Sunday, 13 July 2014


We've enjoyed a weekend in Cambridge, doing nostalgic things like picnicking on the backs, going punting, and wandering round college gardens. I'll cut straight to the photos.

The Cam, from Garret Hostel Bridge (the back of Trinity Hall) (© Ian 2014)

The University Library (© Ian 2014)

The History Faculty (© Ian 2014)

Clare Bridge, and the back of King's (© Ian 2014)

Topiary in King's (© Ian 2014)

King's College Gatehouse (© Ian 2014)

Liz, Philip and Katherine (© Ian 2014)

Clare College Gardens (© Ian 2014)

Clare College Gardens (© Ian 2014)

Clare College Gardens (© Ian 2014)

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Bramble-Tip Wine

I totally forgot to do this yesterday, so after mowing the lawn this evening, I've transferred the bramble-tip wine (pint of bramble tips, steeped overnight, boiled for fifteen minutes, poured onto sugar, yeast added when cooled, and sat for ten days) into a demi john. It smells surprisingly enticing: I'm looking forward to trying it in a few months.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Flower Arrangements

For which Liz must take the credit.

26th July (photo © Ian 2014)

2nd August (photo © Ian 2014)

9th August (photo © Ian 2014)

And three more window decorations from 9th (all photos © Ian 2014):

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Harvest Mild

Last summer, I made a batch of Young's 'Harvest Mild' beer, which was ready, I think, in August/September. We've really enjoyed it, and it made very good Wiltshire cured hams, so—as we're getting to the end of the barrel—I thought I'd make more. I've set it off this evening, having freed up the big 5 gallon fermenting bucket from the elderflower wine. The little barrel (3 gallon) still has a gallon of bramble-tip wine in it, which will go into a demi john on Wednesday.

It took a long time (two months) to be ready for a barrel last year, so hopefully it'll be a bit quicker.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Nettle Cordial

The days started with some weeding, and my finishing off the shed-boxes (needed to add weather strips inside the last two boxes' doors, and paint the floor of the one which has the lawnmower in, as this will often be a bit damp). I also added some extra strings to the willow-less legume frames, as they're starting to get going.

Even though we planted out a great number of things earlier, we still have a lot of small plants growing on, mostly around the greenhouse, or on the weed membrane near the kitchen. Today we managed to plant out a number of these—but there are still lots of pots left! It takes many, many plants to fill half an acre, it turns out.

Into the long border have gone several astrantia (A. major, A. minor, A. maxima, as well as a variegated form from my parents' garden—it might be A. major 'Sunningdale Variegated'); a few trios of coreopsis; some more of our seed-grown Stipa tenuissima; and some geums.

More geums, and some mixed achillea, went into the bed on the games lawn side of the septic tank, to balance it with the other side (the geums there are doing marvellously, and look good set against the new green background of the sheds.

A few spare achilleas, and then some campanulas, aquilegias (Magpie and Royal Purple), and lupins (mixed, hopefully nice colours!) went into the two beds around the sweet peas that aren't looking so good (the back one of the three is pretty good, but the others' wildflowers didn't germinate well.

We also had three little dicentra (with rather darker, single-colour flowers: we're not much taken with the pink & white normal form, but this one, and the all-white we already have, are much more to our taste), which have gone in the copse bed.

A bunch of hardy fuchsias (Hawkshead, Delta's Sarah, and Army Nurse), have been potted up, along with a dozen box cuttings, a number of 'Tail Feathers' grass (Pennisetum macrourum), rose campion, and other achilleas.

Over lunch, we moved the elderflower wine into demi-johns (adding yeast nutrient), and also bottled the nettle cordial which we started a week ago. It looks a brighter colour than last time.

Nettle cordial straining (© Ian 2014)

We had hoped to move a load of chippings onto the weed membranes, but only managed about ten barrow-loads, because first we had raspberries and courgettes to pick. The raspberries are doing much better this year, probably because they've been well mulched last year and this, and we got the pruning right last August. The courgettes are just starting to form: it seems earlier than last year. I think we just about had them in mid/late July, so it's earlier than that. The plants seem to be fruiting at a smaller size, too: I don't know how much of all this is down to the variety (Defender), which is new to us.

