Sunday, 25 June 2017

care and maintenance

I made a flan for lunch today, and apart from that I spent the day tidying around the top lawns, and watering.  To deal with the flan first, it contained leek, goat cheese, and pulled ham, more trouble than heating up a supermarket one but nicer, and besides we have plenty of eggs.

In the back garden the edges need cutting.  In fact, they have needed cutting for weeks and to my chagrin have shot up to produce flowering heads of grass, which I thought I really had better cut down before they seeded into the borders.  In the borders I needed to chop down the spent flowering stems of the Camassia and the last few Aquilegia.  I'd had a couple of goes at those already but plenty of flower stems still remained.  The top spikes of many of the Aconitum had gone over leaving smaller side stems of flowers further down, so I took out the spent main spikes to improve the look of the remaining ones.  I removed the finished flowers of Cephalaria gigantea on the same basis.  I deadheaded the David Austin roses, though some show no signs currently of sending up fresh flowering growth and may not unless we get some proper rain or I give them a good soaking with the hose.

I pulled up horsetail, which again I started doing a month ago but did not have time to get right round the beds.  The regrowth in the areas I did before is much lower and less dense.  Horsetail appears impossible to eradicate though weeding or poison, but if you keep pulling it when you see it the plants get weaker, and will be hidden by ground cover if you go for something reasonably tall and bushy.  The big leaves of Brunnera macrophylla do a pretty good job.  Horsetail is not a strongly competitive weed and does not crowd out other occupants of the border, or at least not if they are chosen on the scale of Brunnera and the like, but it improves the look of the thing to pull it out.

There are patches of creeping thistle in both rose beds.  Where the surrounding planting is too dense to risk using glyphosate at this time of year I pulled the stems up, for the look of the thing and to try and weaken it.  Where I can safely get at the stems to spray them I'll do that next week. I sprayed the emerging growth in the spring, but creeping thistle is a tough beast that doesn't give up that easily.

The Strulch is doing a good job of keeping down most seed borne weeds.  I pulled out numerous tiny hollies, ivies, dogwoods and field maples, and noted the position of a useful yew seedling to be moved in the autumn.  There were a few strands of goose grass but not too much.

I cut off the long arms of the rambling roses that were yet again making a bid for freedom from the rose bank, leaving them in a trail along the middle of the lawn to be picked up later, along with any dead wood I noticed which was trimmed out as I went along.  The rose 'Mrs Oakley Fisher' is making a strong new stem from low down, and may yet win a reprieve if she will just keep doing that.

It is all very satisfying, seeing the borders emerge from the fuzz of rank edges and dead heads.  If I were not trying to do so many other things as well I would go round them more often than I do. This kind of routine maintenance is a major, and unsung, part of gardening, and essential to having a good garden.  Magazine articles tend to play up the planting associations, while advertisements for the DIY sheds would have you believe that the thing you need to do to rejuvenate your garden and ready it for summer is go and buy bedding, hanging baskets and barbecues.  In fact, far more than adding new plants at this time of year, making the most of what you already have by trimming and tweaking is key.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

is it a weed?

As I was going out to the greenhouse my eye fell upon a bindweed that was twining its way up the base of one of the tripods in the herb bed, that more properly belonged to a still reluctant Clematis alpina.  The bindweed flowers had a pinkish tinge to them, and were objectively speaking pretty, and I thought how culturally determined our ideas are of what constitutes a weed.  I greatly coveted the bindweed's relative that I saw growing at the foot of Sissinghurst's tower.  Its flowers were a deeper shade of pink than the bindweed in my herb bed, and its leaves were considerably more interesting, but many garden plants with frankly dull leaves are still counted as plants and not weeds.

I am with Richard Mabey and Michael Pollan when they identify the rankly weedy nature of weeds. Their speed of growth, love of disturbed earth and ability to spread themselves mark them out as weeds.  There is a pat saying that a weed is just a plant in the wrong place, but that is not so.  As I argued to the last person who quoted it to me, supposing you had a huge and majestic oriental plane tree that somebody had planted in an inappropriately small front garden.  That would not make it a weed; it would still be a splendid tree but one that someone had planted in a very silly place.

