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On a Chalk Hillside October 2020

Gardening in lockdown - 2

Welcome back to my run through of my gardening during lockdown – last month I alluded to the challenge of getting gardening supplies during lockdown, and one thing I expected to be in short supply (which was still proving the case in August) was tomato feed.  We get through a lot of this potassium-rich feed, not just for tomatoes, but to promote flowering and fruiting in a wide range of plants, particularly those grown in pots.  So as soon as our various types of comfrey plant were in good leaf I started to make comfrey feed.  Now, I SAY comfrey feed, but here I make a mixture of comfrey and nettle feed.  I grow several types of comfrey, but whilst the symphytum grandiflorum, also known as creeping or dwarf comfrey is evergreen and flowers earliest here, (sometimes whilst the snowdrops are still out in March) it is also the smallest in stature, being a ground-covering plant to about 30cm, and its new leaves are small – perhaps the out of focus bee feeding on the white flowers below will give you an idea of leaf size?

The common comfrey, symphytum officinale is (comparatively) quite weak growing here, and only really makes enough leaves for harvest later in May.  So the other comfrey I harvest is my “Russian comfrey”, which is in fact Caucasian Comfrey – Symphytum caucasicum – or beinwell blue comfrey.  The beautiful blue flower (picture taken 26 April) is stunning, and the leaves can grow to 20cms or so.  

Even so, trying to fill a lidded 2 gallon bucket with comfrey leaves takes A LOT of leaves, so I also harvest nettles (both leaves and stems) to mix in with the comfrey leaves.  I know making comfrey feed has been shown on TV several times this spring, so rather than a step by step guide I will just tell you that you need to press the leaves down well to fill the bucket, and make sure the lid is on as the smell is very impressive as they rot down and deliquesce.  Normally the leaves are damp enough to deliquesce by themselves, but if they are very dry (during a heatwave spring for example as this year) you may need to rinse them and shake the excess water off before pressing down in the bucket.  I leave my bucket in my greenhouse to keep the temperature up.  After several weeks, and wearing a peg on your nose you will need to strain the solid(ish) matter off the liquid and bottle the feed up.  The solid bits can either go onto the compost or be dug into the ground. (It smells too much to recommend mulching on the soil surface!)  If you make it in a concentrated manner like I do by leaving the plant material to deliquesce by itself rather than adding water to the leaves, then it can be diluted by one capful to a watering can just like proprietary tomato feed.  This feed is good for all plants you want to encourage flowers or fruits from, especially in pots.  
A star plant at the beginning of June that was a testament to the comfrey and nettle feed was Heuchera 'Marmalade' in spectacular flower on 5 June.  This is a large pot with a seedling from Cotoneaster lucidus in it growing as a tree, with Heuchera 'Marmalade' surrounding its foot.   This is the first year I have really noticed the flower spikes on this Heuchera, rather than the foliage, which is what I grow it for:-

The first of the flowering shrubs that gets pruned when flowering finishes in this garden is the Forsythia, which was flowering merrily when lockdown started.  However, from winter onwards the Happy Destroyer is mythering to attack other plants and shrubs at entirely inappropriate times.  This year he had a bee in his bonnet about the Olearia Macrodonta that was growing over the steps up through the gravel garden – as you can see here in early spring this year looking more like a tree:-

The aim of pruning was to reshape the shrub away from the steps up through the gravel garden, and to bring fresher foliage nearer to my eye-level.  To my mind, Olearia, like rosemary/lavender/olives etc are silverleaved shrubs/subshrubs that should not be pruned whilst there is a chance of frost still as this can compromise the cut and kill them.  This means, April is too early, and May is best.  Try telling that to himself!  Here he is at the beginning of April sawing away:-

Here is SOME of what he chopped off:-

This is what the view looked like on 10 April – extreme pollarding!:-

(Note the stumps in the left foreground, the Lavetera cachemiriana that had also been pruned to stumps already.)
Now I had done an experiment last year by pruning one branch of the Olearia macrodonta back to the stump to see if it resprouted from old wood (unlike lavender, which as you know needs to be pruned into live wood with leaves still on it.)  That had resprouted successfully, so I had my fingers crossed that the weather really was set fair for lock down as was reported.  Fortunately it was, as we know an extremely hot and dry April and May, so whilst that provided other horticultural challenges, at least the Olearia survived.  Lucky for him!  Here is a shot across from the utility path at the end of July showing the regrowth of the shrub (obviously no flowers this year, so no seeds collected for the HPS seed list, unlike other years):-

One of the challenges the hot dry lockdown caused was this:-

Blanket weed in the pond in the third week of April because the water had heated up so much whilst the herbaceous plant cover had not developed to cover the water.  (Our star plant on 21 April was that Caltha Palustris, but trying to admire it whilst ignoring the blanket weed was not as restful as it might have been!

Though from this angle with the gorgeous light through the  Iris pseudacorus ‘Variegata’ (Variegated Iris) leaves you don’t notice the blanket weed:-

At the beginning of May we emptied and cleaned the polytunnel inside and out ready for the tomatoes to be planted out:-

And here they are growing away at the end of June:-

May involved a lot of digging, especially in the Veg garden.  We don’t clear vegetation away from our very light soil overwinter – indeed sometimes actively cultivating a sort of green manure or annual weed cover – to try and stop the winter wet washing our fine soil away.  Great in principle, but with the kind of heat we had in April and May the top growth was impressive for me to dig over whilst even our light soil had set like concrete as you can see:-

I said last month we were unable to get manure and soil conditioner during lockdown (or even now in fact.)  This had a major impact on our vegetable garden – as you can see from the above picture we are creating a veg garden on poor soil and it needs enriching with humus to help retain moisture.  This would have been this year’s job – to dig in tonnes of manure/ soil conditioner.  However, as no one could supply us with any, we had to change plans very abruptly.  As you know we make our own compost and leaf mould, (which I will be talking about next month), but not in enough quantity for the four new veg beds which are approx. 3x4 metres (12x18 ft).  Even reserving all our own compost and leaf mould only for the veg garden we had to target the resource.  You see the greenage I was digging out above?  Well, I sorted it into “bad weeds” (dandelions, things in seed, buttercups, bindweed etc) which went in the wheelbarrow; and “good weeds” (sappy green growth, ragwort, grass, annual weeds not in seed) which went in the tubtrug and then into a big pile to wilt a bit, then be chopped up smaller and used in the bean trenches rather than soil conditioner.   We dig a bean trench about 40cm deep, line it with newspaper, put in a layer of greens, mixed with a bit of soil, then a layer of grass clippings covered with soil and pelleted chicken manure, as in the picture below – the second of three trenches dug and filled in in this bed:-

This year we planted two rows of runner beans, one row of French beans, and a short trench of sweet peas.  They all get mulched with our homemade compost.  Here they all are on the 12 July – showing you why using our own compost as a surface mulch causes more work, as unlike commercially produced conditioner which is made in such bulk it uses a “hot heap” method which kills lots of weed seeds, our compost is a slowly filled “cold heap”, and consequently LOTS of seeds germinate in it.

The courgettes are planted into holes made in the same way as described for the beans – as you can see here on 28 June:-

As I started with a big pong (comfrey feed) let me finish this post with a star plant from the last day of May – the beautifully scented honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum ‘High Scentsation’.  This honeysuckle was stunning this year, huge flowers and the scent hung on the still, super-heated air for metres in all directions for several weeks:-

Next time, the less photogenic jobs:- compost making; deadheading; taking cuttings.  

Sheila May

Posted by Sheila May

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