Lessons Learnt

Following on from a year of half-hearted effort and poor results, I promised myself that I would give as much time as possible to my garden in 2017. I began gardening on 5th January and found the enjoyment in drinking a hot cup of tea in the cold, pottering around in the wintery space.

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It was the first year that I had sown sweetpeas and I did this in my shed in late January using old toilet roll innards in a tray. These sat on my kitchen windowsill and were growing well by February.

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I spent much time pondering over seed catalogues and making plans and when the first bright weekend was forecast I emptied and cleaned my polytunnel ready for a new growing year.

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I started sowing lots of seeds in the polytunnel and ordered some new seating for the garden – a two-seater bench and a picnic table.  I spent some time in February painting them up with my favourite Cuprinol paint.

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By March, the Purple Sprouting Broccoli I had sown the previous year was ready for picking! It was absolutely delicious.

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Whilst the daffodils and tulips were popping up around the garden, I was busy tidying up the fairy garden and adding some new alpines and a little solar house.

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I began trying to perfect my lawn stripes and took every moment I could to potter around the garden, pulling up weeds and admiring the spring flowers, while continuing to sow more seeds as the weather warmed.

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All the early efforts began to pay off as I watched things blooming all around me. The excitement I felt at the sight of the first pea shoots was slightly embarrassing!

I planted out my seedlings in the raised bed a little early as I was eager to get them in the ground. Some floundered a little but thankfully I had kept some growing on in the polytunnel just in case, so I was able to replace them.

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I transplanted my sweetpeas into a basket and couldn’t believe how many flowers I was picking from them. The more you pick, the more they grow.

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After a little holiday in May half term, leaving my lovely dad to pop round and water, I came home to blooming flowers and growing veg. It surprised me how much things had grown in a week when I hadn’t been monitoring them every day. I planted out my lettuces and potted on cucamelons for the first time.

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Unfortunately, there had been some slug and pigeon damage so we made a makeshift covering with nets to keep them away.

I worked hard to clean and clear the patio and brick paths of the never ending weeds using water from a pressure washer as I don’t like to use weedkiller. It’s a battle you can’t ever really win but can stay on top of with enough effort.

Into July, we were picking lettuce, kale, tomatoes, borlotti beans, courgettes, rhubarb, strawberries and, best of all, the peas! I absolutely fell in love with shelling peas for the freezer and knew that I would grow more the following year.

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I’d ordered some plug plants of Cosmos ‘Purity’ for the first time too and discovered a new love.

Then we had our summer holiday leaving my dad in charge for another week. Unfortunately, he had a bad back at the time and could just about manage to water the garden on hot days but missed the fact that the caterpillars were literally taking over the veg patch. One of my side nets had bigger holes and had allowed the butterflies to fly right in and lay there eggs. Kale, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, sprouts were utterly decimated. There were hundreds of caterpillars. I can’t deny I was absolutely gutted. At first I couldn’t bring myself to do anything, but in the end I went out and pulled everything up and put it on the compost heap. It was a hard lesson.

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Although it was a bad year for cucumbers (I think I picked one from seven plants), the tomatoes did not let me down and I had my first go at making tomato chutney.

The cosmos were putting on a beautiful display well into autumn until a very windy night cut the plant down. We made the most of them by filling jars all over the house.

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Autumn saw me sowing hardy annuals in the triangle bed – calendula, cornflower and larkspur; and pulling up the last of the spindly carrots (due to lack of thinning – another lesson).

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I planted up lots of spring bulbs knowing that they would cheer me into next year. Around the purple bench I planted as many daffodil bulbs in the grass as I could fit in. The tulips went into pots so that I would be able to enjoy them from my kitchen window. Then I put the garden to bed for another year.

 

A Big Commitment

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My main priority at the start of 2016 was to get that raised bed finished. Unfortunately, I got a chest infection through most of February and decided to take it super easy as I had ended up in hospital with one the year before. I did not want a repeat!

Again, I didn’t get properly started in the garden until April. I wasn’t in the best health when I started to dig and weed that raised bed so my dad, brother and husband all offered to give up one of their Saturdays to help me out. Thank goodness they did, as I might have been there until May!

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This was a lovely moment (above); one that I vividly remember. Faye painstakingly raked the entire bed while I was sowing seeds in the polytunnel and I remember feeling like we had something so special to be able to share in the building of a new garden.

