Tag Archive: digging

Winter Jasmine looking good

Winter Jasmine looking good

I wish all my blog followers and casual readers a very Happy 2020!!

Though a little hampered by arthritis, and lots of other stuff going on, I can look back to last year with some pleasure at what I’ve achieved…both in Old School Garden (like my new shed!) and in supporting others in their endeavours, most notably the Papillon Project, creating allotments at High Schools across Norfolk.

I’ve said before, you might think that January is a month when there’s not much to do in the garden; well there are some useful things you can get stuck into. So here are my top ten tips (with a ‘grow your own food’ angle and with thanks to various websites):

Chitting potatoes- probably only worth doing for first or second earlies. Place tubers with blunter ends upwards (the ones with most ‘eyes’) and place in trays in a cool but well- lit place towards the end of the month.

chitting pots

1. The answer is in the soil.

Remove all plant debris, to reduce the spread of disease and pests. If you need to, continue preparing ground and digging beds ready for next season, but only if the ground is still workable (don’t dig if the soils is wet or heavily frosted).

2. Don’t let the rot set in.

Check your stored fruit and vegetables carefully, for rot will pass easily one to another. Empty sacks of potatoes, checking them for rot and any slugs that might have been over-wintering unnoticed. Your nose is a good indicator, often you will smell rot even if it is not immediately apparent to the eye! Also check strung onions- rot usually starts from the underside of the onion.

 3. Enjoy your winter veg.

Continue harvesting Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbages, celeriac, celery, chard, endive, kale, leeks, parsnips, turnips, winter lettuce, winter spinach, turnips. As you harvest brassicas, dig up the stems and turn the ground over. Because the compost heap will be cold and slow at this time of year, you can always bury these in the bottom of a trench along with some kitchen waste to prepare for the runner beans later in the year.

Red cabbage- lovely sliced and steamed with apple and onion in a little water, wine vinegar and sugar…

Red cabbage- lovely sliced and steamed with apple and onion in a little water, wine vinegar and sugar...

 4. Get ahead of the game.

Continue to sow winter salad leaves indoors/ under glass/ cloches- make your stir fries and salads more interesting with easy-to-grow sprouting seeds. If not already done and the weather is mild, plant garlic, onion sets and sow broad beans (e.g. Aquadulce ‘Claudia’) for early crops. Order or buy seed potatoes and start chitting (sprout) seed potatoes. Herbs are easy to grow on your windowsill and provide fresh greens all year round.

5. Not mushroom?

It’s surprisingly easy to grow your own mushrooms – try growing a mushroom log in your garden or alternatively grow some indoors using mushroom kits.


Mushroom logs can make you a fun guy…!

6. Rhubarb, Rhubarb.

Consider dividing well established plants, and at the first signs of growth, cover to exclude light if you want ‘forced’ rhubarb over the next couple of months (growing the variety ‘Timperley Early’ may mean you get rhubarb in February anyway).

 7. The hardest cut.

Continue pruning out dead or diseased shoots on apple and pear trees, prune newly planted cane fruit, vines and established bush fruit if not already done. Continue planting new fruit trees and bushes if the soil conditions allow. If the ground is too waterlogged or frozen, keep bare rooted plants in a frost free cool place ensuring the roots don’t dry out.

8. Clean up.

If not already done, make sure your greenhouse is thoroughly cleaned inside and out and that any seed trays and pots you plan to use are also cleaned and inspected for pests- e.g. slugs and snails.

9. Fail to plan and you plan to fail.

Plan out what you are going to grow in the coming season and order seed catalogues.

pback1_1380165c 10. Put your back into it.

If you must dig, look after your back- remember to warm up and limber up before you do anything strenuous and try to bend your knees to ensure your legs take the strain – and not your back!

Old School Gardener



bonfireNovember is upon us, the clocks have ‘gone back’, the days continue to shorten as temperatures fall. What is there to do in the garden this month? Here’s a list of ten top ‘to do’s’ to keep you busy!

1. Clean

  • Rake up fallen leaves – especially from lawns, ponds and beds. Put the leaves in a leaf cage or black bags to create leaf mould to use on your garden over the next few years.

