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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.

gooseberry

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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The forecast rain has come in the shape of blustery showers that beat against the windows by night. The parched land is gratefully refreshed and I am forced to dig out the waterproof clothing again. After such a dry spell it is hard to be working once more in the rain but needs must because there is too much work to be done and one resigns to getting jolly well wet.

The main work of the day involves cutting back the hardy geranium and nepetas in the main borders. Most of them have gone over and will quickly grow back fresh leaf if they are cut back hard. Both the geranium and the nepeta are hardworking plants and the border depends upon their stalwartness but one can rely on them too heavily and find the gaps left when they are cut back too much.

One nepeta ‘six hills giant’ in particular has grown far too big and the gap left when it is cut back is too painful to bear and will take more than a pot of lilies to fill the space until the leaf grows back again. And so I make a mental note to dig it up in the autumn and reduce its size and bring the neighbouring iris sibirica closer to reduce the gap left behind.

astrantia (2)

The astrantia major, the upright, prim, laced Victorian lady of the border has become rather frumpy and is discretely cut back to the ground to spare her blushes and she will soon return refreshed and elegant once more.

Cutting back these plants inevitably reveals weeds that have been lurking in the undergrowth. A cluster of white dead-nettle are growing merrily away and I quite enjoy their simple charm but they do spread and so I pull them out, only to find a canny, small stinging nettle growing amongst them that impudently nips my fingers.

The plants that are cut back are fed with a watering can of diluted comfrey stewing water that we make in a tub up by the compost bins in the woodland area. Pip the hound has been prowling around and I hope that in his thirst he has not been drinking from the tub of fermenting comfrey leaves but if he turns into a St. Bernard’s then we will all know why…

Cutting back the plants produces a mountain of material and soon the coffers of the compost bin is full to the brim. This reminds me to water the outer edges of the compost heap so they do not become too dry and slow the composting process down.

rose abertine

Sadly the rosa ‘albertine’ that lights up the front wall of the house has finished flowering. For the past two weeks I have been fastidiously taking off the spent flowers so that they do not mar the appearance of the emerging blooms but they have pretty much all gone over now and so I cut them all down, water the rose and give it a summer feed. It will hopefully give a second flowering but never to the scale or magnificence of its first display.

The meteorologists assure us that the hot weather will soon return. As the summer proceeds, the english pastels of the borders are replaced by the fiery yellows, reds and oranges of the hemerocallis, crocosmia and kniphofia, matched only by the Hawaiian shirts sported by Charlie and Bones down the pub in the evening.

My beautiful wife has flown off to the south of France to spend a week with her family, sob, sob, leaving me to fend for myself – where did she say she kept the washing-up liquid? – but still, its not all gloom and doom, she has left me the Waitrose store card so methinks I will buy a bottle of beer, just to drown my lonesome blues…

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On Monday, the first task of the day is to walk the estate and check, by observation and intuition, if any of the newly planted trees or shrubs are suffering from the continued dry spell of weather. In the vegetable garden the espaliered fruit trees are watered by a trickling hose-pipe along with the soon-to-crop currant bushes whose fruit will swell with the extra water. The fast growing courgettes, tomatoes and pumpkins are amongst those given a quarter of a large watering can’s worth each day and needless to say that the pots and containers receive their fair share of water too.

The sun beats down relentlessly and my wife keeps nagging me to wear a hat but sadly I have never found one that fits or that doesn’t make my head hotter than without or doesn’t make me look like the village fool. I do apply copious amounts of sun-block though, roll my shirtsleeves down, put my collar up and drink gallons of water.

In the village store the locals are beginning to complain about the weather being too hot and humid, ice-cream sales have soared and knobbly knees, both male and female, are to be seen in abundance. As the week rolls on, a low pressure tries to move in from the west bringing clouds and breezes and the promise of showers.

cynara

A brick wall divides the vegetable garden from the main herbaceous borders with the espaliered fruit trees on the vegetable side and climbing roses on the flower side. The wall itself is some ten feet tall – one needs a pair of steps to tend the roses – and is topped with tiles as is the fashion in these parts.

Half way along the wall grow two cardoons – or cynara cardunculus to give them their posh names – which are still young and virile with their handsome silver-blue-grey leaf. They are beginning to flower and parenthood will cause them to grow tired and ragged with all the effort, especially in the hot summer sun, but for now they are at their youthful best.

cephelaria (2)

The cardoons are grown six feet apart and between them and the wall grows a large group of cephalaria gigantea, or giant scabious as they are called, which grow around five feet tall and have flowers that are well-described as being a delightful primrose-yellow.

