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On a Chalk Hillside January 2017

On a Chalk Hillside - Developing our garden

What do you do with your Christmas Tree after the festive period?

Although we never met the previous owner, as we cleared the wilderness past the hedge we discovered that she had planted a good many of the Christmas trees she had over the almost 40 years of occupancy in the garden, many along the hedge, and in the space between the hedge and the orchard.   Probably originally they were spaced well apart, but as more and more were added they were crowding each other out, and getting under the canopy of the two big Silver Birches that were the start of the orchard area.  None of this had been apparent when we started clearing the wilderness.  The old prunings, self-sown elder bushes and brambles were a thicket well over head height as we started chopping, shredding, and eventually burning.  But as we advanced across the patch, the pine forest emerged.

Some of the last trees to be removed, showing how closely planted they were.

Our intention was for this area to be our vegetable patch.  We wanted to build compost bins up against the side of the breezeblock shed that was part of the hedge-line across the garden, and to have four large beds with paths between them, between the hedge and the Silver Birches.  As our plan on retiring was to stretch our redundancy money by growing as much of our own fruit and veg as possible our priority that first winter was to ready the ground for growing (and for a polytunnel, but that’s another posting!).  These pine trees had to come down.   
(I should warn you that we moved here in 2004, and the photos in this post are from a pre-digital time, and are the best of a bad bunch, so apologies for the muddiness of them.  Also, the only time I was able to take “action” pictures was on the day we had help with the one of the last trees.)  
I know you are picturing us with chainsaws taking a wedge out of the tree trunk, yelling timber and jumping back as the behemoth crashes to the ground possibly taking with it a few branches from neighbouring trees as it goes.  Well, not in a crowded 10 metre wide garden with fences on both sides.  We had plenty of practice of tree removing with just two middle-aged people, a ladder, a step-ladder, a hand bow saw and several skeins of heavy duty nylon rope, so here is a potted version of how we felled the trees.  As you can see from the above picture many were mature pines, well over 7 metres high.  Having worked for BT my husband had been trained in roping off ladders to work on telegraph poles, and put this knowledge to good use.  The trees were so close together that we were able to rope from one to the other so that branches and parts of trunks were managed in their angle and speed of descent, assisted by a plaid-shirted woman with stout hide gloves on, holding a further rope taut from the ground (well if you are cutting down trees you need to be dressed as a lumber jack!)   
The first job was to cut off all the branches from a tree, to both lessen the weight of the trunk, and to minimise the area of fallout.  These were subsequently further “processed” for shredding (our shredder only takes branches about 3-4 cm diameter), so anything bigger than that had to be removed, and were either burnt, turned into log piles for hedgehogs and other wildlife at the bottom of the garden, or used in the construction of the vegetable beds.

Removing branches, see how close the trees are together?

Then the trunk was removed in stages that we could manage.  What you need to leave at the bottom is a stump at least 2m tall so that you have something to push and pull on as you try to get the roots out.










Roping the top of the trunk off to cut another section off.

As all gardeners know, trees make a lot of roots.  
The rootball is at least as wide as the tree canopy, and we are always told the roots are shallow, in the top 30cm or so of soil (which is why they pop up in your lawn etc.  However all the trees we have removed in this garden also have at least one anchoring root.   Below the surface of the soil is a big mass of trunk from which the roots emerge – some of which are the thickness of the branches that you can see above ground.  You excavate the soil around all these roots, which usually involved a pick axe to try and get under and close between the roots, and cut through them with a saw, using the tree stump as a lever to get movement in them.   This helps you see where the anchoring root is.  Think of it like a tap root, it may not go straight down like a carrot, but it is usually right underneath, and involves a lot of digging, straining on the stump to try and move soil to see where it might be (and lots of heavy breathing and bad language as time passes).  
Once all the trees were down the roots had to be dug out, as well as all the roots of the elder, brambles and other weeds in the area.  As we were digging these out, we discovered quite a lot of rhubarb roots (well we subsequently discovered they were rhubarb roots, at the time we just lined them up and waited to see what they were when they developed leaves.)  

This shows the size of stump left, and my husband cutting one of the roots whilst the stump is being pulled away from him. In the foreground is part of the trunk lying on some of the branches that had been previously removed.






In a recycling and repurposing way worthy of 'The Good Life', we cut the trunks of the trees to the right lengths to make the edges of the four vegetable beds.  As we were on a slope, the bottom edge of the two beds nearest the Birches had two trunks on top of each other.  Branches were used, cut to size as anchoring pegs for all the beds, and big screws were driven through to keep the trunks in place.  The shreddings from clearing the site were used to make the paths between the beds. 





Here is the vegetable garden in June 05 Painted Lady Runner Beans in the foreground, and Pink Fir Apple Potatoes in the bed behind

That first winter was not a particularly severe one – not all that wet, or cold – the ground was not frozen solid for a couple of weeks nor did we have extreme winds.  Most of the plants we bought with us were in pots and they were lined up beside the house between our house and the side wall of next door, or down the side of the garage.   The house came with an outside tap already, so the pots were able to be watered as required.  We were following the maxim that you should group pots together to maximise their sheltering each other, and minimise dehydration from wind.  Whilst this was the only flattish concreted area we had, and we assumed the houses would provide a bit of shelter, we were wrong. The side of the house, it transpired, is a wind tunnel, as most of our weather comes from the west, and the wind blows straight down the side of the house.  In addition because the sun rises at the bottom of the garden and moves round to the front of the house during the day, this area only gets sun for about half an hour in the afternoon, and the rest of the time is in shade.  Whilst it was lovely to see the Magnolia x loebneri ‘Leonard Messel’ in its big pot when I looked out of the kitchen window next to the Japanese Tree Peony I bought from a stall in Walthamstow Market, neither of them really liked being there, and suffered in the wind.  As it was winter, I didn’t really appreciate how much they disliked it until the spring when they sulked badly.  
However, another choice plant that I had in a pot, Salvia microphylla ‘Kew Red’ a fabulous plant that flowered from early June right until the frosts, simply gave up and died.  Both it, and its pink sister Salvia microphylla ‘Pink Blush’ had been perfectly happy for several years in our north London garden, and I had not taken cuttings before we moved.  Distraught is a good word to describe me at that point.  Ironically, so far not one of the Pink Blush has perished – and I take cuttings of it every year as insurance too.  So easy to root from cuttings, I would recommend it heartily. 

Salvia microphylla ‘Pink Blush’ (with a White-tailed Bumblebee on it) flowering on 9 June 2011 in our garden


A few plants came as rooted cuttings, and the hardy geranium divisions were in carrier bags.  We weeded the bed nearest the house to heel them in.  I had been as careful as I could be when I divided the hardy geraniums not to bring any bindweed roots with them – I didn’t want to transpose problems after all.  I had even washed soil off some things to try to make sure.  However, as I followed one briar root back under the edge of the bed under the concrete path I found a tell-tale root – bindweed!   Oh dear.  I thought we had left that pernicious weed behind.  How naïve was I!  
Next time let’s talk “proper gardening talk” – composting and weeds!!

Sheila May



Posted by Sheila May

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