There are men in my garden…

…they have been busy doing things for a while.

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First they dug a hole.

I’ve noticed that generally, men love to dig holes. Just look at them closely next time you pass some road-works. They have a good dig, and then they straighten up and admire the hole they’ve made. They often chat about the hole to their mates, and point to different bits of it (different bits of a void). The two men in my garden are no different. They took enormous care with their hole. And I had to admit, when they’d finished, that it really was very, very beautiful.

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Then they started mixing cement.

They shovelled sand into their mixer, and added water, and they carefully poured the cement into their hole – not all in one go, but very carefully, in sections, making sure it was perfectly level (with a tiny, imperceptible drop, for drainage). This took effort and time, and great skill. They smiled while they worked, smoothing the cement with a long, thin piece of wood, balancing expertly on their haunches, like landing acrobats, or someone in the jungle with a javelin, stalking prey…all this with squinty eyes, and a perpetual roll-up, poking out of their mouths.

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Then they began laying bricks.

London stock – soft pink with apricot undertones. They worked from the centre, using taut string for guidance, and a spirit level on each and every brick, checking and re-checking. They stopped regularly for tea and cigarettes, and to eat over-processed sandwiches – a few words exchanged between them – always looking at the work, always surveying the next bit. Once dry, they began brushing sand between the bricks, painstakingly poking it and packing it tight into every crevice with palette knives. Squinty eyes. Cigarettes.

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Then they began the wall.

It’s a tricky job, to create a retaining wall that slopes with the natural contours of the garden, melting down at the bottom, into nothing (well, lawn, and  bulbs). The top of the wall must be sit-on-able, with each brick on its side. Many of them must be cut to size. Each one must be examined…mulled over…thought about. Slop of cement, tap tap tap, spirit level, tap tap, squinty eyes, cigarettes. The sun comes out, and Babety gets home from school. She runs past them and jumps on the trampoline, waving at them. They wave back. They leave at 5pm. I wait for them to go, and rush into the garden and stroke the bricks, marvelling at the men, and their skill, and the joy of watching something slowly materialising out of nothing. I think about the value of repetition…Tap tap tap. Spirit level. Tap tap, repeat.

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The last leg appears.

I suddenly have the urge to feed them, these men who never speak, and just smoke and smile and tap and slop. I buy sausage rolls. Big ones, from a posh butcher. I hand them over; “for you” I say, gesticulating wildly, pointing at my mouth. They smile at me indulgently, mutter thanks, and turn back to their work. At last the central stone is cut. I had originally wanted an old piece of  York stone, but time was not on my side, and we ended up pilfering from the terrace (which will go someday soon). It looks perfect. It is flat. We can put a fire bowl on it. I am in raptures. They leave as quickly and quietly as they appeared, removing all the rubbish to reveal flattened, yellowed lawn beneath, and I rather miss them. It is only when I wave my thanks, that I realise not a single sentence has been exchanged between us.

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And now it’s my turn.

I’ve been digging hard, removing many stones, and planning my assault of plants. It will soften, and make the circle recede (or at least, this is what I hope it will do). I am enjoying having a flat space to put my cup of tea. It will be a space for eating and drinking, and for plonking oneself. There will be cushions aplenty. I am ridiculously happy about my circle of bricks.

Agapanthus 101

 How to grow Agapanthus

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My first day off yesterday, in just short of a year, and I got to spend it ogling at pretty flowers with the marvellous Debora who lunches with me irregularly, and shares my passion for extremely bad television.

We were at the RHS Spring Show – that vast hall, with the concentrated scent of new fresh growth, punctuated by narcissi, hyacinth, mimosa…depending on where you are standing.

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I am a sucker for spring…I cannot tell you how many bluer-than-blue corydalis, whiter-than-white anemones; how many tiny pots of scented pelargoniums I have bought at these shows – they totally see me coming. This year I was utterly sidetracked though, by Agapanthus. Hoyland Plant Centre, who hold the National Collection of Agapanthus, had a stand, complete with a lovely, geeky table explaining the different stages of growth, and (crucially) small plants in 9cm pots, and divided sections of larger plants, which I can actually afford.

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We went upstairs and sat down to listen to Steve give a talk on Agapanthus, and, as usual, I learned more from this twenty minute question and answer session than I’d gleaned from years of reading books or internet. One person with a passion, who knows his subject inside out and is able to explain it in plain English – the whole audience was rapt.

Here, in a nutshell, is what I learned.

There are two different types of Agapanthus. Deciduous and Evergreen. Deciduous are hardy pretty much everywhere. Evergreen need to be in the south (or see below for methods of protection).

Compost.

Needs to be well-drained. Steve uses two parts ordinary multi-purpose mixed with one part sharp sand or grit. Treat them mean. Too many nutrients will produce leaves and no flowers. (see below for fertiliser)

 Root restriction.

The rumours are true; these plants like their roots restricted at first. This helps the rhizome to form and bulk up, allowing for flowering. Obviously they therefore do well in pots. Here is the kind of pot-bound-ness that is perfect for an agapanthus. Don’t re-pot until this level is achieved.

