The Unveiling of the Turf Stack

The White, Green and Grey Garden is looking as if it has been in place for many years, but in fact is only 20 months old. I couldn’t be happier with it, although it is an ever-changing thing which can always be tinkered with and improved. I cast a beady eye over it most days, planning and scheming and am never 100% happy with what I see…. not least if a rogue has self-seeded which is not in the prescribed colour scheme.

One unsolicited, uninvited pink poppy…..

Last month I decided to take a look at my turf stack, which we made from all the grass we had to remove in order to make both beds. A turf stack is supposed to be laid grass-facing-grass in a stack of neat sandwiches. As you can see from the picture below, on the weekend we did the turf-removal, we were so shattered after using the machine to take it all up it I was happy to have it in any kind of system at all, so it was pretty much slung together willy-nilly in a straight-ish line.

Despite that, it has been gently rotting down for the 20 months under plastic and black weed control fabric. I have looked at it a couple of times over that period, but didn’t feel it was well-rotted enough to risk putting back onto the garden; the thought of reintroducing creeping buttercup and other nasties back into the garden made me very cautious indeed so I had to call on some often elusive patience…. This time though (mid-June 2018), despite it being rather dry under there (no doubt I should have soaked it prior to putting it under its duvet) it looked very promising.

Turf stack

Our kittens, Huck and Hero, guarding the turf stack,  Autumn 2016

Luckily for me my nephew was staying for a few days; he plays rugby for Wales, so quite literally can’t be any fitter or stronger and was happy to lend a helping hand, so we unwrapped the entire stack to see what we were dealing with. I was slightly nervous of vermin/snakes etc, but other than a huge number of ants (which had built some impressive nests, but equally had helped to break the turves down), quite a few worms (there no doubt would have been more if it had been damper) plus 3 rather startled toads, there was nothing to worry about. The other bonus was that, due to the inclusion of some very woody roots (that area of the garden had, some decades ago, been home to an orchard, where I am told the local village children would sometimes come and play), there were also a few very impressive pockets of mycorrhizal fungi, which look like very thin white veins and are very good for soil health. I believe it aids plants in taking up beneficial nutrients. There is more info on it here.

Micorrhizal

Joe gallantly helped wheelbarrow the first third of the stack before he had to leave, but that got me started, and many hours later the entire stack had been redistributed into the cutting garden, and back onto the two borders, from whence it came. There were probably between 25 and 30 wheelbarrow-loads in total. Recycling at its best.

Turf stack removal

Some of it looked good enough to eat – rather like a luxurious chocolate cake.

Black gold. Compost. Loam from a turf stack

I could practically hear the garden singing as I laid it on in a very thick mulch. The birds absolutely loved chucking it everywhere and eating the ants and fat ant eggs, and I felt like a bountiful patron. Amazingly when I originally drew up the plans for the White, Green and Grey Garden, I had thought seriously about putting all the turf in a skip. Thank goodness I came to my senses.

When turves break down, you end up with loam, which is essentially a perfect mixture of clay, sand and silt:

loam
ləʊm/
noun
a fertile soil of clay and sand containing humus.
GEOLOGY :a soil with roughly equal proportions of sand, silt, and clay.

A week or so later, the birds are still throwing it off the raised beds which make up the cutting garden, joyfully searching for any overlooked goodies. The toads have re-homed themselves somewhere, and the Dahlias, Cosmos, Sweet Peas, Asters and Dianthus in the cutting beds all look like they have had an injection of nourishment.

Where the stack had been, I was left with an area of unsightly bare soil. Why not use it to create a small bed for over-flow plants, experiments and sowing biennials?

bare soil after the turf stack was removed

I already had some weed membrane, so off I went to B&Q to buy the treated wood and the bark, and – while I was at it – black paint for the shed.

The interesting thing about painting something like a shed or barn black is how it seems to help the object “disappear”; you start to only see the green plants and blue sky, rather than the shed itself. I am thrilled with this new area.

Here is a recent photo of the white garden:

White, green and grey garden

Now, what’s next …….

 

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Annie Bee xxx

A Spring Walk in Highgrove ~ February 2018

Bee HQ seems to sit squarely in what feels like the epicentre of a huge number of great gardens and houses one can visit. We are  surrounded by beautiful, notable gardens as well as a lot of NGS gardens open to the public which might otherwise not be seen.

So nipping over into Gloucestershire to take a guided tour of Highgrove’s garden seemed too good an opportunity to miss, so I booked two tickets for a Guided Spring Walk. I will add right now that Mr Bee who was due to accompany me (a staunch Republican, and my sometime Undergardener) decided to stay at home and weed the borders. I am kidding of course: chance would be a fine thing. He bailed on me, but I set off knowing I would be able to spend far more in the garden shop without him.

 

Highgrove house and garden

The 90 minute drive west was delightful, taking in the changing nature of the Cotswold stone colours as I headed towards Tetbury. I even drove past the Waitrose where local customers threw bread rolls at Camilla P-B, back in the day when she had been outed as The Other Woman. I would have spent longer in Tetbury as it looked charming, but I was following strict instructions from Highgrove regarding the  timing of my arrival, and finding Highgrove itself was easier said than done, due to the complete lack of signage (for security reasons I assume).

Sadly the only rule for visitors is you are not allowed to take a mobile or a camera into the property. So this is all from memory, my note-taking and sketches, although there is a very nice book about the gardens if you feel the need to read up. It felt very peculiar not to be able to take photos, but the huge sign on arrival,

“YOU ARE NOW ENTERING AN OLD-FASHIONED ESTABLISHMENT”

left one in no doubt that this was a largely digital-free zone. To be wandering around, using one’s eye and memory (and notebook) felt like a challenge in this day and age.

