Sometimes a plan comes together fast - James Herd, our favourite waller, spun by in May and helped raise an existing drystone wall so that its bed within could be flat and better drained - sounds easy, but involved tonnes of soil and many plants getting lost forever in collateral damage - however, the work was worth it and new plants such as salvia seem to be liking it. The idea is that this bed - being visible from the house all year - needs to be more winter-focused, so out with the fluffy summer plants and in with things like white stemmed rubus, box from the Schwitters' Merzbarn site, and other delights.
This spring's guest mulchers came from Belgium at Easter - Als and her sons - teenagers that in the end got right into it!
We've had our large, unheated polytunnel (circa 8m x 12m) for three years now and more than ever before, the mild winter of 15/16 saw us right thorough with greenery in there - parsley, perpetual spinach, salad (Lettuce 'All Year Round' especially, pea-shoots, mustard greens of all sorts....). We've one deep raised bed running north south and one shallow and several smaller beds opposite them, and though surrounding hedges have started to shade it somewhat, it's overall been a fantastic investment and a joy to be in on those wet wintery days. I also have small permanent bed of the Mediterranean herbs that hate the wet here - lemon verbena, thyme, rosemary etc. Keeping seeds warm, growing on small plants from mail-order, propagation - you name it, there's room in the tunnel for them. As I type (early June) I have only just ripped out the perpetual spinach (sown in July 15 and bolting only from early May 16) and filled the beds with tomatoes (a cold tolerant one 'Latah' and the ever reliable 'Sungold'), courgettes (which dislike being outdoors up here), cucumbers, cornichons, climbing French beans and squash 'Crown Prince' which I'll grow vertically as much as possible, up ropes hung from the tunnel crop bars. Last year I started cooking with the overexuberant side shoots, having seen that done in Sicily, and they were delicious. Like nose to tail eating, only with vegetables.
A big departure has been the reuctant admittance of defeat on the Paddies - our big, deer-fenced and terraced field that grows great veg one year in every 6 :-(
This winter we turned several terraces there over to young fruit trees - Westmorland damsons, Plums 'Quillan's Gage' and 'Marjory's Seedling' plus 2 seedling damsons from the Cartmel home of our waller James Herd. We've put large mulch mats round each tree and also sown white clover in between - it will be interesting to see if this can dominate the sward and bring fertility to the trees - theoretically it should, We also have replenished the tiring strawberry bed with a new one nearby with varieties such as 'Red Gauntlet', 'Rosie' and 'Rhapsody' - all doing very weed-free and well so far. The currants thrive as ever and the fantastic blueberries will be netted against the birds this year in very good time thanks to work by recent intern Graham.
To trial an idea we're using at a new project 'A Fair Land' for this summer at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, we've planted a straw bale veg garden, on a sunny spot near the hostel. A rather weird technique pioneered in the USA, the bales decompose and create heat to encourage the plants, which - implausibly - grow happily in pure straw! So far, so good, seedlings take to it very well and the regular watering hasn't been too much hassle so far. At IMMA we'll only plant courgettes though, so it'll be a slightly different kettle of fish. Many veg varieties are being grown here in normal soil raised beds AND the strawbales so we'll have some interesting comparisons later in the season.
Having visited the inspirational gardener / writer Charles Dowding in Somerset last year, I am growing my veg (in the tunnel and outside in the raised beds) using his no-dig system. For sure I've had to shift a lot of mulch (this year's is composted council green waste, weed free and lightweight) to cover all areas in about 4cm, but as I usually only plant plug plants out so far it's been very manageable and labour saving. The dry spell lately seems to have (touch wood) discouraged the anticipated slug onslaught, and Charles notes lower levels of slug damage as one of the many benefits of the no-dig system. I had some concerns that the mulch would have the opposite affect but so far it's looking good, and trust me, we've slugs you could get a saddle onto here, and many a year entire crops have been wiped out in one night.
A very significant change is the felling of all the plantation trees that grew in Grizedale Forest to the east of the building here and gave Lawson Park its rather dark ambience for much of the year. We now have early and late light we never had before, and winter will be lifted from the gloom - we expect much more vigorous growth will ensue in most of the plants. Also, the Forestry stalkers have done good work on the deer that ate most of 2015's flowers and fruit - fingers crossed, we seem to have been free of predation this year so far.
The relentlessly wet winter of 15/16 has caused - I think - a few deaths in the family, notably a ten year old magnolia ovata grown from seed and planted in the main herbaceous border, and a rare green-flowered bottle brush shrub that had done very well to date. In early May our beds were still saturated in many places though, so it could have been much worse.
No garden area gives me more pleasure than the young orchard of 21 trees - mainly apples, plus a few pears and quinces, which I lavish attention on - careful pruning, potash winter feed, grease bands, seaweed spray.... must have something to do with the pip-grown tree in Largs that spurred on my love of gardening as a child.
