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  • Benjamin William Pope

The best laid plans...

Above: Setting out Camassia and Narcissus bulbs that will embellish the long grass beneath the future apple avenue. The different pots are filled with different bulbs so that a pleasing visual pattern can be arranged prior to planting. The pots also ensure individual bulbs are not misplaced and left forgotten in the grass.

Below: A mix of Camassia esculenta, leichtlinii 'Semiplena' and 'Orion' should follow the Narcissus 'Betty Bowring' and 'Regeneration', with the later addition of iris sibirica cultivars and other perennials.

I’m one of those people who loves a plan. I can spend hours drawing out ideas and working on solutions to potential (although not actual) problems. Blissfully, I’ll compile lengthy ‘To Do’ lists that help to set a decisive course of action. It’s a process that I find very energising, filling me with ambition to attain whatever future goals have been set. Thankfully I’ve been around long enough now to know that things don’t always run to plan, especially when it comes to the weather, plants and gardening.

Last year was to be my first growing year in the field, establishing new trees, erecting fencing and the promise of local stable manure. I imagined come autumn I’d be basking in the glory of squashes and sweetcorn, whilst cutting my first crop of perennial flowers …this was not the case. A cold and slow start, followed by a wet grey summer meant that many plants didn’t reach their full potential. In the garden, late frosts affected fruit crops, whilst the lower temperatures and light levels during summer meant that dahlias, tomatoes and other sun loving species were slow to get going, only making a real impact as summer turned to autumn. In the field my plan of coupling vigorous squash with tall sweetcorn would surely be a success I thought, after all if they can grow with ease on the exposed North American planes, then a small field in southern England should be a dream. Sadly no. Perhaps the heavy soil sat too cold and wet, or the drying winds kept growth to a minimum? My gardener's intuition suggests ideas as to why both crops and plants struggled, though in reality I have no exact answer. I’m hoping that for the clematis, honeysuckle and hops, it has been a case of establishing strong roots, but I’ll have to wait for this summer to find out.

Then there were the grazers. In the early months the field was left fallow, allowing the grass to grow tall for taking a hay crop. Whilst giving the field an attractive ‘prairie look,’ it also offered the passing deer some cover, lending them confidence to explore all of my recent additions. Sadly, the Medlars took the brunt of the grazing with their tentative new limbs nibbled back to stumps. The stock fencing that I had erected failed to deter the deer and then later in the year, when the field was full of enthusiastic adolescent lambs, it failed again allowing knautia, nepeta and symphyotrichum to become part of the grazing menu.

However, the biggest setback came as an opportunity in late February last year, when I was asked to write a book! It was something out of the blue and the opportunity of collaborating with a fantastic team to produce a gardening book observing the seasons and nature was too much to turn down. The months that followed took me away from the field, with my energy and focus on planning, writing and photoshoots for the book. Progress of the market garden slowed and all I could find time for was the minimum maintenance of occasional mowing. Of course, this has been reflected in the development of the market garden over the past year, which does feel a little disappointing. That said, I now have a book that I have written and helped produce, condensing my 22 years as a gardener and horticulturist into a friendly and concise guide on “What to sow, grow and do” through the year. It’s something I'm very proud of and would have not thought possible at this stage in my life.

My point of recalling all this is not to depress you, or discourage you from your own growing projects. It’s simply to illustrate that plans rarely play out exactly as intended and that’s ok, for trees that move and bend in the wind rarely break. In fact, I think the best way to view setbacks are as lessons; I now know that I need to establish more trees, shrubs and hedges to offer shelter and create micro climates for growing. The stock fencing needs to be adjusted so that it is impassable to young sheep and ultimately the entire site will have to be deer proof, so working on the outer hedges (be it rejuvenation or new planting) will be key to the long-term success of the site. It’s far better to learn these lessons at the beginning, when the collateral damage and time invested is minimal. S0 whatever ‘failures’ or ‘problems’ you encounter this year, with a deep breath and calm thoughts remember, it may be possible to turn them into the most valuable of lessons.

Above: The hay crop being taken in June, though being a wet year and clay soil I have concerns with possible compaction from the heavy machines. Perhaps in future we will continue with the grazing, which would eliminate heavy machines and also discourage passing deer from loitering.

Above: The devastating site of healthy plants that have been reduced to twigs by grazing animals. Whilst learning from these tough lessons it is important to celebrate the wins, however small ...the first ever decorative gourd grown in the field.

Always focus on the positives

Above: A field rose (Rosa arvensis) blooming in the hedgerows offers inspiration, hope and refuge for wildlife.

Below: The cover of my first ever book: What to sow, grow and do, available for purchase in all good book stores and online from 3rd May 2022. Also available for pre-order soon.


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