Sunday, 24 May 2009

the 'SQ Story' - hands in the earth

my 'SQ' garden, taken this morning - explained below

Gardening is pure therapy; it may be hard work, and the weeds may take over, and frequently do, but I find that when I work outside in the fresh air my mind clears; I sleep better because of the exercise, and although only a little of what needs doing actually gets done, I invariably feel elated. I am totally absorbed in something physical; I don't think words, or plans, or chores or worries, or obligations -  just hands in the earth, the sun or rain on my face, the sound of birds, wind in the trees, the peace of it all. So although what follows should really be in my gardening blog, this post is more fundamental than that - and my blogs do tend to overlap anyway; like my life, there are no pigeon holes.

The weather has been perfect for gardening therapy; though four days ago it rained and I got very muddy and very wet; weeding and then planting out young vegetable plants that I had raised in the greenhouse. Heavy downpours and blustery showers in between. Our garden had been neglected over the three weeks we were preparing for Malvern, attending the actual show, and then producing the article that followed. In fact, our garden has been neglected on and off for years, and particularly the last five whilst we have been shed-creating and barn-rebuilding. We share the garden duties, sort of: Raymond mows the grass (considerable, but he does now use a ride-on mower since he fell off the barn roof and his legs are not what they once were); he tends the orchard, and the big vegetable plot which is his pride and joy though I help with the planting. He also has a 'long border' where he sows beautiful annual flowers; I maintain that for him because he says he can't tell which are potential flowers and which are weeds. I’m used to weeds!

my weeds are beautiful, but so invasive - in small doses they offer food for insects; this patch has become over-run with creeping buttercup, nettles and cow parsley (this is the next-but-one patch requiring attention)

It's up to me to create and look after the other half garden, and it's like painting the Forth Bridge - never-ending. I make mini-gardens and they are continually being recycled. It began in 1969 when we acquired this place: the acre was part-orchard and part semi-wilderness and the remains of the previous forty years of farm-rubbish. I reclaim a bit, move onto to another 'section' and before even that is finished, the wilderness takes over again. That has certainly been the pattern of the last five years, for you can't be stone- and concrete-heaving and gardening at the same time. Or at least, I can't.


All the areas of our garden have names (they are really gardens-within-gardens); and their purpose changes as the background screen of shrubs and trees grow. I have the 'salad garden' almost under control again, third re-incarnation. At the furthest point of the acre, it is also the sunniest and has the advantage of a neighbour's brick wall, against which we grow two fig trees. Once I grew salads and herbs there, after hacking back the nettles and weeds, and then someone further down the road blocked off an old land-drain that ran through our orchard and the water could not disperse; the salad garden became incredibly sticky, the soil cold and wet.

this was the 'salad-garden-to-be' back in the 1980s, before its first reclamation

.... and here it is reclaimed (for the first time) and in use as intended: rows of beetroot, spinach, marrows, carrots, lettuce, two runner-bean wigwams, young fig trees by the wall and a forest of blue borage to attract pollinating insects. (Raymond built me the lovely potting shed at the end of the garden, from 'wainy elm' purchased at auction for next to nothing

So gradually, from 2005 onwards, I have created a series of raised beds, having discovered 'square-foot' gardening. And so now  it is the 'SQ Garden'.

This is the first 'SQ' bed, in early 2005. You can see the strings dividing it into 'square feet' (or rather 18" squares). Cut-and-come-again lettuce would occupy just one square, whereas the broad (fava) beans I am about to plant would require two; it's modular, and much easier to maintain.

Raymond made me the beds from scrap timber, apart from two which were sent me to trial. Two of my little grandchildren (then aged six and four) were staying with us that summer and helped to clear the ground and then erect and plant them. 

2005, and Kate and Dominic help to clear the weed-infested former 'salad garden' (after its first incarntion, I used it as a plot to bring on plants I had raised from cuttings or seed - but the weeds still took over!)

2005 - Kate cuts back some invasive zebra grass

2005 - K & D attempt to dig the heavy clay where 'their' SQ beds are to go

2005 - their beds are in place; Dominic sweeps the path (the roses and figs can be seen behind the beds, and the little herb border, and rather a lot of nettles)

2005 - Dominic plants 'his' bed, having chosen seedlings raised in my greenhouse

2005 - Kate sows peas in her bed; she also chose climbing beans and strawberries

All through that summer, they visited frequently and checked progress on 'their' gardens.

late Summer 2005 - their plants are flourishing

2005, just after planting - let's sample lunch from grandma's beds!

