After so much “editing” – a wonderful euphemism for a near-frenzy of shrub removal – it is a great feeling to finally be putting something back. But before I started planting, I had to find something even more important. I know, I know, what could possibly be more important than plants.

When I first became interested in gardening I became an avid reader of books and magazines. I quickly came across the concept “feed the soil not the plant”, and thought that made perfect sense. Until I discovered just what it cost to mulch an entire garden to a depth of at least 3 inches. Living where we did, I could probably have found a free source of horse manure fairly readily, but it wouldn’t have been well rotted, and I didn’t have the room to pile it up and wait a year or so. Not to mention what the neighbours would have said… So I restricted myself to just planting each new plant with a healthy dose of seaweed feed and some bagged compost. After all, for the price of a good load of manure or mushroom compost I could have bought a lot of plants.

I sort of got away with it by planting things that could cope with the heavy clay soil I had inherited, and when I created the pond border I did buy lots of well rotted horse manure to dig in – just not really enough. It was really expensive, and I had rocks, gravel and plants to buy, all of which were far more interesting. Over the years I got used to seeing great clods of slimy yellow clay working their way to the surface, and promised myself that I would do better next time. So here I am. It is next time. And I am on an even tighter budget than ever before.

black gold

So I am quite chuffed that I have learnt enough to spend a large proportion of my budget on some black gold – a blend of well rotted manure and spent mushroom compost, delivered to the door. TNG does not entirely appreciate the smell, but I actually find it rather sweet and pleasant. A lot of it will find its way in to the new raised veg beds, but the rest will be soil improver and mulch, particularly in the front garden which has areas of very sandy soil.

Soil improver – check. Area cleared for planting – check. Just the plants then. Sadly I have yet to find a reasonable nursery on the Island, so I had to order online. Which at least meant I got a very exciting parcel.

box of plants

I ordered from Burncoose Nurseries in Cornwall, because they specialise in plants good for coastal conditions, and sold the Escallonia macrantha rubra that I wanted for the border against the wall in the front garden at a good price. I had bought from them before, their delivery charges are pretty steep, but because their plants are good value, and more importantly, good quality, it seems to work out OK.

compostable packaging

Each plant was well watered and the pots carefully packed in a tightly tied plastic bag to keep soil and moisture where they belonged. In theory I approve of the compostable packaging in the shape of shredded old catalogues, but in practice I was very grateful that it was that rarest of things here, a day without wind! Nevertheless, it led to some interesting effects:

strange plant

Divesting a mahonia of lots of shredded paper was a delicate task…

Still, a little patience and I had uncovered a nice little collection of plants – 4 escallonia to create a mini hedge along the wall, a Sambucus nigra ‘Black Beauty’ to contrast with a Tamarisk, also for the front, the aforementioned mahonia – Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’ – for the boundary in the back between us and the park, a hawthorn, ditto, and a lovely euphorbia called ‘Portugese Velvet’ because I fell in love and it was in the sale. Thus breaking the rules, since it needs to go in a border that doesn’t yet exist, in the front garden, but hey, rules are made to be broken!

new blood

Today was one of those perfect early October days, still, sunny, and warm in the sun but with just that bit of bite in the air to tell you the seasons were changing. I spent a throughly pleasurable couple of hours gently pootling in the front garden, planting out the mini escallonia plants that hopefully, one day, will form a fragrant evergreen hedge and provide some privacy.

baby escallonia hedge

Not exactly an instantly dramatic effect, and my new plants are planted at a greater distance than recommended for hedging, but I have time, and besides, chatting to local gardeners it is clear that things tend to grow rather larger, and faster, than advertised here. I also finally succumbed and splashed out on some Rootgrow – micorrhizal fungi that, when added to a planting hole so that the granules come in to contact with the roots of a plant, help the plant develop a strong secondary root system that will last the life of the plant and promote faster, stronger growth. I’d be interested to hear what other people’s experience has been of using it?

little and large

The contrast between the escallonia that was here when I moved in and that I re-located and the new plants is a little dramatic, even allowing for the fact that I lightly pruned the new plants to encourage bushier growth. Hopefully it won’t be too long before the plants are the size of the shadows they were throwing on the wall behind.

using what you have

I mentioned that I had ordered a Sambucus ‘Black Beauty’ to contrast with a tamarix. Well, that’s the downside of ordering online, Burncoose were out of stock. It will be Spring before I have a large enough plant order together to justify the delivery, so my options were to wait until then or use something I already had and enjoy the fact that I had some extra money in the plant piggy bank to use later. Since I had spotted an ceanothus of unknown type trying to escape from under one of the mophead hydrangeas, I decided to try that instead. Whatever colour blue the flowers, and whenever the flowering period, it should fit in with the overall scheme well and contrast nicely with the elder. So, I rescued the ceanothus from the clutches of the hydrangea and planted it up.

using what you have

I must admit I was surprised to see that the elder had been pruned so hard back, I had anticipated it still having some leaves, and therefore getting some autumn colour from it, but there are plenty of healthy buds on it. Pity it looks so strange next to the ceanothus, which was surprising large once rescued, if a tad strangely shaped.