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Here’s a plant that is too pot-bound and needs re-potting:

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If you want to plant in the ground and the roots are not yet congested enough, sink them inside a pot with the bottom removed.

 Feeding.

Feed regularly with a high potash feed (that’s the ‘K’, or Potassium in your ‘NPK’ fertiliser; their feed is 30% potash) from March to September. This will encourage flowering.

 Winter care.

Give containers a really good soaking in November, buy a bag of bark chippings and mound them over the crown of the plant (in amongst the leaves if it’s evergreen) and, if you can move them, bring them inside somewhere frost-free (evergreen will need light, deciduous won’t) for the winter. If you can’t move them, wrap the container with bubble wrap and then the whole thing with fleece. If you’re in a sheltered area you’ll get away without doing this, but if your plant is super-precious to you, then Steve says you should do it anyway.

In the border, just use bark chippings and mound them up over the buds.

 Dividing

Use a knife that’s an appropriate size for whatever you’re chopping. Steve likes his meat-cleaver. He also uses one of those Nigella-type mezzaluna things for smaller plants. He looks rather better than Nigella wielding the thing. It is a sight to behold. Sorry I didn’t get a picture.

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Hack away…these plants are tough, but if you are using something serrated, then be sure to shave the cut with a knife afterwards so that the wound can heal cleanly (it’s the difference between having a clean cut and a graze on your skin – clean cuts heal better and quicker. Leave the pieces to heal over for 24 hours before re-planting in the compost above. If you’re re-planting in the ground then you don’t need to do the plastic pot trick if the plant has flowered the previous year and has flower-buds on it – the rhizome is sufficiently bulky.

Here is the inimitable Steve with some of his cleavers. IMG_6709

I have a container-grown agapanthus that I’ve neglected for years and hasn’t flowered for the last two or three. It’s so pot-bound that it’s pushing itself out of the container. I was about it release it from its pot, chop it up and re-plant in the border, but Steve says I should re-pot it first in a larger pot, feed and mollycoddle it for another year, and then chop it up, once it’s flowering again – invaluable advice, brilliantly delivered.

I bought a beautiful chunk of Agapanthus praecox from Hoyland – an evergreen that I’m going to put with all my other agapanthus  in a special new bed I’m creating….updates soon.

 

A little languid sowing…

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I completely forgot to post this little foray with Cobaea scandens...pretty much my fave climber.

Thanks to Mr Higgledy (who writes on his blog everything you ever need to know about this plant), I was reminded this morning…so here you go.

I ALSO forgot to say that I usually put a little plastic bag over each pot to keep things humid and steamy, which aids germination.

Bedside bulbs #2

Daffs and muscari.

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…started off life like this, (below) back in October….

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I put them by the bed, because I am up a lot at night, and, well, they add a bit of cheer to the proceedings..

xxx

x

 

Go outside and play!

Lovely parcel in the mail the other day. I don’t think that childish thrill of getting a parcel in the post will ever leave me. Brown paper packages and all that…

This one was in a jiffy bag, and it contained Dawn Isaac’s new book:

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I suppose I should give you a disclaimer here, because I know Dawn from twitter (and now in ‘real’, as some call it), and I’m a big fan. Her energy is infectious – she’s a bit of a kid herself (and I say that as a compliment). Little wonder then, that she has nailed one of the most difficult and overcrowded genres in the book shop. Gardening/crafting with children.

I’m sure my mum would deny it, but I *do* have a memory of being told to ‘go outside and play’ as a child. The thing is, sometimes you just need a little inspiration. There are so many things I love about this book. The ideas are brilliant – from planting a lettuce ball, to making flower fairies (see below) and creating a mobile herb garden (all things I want to do with my little one), to simple, pleasurable, wholesome outdoor stuff, like catching autumn leaves and making dens.

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Everything is photographed, but there’s no annoying snazzy styling, just simple, joyful pictures of kids having fun doing stuff. The best bit is the writing, which is directed towards the child, with references, here and there to an alien species called ‘the grown-ups’. When I read this I’m immediately placed into the mind and heart of my child (emphasis on going out and having loads of fun…NOT making picture-perfect stuff! *stern face to self*).

Last Saturday, when Babety was slumped in front of Beebies after a particularly taxing morning dancing to ‘Man in the Mirror’ (don’t ask), instead of saying the usual “it’s such a lovely day, why don’t we go to the park”, I scooped her up, stuck a thick piece of masking tape around her wrist (sticky side up) and sent her off with a friend and The Hunk to make ‘Nature Bracelets’ (page 94). She bombed out of the door like a rocket. Sadly the bracelets got covered in mud because everyone started squelching about in puddles, so no photo here, but you get the point…it’s #whatevergetsyououtside.

I showed her Dawn’s book when I got home, and asked her to mark everything in it that she’d like to do. This was the result, and I think it speaks volumes:

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 Thanks Dawn x

You can find Dawn’s blog, full of ideas for gardening with children, right here.

She’s also on Twitter and Facebook

Snowdrops and Happiness

Snowdrops, gone over but not forgotten from Laetitia Maklouf on Vimeo.

