Wordless Wednesday: Iris “Purple Gem”



Planning a new garden with Sheffield Sow & Grow

We’ve had several ideas about what we could do with our new garden, but ideas are cheap: what we need is to start thinking about both how to implement them, and also how to incorporate the practical details that are important to us. Sustainability, reuse and permacultural principles need to be balanced with our desire to have a garden we want to use, and will enjoy for as much of the year as possible.

What do you do in this situation? Get an expert in. We’ve been lucky that the permaculture designer behind Oxford Sow & Grow moved to Sheffield a couple of years ago: our friend Gwenfar!

After giving us both questionnaires, then asking followup questions to clarify things, Sheffield Sow & Grow went away and produced a full plan and nine-page booklet of written advice. We were then taken through the plan, and then around our garden in person, over the course of a few hours. Here’s the plan, taken from the booklet:


You can see it’s broadly to scale, but more importantly it’s a thematic- and implementation-focussed plan: after all, a competent landscape gardener can always do a proper survey to determine the dimensions down to the centimetre. Something like this was what we really wanted instead, focussing on bringing those original ideas together, and showing how they can all work within a coherent system. This minimizes any friction and maintenance overhead, while maximizing likely use(-fulness). Also, the emphasis on social areas shows that there’s more than enough room within permaculture principles for actually having fun!

It’s both an inspiration, and also a how-to manual, for how we can put together our future garden. There’s probably so much more to be said about the plan, but I think I’ll leave that for when we actually start implementing aspects of it. Right now it’s just so exciting to see our ideas taking shape!

Our problematic apple tree

It’s great having an apple tree with so much fruit:


But it dominates the garden:





So much so that, although I thought I’d taken at least one photo of it in its entirety, I see that I’ve mostly picked away at it, never quite getting the whole canopy in shot.

Basically, this is the result of “benign” neglect by the previous owners (or their unwillingness to [learn how to] look after their fruiting stock). It ends here, not least because the new design for our garden has no apple tree in the centre of it. Should the tree not suit being drastically pruned, then it’s unlikely to remain.

They say you should minimize the number of cuts etc. etc. So I picked one of perhaps seven sub-trunks that were each perhaps 15cm in diameter, and cut it:


It was only then that I realised that the tangle of branches was such that this was never going to be removed. So I reasoned that, while I have to minimize the cuts on left-behind, living wood, it doesn’t matter how much I cut what I’m going to remove! The next step was therefore to make cuts until I could isolate the heaviest portion of the wood from all the branches attached to it:


This allowed me to remove a substantial (well over a metre) length of sub-trunk:


Some two hours later, I had finally removed all of the tree that had been attached to the sub-trunk. Here’s the cut wood, next to my pile of buddleia cuttings:


And here’s the tree, after cutting all that wood out:


Dispiritingly, it doesn’t look massively different from a distance (although the Welsh Rose said otherwise, but she might have been trying to be supportive.) However, when you look closer, you can see the gaps appearing:


You can’t quite throw a bowler hat through it yet (the old measure of a sufficiently open apple-tree canopy) but it’s a start.

The next step will be to take out a lot more of that tangle, especially the high water shoots. That will involve very many more cuts to the living wood, but it’s unavoidable. And at this stage, with the tree itself on probation, it’s kill or cure!


For flue-related reasons I won’t go into, we had scaffolding up throughout December, over Christmas and new year, and into January:


For previous-owner-related reasons I will go into, they had to cut a hole in the decking. It had basically rotted underneath containers which held two sad, shaded climbers, and therefore wasn’t safe to lay scaffolding directly upon. Like much of the rest of the garden, the decking was clearly a nice original idea that hadn’t really been thought through, or maintained enough to not cause far much more work in the long run.


This rottenness was what began to clearly tip the scales against keeping any of this decking. After a few narrow escapes from broken bones owing to its slipperiness, we’re both basically convinced it needs to be ripped out. I’m sure we could put effort into cleaning it, and treating it, and maybe that way get a year or two more out of it: but, really, why bother?

New toy

Not just newly-refurbished secateurs, but actually new ones:


I caved and bought a pair of Felco No. 2, after having used Gwenfar’s No. 6: hers are modelled for a slightly smaller hand, but were still impressively comfortable and easy to use. I hope this pair will suit me down to the ground: already they clearly handle better than any I’ve had before.

You can see there that I also made sure I had an adjustment key included. Indeed, I actually bought one separately, only to find that one was included with the No. 2. I was a bit annoyed at this, as I wouldn’t have bought one had I known (the details on the website don’t mention it) but I found a good home for the spare key in the end, as Gwenfar needed one!

In the end, I never could assemble the old W59s to my satisfaction, so they’re being retired. Maybe if I can get someone to repair them properly, they can have them!