We decided to plant potatoes in half of the bed as we were making a second triangle-shaped bed. I was really looking forward to eating my own potatoes but I was really surprised by just how much room was needed to grow them.

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It was the first year that I really got going with seed sowing as I had acquired a table for the polytunnel at last. Things were going well.

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Unfortunately, I didn’t do a very good job of earthing up my potatoes, having sort of left them to their own devices. I’d also managed to grow lots of dock leaves rather than the swiss chard I thought I’d planted! Rather than feel disheartened, I had a good laugh about it. I knew I hadn’t dedicated myself to the garden like I had planned.

It was a year of bad time management for the garden but despite even that, I still managed to grow lots and enjoyed eating it…

3 cucumber varietiesCarrotsFirst red tomatoesPotatoes and carrotsRob and Faye digging up potatoesSquash flowersCucumbers growingPolytunnel pickingsRhubarbTomatoes 2016

In autumn, I decided to get the paint out again to spruce up the area loosely termed ‘the fairy garden’ where Faye and I had planted lots of alpines. My dad stepped in again with some spare bits of wood and fashioned a little staircase up to the fairy garden…

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I had enough tomatoes to make my first batch of passata and I even managed to grow some butternut squash. Unfortunately, in true rookie-style, the frost caught me out and I lost most of them.

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At the end of December (between Christmas and New Year), Faye and I popped out into the garden to pull up some parsnips for dinner. We just could not believe what we unearthed! Never in my wildest dreams did I think that we would have grown giant parsnips! It was fantastic.

This is still to date one of my absolute favourite photographs. Her little face!

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This was the year I realised that in making a huge polytunnel and raised bed, I had unconsciously made a big commitment. This was going to take much more time and effort than I had managed to give it. I had so much to learn (I still do as there is so much information!). I was so lucky to have this space to grow our own food. I promised myself that next year, I would do better.

 

A Garden Taking Shape

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By Spring 2015, my garden was becoming a bigger part of my life. I was making plans, checking weather forecasts and figuring out what I could do when. I was largely held back by not having a clue still, the fact that I still didn’t have many plants or funds to buy them. I was still much tied to pots and annuals.

I decided to paint my shed to match my front gate. This led onto painting the back fence and digging out a new border.

 

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Shed painted

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It wasn’t long before I realised that we had really poor soil. It was full of bricks, glass, broken pottery, breeze blocks and even plastic bags of rubbish! I really did have my work cut out for me before I could even plant anything.

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Despite this little setback, I was full of joy at the many daffodils and tulips popping up from the autumn planting. Tulips are still one of my absolute favourites and I can never resist the urge to buy more bulbs each year.

Mid-April, I’d saved enough to get some wood for the raised bed. We agonised over what size to make it and in the end I was persuaded by my dad to fill the space and have it as big as possible. Construction began…

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It was all a bit of a rush that took several weekends and in between a holiday and suddenly I had runner beans to plant out and a half-full, half-dug raised bed. We decided to plant in the one side and just make do with what we had. It was a pretty awkward growing year!

At around the same time, we were lucky enough to come across some end of line slabs of different sizes at a bargain price of £30 for the lot. So in they went as stepping stones around the bed and a path down to the trampoline (and what I had planned to be the site of a summer house for the future).

This might all sound a bit slapdash and in some ways it was. You see I really did have no clue, not much time around work or when I had helpers so I had to make quick decisions and just go with it.

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But in the end, that really didn’t matter. I may have been awkwardly standing in the middle of a sloped half-full raised bed, but I was picking runner beans until we were absolutely sick of them. You can see Faye above was actually shouting ‘Not more beans!’ We grew onions and a solitary sweetcorn that didn’t pollinate.

We grew courgettes in pots, strawberries, raspberries and blueberries; tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers in the polytunnel. The tomatoes didn’t actually start turning red until September as I had planted them so late but they still tasted amazing.

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And gradually I added new flowers to the new borders with the dreadful soil. They didn’t seem to mind too much.

I remember this year fondly. In truth, I was probably running around like a headless chicken, tearing my hair out at not having done things ‘properly’ or ‘good enough’ but it taught me that no matter how you do it, it is still absolutely possible to grow your own veg and fruit. And you really can’t beat the taste of home-grown tomatoes. Those in the supermarkets are a poor imitation.

I think it was safe to say that I had the gardening bug!

