Starting a Garden in the Blackdown Hills

The first meeting of the new gardening year was held in February. It was great to see such a good turnout on a filthy night especially as my husband and I were talking about our own gardening journey; “Developing our Garden in the Blackdowns, the story so far….”

Our previous garden was only 0.25 acre, in a frost pocket, on very thin chalky soil near Salisbury and so our new plot in the Blackdown Hills couldn’t be more different. On the top of the plateau at 230m, the 2.5 acre site is very wet and exposed to the full force of the SW wind; the soil is clay overlying flinty cherts and with a pH ranging from 6 to 7 across the plot. Needless to say, many of the plants we’d carefully brought with us didn’t survive the first growing season!

We discovered that rabbits and deer were frequent visitors to the garden and so we had to protect anything we planted from the start. We planted a beech hedge early on to protect our vegetable growing area from the NE wind and frost coming off Castle Neroche, and we fenced off an area to protect our crops from the rabbits. I spent most of my time that first spring and summer, creating beds, and growing a wider selection of vegetables than I had previously been able to. In this fenced area we also made our first stock beds with the plants we brought with us that had made it through that first very wet winter of 2015. We were astounded to see how much the perennials grew (much more than on the chalky soil) and how quickly the shrub roses settled down, as they got their roots into the fertile soil.

We grew soft fruit in pots in our previous garden and so having brought them with us, we wanted to get the fruit into the ground as soon as we could. The first summer, my husband made a temporary fruit cage to protect the berries from the large population of bullfinches but now we have a 48 x 24 foot fruit cage – complete with raised beds which grow a much more successful crop of blueberries, currants and gooseberries as well as an espalier cherry. Another visit to Rosemoor gave us the idea that we could grow cranberries under the blueberry bushes, and we have had a very successful harvest over the past two years (one advantage of living in an area of high rainfall)

As well as growing soft fruit and vegetables, I wanted to grow cut flowers for the house in our new garden. Our first flowers came from the stock beds, but I particularly wanted to grow tulips and as our soil is too wet, my husband made me a raised bed backfilled with gritty compost. Having, done my research, we’d sourced a large variety of tulips to give colour for several months in a succession of colours that would ripple along this bed. Sadly, despite my excitement, it rained a lot for the next few months and the tulip bed looked more like a swimming pool, so drainage ditches needed to be dug to take the water away. After the rain came an early heatwave and so, despite the planning, all the tulips bloomed at the same time! At least we had a house filled with wonderful blooms for a few glorious weeks – just not for the 2 months I’d imagined. It just goes to show that the weather in the Blackdowns is not predictable!

We eventually gave up on this tulip bed and planted asparagus instead. We hope to taste our first spears this year! A couple of years ago I had some new raised beds made for me around the house so that I could try growing tulips again. This time we have had more success; tulips are followed by other annuals which I can cut for the house. I tried growing dahlias in the garden beds, but the tubers rotted off and so now we grow dahlias in large containers on the patio and take them into the cold greenhouse over winter, covered in spent compost and fleece.

We knew we wanted to plant an orchard as soon as possible and so spent a lot of time researching fruit varieties and visiting apple days and local nurseries. Quite early on we were told that our site was too exposed to grow fruit trees successfully and so we realized that to achieve our dream, we would need to plant a windbreak. The following February we planted 5 rows of bare rooted Birch trees with some Alder, Rowan, Hawthorns & Wayfairing trees mixed in. We also replaced a hedgerow that was shown an old OS map, to delineate our new orchard, planting a mixed native hedge to support wildlife. 

We planted a hedgerow of hawthorn the other side of the area and a third hedge we established over time using prunings pushed straight into the ground which worked very well. It was another 3 years before we were able to plant our first fruit trees and the orchard also had to be fenced against the deer.

Seven years on the thickening wildlife hedge of Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Dog Rose, Hazel, Wild Privet, Elder and Guelder Rose is full of insect life, although it has yet to host nesting birds. The windbreak copse and hedgerow shelter the area successfully and we have planted 29 trees: apples, pears, quinces, cherries, plums, damsons, and greengages. Most of these trees have started to fruit well and we are looking forward to enjoying good harvests for years to come.

We had agreed that when we moved to a larger plot, we wanted to create a meadow. We were delighted to discover the first summer, that by leaving the sloping field unmowed (apart from access paths) there was a huge variety of grasses and wildflowers already there. We have inherited a native wet meadow which my husband successfully manages with a scything and mowing regime.

