Sunday, 11 September 2016

Swirly wall

Getting stuff done

This year's growing season has coincided with me really struggling to get out there. I've got into a habit of starting lots of jobs, both inside the house & out, & then not finishing any of them.

Jobs stall for lots of reasons, it seems: hitting a tricky problem; bad weather; busy social diary, lack of energy; biting off more than I can chew... & the blog has suffered as I prefer to cover multi-stage jobs in a single post.

One productivity technique I'm trying to apply is "Even a little is more that none" - if I chip away at something, then at least it's progressing. Moving slowly is better than not moving at all.

Big Orange House

One of the reasons we think this house was on the market for nearly 2 years was the colour. It's peddle-dashed all over & was painted orange. Bright orange. All of it.

It was meant to be terracotta, apparently - inspiration taken from the previous owners' love of Mediterranean holidays. However, it seems the local decorator struggled to match the colour. After the job was done, the owners were unhappy. So the painter tried again, knocking back the orange with what appears to have been a thin white wash. This turned the orange to a baby pink instead... Another row ensued & the painter stormed off site. & that's how it was when we moved in - orange, with a massive pink rectangle covering half a gable end. Distinctive, & an aide to navigation - you certainly know when you've arrived.

This Spring we went for a walk down the local woods. Looking back towards the village, we could see a shabby-looking 2-tone wall on the top of the hill... Yep, that's our house. Hubby was appalled & bought paint immediately - this job had rocketed to the top of his "Do that which pisses you off the most" list. I asked him to save me a wall.

Saturday 21 May

I had a whole weekend free so I made a start.
The last orange wall on the Big Orange House
The plan was to clear the bed, paint the wall, & then plant a fig.
As soon as we saw the house, we were talking about painting groovy things on the walls. There's just so much space, so many surfaces, that it just screams to be messed about with.
I'm a big fan of Op-artist Bridget Riley & I thought it'd be great to attempt to recreate one of her striking paintings. A quick Google, found this:
Bridget Riley
A bit of strategic extension right & bottom was required to make it fit.

Sunday 22 May

I cleared the plants on day 1; day 2 was all about wall prep. There was quite a bit of loose render so all flaky bits were scrubbed/hacked off.
The grey/white on the left was the original colour.
Holes left by trellis fixings were filled.
Thankfully, the render over the whole house is in really good shape.

Scaling up using the grid technique.
It's a bit long-winded, but I'm not skilled enough to draw it freehand.
 I thought about projecting it, but didn't have a projector...

Starting to block in.

End of the weekend & the structure is mostly done.
The top left was proving very fiddly,
but the design was working just as I hoped it would.

Tues 7 June

Took advantage of a beautiful long evening to get some orange on. I can now see why the house ended up orange in the 1st place - this is Sandtex's Terracota... No, I can't spot the difference either.
Definition added to fiddly top left
And this is how the swirly wall stayed for the rest of the Summer. I got out a few times to add 2nd coats, sort out edges & crisp up lines, but never long enough to get it finished.
It's right by the kitchen window, so I'd see it every night as I did the washing up, reminding me I hadn't finished it yet.
Hubby has spent the Summer photographing around it, & not telling people about it - not wanting to steal my thunder. A few visitors have had sneak peeks, & thankfully the neighbours approve (both of the house being white again, & of the swirly bit).

Sunday 11 Sept

Sticking the kettle on this morning, looking at the beautiful sunny day, it occurred - shit, it's getting into Autumn. There's going to be precious few days as glorious as this. Best get some work done on the damned wall!
Spot the difference with the last pic.
Yep, we're getting into the realm of stuff that bugs me
that no one else can see...

That'll do.

Is it finished?

Well, that's tricky. Some of the lines could be smoother, some of the edges could be sharper. But my mind is flashing me warning images of Father Ted tapping the dent out of the raffle car... so I think I'll try & call that "Good enough".

The fig will go in when it arrives - it's a cutting from a friend. I hope it enjoys its glamorous new home.

Monday, 2 May 2016

2 little May Day jobs

This is to remind me that I did get out there during May Bank holiday. Not for long, but long enough to get a couple of jobs done that have needed doing for a while.


1 big pot & 1 small of shuttlecock ferns came with us from the old house. That was now 2 years go.

