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Ian’s Review of the Year – Part 1

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Well, everyone else seems to be doing it – there’s no ‘news’ in the newspapers at the moment – so I thought I’d treat you to some bits of 2018 that stood out for me.  There’ll be a Part 2 coming hot on the heels of this one – 12 months all together is OK for ‘Fleet Street’ but they have a lot more brains than me (i.e. more people, not necessarily …..)

My initial thoughts, given the Winter we experienced  – Beast from the East etc. – was that the year dawned under several inches of snow. But the camera never lies, and the weather for a few weeks at least was OK. Definitely chilly, but no snow to report in the whole of January.

We had a guest for a week, documentary maker Sophie Windsor Clive, who was in the area looking at houses and offered us a  bespoke video in return for somewhere to stay for a week.  The resulting film can be seen here.  Not really the best time to see the garden, but Sophie managed to capture the essentials of the way in which Sue (and I) manage Nant y Bedd – and there’s a great shot of Sid Vicious giving his, rather odd, morning cock-crow!

It was just about warm enough for the paint to dry on the metalwork of a six-foot bench repair in the middle of the month and, apparently the first snowdrop showed its colours on the 19th.

First of the year

The benign weather didn’t last long.  On 9th February the snow returned, but not quite as bad as pre-Christmas.  We managed to pollard the London Planes, which incidentally seemed to take forever to show any new signs of life.

On Valentine’s Day, it was lovely to look out of the dining room window and watch the birds nibbling away at the apple on the ‘heart’ – how appropriate.

Valentine’s Day birdie

By 19th Feb the  frogs were doing what frogs do in the swimming pond.  Hundreds of them! A seething mass of bodies, some of which appeared to have taken things a bit far, and had to be dredged out (dead, but still embracing) some days later!

Frogs….

I’d been nagged for a while to make the River Walk path a bit flatter and this was achieved, with admittedly not too much effort, a week later.  The weather was so nice!

Path construction

Beautiful blue skies, but exceedingly cold as days led into March, the snow again – DEEP snow – in the first week of the month.  I even got the cross-country skis out.

Snow … again!!

You’l have read about our tulip-eating badgers before, but this week one of them really ‘takes the biscuit’. In the pig shed there was still a good quantity of straw bedding, and one of the little blighters decided that this was a lovely place to have a mid-foraging kip and a wash & brush-up. We monitored it for a few nights and then it obviously decided to undertake its ablutions elsewhere.

Quick wash and brush up before tulip hunting

Anyway we were going off for a few days holiday, weren’t we?  Well, no!  the day of departure dawned to even more snow that we’d seen all winter. Snowed in!!  Fortunately the Landmark Trust housekeeper couldn’t get to the property to clean it either, so eventually we had to abandon, and get our money back (we eventually got there in November).

Go back to the photos and the daffodils were in full flower just a week later. Ain’t Nature a wonderful thing?

Spring is sprung

Oh, yes! all this snow and rain meant a bumper few months on the hydro.

Fortunately that was the end of the snow & ice and when the first lambs were born on 5th April it was warm and sunny and dry.

Pixie and Lottie

We were just about recovering from all this late snow when we had a recce visit from Susie from the RHS Partner Garden team.  Amazingly she realised the potential among all the brown, and we heard later that we will be a Partner Garden from the New Year – no pressure then!

By the middle of the month the pond was bubbling with millions of tadpoles.  All around the edge was a heaving mass of wriggling tails.  This attracted the newts and for the next few months any attempt at swimming was accompanied by an escort of at least 3 or 4.

Tadpoles .. millions of them

As April progressed, so did the garden.  Green shoots everywhere and spring flowers competing to be the most spectacular.

The night-time wildlife cameras picked up another ‘visitor’. In the cat/wood shed the cat’s food seemed to be disappearing more quickly than normal. The camera pointed the finger – a couple of hedgehogs – newly woken from hibernation – were availing themselves of a bit of free nosh before venturing out into the big, wide world.  Smudge was interested but rather wary!

