A change in the weather

September, and the beginning of October saw some remarkable and glorious weather here. After all the rain in August, the prolonged burst (can a burst be ‘prolonged’?) of warm, dry sunshine brought about a sort of ‘second Spring’. Roses flushed up and are still full of buds. I have Digitalis putting out new flowering stems, and I even saw an apple tree in blossom the other day (though that did verge on the distinctly troubling). I can’t remember an autumn which has begun with the gardens looking so very green – none of the prolonged decline into dry barrenness which often follows the end of summer. 

Nevertheless, all good things come to their proverbial end. The new week began with a torrential downpour which lasted through most of the day. It was not a great day for gardening, but I spent it profitably and pleasurably, tidying up a modest patio area for a client. There were some shrubs – most notably a large and unruly Pyracantha – to cut back: though I managed to leave virtually all of its heavy crop of scarlet berries intact – they will be devoured by Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Redwings when the weather gets colder. 

More enjoyable (and less scratchy) was the process of emptying out, splitting and repotting a number of herbs. And then potting up planters and pots with a mixture of spring flowering bulbs. This garden is rather exposed and windy, so all the bulbs were chosen to be smaller varieties – Iris reticulata, Narcissi ‘Minnow’ and ‘Rip van Winkle’, and Tulipa ‘Tarda’. ‘Tarda’ is a wild, reliably perennial (and naturalising) tulip, hailing from the steppes of central Asia (cue Borodin) – very unlike the more familiar varieties, but ideal for pots and rockeries. 

The pots were then planted with a few autumn-flowering Cyclamen hederifolium which will provide some colour until the bulbs begin to poke through.

New Challenge

A change of regime at The Farm means that my time there has
come to an abrupt and frustrating end. Sadly, my work to renovate the gardens will
not be seen through as a ‘mow, blow and go’ contractor has been brought in. I’ll
miss the place: I had started, but won’t have the opportunity to finish, as John Humphrys might say.

Onwards and upwards though. I have taken on a garden on the
edge of the New Forest – let’s call it ‘The Green’ – which is in need of a
restoration programme of its own. A semi-woodland garden of about an acre, it has
hitherto been planted mainly with shrubs, ornamental trees and conifers – most of them in
individual island beds dotted around the large lawns. My job is to give the
whole thing a (long overdue) going over, removing long-established weeds and scratty
grass, and creating some sense of order and definition. Then I’ve been asked to
come up with some new planting which will introduce greater variety, more
colour and a year-round calendar of interest. There is a lot of potential, and
already thoughts are forming in my mind about ways to enhance the gardens: a
day’s weeding gives one plenty of thinking time. The owners are keen to bring
the garden up to ‘Open Gardens’ condition in 18 months’ time – a significant
challenge, but a fantastic target to have.

Open Gardens are also the order of the day at The
Almshouses, where we have just fixed a date in May next year for an opening.
Those gardens are, of course, lovely enough at any time of year (only in small
part due to my efforts, I hasten to add) being well established and
well-planted. I did clear and replant an area of herbaceous border last week –
taking out some tatty Lonicera and a
superannuated Hebe – and bringing in
some autumn colour. Lobelia, Rudbeckia,
Monarda
and a clump of Imperata
cylindrica
‘Rubra’ created a warm
glow of maroons and deep orange, where previously there’d been nothing much to
see.

A  treat while working
at The Almshouses was to pick (and eat!) a few delicious late raspberries: some
autumn varieties, and others summer canes that have simply kept on fruiting
right through the season.

Cormorants and nests

A new bird (actually two) on the list for The Farm today. I spotted the familiar and distinctive shape of two Cormorants sitting on a dead tree about 100 yards down the river from where I was mowing. They disappeared in due course, but then one flew back over the garden. An unusual ‘garden’ bird… There were several Grey Herons about today as well, and lots of Swallows and House Martins. Several Martins are still actively nesting, and I also saw a Great Tit with a beak-full of caterpillars heading into one of the hedges – so I presume it too had a brood to feed. Perhaps, after the poor weather in August, second clutches of eggs have been pushed back into this warm and sunny beginning to September.

