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Sunday, July 20, 2014

High Summer

Have you been staking your garden recently? Weeding it? Watering it? Deadheading? Or have you, like me, just been letting it happen?


I have been running around like a headless chicken, stopping to admire the garden for a snatched half hour here and there before rushing off again. So I need a July garden that can look after itself a bit. Here are some of my favourites.


 Hemerocallis is great for this type of relaxed gardening in all its many manifestations. Once the first clump is established, the great big strappy leaves will push out wherever they feel comfortable. Getting a clump established can be a little tricky if your sparrows find it - an upturned hanging basket helps.
Deadheading helps - but only for cosmetic reasons in the UK - they are essentially sterile here.


My Monarda doesn't need staking either, though it does benefit from a good drink if the weather is really dry, and I wouldn't grow it on sand. Monarda can be eaten by slugs - eggshells are generally good enough though, or you could let your first plant establish in a well watered pot before planting it out.


It's my first year of growing Lysimachia Clethroides and it is romping away. The flowers are all over the place but I rather like that - no wonder it's called the Gooseneck Loosestrife. My plant is in a shady spot and still it is rather invasive. I wouldn't plant it without a spade handy to chop it down again if it escapes.


The other roses are "resting", but this one - Gentle Hermione - is back in flower this week. I'm more than happy to see her.


And another new entry this month is my Hydrangea Aspera. The showy white flowers are sterile and no use for the insects, but the purple fuzz is lovely for hovver flies. It's also pretty maintenance free which is a joy.


Don't get carried away though with the idea of a maintenance free garden. Can you see the paving slabs in there? No me neither, and somehow I will have to cut a path back to the house. Happy gardening.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Gardening in the Shade during July

We all have at least a little shade in the garden, and the trick is to garden happily with it, rather than pretending to live in a prairie.



In July the large trees that surround much of the garden are luxuriant and full. The shade they cast falls in deep welcome blocks providing a cool respite from the sun. As the day progresses, so these dark fingers move across the garden like competing sun-dials.


The Anglo-saxons of us burn to a crisp in anything more than dappled sunlight, so I put seats around the garden so that they can follow the shadows.



Aconitum and Hardy Geraniums are great shade flowers for July, and the Pelagoniums are very happy providing additional colour in the shade once they've been started off in the sun.


The Cercis Canadensis won't provide any flowers in this much shade, but those fantastic heart-shaped plum leaves do well at jazzing up an otherwise peacefully verdant scene.

The foreground here is full of spring flowers, but inevitably we use this area most during the summer months so the three largish patches at the back are Lysimachia Clethroides, Persicaria Superbum and Eupatorium Cannabinoids, all waiting to burst forth with more flowers. July has been a little low on colour here, but I've planted a Geranium Orion and then cut it back hard to establish: there's every sign that it is taking well so I'm pleased. It has even provided the odd bloom or two.

There is a swamp at the bottom of the garden which I fill with ferns and snowdrops and it fills itself with ivy, nettles, giant hogweeds and dog mercury. It often floods in the winter and all summer long there is a small puddle in the middle where there is a spring. The soil has the texture of a chocolate brownie and any attempt to weed is rewarded by deep footprints and the promise of a soaking. I often wonder what would happen if I fell in.




This area is best thought of as woodland glade. It is populated with persicaria and hellebores, violets and geraniums, gillyflowers and bog irises, pulmonaria and lysimachia: a mish-mash of everything and anything that will thrive or survive.

This is the area where I took out a large laurel hedge and I'm not yet happy with it at all. The soil still lacks life and fertility, despite my many forays to the compost heap, and the relative heights of the plants reflect whatever height they happened to grow to, rather than a plan.

But when I have got on top of it, it will be a great area though, because it is so wet - dry shade is much harder. So I shall be shaping it up over the next year, moving plants around to give the area more shape and taking cuttings from a honeysuckle - to cover the odd bits of fence and wall.



The shady areas of the garden will never have the zing of the sunnier parts, but they still offer plenty of scope for fun.