I kept them in the pots to see if they would cope in their potential new home by the bird table circle - they've done well enough so in they've gone.

Not much movement currently, but they're be sprouting soon


I've pondered many replacements for the Laburnum & Cherry we removed due to illness the other year. We've split the decision & are picking 1 tree each.

Hubby was quick on the draw & popped in a handkerchief tree (Davidia Involucruata) last year & it's doing very well by the bird bath. Well, these late hail flurries & frosts have done nothing for this years leaves but it'll recover.

I, on the other hand, have vacillated. No surprise there...

I really wanted an Acer Palmatum Heptalobum after seeing an amazing one in Dublin Botanic Gardens. After some online research, I plumped for a 'Sango-kaku' after finding one in a local garden centre. Not, I think, a Heptalobum as such, but the leaves are the lovely star-shape I was after, & the colour range is reds & golds. Should be gorgeous :)

But, my planting spot is down by the hedge on the South East corner. I was concerned the maple would suffer a terrible childhood, planted in ditch & in the shade of the established beech hedge.

So I've changed my mind. I've put the maple in a gap created when we blitzed the East drive border ahead of the fence replacement. It might fight with its crab apple neighbour, but then again it might not - I've seen conflicting predictions on how big it'll get. Should get better light conditions than it would under the hedge at least, although might get a bit of stick from the West winds.
It's so pretty :)
But small (daff in the background for scale)
But this means I've still got a gap where the Cherry was... hmm...

Maybe that forsythia cutting I also took from the old house could go in the hedge gap itself. & maybe a twisty Willow in front of that...?

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Border control

Recent storms have seriously worried our tired East fence. Hubby's made some emergency repairs but they're only stop gaps. It needs replacing. Strengthening one's borders is just so on trend in Europe this Winter... *rollseyes*

We'll be delegating the carpentry to our mate. He's not due for a little while, which buys us time to clear away the shrubbery. This is double edged though, as we suspect the mature vegetation is now an integral, structural component of our shabby larch lap boundary.
There've been some hasty repairs during the Winter storms

A sword of power

The other year I bought Excalibur - a monster of a hedge trimmer. Time to wield it once more.

We've got 30m to clear so this is no time for subtlety. That goal has helped nip in the bud the usual dithering - no point in spending the whole day finessing the first metre; GET ON WITH IT!

We started with the biggest job - the North East border by the side of the drive. Even if we don't get the full length of the fence cleared, making a dent in this overgrown mass will be a significant step.
Before & After
Woohoo! What a difference. Some shape to that border looks great :) The fence, however.... :/


As we hacked through the thicket/border, some interesting things came to light. Now I think about it, I'm sure the TV gardeners have said that pruning is a great opportunity to check the general health & well being of your plants...


Bracket fungus on the broken bottle brush branch
In the depths of the bottle brush thingy there was a lot of dead wood. Not only dead but mushroomy. Looks like a large branch has broken near the base, & some time ago too. All of that has to come out, in case the fungus stresses the living bits.

New plants

Surprise! More plants!
Initially I thought "Wow, up to the yellow conifer all ready!" But when I stepped back, I realised I had unearthed a similar, separate, shorter conifer. Right. Just what this place needs...

Hard against the fence there was something else, but completely different. A clump of arrow straight, bright mid green stems. No idea what it is - it's bambooesque, but the leaves are wrong. I've cut it back to the ground & we'll see if it regenerates.


On the house side of the big yellow conifer I found the only litter stash of the day. I'm amazed there wasn't more. I used to find all sorts of treasure in the old hedge... but then that was a border with public land, so I've clearly not thought this through. Anyhoo...
Roof tiles, succulents &...

...a duck's head. Obvs.

Given the rather random mix of items, my best guess is they were dumped as the previous owners were clearing out... Who knows...

Team work & fitness

I can plan, but I'm also prone to getting caught up in the moment. If I've been putting a job off for a while, when I finally commit to doing it I tend to charge in headlong. But my energy is not boundless. When out walking, Hubby & I use a "percentage knackered" scale - if we're getting toward 50% knackered, it's time to head back. We had to instigate this cos I can be more stubborn than my body is able to cope with. Mind over matter is great in theory, but when the matter conks out, it takes the idiot mind down with it...

