Although couch grass (pronounced coo-ch, Latin name Elymus repens sometimes known as Agropyron repens) is said to have uses in herbal medicine, most gardeners and allotment holders will know it as an invasive weed that is difficult to control.
Our own little plot is riddled with it.
It might seem as though you’re fighting a losing battle when it comes to couch grass, but with perseverance and a little bit of understanding about how it grows and survives, it is possible to keep it at bay. (Although that is likely to take us many years of vigilant work!)
Why is it a problem?
Couch grass grows rapidly through the top layer of soil, creating a thick mat of roots, removing water and nutrients from the soil and making it difficult to plant other things.
Like all plants, it exudes chemicals to help it survive and some of these…
Snowdrops, Aconites, Hellebores, Crocus, amongst others, mark the ending of winter, and the beginning of spring. Soon Fritillaries, Daffodils and Bluebells will take the torch. Then spring really has started. Winter forgotten. I like to accept the 1st of march as the start of spring, although if I were more patient, I’d wait until the spring equinox on the 20th of March. Here the sun is in line with the equator, as it also is on the Autumn Equinox ( just heading in the opposite direction ), so spring is basically the same as Autumn, just backwards. And if you cast your mind back to late autumn, you’ll remember how cold it can get, the novelty of the first frosts soon wearing thin. Frosts are as much a part of spring as they are Autumn. They do not belong to winter. That’s important to remember. They will dwindle, the days will lengthen, but the equinox is not a switch. Spring comes gradually and if you’re not careful, you’ll be caught out.
Last Weekend me and my Partner decided to stay for a night at one of our favourite Country House Hotels ( this makes me sound like I’m visiting country houses every week – trust me, I’m not!)… Which also just so happens to be where my father works as the Head (only) Gardener, 15 acres which in it’s day as a stately home had a total of 12 Gardeners. A sad and clear sign of the times. And hard work indeed for my Dad.
We stay there quite regularly actually, as since my partner also works at the hotel, albeit in a separate building in the grounds, we get a good discount, which includes bed and breakfast (I’ll stop gloating in a minute but those breakfasts are glorious) …We’d be mad not take it up. The people who own it also own quite a few others dotted around the country which we can stay at for the same amazing discounted rate, so we do try to get a way for a little break somewhere every now and then.(I’m now making myself sound like a cheapskate… trust me, I’m not… okay yes maybe a little. I prefer the term Bargain-Hunter )
When we visit, we always do a walk of the grounds, which consists of Formal Gardens, lawns and woodland, just to see what changes have been made since we last visited.
This time however we had been set a bit of a mission. He is wanting to set up a clear, sign posted trail that guests can follow through the gardens and woodland, and before we left he give us a set of directions to follow, just to see if it would work.
So unpacking our stuff, and Being lured out by the glorious afternoon sun:
we set off…
From leaving the Main House, you’ll see the Front formal lawn, known as ‘the glade’ which within a couple of weeks will be fully striped:
left from here is this door, which I had to admit is very alluring.
However we had been instructed to go right and into the woodland in the distance. Entering the woods, the signs of winter were still here, the ground still quite boggy:
But there were also sure signs of spring, with snowdrops out, and other spring plants following behind.
Continuing on you’ll pass a series of natural wood features recently installed:
Until, after admiring snowdrops and log features, and bits of topiary, you reach an opening:
And up some steps, a glimpse of the house.
Up the steps and to your left, you’ll see the Main Lawn:
And to your right, an enclosed area:
Which if you enter you’ll find the sunken garden, which has recently been redeveloped into a Rose Garden:
I’m really looking forward to seeing this establish as it’s just going into it’s second year in it’s current form so I will certainly be back in the summer to see how it’s going.
Back on the path you pass another bench,which offers glorious views over the formal lawn and house:
We’ll continue past this bench and reach a Yew hedge, behind which is another path leading us back into the woods:
where again there a clear signs of spring.
