Gardening Journal – Entry 23

Sunday 23 January 2022

It’s amazing how quickly things come around once the ball gets rolling. It feels like it was only yesterday that I accepted a new role and handed in my notice at my current workplace; now I’ve come to the end of my final week.

Changing jobs is exciting, but it comes with a lot of nerves. After starting my horticulture career in this place, it feels like I’m removing the safety net and diving into the unknown. On the other hand, I’m starting work in one of my favourite botanical gardens in a couple of weeks and my confidence and competency have been reinforced. Going into a new, more challenging environment is exactly what I had envisaged at the end of my apprenticeship. Now I just have to keep my imposter syndrome under control.

Fortunately, to keep my mind off all of that, I had a lot of work to get on with and frosty temperatures to contend with this week.

Tuesday 16 January 

After being away from work with a nasty splinter (read: large wood chip embedded in my finger), I spend today at a site I don’t usually work in. It is an area we know as ‘the podium’ with several large raised beds, some spanning hundreds of square metres. I was tasked with clearing the Anemone x hybrida that had died back, as well as cutting back the flowering stalks of the Agapanthus africanus.

I do love a good before and after photo, as it is all too easy to underestimate the impact of your work without the visual aid. However, in this case, the difference was striking. The bed had a graveyard-like quality due to the vast number of tall, dead flowering stalks of the Anemone. I believe the celebrated garden designer Piet Oudolf said of plants that the “skeletons… are as important as the flowers”. However, in this case, the hundreds of stalks were quite overpowering and nothing like the stunning melange of textures, colours and layers that Oudolf delivers. So they had to go.

Typically the cutting back of perennials like this takes place in early spring, just as the new growth starts to emerge, however, when working in a busy site like this, sometimes we don’t have the privilege of perfect timing. Nonetheless, these plants will be just fine, as the temperatures are much milder now and the raised bed is well sheltered by the adjacent buildings, which will prevent any frost or wind damage to the delicate emerging shoots.

Initially, I started by cutting the plants back with my secateurs, cutting the dead stems as close to the base as I could without damaging new growth. However, after only making very slow progress, I reached for some shears and quickly cut all the plants to a height just above the green shoots. After that, I very gently tugged on the dead plant matter and the majority of it easily came loose. Any pieces that resisted were cut close to the base with my sharp, clean secateurs. While this method was much faster than my spot-pruning, getting this bed to a good horticultural standard was going to be a two-day job.

Wednesday 19 January

Today was spent finishing the bed I was working on yesterday and clearing it up. After finishing cutting back and clearing the Anemone x hybrida, I moved on to the Agapanthus. Their beautiful flowering stalks eventually set seed and die back over winter, sometimes toppling over. I used my secateurs to cut as close to the base of the flowering stalk and removed any dead foliage from underneath the plant. This was also a good opportunity to look through the foliage for any litter or remnants of previous flowering heads that may not have been correctly removed. These are usually dry enough to simply pull out.

After a good clear out, I moved my attention to the soil, which needed light cultivation, largely to remove the moss that had spread across the surface. Moss is a common tell-tale sign of waterlogging or excess water in the soil so I made sure the drainage pipes and grates were clear of debris before removing as much moss as I could with a springbok rake. It is very difficult to remove all the moss without also removing a lot of soil in the process. Regular light raking of the moss, cultivation and improved drainage should solve this issue in future.

I cultivated the soil using a three-pronged cultivator and started at the sandier areas, where the soil was lighter. This allowed me to drag across the more clayey, compacted soil from underneath, leading to a good and consistent depth of cultivation. I was careful of the delicate new growth took my time around the root environment to prevent any damage to the plants.

After this, I created a sharp edge around the lawn using a half-moon and edging shears before packing up for the day and a well-deserved hot chocolate when I got home.

Thursday 20 January

After donning my thermal tights, under layers and ice-handling gloves (no, really, they are made for working in -30℃ weather), I headed out to another raised bed on ‘the podium’. This one seemed like a quick job: leaf clearance, weeding, and cultivation. That was until I realised I was working with pure clay. I mean, this soil was so heavy I could have made pottery with it. One benefit of working with very compacted soil is that the conditions can be so inhospitable that even the hardiest of weeds can’t survive. After some very, very light weeding, I moved on to cultivation using a spade. After about an hour of hacking away, the area was looking more like soil and less like tarmac. It was such as good workout that my watch recorded it as an outdoor run! I did the same on the other side of the bed, which mercifully had a far better, more workable structure.

Friday 21 January

I finished off the week working on one of my favourite beds on ‘the podium’: a little Heuchera and Ilex bed. I started by cutting back a few of the Anemones and removing any dead plant matter I could see. After that, I dealt with the suffocating Cymbalaria muralis. Which, although pretty, spreads like mad and was tangled up in the all Heuchera and needed to go.