Others see it differently.  The local Chinese were apparently baffled by the interest shown in their wild flora by nineteenth and early twentieth century plant hunters.  There were very settled ideas in Chinese culture about what constituted a garden plant.  Chrysanthemums, Yulan magnolia, plum blossom, bamboo, and other garden plants all had their symbolic meanings and featured in Chinese painting and poetry as well as their gardens.  Wild plants had no meaning and no place in the garden, and the locals did not see why the foreigners should be interested in them.  Modern day east coast Americans have been baffled by the presence of the ephemeral spring flowering Mertensia virginica in English garden borders.  Used to seeing it in huge quantities in the wild, they can't see why anybody would bother to grow it.

I am sometimes asked to identify mystery plants in the gardens of my friends and acquaintances, and I have come to realise that often when they ask Is it a weed they are asking in the Chinese sense, not the Richard Mabey and Michael Pollan sense of inherent weediness.  They do not just mean, Is it a thug, will it smother everything else and seed everywhere or send mad, running roots through the entire border, rather they mean Will I be laughed at for growing it?  Is it a socially acceptable thing to have or will its presence mark me out as ignorant and my garden as unkempt?

I allow quite a lot of cow parsley in the garden, and some hogweed.  I am aware that they both have the potential to seed alarmingly, but I like cow parsley and the hogweed is quite attractive in a coarser and stouter way, and reliably perennial, unlike some of the more refined umbellifers. Some tidier minded gardeners would not approve of them, or the flourishing clump of red campion that has taken up permanent residence at the edge of the island bed.  I keep meaning to try and get parsnips going in the rose beds, since I observed early in my spasmodic vegetable growing career that parsnip flowers were rather pretty.  Cleve West then went and used them in a Chelsea garden so I'd have looked as though I were copying him, but that was several years ago now.  Surely you can have anything in a flower bed that you like and that will grow there and is in rough balance with the other occupants of the bed, vigorous enough to survive but not so rampant it takes over.

I will pull up the bindweed in the herb bed when I get round to it, though.  Digging the roots out completely is almost impossible, but if you keep pulling the tops off that keeps them in check. Bindweed really is too inherently weedy.

Friday, 23 June 2017

casting light into a dark corner

Our neighbours have cleared away a lot of trees and scrub from the ditch along the bottom of their field.  This lets more light into our shady bottom corner, which is a good thing from my point of view since the corner is still quite shady enough.  I don't think any of the ferns or the Geranium phaeum will be curling up in horror at the sight of that blistering orb in the sky.  On the downside where previously the shady planting had a backdrop of densely planted young trees, against which you could see the rabbit fence if you looked closely but it wasn't offensively obvious, the fence is now starkly visible against a background of the ivy which has run all over the formerly shaded ground of the field.

I have been harvesting yew seedlings found around the garden to make a hedge inside the field hedge by the shady corner.  The plan is to keep it densely clipped so that it forms a backdrop for the ferns and the museum shop copy of the head of Thalia, the Roman muse of comedy, and to top it off at about five feet.  It is a slightly risky plan in that if we get another freakishly wet year and the water table rises again then the yews will drown, like they did the previous time I tried making an evergreen hedge with some bought yews left over from another project.  But we have only had one such impossibly wet period once in twenty-four years, so the yews might see out our tenure.  It is true that the largest yew in the projected hedge is still less than a foot high and so it will be several years before it actually hides the fence, but there you go.

It was the Systems Administrator who called me down to the bottom of the garden to see how much lighter it was, and in return I invited the SA to admire my stumpery of one stump.  The SA said that if I wanted more stumps there might be some suitable ones in the wood where some small alders had come down, and promised to investigate in the autumn.  I am all in favour of home grown stumps where possible.  I got the existing stump from a firm exhibiting at the Hampton Court Flower Show, but they ceased trading years ago.  Quick searches online have not thrown up any obvious successor, though I am intrigued by the offer from a vendor in Hampshire of a large box of collected driftwood, scarcely used.  Free stumps with no stump miles attached would be better, though.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

a visit to the UK's one hundred and thirty fourth most popular visitor attraction (2016)

My mother and I went to Sissinghurst, and made it back from Sissinghurst, with the only thundery shower happening just after we had gone inside the vast garden centre just off the M25 where the coach stopped for an early lunch and comfort break, and we were extremely lucky with the traffic, so the logistics of the visit worked much better than I was afraid they might.

Sissinghurst looked just like it does in all the books and magazine articles and TV articles that have been devoted to it, except that there were other people in it, which there never are when Monty Don features it as one of his eighty gardens of the world, or Marcus Harpur gets up at four in the morning to photograph it.  But there were not nearly as many people as I thought there would be.