This is the first time I’ve actually been down this path as I’ve never known it was here, I guess part of the reason my dad wants to sign Post.
Following on we reach the main drive where we had been instructed to cross over to another part of the grounds I had not visited before.
From here there are fantastic views of the estate.
These fields have a few fallen trees which are protected so cannot be removed, instead they are left to break down naturally. But I don’t mind that. They’re not an eye saw, sad to see them fallen though. But a habitat for something else.
Further down the footpath, we reach another opening:
Going through here you’ll reach the old Kitchen and Cutting garden:
This was lost many years ago, the reason to which I am still unsure but I’m desperate to find out ( Long before my father arrived – my best guess is after the Second World War when large country estates like this really started to decline.) It would take a lot of money (and a lot more gardening staff) to get going again; even more if they were to redevelop the old Greenhouses and Orangery:
which is in an even further state of disrepair… very sad because you can see what marvellous constructions they once where. One day I hope they will be fully restored. But Sadly I doubt it.
Nature has reclaimed them:
Here you can see trees growing from the inside.
Behind this fence there are still working Beehives, which are kept by a local bee-keeper.
Leaving here, through another enticing door, you’ll reach the orchard:
In the orchard there is also the blackthorn that provides us with the Sloes from which we make Sloe Gin with ( fast becoming a Christmas Favourite)
Opposite the orchard is an old converted set of stables, which hosts 2 out of 3 of my dads Sheds.
Continuing on you’ll pass ( but not enter) a little yard which plays host to the compost bins and piles… which quickly fill up in Autumn when the leaves begin to fall.
Down this back track , and through the trees, you’ll see the end of the first formal lawn we passed:
The end of this track and back where we started, would conclude the trail, which I think is going to be very successful.
However there is one more area I’d like to show you: a little hidden Gem.
Five stepping stones, only noticed by the most observant eye, mark the entrance.
And past a little spring planter,
You’ll see a sign.
This area was installed 2 years ago. This bit is meant for the wildlife not the guests: although there is a bench if you happen to find it.
It’s quite peaceful, to just sit listen and watch for a bit. Normally I bring some food up for the birds but sadly it slipped my mind this time, but it does play host to a lot of garden birds, as seen in this video ( apologies for poor quality).
And in these Pictures:
The British Trust for Ornithology also regularly visit, monitor and ring the birds, check the nest boxes.
Last year, in one of the boxes on the trees, they had Tawny Owl Chicks for the first time.
One of which, by absolute chance, once landed on a branch right next to where my Dad was working:
How I wish I Had seen that! But we do hear the owls on the night whenever we stay, and it is a haunting , Beautiful sound.
On the day after this visit, after the glorious breakfast in bed, we decided to make use of our new National Trust Membership, and visited Fountains Abbey, and Studley Royal Deer Park, which was equally beautiful (If 10 times the size). I could carry on and show you photos from that walk. But we’d be here for weeks. So I’ll just reccomend that you visit and leave you with this:
Most people, when commuting will probably pass an allotment site every day without a second thought. Nothing special, just like passing a hedgerow. An ancient, endangered, home to wildlife, stopping the beasts in the fields causing havoc hedgerow. Like I say, nothing special.
But have you ever looked at an allotment from above? I have. I mean I haven’t gone as far as renting a helicopter or anything but I’ve certainly looked at my own site on Google Earth, just to see how it might look from the eye of the Kestrel that regularly hovers over.
The images are quite old actually, long before I had a plot, so it was quite an interesting thing to see how ‘ my ‘ plot looked before I had it. Of course when I got it was full of weeds – not through neglect, but from the previous tenant struggling from the effects of old age – completely understandable – he left it in as best condition as he could before he passed the torch on. It could have been a lot worse, and you can see through these images that it has previously been well tended too.
When I look at the satellite images of my site ( and others ) I am reminded of something else.
No, that wasn’t the opening titles to Emmerdale. It’s actually the patchwork fields that make up a lot of Britain, and something you’re likely to land on if you zoom in on any random point of the map. Iconic to Britain – and something which sadly, like the hedgerow , is likely to decline, as we go mad with house building.