  • Cut down herbaceous stems and clear the remains of annuals, but leave those perennials that fade relatively elegantly (sedum, astilbes and grasses for example).

  • Clear out the greenhouse, wash pots and trays, clean, mend and oil your tools and throw away anything that is beyond hope of reasonable repair!

2. Burn

Keep leaf raking and saving to make leaf mould

Keep leaf raking and saving to make leaf mould

  • If you need to, use a seasonal bonfire (where this is allowed) to dispose of material that can’t be composted. Follow good neighbour and eco friendly practices- avoid smoke nuisance and don’t use petrol/diesel or burn plastics etc.

3. Dig

  • This month is probably your last chance to prepare your soil before winter sets in. If it’s heavy, clear the weeds, dig it over and add organic matter to the soil as you dig or lay a thick mulch on top and let the worms do the work for you!

  • If you produce a fine tilth, protect it from winter rain, which will damage the soil structure – use a good layer of compost and/or leaf mould, sow a green manure or even lay plastic sheeting over it. The soil will be easier to plant or sow into the following spring.


  • Finish planting spring bulbs such as narcissi, crocuses and alliums – even though it’s a little late!

  • Plant tulip bulbs – the cooler soil helps prevent the fungal disease ‘tulip fire’. Plant bulbs in containers or in a sunny spot at 2 – 3 times their own depth and double their width apart. They can also be used to fill gaps in beds and borders, under shrubs and trees or naturalised in grass or woodland. Remember that tulips like good drainage and ideally should lie on a thin layer of grit if your soil is heavy, to prevent rotting.

  • Pot up amaryllis bulbs, water, keep them initially in a dark, warm place, then in daylight as leaves appear – hopefully you’ll have glorious colour for Christmas!.

  • Plant bare-rooted trees, shrubs, hedging and roses as well as fruit trees and bushes. Soak the roots in a bucket of water for an hour before planting.

  • Sow over-wintering onion sets, broad beans and garlic.

    Sow Broad Beans now for a heavier crop next year

    Sow Broad Beans now for a heavier crop next year

4. Divide

  • Perennials such as daylilies, Asters (Michaelmas daisies) and Golden Rod can be divided and replanted. Cut them down to about 8- 10cms, dig them up and divide carefully. If your soil is heavy clay, do this in the spring. All other perennials are also best left until the spring, especially peonies which dislike being split in cold weather and ‘warm season’ grasses like Miscanthus.

5. Prune

  • Roses  and tall shrubs (Lavatera and Buddleja for example) should be pruned lightly to prevent wind-rock (reduce stems by about a half). Pruning can be carried out from now on throughout the dormant season. Once the leaves have fallen it is easier to see the overall shape and prune accordingly.

  • Do not cut back the less hardy perennials such as penstemons and hardy fuchsias more than a third – the dead stems should give some protection for the crowns in the coldest weather. In colder areas, mulch them with composted bark or something similar and avoid cutting them back fully until they begin to shoot from the base in spring.

  • Remove any fig fruits larger than a pea – the really small ones are embryo figs that will be next year’s crop. The larger ones will not survive the winter.

6. Support

Feed the birds- most will help you keep pests under control

Feed the birds- most will help you keep pests under control

  • Remember to feed the birds in your garden and provide fresh water.

  • Create a small pile of logs to provide shelter for insects and amphibians over the winter.

  • Solitary bees make good use of nooks and crannies in gardens over winter, so if you need some build your own by drilling holes in blocks of untreated softwood and then suspend the blocks in a sunny site. (Block dimensions – 5cm x 10cm x 20cm, Drill bit sizes – 4mm, 6mm and 8mm).

7. Protect

  • Stop winter moth damage to fruit trees by using grease bands around the trunk.

  • Drain and lag standpipes, outdoor taps, irrigation lines and water pumps in advance of really cold weather.

  • Cover brassicas with netting if pigeons are a problem

  • Move tender plants inside or keep a supply of fleece, bubble wrap or similar to protect them from freezing conditions – this is especially important for recently planted hardy annuals and outdoor containers which can be insulated with bubblewrap and raised off the ground to prevent waterlogging and freezing.

  • Protect newly planted trees, hedges and shrubs from the elements with a temporary netting windbreak if they’re in an exposed site.