Then I cut back the dead flowering stalks of the Heuchera and gave the soil a good cultivate. As it is a narrow bed and I didn’t need to stand on the soil at all, it was a breeze to cultivate and the soil capping was quickly removed, which means that these plants will be able to access all the water they need when it next rains or they get watered.

Around the corner there were a few Ilex trees that needed sweeping out and the soil cultivating. This was a quick job and I was soon giving the lawn a quick edge. I finished off the day giving the area a quick sweep to remove any debris and putting my tools and wheelbarrow away in the lock-up for the last time!

I’m really going to miss these sites, but I’m so glad I got a chance to give them a bit of love before I head off. Now it’s time to buckle up for a week of annual leave before I get my teeth into the new job.

Gardening Journal – Entry 22

Sunday 16 January 2022

During these cold months, as we all recover from the busyness of Christmas and the occasional dreariness of January, I like to keep my weekends fairly open. I use the end of the week to rest and recover from working out in the cold and take the opportunity to spend some quality time with my family.

However, even after the freezing temperatures recently which warranted a hibernation weekend, I loved going to the Brockwell Park Community Greenhouses on Sunday. Sometimes the best kind of motivation and inspiration comes from doing what you do every day in a completely different space. It left me ready to start the new week and get my sites looking great as my days in my current job come to a close. The next couple of weeks are going to fly by and before I know it I’ll be handing over my keys and packing everything up. Might as well make the most of the time I have left!

Monday 10 January 

Monday mornings are always slightly frantic, largely due to the fact that we have all got a bit too used to waking up later and not needing to be in uniform at 7am. This morning, I started by checking on the sites I had worked on last week. Some areas that had been under fallen leaves for months had accumulated an algae-like slimy substance, which needed to be dried out. After a weekend of airing, the site was safe again and looking great. Someone had even placed my safety cones in a lovely ring around the base of the tree – very kind but a tad unhelpful. A friendly reminder; health and safety signage is there for a reason, not just for fun! 

After that, I worked on edging up a bank close to one of the lakes. Edging or edging up refers to the redefining of the edge of a lawn through either slicing downwards and along with a half-moon or using edging shears. It helps the edge of the lawn look neater, prevents encroaching of the grass on hard standing and even prevents trips! This particular bank had not been edged up since before I started working here, so it required a good slice with the half-moon to cut through the dense sward that had formed over the brickwork. After pulling away the larger, more obvious clumps, I swept along the edge with a broom, dislodging any loose blades of grass. I also worked on getting another defined edge a bit neater. For this kind of thing, I use sharp edging shears, which cut through the blades of grass that have grown outwards and help to maintain a small gap between the soil profile and the paving. I like using this method as it makes further maintenance a lot easier and gives you a little more time before the grass begins to encroach on the pathway. 

This is a great task to do first-thing at the start of the week, as it gives such an immediate impact and makes you feel like you’ve actually achieved something that will last for a while. Well, until the grass starts growing again in spring and it becomes a weekly job!

Tuesday 11 January

Today was spent finishing even more edging – this time of tree pits. While tree pits are technically the hole that a tree is initially planted in, I’m referring to a circle or square that is cut out of the lawn around the trunk of the tree. While not everyone loves them, here are some of the reasons I’m a big fan:

  • Tree pits make mowing around tree trunks easier and prevent damage to the roots and trunk when strimming too
  • Seasonal mulching of tree pits helps to return nutrients to the growing environment
  • Tree pits look neat, as they are easier to clean up with some edging, whereas it can be tricky to get an even cut when the grass grows right up to the trunk
  • They prevent compaction of the soil, as people do not tend to step inside tree pits and prefer to keep to the grass
  • Tree pits can help more water reach the roots, as there is less of a barried between the atmosphere and the soil
  • In addition, when measured out correctly, the tree pit will extend to the canopy edge, also known as the drip line. This means that rainwater caught in the tree’s branch network will fall onto the tree pit, taking the water straight to the root system
  • Tree pits tend to look very neat and are common in botanical gardens, which is something we can all aspire to even in our own gardens

When edging up tree pits, I tend to start with a half-moon and carve out the circle or square, flicking the soil upwards to create a small mound closer to the tree trunk. After that, I go over the edge with the shears to get a lovely, crisp finish.

Wednesday 12 January

For me, Wednesdays are always spent looking at my to do list and realising that as much as the week is dragging, time is running out! My plan for the next couple of weeks is to get my sites up to a nice standard before I move on to my new job. Hopefully, the person who takes over from me can have a good framework to work off.

Today I started to tackle a bed that I hadn’t looked at in almost a year. Back in summer, I climbed through the overgrown brush to give the Pyracantha a once over. While I removed a large portion of the shrub, it barely looks like I’ve made a dent. Typically, you wouldn’t take too much off a tree or shrub during this time of year, as there is strict legislation surrounding the disturbance of nesting birds. However, as long as you are vigilant and carefully check the plant for any evidence of this, it is usually okay. I had always wanted to go back over this shrub and prune it back into shape, however, I needed to get rid of the three D’s first (that’s Diseased, Damaged and Dead, but I also like to add Distorted to the list to cover things like nutrient deficiencies and reversion). The shrub was suffering with bad coral spot, which is a fungal disease that is best removed by careful pruning.

