Archive for August, 2010

The splendid summer has gone its way and unsettled weather has moved in from the west. The sun still shines through between the downpours but the magic spell has been broken and one thinks less of barbecues and flip-flops and more of coats, boots and umbrellas.

Perhaps September will bring a reprise and one last jaunt to the beach to renew our love-affair with the sun. Meanwhile the dry summer has caused an early turn of colour amongst some trees and already the whitebeam is casting its leaves to the ground below.

Underneath the espaliered pears and magnolias that adorn a south-facing stone wall runs a narrow border, no more than one foot wide, that meets the gravel path. Here we grow anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’, a favourite of mine who flowers faithfully from July through to the first frosts.




It was way back in 1858 that a French horticulturist named M. Jobert spotted amongst a bed of anemone a natural mutation which bore single pure white flowers, with prominent yellow stamens. Realising its commercial potential he raised this plant, naming it after his daughter Honorine, and since then this flower has proved to be a darling favourite in our gardens. Oh, new varieties have been developed since then and quite good they are but the simplicity and elegance of the ‘Honorine Jobert’ has stood the test of time and will no doubt feature in the gardens of our grand-children too.

One rainy day last winter I wrote in more depth on anemones which can be seen on the page list to your right. I must mention Vita Sackville-West, the very best in garden writers as far as I am concerned, who commented that ‘August could be such a dull, heavy time when everything has lost its youth and is overgrown and mature but yet the delicate anemone brings a certain lightness to the garden’.

I meet grumpy George on his way to the allotments and we stop for a chat. George firmly believes that the apex of the motor industry came with the Morris Minor and that everything has been rolling downhill ever since. ‘The trouble with this world’ he says, waving his pipe at me in a rather threatening manner, ‘is that folk don’t stop and appreciate what they have, they are always chasing some new gadget or fashion’. I nod in silent agreement.

The very nature of man, and horticulturist, is to cultivate and improve his lot. Plant breeders work fervently behind the scenes to bring new varieties on the market. Their goal is to produce plants that are bigger or smaller, more crinkly or less wrinkly, the colour of the rainbow or just plain more resistant to disease. And they do love giving their new prodigies ever increasingly dramatic names such as petunia ‘hyper-explosive sun-rise’ or dahlia ‘super-duper ice-cream’.

Thank goodness that horticulture is not shackled by the cob-webs of tradition and is constantly pressing onwards and upwards. On the other hand though, what a joy that we still treasure our glorious heritage.

On an obelisk we grow rosa ‘Felicite-Perpetue which bears masses of small creamy white rosettes blushed with pink. M. Jacques, head gardener to the Duc d’Orleans, bred this rose in 1827. The story is told that his daughters, Felicite and Perpetue were running down the garden path, one dressed in white and the other in pink and he could not resist naming this rose after them.


rosa felicte perpetue


Graham Stuart Thomas, the renowned authority on roses, mentions that Felicite-Perpetue thrives ‘in windswept Welsh and Scottish upland gardens and even in the shade of a north wall’. She flowers beautifully in June but we often have a late flowering which I look forward to. Grow this rose in your garden and not only do you have a great beauty but also a part of history and culture, the reminder of a golden horticultural age.

George finishes his ranting and heads off to the allotment to check his potatoes and tomatoes for blight. The dry summer has warded off this ghastly disease but with the rain comes the risk again. George will pick off any infected leaves and either burn them on the bonfire if it ever dries up again or bung them discretely in his next-door-neighbour’s council garden recycling bin.

This is a staid village where time moves slowly and the pace of the modern world has left many of its inhabitants bewildered and feeling left behind. The exception being Charlie and Bones who are dedicated fans of Lady Gaga and who have downloaded all her tracks onto their pods and wait fervently for her latest twitter tweet…

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The plum tree has never won any beauty competitions. On the edge of the estate grows one such, its ungainly and neglected branches reaching skywards. The fruit are still not ripe except for a few to be seen at the top of the tree, plump and deep maroon, but tantalizingly too high to reach even with the ladders.