Hmm, you look a bit prickly to eat!

May was a busy month, as the wood sorrel carpeted the ‘forest’.  A rare piece of collaborative work saw the runner bean arch demolished and re-built with new hazel.

Hazel arches

Then the wonderful Liz Knight was brightening our lives with the first of her foraging courses in the garden – keep a look out on the website and newsletter for the dates of her foraging days for 2019, they are well worth it.  It’s amazing what Liz finds in the most unlikely places.

Liz is so enthusiatic

A little later in the month, Sue ran the first of her Compost Making masterclasses.  It was fully booked and another one had to be slotted in at short notice to cater for the extra people.  As with Liz’s workshops, Sue will be organising a number of days this coming year on, amongst others Compost and Wild Gardening.  There’ll also be, later in the year a day on making Christmas Holly Wreaths following a number of request after we posted ours on Instagram a few weeks ago!

How to make the crumbly brown gold….

At the end of May, Sue had left me in charge for a week while she took a well earned break looking at gardens in Ireland, and it struck me that we have a LOT of plants in pots that need watering very regularly.  I tried counting but my poor little brain gave up. So when she decided to revamp the small bed between the lawn and the bridge I took the opportunity to count the pots used – 86!

Bill and Ben and lots of their friends

In mid June we had the wonderful privilege of watching about a dozen or more dragonflies emerging from their pupal cases.  Fascinating and almost unbelievable.

from ugly bug to graceful flier

By the end of the month – and what a scorcher it was – there was produce aplenty for the kitchen and for flower displays. Oh, yes, and the strawberries were loving the dry heat!

food, glorious food!

So this takes us to the end of the first part of the year.  The second part of this blog will cover our opening period and on to the end of 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s tidy!

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There’s tidy!

“There’s tidy” around here in Wales means something that has got someone’s seal of approval, for example, ‘there’s a tidy-sized marrow you’ve grown there boyo’…but in this article I’m using the word in it’s more usual sense of neat or organised.

Being too tidy in the garden at this time of year in my view, is not always desirable.  A neatly trimmed beech which holds its leaves all winter or a tidily clipped ball of cotoneaster covered in berries are a couple of tidy bits that I can live with.  But even then you have to get the timing of the clipping right or you won’t get the berries…

Sid guards the beech lollipop

Scything off wildflower meadows

Poldark takes a breather!

– or cutting by hand with my trusty Jakoti shears (yes really – the smaller areas) – are necessary to reduce the fertility and also enable us to enjoy the fresh Spring growth particularly is Spring bulbs are naturalised.

But I think we can be too tidy in our gardens.  In my tidier days I used to think that it was a great shame that people didn’t get around to picking their apples and left them on the tree. I have a friend whose children wouldn’t eat them because they had bugs in them.  But of course, blackbirds in particular love apples at this time of year.  Our Tom Putt doesn’t keep well and this year we had a big crop and so we left a couple of handfuls on the trees and the blackbirds are happily helping themselves – they don’t seem to mind the bugs.

Blackbird in an apple tree

My sister has a lovely but quite small garden. A pampas grass has rather outgrown its allotted space and slowly but surely is gradually making its way to Nant-y-Bedd.  The final ‘mother plant’ was due to be evicted this Autumn.  When sister, having cut off the magnificent plumes, parted the vegetation to attack it with her spade she found …a hedgehog happily snuggled away for its winter hibernation, so the spade went back into the shed for another go in the late Spring. I wonder if I could persuade her to let me re-home the hedgehog along with its pampas grass winter home?

But we do feel the need to ‘tidy’ the dahlias – nothing more depressing in November than a bed of frost-blackened former lovelies.

Lovely dahlia

So, once they have been frosted, we cut them down now and mulch with bracken.

