Ask Anna, Agony Aunt

As an adolescent, I accepted my English teacher’s astute advice to always avoid alliteration.

But what do you do when you are afforded the chance to author articles under the headline “Ask Anna, Agony Aunt”? You accept, of course.

And such a chance appeared last year, when we were asked to contribute to the pages of Urban Fox magazine, which goes out in Leicestershire’s more agreeable, affluent areas (there – I did it again!).

Assuming the role of Marjorie Proops, Anna attentively answered all she was asked about the assorted anxieties associated with aboriculture, and aimed to advise appropriately. (Sorry!)

Anyway… here’s a snippet of Anna’s admirably alliteration-free advice from Urban Fox’s bulging postbag. This one is about how to manage gardening as you get older.

My parents love their garden, but the work is getting a bit much for them. Is there anything I can do to make gardening easier for them?

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There are many ways to take the toil out of gardening. A simple solution to make life easier for your parents, without taking away any of their enjoyment, is to remove some of the bending tasks by installing some raised planting beds. These can be purchased in kit form from garden centres, or it’s relatively easy to build them yourself.

Raised beds make tending plants, weeding and watering a much more comfortable job. Raised planting has the added benefit of creating better drainage, and some plants, like Clematis and Sweet Peas, prefer the deeper root run that raised beds provide.

Any containers – pots, troughs and hanging baskets – are easier to manage than planting in a standard border. You can keep on top of weeding and pests, change the displays more often and move them around. Hanging baskets bring your garden right up to your door, and they can be fitted to pulley systems to make tending them a breeze.

One of the most labour intensive areas of a garden is often the lawn. These days you can buy robotic lawnmowers but be warned: they’re not cheap, starting at about £800. Maybe a more cost effective alternative would be for you to offer to cut their lawn for them instead!

If you have any of your own garden related problems, do write in.

We’ll do our best to answer them for you (with an absolute absence of alliteration).

Our Secret Shame

It’s confession time. Despite years of education and training in the higher arts of garden design and the science of horticulture, we have a secret shame: we are Gnome Owners.

Yes, it’s true. Here he is, helping out with a spot of office admin:

We’re not alone. In 2011 Dobbies Garden Centres reported year-on-year gnome sales were up 192%, and British manufacturer Solus claimed a 206% increase in sales of their Woodland Wilf range, whoever he is. He’s not a true gnome, for the motherland of the gnome is Germany, where the original ‘Gartenswerg’ were first produced by Philipp Griebel in Graeferoda, Thuringia.

The Germans take their gnome-ownership so seriously that in 1989, after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, when cheap eastern European imitations started arriving on the market, they were prevented from entering Germany by customs officers.

Gnome popularity comes and goes, but they have never really been loved by the world of garden design – they were famously banned from appearing in show gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2009. So we hope our confession doesn’t see us shunned by our peers.

Luckily, for us gnome-owners, help is at hand. Utah State University is on top of the situation, and has made this small film, alerting us all to the dangers that can befall a garden infested by gnomes. Be thankful it’s not your tax dollars in action here:

Armchair gardening

In a change to the scheduled feature, today’s piece is written by Keith, Anna’s partner in crime.

I’ve taken over the blog for the day. Why, you might ask – surely there are plenty of jobs about the place which need doing? And you’d be right, but unfortunately I can’t do any of them. For after a brief spell in hospital this week for some routine surgery I’m confined to an armchair for a little while, so sitting with a cup of tea and the laptop while bashing out a few lines is about the most I can manage.

My research into the surgical procedure led me to the false assumption that my op would involve about as much disruption as having a tooth out, or maybe a leg waxing. When the surgeon explained to me in layman’s terms what was about to happen, with what I thought was a bit too much relish than was strictly necessary, I realised I’d underestimated the situation, to the tune of two weeks off work with minimal moving about, no lifting, no driving – not ideal.

And so, here I am, almost a week later, bored stupid. Having grown weary rather quickly of my daughter’s choice in music and television (Jason Derülo and Project Runway – aaarrrggghhh!!) and hemmed in by poor weather and the inability to get about anywhere very quickly, I haven’t been able to venture into the garden at all. Until today. So of course I took the opportunity of directing Anna and the offspring in a bit of tending the vegetable patch on my behalf.

Whilst I can claim no credit for the success of the garden design business (with the possible exception of the website) our vegetable garden is almost all my own work. True, Anna’s a bit more lively when it comes to weeding and watering, but in general ownership terms the vegetable plots are mine, while the flowery half belongs to her.

So as I shuffled around the garden this morning I was able to marshall the family into a bit of lifting here, a spot of watering there, some routing out of caterpillars over there, and so on, in the manner of an old army general pushing his forces about with a long stick on a giant map. Armchair gardening, rather like fantasy football, is something I could start to enjoy!

My bit of the garden in all its glory

This year is our second full season of growing our own – the first year was chronicled in some depth on this blog as well as within the pages of Village Life magazine which, despite what people might say, had little to do with its closure the following winter.

This year we added a forth raised bed and, after a lot of searching, a second hand greenhouse. This we won on Ebay, arranging to dismantle and take away from a couple in Burton. The tale of how we eventually got the greenhouse into small enough pieces to fit in the van is one for another day (maybe tomorrow if I can’t find something else to do!), but I wouldn’t recommend the experience to anyone. Indeed putting the thing back together is a process we still haven’t completed, and it’s now joining the redecoration of the spare room, carpeting the landing and putting laminate floor in our bedroom on the long list of things we started but haven’t finished.

But back to the veg. This year we’ve been very lucky – almost everything we’ve planted has come good. We had an excellent crop of Nadine second early potatoes, which we’re still getting through, and we’re close to harvesting a large crop of maincrop spuds, whose name I can’t remember. We started the season with overwintered spinach and spring onions, and we’re harvesting white and red onions and shallots right now. We still can’t get carrots right – I planted four rows of Early Nantes and managed to harvest about six carrots. This is still an impressive 600% increase in yield from last year, so I might use those stats to apply for a European farming subsidy!

Green tomato chutney, anyone?

New for us this year have been cauliflower, broccoli and tomatoes. Our brocolli is so popular with the local Cabbage White butterfly population that next year I’m going to use it to keep them off the cabbages. The real success story is our eight tomato plants, which have, in horticultural parlance, gone mental. I’m really hoping we see a return of the sunshine we had in June/July, or we’ll be eating green tomato chutney until next year.

Today's harvest

I’ll leave you with a shot of today’s harvest – that’s 50% of our entire carrot crop there, plus a load of blackberries from next-door’s hedge. All picked or dug up at my say so. Oh, the power!!