I made a little video…many reasons but mainly because I sit around tapping away at my computer for far longer than I strictly enjoy. Doing a video takes less time, and I get to smile at you (yes, all three of you….love you mum, dad, hunk). I like smiling…and thinking aloud.

This one is about what to do with your gone-over snowdrops (yes, either plant them, or give them away). I may do more, if I am not laughed out of town… Thanks for indulging me *smiles*

 

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In other, much more sumptuous news, I’m taking part in a competition with Neom Organics (amazing bath, body and smelly candles company that use only organic ingredients and NO nasties whatsoever). They’re celebrating spring with a big Happiness Prize Package. I love their stuff, particularly the candles and reed diffusers which I tend to use in the winter when I’m desperate to be reminded of warmer weather and the wonderful scent of Spring and Summer.

There’s a big bundle of prizes on offer (including books by me) - click here, or on the images to check it out, and good good luck!

Oh, and I also have a special discount code for you to use at Neom – just sign up (below), and I’ll send it to you….don’t worry, you can always unsubscribe when you’ve got the code…and I’ll never ever share your details with anyone else – it wouldn’t be cricket.

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On Spring, Perfection, Yanking stuff out, and Dead wood…

Hello – a little post about gardening, and happiness…

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I’ve been out there with my garden, clearing, weeding, dividing and re-planting and generally yanking stuff out. It’s a new thing, this removal of stuff; the garden has reached its tipping point. The shrubs I planted four years ago have settled in and spread, obliterating the perennials that were planted alongside them to make the garden sing in its first few years. Though I always knew in my head that this day would come…this time when I would have to re-gig certain things because they had (shock horror!) actually GROWN…it never seemed possible when I started out. Those little plants, with so much bare earth around them.

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…from tiny acorns and all that.

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I work quickly, and in a rather slap-dash fashion. There isn’t time to linger over anything too long, and I am a one-woman-band when it comes to my garden.

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These first bright cold days of Spring (can I say Spring? or will I jinx it?) always both delight and panic me. Small voices sometimes spoil the loveliness of it by reminding me that my garden should be beautiful, always…After all, I am ‘that gardener woman’ who writes books about gardening. I don’t want to be the proverbial dentist with bad teeth. But getting out there and doing what needs to be done generally lets me zone out from this chatter. I think about time passing, and my family, and how exquisite it is that there is new life underneath all the dead stuff I am clearing away. The important stuff – the fat, bright buds of living tissue emerge, and the futility of hating on myself for being unable to attain ‘perfection’ gets composted with the rest of the dead wood. I go back inside, hot and aching from my allotted two hours – full-hearted….happy.

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By the bed: February posy

Exquisite small things, photographed past their best but none-the-worse for that…

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Picked by my four-year-old, (with a little help from my mother)

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Ingredients: Narcissi, crocus, rosemary, pulmonaria, and one rather floppy hellebore.

IMG_6735I particularly love crocus indoors as they start basking….

…tangerine stamens against purple…that’s a colour combo.

Bedside bulbs

Happy Valentines x

I wanted to share something I’ve been doing over at my Crocus blog – my mossy, irisy knoll in-a-box, which is making me happy today. I love the generosity of this bedside box so much that I’ll be returning to it soon, with something new. Click here for full glory.

 

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Potted romance

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I usually stem the urge to post about snowdrops at this time of year

…Obviously because it’s been done before a million trillion times, and I don’t want to be boring. But by heck I LOVE snowdrops. They thrill me, and fill me with hope for the year ahead. I love the way their milky-pure heads push through leaf litter and frosty ground, spearing the cold, beckoning me out into the garden, announcing that however chilly it might be above ground, the earth is about to warm up and precious springtime is on its way.

I used to be big-time into populating my garden with my very favourite varieties of snowdrops – G. ‘S. Arnott’, G. ‘Elwesii’, G. ‘Magnet’ (above)… but today I walked into my front door and decided I wanted snowdrops in my window-boxes, like, NOW.

Consequently I’ve bought six little pots from my local garden centre as my pre-valentines present to my very bestest friend (ME), and these will be planted out in the garden as soon as they’ve gone over to join my little colony. I’ve always preferred buying galanthus in bud in a pot so I can enjoy them at my table, or indeed outside, rather than having them sent to me ‘in the green’ which is basically a withered bunch of leaves.  These little beauties are simply labelled G. Nivalis. They have pretty nodding heads. They’re good enough for me.

And now to the crux of things…the VALENTINE bit.

I’ve been having a fight with myself about this, too, because a couple of days ago I received a press release telling me about this snowdrop…newly discovered and AS YET UN-NAMED.

Evolution Plants Valentine Snowdrop

Perhaps you can tell where I’m going with this, but DAMMIT, if that isn’t the most perfectly sublime valentine present, to have a snowdrop named after someone you love? Tell me I’m wrong.

Oh, and did you spy the upside-down heart? Yup. Me too.

Naming rights will be up for grabs to the highest bidder on ebay. Find out all about it here, and Tom will be posting a link to the auction page on Friday.

Suffice to say I have let the Hunk know.

The money raised goes to help save rare and endangered plants, so get bidding…

…(and by the way…the spelling for my name is at the top of this page)

xxx