This patchwork mishmash is reflected on our allotment sites, on a much smaller scale of course. Every plot is different, boundaries are clear.
And on the inside, I believe it’s very much like a scaled down version of Britain, ‘ little britain’ if you like: People from all walks of life, from all over the country – world- yes world! Neighbours, friends. Getting a long, not getting along. People you know only well enough to give a nod of acknowledgment too. People you’ll chat the day a way with whilst getting no work done at all.
A sense of community spirit. As important a thing to having an allotment as the actual growing it self.
Want to visit a city of culture? Just nip down your local allotments. Maybe even get your name on the list. Because when you look closely , you’ll see they are special things, that should be cherished. Before they too, like hedgerows, patchwork fields, community spirit and of course, proper pubs serving proper ale, (and where darts boards and dominoes are not ousted for dining tables), become endangered.
Ooo, hark at me getting all proud and passionate.
( All images except the first one belong to Google)
This week while doing my weekly shop in the local supermarket I bumped in to one of my allotment neighbours who works in there. Lovely bloke, who like a lot of the people on the site will always stop for a chat and occasionally pass on their top tips.
Most of the advice this chap (Who I’ll call Paul) has given me has been sound – however there have been certain pieces in the past where I’ve thought to my self ‘ is he having me on here?’ One such piece was about sprouts:
‘What you want to do is stamp on the ground around the sprouts to compress the roots just before you take them out, that’ll stop them from exploding you see’ Says Paul.
Now, I don’t know about you, but this sounds a bit iffy to me. But the fact he said it so straight faced, so matter of factly made me think perhaps he was being serious. Please do let me know if this is actually a sound piece of advice!
I haven’t actually seen Paul at the plot since about the start of November, and regular visits for him stopped in about mid October.
‘Been down there recently Paul?’ I asked just wanting to start a conversation, knowing full well that he hadn’t.
‘Nah’ He replied. ‘Nowt to do in the winter.’
My teeth sort of gritted at this point.
‘I’ll Go down at the end of February and just Rotavate all the weeds in and then I’ll be ready to go. That’s what you wanna do!’
Of course, like many of you, I’ve been working at the plot non-stop any chance I could all winter, digging, weeding, spreading crap, tidying, sorting the compost. ‘Nowt to do’ is surely far from the truth. So naturally I had to disagree with him.
Mentally disagree that is.
‘Yeah, I suppose you’re right’ was of course the natural reply.
Now, I’m sure everyone has there own methods when it comes to tending there plots, but I believe that the winter graft is part of the allotment experience. Digging is something I particularly enjoy doing in these cold winter months. So yes I disagree that the garden should be put to bed for winter. But should I question it? Probably! But Paul has been gardening a lot longer than I have. He even works in the Fruit and Veg aisle! So I think I’ll let it go.
Come to think of it he might even have a point. Perhaps I am doing it all wrong. Maybe heavy work during the winter is more damaging than it is good… My grass path certainly hasn’t enjoyed all the heavy wheelbarrowing. But even if he was right, and it wasn’t just about an easier alternative, I don’t think I could do it! Months on end without a visit to the plot? No thank you.
‘ Hard work though them Rotavators.’ He said ‘Sweating buckets by the end of it.’
I smiled and thanked him for the advice, then carried on with my shopping.
Of course, as I say MOST tips / advice I am given is sound, if occasionally odd. I’d love to know if it’s the same for you. Please do let me know what pieces of questionable advice you’ve been given in the past.
Here are a selection of garden photos from 2016. Some of them are from my own garden, but the majority of them are from gardens I’ve vistited throughout the year. I’ve captioned the ones which are from mine but otherwise I’ll try leave words out to try and keep this a bit shorter. I’ve also decided to leave the allotment out (mostly) as there is FAR to many pictures to pick from. I hope you enjoy them!
