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My Fenland garden in the autumn

I don’t know how you discovered this site, but I’m glad you did. There’s all sorts of stuff here.  I’ve been an archaeologist for over forty years and have excavated several major sites, mostly in the Fens of eastern England. I’ve also tried to bring archaeology to a wider audience, with a number of books, radio and television programmes, of which Time Team is the best known. When not writing or digging, I’m also a sheep farmer and keen gardener. But like most people, I get bees in my bonnet – obsessions, call them what you like. Most of  my worries are about the general disregard for the achievements of people in the past and the failure of politicians, both local and national, to learn the lessons of  history. Hence the title of this blog: In The Long Run. So to sum up, this will be the place to see stuff about archaeology, gardening, farming and rural life, books, broadcasting, history and the occasional intemperate rant. It won’t be very formal, because I don’t ‘do’ formality. But I do hope it’ll be fun.

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Life and Hope: Facing a Challenging Winter

Let me start with a profuse apology and then the good news. The apology is for the fact that it’s been over a month since I last did a piece for this blog. This was all the more unforgiveable given the huge success of our NGS Open Garden weekend on September 19-20. I know that Maisie has been in contact with those of you who were able to help us manage the visitors; you will already know the details of the weekend. MANY thanks to all of you – and to all our visitors! Warm thanks also to the people who weren’t able to come, but who sent us generous donations, instead. Visitors had to pre-book on the NGS website and to be quite frank we had very low expectations. Our garden is very rural and many of our visitors live locally, where broadband speeds are – to put it politely – pitifully slow. But in the event, we were proved wrong: we had about 60% of our normal, (i.e. unrestricted) number of visitors, but people spent far more freely. We weren’t allowed to sell tea; nevertheless, the pre-wrapped slices of cake were a huge success, as was the picnic field, where people (in groups of six, or less!) sat on bales of wheat straw munching lemon drizzle cake, with warm drinks from the flasks they had brought with them. I may even have spotted a bottle or two of wine. Or did I? No, I must have been mistaken. In previous years our garden opening usually has raised around £1,500 for nursing charities. This year, even with pre-booking only, we managed an extraordinary £1,055! And if ever there was a year when the medical profession needed our help, this was the one. So again, huge thanks to everyone involved: volunteers, visitors and donors. You’re all stars!

            While we were opening the garden, we were hugely encouraged by the enthusiasm of our visitors and of course by their generosity. There was no hint of the thuggish animosity that seems to be dominating contemporary public life and the social media. Admittedly, country people tend to be more easy-going than their urban counterparts, but loneliness is known to have been a problem among isolated farming families during the pandemic and rural areas have certainly had their own problems. We were so heartened to see how cheerful people were. When one got to chat with them, many visitors were finding hope and consolation in their gardens, I can’t remember his precise words, but one young man told me how much he had enjoyed growing vegetables for the first time. He was wondering about planting potatoes next year, so I discussed varieties of earlies, second earlies and main crop. And also how to fight those horrible slugs! I got the strong impression that he’d be a gardener for the rest of his life – and that’s so very heartening!

            I must confess that once we had removed all the signs, the notices and also the hurdles and other barriers we had used to keep people apart, we both rather collapsed: it had been quite an exhausting few days. Of course, this was when I should have written my blog. Then my publisher gently nagged me to return the corrected final proofs of my next book. If you’re an author, a gentle nag from a publisher is like a shot of concentrated adrenalin, which drives everything else out of you mind. The poor old blog post didn’t really stand a chance. Hence the delay. I blame others (maybe because I’ve seen too many politicians on the TV screen of late), but it’s my fault really. Grovel…grovel.

            On the positive side, The Fens book is continuing to sell very well. Of course it’s now in paperback and available at most bookshops, but if you want to get a copy by mail, I suggest you click here (or at the top of this blog). In my next blog post I’ll say a few judicious words about my next book, which I’m very excited about. Present plans are to publish it later in 2021, when the current huge wave of new authors might have subsided a bit. I gather over 600 titles were published in the UK in September, 2020. That’s an insane number! Better wait till things have calmed down, but I have to say I’m so delighted that publishing is doing OK and best of all, that real, printed-on-paper books are back in vogue. I’d hate my literary legacy, such as it is, to be handed on to future generations by way of floppy disks, CDs, flash drives and downloads, alone. What would happen if there was a nuclear war and all electronics were wiped out? Horrible thought.