As far as gardening goes, it was mowing as usual: not much fun as I was finally able to tackle the long and damp grass in the Walled Gardens. It will need another – tidier – mow in due course, but looks better for now. I also did some major weeding in the herbaceous borders; fishing out as much bindweed and other rubbish as I could, and cutting back the last of the A.mollis before it seeds everywhere. The annuals I sowed back in April are still going strong, albeit patchily where they have to compete with the spreading Geraniums and Alchemilla. Poppies (Field and Californian), Marigolds, and Cosmos continue to brighten the otherwise uninspiring top border. That was always the idea – quick and cheerful flowers to make the most of the area trampled in the course of wall repairs. 

One other patch of poppies is the one I sowed around the pillbox, as a small act of remembrance. The pillbox would have been built virtually overnight in early 1940, and stands as a reminder of those brief, but desperate, weeks when the possibility of a Nazi invasion seemed very real indeed. The poppies are still flowering, and will be next week on Battle of Britain Day when, with luck and good weather, we’ll hear the roar of Spitfires and Hurricanes overhead as they visit their former airfields at Old Sarum and Middle Wallop. 

Poor summer

It’s not been a great summer. This week, the middle of August, there have been two days of rain. Welcome enough to keep gardens watered, of course, but a pain when there is weeding and mowing to be done. I am hoping that the late summer and autumn might redeem the year and give us a last blaze of glorious sunshine and colour before the year fades away. 

Autumn is already on the march, though. Swifts disappeared more or less overnight – as they always do, seemingly on a shrieked command of ‘Go’ – in the first week of August. My last sighting was on 11th August in the middle of Salisbury. By the same token, I was watching a House Martin still busily feeding its chicks – a second brood I presume – this morning, while other Martins and Swallows hawked for insects over the riverside meadows and enjoyed the humid conditions. 

Lifting bulbs

Spring bulbs have now had their day, so I have been lifting those I want to keep ‘for best’. Daffodils in some places are left to ‘naturalise’, and their fading foliage is removed for the sake of tidiness. Tulips, however, especially those in pots, need to be taken out, and stored. In most cases the pots were moved out of plain sight as and when the flowers finished, so they could replenish their reserves through the remaining leaves without looking too much of a mess. They’ll now be labelled and stored in the shed until the autumn when the round of planting begins again. Labelled, that is, if they already have labels. Quite a few have rendered themselves anonymous, and I’ll have to wait until next spring to be reminded what varieties they are. At which point, of course, I shall dutifully identify and label them. Of course I will.

Summer, grass and falcons

Summer (meteorological Summer, at any rate – the season which started on 1st June) began with two days of gales and clattering rain, which was both unseasonal and untimely. The ground was littered with broken twigs and branches, and many perennials were bashed about most unhelpfully. The rain itself, of course, was welcome as it remains essentially pretty dry. Since then we’ve had a run of warm and sunny days, punctuated only by a real (if brief) downpour at breakfast time this morning. 

Mowing lawns becomes the single dominant gardening activity at this time of year. At The Farm the various patches of grass, some more refined than others, get a weekly mow. In the Walled Garden I have adopted a slightly more ‘flexible’ approach, with some areas being left unmown on a rotation basis. They are not rich enough in wildflowers to be regarded as true meadows, but I let the buttercups, daisies and clover have their day in different patches by turn – and thus allow the bees to have their fill of nectar – before cutting short again. The effect, with a neatly mown strip around the edges at all times, is pleasing and nature-friendly. It also provides a ‘graded’ margin between the short lawn grass and the longer stands of comfrey, nettle and cow parsley. 

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The pair of Mute Swans are more or less resident

While a lot is written about the value of wildflower meadows and leaving grass uncut to insects, it’s worth remembering that short cut grass is also also a valuable habitat. It’s interesting to see Blackbirds, Pied Wagtails, Carrion Crows, and even Green Woodpeckers homing in on the newly-cut grass at The Farm in search of food. Presumably some of the bugs in the grass (and under it) have been disturbed by the mower, while others are more easily found when the grass is short. 