Friday, July 4, 2014

Fab flowers: Poppies

My recent hike across the South Downs was full to busting with the field poppy, Papaver Rhoeas.

Field Poppy

So I thought I would take a canter through the poppies on offer to us as gardeners. The name poppy covers flowers from at least four different genus that I can think of: Papaver, Meconopsis, Escholtzia, and Macleaya. But Macleaya Cordata - the Plume Poppy - is a very different type of flower, so let's stick with the other three.

Welsh Poppy
Escholtzia - or Californian Poppy - is a sun-shine flower. It likes wide open places and plenty of drainage - even a sandy slope. That means of course that it's not suitable for my garden at all where there's far too much shade. But if you have a light soil and you want quite small plants then go for it - a lovely choice.

Meconopsis, and in particular the Welsh Poppy, Meconopsis Cambrica, is far far easier to grow in shade. There are two basic shades - yellow or orange - and they are both equally good at taking care of themselves. In this garden it is the yellow which seeds itself around, whilst in our last garden it was the orange. I don't know though if you can have both co-existing. They are fragile-looking but with a surprisingly tough constitution and are at home exactly where you would expect - in little damp niches where ferns and mosses grow. Every year I sprinkle their seed around but it takes wherever it feels like and I never grumble. Welsh poppies turn up in early spring and carry on providing flowers through until June. I noticed the last bloom just a few days ago. They aren't particularly large or showy but they make a lovely break to a green spot.

The other Meconopsis that turns up from time to time in garden centres is the Himalayan Poppy - a most refined affair in true blue and much larger. Some years it is a Chelsea Flower Show favourite, but it never quite catches on in gardens and I have a feeling that Himalayan Poppies are as hard to grow as Welsh Poppies are easy. I've only tried once when it flowered and then promptly died. They appear to need deep, acidic, fertile, well-draining, well-watered soil in partial shade. I bet they don't like being crowded either. Sounds like a faff.

Opium Poppy
The Papaver family are growable in my garden too. The annuals such as the field poppy, or opium poppy (Papaver Somniferum) like sunshine, cultivated well-draining soil, and no slugs but, being annuals, you don't have to be able to provide these conditions in winter. And luckily the poppy itself provides the answer to these seemingly difficult conditions in the form of myriads of seedlings. If only you can get a colony of poppies established then the sheer number of seeds should be enough to keep it going. The Somme was a thick mass of clay, but once it was churned up by the shells the quantities of dormant seed was enough to turn the fields red. As close as you can get to nature mourning.

We have a family of frilly opium poppies in this garden. Many are really pretty, but some simply have a fringe of frills and nothing more - most disappointing. I try to strike down the ones I don't like before they have a chance to set seed, but I'm also going to introduce more of a range. My first new opium poppy is the red one you see above which came from seed from my mother's garden. At Chelsea this year I fell in love with a new one called Black Peony so I bought some seed and, since it was already perilously close to the end of the sowing season, I just sowed a few seeds in pots. I tended them properly up to the day I planted them out. I walked away to get my crushed egg-shells, made a cup of tea and forgot all about them. Disaster - my poppies were slugged and grew no more.

Opium Poppy
Even a packet full of seeds does not necessarily provide sufficient seed to prevent it all turning to slug food, but one answer is to grow the first batch of flowers in pots for the whole season, out of harms way. There should then be sufficient seed to keep the flowers going. I did this in the last garden to a poppy known as Angels Choir which has a fantastically diverse range of different colours and patterns. Otherwise it's helpful to seed them in amongst crushed egg-shell or other physical slug barrier - and provide a barrage of twigs to keep the birds off. Don't use slug bait it wrecks the balance in too many ways. Slowly the poppy generations will revert to the red, but in the meantime they will really keep you guessing. I'm talking myself into having another go - and perhaps picking up a packet of Iceland poppies at the same time.