            Meanwhile back to the garden. Autumn colour has been quite good, although strong winds have removed many of the leaves and recently rain has hit later flowering roses and asters, many of which have collapsed because their flower heads are heavy with water. So let’s go on a rapid tour – and don’t feel obliged to maintain social distance. Join me in large crowds and walk as close as you want![1] I took most of these photos last week, before the recent rains began.

            Every year we pay a local tax to the IDB, or Internal Drainage Board, who spend our money cleaning-out, straightening and maintaining the dykes in our area. The big clean-out (known in the old days as slubbing-out) used to be done by hand, but today is done by mechanical excavators fitted with huge buckets. The buckets are in turn fitted with mechanical cutters that mow off the weeds. The system was introduced by John Thory in the 1970s. John was an old friend (sadly departed) who used to provide us with earth-moving equipment when we were doing our first excavations at Fengate, Peterborough from 1971-8. His buckets were about two metres wide. This one looks about three times that! The driver is very skilled indeed. It looks easy, but believe me, it isn’t.

            The Rose Garden suffered terribly last winter, as a result of prolonged, continuous flooding throughout December, January and February. This caused about half the box hedges to die of the less common variety of blight, brought about by flooding. To draw attention away from the dying hedges we created a new bed, arranged around a series of old sinks, planted with house-leeks and various dry-loving Alpine plants. The plant with the startling flowers in the foreground is the hardy Bromeliad, Fascicularia bicolor. Make sure young children don’t cut their fingers on its razor-sharp leaves!

            The wider open spaces, such as the Meadow tend to be the subject of attention in autumn, but I also like the quieter, more intimate parts of the garden, such as the Dome Garden, which I suppose is the only ‘room’ – in the traditional gardening sense – in our garden. It used to house the wirework dome that now adorns the Front Garden, until we moved it about fifteen years ago, but the name had stuck. I think the asters and roses look lovely in this shot and I apologise for the long grass of the lawn, but the soil in this part of the garden is both low-lying and clay-rich. It puddles terribly when I drive over it with the mower.

            We try to make sure that the Long Border looks good throughout the year, but it is particularly splendid in autumn. I particularly like the fruits of the winged spindle, Euonymous europaeus, Red Cascade (in the foreground, left).

            By way of complete contrast with the Long Border, the informality of the mown path of the Serpentine Walk becomes even more pronounced in autumn. I suppose we ought to re-seed it every year, because the birch roots always cause dryness in late summer. Lack of water makes the lawn die back. However, it usually recovers by springtime. Moss likes the dampness of winter and this, too, helps to keep the path looking green. I think lawns and paths are about more than neatness: they should change with the seasons, too.

            We have two large asparagus beds, in which we grow – surprise, surprise – asparagus, which we harvest in April and May. We grow an old variety (developed in New York in the 1860s), called Conover’s Colossal. I love it to bits and as I’ve planted far too much of it, I spend happy days handing bags of fresh spears to our neighbours in late spring. But a benefit that is rarely reported is the lovely colour that asparagus fern turns every year. I’ll have to cut it back shortly and then burn it, to prevent the dreaded pest, asparagus beetle, from hibernating inside the hollow stems over winter. In the foreground, are the rapidly drying plants of Eryngium giganteum, Miss Willmott’s Ghost. Miss Willmott (a famous gardener of the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries) was supposed to secretly spread its seeds around the gardens she visited. The leaves are horribly sharp, so she must have had tough old fingers!


[1] He lives in a world of his own! (Ed.)

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The Garden will open on September 19th and 20th. Advance booking only.

This is a short blog post to let everyone know that we’re opening our garden for the weekend of September 19-20th, 2020. Because of Covid-19 restrictions, the National Gardens Scheme are only allowing visitors who book in advance. Everything seems to be constantly changing, including the NGS website, which is currently introducing improvements. I’m told these will make it easier to book in. Visitors will be admitted in hourly slots which can only be reserved through the NGS website. Download your booking to your phone, or do a printout as you’ll need to provide proof when you arrive. But in common with other larger gardens, we aren’t insisting on an exit time. In other words, your hourly slot only applies to your arrival time. The garden will close at 4.30. Sadly, the insurers behind the NGS are insisting that we cannot provide tea or non-emergency toilets, but we are planning to offer visitors home-made cake and there will also be a plant stall. For reasons of hygiene, we cannot offer change, but don’t worry: everything you give will go to the medical charities supported by the NGS – and their finances have taken a big hit thanks to the pandemic. So feel free to throw money at us! Oh, and one other innovation: we’ve introduced a picnic area, next to the vegetable garden. It’s a very sheltered small paddock, surrounded on all sides by hedges and a tall stand of black poplars. We haven’t allowed any sheep in it for a month, so you shouldn’t have to contend with wet sheep poo! Gentlemen might choose to visit some of the larger trees in the wood from time to time…