It's been a good weekend for cat company: they've been much in evidence.

Hungry cat (© Ian 2014)

A number of seedlings are growing on well, including these dierama, which I'm looking forward to having.

Dierama (RHS seed) two weeks ago... (© Ian 2014)

...and now (© Ian 2014)

Saturday, 5 July 2014


During our few days off, we cleared the septic tank of the stones that have been on it for a couple of years, in preparation for installing new storage units on it. We've been without a shed for almost exactly two years, when we took the old one down: it was rotting away, and starting to leak, besides not looking very attractive.

Our plan, since then, has been to get a series of storage 'boxes' that went down the septic tank. The top of this is only 120cm wide, although it's over 5m long, so it took a while to find something suitable. In the end, though, we settled on four 2'x4' mini-sheds. They're about 5' tall, and that footprint means that four of them will fit on the tank, and be able to open. It leaves only a 2' passage, but that's proved sufficient.

The four packages arrived yesterday, and we had a very late night assembling two, and starting the painting (of the bases, which will be in contact with occasionally wet concrete).

We continued today, and it's been an all-day affair, with Liz painting while I assembled the last two. We manoeuvred them into position, and finished installing them. They're individually locked, and we've put a pair of shelves into the front one, which is where the frequently used things go: the boxes of hand tools, gloves, fertilizers, slug pellets, and string; and the lawn mower. The second one has the bigger tools: I'd like to put up hooks, or similar, to organize them better. The third has fleece, mesh, and heavy duty bags; and the fourth has all the plastic pots.

This has made an enormous difference in the 'garage', which is much tidier, and more room-like.

Liz busily painting (© Ian 2014)

Septic tank / willow arch from the games lawn (© Ian 2014) 

Bare septic tank cover (© Ian 2014)

Willow arch / septic tank from the pond garden (© Ian 2014)

Sheds in place (© Ian 2014)

2'x4' Garden Stores on top of the septic tank (© Ian 2014)

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Last Few Jobs

I'm astonished to say that, of our list of jobs we made on Saturday for the past five days, we've actually done them all. Today, I've turned the compost heaps (decomposing beautifully); replaced the satellite cable and LNB (finally we have two signals to the box, reducing recording conflicts); we've painted the bike shelter (it'll need another coat or two, but there you go); installed the loft hatch in the garage (still so named!); and hung ladder hooks in the same (necessitated by putting a hatch in the hole they poked up through). Liz has done a thorough weed of the long border over the last couple of days, and it's looking loads better. We've also managed to move all the stone (and turf) that we put on the septic tank two years ago when digging the beds on either side. This is because, having transformed the garage, we want to get some of the garden tools out; but, lacking a shed, this is tricky. Our solution (long planned) will be a set of storage cupboards along the septic tank, within the living willow structure we're growing over it. Ideally, these will each have a little green roof, probably planted with alpines (which have their interest mostly in the spring, before the willow gets into full leaf). They arrive on Friday, so in order to assemble them this weekend, the tank top needs to be clear.

Having uncovered it, I've been reminded that two of the five manhole covers don't fit at all well. By which I mean they're alarmingly unstable, and seem too small. The concrete lid sections have also 'drifted' towards the bottom end of the tank. We've pushed them back together, but the covers are irredeemably too small. I shall buy a couple of new ones, and mortar them in, which will make it all rather safer.

While we've been working, the cats have kept us company. Chess found somewhere shady to nap (I don't know how he got through the latticework).

Chess sleeping inside a sweet-pea pyramid (© Ian 2014)

We're almost, but not quite, at the point of enough sweet-peas for every downstairs room.

Liz's sweet-pea (and berberis and alchemilla) flower display for the week (© Ian 2014)

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Harlow Carr

We spent today at Harlow Carr: the first time, actually, we've been not on a weekend or Bank Holiday. Unsurprisingly, it's much quieter!

We found this in the scented garden, but couldn't see a label, sadly.

