Category: Cottage Garden Project

Cottage Garden Project Update: September 2016

The weather was kind in September – until the last few days’ worth of persistent, soaking rain, that is – so I’ve been taking the opportunity to push ahead with the hard digging phase of the landscaping.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a bit of a slog: weedy turf to remove (hand-picking the perennial roots out as I go) and then set aside until I’ve been able to clear the top-soil (varying in depth from about two to eight inches) and sand (mixing it together for an improved overall consistency), before breaking through the sub-surface pan by hand (and foot: standing on a fork and working it back and forth has proven the best method). Then the turf has been re-laid, broken into chunks and arranged in a rough mosaic, upside-down, at the bottom of the newly-dug section, with the sandy soil mix (or sand with added soil) piled back on top.

I’ve made good progress though: the shed bed is now dug over and shaped, ready for the addition of plenty of organic matter in the Spring, before we start any serious planting (although one or two plants may live in there over winter, nursery-bed style). I’ve also dug out a couple of the path sections and back-filled with a mass of sand, ready for a layer of weed membrane and, eventually, gravel on top.

I also dug a good-sized sump at the far end of the path, where the down-spout from the shed spews its rainwater. About eighteen inches deep, filled in with all the rougher chunks of stone and brick I’ve removed from the shed bed, all well stamped down and topped with a layer of finer gravel. As it happened, the mid-September storm hit a few hours after I’d finished it, turning sump into pond… but only temporarily, so I think it seems to be working.

I’ve dug a trio three-foot post-holes as well – they were fun, I found a sub-layer of solid clay about eighteen inches down, which had to be carved out with a hand trowel – on the off-chance that the weather clears again long enough for me to get posts in and a couple of six-foot trellis panels fixed up, although I’m not sure that’s going to be possible before the onset of Autumn’s wet season (as opposed to Summer’s wet season…)

Here’s an out-of-the-bedroom-window pic of how things are coming along, overlaid with a general outline to show how we’re intending to divide up the space:

September 2016 Cottage Garden Project progress
The general outline – click for a much larger version.

All in all though, I’m pleased with how much I’ve been able to get done so far, considering the ground conditions I’ve been working with. One more path section to dig out and sand in, up the centre of the grassy area. And then the larger bed to dig out once conditions improve again towards Spring. That should be a little easier; there’s a much deeper layer of topsoil to work with, so less juggling of soil / sand mixes etc. to slow me down.

Still to do in addition to that: installing the aforementioned six foot trellis panels, another, shorter trellis panel at the near end, a wooden arch across the path and an Indian stone seating platform nearer the house; edging the beds with split-log chestnut hurdles (we’re fetching those from a chap in York); digging compost / manure in to the main beds and mulching with composted bark; gravelling the paths, and then, the good bit: planting up. Jo and I are definitely looking forward to that, although it’s not going to happen this year as we’d originally hoped. So it goes. Slow and steady wins the race.

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Cottage Garden Project Update: July 2016

With the weather holding reasonably dry at long last, I was (finally!) able to make a start on some rough measuring out and actual digging in our new back garden.

Having lifted and disposed of the old crazy paving patio we’d revealed an expanse of builders’ sand, and I was eager to get a spade in and see what state the soil was in underneath. The answer, based on an initial test-hole, was: what soil?

July 2016 Test Hole
Not looking promising so far: sand, sand and more sand…

Well, I reasoned to myself, maybe that’s because it’s the area near to the solid concrete base that the old garage was build on. Undeterred, I began excavations for our fig pit. This will house the Brown Turkey that we’ve ordered from Grow at Brogdale (along with three apples and a morello cherry) in what is the sunniest spot of the garden for the longest part of the day, and the tree will hopefully be trained espalier-style up and along the outside of the shed in years to come.

A fig pit – roughly two-feet deep, lined with concrete slabs (and old roof tiles by the time I’m done) and part-filled with rounded stones (to aid drainage without damaging the roots) – will restrain the roots of the fig, encourage fruiting and prevent the tree from becoming far too large for the space. The finished result looks okay, despite my stacking the far end and left-hand side slabs a bit wonky (but who’ll ever know once it’s back-filled, eh?)

July 2016 Fig Pit
Restricted root growth and a sunny aspect – ideal for figs.

The next section I decided to tackle was the top end of the planting bed that’s planned to extend out from the corner of the shed towards the house. Again, I was hoping to find soil under a top layer of sand and again I was disappointed. A couple of inches of builders’ sand, then between four and six of compacted silt (caused by years of run-off from the back of the house, I reckon), then more builders’ sand, down to a depth of about twelve inches or so. Then it’s hard-panned, compacted silt and clay all the way down, as far as I can tell. I found a few small traces of actual soil in and around the masses of tree roots from next door’s Prunus, but otherwise: nothing worth the name. Joy.