In the orchard the plum and gage trees are pruned to a more sensible size. Silver leaf disease is the risk of pruning any hard-stoned fruit under damp conditions but on a sunny day like this one feels able to prune with impunity. As ever, any branches growing inwards to the centre or crossing one another are cut out and the remaining branches are reduced in height so that the fruit can be reached by step-ladder. Inevitably the pruning involves removing some of the fruit but this is no bad thing since the trees are cropping so well.


Wasps have been few and far between this summer but they have suddenly emerged from nowhere and started burrowing into the first-fruits. Wasp traps are available but there is such a large harvest this year that sharing a certain percentage seems fair enough.

In the hedgerows the blackberries are beginning to ripen up but the dry summer has left them small and barely worth picking. In the corner of a field though, not too far from here, grows a bush that must be fed by an underground spring and facing south it catches the sun all day long. The berries are ripe and oozing with taste and goodness. The whereabouts though is a treasured and sacred secret.

beth pear

Heavy rain is forecast and when a few drops fall on my head I grab my radio and pullover and scarper for the potting sheds only to emerge sheepishly five minutes later. The rain clouds have gone their way without releasing their bounty and sunshine has returned to warm the day. Later that night torrential rains beat against the window as we sleep.

A gravel pathway one yard in width runs between two borders flanked by Hidcote lavender bushes that flop merrily over to meet in the middle. Every butterfly and bumblebee for miles around seems drawn to these lavenders and to walk through the middle is to cause a veritable cloud of wings to rise in the air. There is no such thing as a common butterfly, for each one is a unique miracle in design. Amongst them though I spotted one not often seen here that rested briefly, long enough for me to marvel at but not long enough alas to capture on film. A hasty flurry through my butterfly book has me reckoning that a Holly Blue has visited our garden this afternoon.


There is trouble brewing in the village. At a parish council meeting some time ago it was decided to invest some funds into restoring the church tower so that the bells would be safe to ring, partly because bell-ringing is a noble tradition but mostly because the neighbouring village of ‘D’ doesn’t have bells and any chance to get one over them is not to be overlooked.

The work has been done and now the bells ring out triumphantly but not everyone is impressed. Some of the retired folk whose delight is to lounge unashamedly in their gardens are rather perturbed at being woken up every fifteen minutes by the peel of bells. It seems that for these elderly residents the inevitable passage of time is something they would prefer to ignore rather than be reminded of.

Worse still, it turns out that up and down the country there are teams of bell-ringers whose aim is to ring out the bells in towns and villages in an alphabetical order. But for many of these teams the stumbling block has been finding a village church endowed with bells starting with the letter ‘Z’. That is where we come in since we meet both requirements. Apparently our village has been posted on all the campanology internet forums as the place to go and teams are queuing up to throw themselves at the ropes and ring out the peals or whatever. An emergency parish meeting has been convened and militancy has not been ruled out…

clematis (2)

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Tuesday brings rain, not a paltry shower or two but a steady drizzle through the night and day and those of us who work outside don glum looks and welly boots. Come Wednesday the sun breaks through again but unsettled weather lies ahead.

The gooseberry bushes have been plagued with gooseberry sawflies for the past two years. In the past we have used derris powder which is no longer available so I have resorted to the time-honoured method of catching them by hand.


The larvae resemble small lime-green caterpillars with black heads which cling to the edge of the leaf and nibble away. The first signs are small holes in the leaf of the gooseberry but when they get going they will munch to the point of denuding the bush.

The leaves that are partially munched can be cut off and often a few larvae will be found grouped together on the underside. Then I draw up a stool and just watch. It takes time and patience but soon one or two larvae can be seen clinging to the leaf edge. As your eyes become accustomed to watching you can see more and more until a good number of larvae have fallen victim to the executioners’ thumb.

I must remember to ask young Thomas to do this job for me, he would be superb, methinks. The Beth pear on the wall look good this year and the first plums taste delicious.

beth pear

When asked what to do with an aging shrub that is coming to the end of its natural life my advice has always been harsh and without compromise. Renovation pruning in the winter can buy more time for certain shrubs but one has to be ruthless to keep a garden healthy and vigorous. We cannot afford to take passengers.