It has been a very challenging year in the garden. Last winter was very, very wet and the damage it caused is still becoming evident. We’ve lost an apple tree and most of a box hedge; several shrubs are barely hanging on. But other plants have thrived. Some of the roses have never looked better. One big surprise was the Pyracantha (Firethorn), ‘Orange Glow’, which covers part of a wall in the front garden. Every late summer I trim it back to reveal the berries. Often I do this job with a hedge-cutter or shears, but last week I had to resort to a pair of secateurs. It proved quite a task: there were so many berries.

Wet-loving weeds (a weed, after all, is merely a plant in the wrong place) have also thrived. Having provided a magnificent spring display in the meadow, where they provide a deeper, more golden hue to the paler yellow of the cowslips, the many thousands of dandelions formed their fluffy air-born seeds, which were duly distributed all over the garden by the northerly winds which were such a feature of the early summer. Seedlings emerged in the borders and flower beds, in late June and July, and grew into large plants, in August. We’ve been weeding them out relentlessly ever since (a slow process, given their deep tap roots), but I don’t think we’ll ever complete the task. Please be understanding. But on the positive side, Jason’s superb re-styling of the bamboo is greening-up and the asters in the main border should be in full flower. Storm Francis did a lot of damage, but we’ve managed to clear most of it up. We won’t be displaying many posters, as we don’t want to attract casual visitors, so do please make a careful note of our post code (on the NGS website). I do hope you’ll be able to come: both Maisie and I feel very strongly that the nursing profession and medical charities urgently need all the help they can get this year. It would also be nice to see so many of your friendly faces again!

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What A Summer!

I don’t think I can ever recall a summer when so much, and yet so little, has happened at the same time. I know that sounds nonsensical, but I’m sure you all know what I’m trying to say: at the personal scale things have been fairly busy, but more a matter of making constant small adjustments than confronting major catastrophes. Thanks to the ghastly wet winter, gardening has been busy, but still quite productive: I don’t think the vegetable garden has ever produced so much food – and it’s still continuing (the runner bean crop threatens to overwhelm us). But at the same time there are weeds everywhere and as soon as we remove them, new ones spring out of the ground and thumb their noses at us defiantly. Of course we’ve had to make changes to our lives – even as supposedly placid retirees: we try to get supplies delivered, we do our best to avoid going into shops and we haven’t had any social activity inside the house since the Covid lock-down began, back in March. Having said that, we frequently meet friends and neighbours in the barn or the garden – and of course on the poop deck at the back of the house. We take the view that open-air meetings are perfectly safe, provided everyone stays well apart. Meanwhile out there in the wider world, things seem to be going crazy: America is run by a populist egomaniac; Britain’s semi-populist government is, at best, semi-competent and of course Brexit continues to loom at a time when food prices are rising and world trade is in turmoil. And what makes it all feel so mad is that most of this chaos was self-inflicted: people voted for it.

Before lockdown was announced (which for non-British readers was on March 24th), Maisie and I had established a routine of booze-free Mondays. So we’d have our last drinks on Sunday night and only pour another one after six in the evening, the following Tuesday. That meant that our metabolisms were given a rest from alcohol for about 44 hours. It also meant that we drank rather less on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings and having a regular alcohol-free ‘gap’ ensured that our overall rate of boozing didn’t creep upwards. We adopted this scheme about ten years ago after speaking to a doctor friend, who specialised in liver complaints. He reckoned that a weekly ‘gap’ of about 24 hours would give the liver time to recover from the ill-effects of alcohol. But then lockdown happened.

It was all so depressing that we both decided to suspend the Monday booze ‘gap’ for the duration of lockdown. Now I won’t say that our rates of drinking rose steeply, because I don’t think they did. If anything, they fell for a bit, then they started to increase and by mid-July I knew I’d have to cut down. Maisie, being perfect, had barely increased at all. I banned beer from my lunchtimes and tried to cut down in the evenings, but none of these things seemed to have much effect. It was then that I remembered what our friend had said about the cumulative effects of booze on the liver. And that did it. So about three weeks ago we re-introduced our booze-free Mondays and I’m delighted to report that things are now back to normal – and I’m even losing a little weight. I also feel a bit more cheerful. So if lock-down is getting you down, may I suggest you try something similar? As someone famous once said: ‘It might just work.’

