Asparagus bed update

To give adage to the whole “if a jobs worth doing it’s worth doing properly” school of thought, let me tell you about the asparagus bed. Well firstly the bed was a raised area full of rocks and stones and weeds, must have been some sort of rockery in the past. I got carried away on ebay and ordered some asparagus at they had only 30 seconds left and were going for a good price. Unfortunately when they arrived it was a really busy period, I’d not had chance to prepare the bed properly. And on the day they arrived a friend showed up, who was staying at mine and we had a 3 day conference we were all working at. So the crowns had to go in there and then.

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The bed in the foreground, before it had asparagus in it.

Luckily the friend was into gardening, so Lucia, Simon and I set too at weeding the bed and removing as many stones and rocks as we could. It was early march so it got dark early and was dark when we were finishing off. We put sticks to mark were the asparagus went and a bit of straw to keep the weeds at bay.

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The asparagus bed is behind the tree, to the right of the path.

Anyway not many of the asparagus came through, 2 actually went in upside down, which I’ve since put right and strangely they are are the ones that are growing. Also as the rocks were still around the edge of the bed, it somehow meant mud fell through them onto the path when it rains, also the weeds were able to grow in amongst the rocks, and were hard to pull out. Also some people stepped on it, as they didn’t realise it was a bed. So all in all it wasn’t much of a success.

Laying the path,

Laying the path,

So I decided to take the rocks out and make it into a raised brick bed. Much like the other one I made before here. First I laid the rest of the path leading to the main allotment area. I added in a small bed between the path and the back of the fruit corner. I dug over this small bed and added straw, fresh grass and compost. I decided the path was a bit narrow for a wheelbarrow, so I added a few bits of paving to widen it near the raised bed.

Digging over and adding grass and straw to small bed.

Digging over and adding grass and straw to small bed.

To make the brick raised bed, I dug a trench and put the bricks in on their end, so one side was pressed against the paving slab. The other side I back filled with soil from the bed and pressed it down. I later back filled it the height of the brick, but to get it to stand up, and inch or so seemed enough. I carefully carried on edging the bed with bricks, removing and stones or rocks as I went. This took me the best part of 2 days to do. There was various stones and slabs hidden under the earth, and I also weeded as I went. The far side was the hardest, as there wasn’t really a path and young sweetcorn plants are planted quite close to the edge of bed.

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The bricks were all left by the previous owner in a big pile, glad to have almost used them up now! The paving slabs that I dug up, have now been reused as a path down the far side of the bed. It’s very narrow and a bit like using a type rope, but at least it gives access to the area.

First part finished, note the rocks on the side of the bed!

First part finished, note the rocks on the side of the bed!

Once I had tidied up the area, it was time to fill the bed back up. The middle section where the asparagus still (hopefully) is was still high and then the edges tapered off towards the bricks. I carefully tried to loosen the middle section, avoiding the sticks which mark out where the asparagus should be. Then I sieved the compost to add it into the bed and level it all off. As I put some soil over the middle it still tapers a bit, which should help the drainage.

Before tidying the path and filling up the bed, I weeded the bed and loosened the soil.

Before tidying the path and filling up the bed, I weeded the bed and loosened the soil.

As the bricks go right up to the path, it’s actually created a bigger growing space, without taking up any extra space. With the extra space, I’ll add some salald plants this year. We seem a bit behind on the salad plants this year, so desperately trying to get some going! This project took a few days to do, but very happy with the results and I do wish we did it properly the first time round. There may still be a few large stones in there, but I don’t want to disturb the asparagus any more than I may have done already.

The bed ready to be filled.

The bed ready to be filled.

Elsewhere in the garden I’ve been adding in a few plants, some grown from seed and some I’ve bought in shops. I’m hoping not to always have to buy things from shops, but as we’re trying to get everything established this year, it means we’re a bit behind on the seed sowing. In the picture above check out the chimney sweep wig wam!

Weeding an overgrown flower bed

I have to confess, I’m not much of a flower gardener, and can’t always tell a weed from a flower. And I’ve not yet got big plans for our front garden. I did want to use some blue slate and make it as care free as possible. But Simon vetoed that. So for now we put some alliums in and will just go with how it is.

 

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This is the day after we moved in, my mum looks on at the central flowerbed, and goes to show it was full of weeds even then. Mum thankfully tackled it then, as I was still unpacking everything. Simon cut the hedge and my Dad did the lawn. So it looked respectable. But still in need of a bit more TLC.

