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Now (mid September) the rain and wind are back in residence, and it seems hard to believe that from May to August we experienced drought conditions. After years of having more water than we could cope with, we found ourselves thinking seriously about using mains water on the garden. In the end it didn't quite come to that, but certainly the garden was parched for many weeks this summer. It served as a severe reprimand to find that our water storage system is nowhere near as efficient as it needs to be. We shall be working to put that right very soon.
Apart from the delight of a proper, long hot summer, a lot of energy has been devoted to organising a number of stumperies in various corners, hoping to encourage wildlife to feel at home. We have also begun constructing a tor in the sheepfield. This has been created by dumping a lot of the cleared material such as ivy, brambles and clippings all in one long strip near the entrance to the field. It is already shaping up promisingly, and after just a few months it allows a much higher standpoint from which to view the landscape immediately north of us.
WINTER - SPRING 2018
Spring is very late this year. At the time of writing (April 17th) I would say we have just had two or three spring days in the last week. Many wild flowers have surfaced so late that they are being closely chased by species that normally follow on some weeks behind them. I have also noticed on our plum trees that the blossom is out before most of the leaves have even begun to appear.
We made a conscious effort to feed and attract more birds to the near-house garden this winter. I counted 22 different species visiting us before our first linnet appeared to confirm spring's arrival. Our regulars include greater spotted woodpecker, nuthatch, siskin, goldfinch, mistle thrush and dunnock (and of course our most beloved crows) but this winter we were most delighted to see long tailed tits close by the window. This was my first definite sighting of them in the garden, and they seem to have been lured by suet blocks. As soon as the suet blocks ran out, so did the long tailed tits.
We have also enjoyed the company of many pheasants, another first for us. They arrived en masse in the autumn and look likely to breed. I cannot guess what brought them to us, but they are a strange mixture of exotic, eccentric and comical. I confess that my first reaction involved Christmas dinner with a difference, but they have worked their way into my affections and I would have to be very hard-pressed economically to consider killing any of them now.
We have devoted ourselves to 'clearancing' through most of the winter, and this month we have seen some usable spaces appear. Ivy continues to be the target, along with the eternal and ubiquitous brambles. Paths remain our absolute priority, and it is easy to forget just how much progress we've made in three full-time years.
My conscience troubles me often regarding the ivy, which is (never let us forget) a TREE, and our whole reason for coming here was to grow trees. Ivy is also very beautiful, and a luxuriant habitat for wildlife of many kinds. So I'm pleased to have been able to organise some areas of respite for dear, beleaguered ivy, including allowing her to colonise a few dead stumps and trunks. As with most aspects of the garden, management is the key. If ivy dictates the terms, other species suffer, but if we keep tabs on her stealthy progress, and impose reasonable limits, all may yet be well.
Sadly, the rain has continued to fall heavily. We frequently call the garden a swamp, and that term is less metaphorical every day. In my view, 'swamp' is last year's word, and I'm switching to 'lake' instead.
After a warm, dry spring, lasting into May, 2017 became a story only of rain. Without labouring any climate-change point, it is shocking to us how the garden itself has changed, perhaps permanently, in the last ten years.
When we started (2008) we encountered three consecutive years of no summer, just dull, grey wetness. As we were not full-time gardeners at that stage, we became used to what we thought was an established pattern where a 'proper' summer was rare, but the weather itself would not reach extremes of any kind (apart from the 2011 hurricane, of course). In 2015 we saw areas of mud appearing where only grass had shown before. In 2016 those muddy areas expanded somewhat. What we have seen since May 2017 has been extreme, and that extreme has been RAIN. As 2017 comes to an end we look back at seven whole months of rain-most-days. The path by the woodstore, which was reliably dry when we started, is now a permanent mudbath, and in December I dug up the entire length of it to install a drainage channel which, so far, has not had a chance to make a difference because the rain is so heavy and so relentless.
REFLECTIONS FROM THE WOODSHED
I LOVE TREES
I am old, and out of step with the modern world.
I came to north west Wales to grow trees.
Born in a city, raised on a farm, I came to tree-growing with an idealised view of it. A few years ago I would have found it almost impossible to cut even a small branch off a tree. Also, I would mock those 'townies' who moved to the country and started paving it over. (I still do mock them, but) Now I am well capable of taking a chainsaw to a tree.