What can anybody say about Sissinghurst that hasn't been said already?  It is one of the most famous gardens in England, which probably makes it one of the most famous in the world, gardens being one of the things the English are renowned for being peculiarly good at.  The planting is still lavish, the yew hedges enclosing the internal paths are slightly too close together.  It is not quite as it was in Harold and Vita's day, partly because it has to accommodate so many more visitors, 198,255 in 2016 according to the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, and partly because gardens refuse to stand still.  The soil along the nut walk became primrose sick and primulas could not be grown there any more, and that was that.

If you want to know about the famous (and much copied) white garden or the hot coloured cottage garden, the internet is already awash with descriptions and photographs of them.  I did not take any pictures, preferring to pay attention to the experience of actually being there, but my mother and I were in the minority not walking about with our phones held out in front of us.  Nowadays I refuse to shuffle out of the way when a stranger wielding a phone steps into my personal space.  In the old days if somebody had bothered to bring a camera, especially one with a big lens on the front, I used to feel obliged not to interfere with their shot when they had gone to so much trouble and were taking it so seriously, but mere possession of a phone does not entitle you to barge other people out of the way.

There are lots of roses, and lots of clematis, and I was reminded again how much I like each of them and how well they go together.  Apart from that I noted a few plants in my little black garden visiting notebook.  The first was Ammi majus, which I have read about but not knowingly seen growing.  It is an umbellifer, an annual which has to be sown from fresh seed, and is better sown where it is to flower (although I see Crocus do offer plugs).  Thanks to these requirements I have never managed to get round to trying to grow it.  Derry Watkins of Special Plants sells fresh seed in autumn of Ammi and other species, many umbelliferous, that need to be sown at once, so in principle I could buy the seed, but with the crowded nature of the garden and the Strulch I'm not sure where to sow it.  Having seen Ammi in the flesh I am more convinced that it would be worth the effort to try and find the space and organise the soil to its liking.  To call it a refined cow parsley is to understate its charms, and I say that as somebody who likes cow parsley.  Ammi positively shines in all its parts, leaves, stems and luminously white flowers.

Another name I wrote down was Asphodeline liburnica.  It did have a label buried deep beneath the clump, which was pointed out to me by the kind gardener who also told me the name of the Ammi. I had guessed the Asphodeline part of the name, but it was useful to have the whole confirmed.  It was growing in the cottage garden, and had airy spikes of individually dainty flowers in a good but bright shade of yellow, on top of stems with slender, whorled, greyish leaves.  I liked the poise of the plant, and thought it looked as though it would be drought tolerant, and the fact that it was flowering now when the Asphodeline lutea that I already grow has finished would be handy. Looking online I see that Beth Chatto would sell me some, though I was discouraged to see that it required rich soil, but all the other mentions I looked at before supper made it sound tougher than that.  Apparently the flowers only open in the afternoons, which was when we saw it.  I would not order any without further research, but it could be a good one for the garden at home.

The kindly gardener, who was very polite about being interrupted just as she was trying to spray a lupin, did not know the full name of the little pink climbing thing I had noticed at the foot of the tower, beyond confirming that it looked like some sort of convolvulus because it was.  My initial Google search for pink flowered convolvulus produced lots of entries for Convolvulus cneorum, which does not even have pink flowers but lots of people want to sell them, and common bindweed. Once I changed my search terms to pink convolvulus sissinghurst tower it was up there near the top of the first page in somebody else's blog entry, nestling by the base of the tower, Convolvulus altheoides ssp tenuissimus.  It had the most delightful grey divided leaves, and I liked it very much, though at this moment I still have three unanswered questions.  Is is hardy?  Is it as invasive as common bindweed?  And is it available in commerce if the answers to the first two questions should be Yes and No?