After hacking away at it for a couple of days, a wildflower meadow was planted right next to the bed, making maintenance of this border a little trickier. So once I had mown the meadow down, I got to work on the neglected border until the end of the week!

Thursday 13 January

I started on the border bright and early today, removing some of the weeds that had been happily growing for 11 months. By this point, they came up to my waist, which made them easier to pull out without too much digging, but does mean that they have likely already set seed and are going to be a nightmare for the next few years!

I removed as many large, annual weeds before moving onto the fiddly perennials and their stubborn taproots. Since receiving a hori knife for my birthday last year, perennial weeds have been no match for me, and digging them out is a breeze. If you’re looking for a garden multi-tool, a hori is the way to go.

Friday 14 January

Today was a race from start to finish. I had it on my list to complete the aforementioned weedy border by the end of the day and, while there is still a little bit of work to be done, I came pretty close.

Today I essentially removed the dead. I swept out all the dead leaves, cut away any dead Pyracantha branches and removed any dead plants below the shrub, which included several self-seeded Solanum capsicastrum that were struggling to compete with their parent plants. While the space may look quite bare after the removal of the weeds and failing S. capsicastrum, it is important to give plants enough space to grow and provide them with a good amount of airflow to prevent fungal diseases from spreading (I’m looking at you, coral spot). All in all, I got some big jobs finished that had been postponed for months, which is always a good feeling.

Next week, I’ll be finishing this off with the removal of some epicormic growth on the Pyracantha and getting the edge nice and sharp. I can’t wait to finally see this border looking its best, just in time for me to leave!

Gardening Journal – Entry 21

Sunday 9 January 2022

And just like that, a new year is here! So much has happened this week; I took down a Christmas tree, got a brilliant new job and have been given a Sensory Garden border to work on in one of the gardens I volunteer for.

Tuesday 4 January

Today was exactly what I had anticipated on my first day of work in 2021: utter chaos. It started out fairly normally with a quick wander around my sites to look for any glaring issues and to get to grips with the work that needs doing this week. 

This week is all about the final leaf clearance, weeding and mulching; all typical January jobs. After cutting the dead out of a stunning Prunus shrub (and getting tiny pink petals all over myself) I got to work on clearing some leaves out of a border. 

Then I received a call from an unknown number and was told that a job I was previously rejected for was mine if I wanted it. I did and do! So in the next month, I’ll be a botanical gardener! Almost exactly two years since I started this new career, I’ve landed myself a job working for the oldest botanical garden in London! I don’t know when this feeling of surreality will go away, but I’m enjoying it for now!

Wednesday 5 January 

I started the day with pond maintenance. The bulk of the aquatic work I do involves leaf clearance and litter picking. Fortunately for me, today we cleared the leaves from the side of the lakes. Typically, I enjoy getting into my waders and hopping into the water; it feels like an adventure, every time. However, on mornings like this when it’s still dark at 8am and only three degrees, I am very grateful not to be sloshing through the icy water. 

In fact, in February of last year, I found myself using a rake to smash through sheets of ice that had formed on top of the water. We had started the annual cutting back of reeds on the sunken beds in the middle of the lakes. While it was frigidly cold in the water, I had a wonderful time collecting the floating reeds from the top of the water and passing them to the people on the bank. 

You may be wondering why such an emphasis is put on removing leaves and reeds from the water. Lakes and ponds in the wild manage fine without careful dredging and leaf removal, don’t they? However, there is a very delicate balance that occurs in the water and it is important to maintain it. When plant matter breaks down in the water, this decomposition necessitates oxygen. When this happens to a handful of leaves in a large pond, it isn’t an issue. However, when nearby deciduous trees defoliate en masse in autumn and winter, a huge volume of organic matter could simultaneously decompose in the water, thus deoxygenating the water enough to render it inhospitable for other organisms in the habitat, including fish, plants and important bacteria. On top of that, when the water in a pond becomes too nutrient heavy following the addition of organic matter, disruptive and invasive organisms can thrive. And even more importantly, artificial water courses involve pumps which can easily be clogged by decaying plant matter falling to the bottom of the water. 

Managing an aquatic space is by no means my area of expertise, however, I love learning new techniques and going for a wander about. Sometimes when I’m creeping through the overgrown reeds, hunting for litter, I do feel like a crocodile could be swimming up behind me. But when I turn around, it’s always the same pair of ducks, probably laughing at my inefficient waddling through the water.