By the end of July, the hornbeam hedges that form the framework of our garden were starting to look rather overgrown. Hornbeam loves the wet and it has thrived in our heavy silty soil this year. So we contacted Jason, our contract hedge-cutter, and he did a superb job. Some of the hedges had grown in height and  many were too wide, so it took time to get them right, but now they are looking superb. Here’s a view of Jason starting work on a new section of hornbeam.

One of the reasons I like hiring Jason is that he always has superb tools, which he looks after with enormous care. He’s also very happy to offer advice on their care and maintenance – something I appreciate hugely. He scrupulously followed all advice on Social Distancing, which was such a relief, as both Maisie and I are both at an age where Coronavirus infection could be quite serious. He has a very informative and superbly illustrated YouTube blog, which recently featured him working on our hedges – complete with some superb semi-aerial footage. In Part 1 of my recent 2-part tour of our garden I mentioned how the hornbeam hedges can look very good untrimmed, especially when the growth is still relatively tight, in earlier summer. To make the point, the seventh picture in that blog post showed a length of the border with the hedge untrimmed. By way of contrast, this is how it looked after Jason had given it a haircut.

I’m not saying that the hedge looked better either before or after its haircut. It’s just different, that’s all. And I like the garden to change over the seasons. One of the things I don’t like about some famous display gardens is that they never change. They’re always impeccably neat, controlled and oh-so-bloody BORING! A garden must change and come alive if it’s to avoid just being a three-dimensional picture.

This is a view of the path leading from the long border to the rose garden. When we laid out the garden we didn’t want to go straight from one garden into another. We’re not very fond of the widely-accepted notion that garden’s should feature a succession of neighbouring ‘rooms’. Sure, they work well at Sissinghurst, but we didn’t think we wanted to copy that idea. We wanted our garden to be more a series of voyages, journeys or perambulations, of discovery. So we tried to separate some of the main elements and this curved walk is one of the ways we achieved this. But what we didn’t realise at the time we laid it out, is that it works very well as a feature in its own right. In this picture, Jason has just finished cutting and I’m carting the trimmings away in our John Deere garden tractor.

Hedges do allow you to pull off a few tricks. I took the previous photo of the curved hedge in such a way that the ‘squint’ was concealed (it’s actually in the shadowy bit to the right). You’re only supposed to notice it when you walk close-by and then your attention is immediately grabbed by the contrasting scene it reveals. You are standing just off the long formal border, surrounded by imposing tall hedges – and suddenly you get a glimpse of a more airy, shaded and informal garden – we call it The Glade, through the narrow squint in the hedge. But that squint is carefully aligned to catch the view we want you to see. That’s why it’s so narrow.

I’ve included this picture simply because I am getting very attached to this small bed at the back of the house, near the kitchen window. The large leaved Tetrapanax has really got going in the wet summer. At the start of the year it proudly displayed five big leaves. The current count is seven! This bed is developing quite a jungle feel. The ground-cover is mostly dog violets which look great in early spring.

Earlier I mentioned that it’s been a very productive summer in the vegetable garden. We’ve had a good crop of tomatoes both in the greenhouse and outside and we’ve also had dozens of figs. In late July and August I was distributing soft, ripe figs to neighbours daily, but now the glut has slowed down and we’re reduced to just two or three at breakfast – and a couple at suppertime. I adore them.

Over the past week I’ve been making regular trips down the drive to inspect work on the medieval droveway road that runs alongside our farm. To do this I have to pass through our small orchard where I’ve been delighted by the crop of plums. The apples look a bit disappointing (we had a late frost which affected the blossom), but the plums have been delicious. This photo shows some of the damson crop, which promises to be excellent. Damson jam is delicious, but I can also recommend damson gin; in some respects I think I prefer it to sloe gin.

The road that passes our farm has been pitted and full of pot-holes for a long time, but it got very much worse about fifteen years ago when heavy tankers belonging to a local contractor passed along it, at high speed, every ten or so minutes. This traffic essentially broke the road’s back and caused half of it to start slipping down into the drainage dyke that runs alongside it. There were times when it was barely passable for a car or two-wheel drive vehicle. But we learned that all of that was to change when the local council highways department announced that the road was to close for a week in late August for ‘recycling’. This involved the use of a very heavy-duty rotary cultivator that simply broke the surface up and allowed it to be graded and levelled. The next picture shows the road at this stage, following several hours of heavy rolling.

