Autumn: How We Didn't Listen To Our Rules & Became Over Excited

You know last time in our #newgardenerseries we spoke about how you should keep it simple? How we moved from the car park sized garden of Drovers and looked at our 1/4 acre and wondered how on Earth to tackle such a thatchy and scratchy garden?  The thatch was the grass, around five inches deep and dead, and the scratch was from every broken laurel root and bramble we dug up. Remember how we went on to say that we wanted to grow slowly, manage a small space effectively and to that end we selected a 20x15 foot area of the garden that echoed the size of our old garden? We tended it and we weeded it, and we grew on it. Well, like you facing your new garden or allotment, we got over excited and did too much.

When tackling a new garden stick to a plan and don't do this.

We learnt through blood, sweat and tears that digging grass over in to a double deep trench had a number of problems: (1) It was called bastard trenching for a reason, (2) We needed more manure than we had, and; (3) It was backbreaking and still the grass grew because it was couch grass (that's a fibrous rooted grass with white fat roots that couldn't be killed by an atom bomb). Our gardening life became four words deep and four words wide. So over a less sweary breakfast one in our 1950s kitchen with wet rot sponsored by James Dean and bubbling vinyl floor laid by Marilyn Monroe we made a unilateral decision to knock digging on the head. We would cut turf instead. This is the job of cutting turf into manageable sections and then lifting it by sliding a turf cutter or, in our case, a spade sharp enough to shave with below the roots -- that's around three inches -- and then lifting the lot a stacking it to rot down for loam to be used at a later date -- in our case around four years later. There was a problem with our plan, we had no money thanks to Carol's employer suddenly deciding that after having a baby she wouldn't be much use around the office anymore for fear of hysteria and possible outbreaks of collective breast feeding and a capped mortgage our mortgage adviser told us was the best mortgage to have for the foreseeable future. Interest rates fell but our's didn't, not for another two years. Carol got redundancy, Andrew got reduced hours and we all got sleepless nights thanks to Little D. Another major problem was that we had no access to well rotted manure or compost at that time but in stepped our wonderful neighbour, who you can just see over the fence gardening (going back over these photos we realise that they have become like a bizarre game of Where's Wally? There's always someone in the distance or hiding in a bush or glasshouse). He kindly asked us if we needed any manure and the farmer who lives on the other side of us dumped a few tons in the back lane. The problem then was getting into our garden as there was a four foot drop to the road over the remains of a collapsed stone wall. In stepped our neighbour again and we removed a panel from the fence and wheeled through around 50 barrels of well rotted manure. It was a tiring and smelly day but we ended up with a hillock of manure. It still wasn't enough in the end. That was the first but not the last of our problems when we broke our own rule of keeping it small.

The problems with outdoor tomatoes.

Instead we decided to become like spaniels in long grass searching for a rabbit that has long gone moved to Majorca. Ears flapping, tongues drooling, tails wagging we ran back and forth declaring areas of special interest in the garden: 'Look here, there's soil and we can grow in that', and, 'Oooh, you know what we should have here? Melons', plus our favourite, 'Let's grow outside tomatoes on a wet hillside'. Since leaving our allotment in a sheltered valley, on soil that had been manured for generations, we have dreamt of our own, red, juicy tomatoes and decided with all this space we would grow them once more because in the end, we had the same kind of weather as northern Italy. We have to point out at this junction, because no one did for us, you can go skiing in northern Italy. 

Be wary when someone suggests outdoor tomatoes in the UK.

So, in soil that had barely been manured, on earth that was more sandstone grit than dirt we dutifully planted our windowsill grown, hardened off outdoor varieties. We gave them a cane each, all 90 plants, and each of those plants had a little flowerpot sunk down beside it to act as a water reservoir. That was the only good thing we did because then it rained and because we had not really done as much weeding as we should have -- spaniels before cart again -- we were attacked by the sleeping, acid loving thug, sheeps' sorrel. Let us tell you about the worst weed in history, with elastic roots that romp through any soil turning it into a compacted mess that strangles the life out of slugs. That's how tough sheeps' sorrel is. It is hours of on your knees weeding and don't even think of reaching for a weedkiller, sorrel will just laugh at you and when you're not looking growing up left leg and smack you on the buttock. It swamped out tomatoes, all 90 of them and those lovely little pots became set in sorrel concrete, along with a combination of poor acidic soil the 90 tomatoes each gave up, signed resignation letters and sent out for blight. In one rain infested week, each of them turned spotty, then brittle and black. We should have taken photos of this but at the time we knew what it was, we knew why and we were miserable. Sweary breakfasts resumed and we wondered if we should be here at all. Which is what many of us stumble down in to after the first failed crop.

Cosmos trellis

We decided to have a go at square foot gardening but the lettuces met some hardy snails and the rest came across some inquisitive pigeons, so we decided to raise the grid we'd made -- we know, we know, we were eager, again, spaniels -- and made a giant plant support for cosmos. 

Cosmos support
There was a panic that they'd never make it high enough to be supported...

Cosmos, support the plant from the start and have months of flowers

...then they reached through and onwards. They were our first great success after the initial 20x15 plot. The tomato beds had already succumbed to sheeps' sorrel and we had beat a tactical retreat from it. We decided maybe we should grow courgettes and because we liked courgettes, surely we'd love spagetti squash -- we don't know how we made that leap to but suspect it had something to do with a shiny seed catalogue. Beware of shiny seed catalogues and the blurb they give you: 'Abundant crops' means 'Only on Monty Don's perfect and lovely crumbly soil' (yes, we're all jealous of Monty's soil and good on him for having great soil, after all it used to be a field), 'Easy to maintain' means 'Dead as soon as you touch it' and our favourite, 'Unique taste' means 'Crap'. 

Planting courgettes and squash

We were seduced by the dark side of seed catalogues and should have stuck to crops that, (a) We had grown before, and; (b) We actually eat. The great thing though about the squash was that we could plant them into the rotting loam and they did tumble down covering over the tarpaulin and black plastic. They're worth it for that and we suspect a trailing courgette would be equally impressive and far more tasty.

Plant squash into rotting loam and you will get a good crop.

 The spaghetti squash were impressive to behold.. 

...and covered problem areas and gave a pleasing finish that reminded us of those photo shoots were the gardens are aspirational..

...they tasted absolutely...

Grow only what you have tasted before

...vile. Asparagus peas at Drovers were bad enough but this bland mush literally took on no flavour, it was like eating snot, copious amounts of growing snot was trailing all over our garden. Which brings us back to our last point: (1) Grow what you are going to eat, with the proviso; (2) You have actually tried to eat it before. Do not be seduced by the seed catalogues and more importantly do not buy cheap sheds...

Buy something that will last you

 ...We bought this shed online, it was just over £100 and we thought we'd gotten a bargain. By 2013 it needed a new floor and by 2014 a new roof. This year, weather permitting, we're actually using wood we have recycled to basically rebuild it. Plus, never ever paint a garden shed without doing an undercoat, to do this...

Be frugal, don't skimp. cost us £80. It stayed white for one week and now is permanently covered in moss and mud. We should have put the £80 to a better shed. When planning a garden, don't skimp, there is a difference between being frugal and being cheap. We should have looked out on free websites for sheds or done as we have since done, use recycled wood to build our own. We would have gotten what we wanted rather than a shed that we constantly have to duck down to get in to. Be wary of getting over excited and doing things that you don't really need or even eat. Next time we're going to look at what we should have done, plan.


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