All in all, a very pleasant and constructive way to spend a couple of hours. The next task is to stain the fence so that I can plant the other new arrival, a spindle tree.

Euonymus europaeus 'Red Cascade'

Euonymus europaeus ‘Red Cascade’ definitely has plenty of Autumn colour, so I can’t wait to see it in the ground. With a healthy mulch of black gold to help it on its way.

62 thoughts on “Putting something back

  1. At last – some plants to put in. Did you get your black gold on the island or did you order than online too – a valuable resource I’d say. It won’t be long before your new plants are romping away – as you say, a pleasant way to spend an autumn afternoon.

    1. Hi Elaine, I had to source it over the internet in the end, although I am sure that given time I will be able to find something locally. And there is always the seaweed!

  2. Hi Janet,

    It looks like you’ve enjoyed yourself in the late sun! Wish I’d been able to get out and do those last jobs… Some bulbs to plant still, some mulching to do and I’m finished for the year!
    Looking forward to seeing things develop; let’s hope that root stuff works well. I’ve never tried it so can’t help you there.

    1. Oh, I still have bulbs to plan Liz – not to mention more ground to reclaim and plants to put in the ground before winter sets in, weather and health allowing! I rather resent the fact that the weather will force me to down tools for a while soon, but I think a period of reflection will be very useful. Plus it will give me time to plot my spring seed order…

  3. That amended soil does, indeed, look very healthy and fertile! Lucky you that plants tend to grow larger and faster than advertised there. I’ll be curious to see the Euonymus in its planting spot, and to watch your new plants as they develop during the coming year.

    1. There is something immediately and deeply satisfying about a thick layer of good mulch, isn’t there. Plus I am a big fan of letting the worms do all the work! I have to paint the fence before I can plant the euonymous, I just hope I can get it in place before it loses all its leaves.

  4. Wow, you have been busy, what a satisfying afternoon you spent. Its so lovely seeing your plans coming to fruition, such an exciting time for you! I’m sure that in time you will find stables/livery who will be only too glad for you to take their manure away, we have one here in the village who stack each year seperately so we always go for the 3 yr old pile which doesn’t smell at all!!

    1. Hi Pauline, I hope we do find a local source of black gold, though it was extremely convenient getting it all delivered neatly piled up on a pallet. And we get a pallet to play with afterwards!

  5. What a lovely chatty post about all your doings – it was as if you were just telling a friend about it, which is what I feel we are in this blogging community. Thank you! I too look forward to seeing how everything does – it is SO exciting getting a big box of plants, and it’s great when you discover a reliable source. Have you looked at, also based in Cornwall, which I thoroughly recommend for mail order? I have used Rootgrow this year for the first time as it was recommended for the cordon fruit trees I was planting (and was at a discount price), and I used the remainder of the packet on the roses I was replanting in the revamped rose garden – sounds brilliant, but I wonder how we will know how effecive it is or isn’t!

    1. Hi Cathy, thanks for dropping by, and glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for the recommendation, always good to know the places other bloggers find good, it can be a bit hit and miss ordering over the internet. The thing that swung using rootgrow for me was the detailed report on the trials the RHS did. I considered doing a test, planting one of my escallonias without it, but decided I would be gutted if it therefore didn’t grow as well, and chickened out…

    1. Hi Sue, ah well, I suppose at least mine should grow away well come next spring. I am hoping the rootgrow means that it will develop a really good root system by next year.

  6. Ahh Burncoose, one of our favourite nurseries to visit whenever we’re down in Cornwall! They have a treasure trove of plants on their list and on site and always enjoy browsing their polytunnels.

    Looks like you’ve been very busy indeed and all those new plants should settle in well in the next few months and start to fill up nicely come spring :) I vouch for micorrhizal fungi too, and use it as much as we can whenever we introduce new plants in the garden. Even when re-potting we occasionally use it too. Hopefully you can get hold of that Sambucus in the next few months, I reckon you can still squeeze it in if you wish amongst all of your recent plantings :)

    1. Hi guys, good to hear positive experiences from using rootgrow or equivalent, it is a bit of an act of faith otherwise! I can quite see why Burncoose would be a favourite with you both. They have a great selection of plants and some really useful information on their website too.

