Archive for April, 2010

Cook’s birthday!

A short while ago we waited excitedly for the first bud to open or the first flower to appear but now the garden is a hive of activity and seemingly every flower, shrub and tree wants to get in on the act and clamour for our attention. Everywhere we look something is happening and one can feel quite dizzy by the immensity of it all.


One of the delights of gardening is to find a plant that has decided all by itself to grow in some unexpected place despite all the odds. The stone steps that go up to the back of the garden now hosts a clump of primroses that have found root in a crack in the mortar and are thriving. And proudly growing on top of the compost heap is a grape hyacinth that must have been accidentally thrown away but that has refused to accept its destiny and has poked up its head and flowered triumphantly!


It was Cook’s birthday on Thursday and we were all invited into the kitchen for coffee and cakes. We are not often invited into the kitchen, sometimes when the weather is particularly bad and Cook takes pity on us working outside, and only when the Duke and Duchess are away, and we have to be on our best behaviour and leave our boots in the porch outside. Charlie and Bones and me and the three girls who tend to the housework sat around the large pine table that dominates the kitchen whilst Cook fussed over us, as plump and as boisterous as ever, serving us mugs of coffee and slices of delicious fruit cake and we talked about volcanoes and barbecue summers and other matters and then Charlie started us singing happy birthday to Cook, much to her embarrassment, and she went quite coy and blushed like a school-girl and said ‘what nonsense’ and then shooed us out of the kitchen with a smile on her face and we went back to work.

 The spring sunshine has caused the surface of the soil to dry out but underneath there is still plenty of moisture. The pots and newly-planted herbaceous perennials however need keeping an eye on and it is always wise to water the plants that grow against the side of the house where the soil is often poor and dry. Roses in particular can suffer from lack of water during a dry spring and this distress can make it vulnerable to disease such as mildew later on in the year.

The gorgeous spring sunshine continues and we love every minute of it but nobody is fooled, gullibility is not in the British gardener’s vocabulary and we know that wet weather by the bucket-loads waits for us just around the corner!


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Charlie and Bones, who maintain the estate, have begun the grass mowing, taking it in turn to drive the antiquated tractor and cutters across the estate expanse or mow the treasured lawns around the Manor House itself. I would offer to help but they are both convinced, from previous unfortunate experiences, that I have a demonic spirit capable of causing engines to blow their head gaskets whenever I come near. I’m not even allowed to enter the workshop where they store their beloved machines.


I don’t mind though, being far happier with my bucket and hand-tools and at least I can listen to my radio and the birds singing in the background. The work on the herbaceous borders continues and after the ravages of the past winter one greets every plant that shows renewed life as if an old friend returned from the war. Two old comrades of mine, the coreopsis verticillata ‘zagreb’ and the purple fennel  that grow in the herb garden have just produced their first welcome feathery leaves.


The soil is friable, warm and moist and there is a window of opportunity for moving herbaceous perennials around, perhaps a primrose is obscured by a shrub grown too big, or a clump of epimedium, geranium or alchemilla could be divided to plant elsewhere. One can become rather cavalier and whole hellebores, still in flower, can be moved to a better place and survive the journey admirably. This is zen garden design: no drawing boards or planting plans are needed, simply pure inspiration and a little foolhardy daring.

they are watching us…

The frog-spawn in the pond has turned to millions of wriggling mutant tadpoles. Bending down to get a better look, I have the uneasy feeling that it is not me that is looking at them but rather they who are watching me…

the lily tree

Last weekend my wife took me to Stourhead Gardens, a National Trust property just down the road from us. This spectacular eighteenth century park holds a large collection of trees from all over the world grown around a magnificent lake. Having worked outside all week I would have preferred to curl up in an armchair and watch the television but I’ve been married long enough to know which side of my bread is buttered the most so I tag along obligingly. The magnolias are on the cusp of bursting into flower. My favourite is the magnificent Lily Tree, magnolia denudate, upright and in full flower, like a veritable procession of angels bearing candles through the heavens.

m leonard messel from our garden

But will this year compare with the magnificent magnolia displays of the past two years or will a mischievous frost or spiteful rain spoil the delicate bloom?  Only time will tell but horticulture has always been a risky business and gardening the pastime of gamblers, thieves and fools!

