Second trench finally finished

I appreciate I’ve been quiet on this blog for a while. Although I’ve been doing a few bits and pieces (planting some cosmos and parsley seeds, removing some of the decking, etc. etc. which I’ll post about later) the main focus of my time and energy has been the second of the two trenches for our new retaining walls.

And now it’s done! The trench is finished.

The first trench was comparatively easy: five metres long, 60cm wide, but only 30cm deep. But because of the original slope of our garden, and the requirement that our three terraces equally partition 210cm of vertical height, and a need for a 30cm footing… then the second trench, already twice as long, needed to be some 70cm deep in places!

The first five or so metres weren’t actually that onerous; although it was much deeper than the previous one, I made fairly rapid progress in late January:

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Along the way, of course, I discovered some buried “treasure”; the same brick “paving”, buried in the topsoil, that had impeded the first trench; plus an entire forgotten rotary-dryer stand embedded in concrete:

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However, after I swung the strings around to measure out the second half, it started to get much tougher, as the slope of the hill meant that the clay subsoil began to rise to meet me:

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I had to put some of the discovered bricks along the edge of the trench, as I was digging out so much soil it was falling back in; the clay (with a layer underneath it made of flat rocks) started to retain water; I discovered another course of buried bricks; and the flat rocks, impervious to digging, caused me to crack my lovely spade:

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After this last incident, Gwenfar kindly lent me a pickaxe, and I was able to make more rapid progress.

In the mean time, I had a few different builders come to talk about concrete footings, and we all agreed that I needed to work out: was the trench deep enough? So I put a wooden post in the trench, and using a spirit level transferred the height marking from the fence onto the top of the post, measured down, and put a brick just so that its top surface defined the bottom of where I had to dig to:

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With that in place, and the spirit level to guide me, I used scaffolding boards to slowly creep across the trench, digging digging digging; four metres; eight metres, nine and a half metres:

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And that was it! After perhaps 30 or so hours of backbreaking work, spread over several days, it was all done:

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I could relax:

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As could my workmate:

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But only for so long, as the original trench does need a bit more adding to it, for the footings for steps between the terrace levels:

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I’m half-kidding, though: that’s a job for another day.

Right now I’m just pleased that the main trench is done. I said a few times on Twitter (to try to bolster my own flagging enthusiasm, really) that digging down like this really did represent the nadir of this landscaping, the lowest point. And now it feels like, not only have I reached that lowest point, but that I’ve accomplished something major, that’s already lifting my feelings back up out of it.

Here’s to the future: to concrete footings; to breeze blocks; to mortared, rough stone walls!

Closer to spring at Hodsock Priory

Last year we went to Hodsock Priory, to see the snowdrops, and discovered the formal garden as a kind of bonus. This year we’ve gone back, two weeks later in the season, and there’s all the more spring floweers out.

The Welsh rose’s parents are still with us, so I don’t have a lot of spare time to write any kind of in-depth blogpost, but here’s a few pictures:

Snowdrops

Wild-planted snowdrops:

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A couple of closeups:

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Formal and pleasure gardens

Prunus mume, by the entrance to the winter honeysuckle walk, but also dotted elsewhere:

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The winter honeysuckles Lonicera fragrantissima, lining the walk towards the formal gardens, pumping out scent:

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A pretty mound overlooking the ornamental lake, with early daffodils, more snowdrops, and wonky steps:

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Prunus serrula, an orientalist stone statue, and a beautiful cream-coloured birch:

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Pretty sure this will be Rhododendron “Christmas Cheer”, like the one by the bearpit in Sheffield Botanical Gardens:

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A Chaenomeles, starting to break buds?

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This looks like a Crocosmia, but I’ve never seen them keep their foliage over winter, and those seed heads?

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A view over the pleasure gardens, towards the pond:

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Cyclamen coum, everywhere under small trees:

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and spilling over this coppiced, re-shooting stump:

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Labelled as another P. mume I think this is more likely to be some kind of rhodo:

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Hellebore hybrids all over the boggier beds:

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and Rubus biflorus, arching over the ornamental pond like a bad haircut, but promising lovelier, leafier visions for later this season:

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Among the midwinter flowers in Sheffield botanical gardens

Mid-way between solstice and equinox, we went to Sheffield Botanical Gardens. Maybe not the best time of year to visit the gardens—there were handwritten signs saying “The gardens still close at 4pm”—but despite the season we still felt welcomed by what flowers there were.