We have very free draining sandy soil, so I guess that is how we get away with this method of over-wintering.  In heavier soils gardeners have the labour-intensive task of lifting, storing frost free and replanting in the Spring.   Ours survived the ravages of the winter of 2017/18 without any problem.  We do need to remember to remove the bracken as soon as any green shoots appear in the Spring because the mulch is perfect slug habitat.

We don’t weed too enthusiastically here either, as visitors will know, especially at this time of year. Bare soils in the winter mean that nutrients get leached out of the soil by the winter rains. A covering of weeds is preferable in my view to bare soil. Self-seeding foxgloves, aquilegias’ and sweet rocket, for example, are left in the veg beds to be transplanted in the Spring to where we can enjoy them flowering.

Sweet rocket and aquilegias with unpalatable-to-badgers-alliums (see below)

Hairy Bittercress and Chickweed are allowed to seed and provide winter and early Spring salads – join one of Liz Knight’s Foraging Days here to find out more about delicious weeds. Annual grasses do get weeded out and composted before they can set seed.

I’ve discovered a particularly good winter ground cover completely by accident – Limanthes douglasii (poached egg plant). It is a fantastic early flower for our pollinator friends, it stays a lovely fresh green all winter and it does a great job of supressing other weeds and locking in nutrients and self-seeds prolifically. Bargain!

Self-seeded poached egg plants and forget-me-nots – useful winter ground cover and then masses of cheerful flowers for the bees in the Spring

 

We do rake up leaves in the Autumn and store them in open leaf bins for 2 years to make a lovely friable leafmould. They do it all by themselves with no further intervention from the gardener.  Speaking to a fellow gardener recently about my joy of raking Autumn leaves, I was surprised when she said she didn’t bother, implying “what’s the point?”  I realised that she had only a few apple trees in her highly productive walled kitchen garden – so fair enough. We, on the other hand are not exactly short of trees – the raw material for such a natural and bounteous resource.

Not short of leaves – these are cherry

Some of the flower beds in the cottage garden don’t get too much tidying this time of year though. We do like to leave some of the vegetation and seed-heads to give some interest for us to enjoy through the winter whilst providing snugly-up habitat and food for wild winter visitors.  They are allowed to stay until they get bashed down by whatever the winter weather throws at them and then cut down and put on the compost heap.

 

Iris Siberica developing its Autumn colouring

 

 

Teasels are left standing in the Potager

 

We’ve tidied up the pots of summer flowering things and some are now in the greenhouse for their protection – for example lavender.  I have discovered over the years that lavender does not like over-wintering at 1200 feet in a high rainfall area.  Not surprising really for a plant that would much prefer to be growing in the sun-soaked Med rather than rain-soaked Wales.  Other pots go into the greenhouse as much for the protection of the pots as what’s in them.  I have killed off many terracotta pots over the years – even the ones that are supposed to be frost-proof.

So, we have fewer pots left outside for the Winter but tougher ones – many recycled from other uses such as galvanised water tanks or washing coppers.  We are planting most of our Spring bulbs in pots this year.  More time consuming, but hopefully it will confuse and delay our voracious local badger(s) who seem amazingly partial to a tulip bulb or sixty or failing that any hyacinths that might be about.

M2E45L0-13R350B362

Fortunately, they don’t go for naturalised snowdrops or daffodils and they tend to spit out any alliums that have the misfortune to be collateral damage.  Their noses are unbelievable, we’ve tried coating them in most things smelly and covering them with wire mesh – the bulbs not the badgers noses! – but nothing works.

 

Fortunately, the badger doesn’t like daffs

 

So, most of the hyacinths and tulips go into large pots – not always badger-proof but at least some do survive.  And rather than look at bare soil in the pot over the winter before the bulbs appear – tidier granted – here are a few things that we do for a bit of winter interest:

Iris reticulata in a ferny mossy hanging basket 6 foot off the ground in a shady spot – so we get to enjoy the ferns and mosses from the kitchen window over the winter and surely no badger could reach those?

Tulips planted among the dead seed heads of achiliea and self-seeded molinia in a heavy ‘copper’.Looking so ‘structural’ that I couldn’t bring myself to take them out.