The Scented Garden, RHS Harlow Carr (© Ian 2014)

A heavenly almond macaroon (© Ian 2014)

Knautia macedonica, which caught our eye for the wide range of colour (© Ian 2014)

Sweetcorn (Snowbaby and Popcorn Fiesta (this one, with red stems)) in containers in the Bramall Learning Garden (© Ian 2014)

Rhododendron auriculatum in the woodland (© Ian 2014)

When we got home, there was enough time to sow some salad leaves (in pots: direct, they keep getting slugged), and a barrel of carrots.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Odd Jobs

Today—as Wednesday will be, I expect—has mostly been little jobs. Liz has finished 'weeding' the orchard, and I've cut paths through the grass. That leaves things flowering (which looks good), and takes less time (also good), while looking deliberate and allowing easier access to the trees and clearings.

I've topped up the chippings on the steps under the greenhouse, and in front of the wood shelter (where they were getting weedy, and decomposing). That's let us re-stack a load of wood, delivered last week, more neatly on the drive. We'll need to spend a day next weekend sawing, splitting, and stacking, though.

The greenhouse is finally sorted, and we've potted a load of things into proper pots, and laid them out on the new 'patio' outside the dining room. That needed levelling, before pots would be stable, and that's done. We need a new load of chippings to spread on the membrane, so that it looks a little less artificial.

We've also been able to collect enough flowers to start 2 gallons of elderflower wine, as well as (yesterday) bramble tips (the first 4" of brambles) for a gallon of wine (a new one for us, to make up for missing the dandelions). The bramble tips steep in hot water overnight, and then get simmered for fifteen minutes (over lunch), before straining the liquor onto sugar (I'll add yeast before I go to bed). The elderflowers have boiling water poured on them, along with sugar; yeast will be added in the morning.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Quick Morning

We've spent the afternoon with Liz's family, celebrating her grandfather's birthday, but managed to get a fair bit done this morning, all the same.

Liz has weeded most of the orchard (that is, cleared around each tree -- there are still plenty of 'weeds' growing!), and cut back the grass growing between the grafted fruit. Of these, many have taken: sadly, none of one of the medlars, but at least one of each other has, including all the apples and pears, pleasingly.

While she started this, I finished putting the roof on the bike shelter we started a couple of weeks ago. That can be painted tomorrow.

It's been a couple of weeks since I started trying to get round to it, but I've also trained the new growth in the apple walk. That's meant cutting back the inappropriately placed shoots to 10cm or so; tying the espalier-destined shoot onto the horizontal wire, and tying the vertical shoot onto the steel tube. Two apples (Cat's Head and Grandpa Buxton) are tall enough that they've got two tiers tied down, and need the arch itself putting in, as they're almost at the top of the support tube.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Patio Steps

When planning the new patio doors out of the dining room, we knew that there was a significant difference in floor level between the patio and the dining room, and always planned to build steps from the stone taken out of the wall to bridge it. Starting this has been today's work: slow going, as our block-laying skills are not honed, and the stones are really very heavy. Most of the bottom layer is in place, and enough of the middle and top to allow easier access through the single door. Getting further will have to wait, for one thing, until I buy more mortar...I always forget how much you need...

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Leeks and Bouquets

One thing we didn't manage to squeeze into an already busy weekend was planting out the leeks, which have really been ready for a couple of weeks. They've had a space planned, of course, in the kitchen garden, although it's meant taking out the over-wintered cabbages, 'Frostie', which were late to heart up. We're going to be eating a lot of cabbage, I predict, over the next couple of weeks. They should stand for a while with their roots in water, hopefully.

Anyway: the leeks. We sowed a couple of pots of Porbello, which we grew last year. With a lot of the seeds this year, I sowed the seeds in seed compost (sterile and fine, but low in nutrients), but with most of the pot pre-filled with normal compost (not sterile, as it's home made, and a bit lumpy, but able to sustain for a lot longer). This has meant that the seeds can germinate in something fine, and with fewer weeds coming up around them, but their roots quickly hit the fertile compost beneath, so they don't get checked in growing. It's also meant that seedlings have been much happier growing on in their pots, and are bigger when we prick them out.

Planting leeks is quite fun, by my reckoning: I have a sturdy plastic dibber, which makes a nice hole about 1½" across, and 5" deep, or so. I push a row of holes (about 6" apart), and drop the separated seedling in. They're tall enough that they poke out a good few inches, and the soil will settle loosely around them when watered in. Some people seem to advocate trimming the roots somewhat (to encourage strong new growth), and correspondingly reducing the leaves (to maintain root:leaf balance), but I haven't ever tried this.