So Sissinghurst was far less crowded than I expected, and I am very glad to have finally seen it given it is so historic, and I liked it, but with the caveat that rather like Hidcote it has lost its original essence.  Once gardens have to carry that many visitors, and the original creating minds are no longer present, they change.  Kiftsgate just down the lane from Hidcote is still in the same family, and is still alive.  The brilliant little town garden we visited in Richmond was bursting with its own essence, and the private garden near Haverhill I saw with the garden club.  Great Dixter retains its vitality under Fergus Garrett's direction, but he worked with Christopher Lloyd for many years.  Sissinghurst is very pretty, but in some way I can't quite put my finger on it feels like a pastiche of itself.  Maybe if I could wander around it alone in the early morning it would come fully to life.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

the hottest day

I made it to London and back without any train delays.  On the hottest day of the year this came as a major relief.  Mind you, I did abandon any plans of going to a gallery or museum in the afternoon, which I would normally do to extract maximum value from my day return.  Instead, catching the 3.18 out of Liverpool Street and escaping from London before the rush hour seemed the sensible course of action.  One of my former colleagues was heading straight back to Lewisham on the same principle.

There are many ways of telling that you really are well and truly middle aged, but one is finding yourself, when you are in Oxford Street with three quarters of an hour to spare before lunch, down in the basement of John Lewis looking at frying pans.  I did not buy one, because I did not want to turn up to my work reunion lunch carrying a frying pan, and supposing I had decided to risk the rush hour trains and go to the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum they would probably not have let me in with a frying pan.

When I got home I read the online review of the pan I'd liked the look of, though if there is anything more middle aged than hanging around the John Lewis kitchenware department it has to be looking up online reviews of frying pans.  Some people said the pan was brilliant and some said it chipped and ceased to be non-stick very quickly, and I became totally undecided and gave up.  We will just have to go on eating fragments of Teflon coating each time we cook using the old one for a bit longer.  I am fed up with pans coated with non-stick finishes that scratch however careful you are, but I would like a pan that I could make omelettes and pancakes in without them sticking to the base.  The Systems Administrator wants a metal handle so that the pan can go in the oven.  It would be easier in so many ways to be less middle aged and never cook and to spend any odd three quarters of an hour that I had in Oxford Street looking at shoes.  Though John Lewis' basement has very nice air conditioning, and they do not call it a basement, with its connotations of spiders and boilers and psychotic caretakers; it is the Lower Ground Floor.

When I got home the SA had done most of the watering, and I would have had time to assemble ten new frames so that I could add a super to one of the beehives that needs it, only the parcel containing the parts for the frames that was sent yesterday for next working day delivery, and that was out for delivery by 07.54 this morning, never arrived and is still travelling around Essex in a van somewhere.  Actually, by now it is probably back in the depot in Chelmsford.  I thought I had enough frames, but when I went to get the supers on Monday the wax moth had got into one of them.  I feel rather mean leaving the SA on FedEx watch two days running, but I suppose I have spent quite a few days myself keeping an eye out for delivery vans bearing discounted military history books and bits for the model railway.

Tomorrow we are due to have a thundery breakdown while I am in a coach travelling to Kent with my mother.  This is unfortunate.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

hot weather gardening

My aunt gave a cello recital today, and I did not go.  I felt rather mean about that, because it was a while since I'd been to one and she told me about it weeks ago, but I am already due to go to London tomorrow and on another trip on Thursday, and could not cope with making it three days in a row when I'd have to prevail upon the Systems Administrator to water in the greenhouse and cold frames and all the smaller pots on the terrace, because in this heat they cannot make it through the day without a lunchtime top up.  And in truth I dreaded the idea of the train to London.  The SA went to the cricket yesterday and the journey home took two and a half hours, with Abellio Greater Anglia first of all cancelling the connection from Colchester to Wivenhoe because there were no drivers, and then relenting and stumping up for taxis for the twenty or so people who needed to get there.  When I asked if the SA had had a nice day the answer was yes, up until the train journey back.  The temperature in London is forecast to hit 32 C tomorrow, and never mind travelling with a bottle of water, I feel I should be taking an entire carboy.

Today I watered the recent plantings up by the wood, which did not look too bad.  They are in shade for part of the day and sheltered from the wind, so hadn't dried out as much as I feared.  I still had a hose draped along the line of the fence and around the pond from the last time I needed to water up there, when the primroses were collapsing with drought, so didn't have to sort that out again, but getting it to work was as aggravating as running long, seldom used stretches of hose usually is.   Nothing came out of the spray head when I squeezed the trigger, after an initial trickle, and when I went to investigate I found the initial run of hose from the house had come loose at the point where it joined the metal tube attached to the remote outdoor tap.  I had to go and borrow a screwdriver from the workshop so that I could reattach the jubilee clip, and that was so stiff that I couldn't shift it at first and thought I was going to go and have to ask the SA to fix the hose for me. By the time I'd managed to work the clip loose enough to slide it back over the end of the metal pipe and then do it up again I'd forgotten whether I'd turned the remote tap off or not, and confused myself thoroughly turning it both ways trying to remember which way was on, in the absence of any feedback because I was fifty yards from the business end of the hose.  By the time I'd finally got things up and running I'd walked from halfway up the meadow to the remote tap and back to the main tap on the house a lot of times.