At the Almshouses the grass is modest in scale, and cut by a colleague – so my work is largely confined to the flower beds and borders. Recently I removed a large Sarcococca confusa which had outgrown its space. To replace it I planted a Buddleia ‘Longstock Pride’, a hybrid of B. lindleyana with lightly silvered foliage and an upright habit. In late Summer and Autumn masses of long panicles of pale purple flowers are produced on stems from each leaf bud. This variety – bred at the Longstock Park Nursery by Peter Moore, is attractive to butterflies and is apparently a favourite of Humming Bird Hawkmoths. It doesn’t get too big either, which is a bonus in a small and well-stocked border. 

Working there yesterday, I could hear the regular calls of the Peregrine chicks on the Cathedral tower, presumably whenever the parents arrived with an unlucky pigeon or somesuch. When I started out as a birdwatcher four decades ago, I would never have thought that Peregrines would be nesting right in the centre of my home town – and virtually every other cathedral in the country. 

At the same time, sadly, Kestrels – ubiquitous in the 1970s on motorway journeys, have declined significantly. I had a great view of one at The Farm this morning, as I frequently do; but they are becoming a notable sight, where once they were rather taken for granted. The lesson being that one should take nothing in the natural world for granted – Cuckoos, Bullfinches, House Sparrows – ‘common’ birds all, and yet now suddenly become scarce before our very eyes.

Malvern Spring Festival

Last year, about this time, I was grumbling about everyone’s
obsession with the Chelsea Flower Show and the other RHS shows. This year, we
took the plunge and took ourselves off to the RHS Malvern Spring Festival last
weekend to see what the fuss was all about.

First impressions: smaller, messier and far, far more
commercial than I had expected. Show gardens which look vast on television are
actually quite modest (though, in most cases, no less lovely), and even the
Floral Pavillion (every ‘serious’ gardener’s highlight, seemingly) was – whilst
big – not somehow as big or overwhelming as I’d thought it would be. And the
kasbah dimension of the whole thing was something else. A huge number of
stands, selling everything but plants (there are, of course, lots of plant
stalls as well) – kitsch, tat, expensive, cheap – you name it, much of it only
tenuously connected to gardening in any form. Some stalls wouldn’t have looked
out of place on Salisbury Market of a Saturday morning; others were straight
out of the fanciful – nay, often laughable – advertisements towards the back pages
of Gardens Illustrated and The English Garden. Just how many ersatz
shepherd’s huts do these people sell, I ask myself, the recent film of Far From the Madding Crowd
notwithstanding?

My prize for the most ridiculous offering goes to the empty
glass Coca Cola bottle, on sale for 20p amongst the distressed and rusted ‘set
dressings’ (tin buckets, old tools and the rest) at one impeccably tasteful
stall.

The plants were, though, wonderful to see. The show gardens
were all beautifully planted, and many of the nursery displays in the Floral
Pavillion were equally stunning. Some plants were ubiquitous – Anthriscus  sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’ (a cow-parsley with
deep purple stems) cropped up everywhere, as does its common cousin in the
wild.

Having seen the show gardens previewed on Gardeners’ World the day before was
helpful: it gave an insight into the design process behind some of the gardens,
and allowed one to focus more on the detail of planting. There were fewer of
them, though, and they were smaller than they looked on screen – especially the
(admittedly amazing) Andalucian street scene. Hoi polloi, however, were kept behind a rope and not allowed to sip
sangria around a cafe table as Monty and co had done.

My favourite was the Bees’ Knees garden – clever and
practical design matched by lovely plants, with an important ‘message’ about
providing simple, single flowers for pollinating insects.

The school gardens were fun too, their design reflecting not only the local landscape, but also children’s books such as The Hobbit and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Whilst superficially sensible, those folding pull-along
crate trolleys many people take were a damned nuisance for everyone else. They
don’t hold more than a few plants anyway, and one couldn’t move for them in
places. Some folk even had additional folded trolleys in their trolleys – how many did they imagine they could pull at
once? We made a couple of trips back to the car when we became laden with
plants, which gave us a break from the crushes and allowed us to stretch our
legs a bit (shuffling is so tiring).