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So then we concentrated on the house and made a start on the back garden. And feeling like a game of whack a mole the weeds started to come up again here. So I weeded and they came back, mum visited and weeded some and they still came back. Soon everyday was a fresh crop of dandelions, smiling away. Now I like dandelions, but just not in a flower bed. I don’t want them to spread and annoy my neighbours, and already a lot in mine. Everyday I would run out and behead the poor things, and attempt to pull up leaves and roots if I had time.

The weeds growing amongst the flowers.

The weeds growing amongst the flowers.

Then I found the dandelion weeder. This narrow tool with 2 sharp prongs that tilt up at the end. I’d compare it to the fine brush an artist uses, as not only can you get dandelions out, but also other weeds, and as it’s narrow, it’s less likely to cause damage to other plants. The soil in this bed also seems poor, we’ve loosely dug it over, but most of its in fist sized lumps or bigger. It’s hard to do too much now, as some lovely alliums are growing in it. I decided the best way to help was to do a generous mulch of compost.

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To begin, I held back the leaves of any plants I wanted to keep and used the weeder to carefully pull out the dandelion roots. It worked wonders and in most cases brought out complete roots. A few bits did break off, so I got most of those out by a second pass with the weeder.

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The robin supervised me and made sure that I got the other weeds too. There was plenty of them. I was able to gently weed around most the plants. I then broke the clods of soil.

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I had a nice pile of weeds, at the moment we have so many weeds, that we can’t keep them here. Normally I would drown them before adding them to the compost, which lessons the risk of them growing back, but these will just have to go to the council compost bin.

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Next up I watered the plants, as some of their roots may have been disturbed from weeding around them. The rose is upside down, as it  is slightly gentler on the plants.

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Once I watered, I added a generous amount of compost, from our heap. I added at least an inch of thickness, and tried to even out the lumpy ground as I did it. Using this little plastic shovel, I was able to carefully put it around the plants,

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The bed now looks much healthier. The mulch will discourage more weeds from growing back and will add much needed nutrition to the bed. Any weeds now should be easy to tackle as the soil should be looser, and hopefully there will be fewer of them. The mulch will also help keep the water in for the plants. I will probably top it up in a year or so.

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Just harvested our first radishes from the veg garden, looking forward to some more. Still have a lot of work to do at the back. I’ll write about our mulching technique soon.

 

Multi layered fruit corner

After the removal of some of the conifer trees in the garden, we were left with some spaces that were a little “dead.” The most central conifer tree had blocked a lot of light from under it, causing the wendy house which was nestled under the branches to get a bit damp and mouldy. We did try and give it away, but it was obvious that its condition wasn’t great, so in the end we dismantled it and burnt it.

The old wendy house

The old wendy house

So we were left with this empty area, on the corner between the growing and the ornamental section. It’s not really a corner as its in the middle of our garden. We considered making it into a path, but then I picked up a bamboo pergola very cheaply online.

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Meanwhile some of the fruit trees that we’d earthed up ready to be planted, had already started waking up, so we needed to act fast. I decided to have a go at creating an espalier on 2 sides of the pergola. We’d been left with some wooden fence posts, I pre dug some holes for the posts and dug them in, and then hammered them in a bit more. I screwed in some eye hook bolts at appropriate heights to the branches. And then put in the fruit trees. I added the wires from one hook to the other and then carefully secured the branches to the wire, using ordinary garden string. These are not trained espalier trees, so I had to be careful!

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I then used some wood to make a small raised bed around the tree- the beds being long and very narrow, to echo the shapes of the branches. In these bed areas I added some strawberry plants and some bulbs that were a bit past their plant by date.

With the help of Simon we laid out the bamboo pergola and eventually managed to erect it. It may need some sort of tape to hold it together better as it looks flimsy. We put it into position and used some old broken paving slabs to make a base.

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In the space between the mini raised bed and the pergola I dug over the soil and added some fruit bushes, more strawberry plants and put a mulch of grass over the bear soil. I then added a kiwi berry and some wineberrys to climb over the pergola.

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So there will be a layer of climbing plants, a layer of fruit bushes, a 2 layers of strawberries as ground cover. Hopefully in the summer it will be a nice shady spot under it and in spring it gets the sun, so its nice to sit out and drink tea. Already the blossoms are on the espalier trees. One being a cherry tree and the other lost its label, but we suspect its a pear tree, as similar blossom to the other pear tree we have.

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Once its a bit more established I will post an update of how it’s working out.

 

 

How to beat the weeds from day 1.

 

Well if only if it was easy as saying it, beating the weeds seems to be an endless task. Hence this post will be a bit long winded, so I will write a shorter version, with less personal information too. In the last 4 years I’ve started in 5 new growing spaces, so I know a lot about how to start, but I’d have to say my methods are not so tried and tested as I’ve not always been around to see the results. So to begin this I will mention a bit about my gardening history, this is also mentioned in my intro blog, so sorry if its repetitive, I just wanted to catch up anyone who hasn’t read that.