Later on in the day, we waved goodbye to the festive season and took down the Christmas tree. I say took down – we dismantled it. In order to reduce the waste that comes with growing, harvesting, displaying and disposing of christmas trees, we use an artificial tree that can be reused year after year. It consists of a scaffolding-like upside down cone shape on which clumps of branches are attached. Each clump has its own isolated circuit of fairy lights, which helps to prevent a total blackout when only one clump is faulty. 

Considering the scale of the job, we made quick work of it and had dismantled the tree entirely within an hour. I then spent the next half hour meticulously easing apart the wires into neatly wound bundles for next year. Putting up a Christmas tree is stressful enough without having to untangle 50m of wire! 

Today has been a perfect example of why I love what I do. I got involved in unexpected tasks, saw an immediate difference in the work I was doing and me and my muscles are more than ready to get home and curl up on the sofa. 

Thursday 6 January

Today started with me scraping ice off my bike seat and furiously pedaling to work and the warmth of our mess room. Freezing days like today are always a bit of a challenge, as you have to keep moving to stay warm and some tasks just don’t fit the bill. This morning I found myself crouching (thankfully on a foam pad) and weeding some neglected tree pits. By the time I headed back in for my break, I couldn’t feel my toes. Fortunately. I invested in some waterproof, fleece-lined gloves intended for handling ice and snow. While they are a little overkill for gardening, they have kept my fingers perfectly warm, even in the harshest weather. After sweeping up a mountain of fallen leaves and packing up, the day was pretty much over and I hopped on my de-iced bike and cycled home.

Friday 7 January

This is the first Friday of the year and I was more than ready for it to come. Waking up at 5am isn’t ever easy but the cold weather and dark afternoons make getting out of bed even less appealing. However, it’s a small price to pay to work outdoors with plants every day. 

Today was all about finishing off the tasks I started yesterday. I cleared all the tree pits first thing and swept up (what I hope are) the last fallen leaves until autumn. 

We always finish half an hour early on Fridays and while you wouldn’t think thirty minutes would make a difference, the day always flies by. I can’t deny that I’m looking forward to the weekend, which is going to start with celebratory new job drinks with Kyle at an art deco pub and finish with a border maintenance workshop/ volunteering session at Brockwell Park Community Greenhouses on Sunday. 

Sunday 9 January

Today was the first Border Workshop session of the year at the Brockwell Park Community Greenhouses. We started off by sharing some planting plans we had put together over the Christmas break for a border called the Seating Circle. It is a place used by volunteers and visiting schools as a starting point and a spot to have tea and a biscuit to warm up on cool wintery days like today. My planting plan is below and uses the Piet Oudolph drawing style of ‘blobs’ to mark out the positioning of the plants. Typically, designs are drawn up using circles to delineate the location and ultimate spread. However, I find this more effective and realistic, as it demonstrates the way plants actually grow. They spread into each other and fill in the spaces around them. It is also particularly effective when demonstrating planting in drifts, which I am particularly fond of.

After that, I led the work on the sensory garden, which is a border championing plants that please all the senses: sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. We replaced a plant support that had fallen apart with a new woven Salix structure. It was quite a tight fit, but after some pruning of diseased, damaged and dead, we managed to make it fit. We finished the border with some leaf removal, weeding and sweeping. 

At the end of the session, I was offered a chance to work more closely on the border and support the current curator in her work maintaining, designing and planting it up. Over the next few months, I will be choosing a few new plants to fill in two gaps that have developed in the bed and working on bringing it up to a really great standard. I can’t wait!

Gardening Journal – Entry 20

Friday 26 March 2021

What a week! I feel like I haven’t stood still since Monday. It has been a week of learning and there as not been much gardening, at home or at work, but I don’t mind – I’m here for the knowledge! This week started off feeling like spring had finally come, with enough sunlight to have me stripping off the layers. It truly felt like the first time I had felt the sun on my skin in years. I simply cannot wait for the warmer weather to finally arrive in earnest. 

Monday 22 March

I moved sites on Monday, to a location I have been obsessed with since I moved to London. I spent the day getting used to the site and trying to find my way around the maze-like stairs, gates and underground car parks. I eventually found my way to some herbaceous borders than needed digging over in preparation for some planting later in the week. 

I found myself crawling under spiny Mahonias and hopping around delicate lillies as I lightly dug over the soil. The sun was out and my pasty arms were as well! It was a lovely day and, while I missed working with Laurence, I loved the quietness of the site and the quirky characters practicing their fencing, wandering through the shrubs and chatting away to me about planting. 

Tuesday 23 March

This was a field trip day. We visited Regent’s Park to have a look at their winter bedding displays, as we are going to be designing our own bedding schemes for our workplace. We noted a heavy use of Heuchera villosa ‘Palace Purple’, as well as Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrecens’ for a darker look across the beds. It was interesting to see the planting choices and the unique designs they had created, although some had missed the mark, in my very humble and inexperienced opinion!