Oriental poppy
Opium poppies are wonderfully tall and will battle it out in a summer border quite happily, providing great flowers and then those wonderfully iconic seed heads like pepper pots. They are also very happy in gravel gardens and are one of those flowers that likes to root in between flag-stones. Let it. There is nothing better for making a cottage garden look authentic.

The prize for star of show surely has to go to the Oriental poppies. These poppies are so fleeting and leave such a mess of die-ing leaves that every year I go through about a week when I vow I will never grow them again. But, like Japanese cherry blossom and babies first steps, they provide wonderful high-lights and I know that next year I will be willing each one on as it bursts forth.

My darling is the Beauty of Livermere, which won't surprise you as it is red, red, red: not a hint of orange at all. If I had space though I would grow a much wider selection. Superficially similar to the opium poppy flower it has a much deeper gloss and is altogether a more substantial plant. Beautiful!

Beauty of Livermere - seen with cow parsley and aquilegias

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Walking the South Downs Way - Part 2 - from Eastbourne to Hassocks

Back in May I decided to put my dream to walk the South Downs Way into practice. So Friday morning bright and early saw me and my friend Kate Bliss and daughter Catherine Wooller on the train to Eastbourne.


By the way, if you are used to reading this blog for a weekly dose of flowers then don't be put off. There will be plenty of flowers to go round.

Finding the time and fitness to walk 100 miles in one go was a bit beyond us, so this stretch is from Eastbourne back home to Hassocks a distance of about 35 miles.

Kate looks tired already, propping up the post but don't believe it: she has the constitution of an ox.

There is a choice in the first section of the walk. Either you turn inland immediately and walk through Friston Forest taking about 3 miles off your overall journey (and a considerable number of bumps and lumps), or you walk over the Seven Sisters. These are a series of cliffs which have been allowed to remain in their natural state. The cliff face erodes naturally and the chalk downland on the top is occasionally mown but otherwise left to diversify. It is all very beautiful.

So, having never considered the issue before we made a quick decision on the train to go via the Seven Sisters: the right choice.

Vipers Bugloss (blue) and Rough Hawksbit (yellow) dominate in places

The very pretty seafront of Eastbourne gives way abruptly to the downs with a fearsome climb at the start up onto the cliffs. I made the mistake of thinking that we had managed our ascent quite easily, only to realise that we then had to go down and up each of the next seven sisters.

Luckily this stage of the walk is very accessible without being awash with car parks, so there are places to rest. This old light-house is now a hostel with an outdoor cafe attached. It's pretty tiny but functional as long as it's not raining.


Wild Thyme (foot at top left hand gives an indication of scale)

It is difficult to explain the joy of walking over a tapestry of flowers if you have never done it. To begin with you try not to stand on any, but quickly you realise that this is a complete impossibility and all you can really do is keep exclaiming "Wow isn't that beautiful". This is what chalk downland should look like, without the addition of fertilisers. I should imagine that it is a very herby diet for a sheep lucky enough to graze on it. I doubt they ever fancy going back to grass.


After about four hours of beautiful sea views and flower tapestries we had made seven miles which by anyone's reckoning is fairly rubbish, but after the final cliff we were greeted by this view - Cuckmere Haven. It can be awash with water birds but today the tally was quite small - one little egret and a flock of Canada Geese. It is pretty though and at the head of the haven there is a pub. Hurrah!


We had assumed that getting off the train at Eastbourne at 9am we would make it through to Alfriston for lunch. In practice the walking was so hilly, and we were so laid back that we only got as far as Exceat. It's only ginger beer we are drinking, but I'm afraid that a good walk makes us giggly.

The remainder of the walk through to our youth hostel at Southease was much more typical downland walking. Alfriston is very beautiful and normally we would have detoured to the excellent Alfriston Clergy House which I've blogged about before, but by the time we got there we were running quite late.

The South Downs is a farmed countryside full of sheep and cows and later on horses. Kate and Catherine are good at walking straight through any number of cows, but I'm much more timid. You do find the occasional bull standing on the path and at that point, if like me your insides turn to jelly, you have to remember that this is a very well walked footpath. All of the animals are used to people so do not panic. They are unlikely to be interested in you.