An obelisk to the front of the cephalaria supports a rosa ‘konigen von denmark’ whose warm pink alba blooms blend beautifully with the primrose-yellow of the cephalaria. An ocean of geranium ‘magnificum’ and iris sibirica ‘silver edge’ grow in front and have been competing boyishly for attention for the past month with their blue and violet shades but are now just going over.

rose queen denmark

Charlie and Bones are busy mowing the lawns but are setting the mowers far too low for this dry season. Every year I tell them to mow higher and every year they nod their heads in agreement and then continue to mow at the same low height and I guess that some things are reluctantly never meant to change.

The prize lawn that adjoins the grand patio is reserved for croquet matches at the weekend. Economy dictates that only this lawn receives the five-star treatment: scarification, aeration, top-dressing and mowing twice a week and the green sward with stripes is our pride and joy and offsets the herbaceous borders in a stately manner.

Wimbledon nears its finale and the Duchess has taken up residence in her chambers and is not to be disturbed and Cook Jenny has promised to jig down the village high street if Andy Murray should lift the trophy…at the time of posting Andy is due to face Nadal this afternoon.

Charlie and Bones spend their lunch-break debating England’s demise in the World Cup and the Frank Lampard goal that was disallowed despite the ball clearly going in the net and crossing the touchline by a country mile or two. I cannot repeat what they would do if they could ever get their hands on the referee but apparently it would involve baling twine, creosote and a pitchfork!

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On Monday morning the garden is wet from overnight rain but soon the sun comes to dry everything out and the day is spent cutting back some of the plants in the herbaceous borders.

The papavers that have been so daring and dramatic in the beds are now coming to the end of their brief sojourn and look clumsy and bedraggled by the overnight rains. With a sorry heart they are cut down to the ground but new fresh leaf will soon grow back with the occasional promise of a late second flowering.

A fledgling wren passes by at nose height on his first aeronautical excursion. Despite furiously beating his tiny wings he is travelling no faster than slow-motion but eventually lands on a hazel branch and looks around hoping his proud mum and dad were watching…

geum bradshaw geum mrs bradshaw

The lupins look as gorgeous as ever but as the stems finish flowering and begin to set seed they are promptly cut out lest they mar the appearance. Eventually the whole plant will be cut down and will hopefully flower again later. Several of the hardy geraniums have enthusiastically spread themselves over the edge of the border and will damage the lawn underneath if they are allowed to remain so they are discretely clipped back.

The ceanothus that grows in the corner surrounded by the semi-circle of rosa rugosa ‘double de coubert’ looked as dead as the proverbial dodo after the travails of last winter but walking past this morning I noticed that it has sprung back to life albeit with a fair amount of dead wood within it. I must admit that this shrub was due to be chopped out any day now but this just goes to prove the old countryman’s adage that all good things come to those who put off until tomorrow what one needs to do today!

rose golden anniversary

Wednesday finds me visiting another garden open to the public. An herbaceous border spreads out before me, some three yards wide and twenty yards in length. The curved end nearest me is dominated by a young and handsome cotinus coggygria ‘royal purple’ emerging from a semi-circle of geranium ‘magnificum’ leading to a group of nepeta ‘six hills giant’ followed by knautia ‘macedonica’.

Already my eye is being enticed to follow the river of colours that will lead me through the pale yellows and pinks to much richer colours that lie beyond. This simple and well-used design is a delight; the gardener has clearly put much thought into his, or her, planting, this is more than just a collection of plants that go well together but rather a design that leads one somewhere, the gardener has a story to tell and this is a journey that I am happy to embark upon.

Quite exhausted, I head for a park bench and promptly fall asleep in the mid-day sun. I awake with a start some time later and have that horrible nagging feeling that I may have been snoring whilst asleep. Heaven forbid that a coach load of tourists, armed to the teeth with cameras and camcorders, should have passed by. I furtively look around but mercifully everyone else in the garden seems far more interested in admiring the roses than sniggering at some snoring fool so I may possibly have just gotten away with it…

alchemillamollisalchemilla mollis

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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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design…

When designing garden borders, Christopher Lloyd always recommended starting with the trees, shrubs and perennials that give interest in the winter. The bark of a tree takes centre stage without leaf or flower to distract the eye. The clusters of silver birch that meander the length of the drive have the winter slime washed from their trunks and boughs so they shine their best. The acer griseum, the paper-bark maple, needs no such attention; the peeling orange-brown bark is divinely handsome just as it is. Meanwhile, the evergreen variegated hollies, the scented viburnum bodnantense and the bold shapes of the daphne, skimmia and euphorbia griffithii combine to keep the winter borders interesting. Those who resist the urge to cut their herbaceous borders down to the ground in the autumn are now rewarded with the magic of a sedum or crocosmia catching the rime of a frozen morning.

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