8. Harvest

  • Bring in carrots, parsnips (wait until after a frost), endive, cauliflower and autumn cabbages.

Leave Parsnips in the ground until they've had a good frosting- it improves the flavour

Leave Parsnips in the ground until they’ve had a good frosting- it improves the flavour

9. Store

  • Remove any canes and supports in your garden left from your summer crops or staking– remember to store them safe and dry.

  • Check stored fruit and vegetables and throw out any that show the slightest sign of rotting.

  • Dahlias – wait until a couple of good frosts have blackened them, then cut the stems back to approximately 10cm from the ground and label each plant as you lift it – it’s easy to forget which is which! Lift the tubers carefully as you dig around them, remove all the soil and store for a couple of weeks in a dry, cool place upside down to allow any residual moisture in the stem to drain out. Once they are completely dry, they can be buried in gritty or sandy peat free compost (used stuff will do) so the top of the tuber is above the compost level. Keep them somewhere frost free.


  • Order seed catalogues or invesitgate seed availability online so that you can get hold of the seeds that you want in good time. If you’re a member of the RHS you can get hold of up to 12 packets of seeds (including 9 collections) for only £8.50- find out more here.

Old School Gardener

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wp_20161023_15_51_29_proSo this week we were mainly lifting, dividing and replanting herbaceous plants in the Walled Garden at Blickling…

The ‘we’ constituted the two Peters and me, with Gardener Rob putting up support wires for the wall-trained fruit. Project Manager Mike had decided to reorganise the long border with herbaceous perennials into something a bit easier to manage and negotiate from the cut flower point of view. So lines of the same plants were the order of the day, rather than the clumps that had developed over the last year or two. The rest of the volunteers (there were only a handful this week), went over to the parterre for some weeding.

Digging all done...Mike resting on his spade, while Rob presses on with wiring up support for the wall fruit...

Digging all done…Mike resting on his spade, while Rob presses on with wiring up support for the wall fruit…


As we left for lunch, one of the other staff, Lizzie, was just starting up her seed sowing session aimed at children who are visiting the house and gardens (it was half term week of course). Some enthusiastic youngsters were more interested in filling some mini watering cans and pouring the contents over some nearby plants…oh well, good practice I suppose.

Lizzie gearing up for some seed sowing...

Lizzie gearing up for some seed sowing…

Over lunch, Gardener Rebecca’s young dog, Otto (who is kept in a cage in the bothy during work time) looked (and whined  painfully) as he watched me devour a rather nice Russet apple- I gather he had already had one earlier in the day and had rather liked it!

Otto the dog is in there somewhere!

Otto the dog is in there somewhere!

It was reasonably straightforward to lift and group plants before replanting them, some needing to be further divided. After the lifting out came the digging over of the border. This took us pretty much up to ‘home time’ and we conveniently left the clearing up to Mike, who had joined us after lunch to supervise and help with the replanting.

Regimenting the cut flowers...

Regimenting the cut flowers…

Mike told me that the new cold frames were due to be delivered on 1st March, so I look forward to seeing them installed. Also, I gather we are due to see some new volunteers soon, so yet more hands to make light(er) work!

Further Information:

Blickling Hall website

Blickling Hall Facebook page

A 360 degree tour of Blickling Hall

Old School Gardener



wp_20161020_09_34_22_proI could only manage a couple of hours at Blickling this week. But it proved to be a rewarding time…

Arriving earlier than  the other volunteers (for once), I saw Assistant Head Gardener, Steve and set about digging over the remainder of the border where the Penstemons had been lifted a day or two earlier. This border, overlooking the Parterre and with the classic Blickling view towards the lake, has a splendid position, and it was still and peaceful as I made my way along the border, pausing occasionally to soak up the surroundings and watching a friendly Robin on the prowl for grubs.

Dug over, ready for Hyacinths

Dug over, ready for Hyacinths

This border is now being readied for the annual planting of masses of blue Hyacinths which make a glorious show in spring time. Soon I was joined by fellow volunteer Rory, a relative newcomer, who I had yet to properly meet. It proved to be an interesting chat as he turns out to be a local artist and art teacher (he shared some lovely pictures of his work on his phone)..and then I twigged…..asking his surname it all became clear- we have a couple of his lovely watercolours on our walls at home! These must have been bought 25 years ago! As we dug and chatted on a rainbow briefly appeared over the house and just added to the calm beauty of the place…


Rory digging from the other end...