So, I would've done this job alone, bagging up the trimmings as I went. But hurrah! Hubby mucked in & tidied as I hacked.
1st load of several
And a bag of kindling for the fire

With the two of us on the case, we got the bulk of it done - all the way up the drive to the house.
There's a few bits left - at the side of the house & then by the South Lawn, but these will be a doddle as the borders are smaller & the plants less massive.

How heavy is heavy?

When I bought Excalibur, the reviews were divided: "Too heavy!" said a few. "Absolute pish" others replied. Of course, how heavy something feels to you depends on how strong you are & how long you're holding the damn thing for...

Excalibur is quite heavy for me, but has been fine as long as I take regular breaks to let my arms recover. During one such break in this job I realised my left hand was losing the ability to grip my drink - a sign of my forearm muscles getting a caning I think. Excalibur is a 2-handed sword, so my left arm was getting way more exercise than it's used to.

By the time we'd bagged up the last of the day's trimmings, I was proper goosed; a good 70% knackered. Fortunately the sofa wasn't very far away, so I adjourned there... for the rest of the weekend. Come Monday I was still pretty achy, & then on Tuesday my right groin gave out down the skate park - definitely not a place to be nursing flaky muscles.

Rather than attack jobs like the Tazmanian Devil, I wonder if I can get into the habit of 'little & often'...? Probably not.

A few weeks later...

Panels? What panels?
Another storm came in. Yep, those plants definitely were protecting the fence from the worst of the weather. Oops.
Ah well, less demolition required when the fencing folk arrive.


New fence is in!
Looking golden in the evening sun
The fencers were super speedy & the new boundary was up in 2 days. Rather than panels between the posts, we've gone for individual boards, so we can smoothly follow the curves of the slopes.

Hedgehog hole all part of the service.
Much better, & the neighbours are happy too.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch 2016

2nd year doing the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch here in the Big Orange Hoose. It snuck up on me this year & I nearly missed it. Maybe I should tick 'yes' to emails... nah, they'll only send begging spam & piss me off.

It was baltic outside so I stayed in, loitering by an upstairs window overlooking the South West corner of the garden - that's where the bird feeders are, so it's a hot spot for flighty visitors.

I spy...

The hour zipped past. Hardest bit was trying to count the same species at the same time in 2 different locations - the bird table at the end of the garden, & the extra feeder by the back door we put up late last year. It was worth the effort though cos not all species hit both sites.

For example, if I'd skipped the back door feeder, I'd've missed this year's highlight: 2 Bullfinches. They took the top 2 perches for about 5 mins. They just sat & troughed, pausing occasionally to 'come & have a go' at any chancing Great Tit.
Nice of the Bullfinches to match their outfits to the house

Also new this year was several visits from a mid-sized Tit with a black cap & pale buff chest. Apparently this could be either a Willow or Marsh Tit - they're almost identical in appearance. The names don't help either as they're both found in soggy woodland, & we've got plenty of that over the fence. These guys are best distinguished by their song... & I had no hope of catching that through the double glazing.

Nice to see lots of regulars too, & some great behaviour - the Robins & Blackbirds enforcing territory; the jittery Jay hoovering the crumbs - such a nervous soul for such a big bird. There was a great stand off between a Tree Sparrow on a feeder perch & a Nutthatch who was hanging on underneath, pecking at the Sparrow's feet. The Sparrow did not budge.

Scores on the doors

As submitted to the RSPB:

Blue tit
Coal tit
Great tit
Marsh/Willow tit
Tree sparrow

It'll be nice to do some year-on-year stats in the future. Yes, I did just say that.

No Woodpecker this year, which is a bit of a shame. We've seen less of them in 2015 in general. But they do still visit occasionally to have a go at the peanuts. So cool :)

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Can we smell Spring from here?

A generally mild Winter has confused the crap out of the plants. Some early germinators have already been kiaboshed by a recent sharp frost. Will Feburary slap more over-keen upstarts in the chops?
The usual suspects

Hellebores in pink...
...and white
Mini iris is more of a surprise
Nice to see last year's multi layer bulb pot still has some go in it.

&... erm... a dead mole
This wee one didn't make it :(

3 part hack - part 1

Radio silence

Not a lot of writing last year, but not a lot of gardening either. Sometimes life clubs you round the head & you have to take time out.