I was mulling this over whilst considering the fate of a flowering currant bush that had been forgotten about at the back of the border. It was in a decrepit state, emerging from the ground like a rotten tooth, its trunk cracked and scaly, its branches arthritic and its flowers, earlier in the year, had been reluctant. A rendezvous with the grubbing axe was long overdue.

I paused for a cup of tea and a sandwich whilst leaning against a young beech tree. A wren scalded me with her thick chuck-chuck warning note, reminding me that I was too close to her nest for her liking.

My thoughts meandered and I found myself recalling an old lady I met at a bus-stop one time. Her cultivated voice gave away her distinguished background. She spoke of what she remembered the most: the glittery ball-rooms, the big bands and the handsome suitors who fell in love with her flowing hair and gracious swirling steps on the dance-floor. Yet when the bus arrived she needed help to clamber aboard. Old age had come to haunt her.

I took another sip of tea. Time catches up with all of us. As a young man I was as strong as a lion but these days I walk and work more steadily. One day I will be given the silver trowel and carted off to the allotments to spend the rest of my earthly life trying to beat grumpy George in the largest leek competition.

The passing of time makes us philosophical and this estate is large enough to carry a few old specimens that have done no man any harm. ‘One more year’, I whisper to the aged shrub, and pass on down the path towards the potting shed.

If anyone ever asked me – and I hasten to add that no-one ever has – I would answer that the secret to having a good garden is to learn to listen, for every garden has a story to tell, that will only ever be told, if we learn to be quiet and listen to its tale.

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Even the most begrudging of sour-dogs must concede that this has been a splendid summer with plenty of sunshine and pleasant breezes to match. Admittedly the gardener would have liked just a little more rain please but one cannot have everything in this world unfortunately.

The phlox, perovskias, crocosmia, kniphofia and agapanthus all work hard to enliven the borders but one plant literally sparkles above all others and that is the stipa gigantea.

stipa gigantea

Many words have been written to try and describe the golden oat panicles that flicker in the breeze but our vocabulary remains inadequate to capture its delight. We grow it with a cotinus ‘royal purple’ as a background which serves to highlight its delicacy even further, the alstromerias and hydrangea ‘annabelle’ providing the colour.

kniphofiakniphofia, crocosmia and anthemis tinctoria

My time is spent pruning the weigelas. The protruding stems that have just finished flowering are quite obvious with the brown remains of the spent flowers still attached. The colour of these stems is much darker than the new growth and they are cut back hard to where new growth emerges. The new growth itself is cut back by about a third or a quarter until one is left with a neat tidy shrub full of new growth ready to flower next year. I step back to admire my handiwork which is not so bad if one squints through a squidgy eye…

zandeschia zantedeschia aethiopica

Mrs Bones has three young children, namely, Lucy, Paul and Thomas, and she is understandably grateful for any chance of getting her brood out from under her feet for the day. With the Duke and Duchess away in London the coast is clear for the kids to come to work with Bones.

Their first job is to take the dogs for a walk down by the river and then they are appointed official assistants to Charlie and get a ride in the trailer for their labours and watch fascinated for a whole hour whilst Charlie dismantles and puts together again the fuel pump of the tractor and ask him all manner of questions on mechanics and suchlike and how come his hair is so long but going bald on the top.

Then they come over to the vegetable garden and help themselves to a few young tender runner beans but then get bored and run off back to see their hero Charlie except for Thomas who stays behind and watches me with fascination. Thomas is the quiet one who likes his own company and he sits there for ages watching me raking a good tilth, carve a shallow drill with the edge of a hoe, add some water and then sow a line of lettuce. He never says a word but just watches. Perhaps he has the making of a good gardener and I’m thinking of asking him to help me but when I look up he has gone.


Come three o’clock they are summonsed to the kitchen. Cook loves them dearly and has invited them to posh tea, with sponge cake and gingersnaps with cream. Sadly the invitation has not been extended to the adults.

Cook Jenny has never had children herself although I know she was married years ago. Some tragedy came her way but I’ve never known the full story and it’s not for me to know or ask these things. Whatever happened, she moved alone to the village some ten years ago to take the place of cook for the estate. She runs a tight ship in the kitchens but beneath her boisterous and formidable ways one knows she has a tender side that often comes from knowing great sadness.

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