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I’ve lived in London since 2001 and never really had a garden, or at least one that I felt was mine to do something with. I started dating Simon around 4 years ago, at the time my balcony was put to good use growing tomatoes, salad and herbs, this was the most growing I’d done in a long time. I can’t say things flourished on there, as it did seem windy up there, and I had a neighbour downstairs who once or twice got annoyed when I watered my plants, as the water dripped through to her balcony. Simon was involved in a community permaculture group, so of course I went along and I enjoyed having a bit more growing space and freedom. We also began a bit of guerilla gardening, sowing a few crops in the communal gardens that my flat was in.

Community permaculture

Community permaculture

After around 6 months doing the permaculture we were told the site we’d been working on, was no longer ours and we were giving a new one to work with. The new space being under some trees in a woodland and also to be shared with some bee-keepers. It was far from ideal and we were a bit dispirited that we’d lost our original growing space, that we’d put a lot of effort into. By now Simon had moved in, and it was further away from us both. Then luck struck out and I managed to get an allotment. So a year on we’d sadly given up the permaculture group. The communal garden patch hadn’t really taken off as the cats used it as a loo, and we were loving the allotment. So we decided to take on a second plot, surprisingly there was good availability so we didn’t feel bad to have two. The weeds were the worse in this one, with lots of mares tail.

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And then a few months into the new giant sized plot, we decided to move house. In the end London was too expensive, so we moved just outside of London to a house with a much bigger garden than we could have hoped for. We weren’t sure if we should keep the plots or not, but in the end we decided it didn’t make sense to drive all that way, when we had a good sized garden to use.

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So what have I learned from starting over so many times? Well basically it’s hard work and really I’m yet to see if I can tackle the weeds, but I can see I have improved the soil structure, which is half the battle. And certainly the weeds are getting less and less. So how do you start, you’ve moved into a new house and you have lots of other things to do, but you don’t want those little weeds to turn into a jungle as you unpack- how do you cope? Do you resort to using chemicals or do you prefer to do it naturally? Or perhaps your new allotment is already a jungle and you don’t know where to start.

So what is a weed? I’ll always remember a headteacher telling us this at school, but I think its a famous quote as well. “A weed is a plant in the wrong place” so some things that are a weed to one person may be a pretty flower to another. To some people nettles are a nuisance, they sting, they grow where you don’t want them, but to another person the leafs are a delicacy- have you tried nettle tea, nettle soup, nettle risotto? If you haven’t please do- they loose their sting upon a short amount of cooking. Dandelions roots can be used to make coffee (I’m yet to try this) Cleavers or sticky willy can be used as a tea, Comfrey is great to use as a plant feed. So one mans weed is another mans treasure, so as you get rid of the weeds, do consider if they have other uses.

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Also some weeds are perennial, which means they will come back every year, these are the hardest to remove. Some seeds will spread lots of seeds, and when the conditions right they will grow back. Some will grow back from the slightest bit of root left in the ground. But one things for sure if you leave the ground bare for any length of time weeds will start to grow. So be it mulch or plants get the ground covered with something ASAP after weeding.

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One method that I’ve found to work is mulching with cardboard. If you have no time either flatten the weeds or pull out if you have more time and then add flattened cardboard boxes over the top and hold them down with bricks, stones, pieces of wood whatever you can get your hands on. Try and let as little light get to the weeds as possible. Like this you can leave it for several months, though in winter the boxes may disintegrate and need replacing. When you’re moving, you’ll likely have a lot of boxes, if not the supermarkets will usually give you some if you ask nicely. We’ve had a couple of midnight trips to Asda’s to get boxes. After a while the boxes tend to stay down, but do make sure they are secure and try and cover even the smallest gaps, as the weeds will find them.

Friend Mark with turf mountain

Friend Mark with turf mountain

What if it’s mostly grass and very little if any weeds? The method we used for this was a turf mountain. We marked out our bed and then cut the top inch or so off the soil with the grass attached and then stacked the turfs upside down in a big stack. Cover the stack with cardboard, you can also add manure if you want. After around 2 years it will have rotten down and you can then use as compost. We grow potatoes and squash in the pile. Just try and block out the light from any potential weeds.

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For something like Dandelions it can be time consuming to remove the roots, but this is the best method to get rid of them, but if you only have a few minutes, the best thing to do is to remove at least the flower, but also any leafs if you can. Removing the flower will stop it spreading seeds, removing the leafs will weaken it. Also do this for any other unwanted flowering weeds and plants.