The following day the rolled road was sprayed several times with tar before being rolled again and sprinkled with white granite chippings, which were then rolled-in. I can’t believe how smart it looks in this picture. About ten minutes after I took the photo, a huge tractor passed over it, shedding vast amounts of mud on the spotless white chippings. Ah, the joys of living in the country…

British readers will still remember the rather vicious storm, named Storm Francis by the Meteorological Office. It featured severe gales – arguably the worst I can remember for August – which brought down fruit in orchards and had a terrible effect on those bamboo cane frames for runner beans. Mine was blown over and half the bean plants were snapped off. Yesterday morning friends living on the edge of the Fens in Norfolk reported exactly the same thing and then had the temerity to blame me!


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A Tour Around Inley Drove Farm Garden in June and July, 2020: Part 2

(This is the second part of the two special blogs written for visitors who would have come to our garden on a pre-booked tour, in June and July 2020. As everyone will know by now, we have had to cancel all National Gardens Scheme visits because of the pandemic.)

The previous blog post was a quick tour through the more formal parts of the garden. Now I want to turn my attention to those other, more spontaneous or natural areas. Many of them grew up quite slowly – and yes, we did ‘design’ the fundamental layout behind them, but it was Mother Nature who did much of the rest and quite often we altered the layout to fit in better with the direction she was taking things. I think it very important that garden designers get a good feel for local context of the gardens they are designing. If you must import ideas from other places – and I concede this is an essential element of all modern design – then you should alter them to fit in with the surrounding landscape, the soils, the size and the scale of the garden. So a massive fountain the size of the ‘Great Squirt’ (that’s what I call it), at Chatsworth House, would look odd in a suburban setting; similarly, a brightly-coloured pavilion from a sandy rhododendron wood might appear rather out of place in a gentle Cotswold farmhouse meadow.

I’ll start this tour where you’re supposed to begin most visits: in the front garden. Our front garden has a chequered history. It had difficult beginnings. The silty soil here is very soft and the builders needed good firm access to the front of the house. So it soon became a bit of a quagmire, mixed with disused bricks, roof tiles and scrapings of mortar. When work on the house finished, I have to confess I stayed away from the chaos at the front. As a result, over the first two winters the deep wheel-ruts filled with muddy water then everything set like concrete in the heat of summer. The soil there had no structure whatsoever; it was completely dead – even more dead than the rest of the field in which we built the house, which had been relentlessly ploughed, harrowed, rolled and fertilised for at least forty years, without a fallow break or rest of any sort. It took about five years for earthworms to return in any numbers. We didn’t have a mole even pay us a visit, for at least that time. Then, sometime in the later 1990s, we took the front garden in hand. We dug in vast amounts of manure and slowly something that vaguely resembled soil began to reappear. It’s still a bit thin, but very much better. It’s certainly a gardening challenge.

My first picture is a view from the edge of the front garden with the Hybrid Musk rose ‘Prosperity’ in the foreground and an almost-finished peony ‘Bowl of Beauty’. These are both planted behind the wooden hurdles, bought at Melton Mowbray Cattle Market, which skirt the garden along the front driveway. In the background is one of the paddocks, complete with suitably peaceful-looking sheep, grazing.

Front garden

If you take about ten paces backwards from the first picture, you’ll bump into the wirework of the four-arched dome that forms the central feature of the front garden. When we first planted this garden it was all very controlled, but since then, fuchsias have really gone mad and both roses and peonies seem to love it too. Even clematis, that normally don’t seem to welcome wet-retentive soils seem to love it; having said that, versions of the Clematis texensis (and yes, very surprisingly it’s named after the state of Texas!) have always liked damp ground and they do very well in our garden. So some time ago, we decided to stop over-controlling the front garden and it really has worked: last summer large numbers of visitors told us how much they enjoyed the rampant fuchsias around the dome arch.

Dome

You may have noticed in Part 1 that when I was describing the Rose Garden I mentioned the Long Walk that runs along its north side, beneath the trunks of two quite substantial Dawn Redwoods. Here’s a view looking back towards the spot where I photographed the Rose Garden, with one of the redwoods in the right foreground. Although they like damp ground, Dawn Redwoods create a rising slope around their trunk and roots which is often very dry and well-drained. This gives you an opportunity to plant cyclamen and other dry-loving plants which can look very striking at certain times of the year (they’re not in this picture as it was taken too early in the season). On the left is the wonderfully fragrant Hybrid Musk rose, Cornelia.