I find that very difficult to remember and take a very wide berth whilst chanting the thirteen times table for comfort. We reached Southease by 6.45pm.

And so to the south downs YHA which I cannot recommend highly enough. It cost us £66 for the three of us to stay the night in a family room. Rooms are really small with bunk beds, but they are also very clean, very smart, and the beds are very comfortable. All the linen is provided and there are very good self-catering facilities and a common room. We ate at the cafe (proper hikers food - sausage and mash with apple pie and icecream), showered and lay down on our bunks to read. By nine o'clock there were some distinctly snuffly sleepy noises so we gave in and slept.

The hamlet of Southease is so tiny that I had never before realised that it actually exists, but here it is. They even have their own railway station though when I have used the station before the guard asked why I was getting off there.

We came across this rather fab home-made egg transporter. Have a good look at it, the joints are great and it really fits with the scene. Secretly though I was really pleased that they had not yet put out the day's eggs as I knew that I would have bought a box and who wants to hike all day with a fragile cargo of eggs?


 
The second day's walking from Southease to Hassocks is much easier than the first, which is just as well as by this time I had developed an infected blister. There is a lot to be said for a decent pair of walking socks and I could kick myself for not having spent a bit longer before we left finding some good ones. As it was I laced my boots a little tighter than I would normally to keep the swelling in my foot down and got on with it.

Kate, Cath and I have all walked this stretch before as part of various Scout hikes, but we have never walked it in summer before.

Much of the Downs around here has been turned to arable crops, and it breaks my heart to see the over-fertilised wheat pushing through broken chalk where the fragile soil has been washed away. I have no idea how long it would take to restore the ecology back to the tapestry of wild flowers that we saw earlier on in the walk.

In places though a farmer will leave a portion of the field without weed-killer and the results are stunning.
Poppies and Rye with Hawksbit

These fields have a "pinch me, I must be dreaming" quality. This is not far off what I imagine heaven looking like as both the rye and poppies are constantly on the move in any small breeze. There are panoramic views with Brighton sufficiently in the background to provide an interesting contrast and a rather surreal Amex football stadium in grey metal whose contours mimic the downs around. You can just see it in the middle of the picture below if you stare closely. If you are a football fanatic you will want to do that. Otherwise feel free to imagine that it is a reflection of the clouds in a small lake. That works for me.

At this point the Downs begin to break up. There is a strange saddle-shaped lump behind Lewes and the main Downs become two ridges rather than one, with the South Downs Way taking you between the two.


The Downs are almost pure chalk with a really thin layer of soil on top, so it always surprises me how quickly the sides become wooded. Anywhere that the sheep and cows can't get to quickly becomes covered in scrub and then trees. This is easy going right now, but during the winter the combination of wet chalk and clay makes these paths really slippery. A tree trunk to hold onto is a blessing.



It was about at this stage that we noticed the only problem with this stretch of the walk and thatis that there are no facilities at all on it except for a water tap where you cross the main road and an ice-cream van on top of Ditchling Beacon. It really is an ice-cream van too. Even during the middle of winter you can see it and it still sells ice-cream. Have they never heard of soup?


Luckily Kate was carrying vast quantities of snacks so we had an impromptu picnic and watched a pile of runners and cyclists go by. I have tried running on the Downs and my efforts are very funny so I am all admiration for those who can do it.

If you are not carrying food your best option for lunch is to take a detour to Stanmer Park. The detour is reasonably quick if you are happy to walk along a cycle route by the side of the main road and then through the university campus. Otherwise it is a larger detour than you might think as the farmer at Ridge farm is distinctly anti-hikers. It looks on the map like there might be a way to make two close footpaths join by hopping across a field. There isn't so don't rely on it!