Some folk find gardening helps when they're low. Not me, unfortunately. I tend to hermit myself away to get better. Sadly, neglecting the garden becomes just something else to get anxious about. However, I know I'm coming out the other side when I find myself pulling on my boots & grabbing the secateurs...


It strikes fear into the heart of the dabbling gardener. The nemesis of many. The TV experts smugly smile as they assure & reassure us that pruning is easy; nothing to worry about. But that's why I started this blog - I've a 50:50 success rate with things like pruning. It seems no matter what I read before I cut, I always find out, when it dies, I had the exception (I'm looking at you, Hebes...)

But I try to be brave. After all, if we don't prune here, our garden will become part of the woods & the lawns will be reclaimed by brambles.

Reigning in the brutes

In the mature garden that came with this house, many shrubs have romped. With each one there's the task to identify what it is & then decide what we want to do with its shape.

Typically, the plant most in need of a haircut remains an enigma - still no idea what it is. But it overhangs the drive & gets bashed by delivery vans.

Pruning issues unpicked

Unpicking what I've read about pruning over the years, I suspect the reason the advice seems so complex is the experts are addressing several issues at once, without telling us they're doing that. From what I can see, it breaks down like this:
  1. Will I kill it?
    1. Will it regrow from old wood?
    2. If I prune it at this time of the year, will it be more vulnerable to disease/attack/weather?
  2. Will pruning lead to a better plant?
    More fruit, more flowers, more manageable/attractive shape.
  3. Will it look bad this year?
    Losing this year's flowers/fruit.
I've ordered these from Crisis to Is That Even A Thing. When you're unsure what you're doing, the key issue is the 1st one - the others are just laughable whimsical luxuries; potentially so ludicrously expert considerations they're not even on the radar.

Most of my pruning still focuses on Question 1.

Will I kill it? Old wood or green wood

This is the big one. The plant can probably recover from any other pruning mistake.

Some plants you can scalp back to the ground & they'll happily throw out new shoots from the base. Anyone who has tried to prune a privet to death, & failed, has experienced this.

However, some plants can only produce new shoots on green wood - this or last year's growth. Cutting too far into the old wood is how I've killed at least 2 Thymes. I've also seen plenty of conifer hedges trimmed back into the old wood that never green up again.

If you don't know what's right for your plant, definitely look it up. If you can't find the info, err on the side of caution.

Will I kill it? Making it vulnerable

For most things, the advice is to do major pruning when the plant is dormant, which usually means in Winter.

If you hack at it in the Summer, when the plant is in the middle of its big number, it risks throwing its sap everywhere & not having enough leaves to feed itself. This probably won't kill it, but it'll put it under a lot of stress, which can be the shoo in that attacking insects & fungi are waiting for.

Frost damage
Pruning in Winter can leave the plant more at risk from Jack Frost nipping at the cut ends. However, this isn't usually a death sentence. The damage tends to only be 1 node's worth - it'll just mean it'll re-sprout a little further back from where you pruned. Besides, the plant is used to a bit of Winter battering - that's why it does the dormancy thang in the first place.

Just like us, when a plant gets a cut, that cut can get infected. If the sap is flowing, it can be party time for insects such as aphids. Also, if there's fungal spores around the cut, there's a risk that the sap will take them into & around the rest of the plant. These risks are minimised when you prune a dormant plant.

Summer trims
All of which makes it sound like you should only prune in Winter, but that's not strictly true either. It's often fine to do small trims in the Summer - you can see the final shape better when the leaves are on. Plus, dead heading is a pruning job & that can encourage the plant to produce more flowers for longer. Just leave the big hacks 'til the plant has had its Winter general anaesthetic.

Tell me I'm wrong

So if you're more expert than me (not hard), & you're reading this thinking "Well, that's wrong, & that's total horse", please let me know & I'll correct it.

An experiment

So, given all that, I'm at step 1 with the leggy shrubby drive-side thing - trying not to kill it. Last year I tried a light test prune: if I chop it back into the old wood, will it regrow from just behind the cut?

The result: a bit meh. It put on new growth (yay!) but it was a bit pathetic (boo).

We'll have to take this gently then.

