Saturday, 08 November 2014 16:17

Of men, muck and mud

Check this video out - my garden creators are also musicians

It is somewhat apt that in September 2014 the new garden resembled the Marne 100 years on – all vegetation, trenches, rain, endless mud and tangled barbed wire. Though clearly incomparable, as I sport my red poppy, I remember and honour those who struggled, fought, died and prevailed with a new appreciation.

Thankfully, the weather outside September has been glorious but, almost since I moved in, the site has been full of men, each one striving, giving their best and “going in” where less valiant ones might fear to tread.

The vanguard arrived in July. They were Mark Hawes and his team of three from Hawes Arborists. They arrived in their protective uniforms, armed to the teeth with chain saws, long cutters and a tree chewing device.

They made short but noisy work of the willows et al in the left bed plus the extraneous shrubs, trees and overhanging branches from the right. They were a great bunch: knowledgeable, experienced, courteous, hard-working, efficient and very cost effective. Mark lives in the village so it was great to be able to give this work locally – and a fine job they did too. They even cut up the logs for me to add to the log pile, were sweet to the dogs (who tried to get involved of course), and tidied up beautifully after themselves. They come highly recommended.

Almost immediately after the tree and shrub removal two major characters in what will become an unfolding story arrived – Dermot West, my wonderful garden landscape creator and Syd, the digger, so called because she was hired from Sydenhams, a fantastic store near Gillingham which can supply almost everything you need for house and garden destruction and construction.

I found Dermot online whilst I was still in London and, despite getting other recommendations from people I knew in the area, on meeting him here, I knew he was the man for my garden. He is based in Frome (about half an hour away) and his company is Eclipse Garden Landscaping. He can do anything - build pergolas and walls, lay stones and paths, dig beds, do fencing, even put up curtain poles in the house when it is raining  - and play the banjo and guitar, as you can see in the video.

Dermot is intensely hard-working, a joy to work with, dedicated to the job and seems to care as much about the finished outcome as I do. Let’s face it, when you are going to spend every day with someone for many months, it matters that you get on and see eye to eye. Dermot is my garden’s star. Syd is his accomplice. And Dermot can work Syd like an artist. He has obviously had a much misspent youth in computer gaming. The way Dermot plays the levers to make Syd dig, mix, filter and smooth out the ground, even in minute areas, is like watching any other artist at work – spellbinding and awe inspiring.

Dermot also came with two right hand men – 'Chris 1' (only so named because he was shortly followed by another Chris dubbed 'Chris 2'). Chris 2, I have discovered, is also an actor and can play almost any musical instrument including the double bass (as you'll see in the video).

No garden redesign that Dermot is managing can exist without levelling tools and very many tins of red spray paint.

So, together, Dermot, his spray paint and I translated my computer design into real, red lines on the ground. I made a few small changes, but not many - one extra path.

Then Dermot, Chris 1 and Syd removed the gravel sea and old terrace, dug all the existing and new beds to two feet minimum, dug the new pond to over three feet, put loads of clay into multiple skips and made a pile to create the base for a rockery near the pond.

I sold the gravel, the old terrace tiles and the greenhouse on ebay to lovely people and one of my neighbours took the shed, so the house became full of things that should be stored in garden buildings - just as my new kitchen was being installed. Life was fairly hectic. At one point there were seven men on site in any given day, all doing different things and I was buying milk in multi litres to keep the tea and coffee flowing - from the utility room!

Working on clay is a serious issue – and this clay is very serious, very deep and very compact. The only reasonable top soil was on the veg bed. Everywhere else, and obviously under the gravel sea, near the house etc., had no good top soil. So my first challenge was to create a fertile environment for all the plants I want to plant. And let’s face it, good soil is the basis of everything. Creating it is money well spent. It doesn’t matter how good your design is if plants can’t thrive.

A view of the clay as the pond is dug

From a myriad of books, websites and BBC Gardeners' Question Time, I knew I had to incorporate lots of organic matter, preferably well-rotted horse manure, to break up the clay. All similar recent advice also said that putting grit in was useless unless you did it in vast proportions. So I decided I needed horse manure and I would add grit to planting holes for specific plants as needed.