Sated on chocolate and other naughtinesses we pushed on North to take us to the escarpment on the other side by Plumpton and then dashed down the hill to Westmeston to see if we could find a loo. There are no public facilities but I was getting a bit desperate so it seemed worth a punt.

The parish hall was getting ready for what must be the prettiest wedding breakfast I've seen. Each chair wore its own wedding dress and had a bone china setting. Utterly beautiful.

The caterers were kind though and let us use the loo. We ran out quickly so that the bride would never know we had been. Whoever you were I am sure you had a lovely day and thank you!

We have all done the remaining section of the South Downs Way more times than we've had hot breakfasts so we played fast and loose at this point and came back across a bit of the Weald through the pretty village of Ditchling, which has amazing figures decorating it at this time of year as part of a competition for the village fete.



What did I learn in preparation for our later, longer, stage?

Firstly - get rid of athlete's foot before starting a long hike, wear comfortable shoes and socks and carry a full first aid kit. The complications are not worth describing here, but my foot is very very swollen.
Secondly - allow more time than you think you need. The Downs are very bumpy in places which makes the going slow.
Thirdly - pack plenty of snacks and water. Although civilisation is never far away at times you need a lot of calories for long hikes.
Fourthly - pack a hiking pole. They are really good for steep inclines. The Downs are not high but they are very steep in places.
Fifthly - prepare for all weather. The forecast was for never-ending rain, but in the end it stayed dry, windy and sunny. Without suntan lotion we would have burnt to a crisp.
Sixthly - do not put your map and compass by the door and then forget all about it.

So thank you very much Kate and Catherine for remembering everything while I bumbled around leaving my kit behind and not bringing essentials. It was a great couple of days and I'm really looking forward to the next stage.




Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Adding height to the all year garden : June

This post is of course the latest instalment in my guide to creating an all year garden. To begin with last year I suggested 12 plants, one for each month of the year, that would create a garden with something to offer all year round.

This year I came back to the idea to add in some flowering shrubs. So we had Kerria in  March, a crab apple in April, and a Cistus in May, which brings us up to now and I had better get on with this post or there will be nothing left to June at all.

One of the reasons for including shrubs in the garden is that they provide height when there is little else going on, but over the last month the whole garden has shot up around my ears, so really there is no need for shrubs to give us height. In the very smallest gardens I might be tempted to dispense with a special shrub for June, but if you have the space then make it work really hard for its place.

The archetypal June shrub has got to be Lavender - the classic addition to court yard gardens everywhere. A Lavender hedge can be the most discrete of affairs - not more than a couple of feet high and the same wide. Yet they conjure up French holidays in the sun, and they look wonderful against cheap concrete paving which has to be a plus.



Lavender is so easy to grow badly that I feel the need to throw in a few warnings. Please do buy a variety you actually like. Many of the butterfly-headed ones have very watery colours and that may be what you prefer, but do check out your chosen plant whilst it is in flower. My own Lavenders are "Munstead" which is very traditional for that "made in Provence" feeling.

Once you have your Lavender be mean to it. This is difficult for me with my lush wet clay soil, but Lavenders really do prefer a sandy/stony soil and plenty of sunshine. That way they grow nice and compact and the scent is better. I grow mine at the top of a small wall with added grit and even so I have to keep weeding out the foxgloves that would rather grow there.

Lastly please give them a good haircut when they finish flowering. Whilst the dead-heads look good for ages they will grow all leggy if you let them and you will need to start again. I talk from experience!

Another good small hedger is a Hebe and some of them are very decorative. But the larger the flowers the more tender they are. Last winter was great, but the two before were very good at killing off bits of my large Hebes. That's not a good look, particularly if your approach to it is simply to cut off the dead bits. Ugh.

If you want wildlife then you may be attracted towards a Buddleia for the butterflies (though I understand they are frowned on in the US as pushing out more native shrubs). I grow Black Night for the strength of colour in the flowers but also for the fine form of the bush in the winter when the leaves are almost silver. Buddleia are very tolerant of different forms of pruning so you can try out different approaches to get the right size bush for your garden.