I now have six 'SQ' beds and each is divided into sections; not square feet - mine are actually 18" (45cms). The beds are modular: three feet wide which means I can reach into the middle without stepping on the earth and varying in length, with slabs between, not cemented so the water can seep away back into the soil. Each bed is then divided into sections; so that I can grow vegetables and salads in succession. The 'SQ Garden' has its own micro-climate, warm and sheltered, which means produce is ready long before that in Raymond's veg plot. Yesterday we ate a salad lunch: mixed cut-and-come-again lettuce, with rocket 'Apollo', and the young deep red leaves of beet 'Bull's Blood' and chopped raw spinach 'Spokane' - deliciously creamy, plus a few crunchy pink radishes. Add some chopped chives and some home-made vinaigrette; we ate well.

Our garden has to be productive but I cannot exist without flowers as well, and so in the SQ garden, I grow climbing roses on the wall alongside the figs, and insect-attracting annuals: fiery orange calendula and heavenly blue-cornflowers, night-scented stock, medieval borage for bees, jewel nasturtiums and love-in-a-mist which is something of a theme plant for me for I first fell in love with it in my grandmother's garden on my hands and knees, weeding her magnificent Gertrude Jekyll (style) flower borders. My current summertime blog banner was taken in 1992 and shows just such a mix of flowers and vegetables; that space is no longer as it was then; the years move on. 

calendula and borage, in my potager in the early 1990s

The grandchildren’s two beds are this year sown with flowers, edible climbing purple-podded beans and black Tuscany kale seedlings. Today the space under the figs is to be filled with recycled containers in which I am trialing potatoes, carrots, lettuce, courgettes and trailing winter squash: I have an article to write on 'smallspace' gardening and need photos to accompany it. Yesterday, I edged the path by the rose and fig border with reclaimed bricks and the herb pots are now filled with scented culinary herbs. 

The last four days with my hands in the earth has been wonderful; without doubt, it has eased a difficult work situation that is presently troubling me. The ‘SQ Garden’ has materialised again, as I rough-planned it back in March, and we are able to enjoy the salads and vegetables that are now flourishing. Concerns have been pushed to the back of my mind, temporarily, and I move on to the next patch of ground that needs reclaiming. My hands are roughened from their continual plunge into the earth, but my heart is eased and quietened.

the rough plan I made in March of the 'SQ Garden' - 2009 version: the 'SQ Garden measures approximately 33ft x 13ft, plus the shed area (click on it for an enlarged version; it doesn't show the rose and fig border)

Monday, 18 May 2009


I switch on the laptop this evening, fully intending to explain what I have been doing since I wrote my previous post, nearly three weeks ago, and WOW – I HAVE 40 FOLLOWERS! I could cry with happiness. Let me explain: I began to write ‘Wild Somerset Child’ in November 2008 because I was commissioned to produce a magazine article on ‘creating a gardening blog’. As always, I research, I sample, I experiment. I created a simple one using the apple-mac ‘iWeb’ facilities already at my disposal, and also casually mentioned other blog hosting programs. I complete and submit the article – the usual two months ahead of publication date; and then I think to myself, “I have recommended ‘Blogger’ and perhaps I had better get to grips with it.” Oh what cold feet … I was petrified: supposing no-one read what I posted, and readers logged on and I was found wanting.

And so began a love-affair with cyberspace; with dear people I have got to know from around the globe because they have so kindly looked at my postings, made comments, and added themselves to a list of followers. When I began, I was so afraid that no-one would ‘follow’ – and now I have reached that magical figure (akin to a 40th birthday - and mine was over thirty years ago). I feel as if I have arrived.

So thankyou to everyone who sufficiently believes in what I write to tag onto the list; and hello today to Claire, my 40th follower (a talented and gifted UK garden designer who was to have figured in today’s intended posting, and will do so when I return to what I had planned for this evening), and hello also to ‘follower 39’ whose name/blog-link I cannot discover. I have been a poor blog-friend since I began my postings: meticulously organised when it comes to ‘work’, I am totally disorganised in personal affairs, so I apologise if I have offended any follower from 1-38 by not saying ‘hello’ and ‘thankyou’.

As to the significance of the photo: my  beloved Malvern Hills to which I return three times a year to review and write articles on events occurring at ‘TCAS’ – the showground of the ‘Three Counties Agricultural Society’. Until my next posting, the hills will have to suffice, for it grows late and I have been writing all day.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Changes and Choices

May Day - almost ended; a day when in the past everyone in rural England would celebrate. Maypoles on the village green, the coming of summer, the crowning of the May Queen; everywhere bedecked with spring flowers. 

May? Four months of this year gone? How many times already in these past weeks have I forced myself to STOP and to walk around our garden and actually LOOK? At the beauty that surrounds us, in the smallest weed, in the sky above, in the sound of birdsong and flight of bumblebees searching for nectar. Today the comfrey was alive with the rare black bumble first spotted in our flowers borders over two years ago.

