Tag Archive: gardener


Dry Stone Walling with Ken

Traditionally, Yorkshire men may be considered dour blokes, stoic to a fault, unpredictable, aggressive, arrogantly dogmatic. Take a few moments to visualise a Yorkshire man.

Ken and Luke

Ken walling with his grandson Luke in fields near Patterdale, The Lake District, Cumbria, UK

My mind sees a man with shirt sleeves rolled up revealing muscular, hairy forearms. Broad shoulders, tussled dark hair with 2 day stubble, a chiselled face. He is wearing heavy corduroy trousers pinned at the waist with a sturdy leather belt, his booted stance casual yet alert, he seems to have grown out of the earth. His most redeeming features are the brooding eyebrows that shelter a piercing, inquisitive gaze. You may feel attracted toward this kind of person, yet realise it’s wise to tread cautiously in case a heavy boot swings swiftly to displace your front teeth.

Gatepost

Lakeland wallers made best use of boulders.
These walls were originally built circa 150 years ago.
Near Stonethwaite, Lake District, Cumbria, UK

It may seem that Yorkshiremen care little for the human race, yet many are incredibly sensitive who understand nature in a deeply instinctive way. They see no need to be demonstrative. To sit and talk with these men is an experience to be treasured. They are wise keepers of our heritage.

Ken is one such man.

The arrangement with Ken was simple. Each Saturday I would toss a chipping hammer, string line, tape measure and A-frame into the car boot, collect him in Windermere then drive over Kirkstone Pass to Patterdale. We had secured an ESA (Environmentally Sensitive Area) contract to rebuild derelict field walls, 650 metres worth of field wall. The pay was nominal, the real reward enormous, restoring dry stone walls.

Internal Wall

Lots of Dog-Eds
Mid Section
random dry stone wall
Windermere, Cumbria, UK

Dialogue was easy. ‘Morning.’ ‘Morning.’ ‘Ya’ll right?’ ‘Yep’ ‘Let’s go then.’

Ken taught me to build walls using limestone on field walls near Caldbeck, John Peel country. Limestone is so pleasant to handle, easy to shape, looks good and smells good. Our contract at Patterdale was entirely different, more complex.

The stone at Patterdale was a mixture of old quarry slate, river boulders and field clearings. These walls were constructed circa 150 years ago. ESA work requires total re-use of existing stone. Weathered slate in particular can become friable and shatters easily. This entails a high degree of delicacy that isn’t apparent with new walls where fresh slate, usually hand selected at the quarry, is used.

Foundations – Beginning at one end of the existing wall we would demolish a ‘day section’ right down to the foundation and begin walling. Some of the foundation stones were immense, with no need to replace. On other sections, that had suffered significant movement, we would have to excavate the foundation stones by hand, re-trench and relay the boulders. Like all structures, a solid foundation is essential and can’t be skipped. More walls crumble quickly because of shoddy foundations than anything else. Once a wall has been built it begins to settle. If the base isn’t solid the wall will buckle and belly outward as it settles. Over time this weak section will collapse.

Once the foundations were in place Ken would go to the sunny side of the wall in order to work with his back to the sun. Being the novice, I would have to work facing the sun, not a problem on a cloudy day, but squint factor on a sunny day is extreme. There was never any discussion about this, we merely assumed our side and got on with walling.

Short Wall

Recycled slate and random dry stone wall
Kirkstone Pass Road, Windermere, Cumbria, UK

Stone Selection and Dog ‘Eds – Stone selection is a delight. If you have fiddled with a jigsaw puzzle, you will comprehend how difficult it can be to find the right pieces. Every stone has a place. With experience the eye can tell if a stone is ‘right’, in the early days stone selection is the greatest skill to learn.

Walling in the Patterdale valley was harder than any walling I have ever done. 50% of stones were ‘dog-eds’. The term is descriptive and derived from the shape of the stones, Dog Heads.

The mixture of dog-eds and slate was an awkward one, picture round balancing on flat, or vice versa. It doesn’t work without very careful placement. I wasted many fillers trying to balance these stones. Ken just plonked them down, the dog-eds remained firm.