The pink rambling rose 'Ethel' has finally got into its stride in the meadow and is sprawling delightfully through a fallen but still live oak.  Some of the rose stems saw no need to exert themselves climbing, and instead have made a bolt towards the middle of the meadow, weaving their way through a nearby shrub rose in the process.  The combination of pale pink 'Ethel' and the darker pink shrub rose flowers is very pretty, and I need to get the mess of bracken, goose grass, and other weeds out of the way so that I can assess the situation and see if they can stay like that, or if 'Ethel' is going to have to be either bodily shoved into the oak tree or else pruned.  In the back garden the rambler 'Paul's Himalayan Musk' is going over, and it's worth knowing that 'Ethel' flowers significantly later, since if you wanted to prolong the season of small pink pompoms cascading from large trees you could use both.

There are an awful lot of weeds, and where I ran out of time to dig the bramble roots out they are busily sending up new shoots.  Now I have finished assembling pots and the pricking out is mostly done for this year I had better devote more of my gardening time to the area up the side of the wood, otherwise most of last winter's effort chopping back the brambles will be wasted.

Monday, 19 June 2017


Suddenly with the hot weather I'm having to water anything I recently planted.  This means I have to remember where it was, which is harder when you are filling in odd gaps in a mature garden than when you are planting an entire border and just need to water everything.  I dragged the hose down the steps by the conservatory, across the top lawn and down to the very far corner at the bottom of the back garden where there are the new shade loving plants.  Then I had a moment of panic that I could not find my hairy leaved saxifrage.  Surely something could not have eaten it in its entirety already?  The panic ended when I found it not where I thought I had planted it, but somewhere objectively more sensible.

One of the hydrangeas were starting to wilt in the heat so I watered that as well, and the early flowering red pulmonaria that had collapsed.  Since the hydrangea is about to flower and the pulmonaria has finished flowering for this year, the hydrangea's need is greater, so long as the pulmonaria does not actually die, but it seemed churlish to leave it wilting when I had a hose there.

Seeing the purple flowering primula that should have been orange reminded me that I had better dig them up while I could still tell which they were.  The flowers were fading, and if I'd left it to the end of the week I don't think I'd have been able to identify which were which.  The leaves are identical to the apricot ones, which was how the confusion arose on the nursery in the first place.  I wasn't really very sure what to do with them once I'd dug them out, but potted them into two litre containers in a mixture of John Innes and multipurpose compost.  I am not awfully optimistic about their prospects long term in pots, since vine weevils are very partial to primula, but I don't have another damp and lightly shady area to put them in the ground.  For now they are having to make do with the shade cast by the potted Nordmann fir outside the greenhouse.  I don't really want them in the display of shade loving plants outside the conservatory, since now they have finished flowering all they are going to do for the rest of the year is grow increasingly tatty leaves until they die down entirely.

The leaves of the dahlias in the dahlia bed are still not the right shade of dark green as seen on my visit to the field of commercially grown dahlias for cutting, or as painted by the French Impressionists.  I gave them a sprinkling of 6X poultry manure, having bought some the last time I called at the Clacton garden centre, and began to water that in.  I gave some 6X to the climbing rose 'Meg' that is still not throwing up any new stems despite previous doses of fish, blood and bone and bouts of watering, and watered around the rose, and watered the clematis on tripods that it is slightly unreasonable to expect to live at all in such light soil.  I watered all the pots.  Tomorrow I must get the hose in the meadow working and water the hellebores and Teucrium I planted from pots and the primroses I split, and in the back garden I need to water the extra Verbena bonariensis and Linaria purpurea 'Canon Went' I added to the island bed, which basically means watering the bed, since I'll never spot all of them otherwise.  The asters and the clematis that only went in last year will be grateful anyway.

I am not honestly a fan of heatwaves.  I know it is ungrateful of me, when people go on holiday to get weather like this, but if the thermometer could just hit the low twenties and stay there that would suit me fine.