July 2016 - Soil Horizons
Barely a scrap of organic matter in sight…

This poses a number of problems, the main one being – as I learned on the RHS Level 2 course earlier this year – that although sand is good for drainage (until the water hits a solid sub-surface pan and starts backing up, of course), that’s about all you can say for it. It’s inert, so doesn’t hold on to mineral ions, and for that reason is pretty much infertile. And of course, excellent drainage means drastically reduced water holding capacity, which isn’t great either. There’s really not much you can do with it, except add an awful lot of organic matter in an attempt to bring both the nutrient levels and useful water levels back up again, so that’s what we’re going to have to do.

I’ve started the process with a spot of ‘bastard trenching’. This is a technique for recycling turf that I learned about at Ordsall Hall, during the RHS course. It involves digging a trench, putting the soil aside, then taking the top layer of turf from the next section to be dug and laying it upside-down in the bottom of the previous section of trench, before back-filling with the soil below. Repeat until you’ve dug over the entire target area, using the soil from the first section to fill in the last.

My version is a variation on the above: I started by digging out the rough shape of the planting area, piling the sand up to the side, picking out tree roots and stones (rounded ones into the fig pit, sharp ones set aside for a sump that I’ll be digging at the far end of the shed). Then I used the fork to break up the hard-pan underneath, to about a spit-depth, in an effort to sort out those potential drainage issues and give whatever we plant a fighting chance of getting its roots down deep enough to do some good:

July 2016 shed-side planting area
Hard going – double digging through compacted clay/slit is tough work.

Then I started slicing off the turf from the grassy patch (I can’t in all conscience call it a lawn) and inverting it into the dug area, and back-filling on top. I was hoping for a bit of decent soil underneath the turf, but close to the shed there’s not much at all; it’s pretty much sand all the way. (Although I did dig a 6′ trench where I’ll be siting a trellis over by the boundary fence furthest from the shed, and it seems there’s a decent amount of soil in that section – where the neighbours’ apple tree and Fuchsia have been contributing leaves over the years – so that’s a lot more promising.)

July 2016 - bastard trenching in action
Turf off, inverted and buried, giving a much-needed organic matter boost to poor soil.

Generally though, bastard trenching is a process I’m going to have to repeat for pretty much the whole garden. Except for the path sections, which I can just de-turf, coat with a layer of sand and level off before putting down weed membrane and gravel. It’s going to be a long, hard slog, and we’re going to have to invest in a lot of compost and composted bark to help the process along, but it will be worth it in the end.

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We Have a New Shed

Earlier this week, the lads from Cocklestorm turned up with the best flat-pack kit ever: a 4.8m x 2.4m pent-roofed, heavy duty, custom-spec shed.

Two opening windows, plus doors at either end for extra ventilation (we’ll be using it as a potting shed as well as for storage, once we’ve got everything properly organised). Just right for that blank patch of concrete we’d uncovered by getting rid of the old garage.

Jo and I spent a couple of hours this morning adding a length of guttering to the front edge, which will catch the rain from the roof and (eventually, if we ever have rain in Manchester again) fill the two large water-butts round the back.

I’ll leave you with a few pics. Feel free to experience shed envy to the appropriate degree… 😉

June 2016 New Shed
Fits like a… well, a made-to-measure shed on a pre-existing concrete base.
June 2016 - New Shed from the side
A nice bank of windows for what will eventually become the Potting Shed side.
June 2016 - New Shed Interior
A very roomy interior indeed (or it was, before I back-filled it with all our junk…)

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Cottage Garden Project Update: May 2016

Cottage Garden Project update May 2016
Very different to the last time we posted a pic…

At last! After a few months of not much to report, we have something to talk about on the Cottage Garden Project front.


Jo (project lead, chief plantswoman) and I (general dogsbody, occasional suggestions) have spent a fair bit of time chatting ideas back and forth and have come to a general consensus. We know what the general shape of the garden will be, thanks to the advice we got from Joan Mulvenna back in January: a seating area near the house, with a gravel section between the house and shed, and a gravel path leading from the seating area down to the utility area behind the shed.

The path will bisect the garden and create two distinct planting areas: on one side, nearer the fence-line, where sunshine is at something of a premium, we’re going to establish a cool, relaxing, shade-friendly planting scheme. Lots of woodland plants in the shadiest parts of the garden and then traditional cottage garden style, with lots of height, soft frothy foliage, and flower colours in shades of soft pastel, whites etc.

On the other side, we’ll up the energy and tempo a bit, with some stronger (but not too bright) colours and more sun-loving plants, as that side of the garden will get a lot more of the daylight, particularly in the heat of a summer’s afternoon (if the hotter days of this month are anything to go by). We’ll also have a few linking plants or base tones, to provide a bit of coherence, and a quite literal link in the form of an arch across the path with mixed climbers meeting and subtly mingling the two colour schemes.

The gravel area outside the back door will be for potted plants: dwarf fruit trees, herbs, flowers, shrubs, bulbs, you name it.

That’s the general plan, anyhow. First, there’s the not-so-small matter of:


The big decision we’ve taken here is that, rather than bringing someone in, I’m going to do the bulk of the hard landscaping myself. Two reasons for doing so: firstly, so save on the cost of hiring a landscaper, meaning we have more budget available for the materials we want to use. Secondly, it will be good practice for me. My long-term goal is to move to a career in horticulture, and hopefully this sort of project will provide the sort of experience that a potential employer might find relevant.

The first big step forward was taken on Bank Holiday Monday, when the old garage was demolished and the ugly-ass concrete crazy paving patio lifted and removed…

May 2016 - The old garage
Before: concrete monstrosity.
May 2016 patio area
Before: ugly-ass concrete crazy paving

…revealing a lot of builders’ sand, rife with roots from the neighbours’ trees (ripping those out is a quick addition to the job list) and a concrete plinth, ready for the delivery of our new super-shed:

May 2016 garage gone
After: lots of builders’ sand and tree root
May 2016 - garage demolished
After: garage gone, ready for shed

We’ve also started researching and/or ordering materials for the landscaping: Indian sandstone for the seating platform plus assorted steps and stepping stones, a balustrade railing to surround it, a few tonnes of gravel for the pathways, trellis panels, and an arch for the planting area.

We’ve also had a think about the path and bed edging. We were going to use plain gravel board, but decided that would end up looking rather dull and utilitarian. Instead, we searched around a bit and found a supplier of something a lot more attractive and (hopefully) hard-wearing. More on that in a future update.

The actual work is going to have to wait though. I have Level Two RHS exams to prep for in mid-June, so nothing will be occurring until they’re done and dusted. Then I’ll roll up my sleeves and get cracking.

Floral Display

Everything is in a state of flux at the moment, with plants in pots being moved here, thither and yon to get them out of the way of the outgoing garage and incoming shed, so there’s nothing much in the way of a permanent display. We’ll have some photos to show once we actually start getting something in the ground.

Right, that’s it for this month. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to nip outside and see how the construction of new shed is coming along…

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Cottage Garden Project Update: March 2016

Things are still pretty quiet on the cottage garden project front. We’ve been making progress on planning the hard landscaping – which is going to involve a couple of trellises, one or two arches, plenty of board for path-edging and about four tonnes of gravel – and have successfully researched and identified our new shed. That’s the one major change to the old plan since the last update: rather than knock down the old, leaky, asbestos-roofed garage and replace it with a brick-built structure, we’re going to invest in a 4.8m x 2.4m heavy-duty, prefab shed from local specialist supplier Cocklestorm.

In the meantime the pots that we brought with us from the old house and the baskets that Jo planted up last Autumn, have been putting out splashes of Spring colour: irises, snowdrops, hellebores, cyclamen, narcissus, winter pansies, primroses, euphorbia and wallflowers have all been making a contribution to cheering the place up. We’ve also enjoyed a neighbour’s blossoming cherry on one side and t’other neighbour’s white (and only slightly pink) rhodedendron on the other. (Click on the thumbnails below if you’d like to see a larger pic)

Down in the greenhouse, Jo has been pushing ahead with sowing this year’s selection of annuals, some of which will feature in the new cottage garden, others which will be used to brighten up Plot #59. So far, she’s sown (deep breath): sweet peas, French marigold, Osteospermum (a.k.a. daisybush), Didiscus (a.k.a. lace-flower), sweet scabious, viola, sunflower, Gaillardia (a.k.a. blanket flower), Rudbeckia, black-eyed Susan, Tagetes, oriental poppy, evening primrose, Zinnia and snapdragon. And there are plenty more to come.

Jo has a few general rules when choosing her flowers, the first few of which are: 1) they have to be as bee-friendly as possible, 2) and the bugs, and 3) no pink (Jo doesn’t really do pink). Based on the above, and having seen the rest of her to-be-grown list, I know we’re going to have one of the most colourful, bee-attractive plots on the whole allotment site by the middle of Summer, guaranteed.

And I’ve done my bit on the decorative front by potting up our five handsome dahlia tubers to grow on in the greenhouse until the ground is warm enough to plant them out. I’m happy to say that four of them seem to be sprouting nicely, so fingers crossed for a good summer display.

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Starting Out With Dahlias

I know, I know, it’s a potentially dangerous path to follow. One that could lead to obsession or even addiction, uncontrollable impulse-purchasing and gigabytes of digital photography… but Jo and I have decided to start growing Dahlias.

We’ve both always liked them and Jo’s Dad (“Gardening Guru Glyn”, as far as I’m concerned) grows them on his plot down in Shropshire, and very handsome his are, too. This year we decided to take the plunge, make a start on our own small Dahlia selection, and see where it takes us. So when we saw a posted on our allotment shop notice board, advertising a talk by champion Dahlia-grower Jack Gott of J. R. G. Dahlias (also @gott_jack on Twitter), we thought we should go along and see what it was all about.

Thus it was that one Wednesday evening a couple of weeks ago found us in a darkened pub lounge in Bolton, watching with rapt attention as Jack ran a slideshow of his best blooms – with the occasional trophy and prize certificate thrown in for good measure – and talked us through the finer points of his 30+ years of Dahlia growing experience. I scribbled notes furiously as he talked, Jo and I both ‘ooh’ed and ‘aah’ed and jotted down the names of the varieties we liked the best, and at the end of the session we hot-footed it over to the table of tubers to buy a few of our favourites.

The one we really wanted – named ‘JRG’ in honour of the man himself; a rather lovely dark-leaved single variety – wasn’t available, alas (but we’ve asked Jo’s folks to keep an eye out for it at the Malvern Spring show). But we came away with five good-sized tubers to start us off: Don Hill (dark red collerette), Christmas Carol (red/white collerette), Topmix Reddy (red single), Topmix Purple (purple single) and Topmix Mama (red, dark leaf single). All open-faced, pollinator-friendly varieties, as per our general rule of flowering plants number one: thou shalt feed the bees. For that reason we’re steering clear of the pompom, ball, cactus, anenome and water-lilly types, all of which are a bit too closed-up and inaccessible for our liking.

March 2016 - Our selection of JRG Dahlia tubers
This lot should see us right to start with.

We brought them home and stored them in a polystyrene box for a couple of weeks, but when I noticed that they’d started sprouting already, I realised I should pot them up, which I did at the weekend. After a quick check-in with Guru Glyn for his take on potting procedure, I put them into containers just big enough to take the tubers, with well-moistened general purpose compost above and below:

March 2016 - JRG Dahlias being potted up
Add compost to pot, insert tuber, cover with more compost… easy.
March 2016 - JRG Dahlias potted up
Dahlias all potted up and ready to do their thing…

A few days in the greenhouse later and they’re already sprouting well, especially the Christmas Carol which seems the most vigorous so far. Hopefully that means I haven’t made any novice blunders just yet. On the night of the talk, Jack mentioned that once the smaller tubers are sprouting strongly, I can split them up and create a few new plants to help spread them out a bit. I’ll be giving that a go, seeing as I’ve promised a few cuttings to Guru Glyn, and besides it will be nice to develop a number of mature plants over the next few years, to provide plenty of colour down at the allotment bee-buffet and in our new cottage garden as well.

If you’re a Dahlia grower yourself and have any top tips, please feel free to post them in the comments below. Otherwise, wish us luck, and we’ll report back on the plants as we plant them out and watch them grow over the course of the season.

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Thinking Ahead – Doing Our Bit for the Bees

Jo and I are starting to plan our new, suburban Cottage Garden, with a number of key goals in mind. It has make best use of the available space, look stunning for as much of the year as possible, produce a few food crops that will supplement and add to the main work being done down on Plot #59 and, last but definitely not least, provide a haven and a rich food source for bees and other propagating insects.

I’m sure if you’re a gardener you’ll be aware of the plight of the world’s bee populations: beset on all sides by a changing environment, a loss of their food sources, parasitical invasion and pesticide poisoning. Without bees to pollinate a huge percentage of our food crops, the human race would be plunged into food poverty and a massively-reduced diet faster than you can say “why are there no strawberries on the supermarket shelves?” And that’s just one reason to do everything we can to help halt their decline, the knock-on effect would be a massive disruption to entire ecological systems; nothing short of environmental catastrophe.

There’s plenty more factual information and helpful advice in this rather excellent infographic from Suttons Seeds, which was just too good not to share:


As you can see, the main things we as domestic gardeners can do to help them out are to provide food for foraging bees and suitable habitat for solitary bees to over-winter in. Jo and I also benefit from the nearby location of the Manchester & District Beekeepers Association and their dozen or so hives at their apiary in Heaton Park, so providing a source of nectar for their bees is only neighbourly, which is why we’re aiming to grow a large volume of pollinator-friendly flowers at Plot #59 as well. Last year we grew red clover as a green manure and let it go to flower: it looked absolutely stunning and on warm, sunny days the patch was thick with bees; a huge success.

RHS Perfect for Pollinators
Look for the logo when browsing the seed racks
Individually, none of us are going to be able to solve the problem, of course. But collectively, our efforts can add up to a sum total that’s at least a step in the right direction. So if, like us, you’re planning ahead to your Spring and Summer displays, think bee-friendly first. Check out the RHS Perfect for Pollinators plant lists, which include some absolutely stunning native and world plants, and look for the logo when browsing seed packets. If you have a choice between two, equally attractive options, opt for the one that will do the bees the most good. Our furry, flying, pollinating friends will thank you for it.

(Plenty more information on how to help save the bees can be found by searching online for the many organisations who are working and campaigning on their behalf.)

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Cottage Garden Project Update: January 2016

Well, I say “update”, but there’s really not much activity to report. Earlier in the month our back yard had a light covering of snow:

January 2016 Cottage Garden Project update - snow!
No sign of any sort of garden under a brief blanket of snow.

…which all-but disappeared overnight. Otherwise though, it’s been as soggy as the allotment.

Floral Displays

We do have a few early flowers in the pots that we brought with us from our old house. A few very pale primroses (Primula vulgaris), some bright white cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium), a few deep red wallflowers (Erysimum sp., too many to narrow it down) that have lingered through the winter, some white hellebores (Helleborus orientalis, I think) and another hellebore species with very small, dainty green-tinged flowers (Helleborus viridis, most likely).

Just a very small pot-display at the moment, but with many more to come in due course.

Projects / Maintenance

The big news this month is that we’ve taken a major step forward on the Cottage Garden Project planning front: a consultation with local garden designer and Tatton Park RHS Gold Medal winner Joan Mulvenna of Garden Design Manchester.

Joan has a fantastic eye for making the best use of a small space like ours, and within a couple of hours she was able to give us a completely fresh perspective on how we can adapt the space to make it as attractive as possible. It was a great session, well worth Joan’s very reasonable consultation fee.

I’ll be revealing our future plans in more detail in a fresh blog post once Jo and I have had a chance to incorporate our own ideas into Joan’s outline and get them down on paper.

That’s it for January. Hopefully we’ll have a bit more to report at the end of February.

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Establishing Shots: Cottage Garden Project, late 2015

Jo and I moved to our new home at the very end of July 2015. We’d already spent the previous eight or nine months planning and scheming to turn the back yard – an old garage-cum-shed, a patch of grass and a mini, Japanese-ish gravel area – into a quintessential English Cottage Garden. Or at least, our version of one.

The previous owners had a summer house at the back of the garden, which they took with them. My first job was to scrape back the gravel, lift the old, loose-laid flag base, dig out the masses of invading tree root from next door’s conifers, then mark out the site of our brand new, 10’x8′ greenhouse. Builders came in and re-laid the slabs as a base for the new structure, then I put down new weed membrane, re-distributed the gravel around the new base and round the back of the garage/shed, forming the utility area for our new compost bins and water butts.

Next, my good friend Steve and I spent a few pleasant mornings in late September putting the greenhouse together. The finished structure is superb and we only lost one pane of glass in the process, so we reckon we did pretty well between us. At which point, Jo and I downed tools for the winter. All the advice we’ve read on establishing a new garden says the best thing to do is to wait and observe, rather than rush right in.

That’s what we’ve done and as a result we’re steadily building up a picture of where the sunnier and shadier sections are, how much of the ground gets water-logged in heavy rain, and where next door’s apple tree drops its fruit, things like that. That sort of information will help to inform Jo’s decisions when it comes to placing our new fruit trees and perennial feature plants (Jo is very much the project leader on this one, I’ll mainly be on digging, lifting and tea-brewing.)

Here are a few shots of the ongoing work so far and the current state of the space. Not much to shout about just yet, but we hope it’s going to develop into something really special over the next few years.

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