As he worked Ken would whistle, a tuneless aggravating sussing. In and out, keeping pace with his breathing. Relentless.

‘Give us a break Ken. Your whistling is driving me mental!’

‘Seeessuurrrr sususu suuuuuuser.’

‘I can’t concentrate. Why don’t you go for a sanger?’

‘Suss suss sut…seh suh suh suh suh seh.’

Occasionally he would whistle on a rising tack, then simmer quietly whilst breathing in. Over and over and over.

I never saw him smile. He worked, methodically, carefully, never over extending himself.

Stone Placement – Stone selection and placement is the highlight of walling. Every stone has a place. Skilled wallers can identify the next stone, pick it up smoothly, flick it around in the hand, perhaps make a quick chip with the hammer, then clunk it into place. No further adjustment required.

The sound that a stone makes when placed is critical. Something akin to the difference between a bass drum and a snare drum. When a stone has a solid clunk it is placed correctly, when it has a chinky clinky sound it will need adjustment.

My favourite placement is with two hands on a medium sized stone. When sited there will be no movement at all and no requirement for a backfiller. I used to live for those moments!

Coursing – A ‘course’ is a layer of roughly similar sized stones. It isn’t essential, but most dry stone walls have the larger stones lower down. A well coursed wall will be indestructible.

Until I became more skilled Ken would often be a course or two ahead of me, this was a distinct advantage to him. If he had oddly shaped stones he could push them across toward my side then I would need to fit my stones around his.

‘Ken, you will need to slow down a bit until I get this next course up.’

‘Stop buggering about, you work like an old man!’ End of conversation.

Wall End

Intake Wall End
Lake District, Cumbria, UK

Point made I would plow on whilst Ken ambled over to the car, proceed to lean against it and ‘take stock’. Ken was always ‘taking stock’. He would briefly ‘weigh up the situation’ then act. I would be expected to read his mind and get on with the job.

A hill farmer in that area had up to 20 working dogs. He never trained dogs individually, when pups were old enough they would travel with an experienced dog and learn on the job. During this formative stage I was Ken’s dog, it was up to my powers of observation to copy what he did, he made no allowance for my inferior walling skills.

Ken sighed often in the early days because I was such a numpty waller. When he sighed I knew I wasn’t up to speed, or I had used the wrong stone. He never once told me off, just allowed my part of the wall to fall down. He would then slowly step through the gap, pick up a few stones, place them quickly, step back through the gap and continue walling from his side. No words were ever exchanged during these lessons.

Fillers – When walls were first built gangs of men would wall constantly. Many would sleep near the wall to maximise their return. They were paid by the yard, skilled wallers would use little fill, it was time consuming to pack a wall, and the old adage ‘time is money’ was never more appropriate.

Some sections of wall had almost no fillers. It would have been helpful to bring in a few tons of fill, but we weren’t allowed, so re-cycling was the order of the day.

Consequently a wall with few fillers took more skill with stone placement because we couldn’t backfill the gaps. It was pure chance who got the most fillers. However, Ken never came to my side of the wall to use my fillers. He always made do with his lot. When you’re a Yorkshireman, that is what you do.

Ken loved these empty walls, it was the ultimate challenge to his unerring stone selecting skills.

‘No reason why we can’t rebuild this wall with the stone on the ground. The original wallers did.’

‘There aren’t enough fillers here Ken. I can’t finish this without more fillers.’ My peeved comments would go unheeded.

He was correct of course. Over time I became more skillful at preserving the fillers and only used them sparingly.

Foxgloves

Ubiquitous Foxgloves
Dry Stone Walls
Lake District, Cumbria, UK

Through Stones – Most field walls have two rows of ‘throughs’. One about knee high and another approximately belly button level. Dry stone walls taper toward the top, so the lower ‘through’ stones can be double the size of the higher layer. This means that the lower ‘throughs’ are seriously heavy, requiring two men to manoeuvre the stone into place. I have split my finger many times during this operation.

Weak walls can stem from insufficient good ‘throughs’. These stones tie the whole wall together. Ken always insisted that the ‘throughs’ were placed on a perfectly level line.

Top Stones – Final pieces in the walling jigsaw, and some of the most important.