Mexican daisy, thrift and bugle in this pot now underplanted with hyacinth Woodstock

Mexican daisy and ox-eye daisy with mallow which will be supplemented with hare’s tail grasses (in pots in the cold frame over winter) in the Spring. Lily Lady Alice in this copper too. With lots of tulips. Not much to look at now but the plants will put down good roots over the winter and when the tulips have flowered, we just remove them.

 

There’s Tidy!

 

 

Harvest time

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The hot weather at the start of the summer has definitely had a big effect on many of our crops.  Without going into the usual veggies, spuds

onions

beans, beans, beans ….   we have had maybe our best ever returns from a number of different sources.

Let’s start with the less well known.  The Sichuan Peppercorn tree has yielded six spice jars worth of dried peppercorns, three times more than the last good crop.  This might not sound a lot, and in purely monetary terms is only about £15 worth – but ours are organic and come from a happy tree! Very fiddly to pick and even more fiddly to separate the husks from the seeds (it’s the husks we need) the resultant spicy stir-fries make it all worth while.

Sichuan on the left

In the greenhouse, I’ve just picked 30lb of white grapes which have yielded 2 gallons of pure juice

and it looks as though the black ones

will yield at least double that, so there’s going to be a few bottles of wine in the racks in the not too distant future.

Outside, I’ve collected about 240 pounds of our Tom Putt apples , most of which is now either casked up as cider

 or in the freezer as pure apple juice.

Staying on the ‘booze’ front, the Fuggles and Goldings hops overwhelmed me this year.  It takes a lot of hop flowers to make any weight at all.

Hops on the right

One needs about 4oz of dried hops for a five gallon brew of beer.  To get 4oz dried needs around 30oz of fresh hops. Doesn’t sound a lot?  30oz fills a full sized carrier bag to almost overflowing – that’s a lot of hop flowers!  Two brews are already drinking nicely and there’s enough dried and frozen for the rest of the year!

And now it’s time to ‘harvest’ some firewood!

It’s all go at Nant y Bedd!

Visitor Survey

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As another garden opening season come to a close – amid lashing rain and winds – we thought it would be interesting to ask you, our lovely visitors, which parts of the garden you most enjoyed.

We know from our conversations, from the wonderful comments in the Visitors Book and the return and ‘recommended’ visits we get, that we are doing something right, but it would be nice to know what particular aspects of the ‘experience’ make the strongest impression.

It’s just a bit of fun really and your preferences will be totally anonymous, so get voting.

There are other ways of growing vegetables

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Vegetables need to be grown evenly spaced in straight rows surrounded by bare soil. Some gardeners feel the need to lavish them with chemicals to make them grow bigger and spray them with yet more chemicals to stop pests devouring them.

Here, at Nant-y-bedd garden we don’t do any of the above and yet we still managed to win the First Prize and Challenge cup at the local Llanthony Show for the Most Productive Vegetable Garden for the second year running.

So how do we grow vegetables here?  Here’s one view of our ‘vegetable garden’…

the onion beds

There are a few basic rules that apply to any system of growing veg organically and we follow these:  get to know your soil and growing conditions and look after your soil;  rotate crops to reduce the risk of pests and diseases affecting your crops; use organically-approved methods of dealing with those pests and diseases.  None of this is particularly earth-shatteringly different.  Any gardener keen to produce tasty, fresh veg with the minimum of artificial inputs would be doing the same.

However, some of what we do here challenges devoutly-held perceptions of what constitutes good gardening practice.

Top of the list is that we ’embrace our weeds’.  We do this for a number of reasons and in a variety of ways.  Ground elder, Hogweed and Rose Bay Willowherb, for example, are undoubtedly not what you want in your veg beds because they are invasive if not controlled but the insect pollinators on which we depend love them, so we allow them to have their place around the veg beds.