Long walk

If you head down the Long Walk, which isn’t actually that long, you’ll pass a small enclosed semi-formal garden, which for some reason hasn’t featured in either of my two blog posts. Once past that, the path swings right and then left and you are now passing through quite a substantial birch grove. Somehow this rather sinuous path acquired the horribly pretentious name the Serpentine Walk. I think at first it was an ironic reference to the garden of some stately home, somewhere. But then sadly it stuck. So the next picture shows the Serpentine Walk looking back towards the Glade Garden on the left, at the end.

Serpentine walk

The Glade Garden was one of our biggest challenges, quite simply because it was one of the wettest spots. It didn’t help that the undersoil drainage system installed in the 1960s was blocked at this point, but even when we managed to unblock it, the ground remained stubbornly damp. Last winter there was standing water in this area for about three months. These large puddles exactly followed the alignment of much earlier, medieval channels known in the Fens as dylings. So about fifteen years ago we gave up fighting the damp in this area and instead decided to live with it. We planted a small stand of golden alders and wet-loving geraniums (such as Geranium palustre), species hemerocallis and of course bog-loving primulae (neither of which was flowering when the picture was taken). Rather to my initial surprise the birch trees we’d planted a few years earlier seemed to love the damper ground. Then Maisie reminded me that most of the trees at the wetter-than-wet Holme Fen Nature Reserve are birches. The Serpentine Walk crosses the middle of the picture, with the Round Garden (with its distinctive covered seat just visible), in the background.

Glade

If you follow the Serpentine Walk down towards the pergola at the end of the Long Border and then turn sharp left, into the Meadow, you will find yourself walking along the back of the birch grove, along the mown walk between the birch trees and the growing hay, which this season was cut on June 22nd. The photo is looking north-west towards the Bamboo Garden, with a drooping frond of one of my favourite roses, the species Rosa glauca, on the left.

Meadow and bamboo gardens

About ten years ago we planted the red climbing rose Rosa moyseii at the base of the tall birch tree that occupies the left hand edge of the previous picture. Then we forgot about it, until quite recently, when we could just see spots of red high above our heads. The small red rose flowers contrast well with the pale birch bark. I love this effect. It’s very subtle and looks so uncontrived – which, believe me, it isn’t!

7 Rosa moysii in birch lo res

This next view of the bamboo garden was taken quite early in June, before the roses were in full display. I took it because Jason, who does such a good job improving and maintaining our hedges, had just tamed and cut back the rampaging spread of the two clumps of the bamboo, Arundinaria japonica, which about twenty years ago we were sold as being non-invasive (which it most certainly isn’t!). Jason has made an excellent film of the cutting-back on his YouTube channel. The two Dawn Redwoods, that edge the Long Walk, are very prominent in this picture and the variegated pampas grass on the edge of the lawn has recovered well from its annual late winter haircut, which I deliver in February with a hedge-cutter (and wearing very thick, grasscut-proof, gloves!).

Bamboo garden

And finally, as they say: the Meadow. This view was taken about a week before hay-making and I have to say the grass looks in excellent condition and eventually gave us about ten large round bales. One of the things I like about our meadow is that it’s a piece of working grassland. Yes, in spring it’s covered with cowslips and snakeshead fritillaries, and then there are wild daffodils and a mass of meadow buttercups, which found their way to it by themselves (or more likely by way of various birds’ bottoms). This view shows the grass when it’s not looking floristic and romantic. If I caught any passing shepherdess come tripping through it in a floaty floral frock I’d tell her where to go in the fruitiest of language. ‘Let that grass stay upright, or it won’t mow properly, Miss!’ – or words to that effect. The mown path is sometimes fancifully known as ‘Lady Hermione’s Tantrum’, after a fictitious previous owner of the garden, whose pompous husband used to drive her to furies of frustration. I won’t reveal what happens in the wood. That’s for you to discover when next you visit!

Meadow

Meanwhile, if you’re feeling well disposed towards our garden, or to the National Gardens Scheme, do please visit their website. So far they’ve raised over £100,000 towards nursing charities, but in a normal (i.e. non-Covid) year, like 2019, they raised over three million! There’s still a long way to go! Gardens are starting to reopen for the NGS and we might do the same in late September. It will all depend on the state of the pandemic in the autumn. Sadly, neither Maisie nor I are quite as youthful as we might appear; so we have to be careful. With creaking joints, the aged author arises from his laptop, clutching stout walking stick and bottle of cheap gin.

