Gardening Mistakes, Foolishness And Falling Over

The path of every gardener is strewn with mistake cowpats and beset by not-knowing-any-better-trip-wires.  Or at least mine is.  Here’s a handful which I’ve ‘enjoyed’ over the years.

Rushing about during a chaotic house move, I grabbed an old bucket of water to pour on a much-loved and very thirsty, container-grown bamboo.  It was only as the bucket emptied, that I realised it also held several inches of rock salt.  Impossible to get out of its metal container and with no time to properly flush away the saline, the bamboo died.  That was upsetting.

It wasn’t my biggest mistake but spilling an opened, full box of grass seed across a freshly planted border was foolish and in the days to come, I could rue my carelessness at leisure … whilst pulling up and smudging-out hundreds of tiny grass seedlings.  That was boring.

Transplanting several miscanthus into a mostly weed-free bed only to notice, much later, that I’d also transplanted pernicious couch grass wasn’t great either.  (Still battling that one).

Or how about planting horseradish into The Priory vegetable garden, despite knowing how very invasive it is?  I thought, very cleverly, that if I sunk them still in their plastic pots, very cleverly they wouldn’t get established and very cleverly I need simply lift out to harvest.  Sheer yet simple genius.  Except, it didn’t work out like that; and don’t try my very clever idea at home.  Horseradish roots burrow straight down through the holes of a plastic pot and aim for the warmth of Australia.  Rip the pots out by all means but you’ll leave behind impossible-to-dig-out-roots going deeper than is botanically possible; and from which new growth will spring back to taunt you.  In one of the six veg beds, horseradish is here for good and will probably outlive me.  And you.

I added a pretty olive tree to a small lawn and then stood by in callous ignorance as it faded unto death.  A few hundred yards away, in my own garden on top of the hill, a similar olive romped away beguilingly; and I had assumed that this one would too.  But down in The Priory’s fierce frost pocket, one winter I murdered that little tree.  Rather than moving it to safety, as it faltered and withered, I convinced myself that it would soon overcome its transplant sulk and romp away.  But it didn’t and I hung on to obstinate delusion until after the little thing was dead.  Willing something to live isn’t always enough.  (Six or seven years later, and after replacing the olive with a Dawyck Gold beech tree, I still call that patch of grass, ‘The Olive Lawn’  – much to the bewilderment of others).

Deer are a perennial foe but I was grateful at least that they weren’t tempted by eucalypts.  Encouraged by their indifference to three young E. gunnii, I planted another eucalyptus – a beautiful young snow gum – on The Priory drive.  But a deer’s taste is a fickle thing and one morning a year or so later, the small gum tree had been decisively destroyed.  I dug up the stump, put it an a pot to recover and a couple of years later it was big enough to plant within the slightly safer confines of the garden … where, after it had grown higher than my head, deer decisively destroyed it again.  Now, a few months later and still in situ, it has re-sprouted to a height of eight inches; and the deer are licking their lips.

Once, I was haring about the meadow on the ride-on mower and in a hurry, swung round at full pelt to cross the wooden bridge spanning a ditch.  I hit the bridge’s slight step stupidly fast and the mower bucked alarmingly.  As I fought to stay aboard, limbs windmilling, my mobile phone shot from a pocket, described a lovely arc and ker-plunked into three-foot of water – never to work again.  That was expensive.

Or there was the time I lit a smallish bonfire in my garden and, in no time, a fire engine pulled up outside the house, with flashing lights and everything, and a troop of firemen came running at me.  They were terrifically dashing and charming; and after satisfying themselves that the fire was tended by someone borderline competent, shot off again … leaving me a little breathless and wondering whether it all hadn’t been a rather delicious dream.

And years ago, I was browsing the reduced bargains in a plant nursery when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a particularly cheap black bamboo.  Swivelling around to grab it – before anyone else could – I smartly, and in a manner I couldn’t possibly now emulate, tangled up my feet and crashed to the ground.  To this day, when I tell Jim I’m off to inspect the sale items in a garden centre, he’ll softly call after me, “OK but do try not to fall over, dear.”

No major mistakes then, no life-changing circumstance, no death-defying tales but a brief litany of plans not going to plan or plain silly mishaps.

What mistakes have you made?  What buffoonery?  And we know you have, so please do share.  There are no prizes for the best, I’m afraid … only a pat on the shoulder and a consoling “There, there.

Greyer Hair, Whiter Finger

One good thing about growing older is ….. nope, I’m struggling.  One thing about growing older is that the physical graft of professional, full-time gardening becomes harder.  An obvious insight but one I mention nevertheless as it has become increasingly noticeable during my working day.  My back aches more than it used to, my joints do too; I feel the heat more, I feel the cold more; and certain jobs about the garden tire me out more.

Compost Bins

Take mowing for instance.  From early spring to late autumn, Jim and I mow all the grass at The Priory once a week.  It takes us the best part of a day and that day’s clippings fill one of the seven large compost bins.  Full bins need regular turning to make space for the following week; and emptying bins this size with a pitch-fork is sweaty work, if a good cardiovascular work-out.  In almost ten years, mowing hasn’t become easier.  I used to do it all by myself, but halving the work with Jim doesn’t feel like halving the effort.  That’s middle age for you.