I found this amazing beasty on my way home from work last night. It must be at least 12 foot if not more and showed what can be done if you feel like ignoring the pleas of the hard-pruning lobby.

Then there is Spirea (why not grow Filipendula and use the same space in winter for snowdrops?). Or if you fancy something mind-blowingly bright why not try one of the many Hypericum. Again this is a shrub that is very tolerant of your pruning habits and can take up some nice forms if you let it - brightening up many a municipal passageway. For myself though I have gone off it a bit this year as mine developed a viral disease and got cut to the ground just when I wanted flowers from it instead.




None of these are quite the right shrub for me for the simple reason that I adore the smell of Mock Orange (Philadelphus). I can be sitting at the bottom of the garden and suddenly feel as though someone has put a Cointreau in my hand. Or gently doing a bit of deadheading and find that my mind has drifted to India because of the scent of Jasmine. I don't know why the smell is variable but both are amazing and help me orientate myself on the way home. The family is comfortable in shade as well which is a blessing. My first Philadelphus in the garden was a Coronaria Aureus or Golden Mockorange. This is a lovely bush all year round with bright lime or sometimes golden leaves. But its not what I had in mind for the flowers because they get lost in amongst all that gold. What I really love is the double Virginal with blossoms the colour of icing sugar. So that is my choice for this month. It will grow very tall if you let it - but is controllable and if you need something a lot smaller there are others around. Mine is only little as yet but it is still fab.



Friday, June 20, 2014

Mid-summers Magic

Summer time and the living is easy. This morning when I stirred at 4am the day was hanging in an eerie twilight. Whilst it wasn't quite light it certainly wasn't dark. The first of the birds were starting to stir, and the plants no doubt had begun to grow again.


I find it quite astonishing how much the garden has changed in the last month or so. Last month the area below was full of cow parsley interspersed with poppies. Now the geraniums have crowded out the remains of the poppies and the Maltese Cross has completely taken over the role of the Prima Donna.


I love this colour combination. As a child I was taught that pink and red together were quite vulgar. I didn't agree then and I still don't. Now I can flaunt it!

The garden will be at its peak now for the next six weeks if we are lucky and we don't have a drought.


I don't plan to plant anything at all now this summer - apart from a few biennial seeds of course. Anything perennial planted from now on will find it harder to get established as the soil gradually dries out and the light levels start to drop.



I'm not going to do much watering either unless the weather gets really hot. Some years we can almost do without it at all. I do have a water butt which fills quickly if there is a cloud burst. That generally is enough for the odd pot or two, and perhaps a bit of bedding that I sneak in to take care of August gaps.


My main aim in the summer is just to keep on top of the weeding. I pull about three wheelbarrow loads of weeds out of the garden every week. Sometimes I still can't see a bare patch even after I've finished weeding. 

Apart from that I just intend to kick back and enjoy the show.


Monday, June 9, 2014

Going Organic - Feeding the soil

I'm lucky. I went organic because I started out that way. I've never put down a slug pellet or opened up a box of fertiliser. It's just never been part of my mind-set. But I can quite see that going organic could be a hard decision for people who are used to popping a spray into the trolley along with the plants. So I'm starting what I hope will be a series of posts on how to kick the pesticide and fertiliser fix.

I decided to write the post whilst out on a run the other day. I ran past a house which had lumps of concrete scattered about the front garden. At least that's what I first thought. I later realised that the lumps were garden clay that had been dug out and then left around to harden.

I feel very sorry for any plant that gets planted in that lot. It's difficult to see how it could stand a chance. If you are lucky and your garden was once part of a flood plain you may get lucky and have wonderful soil.

But any earth which grows herbaceous perennials year in year out without ever being fed will get exhausted after a while. In the wild (bit of a mythical concept in England but bear with me) the plants will either be eaten and fertilised with poo, or they will collapse in the winter giving rise to a form of mulch. In comparison, taking away all the stalks and stems each year and putting nothing back is pretty cruel treatment.