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A Tour Around Inley Drove Farm Garden in June and July, 2020: Part 1

These two blog posts (this is the first part only) are written for the benefit of those visitors who would have come to our garden in a pre-booked tour, in June and July 2020. Sadly we have had to cancel all visits as part of the National Gardens Scheme, because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Having said that, I’m delighted to report that all the cancelled tours have been re-booked for 2021 – when hopefully things will be rather different. Now I’m well aware that looking at a phone or laptop screen is a very poor substitute for being somewhere, outdoors, surrounded by the scent of roses and the rattling tree-tapping of numerous woodpeckers, but I hope this short blog post will help to make up for missing your visit this year. And with luck we’ll see you next year. Meanwhile, to use a current cliché, please stay healthy!

My original idea, when I began writing this, was to offer you a carefully-structured virtual tour of the garden, complete with maps, numbers, keys and arrows. Then we could both plod our way around the borders and through the shrubs, pausing dutifully to look at this or that, before moving on to the next dutiful pause. YAWN! To be honest, I couldn’t face it: I have a low threshold of boredom and the map-led ‘virtual tour’ was well beyond it. And besides, when you do manage to get here next year, you’ll be able to consult many maps and plans. Unlike 17th– and 18th-century landscape gardens, such as one of my favourites, Rousham, in Oxfordshire, we don’t have a preferred route that allows you to admire selected views from carefully-staged temples or waterfalls. We’d rather visitors found their own way around and their routes will depend on their inclinations at the time. But we have tried to avoid dead-ends: you should never have to turn back and retrace your steps. You may glimpse the same things from time to time, but always from a different angle. One of the questions I always enjoy is when visitors ask me about something they glimpsed in passing, but now can’t find! I always tell them where it is: I never take them there. Gardens should be about imagination and discovery.

No piece of writing can be completely without structure, so I have decided to write the first part of this Tour Around Inley Drove Farm Garden about the more structured part of the garden. Part 2 will turn to the less formal areas, where you’ll meet fewer people and hear more birdsong. And where better to start than in the most rigidly structured part of any garden: the vegetable plot.

Vegetable garden

Our veg garden is subdivided into four sub-plots, one of which is dug over with a thick mulch of well-rotted compost and sheep manure every winter. This allows us to maintain a four-course rotation, with potatoes going into the freshly dug plot in late March. The next year sees onions (year 2) then cabbages and other brassicas in year 3 and summer veg (runner beans etc) in year 4. This view was taken in early June and shows the onions (foreground); beyond are the summer veg, including a large steel hurdle which I use as a frame for sweet peas, behind that are the potatoes. The new Rhino greenhouse in the background is really earning its keep and is filled with young tomato plants, many of which are about to be planted next to the potatoes.

Greenhouse

Here’s a close-up of the greenhouse and the plot of Sweet Williams outside it. I’ve always liked growing cut flowers for the house and Sweet Williams are one of my favourites. They smell delicious and last in a jar for a good week, if not longer. They also resist the effects of rain, which can devastate old-fashioned varieties of roses. The beds immediately outside the greenhouse are not a part of the 4-course rotation and tend to accumulate bits and bobs of stuff, such as the two giant Cos lettuces, which got there somehow. I think I might have bought them as plugs late in the winter. Anyhow, they tasted delicious and each one kept us supplied for at least six meals. One advantage of growing your own lettuces is that you can pull them out of the ground, with roots intact. I then wash off surplus soil and remove outer leaves, plus any slugs and snails and take them indoors, where I put them in a stout stone jar, with the roots in water. That way they can stay beautifully fresh for at least a week. It also avoids cluttering-up the fridge. But I’m starting to ramble: time to return to the Tour.

Path behind barn

This is the path to the veg garden (visible through the gap in the hedge) that runs behind the barn. Our original intention was to pave it, but we ran out of free paving stones (I acquired a couple of tons of used slabs from a friend at the Peterborough Development Corporation when they closed down in, I think, the early 1990s) and couldn’t afford to buy new ones. So we grassed it over, as a temporary measure. It gets a bit worn in wet winters, but not too badly. We now have absolutely no intention of paving it over. Mud can be reduced by spreading chainsaw sawdust and a light sprinkling of seed in the spring gets the grass back in a few weeks. To the right of the path are two open soakaways that take run-off from the barn roof. You can’t really see them in the previous picture, but here is a close-up of one of them.

Soakaway

Notice the water-loving Iris lavigata variegata and the huge green leaves of the North American skunk cabbage, Lysichiton americanus. Skunk cabbage is highly invasive and must never be planted near streams, in Britain. The soak-away is ideal for it. The dwarf, twenty year-old jasmine on the bank behind the irises looks dead. It hated the wet winter we’ve just lived-through and we both thought it was stone dead, but about 10% of the branches have come back to life. It needs a very careful prune and plenty of fertiliser – but it’ll probably die, anyhow.

