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.
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!'
Thanks to the heroic endevours of our new land intern Ed Bailey we have finally got around to preparing the unlikely looking bit of land at the top of our SW-facing meadow, which will become a small orchard next year...Inspired by planting a wall of fruit at Abbey Gardens in London a few weeks ago, and by thinking 'If we'd planted an orchard when we first moved in here we'd be eating apples by now!'
The site will be a challenging one -200m above sea level, and rather exposed if sunny, so I'll also plant a surrounding hedge inside the dear-dissuading stock fencing - probably hawthorn as it's so twiggy and in leaf so early too. Much as I fancy shaped espaliers and fans they'd be decidely out of place up here and - more seriously - I know that with the emphasis on labour-saving we are best to choose the standard tree shape, below which -in the future - animals can graze and people can picnic.
Being organic, our ground prep (the meadow was cropped a few months ago by some hungry Exmoor ponies and is usually maintained for wildflower interest) consists of rotivating (now) the hedge-line and a 1m square for each tree (they should eventually reach circa 3m in height each) about 3.5m apart. We'll then spread a thick layer of well-rotted cow manure on this newly exposed soil, then cover with a light-excluding mulch of carpet or plastic, and let nature do the rest for the next 8 or 9 months. Then next winter I'll have a fork about under the mulch and we should see a decent if thin top soil level to plant into in Feb / March time.
I now have the delectable task of trawling through books and websites to choose the toughest apples I can find - I've decided to create the United Appledom of Grizedale by choosing 6 varieties each from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland - and by all accounts for the rare ones you need to get your orders for next winter in now. I'll be looking for early ripening varieties, and ones from the wetter parts of those countries. Any variety recommendations welcome!