While I did this, and collected what might be the last rhubarb harvest of the year, Liz picked another tub of strawberries (the fifth, I think: they've done well), and flowers. This is the third lot of sweet peas, and the first significant crop: the first two batches were just enough for a small jug. Soon, though, we'll get to the point where up to a hundred new flowers are opening every day; probably in about 4–5 weeks time.

Liz's flower arrangement in brass bowl: sweet peas, Lady's Mantle (alchemilla), and grasses ( Ian 2014)

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Redesigning the Knot Garden

The herb garden's been in the planning for some time, and the design's evolved in the making. Originally, we thought we'd have just box edging, and primarily herbs. We added roses to the planting, and lavender to the edging. Then, when we worked on the design, rather than the concept, we came up with something that needed three edging materials to work well, and so we added step-over apples. The last couple of years of growing the kitchen garden suggested that we actually needed a little extra edibles space, and so we added runner beans, peas, and French beans to the planting -- which helped with height -- and then over-wintered onions, garlic, and elephant garlic. Trying the design last year made it clear that the squares of the design weren't really big enough, so we made them 50% larger. In turn, that meant the design changed, and now we need only two edging types once more. The design, now, is really one of a potager, or ornamental kitchen garden, encompassing roses (technically edible), herbs, apples, and ornamental vegetables -- the attractively podded (and flowered) Shiraz mange tout, Blue Cocoa runner beans, and red/purple Brussels sprouts. Out have gone the inedible box (now to form evergreen box balls in the herbaceous border), and a predominance of herbs.

This weekend, then, we've spent getting as far as possible with the new design. We got started on clearing the ground a week ago, and (after a vet trip that took much of the morning), continued this yesterday. We finished that by about mid-morning today, and then, in an afternoon punctuated by someone coming to finally take away the oil tank, finished preparing the ground by about 5 o'clock.

The oil tank, half-way out ( Ian 2014)

The oil tank has been waiting for removal for a while, and we eventually found someone who wanted it, thus avoiding having to pay (several hundred pounds) for someone to remove something we didn't want. Getting this heavy steel tank off its piers, missing the greenhouse (just the other side of the protective sheet of ply in the photo), across the patio, down two sleeper-built steps, and the length of the games- and pond gardens, and then up the driveway to the truck was, shall we say, tiring.

But now it's gone, and we have a 6x4 space in which a shed might go -- and now no smell of kerosene on warm days.

Now: back to the herb garden. We'd marked out the pattern (basically unchanged) last time, so apart from fine tuning a couple of measurements that had been hindered by rocks (which Liz made excellent progress moving: it really feels thankless work), we were able to immediately see where each square/diamond went.

Into several of these, I sank the climber supports, which Liz started yesterday by painting (I'd only done some of them). We've not had time to add the woven willow sides, so these will have to wait until autumn. For now, there are strings tied round them to get everything growing: they'll be invisible soon, and the willow will be in place for the winter, when it's actually meant to be an attractive feature.

Having sunk the six supports into the ground, we topped up the soil in all of the squares (but not the edges: lavender doesn't want rich soil) with compost, neatly finishing the 'ready' bay of compost, and started planting. The plants are mostly those that we potted up and set outside a few weeks ago, and included enough lavender to complete those edges that we've cleared space for (almost).

From the greenhouse have come the Laguna, Speedy, and Castendel French beans, the White Lady and Blue Cocoa runner beans, and the Shiraz and Delikata peas/mange tout. We've also planted out 32 red sprouts, a load of chicory, a dozen or so bronze fennel, a pot's worth of aniseed, and the Japanese ginger we bought at Tatton. All that obviously needed watering in, and tying to supports where necessary, and it's meant rather a late finish (I came in at 11, and Liz only came in half an hour earlier, to cook)...but it's looking really good.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Patio Doors

Over the last week, we've had the picture window in the dining room taken out, the wall lowered, and folding patio doors installed instead. (At the same time, the big windows in the kitchen and sitting room have been replaced, as the timber frames of both were rotting slowly away, and needed annual maintenance.)

The view before was fine enough. But from most of the room, what you saw was mostly the borrowed landscape, not the garden.

