25 March 2009

cage cobbler

I have been working with St Joseph's primary school reception class.  We've grown beansprouts in class (rather unsuccessfully) and have sown peas - "i like peas!" - and radish - "what's radish?" - in the raised planter in the playground.  This planter is smack bang in the middle of the playground and is aswamp with overexcited littluns every playtime.  To give the plants some protection from footballs and feet I suggested building a net cage.  I cobbled this together in the pouring rain. 

Sometimes I stand back afterwards and admire my construction skills.  Don't think I can this time - like many a poor workman I'm going to blame the tools.

22 March 2009

planting workshop - sprouting seeds, salad leaves and wildflower pot

The second of the St Giles - Seven Dials in Bloom planting workshops.  A day of beansprouts, salad leaves and wildflower pots.

I started with a seed sprout demonstration.  First passing round the (lidless) tubs of the various seeds to sprout; mung beans, alfalfa, mustard, peas.  I forgot how lovely seeds can feel running through young but clumsy fingers.  As a result there will be no alfalfa sprouting on windowsills this time round - whoops!  I swiftly moved onto a seedsprout rinsing demo' with impromptu chanted accompianiment from the children - "fill it up! - pour it out!".  We made up the sprout kits - plastic tub, muslin top, rubber band, seed of choice - and discovered they double as maracas!
Next came salad leaves to be sown in pots.  These will be ready to cut as baby leaves in three weeks or so.  They should re-grow to provide further crops.  There was a choice of 'spicy oriental', 'californian mix' or 'mild mix' - I wait to see how different they will be, looking at the packet photo and seeds they look to be variations of the same mustard/pak-choi mix.  Concerns over 'spicy' levels made for much discussion.  

The seeds were sown thinly over the surface of the compost and just covered with a sprinkling of compost.  To be watered from beneath when they get home (it's too messy and heavy to carry the pots otherwise).  
The wildflower plugs had been delivered the day before, beautifully packed, and were healthy and raring to grow.  Each pot was to have four plants; ox-eye daisy, red campion, betony and fox and cubs, which should give success wherever they're placed to grow, some liking full sun, others shade.  I did a full demonstration and bit of a talk.  

I am disconcerted by the serious expressions my plant talks seem to induce.  I hope it's because I am inspiring but maybe I ramble on aimlessly and it's just confusion?
I had to diplomatically fend off some 'help myself' hands from the plug trays.  At last years spring planting day lots of plants that were being given away free were grabbed by a few particularly pikey parents incapable of sharing, which offended me deeply (they stole my Geranium pyreniacum 'Bill Wallis' too  - that's a trauma).  Still somewhat embittered I now dole plants out from behind my table to keep it calm and to protect the greedy from themselves!  
The wildflowers were planted into the pots and looked really good (I'd been concerned they might be overly 'weedy').  Everyone seemed very pleased with them and, with no pictures, very  interested in what they will look like when they flower.  

A busy day with 32 people taking part.  

I reckon they'll be queueing for the next one.  

yesterdays news

It has taken months to collect enough old newspapers to continue building the paper retaining walls for the new south end beds.  Despite contacting LondonLite and Metro for old copies (absolutely no response from either) and putting posters up in various housing blocks they have only slowly piled up, just long enough for the office mice to have produced some fine heaps of delicate, if stinky, confetti.  

These walls are being made of stacked newspapers.  I read a book, The Curious Gardener by Jurgen Dahl, a couple of years ago and he describes building garden walls with stacked newspaper.  Apparently they can last for years and when they finally rot can simply be dug in.  I wanted to give this a go and the south end renovations have provided just the opportunity.  The paper wall will form a sweeping curve around the tulip tree to encircle a seating area.  

Despite my confidence when presenting the plans to committee I had wondered how it would hold up in practice - I have kept brandling worms on wet newspaper and they gobble it up with relish - but the initial section, completed last november, has weathered the winter well and remains sturdy.  
Building it has been simple.  The line of the wall is dug out to make a sloping footing so the wall will lean back into the bed for stability as it rises.  Wet newspapers are simply laid along the line in layers.  After each few layers it gets a good beating to compact it well and earth is firmly packed in behind.  To finish off the top earth is pulled up to the raised front edge (the front edge is higher due to the sloping footing) to hold the top layer of 'papers in place.  The face of the wall is bashed into shape with the back of a rake.