Snowdrops were everywhere, for a start, occasionally accompanied by Leucojum vernum, their snowflake cousins:

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Eggy crocuses (C. flavus), and Creme-eggy crocuses (C. chrysanthus):

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This smashing Garrya elliptica was festooned with little chains of bell-like flowers:

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And around the entrance to the old bear pit—festooning it, indeed—was this amazing Rhododendron “Christmas Cheer”:

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But (and if you’re not a gardener you might not expect this) everywhere we went we were followed around by scents; or maybe we followed them!

There was an isolated Hamamelis mollis “Brevipetala” (left), and then below the fountain banks of witch-hazel, including H. x intermedia “Primavera” and “Aphrodite” (right, plus a squirrel):

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Sheffield hosts the national collection of Sarcococca and we stumbled across this amazing, sweet-smelling bush of it:

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And among all the heathers we found, the queerest was this Erica lusitanica, or Portuguese heath, with an aroma like the inside of a sweet jar:

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All in all, the visit cheered us up on a cold, February day:

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Thanks, Sheffield Botanical Gardens!

Division and subtraction

As a bit of a break from trench digging, I spent a day or so dividing, repotting and tidying indoor and outdoor plants.

On my list was:

Outdoor: Crocosmia.

I’d rescued two pots’ worth of Crocosmia bulbs from behind the Acer before the privet came down and the fencing went up. Given the mudpit that the whole area eventually became, I’m rather glad I did!

To protect the plants, I’d left the old foliage in place all winter, but as green shoots were starting to come through I felt it was time to pull out the brown, dead foliage; it does just come out if you sort of claw at it.

Before… and after:

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Outdoor: hardy perennials

I have a load of hardy perennials I bought at plant festivals and the like, including a Cirsium rivulare, Geum “Prinses Juliana”, Lamprocapnos, Tiarella “Sugar and Spice”, Stipa tenuissima… and two mints that the Welsh Rose had put by them to keep them company.

I’m not sure the Cirsium is going to bounce back from pest attacks, but I pruned back all the dead foliage on everything else, revealing definite new shoots and generally cleaning it all up. The Stipa, like the Crocosmia, benefits from kind of clawing through it: the green shoots stay behind; the brown strands come away, opening up the plant a bit.

Before:

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and after:

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Indoor: repotting and splitting

I needed to do quite a bit of indoor work, not least on the damp-loving inhabitants of the gravel tray: the Ficus elastica “Tineke” has outgrown its small pot; the Spathiphyllum cochlearispathum (peace lily to you and me) even more so, with straggly roots out of the bottom of the pot; and the Billbergia x windii needed splitting into its pups, which was probably the biggest job. Along with all that, a pot rose needed transplanting, a lavender needed trimming etc. etc.

In the absence of a proper shed (it’s about twenty tasks behind the current state of the trenches) I managed to convince the Welsh rose to let me turn our old gatefold table into a temporary potting area:

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This worked a treat, letting me do all the jobs in the warm, and protecting the house plants. Before, the old state of the gravel tray plants:

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And after, we see that WAIT A SECOND:

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Ahem, after, we see that the Billbergia has made four pots, and I hope at least two of them will survive, surrounding the peace lily:

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The Ficus, meanwhile, is now on its own, proud and tall in a corner of the room:

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It’s nice to see this go from small houseplant to big, statement plant. The Welsh rose is a bit worried that the house is getting a 1970s feel; I’m sat listening to my copies of David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, and thinking: bring it on.

Digging the first trench for wall footings

I dug a 5m×60cm×50cm trench yesterday. It was hard work.

Although I’d mentioned in passing that the compost bin dismantlement had been entirely completed, I’d never explicitly blogged about the results. From back in December, then:

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With the resulting pile(s) of bricks:

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I counted over a hundred whole, unmortared bricks, and at least as many broken, and at least as many with substantial mortar on them.

The trench for one of our new retaining walls ran straight through the old site of the compost bins: it turns out it also needed to be so wide that I had to remove the trellis you see above, and heave over the rather wonky old planter we inherited from the previous owners, made from bits of decking wood. This being done, I began to dig.

The first couple of metres—under the old site of the bins!—went remarkably smoothly, and I was starting to get cocky, when I removed the slab separating rich bin soil from the rest of the garden, to find… bricks?

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It turned out that there was an entire course of bricks, laid closely together as paving, under the surface:

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Under these ran some of the apple tree’s old roots! Pulling up these bricks yielding yet another decent pile of sound bricks, plus a paving slab and a section of pipe:

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Eventually, with a few mortared bricks still left to clear, I was losing light and so called it a day. Here was the result of some three and a half hours’ work:

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I was able to put my recently acquired scaffolding boards to good use, to ensure I still had a path to the shed:

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All in all I’m really pleased with this result, and I think I can spend another full 7-hour day digging the second, 10-metre trench, without worrying about it too much.

