Autumn: Starting to Grow for the First Time

In response to requests on our Facebook page, we have decided over the coming months to to set aside Sunday to blog about starting to grow for the first time, to wind back the clock to when we started in 2010 and to have a #sundaychat on our Facebook page at 7:00pm GMT. On this wonderful Sunday we are going to rewind the clock back to our garden in 2010, right at the start.We're going to call this part of the blog the New Gardener Series #newgardenerseries and it is open to new and old alike, we're going to share tips and mistakes we made along the way by simply rewinding the clock.

How to start a garden #newgardenerseries

Here it is, Pig Row in early 2010. Carol has just been made redundant, Andrew's hours at work have been reduced by 50% and we have a baby called Little D. We have a very vague idea that we can grow some food though originally the part of the garden in the photo above was going to contain a swing, a slide and a sand pit for Little D. We were going to pay other people to do it for us. We were that green. As we walk and trip up the hill we are full of excitement but the grass is eight inches of thatch, dead mice, weeds and many, many flagstones buried just an inch under the surface, hence the tripping. Andrew drives a spade into the ground and hits the first of many flagstones which sets his teeth on edge. We will spend the next two years doing this until a neighbour shows us an aerial photo of his garden in the 1980s and we see our garden and all those hidden paths but now as we walk up that hill there are laurels to the left of us, laurels to the right of us and if you turnaround...

Laurel does not make good hedges #newgardenerseries

...laurels to the back of us. We don't like laurels, our neighbours don't like them either, they keep horses and the two don't mix. Things got so bad between us viewing the house in early summer and us moving in during last autumn that the neighbours got together and had a good old fashioned clear and burn fortnight. That's how long it took them to take it from this...

How do you reclaim back an overgrown garden or plot #newgardenerseries

...the green dense foliage in the middle of the satellite photo is the garden to this...

Creating a new garden #newgardenerseries

They had several large, smoking laurel filled bonfires and still didn't dint the surface. The laurel by spring was already coming back with vengeance. It was here that our story starts in the aftermath of a bonfire, neighbours with scratched arms and a derelict quarter acre of land that has cockchafer grubs lurking beneath the thatch.

We thought we'd be clever and following the guidance in books we decided to start close to the house. We wanted to avoid digging, so we stretched out a long piece of thick plastic over the thatch we had watered with twenty watering cans full of water; these were the days before we had water butts and a hose, and even an outside tap. All these cans of water were trudged up the steps on a cold day from the kitchen. Which back then meant we had to navigate through a tiny back corridor, step down into the kitchen and then on the way back take two steps before getting outside and then a further ten steps up into the garden. It wasn't back breaking, it was simply exhausting and a waste of time. The first rule of take on a new plot should be that you have access to water, beg, borrow and skip dive for anything that will hold water and fill them, either with a hose or allow the rain to fill them up. Old baths are great for this. So, there we were with damp thatch and a piece of plastic, we covered it over and waved goodbye to it until spring. When it showed up we ran outside, excited at the promise of a soil turned chocolate by the worms and slugs, we folded the plastic away from the yellow thatch that framed it only to uncover another tone of yellow thatch. The black plastic hadn't worked, it had merely given us a two tone thatch lawn. So we had two choices, just as you have two choices now with what to do with your piece of ground: (1) Let's work with what we've got and see if we can restore the garden to its former glory.

You have two choices when tackling a new garden #newgardeningseries

This wall was were a shed was, this is the garden's former glory, that's it. You can all raise your arms in the air and declare, 'Whoop-di-doo'. This amazing shed fell down during the purge of the laurels, it was basically held together by roots, bird spit and farts. Whatever this shed once housed was now buried in the soil - we're not kidding, we're still finding the stuff, it's like a really sad game of lucky dip crossed with what the hell is this? The point were this wall is, and was, wasn't even halfway up the hill, you can still see the house. This was literally were the end of the old garden was, the previous owners, had simply been too afraid to go any further for fear of wolves and heather. Or; (2) Clear the lot, be done with it, be bloody minded and start again. We did, we several large, eyebrow singeing bonfires and still chipped enough bark to use as mulch for two years and cut enough logs that after seasoning for year we were still burning on our stove a year ago. That's how derelict this garden was. We have sat down and figured this out, with our bonfires and the ones the neighbours had, we have had just short of thirty large bonfires and we we're only responsible for five of those! Now, if this was television show, we would go from this...

Makeover of gardens #newgardenerseries this...

Clearing a garden #newgardenerseries

...and some TV gardener wouldn't have broken a sweat, maybe you saw the lads do it or maybe someone cute smiled at the camera and you thought, 'Can they do my garden?' In truth clearing a garden does this...