Rory digging from the other end…

About an hour later we had finished and were asked to work with the ‘two Peters’ on clearing up some rubble and subsoil dug out and piled alongside the refurbished pump house near the lake- all part of the works for the Lake-source heat system being installed here.

Clearing the rubble...

Clearing the rubble…

It was a brief, if heavy-going, task as it involved piling rubble (mainly broken brick) into a barrow and shifting this uphill to the open trailer…I was glad to leave the boys to it after about 40 minutes…not sure what else they got up to!

And another shot of that rainbow...

And another shot of that rainbow…

Further Information:

Blickling Hall website

Blickling Hall Facebook page

A 360 degree tour of Blickling Hall

Old School Gardener

Sorry I’ve been a bit lax in my original posting recently. It’s been a busy time and I added to my schedule a few sessions at an archaeological dig on the edge of Aylsham, the ‘Aylsham Roman Project’ next to a well known nursery, Woodgate.

Funded by the landowner and donations a professional archaeology Team from Britannia Archaeology supervised a huge army of volunteers in exposing two Roman pottery kilns and several other notable features, including iron age ditches and post holes. I spent time sieving spoil, washing finds and on my front prone over one of the kilns excavating around a mish mash of brick, tile and pottery clitter, often with a tiny trowel- the latter was the most rewarding activity, almost like an artistic act of creativity as I presented the solid features proud of their dirty surrounds. It turns out the kilns may be of national importance, as one of them still has its firing chamber intact , and the other appears to have had three walls built up around it as successive kilns collapsed.

After two weeks work a massive load of pottery and other finds have been amassed (nearly 15,000 by all accounts) and it’s planned to return here next year to continue the excavation…hopefully I’ll be around to take part (it was great fun), and may even extend my involvement to surveying and drawing.

Further information: Aylsham Roman Project Facebook page

Old School Gardener

double-digging-hero‘There is great healing power in digging. This is so much the case that one is tempted to wonder if any actual electrical power comes up to one from the earth. Perhaps the benefit is merely from the rhythmic movements of the body. At any rate, however sulking and rebellious one may be at the start, sesitiveness creeps up the fork into hands and body and legs. Finally the brain surrenders and one is again at peace with the garden.’

Clare Leighton 1935

raised bedsDigging

There is no need to dig at all once you have adopted the raised or deep-bed system for growing vegetables. If you are preparing a vacant plot for planting shrubs or flowers, get rid of the weeds, dig in a thick layer of organic matter and from then on you only need to mulch and let worms improve the soil.

Hmm, not sure about this raised bed....

Hmm, not sure about this raised bed….

Further information:

Raised bed growing

Raised beds- RHS

Source: ‘Short Cuts to Great Gardens’ (Reader’s Digest 1999)

Old School Gardener


Picture: digging done at the Lost Gardens of Heligan

Picture: digging done at the Lost Gardens of Heligan

‘Come my spade. There is no ancient gentlemen but gardeners, ditchers and grave-makers; they hold up Adam’s profession.’

William Shakespeare – Hamlet

A profile of a typical 'podzol' showing the grey layer of leached out minerals below the dark top level of soil
A profile of a typical ‘podzol’ showing the grey layer of leached out minerals below the dark top level of soil

This week, ‘Gardener’s Question Time’ features soil. A Mr. T. Breck asks:

‘What is a soil pan? I think I may have one in my sandy soil here in south west Norfolk, as my plants don’t seem to be growing very well. Can I do anything to get rid of this?’

Well Mr. Breck, it does sound as though you may have a soil pan. This occurs when certain soil minerals are washed down through the soil by rain lodging some way below the surface. It does often happen in sandy soil containing a high proportion of iron. Over a period of time the minerals weld together to form a hard layer impervious to water. This layer restricts the downward spread of plant roots, so that poor growth results. In former heathland or coniferous forest areas (which is broadly speaking what much of south west Norfolk used to be) these soils may be termed ‘podzols’.