No prizes to guess what my photo represents, but for those who do not live in a climate where walnuts will grow, these are the male catkins whose pollen will fall upon the embryonic nuts-to-be, which - when they grow and ripen - are actually inedible for they are not a culinary variety. The squirrel loves them nevertheless and we find baby walnut trees emerging all over the garden. Which might be delightful, but their roots and leaves exude some sort of poison and nothing will grow in the vicinity of one of these regal trees.

One third of the year has somehow evaporated. It is a time for change, and for choices.

CHANGE: I am rationalising my three blogs: this one (Wild Somerset Child) is for the 'musings of a creative wanderer' as per my blog byline; my journaling blog is for all things artistic; and my online garden diary for those times when I have only one photo to post and yet want to record day-by-day all that happens in this Cotswold acre - perhaps to prove to myself that it can be made beautiful again after the five years of terrible neglect whilst we tackled barn-rebuilding. The blogs are inevitably interlinked; our activities cannot be pigeon-holed so subjects will stray overboard from time to time.

CHOICES: when one's head and heart are full of all one is still desperate to accomplish, and yet the ageing body (and brain!) cry "slow down, take time out", how do you choose what is most important to pursue? I have had to talk seriously to myself about what is truly vital. First of course is dear 77-year-old Raymond (who this very evening announces that now that we have all but completed the barn's internal storage - racking for the hardwoods he has accumulated over the years from which he creates beautiful furniture - we must move on). We will evidently tackle the end wall of the cottage which is 'about to crumble', but also build his workshop extension and start my requested kitchen refurbishment. My studio-to-be will wait another year (promised in 2005!) I get out the calendar - "don't organise me!" he says. I almost collapse in a heap. I need the occasional calm day without stress - but am hopeless at truly relaxing.

Who's the one who has to climb the structure to secure the higher horizontal shelves? And then, I couldn't get down - had to leap into Raymond's arms (well, scramble actually)

In any case, I have my own long list of 2009 projects but know I must whittle them down. Priority, after the already-commissioned magazine features, is the ongoing reclamation of the garden, then my 'book' which has been languishing on my writing desk since the arrival of 'British Summer Time' and increasingly light evenings, and my craving for some form of creative art, which keeps me sane whether I am slathering paint or stitching fabric. I will focus on just two creative projects this year: my 6" x6" handmade paper journals that record the delights of time spent anywhere but here, and my much larger 11.75"x8.25" horizontal fabric book on 'Cotswold Farmhouse Memories'. I will be darting between my three blogs to cover all these meanderings. Hence change and choices really are interlinked. The walnut catkins seem to point in three directions. Which way? Which way? Surely the garden must claim my first attention; it has been so sad to watch its deterioration whilst building was 'top of the list' this last five years, which it always will be - forty years here and we are still working on it! I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

Part of my potager-herb bed area, taken in late January, awaiting reclamation. There are six raised beds, each measuring 8ftx4ft, with narrow paths in between. This is the corner requiring most attention; it was full of brambles, nettles and other weeds, but was meant to be an asparagus bed.

Two weeks ago, I cleared the bed - remarkable that the frames Raymond made me have survived for over 15 years. The soil is friable and this is about the sunniest and most sheltered part of the garden, even though the frost and snow of this last winter did not improve the rosemary.

This is how it looks now, planted with sun-loving herbs in the foreground, some of the original columbines (self-seeded) top right and in between a group of broad beans (fava beans) for which there was no space in my raised vegetable beds further down the garden. I have added two rose bushes (for dried rose petal pot-pourri), nasturtiums will scramble eventually up the metal structure barely visible back centre (petals are edible) and where the two sticks are, I will plant artichokes which at present are just seedlings in my greenhouse - as much for their statuesque proportions as for the kitchen. (My new blog header shows the same bed in 1991 when it was a true potager, before the trees and neighbouring garden grew to their present proportions.)

CRUNCH TIME: and so tonight, after a day of work emails and housework and house chores (which I  can't abide), playing (journal pages) and tending greenhouse seedlings, I slowly relax. I have made my decisions. There is the scent of new-mown grass - 'Joe' is cutting the village green; it is soft and warm yet grey clouds scud across the evening sky. I shut the gate (two wooden frames covered in wire netting!) and put a salad supper and a bottle of wine on the table. Tomorrow I continue preparation for all my commissioned articles that will revolve around next week's 'Malvern Spring Flower Show' - not just my professional work portfolio, our cameras and notebooks, but a little painted hand-made 6"x6" pocketed journal that is already taking shape for my personal memories and sketches that will last me from one year to the next. Therein lies my joy.

I thank everyone so much for all the lovely comments which bring me such comfort. I apologise that I do not reply to them all, or say 'hello' to those who visit. Time is of the essence, and it feels as if mine is running out. But every single word from around the world is savoured and appreciated.