Free Gold

 

With mulching playing such an important role in the health of the clay-based garden this summer, naturally thoughts go to the issue of mulching. I had time pressures this year and was forced to do two things I’m not fond of doing in the garden: spending money, and taking whatever was cheapest at the time.

I didn’t like it because I didn’t do due diligence about where the mulch comes from. Of course I checked for the sustainable tick etc, but to me that’s not enough of a guarantee, because my idea of sustainable and other peoples is vastly different.

I’m lucky enough to live close by ancient woodland. On the one hand, you don’t want to take more than woodland can spare – even collecting leaves from the ground needs to be done with caution, because that gentle coating on the ground is essential to the survival of growing things. But in late Summer, before the Autumn fall starts in earnest, I’ll skim a little litter for my garden, and that little goes a long, long way.

 

mulched roseFree leaf litter, to ward off the late summer weeds – an experiment in mulching for roses

 

I’ll also keep the freefall from the garden, for a neat winter covering should the winter be a hard one. Waste-not-want-not, as my kin have always said.

It bears thinking about when selecting trees for a garden: evergreen is wonderful for screening and reliability and much-needed winter colour, but the deciduous trees should always be our friends. Without their seasonal changes, what would this time of year really be? Without the stark bare branches in Winter, would we still delve inwards so deeply, seeking inspiration of a less material kind? I like to think huddling around fires has done us all the world of good at some point or another.

 

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Photo by Valmir Dzivielevski Junior

 

I already planted the first Spring bulbs back in early September, and the process goes on, like all Autumn rituals: a great gathering and planting plans for next year’s ease. Something buried for our emergence from the cold.

Autumn is my favourite time of year – coloured daubs of leaves, early mists, a wholesome chill in the air, and Halloween festivities. I wake up about this time of year – like the last five months have been a sluggish dream I can’t quite remember, and don’t much care about.

There are plans afoot now. The perfect meeting point between brash colour and natural darkness. Ritual fires and tender reflections – a harvesting of sleeping plans.

It’s all so very abundant, and that’s exactly what we want. Abundance is the perfect antidote to madness, sadness, stresses and grief.

 

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vertical red and yellow abstract painting
Osnat Tzadok

Long Term Plans…

It’s still all about trees here. Last week the oaks, this week, the orchard.

Orchards are funny things. I’m not sure how they can be mysterious and wholesome at the same time: homely, yet uncanny, but they are. Perhaps it’s their ancientness that whispers in even the jolliest of hollows, or perhaps it is the fruit with a star at its heart.

 

Rushed apple star illustration with added coffee spillage :/

I am cultivating a mixed orchard at the moment, eschewing the problems of which local apple variety to partner up with, in favour of tidying a more pressing problem with saplings in the lawn: the littered offspring of the old damson tree. It’s a project I’ve been working on for a couple of years – as all tree projects are – it leads me to thinking about time in abstracted ways. You’re free to think meanderingly when you’re working with trees – you’ve really got the time!

Tree work is a strange change of pace from the usual tasks which, more often than not, involve a dilapidated something cleared up, or a wild patch cut away (a mythic hero’s journey in bramble-form: lo, through the impenetrable darkness came the gleaming blade of a pair of secateurs…)

But working with trees is slow.

It’s a thorough lesson in patience, and putting reigns on the temperament of your thoughts.

I would have thought it would suit me, since I’ve always been naturally inclined to the big picture anyway (I tend to think in terms of ice ages rather than current affairs), but because I am working with ancient, native deciduous trees – monitoring sapling that won’t change for years at a time, or transplanting the children of fruiting trees who may not even prove to fruit themselves – it feels a bit scary.

The whole thing is a gamble, a lot of the time.

I find myself pondering outlandish scenarios, like passing the apple seeds through the digestive tract of a bird rather than potting them up on windowsills, to best replicate the way trees manage in the wild. But this leads to all sorts of delving questions about which animal is the best propagator of apples in the Sussex wilds, and whether or not a person can simply… borrow such a creature and have it relieve itself in one’s chosen spot…

This passes for the very cutting edge of horticultural thinking round these parts, and I wonder if I’m not over-complicating things somewhat. This sort of thinking is what the Winter months are for, surely?

 

 

There is a twist to this plot – warnings for mild peril ahead – the poor old damson tree is not well taken care of, and after the hard winter, a forced cut-back, and a flowerless Spring, this year heralded virtually no fruit. Not enough for even a single pot of jam, which is sad. I miss the rituals of this time of year (not so much the infuriating jar sterilising, more the harvesting with homemade baskets, like Ratty, Badger and Mole from Wind in the Willows). I feel the success of the tree’s offspring has a certain urgency to it, which does not sit well with the overall glacial pace of the endeavour.

In an ideal world, I would be content with nature’s ideas about sending an army of mini-trees out across the garden, but sadly, it’s not my lawn to give over to the wild.

Apparently living in the ancient and mysterious midst of a boozy fruit grove isn’t everyone’s idea of a blissful garden. Go figure.

 

The Wassail (Charles Rennie Mackintosh)

The Wassail by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

 

 

17th August

We are all custodians of our little patches of earth.

At the end of the day, whether we own them, rent them, or just work on them, we will not be here forever. I hear people talk about gardening legacies, and it strikes me how short a legacy can be: vast structures disappearing in a matter of decades, to be rediscovered like treasure troves just a scant generation or two later, or the sprawling cities of the ancients, just a few feet beneath tangled jungle.

Ten years in the wilderness is a lifetime to something as malleable and erasable as a garden.