On fully collapsed walls it was difficult to filter topstones from walling stone. An experienced waller can tell by the mould and lichens, even the shape of a stone can be sufficient to set it to one side for use as a topstone.

Ken was a specialist at ‘capping out’. It took more than 2 years for me to be allowed this honour. Capping out requires a very sure eye and steady placement because the final courses consist of the smallest stones, easily dislodged if the topstone has to be jiggled around.

Ultimate Satisfaction – To step back and admire a well constructed wall is to reach the pinnacle. It does require the palm of a hand to be drawn down the wall before leaving. It is a ritual that remains embedded in my mind as I think of Ken proudly surveying a finished wall. He never left a wall without giving it a pat on the head.

Ken was 83 the last time I walled with him. He now can’t manage walling, but his legacy remains and will be seen by thousands of people for up to 150 years to come. Indeed, if you drive from Hartsop to Patterdale you will pass two of his roadside walls, and several of his field walls.

Of course, Ken is my father.

Gardener Set Free by an mp3

Rob with his imaginary hound.

Robert is working on the top perennial border, maybe 15 yards away but on the other side of a hawthorn hedge. Earlier we had trimmed the hedge, Robert swirled the hedgetrimmer as if it was a light sabre, thrashing blades moulded the hedge into shape. We are tarting up the top border in a full blooded attempt to impress our new clients.

‘How are you getting on with the weeding up there Rob?’

Silence, followed by scuffling noises and a slight clearing of his throat.

I wait for him to say something. Nada.

Louder this time, ‘Rob! We need to be moving onto the mowing soon. Have you nearly finished?’

He is obviously working, his yellow gorilla bucket is being scutched over the ground, he kicks it a little and I hear him ‘twickling’ the soil with his fork. Twickling is our top secret ploy to make our borders stand out from the rest. Obviously I can’t give away the trade secret but it is vital to get the correct depth into the soil before twickling commences. Too deep and it looks like a turned veggie bed, too shallow and it looks bobbly, scratched and scruffy. There is also the sideways ‘clod slap’ that is vital for an even finish. No point taking these terms, ‘twickling’ and ‘clod slap,’ to the RHS for clarification, they are copyrighted to http://www.topgrowth.co.uk and available for hire purchase if anyone is dopey enough to ask.

Because Rob still doesn’t answer me I decide to walk up the steps to the top border and check on what he is doing. Often these kind of silences mean one of the lads is having a fag, or texting the girlfriend and doesn’t want to be disturbed. Normally they skulk off behind a building or into the bushes. They know I don’t like them using mobile phones on the job, and smoking is almost a hanging offence unless they are on a break.

SAS style I quietly step up and have my eyes on alert as they come level with the top border. I look across to where he is working then stand still to watch. He is twickling away undeniably content. In fact he is working furiously, twickle – clod slap, clod slap (try to say that when you have quaffed a few G&Ts) – twickle, twickle – clod slap – bend down pick up some weeds…repeat process. I notice that he isn’t wearing his gloves either. Strange. Rob has always worn his gloves, indeed insisted that he wear them.

Buddha happy

I love this guy. He is with us every day 🙂

Only last week we had the following conversation.

‘John, I have to wear my gloves. The girlfriend doesn’t like me to have rough skin and muck in my nails.’

‘How many times do I have to tell you that you can’t feel smaller weeds with gloves on Rob? If the ground is really bad, use the gloves, otherwise don’t wear them. The more you feel the weeds and plants, the better
gardener you will become.’

Grinning at me. ‘OK John. Whatever you say. I will not wear the gloves to weed after today, me and Mandy are going to have dinner at her parent’s place tonight.’ He always grins at me when he wants his own way. I know he will still wear his gloves the next day.

Rob is the sort of lad who comes to work in khaki Chinos, a Wrangler shirt and a pair of weird boots with no laces. He never passes the van mirror without taking a look at himself and preening. He loves to be around the gardens, is extremely pleasant and polite but doesn’t understand the work ethic. If he is left on his own he will take it easy. Whenever I go off somewhere he applies, ‘out-of- sight, time-for-a-fag’ policy

So what the heck has changed today? He still hasn’t seen me, so I sit on one of the steps and observe him through the sparse leaves of a hydrangea bush.