Working with what we've got

Hacking it right back I suspect will just kill it. But leaving it fairly big is not all bad - the leaves are now mostly about head height, revealing some interesting branches below.
Interesting stems

I've heard about 'lifting the crown', often used to give a more architectural shape to trees & big shrubs, so I think I'll try that.

A prune in 3 parts

For less vigorous plants, I've read that pruning in 3s is less traumatic for the plant - take out a third in the 1st year, another third the next year, & the final third in year 3.

This is my plan.

Before & after

Apologies for poor pics. My vision's starting to change, so it's getting hard to tell if I've taken a decent photo :/ plus I'm impatient...
A little off the top
Thinning out the sides
It really doesn't look like much does it? But the clippings filled the dumpy bag* to over half way.

* The huge sack you get when order sand or gravel in bulk.
I did prune, honest

Doing the heavy lifting

Off to the tip with trimmings, & I was a little nervous. Last time I went, the staff just about barged me out of the way to tip the clippings into the skip. I fucking hate that. It may take me a little more time (a whole minute), but I will do it myself, & if I need help I will ask. What strength I have will evaporate if others do the all heavy lifting for me. It's a fine line between politeness, micro-aggression & overt sexism.

Fortunately this time they didn't spot me til I was all done :)

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Volunteering at the Crisis allotment

Recently, a gardening crisis means fretting that it's been an age since I actually got out there & did something. But not today.

Work recently instigated a Corporate Social Responsibility programme, so we now get 2 days paid leave to do volunteer our services to anyone who will have us. A mate of mine works for Crisis so I put my name forward to do anything for them that didn't involve rattling a tin out on the streets. To my delight, they suggested I spend a day helping out on their allotment - score!

The Greenfingers project was set up 3 years ago by Cath, a therapist at NECA & keen gardener. Securing allotments is one of the dark arts, often a long game of patience. Cath side-stepped the usual wait using the traditional man-on-the-inside technique. A previous client already had a plot & put in a good word with the committee. In 3 years, Cath & her volunteers have transformed the vacant plot.

Recently, NECA have started collaborating with Crisis on the project, which is a great fit as the organisations have overlapping concerns. The volunteers at the garden are a mix of staff members, clients of NECA & Crisis, and their support workers. Dom is Cath's equivalent from Crisis, & he teaches DIY skills.

The main agenda for the day was: Paint the new shed. Installed recently as a classroom & bad weather bolt hole, their new shed is great, if controversial - the team are taking some heat from allotment neighbours about it, so we best get painting quick.

The rain kept off most of the morning & we got the lion's share of it done with me on the roller & my colleague Mick doing the fiddly bits by brush.

When Barry, a project client, arrived & looked like he wanted to join in the painting work, I handed over my roller & snapped a few pics.

I also got chatting to Alfie (the aforementioned man-on-the-inside) & he insisted on showing me around his own plot (mostly veg, small koi pond) & that of his neighbour (hens, dahlias). Alfie is in the middle of tidying up from a recent unwelcome visit - some vandals got in, smashed up a bunch of his pots, wrecked a number of plants. So sad, but he was remarkably chipper about it all. He also insisted I take a small round yellow courgette & a house plant.
Back at Greenfingers as a light drizzle started & it was lunchtime, provided by the Crisis Skylight Café. Some of the veg grown on the plot supplies the Café. The gardeners are also preparing to enter the Civic Show this weekend, so Cath was busy selecting & preparing the entries. Rest goes home with the volunteers.

Shower passed & sun back out, Mick got busy with a second coat of stain on the shed, while Barry & I moved on to riddling. Riddling. It's a great word. I remember my Dad using it, but couldn't remember what it meant.

Dom has made a series of raised beds. These are being filled from the spoil heap made when they dug the pond. But the spoil includes all manner of junk including rusty nails, broken glass, stones & huge lumps of clay.

By rubbing the soil over & through a wire mesh, we break up the bigger lumps & fish out the crud.

On the route between the heap & the bed, Barry pointed out to me a rain-filled bucket. The pond might not be finished yet but the pondlife has already moved in. An hour or so later, as we moved a bit of pond liner lying on top of the heap, we spotted a frog too.

By mid afternoon, Dom has finished building another bed. Barry & I riddled a first barrow-load into the new container before Cath called it a day. We wandered home with a bag each of allotment swag & the slight ache from doing something physical all day. I'll enjoy my stretches at yoga tonight.