It is easy to form curves and a really quick way to build low walls but not when working in public.  Most of the day was spent explaining the idea and technique to visitors.  It is great that it has drawn such interest but ten minutes was the longest period of actual construction.  Sometimes I'd love to just get on with it.  
Maybe I will erect the marquee and work concealed until a final flourishy grand reveal.

19 March 2009

greedy pig's and the first ant

The blackthorn trees were full of wood pigeons today wobbling and flapping like fat tightrope artistes.  They were stuffing their beaks with the tiny pre-fruits left from the just finished blossom.  It no wonder we don't see many sloes come autumn.  

I like wood pigeons and their comical ways.  A serious pest of countryside crops they have huge appetites for greens and will strip cabbages bare in no time.  In town they eat the usual bread and kebabs but still go for greens in a big way.  In the garden each summer they turn one of the elder trees leaves to lace, but surprisingly won't touch any other elder growing here.  I've noticed this elsewhere with two seemingly identical walnut trees growing next to each other in Clerkenwell, one is tall and proud, the other almost weeping from years of pigeon pruning. What the difference is between tree to tree I don't know but they eat the same trees year on year.

They are larger than feral pigeons with a distinctive white patch on each side of their neck and beautiful lilac, grey and white plumage.  I stood within six feet watching them feeding and they just kept a beady yellow eye on me.  Their country cousins would have been long gone being very, very wary.  They have to be or they are soon pie filling!
This is the first ant I've seen this year.  A common black ant making the most of the sunshine  climbing a bergenia stalk (Ballawley, a new variety here - very nice green 'eye' highlighting the bud) hunting nectar and looking for aphids to milk.  

I watched it's shiny black busy-ness and felt good.  Ants make me cheerful.

17 March 2009

not a pheasant plucker...

just an envelope stuffer.

Mail shots out to the membership are somehow always a challenge.  Written down the steps to successfully complete this occasional task would seem, well,  simple but for one reason or other it never is.  When I heard that the mail out for the Mad Hatters Tea Party, April 11th (you must come!) was very due I knew what that meant. 

Now this time Michael had done us yet another smashing poster and Jane had sorted out a very good deal at the printers and Shyamal had updata-ed the database.  Dates and times to stuff, lick and seal were diaried and confirmed.  Just the address labels to be printed.  Then...

The database doc wouldn't open so had to be resent.

One wouldn't recognise the other of course and it couldn't format.

The code thingy on the label pack lied outrageously. 

Desperate texts - "the air's gone blue!"

I drop all to save the day of course.  

(This should probably be slightly qualified here.  A broad definition of 'save' would certainly allow for hours of being fed banana cake and tea whilst feebly joyriding labour saving electronic options to end up confounded, giggling hysterically with scissors, sticky tape and a newfound respect for collage.  Needs must). 

They have all now been posted.

We move to electro-mailshots soon.  

Roll on welcome future. 

admiral proves me wrong

This Red Admiral woken by the warm weather was up and down the garden for most of the day.  It was feeding here and there but not settling anywhere for long, far too warm and wary to get close to.  Until it landed on a head of bergenia blossom.  The butterfly sat for long periods with its tongue uncoiled deep into the flowers, pulsating as it pumped up nectar.  

I am unsure about bergenias.  I admire in good forms their cast iron constitutions, early bloom, and big, bold,  healthy, winter-red leaves but some are an incongruous pink, stubby stalked with dirty leaves cut from green flabby latex and seem to lurk grimly immortal in churchyards and unhappy places being gnawed at by weevils.  This is one of those - Bergenia cordifolia (I think) - it has few redeeming features and it irritates me every spring.  

I have recently planted two named varieties, Abdenglut and Ballawley, with better colour and posture to replace them over the coming years.  This was to have been without mercy but maybe now that would be hasty (or not - they will take a good few years to bulk up enough to split and spread around). I hadn't noticed that these flowers held any special attraction for early insects refueling. I will keep an eye on it.  Good sources of early nectar are invaluable and there may be a corner where an old bergenia can be tucked away if it proves so good for the early feeders.  