At the same time Dermot swore by the cooked, black compost made from the green waste at the tip. So, to begin with, and because I was having great trouble finding well-rotted horse manure in time, I agreed to use it. Seven tons arrived early one morning to take up most of my front drive. It turned out to be fabulous, black, friable and steaming. It was used in an instant and another seven tons ordered and delivered.

I have never ordered anything in tons before. I have ordered bags or even dumpy bags in London, but tons? Suddenly my life became full of seven or ten ton trucks delivering things - especially skips. And, can you believe, the man who does the horrendously regular skip swapping knows this house well because his grandparents once lived here.

But I didn’t think this lovely black, compost stuff was enough. There were no worms in my garden or signs of organic life except deep down in the clay of the pond. Cooked compost doesn’t have worms. So I set out on my pre-determined quest to find well-rotted horse manure because it is deeply rich, highly textured and normally full of good orgamisms with which to enrich and break up the clay soil.

First I looked online - my normal, London-based, response to any search. All I found was people complaining they couldn’t find any. It seems that those who have well rotted horse manure around here don’t advertise online or use ebay.

So I rang all the local studs – there are lots in the neighbourhood – but everything was too fresh or used on their own fields.

I asked everyone I met locally and in the village shop. The shop is a community one and staffed by lots of well-connected 'volunteers' of which I shall become one in good time - to no avail.

So I set out in the car. I had a hunch I had seen signs on the roads locally. One of my more annoying habits is that I am observant and have a wont to comment out loud on signs I see from a car. However, in this case, my “sign observing” has proved useful. I knew I had seen two signs for horse manure in my exploratory drives within 20 miles of my new home. I also have a somewhat photographic memory. So I wracked it and set off, first to a place between Gillingham and Shaftesbury where I was pretty certain I had seen a sign.

It took me a couple of drive pasts to find the fading board again and then I took my very unsuitable sports car down a long, bumpy track to – the Mid West? Suddenly I was surrounded by rodeo vans, barking dogs, horses and a ranch house. I ventured out into the yard and was greeted at a gate by a bevy of huge  dogs and the most charming cowboy I have ever met - actually the first cowboy I have ever met - but he sets a high standard! He was tall, greying and elegant, in the most amazing boots, a wonderful hat and fabulous kit, in Dorset!

However, he was very sorry to tell me he no longer sold horse manure (and he must remove the sign on the road) but we had a lovely chat for about 15 minutes as I stood in wonder listening to his stories about rodeos in the States and admiring his vibrant horse boxes, his American cars, tractors and trucks and believing I was in cowboy country in the USA for a moment. This place is full of the most amazing characters.

So, horse manure still not found, I set off again, on the road between Salisbury and Shaftesbury where I believed I had also seen a sign for horse manure. And this time I struck gold. Off the road I found a huge pile of well-rotted manure, and after leaving a note, several calls, and tea with the lovely family and my Mum (who was visiting) later, ten tons (!) of well-rotted horse manure were delivered to take up most of the rest of my drive. It sounds easy as I write but it took about four weeks to make this happen.

Most of the black compost and horse manure has now been dug into the beds by Dermott, Chris 1 and Syd. The rest I am bagging for future use, selling/passing on to neighbours and others who want it. Even we couldn’t fit it all 24 tons of it in.

So, in total, about 18 tons of horse manure and black compost have gone into the new beds in my garden (which means 18 tons of clay have come out too mostly, but not entirely, into skips). And now, of course, I am worrying that all this goodness will be too rich for the some of the plants I want to plant! Tant pis. They’ll cope or not. At least it is better than no top soil and a bed of solid clay.

And then of course, just as the garden was at its most exposed, the pond had been dug but not lined, we had dug a huge trench across the garden for the water pipe and electricity and started re-routing the under-lawn drainage pipes, it began to rain and rain and rain. There was mud everywhere, especially on dog paws thus the floors, the new soft furnishings et al.. 

But by mid October the destruction work was nearly complete. We just have to deal with the tangled barbed wire, deep amongst the most unhelpful brambles and nettles that want to take over this garden from the surrounding fields.

Suffice to say, despite the mud, many wonderful men and much muck have transformed the garden from September to end October and we are now into the construction phase at last. Watch this space.

On a separate note: please watch the video. It is very short (2 mins), captures the work to date and features Dermot and Chris 2 making the sound track.