When weeding I like to have a few containers handy to help me sort out the various bits. Ideally you’d have 4 containers, or maybe 1 big one which you can sort later. So what are the bits. Firstly there is the normal annual weeds which can be added to the compost heap straight away. Then there is the stones, most soils contain stones, and certain crops don’t like stony ground, so if you can remove them as you go, it will be handy and you may be able to use the stones in another project, such as a drainage hole. The third container is for any rubbish you find from bits of glass and wire to rusty old tools, it’s amazing the rubbish you’ll find. And lastly a container for perennial weeds, this is the nastier of the weeds and you want to make sure they are dead before you compost them. For these weeds I normally do a drowning bucket. I add them into a bucket, fill the bucket up and then add water to the top. I leave the weeds in there for 3 months, stirring on occasion to make sure they are submerged. After 3 months they will be a horrible stinky slimy mess and they can then be composted in the normal manner.

Me with the neighbours cat- 2 weeks in.

Me with the neighbours cat- 2 weeks in.

Remember if you take something out of the earth, be it weeds or vegetables, that you should replace it, if you’re constantly taking stuff out, you should put more goodness back in.

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The more you weed, the more you will weaken them. Some weeds will grow back from roots left in by mistake and some from seeds that are in the soil. Sometimes weeds may spread in from other sources, but one things for sure, more weeds will grow. Do not get disheartened if everytime you turn around, a new weed has grown, it does get better. Even in the first year on a new place, I see the improvement. Do what you can to tackle the worst offenders, the ones most likely to spread straight away. And remember bare soil is an invite to the weeds to start growing. Once your crops get big enough they will block the light from any weeds. If you grow your crops closer together you will get smaller crops, but they will block more light, and need less weeding.

You do need to dig to get the roots of perennial weeds, but if you can keep digging to a minimum, you’re less likely to disturb and wake up more roots and seeds lurking in the soil. No dig is done by using layers of mulch and I will go more into this method in a future post. I hope this has helped you!

Small allotment, 2 photos 6 months apart

Small allotment, 2 photos 6 months apart

 

Brick raised bed and grass toupee

My parents helped me with the move and stayed for a couple of days to help with jobs. One of the first jobs mum wanted to do, even when we were still unpacking was to tackle a pile of rocks, mud, ferns and couch grass, which must have been a rockery in the past. The couch grass was long and out of control. And it was hard to see what it was meant to look like. This is in the more ornamental area of the garden.

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So its the area in front of the brown shed, this is what it looked like before we moved in, so was already pretty overgrown.

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Once we moved in, it was obvious that it hadn’t had any attention for a long time. My parents were only visiting for a few days, but mum was keen to get on with this area, so who was I to stop her?

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So she began to remove stones, rocks, couch grass and various other bits. But still it looked like a muddy pile of nothing. She had to go back home and it got left.

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I then tackled it some more, with the help of my neighbours cat. I took some of the excess mud and put it on the site we were clearing as growing space. But again it didn’t look much better, in fact it looked worse. It was a muddy slippery mess, and so slippery it was hard to do anything. So I just left it. Theres no more pictures of it at this point, lucky for me I guess. So then I had the idea of keeping the area raised and using bricks to edge it, so it will be a mini raised bed. I decided to try and salvage some of the plants that were growing in there. So I scrapped some mud up and got some bricks. I put the bricks on their ends and slightly dug them into the mud, and then compacted mud around them, to give them support. I cleared up the plants and levelled the soil in the raised bit, added in some soil that I had kept aside. I then added a huge amount of bulbs that I had bought on offer and not gotten around to planting in time, so I wasn’t sure if they would still grow.

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So the raised bit looked great, very neat by my standards, but unfortunately it was surrounded by mud, at least half a meter of mud, that was leftover from the work. Not to worry I thought, I’ve seen some grass seeds in one of those sheds. Once I sorted through the shed I found the seed. And began to prepare the ground. I removed all the dock weeds which were growing in the area, if I was going to sow some grass, I may as well do it properly. I then dug it over, raked it and levelled it. I sowed the seed and watered it in.