Nevertheless, my respect and reverence for trees has never wavered, and everything in this journal will, ultimately and inevitably, be a reflection of my belief that:
Trees are the most highly evolved beings on this planet.
My woodshed reflections cover much more than gardening. They will probably be largely unread. But I'm setting them down in the hope that they might help someone, even if it is only one person, work out their own ideas by having something to dis/agree with.
I must start in the woodshed though, musn't I?
HOW IT IS
For many people around here, a fallen tree means only one thing: firewood.
For me a fallen tree can mean timber for building, material for sculpture and carving, a new habitat for wildlife, new earth as it decomposes, an adventure playground for children of all ages, and so on.
It can mean sadness too, of course. And, even more obviously, it can mean firewood.
Last year (2014) on our little piece of land (four acres), a total of 70 trees were felled by storm-force winds. Most of them were decades old. About twenty were fully mature giants of great beauty. They were felled not by the venal selfishness of man but by the power of the turning Earth, the mother of all our lives.
Many people use the word 'natural' as if it has moral power, a synonym for 'good' or 'beautiful'. There is much beauty in nature but there is frightening power too. There is nothing more natural, for example, than the Ebola virus.
I do love Mother Earth and this world of wonders we are so lucky to have lived on. But I also fear and respect Mother Nature and the whirling, crunching forces that spin whole galaxies around the universe as if they were splatters of paint on a canvas.
I try to observe respect in all things.
I give thanks for the beauties of the earth that allow me to throw one more chunk of wood on the fire, gleaning a minute's warmth from a plant that might be centuries old. In the blink of an eye my bones will be ashes too.
I believe it is important for us all to look at the wild lottery we call the universe, and decide what we should do about it. Do we act in accordance with how things are, or how we want them to be? Do we simply admire the wilderness or do we try to establish a garden?
The answer to this and possibly all such stark oppositions is that we should do both. We must certainly respect and preserve the wilderness. But we should also do our best to create beautiful, fruitful, ordered gardens to make the most of our brief time here.
And the best thing we can grow in the garden is a tree.
PRINCIPLE THE SECOND: ART = EDITING
Most novels, films, sitcoms and short stories leave out the stuff that doesn't matter. 'Seinfeld' has some of the best and most brutal editing in the history of tv, and it's much better for it.
As in art, so in the garden. Nature puts plants all over the place; our job is to remove the stuff that is problematic. Sometimes we move it elsewhere, especially if it's a tree. But basically, for Woodminster at least, gardening is 1% planting and 99% cutting.
One sad result of this is the fact that we end up killing trees. Yes, even oaks and ashes. I never thought it possible but we now get so many baby oaks that we sometimes have to let the lawnmower cut some of them down. We treat them like weeds. Technically they are weeds (bearing in mind the classic definition of a weed as a plant that is growing in the 'wrong' place). The difference is, it is deeply upsetting to pull up these particular weeds.
So: (a) we leave it as long as possible.
And (b) you can have some surplus trees if you can use them.
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(MOSTLY) CONSTANT FACTORS
YIN AND YANG COVERS NEARLY EVERYTHING.
Human beings are thoroughly vile.
Human beings are wonderful, beautiful and good.
Animals are sweet, spiritual and noble.
Animals are violent, territorial bullies.
The world is going to Hell in a handcart.
Things are improving all the time.
Head is no good without heart.
Heart on its own is even worse.
The most important principle to emerge from all these other principles goes something like this:
Any one-sided, exclusional doctrine is (almost) certain to be false and destructive. It is vital, therefore, that any leaders/decisions/policies/systems MUST demonstrate the wisdom of balance or, at the very least, some effective qualifying clauses that will prevent the engine going off the rails.
Please note this is not the same as compromise, which often results in the dilution/neutering of power. A better analogy would be a motorway or railway line that is basically only ever going in one direction (er...forwards!) but which remains subject to speed limits, rules for junctions and the merging of traffic, policing by, er... the police, and most useful of all, barriers along the side with structural weaknesses built in and which function as an elasticated belt to guide and protect those who have lost control, who would otherwise crash off the road altogether.