The stories of these plots far exceed our own in both directions – far into the past, far into the future. It strikes me sometimes: this place is billions of years old, they say there were lions here once. Before them, great towering caps of ice. Perhaps one day it will be a flooded wetland – playground of millions of sore-throated whooper swans, or patchwork tribes of yet-to-be evolved ducks and waders.

 

David Parfitt

Painting by David Parfitt

Or perhaps, if my plans go as I hope, it will be a forest of mighty oaks –a haven for beast, fowl and all manner of creeping and slithering thing.

Field work

I go diligently about the field at the end of the plot, picking up molehills. It really makes you think. Especially when you overfill your bag – forgetting it’s still clay you’re carrying, because those little moles with their pudgy demon hands have kindly filtered and sifted it for you into pyramids of fine earth, and you forget how heavy it is. I think about the scale of my body struggling to drag bag after bag through the grass, and I think about their tiny bodies – fiendishly strong. The tonnes they must move in a day, their little minds set on what they do: experts of the dark. I think about them, and I’m glad to know them. I’m glad they do what they do, which so helps me out when all I need is good solid earth that I don’t have to cut out like slices of thick, impossible fudge.

mole by Notes from a Compulsive Gardener

Sketch by Notes from a Compulsive Gardener

After collecting as much as I can be doing with on a hot late summer’s day, it’s onto looking for saplings. We have a lot of oak saplings that never make it past ten inches or so – falling either to the field mowers or the deer, and I take their care seriously, even though I know they’ll outlive me to that strange scale again – where nothing makes sense from a human’s perspective.

I’ll be the one setting them up in pots, trimming their leaves to encourage their roots, but it will not be my generation, or even probably two or three that will really be able to relax about the fate of the tree. I will have to take good care of it – watch it for oak diseases, protect it from hungry mouths, or clumsy feet. All the while knowing they never used to need us at all, and there’ll come a time again when these trees certainly won’t miss us.

Majesty 2006 by Tacita Dean born 1965

‘Majesty’ by Tacita Dean 2006

But I want there to be oak trees in that potentially people-less future. It matters to me that these little saplings reach their future, which never really did have anything to do with us. Their ancestors have been great naval warships, and the beams of vast important houses, but they were always meant to be trees, and I only want them to be trees.

As long as they keep finding the light, I’ll keep taking them out of harm’s way, and I’ll put them back when they’re too big for mowers and deer.

11th Sept 2018

I haven’t written in a while because I have been greatly occupied out of doors – something which is now possible with serious vigour, because the sun has finally finished with its infernal shenanigans and we have real weather – like clouds, and drizzle, and wind.

Today a great grey covering of promised rain is being sulkily withheld for the third day in a row, and everyone in the house is both sleepy and tense – a most uncomfortable cocktail – like a late Summer hangover.

I have torn out a humongous hedge which has been creeping out further and further, with its middle getting deader and deader. Beastly, furious work, but it’s left me with a hole to fill, and a gardener loves nothing better than a scrap of blank canvas, even if the ground underneath is brittle as old chalk! It’s a new challenge, a full call-to-arms first thing in the morning. It is a sense of purpose, and an inexplicable current of energy…

All this means that the season is about to turn over.

Harvest tractors plague the country roads, there is a smell in the air.

Autumn is coming.

 

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Summer Insomnia

It’s not all bad.

I was trying to take photographs of the moon on the night of the eclipse and supposed blood-moon. It was the one day we had cloud cover and thunderstorms. I could hardly begrudge that!

I’m not much of a photographer, but the arrangement of Venus and the Moon over the pines  was beguiling.

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A little murky, sadly, but I could see it with my eyes, and it was magical.

 

After spending the night with the moon, it would be rude not to hang around for the sun.

6th August

Well, what have I been up to in my absence? Battling with sun-baked clay, mostly.

 

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There’s not a whole lot you can do for the larger areas of ground, unless you have money and machinery (we have neither). The fissures turn into cracks, the soil turns into dust, the most worrying thing is that the rain pours down into the crevices and undermines the structural integrity of the ground, but I suspect this all part of some perfectly legitimate plan the earth has, so I don’t interfere. I’ll probably disappear into a sink hole one of these days!

With beds, I do try to intervene as best I can: mulching like it’s the end of the world and covering the topsoil with a dense layer of wood chips: I use it like sunblock, hoping the earth underneath will stay moist and protected (wood-chips sweat something chronic en masse), and it will all rot down to provide some much needed hummus. I’m hoping it will retain what little rain we get instead of letting it run straight through into those terrible dry gunnels as well.

 

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Having clay soil can be a little like having concrete when you get sudden downpours, so we get flooding, even though we’re surrounded by hedgerows and trees to drink it up. Inventing ways to slow down the water and retain it is an exciting prospect, and so-called ‘rain gardens’ are very fashionable in these parts for exactly this purpose.

Half of me wants to collect it for the dry seasons to come, but I can’t help wonder what effect that might have on the wider landscape? Dry rivers and streams need the run off, I’m not sure me hoarding it is the best course of action…

Anyway, for now, I just work on slowing it down rather than stopping it moving altogether.

I dug over two of the small beds and beefed them up with some home-made compost, but I was forced to use a bit more of the grass compost than I wanted, so I’m waiting to see now if that’s a bit too acidic.

The herbs seem alright, the verbenas are managing, the shrubs are fine, and really it’s only the roses which seem a bit bothered by it. I’m surprised because I’ve never known a rose to mind anything!

Still, even on a bad day, you’re guaranteed to get something.

 

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