 

Tulips and a Polytunnel

The sight of those tulips raising their beautiful heads at the end of March 2014 revitalized my joy in gardening.

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I started thinking about what I could do now to make my garden pretty so I painted my front gate and fence with Cuprinol Garden Shades Willow.

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At the same time, my lovely dad started building me a polytunnel of sorts using the frame from my Grandad’s old onion tent. He had the idea of using corrugated clear plastic rather than polythene to make it a sturdier build. As amazing as this all was, we have come to realise the glaringly obvious mistakes that we made. Firstly, we didn’t level off the ground. My impatience at wanting to get it done so I could grow something and also not wanting to hog so much of my dad’s time meant we did a bit of a rush job. I probably hassled him too much as well. We didn’t put the sheeting on well – it leaks terribly in places as the rain water runs down at an angle and slides through the gaps. The inside of the front is slowly going rotten now.

Although, this polytunnel will need changing in the next couple of years, I’m still so grateful for it. It may not be perfect. It may resemble an air-raid shelter. But it has meant that I could grown my own.

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In 2014, I grew some sweet peppers, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes as well as come lettuce in pots outside, a few sweetcorn in the border, and some courgettes in a grow bag. I had pots full of annuals such as petunias and begonias (I had finally figured out the difference between annuals and perennials). But best of all, I started to really think about the next steps.

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I needed a shed desperately as the old one started to fall in on itself. Most of my money that year went on some garden tools, a new mower, compost, annuals and pots (and of course the bits for the polytunnel). I also bought a Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ and grew it in a large pot. I still feel that same sense of joy even now when autumn comes around and I see those sedum heads turning dark pink. I now have three of them in the border and they make a lovely winter feature with the dried heads that I leave on until Spring .

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As autumn came around I dug out another border and in mid October, I set about planting daffodils and tulips mixed in with wallflowers and pansies into the new border. Something about those little shoots poking through the cold ground after winter filled my heart with joy, so I knew I wanted lots of spring flowers in my garden.

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Late December, I got my new shed. In taking down the old one we discovered a family of frogs that we moved to safety before constructing the new one.

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Things were starting to come together.

From Basil Seeds

My First Growing Year

My first little foray into growing my own was in the summer of 2013 when I successfully grew a pot of sweet basil from seed in a terracotta pot in my garden.

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At this time, my garden consisted of a large patio and lots of grass. There were no flower borders at all. I essentially had a blank canvas and absolutely no idea what to do with it, let alone any funds to use on it! No tools and a complete sense of overwhelm.

I didn’t know an annual from a perennial. I just had a vague notion that I rather liked the look of hydrangeas, roses and tulips and then, of course, there was this sudden buzz of satisfaction when I picked those first basil leaves to adorn my spag bol.

The obvious starting point for me back then was to grow a few things in pots. I successfully grew spinach, rocket, chives and lettuce in pots and started buying a few plants too. I vividly remember a white-haired lady warning me in the local fruit and veg shop about the riskiness of buying a bougainvillea. I had no idea what she was talking about. My thoughts were: if it’s for sale in this shop local to me at this time of year it must be fine, surely? Well it flowered beautifully in it’s little pot that year and then promptly died. I realised I had A LOT to learn.

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By the end of that first summer, I had acquired a potted lily, a little pot of strawberries, a hydrangea and a peppermint. I attempted to grow some sweet peppers but was far too late in the growing season for them to get anywhere. I realised for the first time that we had blackberries growing over the back of the fence in the far corner of the garden. My dad gave me a rhubarb plant which is still going strong now. My daughter Faye and I started to dream up a garden that we would love to own. We drew plans and read books…

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We dug out the first border in the garden at the end of August and later planted lots of tulip bulbs. I invested in a little plastic greenhouse to grow on 240 plug pansies and violas I had picked up from the local garden centre. A new hobby had truly begun.

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Then the wind blew down my little greenhouse… three times in total and pretty much destroyed most of the plants.

I took down the greenhouse and it’s bent poles. My enthusiasm waned. Winter rolled around. I thought longingly of the tulips I’d planted and wondered if they would grow. I dreamed of all the things I might grow. I thought about having all the gear and no idea… except I didn’t even have all the gear – just a trowl and mini fork, a rotten shed full of old paint cans, a temperamental petrol mower, and whole load of weeds.

Maybe this was all a bit beyond me, I thought…