Heritage bean Blue Coco in the foreground with Rose Bay Willowherb in the ‘path’

We don’t weed out self-sown seedlings just because we didn’t sow them there.  If they are not compromising the crop they can stay because the bees like them/they look pretty/they confuse the pests looking for the crops/we eat them – any or all of these reasons apply.

 

Celery inter-planted with leeks and self-sown purple toadflax

Poached egg plant self-sown providing Winter and Spring ground cover with foxglove and teasels

Onions, sorrel, hawkweed and wood spurge

We save our own seed thereby over time developing our own strains of veg which are best adapted to our growing conditions rather than buying seed from a supplier where the seed may have come from an area with very different growing conditions.

Red cabbage allowed to set seed

Munchen Bier radish grown for its edible seedpods and for seed collection

Runner bean ‘Scarlet Emperor’ grown from our own seed for many years

We do follow basic crop rotation rules but also favour inter-planting to make maximum use of the available space, look more interesting and possibly confuse the pests…

Calendula and carrots

Chard, courgettes, lettuce and chicory

We have other favourite ways of foiling pests – for example, ducks and copper for slug control and netting and collars to protect brassicas.

Ducks eat slugs. Our resident Black East Indies in the Potager

Not pretty – but effective – netting against cabbage white butterflies and felt collars

Copper rings protecting courgette plants from slugs

As well as saving our own seeds, each year we try different Heritage varieties to seek out those which might do well here.  We belong to the Heritage Seed Library.  The greatest success this year has been discovering the Climbing French Beab ‘Blue Coco’ which we have been picking all summer.  We will save the seed and grow it again but of course the weather this year has been exceptional – perfect even here at 1200 feet in the Black Mountains for growing French beans – next summer might be very different!

Heritage Climbing French bean ‘B;ue Coco’

Veg basket includes Heritage varieties Dwarf Borlotti and Crimson-flowered broad bean

Monarda and flowering celeriac in the foreground with teepees of Heritage beans Black Pod and Czar

We eat our weeds too – it’s called ‘foraging’ but that’s the subject of a future blog…

Ground elder flowering. Did you know that you can eat it?

Oh yes, and we are growing our veg the ‘no-dig’ way these days – putting a layer of compost on top of the soil to avoid disturbing the magical networks which operate in the top layers of the soil about which we know so little.  Mimicking, in effect, how ‘nature’ does it.

Perhaps I’ll add a new workshop to the Nant-y-bedd Programme for 2019 – ‘Introduction to veg growing Nant-y-bedd style’?  Let us know if you would be interested.

 

 

Gardening in the wild – the inspiration

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We’ve opened our garden to the public for a number of years now.  In 2017 we were invited to open with other gardens for the Gardens in the Wild Festival – a Herefordshire initiative – and as we’re only 3 miles as the crow flies from the border between Monmouthshire and Herefordshire (although we are in fact in Powys) it seemed to be a good idea.  After all ‘gardening in the wild’ is what we do here…

Gardens in the Wild Festival

Good.  But this prompted me to start thinking about what exactly is it I mean by ‘gardening in the wild’.  Well, we all know what gardening is, don’t we?

what is ‘gardening’?

A definition I like goes like this ‘traditional gardening is a means by which we attempt to control plants and get them to do what we want’. This comes from a very inspiring book called “Cultivating Chaos’ which, unsurprisingly takes a bit of a different view on the matter.

Cultivating Chaos – a different take on gardening

So, if instead of trying to hard to control plants we allow them to do a bit of their own thing, is that ‘wild gardening’?  So is ‘mind-your-own- business’ romping away in my greenhouse un-tended by the hand of the gardener ‘wild gardening’?