My Year in Gardens…
This last photo is a bit of a cheat really. I didn’t take it, I didn’t even witness it, my Dad did, it’s the old walled garden of the place where he works as Head gardener (also where a lot of these photos were taken – I visit a lot as I love the place!) . But I thought it was too good not to share ( especially as I myself never got any decent photos of the fog – which I think defined the weather in middle days of December.) In my last blog post I spoke about beauty in the ghostliness and eeriness of harsh winter days. I reckon this photo knocks ghostliness and eeriness of it’s feet.
So anyway, that was how 2016 in the garden looked like for me. Hope you enjoyed, I certainly enjoyed taking them!
This week, the last of the year, and the first of a new one, brought the hardest frost of the season so far. It was more than welcome.
All day, for two days, freshly defrosted and warmed up motors crawled across slippy white roads that glistened in the heatless low sunlight. And Upon the hedgerows, and tree lined lanes, ice sat like snow.
But my little humble motor, reliant and valiant, did not defrost, did not warm up and did not crawl. Because on Boxing Day, it decided to finally pack up on me. After five years together it was declared a write off. Another victim of 2016. Very sad.
And as my car was my main mode of transport to and from the allotment ( and also acting as a portable shed for my tools) it meant no work at the plot this week! But I don’t mind really; with days as beautiful as these, it’s nice to just stop and admire.
But amongst the admiration there was also trepidation. Christmas weekend brought some very harsh winds Indeed and I’ll admit that I was a little worried that the four fruit trees I’d recently planted might have been destroyed. So throwing on a coat (x2) and a warm hat I decided to walk to the allotment (I’m a little embarrassed to admit that this is the first time I’ve actually walked there… despite it being only 10 minutes down the road)
I realised, about half way there, once the photo opportunities started to appear, that I really should have brought my proper camera. And so yet again, it’s a case of the best camera is the one in your pocket. On the way I didn’t stop for many photos, as I was more concerned about the possibility of slipping on my arse at any given moment. But I did take a few.
You should never really shoot in to the sun, but this was a landscape I’d always wanted to capture, so I couldn’t resist.
Also, approaching the allotments, I witnessed them from a whole new perspective:
Reaching the gate…
Not surprisingly, I was the only one here. Unlocking the gate is usually a bit of a faff, but to have the allotment to yourself, on a day as beautiful as this one… You won’t find me complaining.
on the inside…
Along the path to my plot, which has more craters than the moon, pools of ice have formed, punctuated by the long shadows that define the light at this time of year.
And finally, at my plot, the worry was all gone, because to my surprise ( and as I was told) the trees were fine.
There is a peaceful beauty in this harsh winter bleakness, reminiscent of an out of season seaside town. Everyone’s gone home, but the promenade lights shine on, the sea still howls. Ghostly, Eeery , Beautiful.
It was a brief cold spell, but looking at the forecast there’s some more of it on the way and hopefully the rest of winter will follow Suit. It’s just what we need amongst talk of ‘ unseasonably high temperatures’.
Of course there are still jobs that need doing, but the majority of the winter work is now complete. The rest is maintenance; sharpening tools, giving the greenhouse a proper scrub, that kind of thing. All of that can wait till the New Year now.
I’ll still be visiting the plot regularly though, making sure everything is in shipshape. And of course the birds still need feeding, even more so as we go into the colder winter months and natural sources of food decline.
Today though, I’ve had to give the allotment a miss, house bound by severe tooth ache. There’s Nothing like tooth ache to make you bloody miserable. And what’s worse I’m not allowed to have a drink due to the strong painkillers I’m on. I wouldn’t be so bothered, however, last month me and my partner decided to give up drinking for the whole of November, as part of a health kick, so I’d been really looking forward to a good drink and now that I finally can, I can’t. Typical.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. I’ve managed to get some Christmas shopping done online, I’ve caught up on this weeks gardeners question time and also, as you might or might not have noticed, I’ve had a little play around with the blog.