Picture window in dining room, pre-work (frame on left; doors propped on table, right; dustsheets everywhere!) (© Ian 2014)

With the folding doors, you now have more of a sense of the garden, and with them open, you really feel in the garden from inside the room.

New folding doors into knot garden (© Ian 2014)

The doors are really good; smooth action, good locking, and they fold away to one side (right, above) very neatly. The 'access' door, on the left, opens independently, and the drop bolts (silver, between the right pair) hold the others in place while you do so.

It's still a bit of a mess outside, and I need to build steps to them, as there's a nearly two-foot drop at the moment.

The cats seem to like the extra entrance, at least.

Chess examining the new view (© Ian 2014)

Monday, 16 June 2014

Floor Finished

We made a list on Saturday morning of some things we wanted to try to do this weekend (a long one). Pleasing progress has been made, although, as it ever was, not quite everything happened.

Painting the last section (3/8ths) of the garage floor with bituminous sealant happened on Friday evening, Saturday lunch time, and Sunday morning. The plan was that the last coat (Sunday first thing) would then have a clear 24 hours to dry before we put the rest of the floor down.

Saturday morning, before we could do the second coat, we spent digging over a further section of knot garden. While I cut turves, and dug over the stony ground, Liz was busy clearing our stone dyke from last time. We've not worked on extending the herb garden since September, in order to get the overwintering alliums in the ground, so it's nice to once more make progress on it. Although we only did a couple of hours work (too hot!), we returned to the garden on Sunday, and have marked out anew the pattern. We needed to do this because we've changed our mind about the size of the squares (diamonds), which we decided were too small (roughly 1m edges), and needed to be 50% bigger. There wasn't quite enough space in them to allow planting, but still be able to walk through them.
The original (rough) plan for beds and edges in the herb garden (© Ian 2013–14)

That also means we'll only have two sorts of edge: lavender and step-over apples (which I'll try to graft over the winter). The box will be grown on to form box balls in the garden, instead of hedging: we think they might, for one thing, replace some of the Lady's Mantle that's really a weed in the long border. They'd occupy the same niche, of a rounded green mass, but with the advantage of year-round structure, and less invasive self-seeding.

The new pattern fits around the corner nicely, and finishes in about the same place, which is good. We then moved the part-painted climber supports into the beds, settling on a layout that has the taller of these forming a backdrop to the garden, in the boxes furthest from the house. There are only four of these at the moment, but I can always make more in time. The smaller are nearer the house, and there are squares that suitably frame views from the windows with supports. It looks very pleasing, and once the supports are painted, and sunk into the ground, I hope it's going to look really good.

On Saturday afternoon, we constructed a hinged roof that goes over the steps down into the wet cellar from the driveway, which will allow us to store bikes on the steps but keep the worst of the weather off them. It's a simple wooden frame, with tongue and groove cladding, but it looks quite smart...although it does draw my attention to the falling-apart (non-structural!) wall next to it, which edges the pathway. Another day's work there, I think. At the same time, Liz cleared the driveway of a pile of apple prunings that have been sat there drying: they'll be rather fragrant kindling next winter.

They've been sitting around for longer than they should (by some way, really), but we've bottled the five demijohns of wine that were waiting.

  • Dandelion, from May 2013. For whatever reason, the dandelions rather passed me by this May, so I don't have a new batch on the go. This one seems good, though.
  • Greengage from October (a more reasonable time-scale). This was slightly fizzy, so I added a Campden tablet, and bottled it a couple of days later. The taste seemed improved, too, after this.
  • Elderflower from July: very good, this one.
  • Blackberry from September, a predictably dessert-wine red. It was also slightly fizzy, but a tablet and 36 hours rest sorted this out.
  • Chardonnay from a kit, in June last year. It's really rather Chardonnay-like!

In the same vein, this evening we've made a five-pint batch of elderflower cordial. Different process to previously: a dozen flowerheads, a pared then sliced lemon, and then a boiling sugar solution poured over them (1 pint water, 1lb10 sugar). You add 2.5tbsp of citric acid, once cool, and allow to sit for 24 hours before bottling.

The batch of cider that we pressed last autumn has, in turn, finally been racked into two demi-johns. It's not tasting quite 'right', but as I understand it, cider often needs a decent maturation period, so I'll bear with it.