Wednesday 24 March

Our college day was spent… in college! Again! What a treat it was to see our classmates again and work on some of our upcoming practicals. We focused on planting containerised shrubs, spreading fertiliser, did our Alpine plant ident test and worked on edging a lawn. 

Planting containerised shrubs

  • These had to be a minimum of 2L pots
  • We made the holes we dug for these plants at least twice as big as the root ball and kept it sharp and square, to encourage the roots to grow outwards and down, instead of continue their circular growth pattern after being kept in a pot for a long time.
  • We prepared the soil by giving it a light dig over and raking it to a good tilth for planting of this nature. 
  • We checked the plants for weeds, pests, disease and ave it a little prune for diseased, damager or dead growth. 
  • The end result was quite pretty and it was shame to immediately have to remove them from the ground for the next group to practice with!

Spreading fertiliser:

  • This task is a lot more finicky than you might thing, due to the calibration required.
  • The calibration involves matching your walking pace and the size of the fertiliser spreader holes in order to achieve 35g of fertiliser per square metre. 
  • As most gardeners make two passes over a lawn, we worked to 17.5g per pass to add up to the total 35g. 
  • We measures the amount of fertiliser distributed by laying out a plastic sheet with a square metre drawn on it. We walked over this space at a steady pace and swept up the fertiliser that landed in the designated area and weighed it. 
  • We used vermiculite, as fertiliser is expensive and harmful if not handled correcting with appropriate PPE. 
  • Laurence and I worked together and managed to get to 18g on both the spreader and the drop spreader. But it took a good ten tries!

Edging a lawn:

  • This is where it all fell apart. 
  • Laurence and I have edged lawns at least twenty times, usually with excellent polished results. This time, we were contending with a hidden rotten wooden board and the wrong tools. 
  • We used a guide string to mark out the line we wanted to follow. Then we used scaffold boards to line up and stand on as we cut into the edge with a half moon. 
  • We removed the grass and soil that was protruding passed over the area with some edging shears, which tidied up any long blades of grass.
  • In theory, this should have been a quick job. In reality it took the best part of an hour and didn’t even deliver a straight line! 

Thursday 25 March

On Thursday we worked at a different site pruning fruit trees. I was incredibly excited for this practical day out, as I have only ever worked with ornamental plants. We started by identifying the species we were working with. There was a lot of Pear, Apple, Cherry, Damson, Plum and even Fig! The pear after bud break was incredible, as they had beautiful leaves protecting the emerging, plump flowering buds. 

The orchard was very neglected, with very few tree pits remaining and extensive damage to the trees, including broken branches and plants that had died completely. This was likely due to the popular football pitch adjacent to it. 

We started by removing the three Ds (dead, damaged and diseased), then removed any crossing branches that could lead to rubbing and then infection. After that, we used a half moon and hears to redefine the tree pit. This proved to be hard work, as the tree pits had likely not been attended to for over ten years. 

After that, Laurence and I walked to a nearby park and recorded our latest podcast episode

Friday 26 March

Fridays are always quite fleeting, as I am only in for half the day. On this particular Friday I was able to lay out some plants on the site I dug over on Monday. There were such beautiful ferns, including Dryopteris, Polystichum and Asplenium, as well as some Clyclamen, Euphorbia and Anemone

After that, I walked around the sites we will be designing winter bedding for and measured them out. We discussed our ideas for designs and have decided to opt for a winter prairie design, but I have created a more formal design using dot, subdots, groundwork and edge, just in case. But fingers crossed – it would be nice to add a little Jardins de Luxembourg, Paris to London. 

Gardening Journal – Entry 19

Friday 19 March 2021

I decided to take this past week off social media because the recent news was getting very heavy and I found myself ‘doom scrolling’ a little too much for my liking. It was a breath of fresh air. I spent my evenings being fully present, whether it was revising for a plant ident test or just sitting watching RuPaul’s Drag Race UK (#TeamBimini all the way). So instead of a daily journal, this one is going to be a round-up of the week, including work tasks, college practicals, my own garden work and the new volunteer job I’ve picked up.

Monday 15 March

We kicked off this week with some border maintenance. The weeding had been done a few weeks before, so all it needed was a good cultivate. We were working in a stunning churchyard, with shrubby borders currently bursting with Narcissus ‘Ice Follies’ and a few violet hyacinths. I used a cultivator to ‘tickle’ the top two inches of soil. This helped to break up any large clods, buried annual weeds before they set seed and left the soil looking fresh. 

Tuesday 16 March

On Tuesday it was much of the same, except for a mammoth litter round. I’m incredibly excited about more people being out and about and using the gardens as we navigate this roadmap leading to 21 June, but the litter is going to pile up! 