He finishes twickling, and moves his gorilla bucket to another part of the border. Squats on his heels and begins to weed. I notice that he is working very carefully, not missing a weed and knocking off the excess soil before tossing it into the bin. I feel a surge of pleasure because in the past he has barely bothered to knock excess dirt off and we have constantly had discussions about how the garden is going to disappear in a few years if he doesn’t put most of the soil back.

WTF is he doing now? I chuckle to myself, how bizarre.

Rob is playing air guitar as he kneels and bobbing his head like he is in a mosh pit. Still he works on. He pulls out some larger weeds and taps out a rhythm on the side of the bin … tosses them in … fishes them out again and inspects the tiny blue flowers, probing with his fingertips. Taps them several times more on the rim of the bucket before lobbing them. I also notice his lips are moving and I can hear a strange tone deaf mumble with accompanying head waggle. A kind of cross between Buddhist mantra and an impression of a chainsaw.

Intrigued I decide not to disturb him. For a while he works away then suddenly jumps up, takes the garden fork and uses it to play air guitar again, but more vigorously. At this I just can’t stop myself any longer and burst into a honking belly laugh, but he doesn’t hear me. His right foot is stomping and he uses the handle of the fork as a fret. Oh my goodness. I hoot out loud.

He does a twirl raises his imaginary guitar up above his head with both arms and then sweeps it down to the ground, embedding the tines in the lawn up to the hilt. His body is bowed at the waist, he holds this posture for a few moments clearly spent before straightening up slowly, hands hang limply by his side, head still bent downward resting on his chest.

Rob raises his head, slowly lifts his eyes to the sky, and then the horror strikes him full force. His body becomes rigid and his eyes pop out of the sockets on stalks as he notices me sitting on the step. In an instant colour flushes right up through his cheeks, his baby blue eyes are sparkling and he grins in embarrassment. We both start to laugh, it’s infectious and establishes a more friendly atmosphere for him to put down an explanation.

He flicks something out of his right ear and says. ‘Oh shoot John. I am really sorry but it was one of my favourite tunes and I couldn’t stop myself. Sorry if I have made a fool of myself.’

He adds. ‘I was doing such a good job on the border, come over here and let me show you. I reckon you will be chuffed to bits.’

I shake my head and walk over to him. There is an earpiece dangling over his shoulder and another lodged in his left ear. The cables are stuffed inside his sweater, a slight bulge where his shirt pocket sits.

My primary instinct is to tell him off for time wasting. However, to be fair, when I look at what he has achieved it is nigh on amazing compared to what he normally accomplishes. Not only has he done a very good job, it is one that we can both be proud of, and I tell him so.

‘Great work Bonzo. You have excelled yourself there.’

Rob smiles easily. ‘It was like you said the other day, I got into the groove and things started to flow. You are right, when the juice starts to flow everything is easy and feels balanced. I took off the gloves because I could feel what I was doing, it all just came together like magic.’

He adds, ‘I kind of zoned out. It was like I wasn’t here, but I was, you know what I mean? I needed to touch the soil and the garden, it was sort of percolating into me and I just understood it all so well.’

His eyebrows arch. ‘If I didn’t know different I would have said I was stoned. Jya know what I’m on about John?’

‘I know what you are on about lad. I know.’

‘At the same time I was right into my music. Everything was crystal clear.’ He stops to consider the magnitude of it all.

He explains what an mp3 player is and how the tunes can be downloaded from the internet. Not only that he says that he has hundreds of tunes stored on his device, so seldom gets bored with the songs. He also insists that listening makes him happier and that he enjoys his work more.
How can I argue with that?

As we stand there I am aware of a strange susurration, rather like the noise coming from a freely rotating wheel on an upturned bike. I ask him if he can hear it. He listens, head cocked to one side and says. ‘No. Can’t hear owt strange John. Where is it coming from?’

I can’t pinpoint the noise, it is random. Now it has stopped. We walk back to the van to get the mowing gear out. I keep hearing the noises, but Rob seems unperturbed. I ponder tinnitus, I know my Uncle Ken suffers from the condition and complains of a ringing in his ears. Perhaps I have a dose.

