the requisite half a pair of Marigolds for the back end, and the friend who I have co-opted to be the other end  and myself need to practice getting from A to B and see if we can manage a few high kicks.....

We've managed quite a bit of seed collection this autumn as there have been such good dry spells. I'm becoming obsessed with seedheads, scabious pingpong are definitely top of my must-have list but they don't last in their gorgeous dodecahedron form (or similar) for all that long before dropping the seed and browning. Nonetheless they are splendid. Nigella hispanica are a close second for their splendid horns, and the purplish pods of Nigella Kramers Plum are a glorious colour. But though they may be the most recognisable of all there's something so satisfactory about the plumpness of poppy seedheads. My favourite plant this week have to be the remaining eryngiums. They look like pert little purple raspberries. I have dried masses of their seedheads and though I usually leave everything as nature intended I will paint some of them white rather than leaving them browning.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Good things

Amazing how things happen just when they're needed sometimes - I've had flu for a few days, have masses to do and was beginning to panic about getting trenches dug for the tulips, getting compost spread etc etc quite apart from starting propagating and sorting out the tunnel. Along comes an unexpected WWOOFer for a week, he is making great inroads on the tulip trenches... and last week I got a new part time recruit who is very happy to spend all day barrowing compost. Thank you both! Oh yes and one of them is a homeless man and one of them is a bank manager who was forced into early retirement, life is interesting.
And today I have just had an unexpected email from Wedding Flowers magazine that they're doing a spread in their Feb/March issue featuring a wedding I did in May last year. Thank you to all concerned there too.
And next week I'm having my first break of the year (yes I know it's ridiculous but it's been a busy year) going up to Northumberland for a few days - where I grew up. How lovely it will be if it stays dry, but even if it doesn't it will be lovely to visit old haunts. 

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Tasks are changing to autumn organisation

It's always a relief when the next 7 1/2 tons of compost arrives as we have difficult access and the driver has to be pretty good to get in. Today's was brilliant, completely unphased by the fact he had to reverse blind (no possibility of keeping any mirrors out) between two solid walls then negotiate a barn and a garage and a standing stone across a very wet grassy area..... He couldn't get down the slope where we usually tip it but it's reasonably near where it needs to be. This is the municipal stuff, black gritty and not altogether pleasant smelling, that I use as a winter mulch when I can. I've still got a few tons of mushroom compost left but have used about 12 tons of that this year already, it's amazing where it all goes. I usually have two loads of the municipal but I need the next lot in a different area so I'm going to have to talk to one of my neighbouring farmers to see if we can borrow something rather larger than a wheelbarrow to get it where it's needed!

It's time to cut things back. Amazing how much growth there has been this year, I'm chopping down the spent Michaelmas daisies to give some air to what's behind and around them, and will probably move most of them to a different site as they are really beautiful in the top garden but spread so quickly because they rather like the conditions, to the slight detriment of any of their neighbours. I discovered a lovely delicate aster with small pink centred flowers that had become completely hidden by larger forms, even the large wedding cake viburnum had completely disappeared behind the daisies, I could almost see it cheering up immediately as I moved a huge clump from its sight line! Euphorbias have done astonishingly well this year and all my small plants have at least quadrupled in size this year so I will be quite stocked come next spring. I'm hoping all my bulbs will have been as happy so there's a wonderful spring display but I fear the mice have been extremely busy. We pulled up the black membrane which we had put down over last year's tulips when they had finished - to stop weeds more than anything - and had obviously provided the ideal quarters for mice and voles. Hundreds of bulbs had been dug up and were scattered across the surface of the soil, and there were tunnels running everywhere.

We're about to start preparing the new tulip area. About 10,000 bulbs are going in this year, a lovely selection I hope, but I'm rather worried about rabbits and rodents. I still haven't rabbit fenced everywhere, I know I should but it is just so so expensive and rather complicated here. I have had quotes from £2000-4500 and immediately retreat and hope I can think of a cheaper way. I do have some wonderful chaps come up from the Welsh valleys every few weeks to catch rabbits - sometimes they bring guns, sometimes dogs, sometimes ferrets but unfortunately the worst warren is along the bank dividing my field from a neighbour's paddock and the paddock is totally overgrown near the hedge which is where all the bunnies are happily hunkering down..  I can't get anyone in to chop down the undergrowth as it's not on my land and it's too overgrown to put long nets for ferrets which are the most efficient rabbiters.  Someone advised me to get some semi feral cats in the tin barn, but I don't think they would live here long because of the dogs, and I also think I'd need a whole pack - some days you can look over the field to the grazing area and can count up to 70 rabbits. One of the dogs has eaten so many she has almost doubled in size, but there are just too many....... All advice welcome!

