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Archive for May, 2010

I rarely find the time to visit other gardens although I really ought to more often. To observe other gardeners triumphs, and disasters, can be both inspiring and encouraging. Sunday found me visiting one such, a garden in the neighbouring village that has opened its gates to the general public for the day under the NGS scheme.

 

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I was sitting on a wooden bench surrounded by a swathe of trollius and doronicums just outside the front door of a charming thatched cottage. Narrow stone paths followed the stream that meandered through the cottage garden down to the pond where a troop of carp lazily patrolled the margins. In the fields beyond, a few alpacas stood outside their stables, eying the visitors suspiciously. The weather was of the sort that one can only dream of in the cold winter months with just a few wispy clouds passing innocently overhead. One half-expected to hear a blood-curdling scream from one of the servants and Miss Marples to appear from behind the shrubbery with an inquisitive look on her face. This was England at its very summery best.

I took a sip of tea and a mouthful of cake. The stream tumbled gently before me, flanked on either side with a casual arrangement of marsh marigolds, hostas and variegated irises. A few ladies passed by in summer bonnets, cooing with delight. An elderly gent joined me on the bench…

 

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Would we open our gardens to the general public at the Manor House? Cook Jenny would certainly be in her elements serving tea and cakes on the lawn. Charlie and Bones would be dispatched to orchestrate the parking of the cars. The Duke would no doubt pick up rod and net and head off for a day of fishing and the Duchess would retire to her bedroom and peer out with binoculars for would-be horticultural thieves and vandals…

 

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I myself would be quite hopeless. The names of absolutely every plant in the garden, apart from the petunias, would completely elude me and I would walk around like a lost village fool. And you can be sure that the day before, a freak rain storm would flatten everything herbaceous until it looked as if a herd of pregnant hippopotami had danced the fandango on the flower beds.

All things considered, perhaps it would be best if the Manor House remains closed for the foreseeable future to the general public; sipping tea and munching cake in someone else’s garden seems much more fun to me…

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The late frosts always bite the hardest. At the bottom of the estate runs a beech hedge recently cut by the tractor and flailer and the new growth on the top has been well and truly frazzled. In the garden itself the frost has been selective in its touch. Mercifully the fruit blossom seems just fine but in the vegetable garden the potatoes have been nipped despite being hastily covered with soil but they will only be set back momentarily.

Many gardeners in the district now regret planting out their courgettes and runner beans too early. I always seem to be a while later than other gardeners, not because of some innate wisdom, but because I am so rushed off my feet that I am just trying to catch up with everything. My courgettes and runner beans remain in safe quarters but are eager to be planted soon!

 

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A robin redbreast has built a nest between two cans in the garage. If you look carefully at the photo below you can just make out the face of the robin looking straight at you. I felt guilty taking the photo wondering if I had disturbed her on her nest but I took the photo and immediately left. The young robins fledged this week so all must have been fine.

 

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I was working by the kitchen window and Cook Jenny was inside preparing the lunches. The window was open so I reached in and handed her some shoots of flowering trees including larch, ash and maple that I know she likes. She was pleased and gave me a broad smile. Later in the morning Sally, one of the domestics, turned up with a glass of home-made elderflower cordial and a slice of cake which was a welcome surprise indeed.

Down by the west of the walled garden is a beech tree growing into a bank whose roots have been exposed by the track that runs alongside leading into the woodlands. I like to snuggle down sometimes amongst these roots and enjoy my break, and wonder where the days have gone and whether we will ever see such a glorious Spring again and why good old friends no longer write and most of all, how Cook Jenny can bake the most delicious fruit cake in the whole wide world!

 

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Everyone knows that a weed is simply a plant growing in the wrong place at the wrong time. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘a weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.’ Who can despise the simple charm of the forget-me-not or the viola labrodorica that cast themselves with such abandon through our borders. And in these environmentally challenging times the wild native species is greatly valued: the clump of stinging nettles that grows behind the stables would have been strimmed to the ground in the old days but is now the treasured wild life conservation area.

One can have too much of a good thing though. When the Romans came and conquered our fair lands they left behind a legacy of bath spas, straight roads and ground-elder. We don’t mind the first two but we would have preferred that they took the latter home with them. Admittedly it can be used as a salad crop but there is a fine line between being edible and tasty. Left to its own devices in our light soil it will grow rampantly and conquer our gardens just like its original owners.