Laying the concrete for the footings will be another job: one which I might get professional advice about, to ensure it’s sound, and level, and thick enough! But I’m going to wait until the next few days of frosts lift, before I worry about any of this again.

Winter textures

On my walk around Sheffield just under a week ago, I took a lot of photos. Some of them made a good photo essay; others had a rather niche appeal….

While the following four scenes might be at best unglamorous (and at worst boring) to others, I’ve been thinking recently about how to make our new garden have both a well architected feel, and also feel like it’s part of the wider Sheffield landscape. I want to use our old York-ish stone, not just because re-use is good for sustainability and the environment, but also because it borrows from “old Sheffield”; similarly, I’d like to borrow from elsewhere nearby.

For example, this path up through a wood suggests that desire lines further from the house could make use of our fragments of brick from dismantling the compost bins:

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Back near the greenhouse and compost bins, this kind of path could work quite well: along with being a time-saver, it would also make the back of the garden feel wilder.

I’m still trying to work out how to top off my retaining walls—made, hopefully, entirely out of reclaimed local stones from the old walls—and these walls around small trees near Ecclesall Woods looked nice:

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Whether I’ll have enough regularly shaped stone to do this or not, we’ll have to see!

I also like the look of these mossy, half-buried sleepers, and wonder if this could be a way of doing steps or some kind of informal culvert:

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And on that note, I should mention that I still have a longing for a water feature in the garden. I don’t quite know how it will look, and this pipe is the least glamorous photo of all:

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But again, the use of old stonework is really interesting. I like the idea of having damp-loving plants around it too.

That’s it, really. It’s very boring inspiration, as inspiration goes: but hopefully thinking about this sort of thing will make the finished garden feel more like it belongs.

Edit: I missed one!

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I can’t tell whether this terracotta channel from a downpipe, down a steep garden edge to a drain, is really pretty, really ugly, really inventive or a bit of a kludge. But it did seem both remarkable and of a piece with the rest of the street of houses, so it ended up on the camera. I do rather like the way it’s started to merge in with the landscaping, though.

Winter walk through south-east Sheffield’s parks

Yesterday I walked from our nearest Sheffield park (Norfolk Park) to Ecclesall Woods, visiting as many green spaces as I could on the way. From what @helenintgarden told me on Twitter, it turns out I ended up doing a large fraction of the Sheffield round walk (signs for which I did occasionally see.)

Some parts of the walk were more picturesque than others, but throughout it was emblematic of the most pleasant this time of year can provide: the combination of austere sparseness, oases of green shoots and evergreen leafiness; the leaf mould covering the floors of bosky-smelling lums; the bright if brittle winter sun low in the sky throughout.

Here’s a few photos I took as I walked, that I hope are evocative enough.

Norfolk Park, Jervis Lum, Park Grange Road and Black Bank

Norfolk Park has beautiful views over the city, and Park Grange Road beautiful views of the city and the trams. As it’s my local haunt, I can’t think of much more to say than the photographs can:

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Gleadless Valley

Through ivied woods, ascending up towards Backmoor and the school. Like a lot of the green spaces, I get the feeling it used to be an industrial site, and some of the excavations had been the removal of contaminated earth. When it was beautiful, though, it was very much so:

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Graves Park and Chancet Wood

Past the park pavilion and along the top of the ravine between park and Chesterfield Road, then descending a little to Meadowhead and past Chancet Wood:

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Beauchief’s woods

After a coffee at Cello’s on Westwick Crescent, following the crescent up to the entrance to Old Park Wood; then down through the Beauchief and Abbey golf courses, past Gulleys Wood and Ladies Spring Wood:

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Beauchief Abbey

This abbey, ruined by the Dissolution, had been built during Archbishop Thomas (a) Becket’s lifetime, and dedicated to him after his murder. It still held services, and also held some of its old beauty in imagined walls and empty once-rooms:

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Ecclesall Woods and home along the Sheaf

Along Abbey Lane, then round the back of the estate into Ecclesall Wood, for a tour around the bird sanctuary and a quick visit to the gravestone of woodcollier George Yardley before heading back home along the Sheaf View walk:

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And that’s all I have: unfortunately, the rat I saw by Tesco on the way home didn’t pause long enough for a photograph.