You can dig it

Photo courtesy Left Bank Leeds

Fresh air is my drug of choice. I make sure I’m outside for some part of the every day, preferably all of it, taking huge lungfuls of lovely air, enjoying the colours, sounds and smells. Oh my goodness, it makes me happy, relaxed and there’s always the possibility that I could get properly mucky.

So when I was asked to help with the new garden at Left Bank, Leeds, where I’m a non-executive, I was there straight away with my spade, gloves and stout shoes.

Left Bank, the former St Margaret of Antioch Anglican church, was originally designed to have a tower, but the funds ran out, which was bad news for tower-lovers, but good news, more than 100 years later, for garden lovers. The church was left with an area of land where the tower should have been.

The building went from church to not-church to a lovely arts venue, all the time with an outdoor border of overgrown trees, bushes and an abundance of bindweed and sticky willie, with additional late 20th century detritus, most of it fast food related.

Thank goodness for grants and generosity, within a few weeks and help from big diggers the near wilderness was transformed into a beautiful new garden. All it lacked were plants, lots of them. That’s where I and fellow volunteers came in.

Within a couple of hours, lots of digging, quite a few cups of tea and a surprising number of cigarettes, not me of course, I’ve already said fresh air is my drug of choice, the plants were in place, and, although I say so myself, it all looked rather good. We are always looking for volunteers to join the team, let me know if you want to join us!

Eric Aceous, said the camellia

For the past nine years, it’s been a sorry sight. Just a collection of pale, wilted leaves looking like they’d rather be in the compost bin. To be honest, that’s nearly where it ended up. Bloody thing, not worth the £2.50 I paid for it at Morrison’s, which is my garden centre of choice because it’s so cheap!

But I couldn’t throw it away, I just couldn’t, I didn’t want to give up on it, I felt sorry for the sad little plant. Plus, I felt partly responsible as I’d mistreated it something shocking.

When I bought the camellia I thought Eric Aceous was Percy Thrower’s gardening buddy, I didn’t realise it was a magic soil that camellias love. So I stuck this acid-loving plant in my garden, which, I now know, has alkaline soil. It hung around for a couple of years, coughing and spluttering, not growing an inch. I dug it up, put it in a pot, gave it a good talking to and waited for it to grow. If I had been listening hard enough, I’d have heard it whispering….’Eric Aceous….’ But even if I’d heard it, I have thought it was talking about Percy’s mate.

Thank goodness for Monty Don, superstar wellie-wearer and plantman of perfection, who puts the gardening world to rights and points out where we mere mortal soil-shifters go wrong. I’d got the soil wrong and the wrong soil, he said looking straight at me. How did he know? I reckon he heard the cries of the camellia.

So last winter I took it out of its pot, dug a large hole and filled it with tons of ericaceous soil. This is your last chance, I told the collection of floppy leaves. Grow, or go, there is no try…..

Eric came up trumps. The leaves turned dark green, then over the past couple of weeks buds started to appear which burst into colour, then flower. Oh my goodness, they are beautiful. I’m so glad I didn’t chuck my £2.50 plant. Thank you Monty, thank you Percy, thank you Eric.

My potatoes have tomatoes

It’s just over a year since we took over The Great Weedbed of Calverley. It was the most neglected, overgrown allotment in the village, but we took it on nevertheless. These prized pieces of land in what everyone but us calls a posh village, don’t come up very often.

You’ve heard the term ‘dead man’s wellies?’ The previous lot-holder hadn’t died, they just ran out of steam. Either that or they were creating a wildlife garden to cultivate couch grass, creeping buttercup and abstract sculptures from clods of clay. Whatever it was, the committee wasn’t impressed and the lotholder left before they were shown the shed door, throwing down a digging challenge to the person at the top of the long waiting list. That would be me, then.

My spade and fork have been working overtime and I’m on my third set of gardening gloves, but by gum, it’s now looking something like an allotment. Granted, the grand ideas for terraced raised beds and arches full of cascading flowers hasn’t come to pass this year, but as one of the Old Boys who leans over the fence dispensing wisdom laced with wry humour points out, it’s always work in progress.

Armed only with vague memories of what my grandad did in his garden, advice from my savvy in-laws, library books and You Tube, I set about sowing and planting. Looking at my plan, my mate Bev was scandalised to see I’d written ‘stuff’ on one of the beds, though I was more explicit with other beds, which were destined to grow ‘veg stuff’ and ‘fruit stuff’. Hey, my Myers Briggs profile says I do big picture….

Now, a year later, the old weeds are gone, they have been replaced with new ones, but they aren’t as prolific or tenacious. And in their place is so much veg stuff and fruit stuff I don’t think we’ll ever need to buy food again. At least neither broad beans nor potatoes, we can feed a small country with the harvest.

The learning curve has been as steep as the path down to the lot, but for what it’s worth, here are five key learning points for me this year, there were 100 times that many, but blog etiquette requires me to keep it brief.

  1. There are lots of creepy-crawlies, rats, mice and the odd badger sharing the lot with me. It’s not necessary to shriek every time I see one.
  2. The al fresco toilet comes with its own fierce genus of nettles which particularly like bottoms. It’s not necessary to shriek every time I’m stung
  3. Things grow very big, even though seedlings are very small, so they do need to be spaced some distance apart to allow room for weeding, picking, poking myself in the eye with the support canes. It’s not necessary to swear every time this happens.
  4. Weeds grow when you’re not watching. Swearing at them will only make them grow faster.
  5. Potatoes have fruit which look like green tomatoes, they are not edible, in fact they are poisonous. It is not necessary to swear when they drop off the plant onto your foot, they will haunt you in your dreams.

On becoming Brian. Or Peter.

