The first dark morning of December held suspended like a bowl of cream in the clear sky an aptly named Beaver Moon. Native Americans would traditionally begin setting beaver traps around this time, but it is also the season when the animals build their winter dams. On the estate, a pair of long-awaited beavers were released a few weeks previously, the first to swim in the Adur in 400 years.
Along with their new beginnings, phase two of the redesign works commenced in the kitchen garden. This is the creation of the ‘dirty paths’, where the existing gravel is mixed with topsoil either side of a meandering central solid path and all is topped with a layer of gravel as mulch and weed suppresser.
Anthony’s digger busily set about scraping off the gravel skin of the paths to reuse, dismantling the brick raised beds, [also to be repurposed in the southern garden design], and excavating the area to create a single large vegetable growing bed.
The large and elderly cherry against the wall by the green house is one of the few plantings that pre date the first design. There was a double-checking morning; it never feels completely right to take out an older tree, and although this one couldn’t really be qualified as veteran or heritage, it does have character and the pleasing distinctive horizontal markings of the bark. The garden is to be a foraging space. Like an orchard where unproductive trees are rooted out and replaced, it was felt the sheltered sunny wall would be better used to host some more rewarding specimens; with this consideration and the fact that the soil line lay a foot above the existing ground level, down it came. We have kept the trunk and bigger limbs for a natural invertebrate hotel in a hidden corner of the southern garden.
The turf around the central Victorian water tank and the strip between the rhubarb beds was peeled back, the last of the grassy areas to be removed from the kitchen garden. Most was added to our existing hummock of turf we have by the compost bays, set aside to make a seed compost once it’s broken down. Some of the turf was repurposed as a weed suppressant, the strips inverted over cardboard covering running along the back of the stable yard bed. Like many deep beds it tends to get weedy there and inevitably forgotten in the flush and verdant summer growth at the front.
Those long warm days seemed far distant, as a spell of bitter cold rain descended. A pan of Wealden clay as smooth and impervious as an ice rink at the base of the dug-out asparagus bed quickly supported a small yellow pond. No doubt imported from a previous addition of brought-in compost or plants, the bed had a thriving community of thick and healthy bindweed roots like udon noodles which we had repeatedly tried to attack during the growing season. We decided to take advantage of the time-saving capabilities of the digger, excavating all the soil over a foot down, breaking up the clay base with MOT to aid drainage and covering with heavy-duty landscape matting before back filling with fresh soil. We’ll add a thick layer of mushroom compost before replanting the asparagus crowns in the spring. Although the war will no doubt continue eventually, [the roots of bindweed, Calystegia sepium, can penetrate to a depth of five metres, and regenerate from very small fragments], we have at least cut down the time spent in battle.
A central trench was dug out for the irrigation pipe running under the paths in a loop, great slabs of bright yellow and beige clay lay either side like discarded piles from some giant child’s plasticine party. With several access fittings at intervals throughout, we’ll use these to connect hoses for establishing the new planting and watering in dry periods. As the paths started to resume their shape and the gravel top was replaced and levelled, we began to be able to see and think about the new habitat being created, both above and below ground.
The broad beans and peas Suzi had grown on in the greenhouse were ready to plant out, as well as the onion and garlic sets, but with only a small square left where the brassicas and leeks ruled a reshuffle was needed. Luckily, the curly kale and Cavolo Nero seemed indifferent to being moved about and behaved as if nothing had happened. The parsnips had put on an incredible amount of growth and the Christmas Eve dinner trug was filled with foot-long story book specimens, brussels sprouts and leeks.
The citrus trees and pots of cyclamen and paperwhite daffodils were taken up to the house, the golden cherub was hung in the centre of the large front door wreath, holly was collected from the campsite and hung with ivy over the pictures in the hall and dining room, and we gathered flowering shrubs like Sarcococca confusa, Hebe ‘Great Orme’, Choisya ternata, Viburnum tinus and the black berries of Myrtus communis for the table.
Swapping festive cards and eating mince pies went some way to putting us in a holiday mood, but inevitably the pandemic lurked ever present behind our thoughts, knowing this was no ordinary Christmas. The temptation is to try and forget 2020 and all its dreadful tragedies and disappointments. We don’t underestimate our felicity spending last year with this garden, seeing the changes, the sparks and delight of colours, scents and sounds, seedlings growing to harvest and small pots of new plants settling and burgeoning in their fresh beds. Nature continued regardless, and we’ll try to keep her benevolence about us as we turn our faces to 2021.
Moy Fierheller Joint Head Gardener December 2020
What we’re reading: