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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 27 November 2011 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 198.

Leaf-mould

I encountered two bits of garden journalism today which informed what I plan to talk about today. The first was from the 'celebrity gardener' Joe Swift. Now usually I have little time for Mr Swift (apparently, as he is in the public eye he is fair game, as I have learnt from the Press this week). He seems to lack the wit of his actor father, Clive, and certainly shows few of the literary skills of his mother, Margaret Drabble, although one could argue that he inherited his poor sense of humour from his aunt, Antonia Byatt. And, with such a bluestocking upbringing, where on earth did he get that awful estuarine whine from? Does he really talk like that in real life?

Sorry, enough character assassination. Yesterday, in the 'Times' Joe encouraged us all to make lots of leaf mould, and as I have been gathering leaves for this purpose all weekend, my usual chore at this time of year, I couldn't agree more. This garden is largely made from leaf mould, as our half-acre or so is ringed by large trees, so I fill 30 barrowfuls or more of leaves every year, and also about now, earlier gatherings are returned to the soil (of which more anon).

The leaves are raked with tined rakes, or brushed with a stiff broom on paths, and all dumped into a single secluded pile, held in place by four 'sleepers' (railroad ties), tucked away behind a giant lime tree.

 

Leaf-mould

Behind the pile, past where the barrow is, is a second area where the rotted leaf mould is shifted to, ready for use after a year, and just before the next lot is due to be shipped in. This second older pile is not as large, as the rotted mould occupies less than half the volume of the raw leaves. Joe recommends that the leaves should be chopped up by running a mower over them, before bagging them, and at the scale of most gardens I am sure this is sound advice. However I have far too many leaves, and by the time I get to most of them (when all have finally fallen), most are far too soggy to be chopped up for this to be a practical proposition. However, early offerings, while the lawn is still being mown, have indeed been through the mower. Also, there is no doubt that I should turn the leaves a couple of times through the year, but my back is scarcely up to the task these days, and on this annual cycle they have broken down adequately in 12 months for the mould to be useable after this time, although much of the leaf-heap waits 24 months before it is made use of.

When we first came here, leaf clearing was a massive job that lasted three back-breaking weekends, and was on a par with hedge-cutting as the annual chore I feared the most. In those days we had four massive 100 year old hybrid limes and a sycamore of comparable antiquity, but all except one of the limes in the far corner of the garden are no longer with us, and although we have planted about 50 trees in their place, they are small species with delicate leaves. Consequently, leaf-clearing is a much easier job now, although we still seem to make mountains of mould! The final lime to go was felled just over a year ago, so we are only now feeling the full benefit of its absence. One remarkable by-product is that the leaves from a number of Sycamores and Norway Maples on the other side of the road used to lodge here, but although the lime no longer stands in their way, by some freak of local air-currents, their leaves all now seem to go elsewhere. Yippee!

 

The second journalistic advice came from Chris Beardshaw, a telly gardener for whom I have rather more time, on 'Gardener's Question Time' and concerned 'no-dig gardening', which has also been covered in 'The Garden' recently, which may have given Chris the idea. I confess that I have entertained a rather vague view of what no-dig gardening involved until recently, and thought that planting things straight into my unmodified rather greasy, heavy soil  was probably doomed to failure. What I hadn't realised was what a misnomer 'no-dig gardening' was. As this procedure actually involves heavy annual mulching with loads of organic material, it is probably heavier work than straight digging, as the material has first to be dug from one's compost heap or whatever, and then shovelled onto the land. Also, without knowing it, I have been practising 'no-dig gardening' for many years, in fact long before we came there 22 years ago, and still do. What else would I do with all the leaf-mould  and garden compost that I make? Apart from that used to make new beds (not very often these days), the rest all goes on top of the garden, for the weather and worms to work in. Consequently, most of my planting areas have been transformed over the years from the original heavy clay to a deep, easily worked brown earth.

By the way, I mentioned garden compost, and although compost heap procedures are not related to the present flurry of leaf-mould activity, it is a long time since I mentioned our three compost heaps. When these are full, I put old 'dumpy bags' (used for weeding) on top, to restrict regrowth of weeds and to hold heat and moisture in, and the compost is usually ready for use after about 24 months, which is roughly the period at which they cycle (i.e. a new heap is started roughly every 8 months). Again, they are never turned, and although the compost that results looks lovely, they do not get hot enough for annual weed seeds to be killed. Here they are.

 

As I intimated earlier, I tend to top-dress with leaf-mould in October or early November, as I need the space to move last years leaf-mould into, before I deposit this years fallen leaves. Are you with me?! This is also an excuse to tidy these beds up, removing annual weeds, moss etc and cutting back the above-ground remains of perennials. This means that when the spring bulbs and early perennials emerge next spring, they do so into a 'blank canvas' of the new top-dressing, which shows them off much better.

Here are pictures of the kitchen bed, ericaceous bed  and crinodendron bed, all newly dressed with about 8 cm of two-year old leaf-mould.

Covering up

Another seasonal activity is to put covers on those parts of the garden which I protect from excess winter wet. Most years these are put in place in the last week of October and are removed in late March. This year they had to wait until early November as we were in Greece. Increasingly I use heavy-duty corrugated polycarbonate, used for roofing. In theory this is held in place with car roof-rack ties, attached to tent-pegs, but I have run out of ties (I must buy some more) and two are just kept in place with old bricks. Very Heath-Robinson you may say, and you would be right, but over the excessive gales of the last week (gusting to 70 mph they said), they all stayed in position, so the system is more effective than it looks in this very sheltered garden. I have five of these covers in total. Here are those over the petiolarid bed, troughs, and the plunge. Note how old 'fridge baskets are used as supports,

I also place sheets of glass over a few damp-sensitive plants in the open garden; Meconopsis punicea for instance, and Primula serratifolia.

 

Covering up

Recently, we have enjoyed some low winter sun, which has illuminated the superb bark of Acer griseum. This small tree comes into its own at this time of year!

 

Here was an association which gave me amusement. Chaenomeles japonica, 'Japonica', or 'Japanese Quince' does not often set fruit up here, but this year we have several pomes which have ripened well. Remarkably, one branch has flowered at the same time, together with some more seasonal Jasminum nudiflorum (most of the latter is on the other side of the pierced wall) and fruits of pyracantha.

 

Leaves are not the only things to be cleared up at this cleansing time of year. The pond area has been cut back, weeded  and the excess aquatics removed, tidy for the spare winter months.

To finish with, a general view of part of the back garden.

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