I was never really happy with my previous title ‘ Sweet peas and Snapdragons’ I found it too wishy washy. Too lacking in imagination. The two didn’t even contrast each other. Most of all I found that it didn’t really suit me or the content of the blog. So I’ve decided to change it. After pondering for a while over a new title I finally decided on ‘The Restraint of Plants’, a play on my favourite novel ‘ The Restraint of Beasts.’ by Magnus Mills ( the title of this post is also a play on the title of his second novel, ‘ All quiet on the Orient Express.’)
The restraint of beasts is a deadpan black comedy in which we follow the nameless foremen of a Scottish fencing company as they travel around the country erecting high tensile fences in which to enclose cattle, Hence the title.
Gardening is about taming and keeping things under control (most of the time), for the majority in small back gardens or on allotment plots. Hence my new title, which I rather like. But of course there can beasts in the garden too.
I was delighted this morning when from my window, I could see that once again, the Cleveland Hills were reminiscent of a highland mountain range, iced with snow.
No snow here though. Just frost.
Hungry to see some of the white stuff, my Partner and I decided we would go on a brisk autumnal walk. There is nothing like a brisk autumnal walk to wake you up on a Saturday morning.
The obvious choice to most people that live locally, is Roseberry Topping, which lies above the beautiful village of Great Ayton.
We’ve climbed up it countless times, traditionally on New Year’s Day. It’s as iconic to the North East and Yorkshire to those that know it as the Angel of the North.
I remember once in School a Geography teacher asking the class what the tallest mountain in the world was, to which a student naively replied ‘ Roseberry Topping’. Still makes me laugh today.
It’s not a mountain, It’s an odd shaped hill, and not even the tallest amongst the Cleveland Hills (which it is often mistaken to be). Looked after by the National Trust it is often compared to the Matterhorn in Switzerland for it’s shape. Which is why it is so recognisable to those that know it. It stands out like a saw thumb amongst the rest of the hills. It is a spectacle, made even more so when sprinkled in snow.
And so when we arrived I have to admit I was a little disappointed that whilst the snow was still present along the Cleveland hills, any sign of it at Roseberry Topping had been transformed into a muddy sludgy mess, by the many families and dog walkers that had already been up. Which made walking up it much more difficult.
On the way up, as the path got steeper and steeper, we passed through some woodland where the autumn colours were spectacular and we forgot about the mud for a bit.
Using anything we could, (natural stone, leaves) as stepping stones the mud was still completely unavoidable. And it was inevitable that one of us was going to fall over. Clue: it wasn’t me.
Finally we reached a resting point, although we didn’t actually stop to rest, just to take more photos, and here the remnants of snow and ice were much more clear. Fingers frozen we continued on.
You could also see, that the rest of the hills, more popular with proper (professional? is that a thing?) walkers (usually on the trail of the Cleveland Way), were still coated in the white stuff.
This beautiful tree is a sort of landmark in itself, it’s once your past here that the real climb begins. A lot of knackered people tend to turn round here.
Finally, out of breath and freezing cold we reached the top, where the icy wind that didn’t exist moments ago can quite easily knock you off your feet. And if it doesn’t then the views certainly will.
On a clear day (according to wikipedia – having a terrible sense of direction I wouldn’t know what I was looking at) you can see as far the Pennines, which is 40 – 50 miles away.
Taking shelter from the wind, we had a quick bite to eat – a sausage roll and a crunchy if you were wondering. Here I examined the graffiti that has been carved into the stone over many, many years. Most people probably see this as terrible act of vandalism, but I actually find it quite charming, some of the etchings dating back to the 1800’s.
For the walk back down we chose a different route, a steeper, icier and all together more dangerous passage (but it’s quicker so hey-ho). We spent most of the descent falling on our arses.
Till at last, although back to deep mud, we found some steps.
And then we were back at bottom, admiring the best view of all and feeling fantastic.
Tomorrow, it’s back to digging, but right now a cuppa is calling.