So, a learning experience. What would be my tips for garden
show novices?

1.      
Take a list if there are plants you know you
want for particular places in your garden

2.      
Set a budget (and stick to it)

3.      
Arrive (and leave) early to avoid the worst of
the crowds and traffic

4.      
Don’t exhaust yourself looking at stands in
which you have no real interest – spend more time looking at fewer things, and
thinking about what you’re looking at

5.      
Take photographs and make notes, or it all
becomes a blur (even before you’ve left)

6.      
Think-through your purchases. I lost count of
visitors who’d bought unwieldy items early on, and were then condemned to carry
them all day. If it’s large or heavy, leave it until the end.

All common sense really. And as for Chelsea: I’ll be watching it from the comfort of my living room again this year.

Oak before ash

Oak before ash, we’ll have a splash;

Ash before oak, we’re in for a soak.

As I write it is raining, and I am breathing a sigh of relief. The ground has been getting very dry and hard in recent days, and I’ve been out with the watering cans every evening at home, which is very unusual for April. The days have been very warm and sunny too, often with a drying breeze, all of which has contributed to the condition of my gardens. There hasn’t been a proper soaking rain since the third week of February. 

At The Farm, where the soil is pretty poor in most parts of the garden, grass seed sown a few weeks ago to repair bare patches has lain fairly barren. I re-re-seeded those patches again, having seen that some rain was forecast over the weekend. Established grass is also starting to look a bit parched, so mowing has been scaled back until there’s been some rain to green the lawns up a bit. One of the drawbacks of not being a resident gardener is that watering is a difficult thing to manage. More so still at The Farm, as there is no running water in the Walled Garden. A watering can dunked and filled in the river has to suffice, which is challenging to say the least.

Where the long south-facing wall has been repaired the border at its foot is in a dreadful state. Brick ends and lumps of old mortar from the repair work have been trampled and scattered underfoot while the builders did their work. In the long term there is now, more than ever, a strong case for digging out the entire length of the border and starting again with new soil. However, that’s not going to happen this year, so I have chosen some flowers which might at least stand a chance in the currently inhospitable conditions. Californian Poppies (Eschscholzia californica) positively adore stony ground, as do Field Poppies (Papaver rhoeas) and I have sown lots of them; Cosmos too is ideal for this location. I hope that in a few short weeks this part of the garden will be ablaze with oranges and reds. It might not be subtle, but it will make a real difference. 

Turning the corner

A couple of weeks ago I posted a rather grumpy blog about my own garden – you can read it here if you’re interested. In short, I was disillusioned and despairing about the state of the garden, and frustrated by its failure to live up to what I wanted. I should say, frustrated by my inability to nurture it to the standard to which I aspired: any failing is mine, not the garden’s. 

Suffice to say, I look out on the garden now and feel a whole lot better. The garden has turned a corner over Easter, and I now look ahead to enjoying it rather than it making me unhappy. 

So what’s happened? Well, the first thing to say is that this happens every year. I mean that literally. The cycle of the year, as reflected in my garden, always leaves a bit of a ‘hole’ in the period up to April. That’s largely down to planting – and something I can easily remedy. I resolve, therefore, to plant more snowdrops and Eranthis to flower as early as possible. And to plant some more winter shrubs – Hamamelis is high on my list, as are some more red-stemmed Cornus. I am not the biggest fan of Narcissus, but I had some different varieties in pots and they definitely brightened things up – though some are in bud and have yet to flower. I will augment these with some other spring bulbs come the autumn – Chionodoxa luciliae does well, though there are only a scattered few at present. Primroses (Primula vulgaris) also do very well in our garden, so there are always plenty of them to cheer things (and me) up. 

The flower that really says ‘spring is here’ for me is the Marsh Marigold or Kingcup (Caltha palustris) which grows in our small pond. I’ve grown these since I was a teenager – my parents’ garden then had a decent sized ‘wildlife’ pond (quite forward thinking really for the mid-70s) – and they hold a special place in my gardening affections. We’ve just made a mini wildlife pond at the allotment, and I hope to get some growing there too.