‘mind-your-own-business’ going ‘wild’

Or do the plants have to be ‘wild’?  Helpfully some people, cleverer than me, have also been thinking about this question of the Wild Garden.  William Robinson, in his book on the subject in 1870, came up with a definition ‘placing plants of other countries as hardy as our hardiest wildflowers in places where they will flourish without further care or cost’  Sounds helpful.  But, of course, in those uncomplicated times they also dug up wildflowers to plant in their gardens and give to friends, and spread seeds from the windows of trains…

William Robinson’ had a few things to say on the subject

I rather like some of the things that Noel Kingsbury has to say in his introduction to the afore-mentioned ‘Cultivating Chaos’.  He talks of  ’embracing plants that self-seed is part of becoming a manager of nature rather than a controller’.  ‘Gardening is now much more about an accepting of spontaneity. Dynamic change and chance play important roles in this process, as do the choice of plants and the willingness to work with forces that are outside our control’.

Also in this book (which, you may already have gathered, I find rather inspiring) I came across a gardener by the name of Henk Gerritsen.  So I bought his book “Essay on Gardening’.

Henk Gerritsen’s ‘Essay on gardening’ – recommended reading

(Dear reader – please note how cleverly I photographed the cover of hawkweed and knapweed growing in a grassy sward against my own grassy sward including hawkweed and knapweed – under the washing line in fact!)

Piet Ouldolf wrote the foreword. Here’s a quote from that:

(Henk’s) way of gardening certainly contributed to my abandoning those strict rules about what was and wasn’t allowed.  During our discussions…about what an ideal garden should look like, matters were raised that were rarely discussed in books.  We talked about spontaneity (that word again), about which plants would fit into our image of an ideal garden:  they had to be plants that visitors would think had simply walked out of nature but which also knew how to behave… dead plants weren’t ugly either… we thought that seeds and seedheads were fantastic and they were beneficial to the birds and other inhabitants of the garden.  After all these years, our idea of a perfect garden is exactly the opposite of the traditional idea, the maintenance of which required pulling our all the stops.’

This book is ‘an appeal to think about our relationship with nature and about how we give our gardens something of this nature’.

So, my inspiration about Wild Gardening comes from books?  Well, no, not really.  The greatest inspiration is what nature herself gets up to without a hand of a gardener in sight. Hera are a few examples from the garden here at Nant-y-bedd.

Rose bay willow herb and pendulous rush in the woodyard

Swathes of beautiful and pollinator-friendly ground elder in the Potager

 

Ground elder again with oriental poppies and alliums in the cottage garden

 

Buttercup, Herb Robert and speedwell on the riverbank

And this is how Nature did foxgloves in the forest near our garden in 2016

Nature doing it’s thing big time

So the foxglove example is a useful one to remind us to look at Nature for our inspiration.  Foxgloves germinate with ease in my garden in bare soil in the onion beds once the onions have been harvested. It’s a great way to create a stock bed of healthy plants to transplant elsewhere in the garden.  Some are allowed to stay along with linaria, parsnip and ox-eye daisies much to the concern of some ‘tidy’ garden visitors.  We still managed to win the Challenge Cup for “most productive Vegetable Garden’ at the Llanthony Show last year.

Foxgloves et al in the onion beds

And then, of course, there are wild ‘styles’ of gardening which don’t necessarily feature wild or native plants, not to mention the benefits to wildlife of this approach…

If you are interested enough to want to find out more about how we do ‘Wild Gardening’ here at Nant-y-bedd Garden you might consider booking onto the workshop I’m running here on the 24th September 2018.

 

Courses and Events 2018

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This year, in addition to the usual garden openings, we are offering a number of courses and events led by Sue and by Liz Knight of Forage Fine Foods.

Click on the underlined bits below for more information and see some more pics about compost making in earlier posts under the Courses & Events button above.

Current dates are:

12th September  Compost Making with Sue   £45 per head

Making a Compost Windrow

28th August   Foraging with Liz   £65 per head

Liz talking birch sap and ox-eye daisies

24th September    Wild Gardening with Sue

Exuberant mix of teasels, sweet peas, linaria and phlox in the potager garden

Booking essential.  Lunch included on all courses.

… including foraged foods

For more details on all of these please e-mail us on garden@nantybedd.com

Keep an eye open on this page as other days may well be added.

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