Wednesday 17 March

This week I was back at college, for the first time since last year! It was lovely seeing all my classmates and tutor again, after our months of online learning. We used the session to catch up on practicals. We learnt about the safe use of rotavators (which is a brand name for a rotary cultivator, by the way!), sowing seeds of three sizes, looked at some of our plant idents in person and planted some bare root trees. Here’s how they went:


  • Rotary cultivators come in many sizes and are used for several tasks, including simple cultivation of soil, removal of weeds, digging up lawns and digging in vegetables
  • We looked at pre starter checks and talked about the importance of having split pin bolts to replace any broken ones 
  • Then we actually used the machines and practiced our turning techniques. Both machines had forward, neutral and reverse gears, which meant that we were able to do a three-point turn in the corners. I preferred the wide turning technique used by farmers with large tractors. This involved keeping turns wide and passing up and down the bed in long lines, allowing you to keep moving and spend less time changing gears. Overall, this technique saves time and fuel and I found it a lot easier on my back 

Sowing seeds:

  • We had done this practical task before, but it was brilliant to get some extra experience, as I don’t often get the chance to do propagation
  • We sowed small, medium and large seeds. I sowed Papaver orientale mixed with sand, Cabbage seeds and ornamental broad been seeds
  • To find a quick guide to seed sowing, check out this video I put together

Plant ident:

Every fortnight, we get a new list of plants to learn, each in a different group. We started with evergreen shrubs and have since learnt bulbs, perennial weeds and now alpines. I love alpines. On any given day, you can find me either dreaming of – or wandering around – the beautiful South American and South African rock garden at Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. I love the succulent-like leaves, the minute details and the stunning, showy blooms. When it comes to creating a curated but rugged aesthetic, nothing beats a rock garden-fernery hybrid, in my opinion.

If you’re interested here are the plants we learnt for our alpine plant test. While it is okay to only know the common name when working with the plants in your garden, it is always helpful to know the botanical name when working with them professionally. While it is largely considered a dead language, Latin is universal in horticultural circles and this helps to avoid miscommunication when working working in other countries, with people who speak different languages. I also like to learn the family name, as it helps me to make connections between similar plants and is a good way of grouping plants and understanding common requirements.

Genus species ‘Cultivar’ – Common name – FAMILY NAME

  1. Armeria juniperifolia – Juniper-leaved thrift – PLUMBAGINACEAE
  2. Echeveria elegans – Mexican gem – CRASSULACEAE
  3. Gentiana sino-ornata – Showy Chinese gentian – GENTIANACEAE
  4. Lewisia cotyledon – Siskiyou lewisia – PORTULACACEAE
  5. Phlox douglasii ‘Eva’ – Creeping phlox – POLEMONIACEAE
  6. Sedum spathulifolium ‘Purpureum’ – Spoon-leaved stonecrop – CRASSULACEAE
  7. Sempervivum arachnoideum – Cobweb houseleek – CRASSULACEAE
  8. Saxifraga ‘Tumbling Waters’ – Saxifrage ‘Tumbling Waters’ – SAXIFRAGACEAE
  9. Saxifraga x urbium – London Pride – SAXIFRAGACEAE
  10. Thymus pulegioides ‘Archer’s Gold’ – Thyme ‘Archer’s Gold’ – LAMIACEAE

Planting a bare root tree:

This is another practical we had done before, but the more practice, the better! Here are a few new things I learnt this time:

  • Placement of the stake is very important. In London, the prevailing wind comes from the South West, so you want to stake your tree against the wind. The stake should be between the direction of wind and the tree, as this allows the stem some movement and avoids unnecessary rubbing, which can result in cuts to the epidermis and the risk of disease.
  • When tying the tree to the stake, the strap can look unsightly if there is too much excess sticking out. You can use a nail and a hammer to secure the end of this and keep it looking neat.
  • Suckers and any dead, diseased or damaged branches should be removed with secateurs once the tree is planted.

Thursday 18 March

Yesterday was spent practicing plant division. We divided some Liriope in a raised container and replanted half of them in situ, leaving some others for another site. Division is a form of propagation which involves lifting clumping and spreading plants out of the ground and slicing through the rootball to create more than one plant and thin it out every three to five years.

I kept about half of the divided plants and planted them in a shady corner of my garden. They look lovely and lush.

Friday 19 March

Today was my half day at work but it was busy! I started off doing a litter round and tidying up a graveyard in one of our churchyard sites. This involved clearing some of the paths of soil that spilled over with the recent rain. Then I cleared the weeds and ripped off the dead leaves from some Iris. I love the look of a graveyard – the moss creeping over the soil and the classic Ilex aquifolium tucked into the corners. The Helleborus were out in full force today, with the beautiful magenta flowers and their Jurassic-like toothed foliage. I saw that the Hellebores had self-seeded and potted up a few larger seedlings. With the Liriopes and Helleborus seedlings in my bag, I looked like a cycling garden centre on the way home!

After work, I planted all my finds in the garden. This garden is a doer-upper and I’m doing it up as cheaply as a can. In the past two weeks we laid some paving we found to create a little seating area and my grasses and hellebores will be a lovely addition.