Friday, 16 October 2009

Inspiring - and more jelly

I've been contemplating why we do what we do this week, I think it's the time of year for a bit of contemplation. And realising how fortunate I have been to meet so many gardeners over the years, some of whom have had a profound effect on me. I suppose it did all start with my mother who is a terrific gardener and very positive, she probably started it all rolling, but working as a journalist and particularly as a garden writer allowed me to meet all sorts. Often the most interesting gardeners are unsung, not the people in the public eye (though I have huge respect for some of them, not a lot for others), but people you meet at random. In the past few years I've been totally inspired by Anne Townley, a gardener/producer (and now friend) on the borders of Warwickshire/Oxfordshire who has created an astonishing garden on about 7 acres, starting from nothing and building up a collection of stunning plants, many highly unusual, in unusual and beautiful landscaping, incredibly creative. I don't know how she has the time to do all she does, or how she has such a depth of knowledge. She not only tends, raises and sells amazing plants and produce - from unusual vegetables, fruits, nuts, cordials to striking cut flowers - she also makes unique pottery. From tiles and mugs to jugs and garden tiles and edgers, I would give each and every piece house and garden room if I could. And she doesn't realise what skills and talents she has. If I ever have half as much genuine plant knowledge as her I'll be happy. You may find her at a farmers market round Oxfordshire or in Stroud, it would be worth a trip if you're looking for a really special plant - amongst other treasures.

I've nearly finished editing Alys Fowler's next book. She is a delightful person and an entirely genuine gardener with a complete passion for her subject and a delight in good grub. I'm trying to persuade her and everyone else I come across to invest in a steamer/juicer cooker which is so perfect for processing produce at the time of year... I'm trying to track mine down today, it gets loaned to so many people but I'd quite like it back this weekend to try some flower jellies. 
For those of you who don't know them, this is a three tiered pan, you boil water in the bottom, juice collects in the middle from fruit that steams in the top. They have a clever little hose and tap so you can drain the juice off as you go and can make perfect jellies without any of that jelly bag malarchey plus a million other delicious things specially wonderful fruit juices to store for the winter. I don't know why they are so uncommon over here, in the States you can get them easily, and in Scandinavia and Germany.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Frosts arrive

It's hard to believe it's almost the end of the main season, in some ways it has been a long hard slog this year and in other ways it has been such a thrill - though there have been plenty of occasions when I wish I'd started it when I was twenty years younger..... that's more to do with the fact I am a terribly poor sleeper rather than the physical work, but I'm working on the sleep and I'm sure one night I will have a full night's sleep for the first time in about a decade! Monty Don's charming researcher came round this week to pick my brains about how to start a cut flower business, for the book to accompany his next year's TV venture on smallholdings. I'm not appearing in the TV programme so giving all the info was a bit odd, on the one hand I desperately want the message to spread, I want more people to grow flowers, I want more customers to choose British and preferably traditional flowers, on the other hand it's a bit weird giving away everything I know without my name even attached to it but I realise that everyone does it so differently, has such different ideas, methods and tolerances .... there's always a part of me that assumes that everyone else will do it so much better and be so much better organised than me but we are all individual and it's wonderful that there is so much interest in good old-fashioned home grown non-imported flowers. 

I made damson cheese, quince jelly, quince cheese, fig and chilli chutney and we opened a bottle of the second batch of elderflower champagne this week. What with all that bounty and all the flowers I reckon we have a pretty good life here!

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Mixed blessings

I realised this week how personally involved I am with my flowers, and business, and how much it means to me. On Sunday I received a disappointed email from a bouquet recipient where the flowers hadn't lasted properly. It threw me into a flat spin, for more than a few moments I lost the plot, I wanted to give everything up, decided I was hopeless and all was a disaster..... I contacted the disappointed recipient immediately of course and arranged to send more flowers on Monday but I felt dreadful, I really want people to love these flowers and receive something beautiful. Then on Monday, by complete chance, I received two emails from people who had received bouquets on the same day as the disappointed recipient all saying how lovely the flowers were. So I felt I could possibly continue after all... I don't know what went wrong with the unsatisfactory flowers, it should never have happened, there is no excuse, and I thank the recipient for being so understanding and for sweetly mailing me when the replacement arrived to say how gorgeous they were. 

It is definitely getting towards the end of the main season. I do have plenty of flowers left, but it is now becoming the season for other tasks, cutting back, clearing, moving, dividing, propagating. I'm looking forward to all of it. Next year I want everything to be stupendous!