  7. I’m very impressed at you forgoing part of your plant budget to improve the soil. I know I should have done that here really, to break up our heavy clay, but whenever I had dug over a bed, there were plants clamouring to go into it and it never did happen!
    Very satisfying to be planting on such a big scale; I think it looks rather good all dug over with the young plants in plenty of space, who needs drama?!
    I still have some plants to get in the ground, but ran out of time at the weekend and the evenings are too dark now – roll on Saturday!

    1. Hi Sara, I know, I feel terribly grown up and responsible!! I shall rely on lots of annuals to fill out the front garden next year in the absence of dramatic permanent structure, will give me a chance to play with colour and form before I commit to more buying of established plants.

  8. I did exactly the same when we moved here and have regretted not improving the soil ever since. I had exactly the same problems trying to source a suitable mulch and still do. Even with 2 compost bins and manure delivered at the plot it isn’t enough. The eternal problem really.

    Must be nice to get planting though and they all look like they survived being sent by post remarkably well.

    1. Hi WW, I was really chuffed at the quality of the plants, though disentangling them from the packaging was a tad fiddly. I have to admit that, had I not needed to find material to fill the raised veg beds, I might have been tempted to spend more on plants and less on soil improvement…

  9. I’m guilty of not fertilising, so your post has prompted me to give it another thought. I once bought a sack of (black) soil improver from a diy store. It seemed too cheap to be full of goodness, I think it was wood-based.

    1. Hi b-a-g, I think pretty much anything organic will help improve soil structure, though the richer the material the more nutrients go in to the soil. It does feel weird though, spending lots on black stuff when it could go on plants instead. I hope it means I have fewer plant deaths.

  10. Wow Janet, it is coming along nicely. I know what you mean about feeding the soil and breaking the bank. My soil is soooo bad, most of the topsoil was scrapped off during building or has washed downhill. I use my worm castings a lot or the compost bin product… helps with the soil. Have a Master Gardener friend who swears by mycorrhizal fungi. I have found a lot of it occurring naturally in the soil, hooray!!

    1. Hi Janet, I was delighted to find a lot of white filaments in some areas of this garden too, and hope that means they are the “right” kind, if there is such a thing as the wrong kind. Few conditions are more harsh than trying to garden on a plot that was recently a building site. They never put enough top soil back, it is often bad quality anyway, and of course everything underneath has been compressed to the consistency of concrete! I really don’t envy you the work and expense of creating good soil from that kind of start.

  11. On a similar note the ‘best’ thing we invested in was a shredder; it provides mulch or all the beds from all the pruning that has to be done anyway and I use it to chop stuff for the compost heap too as it then rots much more quickly. I have the opposite problem to heavy soil but improving the soil to make it more water retentive will eventually pay dividends, much of the compost goes on the vegetable beds, but I also mix it with bought compost for cuttings etc.
    I think in the end the Ceanothus will be happier with the Tamarisk as they have more similar needs water wise so maybe the lack of the Elder was a blessing – and of course you can always buy one later! Christina

    1. Hi Christina, we have a shredder too, invaluable, both for compost and mulching. In my rush to press “publish” before heading out I managed to miss out the important information that it was the tamarisk that was missing from the order not the sambucus…

  12. I agree absolutely about feeding the soil. I never bothered very much until I came here but my soil is so thin and stony that I lost a lot of plants in the first year. Now I try really hard to give everything a very good start and I am also much more careful about what I plant. I also use microrhizal fungi for any big planting. I think it has probably made me a much better gardener to have to cope with a trickier site! I have a sambucus nigra which is going great guns now. I wonder if I could strike a cutting for you if you wait til spring to get it? I suppose it would be quite tiny for a while!

    1. Hi Elizabeth, I’m not sure I would have bothered with more than adding compost to each planting hole if it hadn’t been for needing material to fill the raised veg beds. Having seen how sandy the one corner of the front garden is though, I am glad to have been able to do a little to enrich it.

      Thank you for the offer of a cutting – I managed to confuse everyone by rushing my post, it was actually the tamarisk that didn’t arrive, and I think, in the end, I am quite happy about that. If is a little fluffier and pinker than I tend to go for, though I do think it would have contrasted beautifully with the black elder.

      I agree about tricky sites making one a better gardener – you just have to be more thoughtful or watch as the plants you lavished money and care on just curl up on die on you, which is thoroughly depressing.

    1. Hi Donna, it is lovely stuff to dig in and mulch with – and I feel so virtuous ;-) I do love being able to feel relaxed about the whole thing, knowing I am gardening for the long term.