Sunday afternoon was spent, largely, making a hatch for the garage loft, and putting up the last of the insulation. Hanging the hatch will have to wait until I've found the right hinges.

Today, then, was spent finishing the garage floor. The sealant paint was nicely dry by mid morning, so we were able to immediately start work on laying the insulation, screwing down the battens, and filling the gaps with solid insulation. The plywood sheets went on with relatively little fuss, so by about 1530 we'd finished. An hour later, and the room was tidied up, rather than having everything stacked into the half that had a floor, and we've even managed to set out the two armchairs we've had stored in a corner since 2009.

Last thing for the weekend was getting some of the preparatory work done for our new patio doors, which arrived on Friday. They're being fitted on Wednesday (including breaking out the hole for them, replacing the garden window in the dining room), and we've done as much fitting of hardware, and so on, as possible.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Task List

I've had today off, though Liz has been working: that made it an ideal day to get a number of little jobs done, and I've had a pleasingly productive day.

It's the time of year when I start trying to get the window frames painted. Last week, two of the last wooden windows on the back of the house were replaced with uPVC, which (in addition to looking rather good, especially for uPVC) means I have two fewer frames to worry about. Of course, the time-consuming Georgian-barred windows on the front are no fewer, and it's those which have always taken the time.

However, before embarking on this year's painting, I decided to install some eye bolts on the front wall, in order to tie down the ladder while using it. I've had enough of bouncing on an unsteady ladder, and don't enjoy working on one at the best of time. The window at the end of the study has always needed a rather extended ladder, as the ground drops off in that direction, and the path has stepped down towards the level of the garage. It's always, therefore, been the worst climb.

To combat this, I've installed two M12 shield anchor bolts (18mm holes, which aren't for the faint of heart, or drill), one on either side of the window, at about 180cm height. Using a ratchet strap passed around each stile and angled down through the bolt, the ladder can now be tightly held in place. The result is revelatory: I felt much more secure, and less conscious of the drop...

That window, and two dining room ones, are now done: I'm only planning to chip away at the painting, with the aim of getting about half done over the next couple of months.

Next, I strimmed the half of the orchard I didn't manage to do eleven days ago. I'm hoping I'll only have to do this regularly for another 12-15 months, and that we can think about a couple of sheep by then.

I've painted some of the remaining legume/sweet pea supports, which means their bituminous feet (the underground bit) are done, and as many of their above-ground elements as I could get to (given that the tarry feet were drying).

I shan't dwell on unblocking the kitchen drain.

The work on the garage has been going on since the end of last week; sorting the foundations took a little while, but the builder started the actual walls yesterday, and has finished them today. The uneven-ness of the walls has complicated things slightly, and none of the windows are going to be quite the same height. The joiner will be along on Monday to measure up, and hopefully the building work will otherwise be done tomorrow. Next up will be the replacement of the dining room window with a set of patio doors.

After lunch, I took the time to do a wander of the garden with camera in hand. It's been a while, but here's where things are up to.

Bees foraging in the wallflower in the front garden (© Ian 2014)

The dining room windows, for now, until the patio doors go in (© Ian 2014)

The sweet pea supports (© Ian 2014)

One of the sweet peas is flowering; several more are on the verge of doing so (© Ian 2014)

The heuchera bed; not sure whether the quince has set fruit (© Ian 2014)

One of the astrantias in the copse bed (© Ian 2014)

The long border in front of the dining room (© Ian 2014)

The mess of the pond aside, the bed next to the septic tank has filled out well, and needs pruning (© Ian 2014)

The aquilegia here has gone slightly mad this year (© Ian 2014)

Astrantia flower (© Ian 2014)

Mostly-planted vegetable garden (© Ian 2014)

Red Duke of York potato (© Ian 2014)

Green roof wild flowers, with foraging bees (© Ian 2014)

Green roof on wood store (© Ian 2014)

Day lily which we didn't know was there (© Ian 2014)

Weed-membraned knot garden (© Ian 2014)

Inside the garage before work on the wall/windows (© Ian 2014)

New garage front (© Ian 2014)

Stone cills & jambs being supported while curing (© Ian 2014)

Window apertures ready for windows (© Ian 2014)