After planting up my seedlings, I cycled off to Whittington Park, where I volunteer once a week. It’s a great opportunity as a multi-use space where we grow food, plant for pollinators and keep a wormery – all in close proximity to passersby, who we can chat to about gardening and nature. It’s a great way to get people interested in horticulture! Today I filled some potato grow bags in preparation for the chitted potatoes to go in, I cleared an overgrown area and weeded it, and finally I gave the lettuce seedlings I sowed last week a good water.

All in all it was a very busy week, and I’m so glad. I felt a little bit like I had been hibernating since November. Spring is in the air and the maintenance work is getting a little more exciting. It has been wonderful to see plants coming into bloom. Of course, we’re seeing Narcissus all over the place, but watching the cherry blossom and magnolias open up has been such a treat. Bring on the warmer days.

Gardening Journal – Entry 18

Monday 18 January 2021

After a weekend of not doing much and staying at home, as per government guidelines, I had a really hard time getting to sleep. After tossing and turning half the night, I woke up at 4:30am. Feeling terrible and absolutely shattered. Still, I’m a stickler for routine, so I got my weights out and did a bit of exercise to wake up my brain, before breakfast. 

This week I’m working without Laurence, as he’s on annual leave, writing new music. Working alone can be nice, especially on days like this, when you’re operating on about four hours of sleep and aren’t capable of cohesive speech! Still, I miss having someone to bounce ideas off, chat with and help me lift heavy things as well!

Today I worked on a site that is split onto two levels. On the lower level, there is a lawn, an ornamental pear tree, a coppice-style planting of Hypericum patulum, Pyracantha coccinea, Berberis julianae and Ilex aquifolium. On the higher level, there is a beautiful magnolia tree, two symmetrical L-shaped beds used for bedding, as well as two herbaceous borders. 

I like this garden as it feels quite concealed and private and has a lot of variety in terms of planting types, with the bedding, topiary, lawn, trees, coppice and herbaceous borders. There is even a mini topiary maze, although the lockdown hasn’t been kind to it and it is looking more like a thicket than the manicured Buxus it should be. 

Today, I spent a lot of time in the coppice area, clearing out leaves, weeding and giving a nice cultivate. I had to dodge a few poos, courtesy of the police dogs around the corner, but on the whole, it was a quick job. I must admit that there was a moment where my springbok rake was so caught up in the shrubs that I felt like screaming, but seeing the job done makes you totally forget the pain of it. 

Tomorrow, I won’t be working on my Tod, as I’ll be joined by another member of the team. I’m looking forward to having a chat and getting to know them a little better. Hopefully I can get a bit more sleep tonight so I don’t scare them with my eye bags. 

Gardening Journal – Entry 17

Tuesday 12 January 2021

Today was much of the same as yesterday. This time year, the jobs are quite limited, as a lot of the plants are dormant and growing at a snail’s pace. 

I started by weeding a small winter bedding display full of Erysimum. It didn’t take long and after giving it a little cultivate, we were done. We noticed that soil was very soft, which is a rarity in a usually busy area, where beds tend to get a pummelling from heavy footfall. I believe this soil has a better structure than some more compacted beds because it is so narrow, making it a rare site where all work can be done from the concrete surrounding it. 

After that, I worked on a bed on the second level. This was filled with herbaceous perennials like Euphorbia characias and our trusty friend the Anemone x hybrida. There was also a beautiful magnolia tree, bare of its leaves, but boasting beautiful furry buds, ready to spring open in a few months. This bed had a smattering of weeds, both annual and perennial, which were easy enough to hoe off or dig out, respectively.

We started by cutting back the euphorbias, as they were looking scraggly and were due a cut in autumn! We were careful when cutting these, as the photosensitive toxic sap is not something you want to be getting in your eyes, or anywhere on your face for that matter! Then, I moved onto the anemones, cutting back the dead growth, leaving the healthy green leaves to protect the new growth emerging in time for spring.

I then swept up the fallen magnolia leaves, any hoed-off weeds before giving the bed a good cultivate. This bed was in need of some work, and the job is far from over, even now. I always find that little and often is the best approach in gardening, so you catch the small weeds before they become an impenetrable jungle you have to hack through with a machete.

Tomorrow is our study-from-home-college day, which I’m quite excited about. While I love my early mornings and cycling into work while the city is still drowsily opening its eyes, I do appreciate a few extra minutes of sleep and the privilege of staying at home in COVID times.

Gardening Journal – Entry 16

Monday 11 January 2021

This week got off to a bit of crappy start – and I don’t mean I overslept or had an altercation on the cycle in. Today, I shovelled about 5kg of faeces before 9:30am, and it was completely fine. Sure, I almost threw up and laughed at Laurence almost throwing up until I cried, but I felt accomplished. We don’t call our litter rounds litter rounds; we call them ‘cleansing’, and we certainly cleansed the dark corner of that gloomy church today!