Rob gets a strimmer out of the van and puts it on the floor, I take a fuel can and as I bend down to fill the stimmer I realise the noise is coming from his earpieces, the music is obviously still playing. I am tempted to ask him for a listen, but the thought of shoving his earpieces into my ears prevents that thought verbalising.

He asks if he can continue to use the mp3. I am unsure but can’t fathom a reason to refuse. This day is to be an epiphany for Rob, and an ear opener for me.

In future days he worked wonderfully well as long as he was submersed in House, Garage, Trance, Dance, Hip Hop and a crazy bunch of other tunes that are alien to me, but nectar to the essence of Rob. He became a wonderful gardener and has now set up on his own.

It takes all sorts, but if you find a peaceful way forward, embrace it because it may be the precious jewel that propels you on to greater achievement and lasting happiness.

John

PostScript – shortly after this event Rob encouraged and convinced me to get an mp3 player, a tiddly ipod shuffle (in pink!!). I now look forward to using my mp3 when I am working alone. I can listen for hours ensconced in dual pleasure domes, gardening and Nicole Scherzinger. What more can a bloke ask for?

Foster Gardening

Can you empathise with your garden?

As a parent of 4 grown humans I still thoroughly enjoy observing my children as they continue to evolve. The eldest, Rachel, is in her late 20’s and ever so gradually is assuming elements of responsibility associated with being the senior sibling. Everyone expects her to be wiser and understanding in all things family, this allows them to continue as members who enjoy the privileges without much responsibility for their actions within the group.

Who knows what mysteries lie in the eyes of a child?

I see my present role, professional gardener, in a similar way. Possibly, because I am physically older and supposedly wiser than Rachel, my role is more garden carer, a Foster Gardener.

Many new gardens that arrive into my care were established without much planning, have been allowed to become delinquent or ignored for many years and need intense nurturing to flourish. Recently some new properties appeared under my wing, I say appeared because I have no clue why the owners contacted me, nor does it matter to me. Suddenly I became responsible for numerous living things, and expected to care for them immediately. As I began to deal with these gardens I saw, for the first time, my role comparable to a foster parent.

On first inspection it excites me to see what is in a new garden. My experience quickly dictates what needs to be done to improve things. It seems too easy to say to the owner, ‘Rip it all up and start again.’ Implying that I have a magical formula, something that can only be nourished by the depth of their pockets. At first I prefer to work instinctively and see the value in what exists, to take the most obvious element (often near the front door) and get down on my hands and knees to see if the structure can be nurtured. It doesn’t take long for the owner to tune into my enthusiasm for their garden.

Structured gardening plans have long since been obliterated from my modus operandi, my instincts tell me when to feed a plant, my experience allows me to understand if a plant is healthy. Pruning to me is rather like cutting the fingernails of a child. The child is unlikely to bother about the length of a fingernail, only noticing if one is broken and becomes a nuisance, so responsible parents notice when the nail needs cutting to avoid potential problems. Plants can’t prune themselves to fit into our ethos of gardening (we attempt to control plants in an un-natural way). All gardens would naturally and quite quickly establish an order whereby unsuitable plants for position would cease to flourish. We act as plant zookeepers for our own edification and pruning allows these captive plants to at least enjoy their life in our care.

A happy garden reminds me of the sensations as you hold a cat and stroke it. The cat vibrates with unfettered delight and so does a garden when you look after it properly.

I now see all of my contract gardens as individuals who have to be cared for, encouraged to grow happily, but within the regime set down by the owner, a mutual regime that I implement and translate with lots of love and care. As an owner becomes familiar with my style they give me more freedom to choose what is best for the garden. When I first began contracting in Australia I needed the owners to guide me, they had to provide me with the ideas and I took their concepts and carried them out. Nowadays I seldom see the owners, they simply enjoy the fruits of my labour, I have become part of their garden and that suits me perfectly. Whenever I am among the plants I feel at home in their home.

It is rewarding to cherish a garden, every plant responds positively, just as humans respond to kindness and understanding. I am content to be a Foster Gardener, when I am in the garden, I am part of the garden, when I leave the garden it flourishes because I was there.