First day of term at Homeacres

The days are shortening and an autumnal chill descends when the sun goes down, but September remains a time of new beginnings, new opportunities. It’s the beginning of a new academic year, the first day of term. And in the garden it’s arguably the start of the gardening year when you plant bulbs and biennials in preparation for a well-stocked flower garden next year and salad leaves and herbs for a spring harvest. Both elements coincided for me on 7 September. I was staying in South Somerset with my niece and her young family. I usually drive home from these precious weekends on Sunday but this time I stayed until Monday to see my middle great nephew on his first day at school and, on the way home, to visit a very special market garden 12 mile away.

Posing with his big brother for photographs, this usually mischievous small person looked very smart in his school uniform and very happy to finally join his brother at school. Subsequent reports confirm he has taken this major life change entirely in his stride. Early that afternoon I headed for the village of Alhampton, near Castle Cary, and Homeacres, the garden where Charles Dowding grows vegetables by pursuing his famous No Dig method.

I joined four garden writers* and photographers for a tour of the garden and introduction to the No Dig system. We were warmly welcomed by Charles and his wife Stephanie Hafferty, herself a gardener and writer AND cook. The productive part of Homeacres is surprisingly compact- a quarter of an acre with every inch utilised, long beds stretching away from the house, closely planted with crops, red frisée leaves contrasting with another chicory, this a vivid green.

The overall effect is of order, tidiness and plenty. Charles explained that by removing the lower leaves of, for example, Kale he discourages slugs and neaten its appearance. The fiery coloured flowers edging the beds as companion planting to attract pollinators and deflect less welcome insects throw the subtler greens, dark reds and purples of the beds into sharp relief. I saw orange marigolds, magenta flowering flax (Linum grandiflora), bright pink zinnias and now finished, but still displaying its double decker seedheads, bergamot (Monarda didyma). Charles tells us that a lemon sunflower (Helianthus annua) is grown for picking for the house.

Underlying this vision of plenty are years of layers of mulch atop a long dissolved away layer of cardboard. When he established Homeacres in 2004, Charles suppressed perennial weeds like couch grass and bindweed with cardboard before applying a deep (7 to 15cm) of organic matter: well-rotted manure, garden compost and municipal compost. He then planted into the compost. Now 3 to 5 cm of mulch is added to every bed in early winter.

Cardboard remnants visible at the corner of a bed

I heard Charles Dowding speak at a KMIS (Kew Mutual Improvement Society) lecture a few years ago and was struck then by his infectious enthusiasm for his subject. He extols its simplicity: no effortful double digging when establishing a new vegetable plot and reduced weeding. But the principal benefit is its protection of the soil. Digging, whether manually or by rotavation, damages the mycorrhizal fungi so essential for establishing a healthy relationship between plant and soil. It is no coincidence that one of the chapters, or lessons, in Charles’s new book ‘No Dig Gardening: From Weeds to Vegetables quickly and easily’ is devoted to understanding soil and throughout the book he emphasises the importance of maintaining the integrity of the soil structure and encouraging its helpful micro-organisms to thrive.

The proof of the No Dig effect is demonstrated in two raised beds near the house, established 13 years ago. The right-hand bed was prepared and is maintained using traditional cultivation methods, that on the left is No Dig. Both beds are planted with the same crops in the same positions. In 11 years out of 13, the No Dig bed has produced a higher yield. The 1.5m x 5m beds in the garden produce 70kg of vegetables and Homeacres supplies salad leaves to shops and restaurants in the nearby town of Bruton.

The engine room for these abundant harvests is the long wooden roofed compost complex at the heart of the garden. Several compost bays fronted by removable slatted panels contain green waste from the garden (including the kale leaves mentioned above) as well as the municipal waste which is kept to ferment for a further 4 to 6 months before use). Compost thermometers can be seen inserted between the slats with the temperatures recorded and dates of turning carefully noted on the adjoining wooden pillars. On the day of my visit (cool and rainy) one bay registered a temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit despite its contents of green waste and carbon materials having been deposited only the day before. That new bay will be full of a rich, fertile compost 6 to 12 months from now. Knowing that the compost will reach very high temperatures during the rotting down process, Charles has no qualms about including blighted tomatoes and bindweed in the green element of the compost content.

A polytunnel installed by First Tunnels contains ranks of expertly cordoned tomatoes, lower leaves removed to both improve appearance and encourage the plants to photosynthesise at their apexes. On 10 August each year, the tops of the tomatoes are pinched off and now watering is being reduced to encourage ripening. The tomato beds are underplanted with French marigolds (Tagetes patula) and the side beds of the polytunnel are full of various types of basil.

In one corner of the polytunnel Charles showed us a fine watermelon vine and we were invited to taste a slice of ripe white-fleshed melon which was both fragrant and very juicy. We had already sampled a sweetly sharp baby plum tomato, a variety called Rosada, which because it is no longer available from seed merchants, Charles propagates from cuttings. We also experienced a couple of other unfamiliar flavours. As we progressed around the garden, we tasted a raw Edamame bean and the shield shaped leaf of buckler or French sorrel (Rumex scutatus). One of our party commented that this tasted like salt and vinegar crisps. And the tasting didn’t end there, as we were sent home with a generous bag of No Dig salad leaves- crunchy frisée and tender oak-leaved lettuce included.

Charles’s latest book (see above) is based on the first of his two online courses and explains the time-saving simplicity of the No Dig system. There is a quiz at the end of each chapter with answers at the back of the book. The book covers planning the layout of a vegetable plot, creating and maintaining paths and making compost. There is also a chapter devoted to identifying weeds with excellent photographs.