But beware of horticultural snobbery! Consider the humble alchemilla mollis – affectionately called auntie molly in these parts – or the aquilegia – dear old grannies bonnet – which are considered too common for some gardens simply because, out of the generosity of their hearts, they like to share their offspring so willingly. And so these faithful old friends who were the mainstay of so many cottage gardens are now consigned to the compost heap in favour of some new flower on the block that can’t wait to turn up its toes and die on us at the first sight of a frost or deluge.

A balance has to be struck. Deals have to be made. The days when we would bombard our gardens with cocktails of lethal chemical are over. Many of the familiar products used previously have been rightfully removed from the shelves for health reasons. And gardeners have become rather laissez-faire about the innocent daisy growing in the lawn and no longer consider him or her to be a legitimate target in a horticultural war-zone. The rather masculine notion of  a tidy garden with short back and sides has been replaced with the pursuit of inspiration and the embrace of spontaneity.

But before we all become too chummy with nature let us remember that gardens can flourish because of our labour and design. When we need a machete to get down the garden path because of the ash and sycamore seedlings that have now grown into saplings or if we find ourselves swinging from one end of the garden to the other by means of a jungle vine in order to avoid the crocodiles then perhaps we need to consider doing some selective weeding.

Nothing frightens the novice professional gardener more than the art of weeding, especially if you are working in someone else’s garden and they are watching from an upstairs window waiting for you to make a mistake. That weed you are digging out could just be some precious and precocious plant that was planted last week. Only time, experience and many, many false moves will teach you the craft. I still wince when I remember digging up a whole load of weeds, they kept coming back and I kept digging them up again, only to learn that they were alstromerias. The golden rule is that if you dig up a weed and the root system has the shape of a flowerpot with a nametag attached then its best to discretely replant it and move on!

But what do we do with the weeds that are dug up? The bulk of them can be composted but those about to burst into seed or those with rampant roots like ground-elder or bind-weed are best burnt. Or the roots can be added to the comfrey stewing-water bucket where they will rot down. Or they can be thrown over the neighbour’s fence but your karma rating will be affected.

At the end of the day there is something rather satisfying with spending a few hours on one’s knees in the midst of an herbaceous border sorting out the chaff from the grain especially when the soil is moist and the weeds relinquish their grasp easily. It can become a rather hopeless addiction. The Duchess once remarked that I was very good at weeding. I told my wife this and she replied: ‘well darling, we all have to be good at something’ and if weeding is my vocation and purpose in life then so be it!

 

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Pip the hound has become my apprentice and whenever I dig a hole to plant a shrub he insists on digging another hole alongside. I was watching him enthusiastically pruning a lavender bush with his teeth and he managed to pull it out of the ground. I hurled a gentle expletive at him and he went off with his tail between his legs and his feelings clearly hurt. I met up with him later on and he was as bouncy as ever so I guess he doesn’t bear grudges. He then took up his guard duties by the sweet peas.

Pippa  guards the sweet peas

My plans for today were to cut back a bay tree that has grown out of control but a blackbird has kindly built her nest with three eggs within and so that puts an end to that…

I tackle a variegated holly instead but to be frank, my topiary skills are rather…abstract. Think Pablo Picasso and cubism! Think a barber with the alcoholic shakes! I so easily get lost in my thoughts and then perhaps I need to take a bit more off of the left side…oops…too much…perhaps a bit of the right hand side will balance it out…until eventually I achieve a ball shape of perfect proportions if you tilt your head to one side and peek out of a squinted eye…

pulsatilla

The pasque flower or pulsatila vulgaris has bloomed marvelously over Easter and now have turned into eye-catching seed heads.

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The photo below is of an aubrietia silberrand. We planted fifteen of them along a retaining wall and slowly they are beginning to find their way over the precipice.

aubretia 

There comes a time for every gardener when he or she wonders why on earth they took up the profession in the first case. The winter months hold their own unique joys but the cold damp months can bring moments of doubt and despair to even the most stoic. Charlie and Bones and I had suffered a whole fortnight of rain earlier in the year, the ground was saturated and our spirits were low. We had all pitched in to do some fencing that desperately needed doing on the boundaries of the estate.

The Duke passed by on his way to do some bird-watching hoping to see some migrant birds arriving though goodness knows that if any birds were to turn up in such ghastly weather I would have thought they would have turned around and gone back home again. I can remember him putting an arm around me and assuring me that the rain would stop one day and that all my hard work in the garden would be worth it when the good weather returned.