The security wasn’t as tight as I had imagined, which makes me think HRH probably wasn’t in residence. The pot-holes which are currently blighting the UK winter roads continued up the drive, and there was rather a relaxed and unassuming feel to the entire operation they run there. It is fairly low-key and disarmingly informal. It struck me that for the Prince, Highgrove is the equivalent of us mere mortals having a weekend caravan, a she-shed, or (at most) a holiday cottage for the odd weekend get-away. The house itself (my guess  is it has maybe 10-12 bedrooms) is not as big as you might imagine; mind you, when your normal residencies are a series of castles and palaces, arriving there must feel a bit like going camping for Mr & Mrs Mountbatten-Windsor.

Having said that, there are 12 gardeners  in total, and the property extends to a huge acreage, much of it farmland. And whilst billed as “old-fashioned”, HRH has always been way ahead of the game on ecological/sustainability matters (more of which, including the reed-bed sewage system! you can read about here) , and if he does still talk to his plants (one of the Bees, when asked what he knew about Prince Charles said, “he talks to plants and has flappy ears”), the garden is a very good advert for doing just that. It is 100% organic and looks very good on it. My guess is we saw a fraction of the whole garden on the tour, but we certainly got a good feel for it, and were allowed surprisingly near the house. We were too polite to peer in the windows however tempted we were: how British!

So what did I take note of? Despite it being smaller than I thought (and I have read the book), it is by normal standards pretty big, so everything is done on a large-scale. No single bags of compost or mulch for His Royal Highness from Tetbury B&Q. So for example, while you or I might think planting 80 snowdrop bulbs in one go an industrial project worthy of note in the local paper, just last year alone 40,000 were planted at Highgrove, and heavens, they looked magnificent, mingling in with the cyclamen.

Mid-February is perhaps not the most popular time to visit, but (as you might remember) I have a deep fascination with structure, and winter is the best time to appreciate it. The other bonus was that it was certainly “peak snowdrop” ~ they couldn’t have been prettier. In a week or two, the daffs will be out, but too much yellow in a garden, even in the spring, makes me nervous. What was not in evidence in late winter was the famous wild-flower meadow, which I would absolutely love to see in full swing. Apparently the Guild of Scythe Cutters come and in and give it its most important cut. I can’t say they would probably be available to come and do my wild-flower meadow cutting (such as it is).

I noticed that much of the hedging, particularly in the less formal areas of the garden (further away from the house) is mixed, so there is a lovely tapestry of native species, intermingling  ~  it’s very pretty, and importantly, good for wildlife. Another idea I liked very much is the way several ‘windows’ have been cut out of the formal yew hedges, allowing visual vistas to open up. Also, one small stretch of hedging was laid out in a ‘crinkle-cranke’ manner, thereby allowing some attractive planting in the curves.

Daphnes: it seems there is no such thing as too many and the scent was good, despite it being a bitterly cold day. Some are evergreen which gets a very big tick from me. The national collection of Hostas are at Highgrove; again, nothing to see in Feb, but I imagine they are lovely, running throughout the various ‘garden rooms’.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is taken very seriously in the garden. Little homemade fences, willow hoops to keep the riff-raff to the paths, logs used to edge drives, were things you and I  could also do. Using historically, architecturally important stonework which has been lying about for centuries to make a beautiful wall might well be beyond us, as might be the other myriad of structures such as the thatched tree-house, which wasn’t that much smaller than my first house I bought in Kent in 1986…. Presumably as well, there is plenty of material lying around for jobs like staking – no green plastic plant supports for our future King.

Using foraged pine-cones to mulch around a shrub in a pot looks charming. Interestingly, there is an amazing collection of  terracotta urns, some of them HUGE, and I was surprised they were left out over winter; our guide explained that they are filled with wood-chips, which acts as an insulator apparently. A good tip.

I was very interested to know whether there have been issues with Box Blight. We have it at Bee HQ, and my master-plan to ignore it, hope for the best, treat with fungicide (which may be helping, but it is unlikely), and occasionally raise a prayer to the Goddess of Gardening (Dionysus?) does appear to work. At Highgrove they have taken a somewhat more targeted approach: they have ripped out the box parterre completely and have replanted with Euonymus japonicus ‘Green Rocket’, which has slightly larger, darker green leaves than box but looks very good to me. Interestingly the Box further afield, and used as part of the mixed hedging, looked perfectly healthy.

What else went down in my notes? The use of what I call Crinkly Ivy (possibly Hedera helix ‘Ivalace’); slinging down a handful of alpine grit on the soil to mark where perennials will come up (in this case, Delphiniums); and finally, as I am thinking very seriously about keeping bees, Highgrove’s decision to keep Welsh Black Bees (which hail from Anglesey), which are apparently rather more hardy and resilient than other species – I will have to do some research into that. HRH’s chooks looked flippin’ delighted to be living at Highgrove, and their coop was as upmarket as you would expect from the next in line to the throne.

And what of my shopping trip? The little shop had a few lovely things, and I stocked up on plenty of delights I don’t need but which caught my eye, including an attractive little double-flowered Primula, which will look nice when it blooms. The cafe was excellent and the gluten free fare was delicious.

All in all, another very successful Annie Bee Gardening Adventure, and a few lovely ideas and memories to take home.

NB: all profits from Highgrove go to Prince Charles’s charitable foundation; even the most rampant Republicans should be happy to hear that.

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Annie Bee xx