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It was at this point I thought how ironic it was that I spent all this time trying to grow grass here, and at the other side in the growing space I was spending a lot of time removing some grass that I didn’t want. Hmm surely theres a better solution here? So I left it a week, it wasn’t the sunniest week, but there was some sunshine and the only action from the grass seeds, was the blackbirds that came and pecked at them, presumably eating the seeds? I waited a few more days and then decided the best course of action was to move the unwanted grass into the position of where I needed the grass. So to do this I used a fork to make tufts of grass, I loosened in a straight line about a meter across. I then loosened it at 90 degress along the first line, about a fork width each. And then came back about a fork width distance from the original fork line and loosened here. In affect this made lots of square tufts. Each square was then duly checked for any weeds or any other nasties. I scrapped off the mud from the bottom. Often the tufts ended up in different shapes, but still worked just as well. I placed the tufts onto the bare soil, and pressed them in and gave each a good watering. Hopefully they will all take, but if not, there is still some grass that needs removing.

 

Two thirds covered

Two thirds covered

All in all I’m very pleased with this area, the bulbs seem to be growing, the grass matches in and it is no longer a big pile of mud, rocks and weeds. The bricks were left by the previous people, and everything else was things that I had already. The lavender plants had been at our allotment.  It was very easy to do, but a bit time consuming, but very much worth it, as this is one of the first things you see in the garden, especially from the kitchen window.

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We will have to give the shed some attention soon, and possibly replace some of the wood, as its got very damp in the winter. A gardeners work is never done!

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Intro to the garden

I intend a lot of this blog to be about gardening and so far I’ve not managed one post about what we’ve done in the garden. So as this is now the first, let me tell you a bit about the garden. But I’ll have to begin with the house, basically we were all set to buy one house, and  the day we had an offer on our flat and our offer was accepted on a house, we went out to celebrate, this was a friday. Naturally the celebrations included booze and a cabaret drag bar in an old underground loo and a night bus trip home.

So in our hungover state the next day, we were pretty much out of action and feeling sorry for ourselves. Having spent a lot of time browsing property websites, I was in the habit of doing it on a daily, if not several times a day. And thats when I spotted another house in the same village, but with a much, much bigger garden. It had only just come on the market. In our hungover state we explained to them the situation and managed to get a viewing. We loved it and saw the potential and came back for a second viewing on the monday and by monday afternoon we’d made an offer which was accepted.

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So what was so good about the place that we withdrew the offer on the other. The garden is huge, well maybe note huge, but in our price range it certainly feels it. There was a green house, various sheds, including ones that could be used as an outdoor office and ones for tool sheds. And even a chicken hutch and “cat shed”. The back of the garden was very overgrown, but had the potential to be turned into a growing space.  There was various trees and shrubs and lots and lots of possibilities. Unlike the property we almost bought, this one had a lot of possibility to put our mark on it, the other one had a much smaller garden and the house didn’t need much doing to it.

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However this house did come with some problems, to name a few the bathroom came with horrible pink tiles, which still remain, the windows had misted up due to broken seals which again remain at the moment, the fireplace looked like it belongs in a pub and there was some very oversized pine and conifer trees in the garden.

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I like a tree as much as the next person but one of the pines was literally rubbing up against the house, and likely to grow 4 times the size. If I left it to grow, it would become more of a problem. If I had it crowned, I’d have to redo it again in a few years.The conifers I’m afraid just aren’t that great a tree, pines look much nicer, but neither are productive and we wanted to grow as much edible stuff as possible. And also they block a lot of light, and their roots would likely take a lot of the water and goodness from the things I am growing.

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So in the end I got some tree surgeons in to remove the 3 worst offenders. They chopped them down and burnt a lot of the wood on site.  Once the pine had gone, the wild rose had no support, so flopped down over the path and had to be cut back.

Once the trees were down, we were able to start clearing the garden. This involved lots of pruning, and then onto tackling the weeds main culprits being dock, dandelion, creeping buttercup, nettles, couchgrass and a few others i don’t know what they are.

As we’re trying to be organic, permaculture and do what feels right in the garden, we’ve been using cardboard boxes to kill the weeds. A lot of the boxes came from our house move, but since they have run out we’ve had to do cardboard box runs!

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Me with the neighbours cat- 2 weeks in.

Me with the neighbours cat- 2 weeks in.

We cleaned out the greenhouse and got that ready to grow salads, it was october by this point so we put in some winter salads. The glass was green so I had to clean them a lot and pull out the various weeds.

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The garden is in 2 main sections, the back which was very overgrown with couchgrass nettles and had lots of “junk” left by the previous owner. The other section is more of your normal garden, with various shrubs and trees, that look like they haven’t been pruned in some time. There is also a wild bit, this is where the pine tree was, this is fenced off from the main garden and feels like a mini woodland, to begin with you couldn’t enter, but with the help of my mum and the tree surgeons, its been cleared a lot. The front garden is fairly traditional looking, with a square of grass and some rose bushes and other plants along the edge.

I will write some more updates about the garden soon.