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After the weather doldrums of recent weeks this burst of spring sunshine comes as a welcome break to everyone. Work has begun on tidying the herbaceous borders: removing the protective thatch on the hardy geraniums; cutting down the old penstemon stems; admiring the paeony shoots boldly pushing through and gently turning the rich soil with a hand-fork. At last the beds look less like abandoned orphans and more like cherished children that someone cares for.

mrs bumble-bee

The blue pulmonaria angustifolia looks delightful and plays host to a busy and rather plump bumble-bee that comes to drink from its flower. In Britain we have twenty-three species of bumble-bee but I’ll make a shrewd guess that this young and fertile queen with her buff tail has the rather delightful name of ‘Bombus terrestris’. She will be busy constructing a nest in the ground in order to rear her first brood of larvae which will become sterile female worker bees. The pulmonaria is also visited by the yellow brimstone butterfly that dances so gaily through the garden and I waste a moment prancing around like a madman managing to capture a rather blurred picture of a yellow dot in the distance.

down by the river

Two gunnera grow down by the stream. These plants come from warmer climes than ours and in early winter I place the old leaves and a bundle of straw over the crown to protect against frosts. But now the new rough leaves have begun to poke their curious noses into the air and often a late mischievous frost will bite these  leafy noses and cause the plant to be set back so I place the straw protection back over the emerging leaves and whisper patience.

curious noses!

A rosemary bush, some five years old, grows outside the kitchen door. A third of its narrow leaves have been browned by the dry cold winds. I’m pondering whether I can salvage the plant in any way but then the door opens, a blast of Tosca reverberates across the patio and the Duchess stands in the doorway clutching a mug of sherry. I can’t hear what she is shouting over the music but by the way she draws a thin crooked finger across her throat, one can assume that the rosemary has been condemned. A few moments of exertion later, with the aid of a pickaxe and my faithful crowbar and the bush is on the bonfire.

Gardening often involves hard and ruthless decisions and plants that have served us well for many years may have to make way for new designs and better specimens if the garden is to grow and prosper. A few old-timers are the exemption to the rule, like the quince tree in the middle of the woods, gnarled and twisted by age, a gypsy’s curse would fall on anyone even considering chopping it down.


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It was with the deepest sadness that I heard of the death of Elspeth Thompson whose garden writings have been so inspirational and our prayers are with her family at this time.

A robin lands on the branches of a fastigiate beech tree and begins to sing his repertoire to the four corners of the garden, the wind ruffling his throat feathers, but no-one seems to be listening so he flies off again. Later, I see him pretending to be a blue tit, hanging upside down on the peanut holder, keeping his precarious balance with a wild fluttering of his wings but after a while he decides that eating off the floor of the patio is easier after all.

aquilegia coming on through

Walking past the pond I notice a blob of frogspawn about the size of a football with little black dots of life not-quite-squirming-yet in the gloop. Two frogs are embracing and they both look up, rather embarrassed, and so I walk on, not wanting to spoil their conjugal delights.

rosa rugosa 'blanc double de coubert'

I drove to Bath to visit my eldest son and everywhere there were blazing daffodils, from grandiose displays en masse to a few precious blooms tucked away in the corner of a garden, it seems that the whole world and her auntie have joined forces to dispel the dreary late winter blues with the golden illumination of the humble daffodil.

I love the tree poppies for the brevity and glamour of their flowers but also their buds which burst open with an almost vulgar rude health.

tree paeony

Many have muttered in the past that all eucalyptus should be dug up and posted back to Australia. Certainly their root systems can play merry havoc with underground water pipes. Two lanky specimens grow at the top of the garden and they have been cut down to waist height and they are now leafing up into attractive shrubs. Sadly, no-one noticed that they were providing valuable shade from the early morning sun for the camellias that grow some ten yards behind which are now rather embarrassingly scorched by the early rays of the sun. Oops! The golden rule of arboriculture is that a tree cut down cannot be glued back on and so I guess we will have to live with it!

rosa 'amethyst'

April begins as March left us with cold rainy weather with just a glimpse of sunshine to give us all hope. The photo above, taken last summer is just a reminder of what it is all about!

tree paeony again




and again


and again!

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