A similar situation can happen if a rotary cultivator is used regularly and its tines  are set at the same depth on each occasion – the action of the tiller blades causes soil compaction at that depth. You can avoid creating this pan by varying the depth of the rotivation.

To remove a pan it’s a case of digging deep and using a pick or fork to break up the welded layer of minerals and incorporating as much organic material (leaf mould, compost, manure) with the replaced topsoil.

More difficult hardpans may be further improved through the action of both adjusting the soil pH with lime if the soil is acidic, and with the addition of gypsum. This combination can help loosen clay particles bound into a hardpan by the actions of hard salts such as iron, calcium carbonate and sodium, by promoting their mobility. It is likely that mechanical removal of the soil pan and some changes to the soil structure as suggested above will be the most successful strategy, rather than relying on just one approach.

Adding home made compost or other organic matter to your soil will improve its structure and nutrient levels

Adding home made compost or other organic matter to your soil will improve its structure and nutrient levels

Whilst we are talking about soil it is perhaps worth just noting what soil actually is. It is made up of many different ingredients including varying proportions of clay, silt and sand. A soil containing a high proportion of clay is considered to be heavy and, whilst rich in nutrients, is often difficult to cultivate, especially when wet. Sandy soils, on the other hand, are light and easy to work, even after rain.

The soil here in the Old School Garden is a sandy loam and is a joy to cultivate, though I do have to add organic material to improve its moisture retention and nutrient levels. So, decomposing plant remains (or other organic material) is another important ingredient of soil as are air and water. Microbes by the million are also present and these and other organisms like earth worms are doing the job of breaking organic material down and  processing this into soil.


Improving soil by adding organic matter

The importance of organic matter

Compost – 10 things you wanted to know, but were afraid to ask…

Old School Gardener

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Echeveria- overwintering in Old School Garden Greenhouse

Echeveria- overwintering in Old School Garden Greenhouse

To Walter Degrasse:-

Dear Walter,

It’s been a while since we were in touch, and as it’s windy and wet outside, I thought I’d drop you a line about what’s been going on in ‘my gardening life’. I hope all is well with you and your beautiful garden. It seems ages since I was in my garden for any time to get a sweat up, but it’s that time of year when the pace of things is rather slow, very much focused on ‘basic maintenance jobs’, I suppose. Anyway I’ve used the time in other ways, not least getting my blog up and running, which I’m pleased to say I’m enjoying and also the new relationships it’s bringing with gardening fans around the world!

More practically, I’ve more or less finished my pruning jobs, those new Felco secateurs I had for Christmas are a real joy to use! I’ve got one more Buddleja to do and I’ll need to get the ladders out to do my Fremontodendron, which, on a south-facing wall, has romped away – I think last year’s wet weather gave it a surge of growth, so it’s now over 5 metres tall! The Dogwoods have all been laid low so hopefully we’ll get a good flush of new stems in the summer that give us that wonderful ‘winter glow’. I’ve done my annual cut back of the Eucalyptus to encourage large, colourful new leaves – it always looks forlorn after this major hack back (photo enclosed), but is such a swift grower.

Eucalyptus & Buddleja - pruned

Eucalyptus & Buddleja – pruned

I’ve also been tilling over the beds in the kitchen garden. Did you read my blog post about planning the crops here? It has a layout of what I’m intending to grow and where, trying to rotate crops as best I can in a complex border layout and thinking about succession crops too. You may remember that I put on a layer of leaf mould over most of them (as well as the fruit trees) in the autumn as well as digging in some green manure I grew towards the end of last season – we’ll see if this latter experiment has any marked effect on the crops to come.

I’ve been lightly turning over the topsoil and incorporating the remains of the leaf mould etc., in preparation for some of my friend Rob’s horse manure, which I’m able to collect from his paddock about 2 miles way. It really is lovely stuff, so I’ll use it to mulch my roses, clematis, shrubs, fruit trees and bushes etc. as well as putting a good load down for the potatoes and some of the other vegetables.