Of course, living on a damp site is not without its problems. One of the biggest being horsetail. We have field horsetail throughout the lower parts of the plot which we try and control by pulling and mowing. The finer meadow horsetail is in other parts of the garden, and I dig out the roots when I find it. In reality, we will need to learn to live with this plant. 

We also have annual battles with other plants. We try and keep on top of our brambles by cutting and pulling up the tipping stems to stop them spreading. Any roots older than a year are dug out and we have a large bonfire to clear the huge piles gathered. We have left a very large patch for a wildlife area which whitethroats and dunnocks love, as well as lots of butterflies, moths and other insects. We also leave patches of nettles and willow herb for the butterflies and moths. Bracken is in the boundary hedges, and we don’t want it spreading into the garden and so we pull the fronds and leave them to compost down as they make a good ericaceous mulch.

We tolerate moles as they help make drainage tunnels and I can collect the soil from the molehills for potting up. Squirrels are more of a nuisance as they can damage saplings and they dig up my bulbs! We have also had a lot of deer fraying damage on key trees in our copses so we have had to use more tree guards to protect their trunks.

Our slug population is enormous, so we use nematodes, applied throughout the growing season. This certainly helps but I also do regular evening trips out with a head torch and container. I’m still trying to sort out which are the friendly slugs because I feel my slug collections are a bit indiscriminate at the moment. 

The weather, particularly the heavy rain and gusty wind, is an ongoing battle but it’s a case of keeping off wet ground and improving the soil with as much organic matter as possible each year as well as planting windbreaks in key locations. Researching the right plant for the right place also helps me to purchase wisely so that plants have a much greater chance of survival.

The development of our garden has been much slower than I had anticipated when we moved in. This is partly because of the size of the plot which is so much bigger than our previous garden. I also hadn’t realized how much infrastructure we needed to get in place before we could start gardening. Areas that needed to be fenced first, trees and hedgerows that needed to be planted so they could get on with growing while we did other things. There is also an underlying rhythm to the annual tasks that must be carried out before anything new can be undertaken. The end of winter is taken up with tree work and hedge cutting as well as cutting back brambles. Then the borders need to be tidied up and mulched for the new season. As the season moves on, we get into major seed sowing and plant raising associated with growing vegetables, planting up containers, weeding, bringing on plants in the greenhouse and hardening off. As the year proceeds there is the shredding to do and hundreds of pots and seed trays to wash. Summer and autumn bring the harvests and the processing or storing of fruit and vegetables which is really satisfying but also time consuming.

What gives me the most pleasure is the planning and creation of new garden areas and the first of these is the ‘Woodland Garden’. There are three very large black poplar trees in the garden which mark the corner of the parish boundary. Previous owners planted a Rowan tree and maple below them and so this seemed a good place to develop a woodland garden. We started planting the first trees in March 2018; 3 Katsuras (for their candy floss scent in autumn), 3 different Acers for autumn colour and 3 birches (seedlings raised from trees I had planted in my late Father’s garden). The following year I removed the first area of turf and started planting. The soil here is very thin, poor and full of tree roots – so every year we mulch with a thick layer of composted bark and leaf mould which we are making in large cages. I’m gradually adding shrubs such as Oak leaved Hydrangea and hydrangea paniculata, Viburnum Xanthocarpum as well as bulbs and ground cover and shade loving woodland perennials e.g. Brunnera, Epimediums, Aquilegia, Tiarella, vinca, Pulmonaria, and Astrantia.

The soil is gradually improving and now full of life although I will have to hold off growing special woodland beauties for many more years. As Spring moves into Summer, the shade in this area gradually increases, from dappled shade to full shade which makes it an interesting area to plant. Of course, this area has had to be fenced off from the rabbits, but I still have to chase deer out on occasion and the voles love to sit under the shrubs and shred little piles of leaves. 

Eventually the whole of the garden section will be fenced off leaving the Dell, the copses and meadow wilder. We love to share our plot with the wildlife and are delighted that the work we have done so far has encouraged a greater variety of species from owls and kestrels, stoats and weasels to ground beetles and glow worms.

We have many exciting plans for the future development of our garden and have only just scratched the surface of the variety of wildlife that share the space with us.