Of course if luck has it then the new ones will be better at this too - then I'll rip the olduns out by the roots - ugly things!

sunday workday - new bench plinth

Sunday Workday - Peter, Michael, Ollie, me (Alison, Dom, Emma, Jane)

The wide raised bed that was built five years ago, using poplar logs from a tree felled in St Giles churchyard, had been problematic from the first.  It was far too wide to be worked easily and suffered from being a 'boundary bed'.  It was nigh impossible to get at the stolen bags, party debris and 'sharps' thrown in without flattening everything growing there.  Needing topsoil halfway through a previous workday had been the final impetus for a decision and the raised bed has now gone.  The group moved the tons of topsoil to the new south end beds in early winter and dug the area over ready to put to grass.  We had lovely new oak benches delivered months ago and they've been moving round the garden looking for a permanent home since their arrival.  Two of them will find it here.
Of course it takes time to work out the exact positioning for any of the furniture in the garden. Peter and Michael patiently lugged benches backwards, forwards and up the garden path as they were tried for fit.  

I dickered.  We had tea.

It is an open secret, and sometime source of amusement for the group, that I am pig-headed in garden matters and so after some discussion my choice was finally mutual.  The two small benches, on brick plinths to protect the grass (their temporary positions having been worn nude), will go here.

For the plinth a six inch deep rectangular pit was dug out and barrow of hardcore was dropped in.  This was bashed into place with the rubber mallet and a good layer of sharp sand spread over that.  The usual pigeon stepping, jump-up-and-downing and rake tamping got it firm and level before lunch.
After lunch we held a surprisingly unrewarding hunt for whole bricks.  It took some ingenuity and ruthlessness to get the required number - there is one less micro-bed up the back.  These were laid on the compacted sand and tamped into place.  My usual desert and a half of sand was brushed into the cracks to firm it.  Before tea I conceded it was probably a bit much again. 
New volunteer Ollie joined us and happily got stuck into emptying one of the compost bins. Though most of the contents had almost completely rotted down it still has a lot of twiggy bits in it (I was obviously shredder shy when it was filled).  No matter, it is just the business to improve the soil in the south end beds.  Ollie barrowed it all to the beds ready for digging in this week.  
As it was such a lovely day, sunny and warm, other volunteers turned up - to eat sandwiches.  I suppose the 'garden closed' workday rule shouldn't apply to off-duty volunteers?  Some of the looks I got when offering gardening jobs around were interesting to say the least.

To finish the benches the excess sand was removed and the plinth brushed off.  The bench was fixed into place with a nice shiny chunky chain.  I'll get the grass seed sown soon and it should be well established by summer.

Looks good doesn't it?

12 March 2009

backstabbing the lawn

Today Doug backstabbed the lawn. It would normally be spiked but because of a miscommunication it took this drastic turn instead.  Whatever it's called the results should hopefully be the same.

Each summer the grass takes a real beating with much of the lawn vanishing out the gate stuck to one backside or another and hundreds of footsteps drum the ground rockhard. Through the winter, when it is wet, large patches get churned to mud by visitors and workgroups and  I restrain myself from wielding 'Keep off the Grass' signs at all and sundry.  I have no yearning for a weed-free velvet sward but without repair the patches will turn to dust by summer and a thorough backstabbing is now needed.  This will ease the compacted soil letting air and water in and improving conditions for the grass to recover.   

We do have a hollow-tine aerator for the job. This supposedly removes neat plugs of soil to the proper depth. It might do just this on fine topsoil but with rubble filled clay tears great divots out instead and is more bother than it's worth.  Which explains why it was stored dirty and now has rock-hard mud plugs dried into it's hollow tined cleverness.  After optimistically wasting time with sticks, screwdrivers and other pokery business it is now soaking in the waterbutt before finding a new home with someone else's lawn.  

Doug used the the tried and trusty garden fork instead. This is pushed in all over the lawn to a depth of 4 - 6 inches and gently pushed back and forth to open the soil. It is not digging, it is just making lots of holes (turn the fork to face you - then the tines go in vertically and you are less likely to dig).  Sharp sand can be brushed in to work its way down into the holes to help keep the holes open.

The worms will also get in on the act after they've recovered from the scare. By the speed they came out of the ground they must have thought the mole of all moles was on the rampage.

2 March 2009

putting zephirine in her place

There are a number of plants growing in the garden that regularly get put in their place - some with clipping, some with weaving and some with a good tying up - they are otherwise unwieldy.   Zephirine Drouhin is one of these. 

An old rose variety (1868) it is very nearly thornless, vigorous, tough, fragrant and unashamedly, unapologetically pink.  A good climber to ten feet it had been growing on a pergola that has since been demolished and now with no support the six foot long whippy stems flail like octopus arms in the winds that whoosh round the corner.  I wanted to keep the rose, they are hard to establish here growing in rubble, but I do not like the appearance of big roses made small by constant snipping.  

