20 May 2015

The walled kitchen garden - an introduction

As regular readers and friends will know, earlier this year we moved to Hove. When we looked round the flat, one of the things that we really liked about it was the garden. The borders were pretty over-grown, but the garden was a good size and looked like it would get a lot of sun. It was quite a contrast to the garden we had in our London terrace, which was narrow, ran up a hill and was overshadowed by trees in the neighbouring gardens. The Hove garden clearly had a lot of potential, but it was also going to be something of a project.

The garden when we moved in
We moved in in January, and spent the first few weeks surrounded by boxes and painting equipment (I’m never sure why one feels the urge to embark on major decorating projects as soon as one moves into a new house). Our thoughts soon turned to the garden. Our rough plan was to create something of a walled kitchen garden, with a flower border at the back, vegetable beds along a south facing wall and some lawn in the middle to sit on. We were also keen on planting an asparagus bed, and thought we’d throw in a few fruit trees for good measure.

Our first step was to take out a large conifer that was and several smaller shrubs. We got a reasonable quote from Geoff at Sussex Tree Works, but the bad news was that being in a conservation area, we needed the council’s permission to take out the conifer. Six weeks later, having gained the council’s permission, Geoff and his team came round, and armed with chainsaws, a chipper and a root grinder, took down the tree and shrubs and ground out their roots. The difference was amazing, the garden looked so much larger. In fact with the conifer gone we could see neighbouring houses that we hadn’t known had existed before.

The shrubs and trees cleared
There was still much to be done. The garden is surrounded by Victorian brick walls, but these were covered with ivy. The beds themselves were full of weeds. By now it was March, and I could see ground elder emerging. This pernicious weed, once established, can be a real pain to eradicate. The only up-side is that it is edible, so we had an unexpected harvest before dousing it in weedkiller.
My mum is a great gardener, and can weed faster than anyone else I know. We enlisted her help and spent a couple of days ripping down ivy, and digging up roots and weeds, stripping the garden down to its bare bones. It looked pretty empty, but we were starting to get somewhere. Having stripped the ivy off the walls, we realised that the pointing was in pretty bad condition. My dad and I had a crack at repointing the wall, using a lime mortar as the original Victorian builders would have down. I don’t think we’ll be giving the Brighton brickies a run for their money, but it felt good to have repaired the wall ourselves.

Ivy clearing...

... and weeding
It is always interesting to see what wildlife a garden attracts. In ours it was mostly starlings, sparrows and seagulls. With the seagulls, we realised it was always the same pair that came into the garden, a mother and a juvenile. We watched as the mother taught the juvenile important life-skills, like how to imitate rain to catch worms by padding his feet up and down on the lawn, collecting nesting material, and how to squark loudly, a lot. By mid spring the juvenile was in adult plumage, and the mother seemed to have moved on to pastures new, leaving the juvenile to fend for himself. The juvenile seems fascinated by us, and has a tendency to follow us round the garden watching what we are doing. I find him both alternately sinister and endearing. No doubt he is just waiting for me to light a barbecue so he can pinch a lamb chop.

The seagull
In the meantime, I dug over some of the lawn, and planted out a herb bed and an asparagus bed. As spring progressed, more weeds appeared. We carried on digging them up, making endless trips to the tip, with the car full of bags of ivy and weeds. Brighton and Hove council doesn’t do garden waste collections (the introduction of which would get my vote – a point to note for any councillors out there). We covered the worst areas of weeds in black plastic to check their growth. The areas that weren’t so bad got dug over and cultivated.

We had been busy planting seeds into pots, and had windowsills and a coldframe bulging with plants. By May, we were ready to start planting out. Runner beans, artichokes, tomatoes, dahlias, a canna lily all went in the ground. Rows of salad leaves, radishes, swedes and kohl rabi were sown. It was amazing how having even a few beds planted seemed to pull the garden together. There is still a lot to do, but it feels like we have made a good start.

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