Aside from the dirty protest, we spent the day tidying up one of our sites. It was amazing to manage our tasks independently, work together to get the job done and look back on our work at the end of the day.

We started by clearing a herbacous perennial bed of weeds. There was a lot of Cardamine hirsuta with a touch of Stellaria media mixed in. Now that we have the opportunity to work at our own pace and independently, we also have the chance to use every task as revision. In this case, we tried to name every weed we pulled out. Aside from a couple of Bellis perennis here or there, we were lucky to be working with only annual weeds. This meant that the job was a little quicker, as we only had to tear off the growth above ground and needed our trowels every now and then for a stubborn root system.

After clearing the border of weeds, cutting back the Anemone x hybrida and giving it a quick rake, we cultivated it lightly. There was a little soil capping, due to the rainfall in recent weeks so after the little scratch we gave it, the beautiful purples and limes of the Heucheras popped against the dark, rich soil and made the border feel more like a feature and less of a bed of decay.

I created a clear divide between the border and the lawn by cutting the edge with edging shears. I later did this all the way around the lawn and the difference was amazing. I am more convinced every day that a little cultivation and a nice, sharp edge can make even the most neglected gardens look well-loved again.

We finished off by clearing the fern and grass beds of fallen leaves from the deciduous trees and then cultivated the soil before sweeping up. Then we loaded the wheelbarrow with our tools and went off to shovel another poo into another bag. It’s always good to start your day as you mean to go on.

Gardening Journal – Entry 15

Monday 4 January 2021

Happy new year – and what a year 2020 was! It’s funny how quickly the human brain can adapt. Last year (so glad I can finally write that), everything was turned on its head. Cities went into lockdown, people lost their jobs and loved ones left us. What was once a distant idea became our day to day lives. We changed our habits and, in turn, the world changed too. Aside from the pandemic, I have also noted the speed at which I embraced my last two weeks off. 

I was on annual leave for the last two weeks of the year and most of that time was spent in bed, or waiting to be in bed. I feel restored, rejuvenated and ready to take on everything it has to throw at me.

Today we worked on leaf clearing, as can be expected after a couple of weeks with limited staff during the festive season. We used backpack leaf blowers to clear some Salix babylonica leaves which had come down in Storm Bella. I can’t quite believe how far I have come using machinery. This time last year, I was dreading the use of two-stroke and four-stroke machinery. I had done a little too much research h and seen too many machinery related injuries. Now – with enough Health and Safety Legislation in my head to sink a ship – I know how to identify the hazards and risks and minimise them. Happy days! 

January tends to be the time that I reflect on my progress over previous years and it has brought me some comfort to know that while the world stood still in 2020, so many of us took huge strides individually and came out of it slightly battered, but with more resilience than ever. 

Gardening Journal – Entry 14

Monday 7 December 2020

And I’m back! I know I said that before, but I didn’t anticipate our boat batteries would fail and leave me without reliable laptop charging at home. So I write tonight from a flat – not too far from the canal, but with my feet firmly on solid land. It feels strange, foreign and I definitely need to get used to this. I’m going to start writing these in the morning, before I head off for work, to give myself a chance to take a breather before I pedal my way around the deadly streets of London and to order my thoughts for the day. 

Today was bitterly cold. It was a harsh reminder of what winter has in store for us. I woke up to a message on my phone wishing me a ‘Good Morning’ and promptly making me curl back up into my duvet when it showed me the temperature for the day. Ideally, I wouldn’t get out of bed for anything less than 10 degrees, but living in the UK doesn’t afford me that luxury, so up I layered up to face the 0 degree cycle into work. 

We spent the day clearing some herbaceous perennial beds close to the river. They are planted with evergreen plants such as Pittosporum, Carex, Rudbeckia, Anemone x hybrida, as well as a beautiful Prununs serrula (one of my favourite trees!). We worked on clearing some of the herbaceous growth. Even though the timing was not quite right, we cut back the Carex, creating little hedgehog-shaped mounds. I used shears to cut through them, after trying my hand at it with secateurs and understanding just how long it would take (probably around 400 years). I was slicing away at the Carex in no time and we managed to cut back all the Carex and rudbeckias on the first half of the bed. 

Unfortunately, as soon as we started working, Laurence started sneezing – badly. He is clearly allergic to something we were working wit or around today. Poor man. By the end of the day his nose was completely blocked. As a result, I finished off the bed using a leaf blower to clear the cut grasses. It was challenging to use the machine on such a busy area, as I had to stop every few seconds to allow people to pass safely. However, as always when using the blower, the end result looked wonderful.

Tomorrow is all about clearing more care and herbaceous perennials and cultivating! We have a lovely week this week, with only two full days of work. On Wednesday we have another practical day at college, after which we will be heading to a pub (outdoors, of course) to wave goodbye to this year as a class. Then, Laurence and I have a pub quiz and are taking Thursday off to finish one of our other projects – a Christmas song! There’s a lot to be excited about.