Knackered gardener #newgardenerseries

Andrew isn't just resting, he's fallen asleep. A product of being a new Dad and a new gardener. When we had Drovers we never knew what gardening was. So after getting all that water onto your plot, consider your limitations. We got this right at the start, we cultivated the same size of plot we had a Drovers. This meant we knew how much seed we needed and what we were facing. However, we removed enough laurel root from a 20x15 plot to start a new pile for burning and we kept digging up a white root that we have never come across before. It turned out to be rosebay willow herb. A weed whose seed is viable in the soil for up to eighteen months with roots that spread about four feet a year. Four feet a year and this garden had been derelict for thirty! It was a sign that the soil was also acidic and we should have done a soil pH test at the start. We didn't and we advise everyone we meet now to do this and know your soil

Start small on a new plot #newgardenerseries

You may think that being on allotment prevents you from starting small for fear that you may be kicked off. We've had an allotment, several over the years and this is where we learnt the trick of black plastic sheeting but black plastic also works by stopping weeds from growing, you can then get some large tubs or large mounds of earth and manure and plant straight into them ON TOP OF THE PLASTIC. Less work but you're still keeping it small. You shouldn't get kicked off the allotment either as you are still managing it. Now, your growing plot could be an acre, a front door step or it could be a window box. Either way, by keeping it small, keeping it manageable you know limitations and can grow to fit them. Andrew knows his, he can't dig, it's not that he's useless with a spade, he's simply not meant to anymore. He has missing discs in his spine and carrying or digging puts the most pressure on them. He has good days, and he has bad days but he doesn't dig. End of. Simple. So, by keeping it small in that first year we could hand weed, we could garden around changing nappies, feeds and passing out in a corner after a sleepless night. A garden unloved for over thirty years produces some big and nasty weeds; rather entrenched in their views and opinions to what makes a good weed and you would be forgiven for thinking you can tackle this by reaching for weedkiller. We have been there, we have done it and we are eternally ashamed we did. We were weekend gardeners. Like many, looking for a simple solution to a problem that is far more complex. Weedkillers treat the weed, not the soil - they damage the soil but they do not solve its hidden problems. So, after you have sprayed away, dragged away the dead weeds, cultivated the soil, more weeds will spring up between your freshly planted crops and they will be weeds on drugs. Super growing weeds, weeds with attitude, weed's with fresh views that they want to fill until you can see no more sun, no more plants. Back at the start, and after having this happen to us on one allotment (the year of horsetail 'mare) we planted crops that could hold their own: potatoes, peas and beans. That was it. On a 20x15 plot which echoed the size of our old cottage garden we grew our first crop. Even five years later, nothing has compared to that first potato, we have never grown peas sweeter or beans so successfully.

Growing your first veg patch #newgardenerseries

We kept on top of the weeding, and this is something you should do, we weeded and we weeded. We weeded enough rosebay willow herb and laurel roots out to start a new bonfire, you can see the mound in the photo below along with the discover of our first mistake.

There was a reason the laurel hedges were so high, a reason why our neighbours had hedges or tree banks...wind. We hastily erected windbreak on bamboo canes, at Drovers, housed in the suburbs, we'd never experienced real wind. We effectively built kites that billowed in the wind and though it did keep some of the wind off it was not as effective as if we'd staked the windbreak to 2x2 posts. Windbreaks need something sturdy, like the fence we completely overlooked. There was the first inkling of a problem, we were thinking small about growing and not getting the basic structure of our garden done. The garden had no bones. 

Give a garden bones #newgardenerseries

When we cleared the 20x15 patch we should have considered windbreaks and after that we should have considered permanent windbreaks, hedges. It would take us one season of growing to realise that and one winter of digging and preparing soil for hedges. In 2010, we felt like people doing their best at the weekend, we divided our echo of Drovers in to four quarters: one square for the spuds, one for runner beans, one for peas and one for climbing French beans. We had no understanding of soil, of wind, of the basic structure of a large garden. We should have manured and limed the 20x15 patch of ground in autumn and repeated the manuring in spring. What we grew did well but it was a constant running back and forth from the kitchen to water them because the soil was like a sieve with little organic matter, and the wind eroded the soil. 

How to tackle weeds #newgardenerseries

So how did we tackle the rosebay willow herb? By identifying and learning how eradicate it without weedkiller. To really damage you have to be patient and wait until the moment it comes into flower and cut it right back to the ground. We did this for two years, we still do it now when it creeps back in and it kills it, slowly but surely. In spring 2010 this tiny square of 20x15 was our garden, next week we're going to look how we went in the same year from the patch above to this...

Learning to grow for the first time #newgardenerseries

...completely ignoring our advice to keep it small.



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