The longest (lasting) cut flower I’ve known

On December 17, we went for dinner at an Indian restaurant we’d never tried before; this was part of our ongoing attempts to explore more of the city we’ve only recently moved to. Fittingly, the Welsh Rose was given a flower—a single chrysanthemum—by a waiter who was charming if slightly awkward, as though he’d just left waiter-patter school.

Here is that same chrysanthemum, just over three weeks afterwards:


It was remarkable how long it had lasted in a vase on a south-facing windowsill. Who knows, but that it might have been helped by being seared: before placing in cold water, I immersed the stem in recently-boiled water for perhaps ten seconds, to break down its woodiness slightly and permit it to take up moisture without roots. This is a standard trick, but one that I learnt from Sarah Raven’s great videos about both nursery horticulture and flower arranging, among other topics.

Today, Thursday 14 January, four weeks after we originally brought this cut flower home, it has started to look noticeably fatigued, although I don’t know whether that’s because of nature taking its general course along the way of all flesh, or the especially chilly temperatures in our kitchen. But let nobody say cut flowers never last: I’ve had gifts of pot roses that have died off faster!

Out with the old secateurs, in with the new

Five or six years ago I inherited some Wilkinson Sword W59 secateurs. In their time (the 1960s) they were considered a design classic:


However, they were starting to get a bit grubby and blunt. I was tempted to buy a new Felco No. 2 or No. 8, but I decided to give my old secateurs one last chance by seeing if I could sharpen them.

Although, after all these years, documentation wasn’t easily available on maintaining W59s, I had a look at a few tutorials for disassembling, sharpening, cleaning and reassembling Felcos, like this one:

and thought it was at least worth a try. How different can secateur technology be, across the decades, I wondered incredulously?

I was also going to document step by step, but shortly after I took my first photo:


I unscrewed the main hinge bolt a little too enthusiastically and the whole thing spoinged apart into some dozen separate pieces.

Unfazed, I WD40ed, cleaned, sharpened, wiped, oiled and reassembled as best I could. I’m not sure if you can quite tell the difference in this final photograph:


but I certainly could, both good and bad.

  • They were considerably sharper, and a smoother action; the cut was especially smooth and involved much less effort. That much had worked.
  • However, because the W59’s tension comes from a cylindrical spring running along the hinge bolt, they were difficult to re-tighten back to the same level, and were noticeably weaker to return to an open position.

Reassembling with any kind of tension in the spring was really frustrating, and I think that all along I was missing some kind of specialist tool to help with assembly and disassembly, that would also have let me tighten the spring while doing so.

In their final state, the secateurs’ tension was just too light to feel comfortable: they didn’t return back to their open position as fast as my hand wanted them to. So while I’m happy with the work I was able to do on them, I think that, at least until I can work out how to tighten them further, these are going to be retired in favour of a new purchase, yet to be decided upon.

Gorse in flower on the Edge of the Skye

Over Christmas, the Welsh Rose and I decided to clear out some of the cobwebs of our colds by walking a “heritage trail” through the remaining greenery of the Duke of Norfolk’s old hunting grounds. The trail itself heads down into the city centre, but there’s a map by the Cholera Monument that shows you how to loop back round via the Skye Edge grounds (where apparently some of The Full Monty was filmed.)

The Rose and I scrambled breathlessly and coughingly up a 30-degree incline from Manor Oaks Road, scaling muddy turves in order to cut a long corner off our recommended route, but were then rewarded by views of the city centre like this:


In the distance you can see the dominating St Paul’s Tower, with Sheffield Hallam buildings clustered in front of it. Back up to the left, we could see a small green diamond of Norfolk Park, from where we began our circuit:


In that photo above, the buildings in the centre are I think the Exit 33 brewery (formerly Sky’s Edge Beer.) Beyond it, above a couple of streets of houses, is the spire of the Victoria Methodist Church.

We were still well within the city, if not its beating heart; yet all around us gorse was in flower:


Vanilla-butter yellow flakes like armfuls of confetti caught in these otherwise clutching, clawing shrubs.

The weather was strikingly clear, but there was a vicious wind blowing over the top of the city, straight from the Peak District, at us: when we got to Skye Edge Avenue on the crest of the hill, we could hardly stand upright in the teeth of it. No wonder the gorse seems to grip the hillside so possessively.

First frosting

Although we had a cold snap in November, we’ve not had what you would call a spontaneous frost; in that case, the cold was really brought on by a fall of snow.

We’ve not had a frost—until, that is, last night; New Year’s Night:


It felt cold as friends left at around 1am, but it clearly, definitely frosted the more exposed decking. The pelargoniums by the patio doors, however, remain untouched as far as I can see.