I was remembering that rather touching moment this morning whilst sitting down having a sandwich. The garden in May is certainly a delight: the flower beds are brought alive by swathes of forget-me-nots and the aquilegias are about to burst onto the scene. Swallows swoop overhead rejoicing to have made their long journey safely. Our hard labours through the winter months have produced gardens all laced with gold.

Charlie and Bones are wandering around all cock o’hoop this morning. It transpires that they were driving to work in the old landrover when they came across a damsel in distress. The young blonde who was visiting her aging granny had picked up a puncture in the tyre of her mg convertible. Needless to say, our two hirsute heroes came to the rescue. According to Charlie, the young lady couldn’t take her eyes off him, quite infatuated she was. Bones has an ever-so-slightly different interpretation of events. Whether telephone numbers were exchanged no-one knows but both Charlie and Bones have grins wider than the man on the moon’s…

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 The daffodils are coming to an end and I spend my time taking the spent flower heads off before they waste energy setting seed. Charlie and Bones use the strimmers to gleefully decapitate the mass displays of daffodils in the parkland but within the garden I prefer to use the time-honoured method of nipping off the head just behind the bulge with the aid of a long thumb nail; it’s an addictive task and soon a bucket is filled up.  A simple task for a simple mind!

The stems are then left to die down for the statuary six weeks or until the stems have turned a straw colour or until we finally get fed up with their untidy ways, whichever comes first. I should apply a can of comfrey stew-water to feed the bulb to improve next year’s flowering and if there were more than twenty-four hours in the day then surely I would.

Collecting the spent heads of the daffodils feels rather like cleaning up after a party; sadly it’s all over and they are gone and will not be back for another year. There is no time to pause though for the Spring garden hurtles along like a green steam engine out of control with many of the main shrubs promising to burst into flower. And we gardeners are fickle lovers: no sooner have the daffodils left the room than we are seduced by the silky dancing charms of the tulip…

The tadpoles have all dispersed to the far-flung corners of the pond, their little tails wriggling energetically. One has the feeling that there are less of them than there used to be and not that I would want to accuse anyone but the goldfish are certainly looking plumper and have rather guilty smirks on their faces…

All good things come to those who wait patiently. I have long wanted to read the classic ‘The Tulip’ by Anna Pavord and the ‘beyond-the-means-of-a-humble-gardener’ price of thirty pounds has finally tumbled on Amazon to a more affordable two pounds fifty pence second hand. The book arrived today and promises to be a joy. This is clearly a scholarly tome but she has a delightful way with words and I can’t wait to read further.

The British Isles have been invaded by dandelions. They seem to be growing everywhere and to be honest I quite like their cheerful faces smiling at me wherever I go. Foraging is the latest fashion and come the weekend the countryside is teeming with enthusiastic souls in search of edible leaves. And who can blame them for a bowl of dandelion leaves with balsamic vinegar and a wedge of goat’s cheese is a plate worthy of a king. Young stinging nettle leaves also make a tasty soup. Gently fry a large diced potato and a couple of diced shallots in butter over a low heat and add a large bowl of stinging nettles and a litre of water. Bring it to the boil, add some salt and simmer for a while. Blend it and then reheat adding seasoning and crème fraiche if you require.

In the distant past when we were penniless hippy poets we would eat stinging nettle soup as a staple diet. I seem to remember feeling quite ethnic and terribly organic but sadly no less hungry than before. But then we never had crème fraiche in those days!

An old Romany friend of mine tried to cure his encroaching baldness by sticking some stinging nettles under his hat hoping that the stings would awaken his hair follicles. It never worked…

 One of our grown-up children has been taken ill again and both my wife and I are physically and emotionally exhausted from travelling an hour each way to see him after a hard days work. A fellow writer was describing how gardens can console and lift the spirits when things get tough. I was pondering upon this whilst on my knees weeding one of the beds this morning. When I was a child growing up in Hampshire I would build dens out of branches and ferns and I loved to lie on the ground, not just touching it but embracing it and I guess that gardening is just my way of being a little boy again. The wind dies down and the sound of tractors and chainsaws abates, and just for a moment the silence pervades and I know that a divine being is watching over me and that everything is going to be just fine.

The wind has shifted from the southwest to the northeast and a belt of welcome rain has arrived. Now where did I put my wet weather gear?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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