  13. I learned this lesson the hard way, too, after years of trying to plant in my heavy soil. The initial cost of the soil amendments is worth it compared to the money I previously spent on replacing dead or non-performing plants every year! I don’t use mushroom compost, as my soil is already alkaline. I use stable manure, compost, worm castings, or, if I’m just putting a plant in between others, even cheap potting mix works well to open the soil and add organic matter.

    1. Hi Lyn. I have always used some sort of compost when planting things, mixed in with the soil in the planting hole, but whole-scale mulching and soil ammendment is new to me. It feels good to be nurturing the soil on this scale, and hopefully will pay dividends in long term plant health and survival.

  14. I planted four roses last autumn and used David Austin Mycorrhizal Fungi, which I imagine is the same as Rootgrow. The roses have flourished this summer, look very healthy, and have produced many blooms in their first year. I don’t know if it was the fungi or the heavy summer rain that produced the result, but I’m definitely going to use the fungi again.
    By the way, I like your shredded paper bush. Who’d have thought that paper grows on trees.

    1. Hi Crystal, thanks for dropping by and commenting! Really good to hear from some people who have used rootgrow or equivalent, without a side-by-side experiment we are really in the dark about what difference it makes. I’m not sure shredded paper shrubs will catch on…

  15. Now I’ve not seen that shredded paper effect mahonia in any of the catalogues Janet :) How exciting for you to be planting in your new garden. Your spindle is a beauty. Here I’ve started on the annual sweeping mission so all those discarded leaves can eventually morph into beautiful mould :)

    1. Hi Anna, well, I have always liked to plant something a bit different ;-) I am excited about the spindle, something I have lusted after for years. Of course I recently saw someone raving about planting it alongside a black sambucus, which is making me wonder about planting it next to one of mine, not what I planned, but hey, one has to stay open to new opportunities!

      I am aggressively Not Noticing the many – many – leaves falling from the surrounding sycamores. I will get around to collecting them up for leaf mould, honest, just not quite yet…

  16. The hard work of preparing a garden so often eclipses the for-me pleasurable task of digging a hole and placing a plant in what at the moment seems the perfect location. Congratulations on completing the preparation to the point where you’re ready to plant. I’ve been doing some of it myself these days and can share in the joy. Life is good!

    1. Hi James, life is indeed good, when you get to prepare new ground and dream of all the many beautiful things you can grow there. Once I have committed to a particular plant in a particular place, I start to worry. Is it the right plant. Is it in the right place. Will it look like I think it will. What about all the other things that I now can’t plant there. Don’t get me wrong, I love it all, but there is something special about that moment before you commit… Enjoy your preparing and planting!

  17. I order from online nurseries every spring/fall. They are often cheaper and have a larger selection than my local garden center. I always get excited when my packages arrive. I use A LOT of compost and started adding the beneficial microbes to the soil last year. I saw a huge improvement, so it’s a worthwhile investment. Have you thought about worm composting? It’s super easy and dirt cheap. Plus, it doesn’t take up much room. It’s a great way to add nutrients to the soil.

    1. Hi, wonderful to hear such a clear endorsement of the beneficial microbes, thank you! I have thought about worm composting, though I have plenty of room for 4 large compost bins which currently take all our kitchen waste as well as the garden waste and lots of paper and cardboard. On line nurseries are wonderful, aren’t they, opening up such a huge range of possibilities to those of us who are not blessed with really good local nurseries.

  18. Hi Janet, I think it is very satisfying getting these jobs done in Autumn. I have been using this rootgrow product for the last couple of years and feel convinced it makes a difference, hard to be sure though. Your plants look spaced out very sensibly. spaced out!!! well I am sure you know what I mean.

    1. Hi Alistair, I rather like the sound of spaced out plants, it is how I have been feeling for most of the past 6 weeks!! Good to hear you have had positive experiences with rootgrow.

  19. You were wise to invest some time and money into improving the garden soil first, but I am like you–I’d much rather spend that money on plants! But it looks like you have been able to do that as well and finally get to do the fun part of gardening. Looking forward to seeing the finished–or semi-finished–project in full bloom next season.

    I love the walled border of your garden!

    1. Hi Rose, I did feel terribly grown up!! The wall has some rather alarming cracks in it, I hope it doesn’t fall down…

  20. I too was surprised this year at the cost of soil amendments. But it is so necessary to get the garden off to a good start. Do you have a spot in the yard anywhere where you can do your own composting and create some black gold of your own?

