Here is a list of questions I recently completed for local paper - The Westmorland Gazette - 'Me and My Garden' feature. As it was ruthlessly edited for publication here's the full text:
DESCRIBE THE GARDEN The cultivated areas run to about 5 acres but this includes a steep Wildflower Meadow of about 3 acres, which includes a small oak and bluebell wood and a stream. At the top of the meadow is our new orchard and also my polytunnel. The other areas are: The Farmhouse Garden - closest to Lawson Park's artist residency base, this area is the most mature in the garden and is filled chiefly with seed-raised herbaceous plants planted in a dense tapestry of rich colour and texture. There are grasses and architectural phormiums to anchor the design in winter. We also use local native plants in unexpected ways here - e.g soft rush (juncus effusus) is planted formally here, and this year we've underplanted these with alliums. Bog Garden - this sits around a natural stream and is close by our warden's house. It's planted with Iris 'Holden Clough' and many Asiatic primula, to a yellow colour scheme that reminds me of the gorse that once filled the gorge before we cleared it out. Woodland Garden - an informal sloped area with a wooden walkway set amidst large clumps of grass underplanting young trees and shrubs The SW-facing raised bed Kitchen Garden is 5 years old and we have a large soft fruit cage bed and herb and comfrey beds here too, as well as hens and bees. Paddies - a SW- facing terraced field of about 2 acres for larger scale and experimental food crops. Its name comes from the fact that it was laid out by a group of Japanese rice farmers with whom Grizedale Arts did a cultural exchange project in 2006/7.
HOW/WHEN DID YOU GET INTO GARDENING? Like many children, I had a square metre of mud in my family garden in Largs (Ayrshire) from when I was a toddler. But It was really when at about 9 or 10 years old I casually planted a seed from a Golden Delicious apple I was eating in the garden, and it germinated, that I got hooked. As far as I know the resulting apple tree is still in the garden - it certainly was when my parent sold up! . As a teenager I redesigned and replanted the front garden at the same house, and I notice it's still as I left it over 20 years on! Another childhood memory is when my dad was helping run a community festival (the Viking Festival!) and they cleared out an empty local shop to use as a base. He gave me a big old box of very diverse seeds from there and for some reason I decided to sow them. It was thrilling to see them grow on and to this day I'm a very keen seed-grower.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN WORKING ON YOUR GARDEN? 9 years
WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE FEATURE AND WHY? Probably the bit I work the least on - the Wildflower Meadow! We just mow some paths in it really but it's always a delight to walk through it with the cats hunting behind you and clouds of butterflies wafting up. Looking closely at its surface has inspired much of my planting elsewhere in the garden - it contains alchemilla mollis, sanguisorba, meadowsweet and knautia all together for example. On a good year we get a nice crop of cep mushrooms in the woodland area too. I so rarely ever sit down in the garden, but the one place I can happily lie and nap is the meadow as I can relax in the knowledge that Mother Nature is head gardener here!
HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU SPEND IN YOUR GARDEN? It varies massively according to season - in some winter months perhaps as little as a few hours in a month - just enough to tidy up a little en route to the compost heap. I'm very committed to using labour-saving techniques like mulching. May is incredibly busy but exciting here - plants surge up overnight and I spend a full week mulching and staking the main borders. After that many areas of our garden are surprisingly low maintenance though, as it's full of big, brazen plants that knit together very fast, and I've been careful to keep lawns and edges to a minimum. Vegetable growing is undeniably high-maintenance and in summer our Kitchen Garden this takes myself and my partner Adam an hour or so each day to maintain. But as we're foodies we have no complaints and we like to have plenty to feed our visitors. We're also lucky enough to have volunteers and visiting artists periodically to help - this is especially important when we're harvesting or tacking new ground clearance.