I drove away from Homeacres wishing that I was higher up the waiting list for a local allotment (I’m 3 years into a 5 year wait!) but determined that when the time comes I shall employ the No Dig method. In the meantime my keen gardener niece is keen to start a new vegetable plot to add to the existing two plots in her garden and I have already tasked her with saving cardboard to start it off.

*Including Abigail Willis whose exquisitely illustrated book ‘Secret Gardens of Somerset’ has been published this week.

The Shearing of the Green

The season started with weeding an artificial lawn and has ended with a variety of lawn maintenance jobs. I was focussed on mowers and grass when I drafted this post while staying with my niece (otherwise known as my client in the country) as I had offered to cut the lawn of her largeish, squareish, south-facing Somerset garden. In fact, a combination of rain, dew and lack of time meant that I left without mowing the grass for her. Most of my jobs have involved lawn work in the last couple of weeks and I’ve also seen a couple of impressively pristine lawns, both with royal connections.

But before we get to pristine, let’s take a look at the other end of the greensward spectrum. With my Osterley volunteering colleague Andrea Blackie (ablackiegardendesign.co.uk) I carried out a thorough tidy-up of a large garden in Twickenham belonging to INS, a fantastic local charity which provides support for people with neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson’s disease (PD), and Stroke. The garden is usually maintained by a team of volunteers but like so many places the volunteering programme had to be suspended earlier this year because of Covid 19 and the garden had become rather overgrown. We weeded paths and raised beds and rationalised a number of containers whose contents had gone over. In the absence of a scythe , or a Ross Poldark lookalike to wield it, we used hand shears to cut back the tall grasses established across the L-shaped lawn and raked off the cut stalks and thatch. Then we shuffled our way across the plot on kneelers, removing as many of the coarse-leaved dandelions and low-crowned plantains as we could. Only then did Andrea run the electric mower over for an initial rough cut. With perfect timing, a tremendous thunderstorm crashed across TW2 within half an hour of our packing up for the day, and after steadyish rain for much of the following morning, when we returned 36 hours later for day two of the clear-up, the lawn had perked up and looked more green than brown. Andrea lowered the blades of the mower and cut the lawn once more and I followed with an application of Safelawn, which combines seed and feed, to repair the impoverished grass.

Before
After

On a subsequent visit we would like to scarify the lawn even more, remove any remaining weeds and give the lawn an autumn feed to put it in good heart for 2021. It’s never going to rival the Centre Court at Wimbledon, but with some further TLC it will make a lush foil for the deep border which runs the length of the garden. This is effectively a linear orchard of mature greengage, pear, apple and cherry trees (varieties unknown sadly) interspersed with shrubs such as Mahonia and underplanted with hellebores and Japanese anemones. The latter is a striking deep pink cultivar, revealed when we cut back a couple of wayward shrub branches.

Anemone japonica: cultivar unkown

It was fun collaborating with another gardener for the tidy-up project, and I was grateful not only for the shared labour and company but also the recommendation of Hebe ‘Mrs Winder’ to place in the concrete planters on either side of the main entrance. Although almost waist high, the actual planting depth of the containers was deceptively shallow and the Hebes should be less hungry than the previous incumbents, a couple of conical bay trees. I sourced the plants from the wholesale nursery near Chobham, North Hill Nurseries. It was my first visit since lockdown and I was glad to be there again impressed as always by the quality of the stock and the wide choice of cultivars available. I am usually very disciplined when I’m there and resist the temptation to deviate from my core list, but I confess that I did treat myself to a plant for the top right hand corner of my garden where I’ve twice failed with Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’. I succumbed to Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Heavenly Blue’ with its fluffy sky blue flowers and dainty light green leaves. It looks very good in this position where it will continue the blue/mauve theme from the nearby honesty (Lunaria annua) and Wisteria.

Another purchase that day was a magnificent Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ which I planted in a large terracotta container in another client’s garden a week ago. I also gave the lawn there an autumn treatment, raking out the thatch and aerating (or spiking) it using the fork. I applied grass seed to a couple of bare patches which had developed and here again the rain gods obliged and provided a drenching as I was finishing the job.

I promised you pristine lawns at the beginning of this post. The first is in the centre of the turning circle outside the Elizabeth Gate entrance to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. I’ve been monitoring it this spring and summer when running around Kew Green, fascinated by its perfection. Short, weedless, stripey: a textbook fine lawn. I’ve watched two kneeling gardeners excise any hint of a weed and I see from this image taken a few days ago that it has recently been spiked. Even the spacing of the holes is precise.

The turning circle at Elizabeth Gate
Aeration by the book

The next lawn has even stronger links with royalty. This striped sward lies within Windsor Castle which I visited at the end of August in order to see the East Terrace Gardens which have been opened to the public for the first time this year.

Within Windsor Castle

Although these rose gardens interspersed with antique bronze statues were beautifully elegant, I preferred the informality of The Moat Garden, adjacent to the Norman Tower of the castle which is the home of the Constable and Governor of Windsor Castle. A snaking red-tiled path runs alongside a border of interesting perennials leading to a rock garden containing a series of waterfalls. Along the way I was drawn towards Poets’ Corner, tucked to one side and lined with garden-themed quotations. The garden is maintained by volunteers and is open to visitors on August weekends.

The stripe maker

A quirky urn nestles beside the plume poppy Macleaya cordata ‘Flamingo’

Next time I leave lawns behind to visit Homeacres, the realm of the king of No Dig, Charles Dowding.