    1. Hi Marguerite, I have an excellent area for the manufacture of black gold, and some leaf mould on the way too! Unfortunately the material in my four composting bins won’t be providing me with bounty until next spring at the earliest, but I am hoping to become self-sufficient, between that and the seaweed I can gather from the beach.

  21. Sambucus Nigra is on my wish list for next season – makes a beautiful backdrop in a wide border. Your new garden seems to be coming together beautifully. You are working so hard!

    1. Hi Patricia, I couldn’t believe my luck when I discovered I had one growing in the back garden, but it appears to have made me greedy, I am delighted to now have one in the front garden too! Though I am about to move it… Hope you get one for your own garden next year, they are beautiful plants.

  22. Well they do say don’t they a penny on the plant and thruppence on the hole. Well done on getting some black gold to the door step. Pallets are of course also essential. I’m wondering don’t know if its much use to you but Parkers deliver for free in the UK even to islands. Whilst they have a selection of the usual suspects, the free delivery is a god send especially when you’re off land. The Black Isle herb nursery (Pontizfield) is fabulous too and hardy, good coastal Scottish Plants should you need a peruse their catalogue is mouth wateringly good. And, I see that the Real Seed Company’s new catalogue is available online, just thinking of those hardy coastal edibles you might want to plan for next year. Although it sounds like you’re plenty ahead of the game! Goodluck with it all. Very jealous of your ‘now’ garden. I’m 18 months away from my forever one. I must cajole the guitar god into action.

    1. Hi Fay, I hadn’t heard that saying, but it sounds spot on. I do sometimes use Parkers, they are great for loads of good value plug plants, thanks for the reminder, and for the pointer to the herb nursery. Am trying to hold off on my “Real Seeds” order until I have veg beds full of planting material… Good luck prompting your guitar god into action, I will love to see you in your own forever garden, though I am not sure the world is ready for that level of excitement!!

    1. Hi Esther, definitely an aura of beginninness, which is a brilliant word, by the way!

  23. Good going, Janet. Before my own compost regime started producing, I used to buy in both mushroom compost and rotted horse manure by the tipper load. Very cheap but as you point out you need the space (and Boy did it honk – a lot). The latter came from the gloriously named Muck Lady! Anyway, must dash – off to check out Burncoose! Dave

  24. Janet – after falling into the Blogosphere abyss, it feels so good to catch up on favorite blogs. Obviously I have much to find out, and look forward to seeing the progress you’ve made. Your gardens look good, and the comment about the plants growing to the height of their shadows was an excellent visual! (P.S. Mushroom compost has been my best investment; amending the clay in my gardens – either greasy-slick in the Spring or harder-than-concrete in the Summer)

    1. Hi Shyrlene, how lovely to hear from you, you have been missed! I can’t be signed up for email reminders of your posts or I would have spotted you. Must sort that out… Welcome back!

  25. Whoops I seem to have overlooked this post!
    It seems that you were busy as always, obviously making the most of the still good weather.
    Thanks as always for an enjoyable, and interesting, read and good photos. xx

    1. Hi Flighty, don’t you just hate it when that happens?! Thanks for visiting, you are always most welcome, however long ago the post was published. I have been lousy at catching up on blogs recently, am determined to start getting stuck in again, I have missed you all.

  26. hello Janet, I hope all is well with you, it’s a nice feeling to start planting, I’ve not heard of the saying feed the soil not the plant it is something I have learnt through trial and error, I like your black gold, I have wondered about the micorrhizal fungi thanks for the link to the RHS page, when I have plants delivered I tend to unpack inside and the shredded paper is great for the compost heap,
    I took a look at the nursery as they are costal but there is a £10 surcharge to the north of Scotland so I’ll give them a miss, Frances

    1. Hi Frances, it must be difficult finding people who deliver plants out your way without charging the earth – no pun intended!

  27. I was like you when we moved here – impatient to get planting and on a tight budget. So I’m smiling wryly at your mentioning those lumps of yellow reaching the surface. I’m on clay too and I suspect the clay is why I got away without adding to the soil before planting.

    Lovely to see you’ve started making the changes in your new garden. I’ve used micchorizal fungi to good effect and I know the RHS swear by it. I have vague memories that it’s not so good with heathers, rhododendrons and other acid loving plants – can’t say for sure and I’m also not sure what your soil type is. Probably worth checking out if your soil is on the acid side…

    1. Hi VP, at least tight budgets force you to get creative! I anticipate a frenzy of seed sowing come Spring… Interesting about the rootgrow and acid lovers. My soil is mostly neutral if not slightly alkaline, except in the area around the azaleas, which must have been amended. I plan to leave the heather to the surrounding hills, so I should be OK.

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