WHY DO YOU ENJOY GARDENING? I enjoy a challenge - and starting from scratch with acres of fellside at 200m altitude certainly has been that! A number of locals - when I first moved here - told me not to bother even trying to start a garden as the deer and the weather would see to it. I'm very contrary, and I thought 'I'll show them!' I also wanted to see if a more contemporary garden - different from the usual Lake District lawns and rhododendrons - could work with such an old historic building such as Lawson Park, so to have this scale and scope as a designer has been a privilege. I'm still learning and experimenting, and would hate to have a static garden where I couldn't keep playing with plants. On a personal level, the activity can be reflective and therapeutic when work gets tough.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU? Mountain landscapes the world over, but especially in Japan where I have travelled and saw many of my most successful plants growing in the wild. I'm also interested in the history of gardening and am inspired by experimental gardeners like Marjory Fish and of course Christopher Lloyd. Many gardens feed me with ideas - I even keep a blog about some of them - http://otherpeoplesgardens.wordpress.com/
HAVE YOU SUFFERED ANY CATASTOPHES IN YOUR GARDEN? We have no deer fencing, and as we're bang in the middle of Grizedale Forest we are occasionally affected by deer grazing or breaking trees and shrubs. The worse attack ever was one day after our first National Garden Scheme Open Day though, so at least the deer have manners! I've learned from bitter experience that summer gales can flatten our vast 'prairie' style border plants, so I make attractive rustic stakes and 'cages' in May for them to grow through - by July they've disappeared under the leaves but are working their magic beneath - like the boning in a Versace dress! Rodents can also do a lot of damage but our cats help on that front.
ANY FUTURE PLANS FOR YOUR GARDEN? This winter we've started planting -at long last - an orchard of selected fruit varieties from Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland. It will take 2 years to plant and then we'll wait and see which country wins! We'd love to make a pond upstream from our bog garden, if we can summon the resources to do so. I'm also planning to acquire some ducks this year, as the slugs in my Kitchen Garden are big enough to get a saddle on!
DO YOU HAVE ANY TOP GARDENING TIPS? Mulch is a crucial labour saver (suppressing most weeds), and creates soil where there is none - after 9 years of annual mulching, what was a barren, rocky hillside is now our very fertile Farmhouse Garden at Lawson Park. I use composted green waste from the Council, bark, bracken or mushroom compost. Propagate your own plants - having many specimens of the same plant instead of few changes your garden design for the better as you can plant in swathes and experiment without fearing losses so much. Lavish attention on soil preparation - especially before planting hedges or trees. We have one hedge that has grown well over 2 metres high in 5 years due to a trench generously fed with well-rotted manure and being kept weed-free for at least 3 years. Remember to sow small amounts of some of the hardier vegetables in July and August for autumn and winter use - even at our altitude of 200m we can have spinach, chard, turnips, winter purslane and cabbage for picking through to March or so. Leaf beet is an extraordinarily hardy green if sown mid-late summer. Don't overfeed the young plants and we also find that firming well and minimising thinning also helps see them through.
There's pork all over the place at the moment; brining in buckets, bubbling in pots, outside in the smoker, hanging in the porch and in the kitchen, in the fridge and in two freezers. We have made potted pork, five different kinds of sausages, ham, bacon, pate, tongue confit, lard, crackling, stock, plus all the other usual cuts like shoulder, ribs etc. The ears went to Alistair's mother-in-law who used them for a Chinese New Year dish, we've used it in a stew for a dinner for 22 school kids visiting from Gravesend and packs of bacon have been handed out as an alternative to Thank You cards. Anyway, we have used every bit of this lovely pig we reared and still have tons left which will feed a lot of visitors over the next six months. We have a new little grower in the field now, a boy called Collingwood, he's keeping Octavia Hill 'company'. He's a bit of a sex pest but as he's only a quarter of her size, I don't think she's noticed.
The original pig shelter, like a lean-to I made from corrugated iron, blew away one stormy night. It was patched up a bit but was never intended to be more than temporary accommodation for the piglets when they first arrived. They're quite hefty girls now and like nothing better than a good scratch-on so their poor shelter has taken quite a pummeling from their rear ends. We have now invested in a plastic pig ark which we got from Solway Recycling, a company that collects and recycles waste agricultural plastics and operates the National Farmers Recycling Service. It's a robust shelter big enough for a sow and litter so is a good long-term investment for our Lawson Park Herd. I have been using dried reeds for their bedding which is just as good as straw and about quarter of the price (straw is about £8 a bale due to it being in short supply). So, they like the reeds and are now lovely and warm in their new house. It might seem like a bit of an unnecessary luxury but it has been proving a bit difficult to get our 'grower' pig to slaughter weight. Getting a pig to this weight is much quicker if they are kept warm and indoors but ours are burning off loads of energy running around their lovely field. We are also walking them every day to the paddy fields to act as natural rotivators for a grassy patch we want them to turn over so we can seed oats. They have also burning up energy to keep warm at night. Their new cosy home will mean they don't have to use so much energy so should help to fatten them a bit quicker. I measured them today to check their weight. There is a formula you can use if using an ordinary measuring tape which is girth (in cm) squared, times length, times 69.3, equals weight in kilograms. However, I used an animal measuring tape which if you measure their chest gives their weight in pounds. Ours are currently 128lbs (58 kilos) which is fine to slaughter out as a porker but a baconer needs to be taken up to about 80kg. Not sure if we will make this before Christmas. We'd ideally like to have our own meat to sell at the Coniston and Torver Farmer's Market and Art Fair we are organising for 11th and 12th December in the Consiton Institute.