As an alternative roses can be tied down.  Long flexible stems can be gently curved down and round the bush, don't force them too far or they'll snap, aiming to get the stems nearly horizontal and then firmly tie them into place with soft twine (never wire ties - you will regret them).  Each bud along the stem has the potential to produce a flower, pruning just cuts these off, and tying down stimulates them to grow all the way along the stem rather than just one or two waving wildly at the top.  This has transformed Zephirine into a spiral of bound stems - it'll be a picture come June. 

turbans, grubs and a taste for the sweeter things

I was having the usual pre-work look about (these are no different from the 'during-' and the 'post-' ones - I am easily distracted) and came across a small green turban perched up a phygelius.  Velvety soft and full of leaf this moth caterpillar was busy being invisible.  Looking over the rest of the bush revealed each stem had its own coiled sleeper sat on top of doilied leaves.  A surprising number of caterpillars feed through the winter, eating fast and growing slowly, safe this time of year from the voracious predatory ants and wasps of summer. Usually these caterpillars are hidden beneath the leaves and at the base of plants.  I wondered if the sun had brought them out to warm themselves.  Wouldn't that be lovely - sunbathing caterpillars.   
Definitely not sunbathing was this grubby fellow brought up from the depths on the end of a shovel.  At first glance I thought it was a leatherjacket, a Daddylonglegs larvae (you may call them Craneflies but where's the fun in that?) but with real and pro- legs it is a caterpillar.  Up to some dastardly subterranean mischief involving roots no doubt.  I generally don't worry about such things - out of sight, out of mind.
The sun had also brought a fine crowd of Satan's little helpers out to warm themselves and to grab a more wholesome bite than their usual fare.  Whilst bumblebees are early to work the winter and early spring flowers are mostly visited by big buzzy blowflies sucking up nectar and spreading pollen.  They may be rather revolting but they have been key for the successful spread of shrubby spurge through the garden.  Life is too short for pollinating by brush.
The spurge, euphorbia characias, has big green heads of small open flowers with easy access nectaries so there is no need for long bee tongues to get at the goodies.  When the sun's out they are attended constantly by the vomiting hordes sucking up sugars.    

You may want to keep your mouth shut if inspecting them closely. Those big buzzers are raised on the best the WestEnd offers and you probably won't want that inside you.

1 March 2009

sunday workday - repaving by the noticeboard

Sunday Workday - Peter, Tom, Graham, me.

The noticeboard at the gate has only recently been moved here from the opposite side of the path.  It had completely blocked views of the bed behind it but now, this side being much lower, it is much better placed.   It is so much lower because of the test pit dug by surveyors after a row of cellars had fallen in under New Compton Street in 2007.  They were looking for signs of imminent catastrophic collapse in the garden (there were none) but their 'dig and make good' hadn't and over the past year the ground had slowly slumped as it settled.  As you can see - not pretty and a 'board reading bearpit.

After tea and a slow start all the paving bricks were lifted and the area dug out to a starting level.  A layer of rubble filled the hole, bashed firm with a rubber mallet, and sharp sand spread over to bed the bricks onto.  Peter managed to reclaim a good number of whole bricks from the great excavated rubble mound - the pile of bombsite booty that swells and shrinks repeatedly but never entirely disappears.  
The bricks were laid out to match the existing path and tamped into place.  It was frustrating to cut the end bricks to fit tight as they were soft and damp and would not break cleanly preferring to shatter instead - ideally we'd use proper frost proof paviours but unfortunately we are not digging these up.  Sharp sand was brushed into the gaps to bind it tight.  Peter is convinced I am building sandpits on all the new paving - I am generous and it WILL work its way in!    
A last bit of tinkering to tuck a few bits of ox-eye daisy and some oxalis 'knuckles' into the gaps along the edge to get it going.  Doesn't that look better?

I'm sure there will be some further gentle settlement but laying the bricks on a sand bed means they can be simply and easily lifted and relaid as needed.  I like the flexibility - literal - of this simply laid, sand -bedded brick paving as it gently shapes itself to the traffic.  You have to keep an eye on it, it struggles with heavy loads, but we wont be resin binding paths here anytime soon.  Anyway, under those bricks will live ants - and I like ants.