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February – a nosy behind the scenes

What’s on this month

As you may have seen from our recent Youtube videos, it’s all go here at Gasper Cottage. Forget any notion you might have of February being a month of little action in the garden – for us it sees the arrival of the most intense maintenance job of the whole year, also known as ‘The Big Tidy’. Bed by bed, border by border, the now withered remains of last year’s seedheads, stems, and grasses are cleared away having delighted us throughout the winter months. The game’s up for any weeds that may have been lurking under their cover, and editing commences of any self-sown seedlings or overzealous spreaders. Large, established clumps are lifted, divided, and replanted, and the soil is then finished with a generous layer of mulch. It’s a big job which, at the densely planted 1.5-acre Gasper Cottage, takes the best part of two months.


Every year it is a race against time to finish before the plants spring back into life, at which point progress inevitably slows as extra care is needed not to chop or trample delicate new shoots. The pressure is especially felt after this year's unseasonably warm conditions have encouraged even earlier growth than usual. Unfortunately, little can be done to avoid this, as the job can only be started once the immovable task of winter pruning the fruit trees and roses is completed.


Tidied and mulched on the right, still to do on the left

 

Mulch matters

The most physically demanding and time-consuming part of the process is undoubtedly the mulching, by which we mean the spreading of well-rotted organic matter on the soil around plants to supress weeds, add nutrients and, lock in moisture. ‘Why bother going to so much effort?’ you may ask, ‘I never mulch my garden and it seems okay’. For us, the reason is largely one of water. Our natural sub-layer of greensand makes for very free-draining conditions, meaning the soil can be alarmingly quick to dry out in summer. This means mulching the garden each year is not just about looking neat (though there’s no denying the results are pleasing) but mainly a way to protect against drought and reduce the need for artificial watering. The regular nutrient boost is also vital in a garden where so very much is asked of its soil.


Whilst we do make our own compost the amount produced is nowhere near enough to mulch the whole garden, and so every year a huge supplementary heap is bought in.


This year's mulch mountain, all 15 tonnes of it


Your next question may well be, ‘so who’s doing all this work, and how?’. With this in mind, we thought it may be time to reveal:


What it takes to manage a garden like Gasper Cottage


Take one, full time gardener

In the autumn of 2019, Gasper Cottage welcomed its first permanent professional gardener, Jack Clutterbuck. Until this point Bella had done much of the work herself, with the part time help of various local, jobbing gardeners.


So began a successful working relationship which has enabled many of Bella’s visions for Gasper Cottage to come to fruition, as well as broadening its future potential.

 

"Since the creation of the studio in 2017, my ambitions for the garden had been ratcheting up steeply", explains Bella. "Johnnie and I had done the majority of the planting around the outdoor model railway in 2018, which had nearly finished me off (a dodgy hip and digging on a steep slope was a bad combination!). So the decision was made to get a 'proper gardener'.


"As soon as I met Jack I knew that he had a great mixture of passion for the perennial plants that fascinate me, deep technical skill and a willingness to work with my plans and ideas. Believe me some of the gardeners I interviewed were rather more keen to take the garden off my hands - rather than enable the delivery of my vision! 


"Meeting his lovely family - wife Katy (writer of this blog!) and young daughter (since joined by a little sister during lockdown) was simply the icing on the cake."


Jack weeding the Studio Garden

 

Add a trusty pickup truck

With the compost heap located offsite a couple of miles away, the garden simply could not function without this dependable set of wheels. Making several trips a day between the two sites, Jack has become exceptionally well-acquainted with its one and only CD (country and western in case you were wondering).


Setting off to the compost heap. Having the waste in dumpy bags makes for swifter unloading.

 

Throw in a big set of composting bays

The compost area in question consists of four 2 metre bays and sits on the land of a nearby business run by Bella’s husband, Johnnie. Until 2020 the composting system was at the back of the garden, however as the main entrance for visitors on NGS garden open days, Bella was keen to make this area more attractive.


The lesser spotted compost area

 

Include a polytunnel

In a bid for the garden to become more self-sufficient, Bella had a 14.5 metre polytunnel constructed shortly after Jack's arrival. Also located offsite, it hugely increased the scope for propagation – meaning that instead of buying in over a thousand annuals each year the majority are now sown from seed. Perennials stocks are also now maintained in-house, with hundreds of new plants grown from cuttings each year. In addition to this, the frost-free conditions offer a good space in which to overwinter tender and half-hardy plants, such as cannas.



The view inside the polytunnel at time of writing


While the tunnel is fed by a 10 000-litre rainwater harvest tank attached to a neighbouring building, there is no power supply. This means anything requiring bottom heat to get going is started off in a small propagating unit in the small, hexagonal greenhouse back in the Studio Garden. It’s amazing what can come out of such a tiny space!


This tank catches more than enough rain to water the contents of the polytunnel


Spot the heated prop unit


Not forgetting the all-important shed

Of course, no garden of this size could be maintained without equipment, in this case housed in a gardener’s shed in one of the stone outbuildings. Hand tools and organic remedies are in, noisy power tools and nasty chemicals are out.


Mind your head


Everything has its place


Undoubtedly our the tool of the month is the saw-sickle. A hand tool with a small, curved, saw-like blade, it significantly speeds up the cutting back of grasses and perennials, as opposed to the wrist-and-thumb-destroying scissoring action of secateurs. Heartily recommended!


Indispensable

 

And finally, a friendly neighbour

Jack’s workload would be much increased were it not for the generosity of a local Estate Manager responsible for the surrounding land. With a few scoops of his front-loading tractor, Chris makes short work of removing the mountain of hay produced every year during the cutting of the meadow. He has also been known to pluck out a row of hawthorn hedging in a matter of minutes; a job which would have taken weeks, possibly even months, to do by hand.


 

We hope you’ve enjoyed this sneak peak of the inner workings of Gasper Cottage! Do leave a comment if you have any questions.

 

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