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Of course the cycle of the year also means that there is now far more light and warmth now than there was a few weeks ago, so everything has ‘sprung’. The change to BST also has an effect, as one can be out in the garden of an evening, working or just pottering – but all the time seeing and sensing the emerging growth. 

The greenhouse also leaps into life now. Yes, I sowed some Sweet Pea seeds on New Year’s Day, and several lots of seeds in February, but it’s only over Easter that the sowing season has really got going. The greenhouse is now (already) bursting with seed trays, and some of the early sowings have already been potted-on.

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And there is colour. The front garden has emerged from its rather brown and twiggy dormancy into a much richer palette of purples, blues and greens. Rather bullyish plants like Heucheras, Hellebores, Muscari, Bluebells and Dwarf Comfrey are all jostling together to create a backdrop – while Snakes’ Head Fritillaries and Tiarella flower more delicately in their midst. Shrubs too get into their stride – either with blossom (Prunus Kojo-no-mai, Ribes sanguineum), or with foliage (Photinia ‘Red Robin’ and Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’) – as do some early Clematis. None of these are special plants in themselves, but they start to work together now to create something good.

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There are some clumps of perennial wallflower too, adding a slightly racy splash of colour at key points. And there are bees everywhere. Whatever one’s misgivings about Dwarf Comfrey (Symphytum grandiflorum) – and it can be a thug – it’s value as a flower for bees early in the season is astonishing. (That Euphorbia must go though – and the path needs weeding, I know…). 

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One thinks of garden birds primarily as a winter feature, but there are more birds now than we’ve had in months. Long-tailed Tits foraging for spiders’ webs along the fence (they use them as nest material), and nesting Great and Blue Tits keeping themselves going with energy-boosting sunflower hearts from the feeders. A Garden Warbler turned up, and has hung around – a new ‘tick’ for the garden list, and the first recorded in Wiltshire this spring.

And tulips – red, pink, orange, crimson – in pots here and there, easily moveable to fill gaps or provide a point of interest. 

I do tend toward gloom, but the garden in early April challenges even my melancholic nature. It is simply too full of promise to do otherwise.

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Easter Day

No potato planting – the traditional pastime for allotment folk on Easter Sunday – but a really useful day nonetheless. Mrs G and I weeded and weeded, trying to get the Couch Grass under control, and to clear the ground for sowing and planting in due course. What a bugger it is, with some rhizomes I dug out today being a good 18 inches long or more, and usually tangled with others into some kind of weedy Gordian Knot. Short of dismantling the entire plot, raise beds and all, and starting again after cleansing the site, there is no alternative but to keep weeding. 

The raised beds were all clean and tidy when we’d finished, as was the fruit cage where raspberries are promising to do very well. We must be more diligent about picking them though this year. One of the reasons for growing them is that we, our son in particular, love them, and they’re pricey to buy. But they do need to be cropped little and often to get the benefit, and we failed to do that properly last year. I think a raspberry stop on the way home will become a feature of the school run this summer.

We also had a bonfire, and burned a lot of rubbish left over from last season. Therapeutic as ever, as well as a quick way to tidy up the plot. The children, meanwhile, occupied themselves and their friends very happily. The (older) boys barrowed many loads of bark chips (for paths) and leaf-mould/compost up from the bottom of the hill. When they grew tired of this they decided to use the bark-chip heap as a soft landing site for impromptu acrobatics. Meanwhile, the two girls kept busy watering, worm-hunting and adding dry sticks to the bonfire. They all ended the day tired, happy and tiredly, happily filthy.

There are some fruit trees, heeled-in as bare-roots and then rather forgotten about, which really need to be properly planted. Now the site is tidier, it’s possible to be more certain where they should go, and I will move them to their new, permanent sites next time I visit.

Though there is still a lot to do, but it is only the beginning of April – and we came away not only with a sense of satisfaction at a good day’s work done, but with a good bundle of early rhubarb too.