Local apple variety Keswick Codlin overdoes it every year and the others follow the usual cycle of good then bad years. Later to flower than most this year is Duke of Devonshire and Yellow Pitcher, but generally blossom has been very heavy contrary to what I'd expected after the bad summer of '15 (which should mean a lack of rip fruiting wood the next season, but somehow hasn't). The Snowdon Pear has had to be tethered downward with canes and string to stop it growing so strongly and encourage fruiting wood. I've seen this in various posh gardens and my worries were confirmed when the tallest tethered branc snapped as I'd tied it down too keenly. Quince 'Serbian Gold' - a lovely tree in its own right - has a new friend ('Champion') to hopefully help pollinate it this year but it flowers so elegantly it could excuse itself from fruit quite respectably.
And lastly, Grace our wonderful gardener has sadly had to resign her position (though - happily - because of impending motherhood) so if you'd like to replace her one or two days a week in the garden, do apply within.
After several weeks of neglect following our temporary move away from Lawson Park, the Kitchen Garden looked a tad forlorn when I started my tidy-and-harvest session today. There were - surprisingly - quite a few passers-by despite the drizzle, but I do miss having the cats around when I'm there now - they however think nothing of their wild former home as they lounge among the central heating in our new place.
The Honesty Stall would have done good business had I anything green to spare for sale.
So - on the 31st December 2007 we harvested a basket of the following:
Turnip 'Golden Globe' (growing in the polytunnel)
Mixed salad (also in the tunnel)
Black radish 'Hamburg' (insanely hot to taste)
Parsnip 'Tender and true'
Brussel sprout 'Cavalier'
The worst weather here is yet to come, but I'm still justifiably chuffed with this for a Hogmanay haul...
Whilst I have left Lawson Park in the safe hands of our new gardener George, I’ve been spending three weeks in rural north-west Japan, on an arts project within the Echigo Tsumari Triennale exhibition. It’s really the first time I’ve been outside of Europe to a place with so much horticultural novelty. To the European eye, one of the most painful things to witness here is the regular maintenance of mountain paths, which requires hacking down overgrown acers and other rare-to-us trees by the dozen.
Our village, Toge, produces Japan’s finest rice, apparently due to abundant summer rain and heavy winter snow which stays put for months. And boy can it rain – and coming from someone who lives in the Lake District and was brought up on the west coast of Scotland, that’s saying something.
The land below the velvety forests is steeply terraced, with small-ish, spring fed rice paddies divided by ditches and banks of verdant wild undergrowth. On closer inspection this undergrowth is made up of some recognisable plants: macleaya cordata (plume poppy), aruncus diocus, various small bamboos, a kind of carex grass, vines and the occasional orange lily. Further afield one drives past what look like Madonna lilies also growing wild – large stems of showy white blooms. Morning glory, blue hydrangea, phlox, rudbeckia and daisy-like coreopsis seem common on the fringes of gardens, as are various crocosmia and species gladioli – I’m not sure if these are native or not.
Gardens here rarely have dividing boundaries, and lack many of the characteristics one associates with Japanese gardens traditionally: it’s a farming community and I guess they have no time for fiddly bonsai. However, each house has a rectangular or sometimes corner-shaped pond right by it, usually filled with waterlilies and carp.
Highly productive vegetable gardens are sited on level areas close to every house - there are few areas of useful land unused – even small triangles of ground by roads are filled with vegetables. The soil seems to be clay subsoil with sandy topsoil. The dominant crops are aubergines and cucumbers though there are many unfamiliar shoots and stems in between that I would like to identify.
Maintenance-wise, the fight against weeds must be a depressing task: horsetail and others grow inches per day and only the tomatoes and aubergines are mulched with plastic. I expect the banks between terraces are allowed to grow wild to prevent subsidence, and much of the leafy growth is eaten too. I was curious as to why the weeding I have seen is done by just removing the top growth with a machete, and I suspect it’s both for eating and because root removal would encourage land subsidence in the next heavy downpour. Composting seems not to happen here and I am curious as to why, as I’d expect the humid heat to enable very fast decay. The only top dressing I have noticed looked a lot like dried rice husks sprinkled around young plants – as I haven’t seen any snail or slugs I’m not sure what this does.
By our house and in the most appallingly wet conditions, a noted Japanese landscape architect has designed and installed a rather bizarre garden which marries European-style flower-planting with Japanese hard landscaping. Some noteable features include chicken-wire gabions filled with pebbles as pond-banks, heavily charred hardwood as a building and water feature material (I’ve read this is believed to preserve the timber), and a high stacked log wall. The quality of the materials is very high, and they are used very simply, however the workmanship of the installation is rather poor - this might be because it’s a ‘show garden’, but there’s a real sense that it could all slip off down the hillside during the next downpour.