Instead our compost heap eats all our fruit and veg left overs as well as all the grass clippings and almost all of the prunings and weedings. Bits of soggy paper or card egg trays go on too though anything which is clean can be recycled instead.

I don't think that composting has to be a dark art - though it certainly can be if you want. I have two piles - one for woody stuff and perennial weed roots and one for other green stuff as it mounts up.  I bury the kitchen waste, putting garden waste on top. The green stuff I cut up with my secateurs into lengths that won't irritate me if I get them wrapped around my fork, but the woody stuff I mainly forget about. Some of it gets reused as plant-props, but occasionally I take large branches to be composted at the local tip.

I could make biochar from this woody waste, but beware instructions on the internet that suggest burying your fires. There are plenty of places now where a garden bonfire can quickly turn into a wildfire and even start burning roots underground.

do turn the compost from time to time, but mostly I mine it as if it were coal. This is a great art which consists of making horizontal inroads into the enriched soil beneath the pile until the tunnel can no longer stand its own weight. When that happens I either a) give up having got enough or b) get over-enthusiastic and turn the compost completely whilst telling myself that it's cheaper than gym membership. There is no unpleasant smell and the number of flies is quite acceptable. I don't mind a few little flies as they are quality-assured bird food.

Personally I never worry about the resulting quality of the compost. Mine is certainly not sterile - it is packed full of weed and other seeds - but then I have the type of garden that will always need weeding. That's part of the interest. Nor do I ask for my compost to be finished - it just needs to be good enough to improve our soil structure. When I spread it around, the compost will still be bursting with micro-creatures and that's fine. What I don't want to do is leave the compost till it's so old that all the nutrients have leached away again.

Compost is strange stuff - and I mean really strange stuff. It has a texture which is like a sponge. It hangs on to water and minerals but then gives them up again easily. So having a lot of compost helps prevent both drought and flash flood. It can feed your plants even if the amount of minerals in the soil is quite low. That's because the compost will have a high fungal spore count. Where the microrhizal fungi are compatible with your plants they actually invade the cells forming a secondary root system that helps forage out new nutrients. How cool is that?

If you aren't convinced yet (which makes you a tough cookie) can I just mention that it is way easier to weed a clay garden if your soil is full of compost too, and perhaps the very best thing about compost is that it stores carbon in your soil for hundreds of years.

We are really lucky to have a garden which is large enough to be able to have a compost heap without worrying too much about the room it takes up. If room is an issue you can reduce it by cutting up the bits smaller, turning it more, or getting it hotter by making a pile in the sunshine or covering it will black plastic or old carpet. If you are really stuck for space you can also dig trenches and bury compost if you still have areas yet to be cultivated. That approach does work eventually but I wouldn't want to do it with just lawn clippings as they go horribly rank and slimy.

If you can't cope with composting by all means send it off to the local tip to be professionally composted, but then do buy back the resulting compost which is excellent stuff. It's just a more expensive option than diy.

Composting is great once you get into the swing of it - it's like having a lock down on the flower garden with none of the nutrients being allowed to escape. But there may have been times when I desperately needed to improve the structure of the soil but had not yet built up a pile I could mine into. That's when horse manure comes in so handy. Around us there are huge piles of the stuff, steaming away and topped with a delicious assortment of perennial weeds. If you can find out who is responsible for them, they are almost always happy to have some of it escorted off the premises. I've never been asked to pay though I have raised one or two eyebrows at my obsession with dung!

There are loads of other possibilities if you don't have local horses, including mushroom compost and spent hops. Coffee grinds are a good one. In England Costa Coffee is more than happy to bag up their remains and give it away free. The grinds can be applied directly and they are acidic which is useful for Azaleas and roses etc. There is only one problem and that is the smell! It breaks my heart to wait all year for a particular scent and then catch the over-tone of stale cappucino over it. Two weeks seems to be enough to make it go though, and as an added bonus the slugs don't like it.