I haven't posted any pictures of the chickens for some time as they have not been looking at their best. They all at one point had horribly bare arses where they had been plucking each others or their own feathers out. It was quite a sorry sight, the blame being down to pesky little mites. I fed the chickens on raw garlic cloves for a week. Apparently the mites don't like the taste so stop biting them and in turn the chickens stopped plucking out their feathers. I also used an organic powder called Diatromaceous Earth which is finely ground fossils of prehistoric fresh water single celled plants called diatoms.The tiny hard and sharp diatoms scratch off the insects waxy coating, causing it to dehydrate. Anyway, just as their bum feathers grew back, the chickens got on with their annual molt. Feathers were strewn everywhere like a fox massacre. They went off their food and their plucked little bodies would huddle together quietly waiting for their new growth. Now though, although looking great, due to the short daylight hours they have stopped laying. We tried putting a shop-bought egg into the nesting box as we thought it might encourage them back into laying but no luck with that. Some people put lights in their hen houses as this can keep egg production up through the dark months but we have no electricity source where they are. You can buy hybrid chickens that just keep laying all year so this might be a future option. In the mean time, shall we keep feeding them with no return or is it time to make a big batch of chicken stock?
The new orchard here has progressed a lot since intern Campbell Guthrie finished preparing the planting zones this summer, for 21 fruit trees. The orchard concept is to plant a selection of the hardiest varieties from Wales, Scotland, England and Ireland, each chosen for their suitability to this exposed and wet south westerly spot.
The first trees to arrive were the Welsh ones from the very helpful Gwynfor Growers, so these have been planted this weekend, metre squared spaces cleared of grass and now mulched with deep bracken. Each tree hole was dug square (following the new RHS advice) and fed with a handful of bonemeal and seaweed. Varieties chosen are Snowdon Queen (a pear found at 600 feet up the mountain - should love it here), and apples Cissy, Croen Mochyn, Pig Aderyn, St Cecilia &Bardsey Island.
We bought a couple of weaners a few weeks ago, two very cute 2 month old British Lop pigs. Although they look like standard, everyday pigs they are the rarest of the six British rare breeds, but still very edible. One is for fattening up and one we will keep for breeding. Before they go their separate ways, they are loving their lush lodgings.
Alistair did a nice new site map for the NGS day, featuring a sketch of the "Future Orchard" at the top of our Wildflower Meadow. This is currently just a mown stock-fenced paddock with 24 blobs of mulch set at regular intervals where this coming winter we will plant some very young fruit 'maidens' (as young grafted apple plants are known).
As with all good childcare we'll then ignore them for the best part of a decade - before (we hope) realising they have turned out rather well and enjoying the fruits of our labours.
For now - like all fanatical gardeners I am already working on next year - I am sourcing the 24 trees, 6 of the most altitude, wind and rain-proof varieties from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
So far I have:
'Scotch Bridget' - a locally grafted specimen, she does well in Cumbria I am told
'Gravenstein', 'Brownlees Russet', 'Duke of Devonshire' (Bred at nearby Holker), 'Mere de Menage', 'Monarch', 'Keswick Codlin' and 'Hawthornden' - from the lovely R V Roger Northern fruit specialists
From Irish Seed Savers I'll be ordering 'Yellow Pitcher', 'April Queen', 'Cavan Sugar Cane', 'Kemp' and 'Keegan's Crab' which apparently isn't a crab.
Finally, Wales will be represented by 'Cissy', 'Bardsey', 'St Cecilia', 'Pig Aderyn', 'Croen Mochyn' and a 'Snowdon Queen' pear - yes a pear, found at 1000' on the slopes of Snowdon!
As the nice man at supplier Gwynfor Growers says "that should love Coniston!'
...the garden looks like this