Some years, Sussex summers are hot and dry enough to crisp the lawns and virtually stop growth.  Hessian lawns might be unsightly, but any excuse for a pause to mowing is a blessed relief, and I breathe a little, silent whoop of joy.  But this year, frequent warm rain encouraged the grass to grow long all summer … right through to the end of November.  And I breathed a little, silent boo.  Now in December The Priory’s grass needs cutting again but the ground is too wet for the walk-behind mowers or the ride-on.  Whoop, whoop.

September Lawn

Just 2 or 3 days after mowing at The ‘Forge – September 2017

The lawns at The Old Forge have similarly grown enthusiastically but here on thin, free-draining chalk-soil the growth isn’t as rampant; and I’ve had the odd week when I could skip mowing altogether.

Cutting Holm Oak (3)

But it’s not as if a break from the mower allows me to put my feet up and file my nails; it simply gives me the chance to tackle other pressing jobs – such as clipping various shrubs like, a few weeks ago, this holm oak.

Cutting Holm Oak (2)

It’s quite an easy, thoughtful job, which I enjoy and doesn’t take very long;

Cutting Holm Oak (1)

but it’s only one of many shrubs and hedges in need of a trim.

Holm Oak Hedge

Two lines of overlapping holm oak form a hedge which I also cut; as well as, amongst others, forty yards of mixed hedging.  But these are toddler jobs, inconsequential jobs compared to those at The Priory.

Clipped Mixed Hedging (2)

The really, really, really big cutting jobs in my year are The Priory’s beech hedge and the mixed hedge.

Clipped Mixed Hedging (3)

Running alongside the drive, the latter is about three hundred yards long and its annual cut is a task I’ve undertaken since 2011.  Jim and my friend Nick help but even with three of us – wielding hedge-trimmers, raking and transporting all the cuttings to the bonfire – it’s a solid two-day job; after we’ve completed various other bits of mixed hedging on the estate too.  The petrol trimmers are heavy machines and all three of us are wiped out by home-time.

Clipped Mixed Hedging (4)

Only this year we didn’t cut it.

Clipped Mixed Hedging (5)

This year I hired a contractor;

Clipped Mixed Hedging (1)

and he did a good, neat job.

Clipped Beech Hedge

Ben, the contractor, and his brother then moved on to the 2nd mammoth hedge – the beech, which half-encircles the garden.

Beech Hedge Arches (2)

He made a good job of this as well, even if he wasn’t as overly obsessed and fixated on arches and angles as me.  I’m quite an overly obsessed and fixated person, you see.

Beech Hedge Arches (1)

I asked him to leave the shoots on the right of the new beech arch as part of its ongoing formation.  The arch is almost complete.  Every year, I recite, “The arch is almost complete,” like a sad, muttered mantra.  But one year, it will be complete.  Or almost complete.

Having cut these two hedges for so long, not doing so this year seemed wrong somehow and left a hole in my working calendar.  They are part and parcel of my job and an annual event when, for a few days, every other task in the garden is set aside; with a very satisfying, slap-on-the-back, final result.

So why did I hire a contractor?  Vibration white finger is why, also known as hand-arm vibration syndrome.  Over the past year, the occasional tingling and numbness I’ve felt in my fingers after using power machinery has become constant in my left hand, quietly noticeable whilst reading, watching telly or driving.

There’s really no need for condolences, chocolates or flowers, though it’s kind of you to offer.  My fingers are rarely painful and the condition’s intensity ebbs and flows.  Often, I’m barely aware of it.  There isn’t much I can do about it other than limit the time I spend using petrol power tools to prevent it becoming worse.  With new, non-vibrating battery technology, VWF will hopefully cease to be a problem for gardeners and ground-workers.

Yew Hedging (3)

The tulip tree – featured in my previous post – in its green coat

I can’t give up using all the tools in my arsenal, of course, however tingly my hand.  But I have learnt to limit my use of the chain-saw, the strimmer and hedge-cutters to forty-five minutes a day.  Which explains why I hired a contractor for the very long, labour intensive mixed and beech hedges.

Yew Hedging (1)

I still do some hedge-cutting: the small ones, like those at The Old Forge and this yew hedge at The Priory.  But these are relative tiddlers and are done and dusted within an hour, keeping the vibration to a minimum.

Autumn is peak strimming season and most days, I use the strimmer to clear away old, long grass – if only in those 45 minute bursts.  And, unlike last year, I haven’t strimmed a single wasp nest … which made me extraordinarily happy.

Hedge Clippings

As Ben cut The Priory hedges he piled the off-cuts in an old nissan hut, keeping them bone dry for when Jim and I could light a bonfire.

Bonfire (3)

There was so much waste that it took us two days, on and off, to burn it all.

Bonfire (1)

Jim’s pumpkin guerilla planting in the compost bins

So, I was a small cog in cutting The Priory’s hedging after all – if only in a peripheral, non-vibrating kind of way.

Still had to have a doze when I got home though.TheSave