New boardwalk made of old wooden pallets

New boardwalk made of old wooden pallets

You know how poor my carrots were last year – the rotten weather didn’t help, I know, but I think that the bed I grew them in is still a little heavy (in contrast to the rest of the soil) and they don’t respond well to this and over – rich soil (I mistakenly put manure on the area a short time before the new season began). This encourages them to fork, whereas by keeping the soil relatively under – fed early on you apparently encourage them to grow straight and true as they seek out the nutrients further down – at least that’s what I heard Bob Flowerdew say on ‘Gardeners’ Question Time’ last week! Oh, and you remember I’d been collecting a load of old pallets? I’ve finally got round to making good use of them. They cut up nicely into sturdy 500mm – wide board walks which I’ve lain over the top border – this means that I have two manageable – width beds and don’t have to walk on the soil between them.

I’ve also been clearing out a side bed which was becoming choked with a Lilac that was suckering all over the place. This border is a bit on the edge of the kitchen garden and is not ideal for food growing, so I think that I might use it for flowers to attract insects etc. I’ve a good supply of Marigold seeds from last season, so they can go in there.

Over-wintering plants in the Old School Garden greenhouse

Over-wintering plants in the Old School Garden greenhouse

The greenhouse seems to be working well at over wintering my pelargoniums and ‘exotics’ and the pots of broad beans and sweet peas I put out a week or two ago are starting to push new growth through. I’ve sown some other seeds in my propagators – just some brightly – coloured Cosmos, Iceland Poppies and Leeks – these seem to be doing well, and hopefully I can pot them up shortly. I’m also chitting two varieties of early potato. You know how much I love ‘Charlotte’, the waxy ‘second early’ and alongside this I’m growing ‘Pentland Javelin’.

It looks like the weather is going to be a bit warmer in the coming week – in fact as I’m writing the rain has stopped and the sun is out! Hopefully I can get out tomorrow and catch up with a few more jobs that need doing – for example putting some pesticide on a couple of Hosta- filled containers to eradicate Vine Weevil (didn’t quite manage to get rid of these last year through a soil change), spraying my dwarf Peach tree with Bordeaux Mixture to help prevent ‘Peach leaf curl’, replanting the many Nerine bulbs I dug up recently from the kitchen garden and getting some more seeds into the propagators.

The primary school garden from the new pond dipping platform

The primary school garden from the new pond dipping platform

On the broader front my work with Norfolk ‘Mastergardener’ seems to be picking up once more. I’m helping the local Primary school with their School Garden, as you know. I’m shortly going off to meet with their garden coordinator to discuss plans for the coming year. I’ve offered to go into school one day per week to work with different classes and I’m looking forward to helping them get the most out of the garden, which is now starting to look really good. You may recall that we (staff, parents and children) managed to get a new wildlife pond installed over the summer and I also installed a pond dipping platform for them (made from recycled plastic), so the children will have this new resource for nature study in the coming months.

Yesterday I visited a new food grower I’m supporting for Norfolk Mastergardener. She lives in the next village and has recently moved to a large house with a super plot. I was impressed with the 2 polytunnels she has as well as a fenced off, structured vege growing area. She’s a keen animal lover and has this enormous pig (which her granddaughter rides like a pony!) as well as chickens, ducks, cats, dogs etc! The pond has a large number of enormous Carp in it too.

Any way, she’s a beginner when it comes to gardening and wants me to advise her about food growing for her large family. I’ve suggested she looks at the range of seeds she’s bought (as well as inherited from the previous house owners) and does a rough plan of what she wants to grow and where this might go in her plot. I’ll then talk this through with her and some of the basics about manuring and preparing the soil, sowing seeds, potting up etc. I’ve suggested that she keeps things simple this year and just goes for one crop in each area, rather than think about succession planting, until she sees the amount  of time she’ll need to put in and what her garden will generate in terms of food. We’ll see how it goes, but it’s a wonderful setting and with the polytunnels (one plastic – covered, one netted) she has some great growing areas to play with.

Tulips starting to show themselves in Old School Garden

Tulips starting to show themselves in Old School Garden

Well, I see the time has ticked on and I must be out to my meeting at the School. I’ll drop you another line in a week or two to let you know how I’m getting on, and hopefully we’ll also stay in touch via my blog or by email? By the way I’d welcome any comments or suggestions you might have about the blog, as I’m still finding my way!

Very best wishes from

Old School Garden

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