The Shadow of Brian

The Shadow of Brian

“Now then, lass, how’s it going?”. Brian leaned on the fence and cast his eye over the expanse of freshly-dug soil, small, but insistent collection of weeds, immense pile of steaming poo and me holding my spade like a real professional….in my dreams.

Brian is one of the Elder Statesmen of the allotments. By some spooky coincidence, all the Elder Statesmen here are called Brian or Peter. I suspect for some, it’s an honorary title as they are women, but I can definitely positively probably confirm that I’ve heard everyone who is anyone in the allotment hierarchy referred to as Brian or Peter. There was a Dennis, but he died, or moved to Bramley, one or the other.

Progress to Elder Statesmanship is a lengthy process. Our allotments are on a slope, so new allotmenteers start at the bottom, literally and have to work their way up, literally. On one of his previous inspections, after telling my my leeks were going to seed, he said it was OK because they’d cook up nicely with a bit of butter and grind of black pepper. At that point the leeks were the only edibles growing in the wilderness of couch grass, creeping buttercups and stocky willy, otherwise known as goose grass.

Brian, as an Elder Statesman, knew the full history of everyone who handled a hoe on the lots. He told me the previous incumbent of 31b was rather partial to a drop of ale as she planted her potatoes. I did uncover the evidence as I reclaimed the lot from the weeds, quite a collection of cans there was too, along with an assortment of tab ends and empty packets of Seabrooks cheese and onion crisps. Still, they’d doubled up as slug traps. And quite a collection of the slimy little buggers there was too.

Brian eyed up the piles of poo I was digging in. “I hear someone down this end paid more than £100 for manure,” he said it as if it was inconceivable that money should change hands for something that came out of a horse’s bottom for free. He had a special arrangement with the owner of the stables behind the lots, he got all the poo he could fit in his wheelbarrow. I, on the other hand, had to  engage the services of a certain Mr Muck who lived up to his name though I have to say that for someone who must spend all day every day up to his ears in poo, he was the cleanest man I ever met, even after unloading 40 bags of the finest well-rotted manure.

Of course Brian knew I was the payer-for-the-poo. He knows everything, he is an Elder Statesman. I look forward to become a Brian, or maybe a Peter, when I can get my poo for free. But I think it could be some time.

All mod cons

Hilda tucks in

Hilda tucks in – apologies for the poor quality photo. She’s a bit camera shy!

Despite the presence of prowling predator Cat Akers,  the canny bird population in our garden know they are on to a good thing. There is the usual supply of seeds and nuts suspended from the apple tree, which make for a feeding frenzy when they are topped up as the family of four jackdaws who live on next door’s chimney dive down one at a time, not giving the smaller birds a look-in.

The bluetits, great tits, long-tailed tits and coal tits aren’t too concerned though. They have their own supply which I try to put out of reach of the bullying birds, the squirrel and the odd rat. Well, you know what they say, you’re never more than eight metres from a rat. And how long is our garden? That’s right, eight metres. Eww.

Then there’s Hilda. Hilda is our blackbird, she’s made our garden her own. Each morning, without fail, she has a bath in the plastic tray I left hanging around long enough for it to fill with water. And what a bath she has she even cleans behind her ears, there’s water everywhere, Cat is, like, whatever, preferring his meals to be served without feathers in a dish in the comfort of the kitchen. Herbert, her partner, doesn’t so much as bath, but look at the water, dip his foot in as if that’s quite enough cleaning for one day, and flies off, I assume to the bird pub down the road to shoot some pool with his pals.

Once she’s had a bath, she perches on the compost bin which is warm and full of worms. She’s not in the least bit afraid of me, in fact I think she sees me as her personal chef, digging the garden, unearthing worms and other wriggly things. On a good day I can do that without running down the garden shouting agh! aghhhhh creepy crawlies! but that’s only a good day.

Today, as the sun shone and I did my first serious gardening this year. Hilda was there, she was so close, I could almost touch her. No fear, just a healthy appetite. She had her bath, then ate her worms, Herbert lost out, he was too busy showing off with all that singing and chirping. Hilda knows which side her worm is buttered. She certainly has all mod cons.

The grossness of gardening

Pear rust. Gross.

Creepy crawlies are bad enough, lurking under stones and foliage, spinning their webs and spreading their slime, running over my hands and up my trouser legs. Then there’s poo. Poo dropped by ungrateful birds after gorging themselves on our berries, poo buried by our cat, who seems to think it’s funny when I find it with my dibber and unidentified poo from creatures that seem to have very healthy movements, if you get my drift.

But what grosses me out more than any creepy crawly or poo, or even creepy crawly poo when I’m gardening are blebs and pustules on plants. They’re like something out of the X Files, but with no hope of Mulder and Scully coming to neutralise them.

I first noticed the orange spots on our espaliered pear tree earlier in the season formerly known as summer. The tree didn’t seem too upset about it and I was far too busy pulling up weeds and avoiding the creepy crawlies to do anything about it.

While the apple tree groaned under the weight of apples, the pear tree just produced orange spots, lots of them. Still, I’m quite fond of orange so just carried on with the weedathon until I spotted what was under the spots. They were blebs and pustules, hundreds of them, sticking out of the leaves, one of the grossest things I’ve ever seen and that includes the contents of the cat’s stomach after he’s gorged himself on mouse, bird, fur and tomato skins. I threw down my trowel and legged it into the house, consulting the Interweb which quickly diagnosed the problem. Pear rust, a fungus that hangs around in juniper bushes, where it changes its name to juniper rust. Same rust, though. It’s not fatal, but the leaves have to be collected and burned, and then you just hope it goes back to the junipers from where it came.

As Noel’s the one with the gardening gene, I’m thinking he should be the one to sort out the leaf collecting. After all, he doesn’t get grossed out about anything. Well, hardly anything.