Long border

This is a view of the Long Border, looking towards the pergola at its eastern end, which is almost completely hidden beneath climbing roses, which aren’t in flower yet. It was taken in early June and we were both taken completely by surprise when some roses started to flower in the final days of May. By mid-June the garden was a blaze of colour and the absence of rain meant that old roses were particularly fine. I always hate to see it when their bright, fresh and delightfully scented flowers are rained on and rapidly disintegrate into shrivelled odourless, brown paper parcels. So sad. Whoops, I’m starting to sound like Trump. This picture was taken after a day of frantic border weeding. The lawn hasn’t been cut for a week and the border edges need a good trim. But even so, I think it looks stunning. The lovely pink rose in the foreground is ‘Geoff Hamilton’, a modern shrub rose by David Austin.

Great garden designers of the past used to love their set-piece views whether from upstairs windows, along manicured woodland paths, or down magnificent double borders that make ours look like a window box. But when I walk around these gardens I am often struck by the views one can get when set-piece features are approached from the ‘wrong’ angle. So we bore this in mind when we started to lay out our new garden at Inley Drove Farm, back in 1994-5. It was one of the reasons we have tried to avoid too much hard landscaping, like the construction of brick or stone walls. True, we have many hedges, but these are nearly all deciduous and they change throughout the season, losing their hard outline at this time of year. I don’t like the modern tendency to keep all hedges ‘neat’ and close-clipped at all times. You might as well have built a wall. So here’s a view of the Long Border from the outside. It looks wonderfully confused, which isn’t entirely true, because in reality it’s quite carefully contrived. The tall golden tree is the wet-loving dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, var. ‘Gold Rush’.

Back of border

The structural skeleton around which most of the formal garden is arranged is formed by tall hedges of hornbeam. We chose hornbeam quite simply because our ground is too clay-rich and far too water-retentive to suit beech, which grows best on chalky soils. It turned out to be a brilliant choice. It’s very resilient and doesn’t mind being cut hard back from time-to-time. Like beech, it retains its brown leaves over winter. We normally cut our hedges once a year, usually in later July, following the main summer growth. This allows the long double border to acquire a completely different, far more formal, character during the second coming of the roses and for main aster season, in August and September. By early October the next year’s shoots are starting to appear and it’s these leaves that the hedge retains over winter. Here’s a view of one side of the Long Border, at the pergola end. In this view the pergola is visible, but the tall hornbeam hedge has almost vanished. It forms a natural background to the border that merges into the shrubs and roses along the back of the bed. It also blends with the trees standing in the Glade, directly behind the border. A tightly-clipped wall of hornbeam would look ghastly here, at this time of the year.

Border near pergola

The next picture is a view of the Rose Garden, with the tall, as yet unclipped, hornbeam hedges in the background and the Long Walk heading away, to the left. The central shrub is in fact a dwarf tree, Thuja orientalis aurea, which we don’t clip or prune. Wrens and other small birds love it, especially in winter. Many of the roses are hybrid musks, including the pink flowers of Cornelia, which is clearly visible along one side of the Long Walk. We don’t enjoy rose gardens where roses are displayed on their own. I always think they look very stark and a bit frightened – rather like newly recruited soldiers on their first parade. So we mix our roses with peonies, geraniums and small shrubs. During last winter, large areas of the garden were very wet or actually under water for almost three months, and this had a terrible effect on the box hedges that lined many of the Rose Garden beds. We’re currently doing what we can to save them, but I fear we’ll lose about 30% of them. Still, as the late great Christopher Lloyd used to say: a garden disaster is a gardening opportunity. Right now we can’t think what the opportunities in this particular case are, but doubtless something will occur to us.

Rose garden

May, June and early July are the months of frantic weeding – even in an informal garden, like ours. I’m a great believer in the old gardening saying that ‘a weed is a plant in the wrong place’, but certain weeds can be very invasive and must be controlled. Happily we don’t have the two worst and most persistent weeds, bindweed (Convolvulus) and ground elder (its Latin name is impossible), but our soil is very fertile and any seeds on the air, such as dandelion, seem to put down deep roots on impact. That’s why this next picture, a view of the Small Border that runs parallel to the Long Border, features my wheelbarrow and one of the dozens of white ex-food supplement buckets we have left over from our full-time sheep-keeping days. Those buckets are strong and light and are excellent when weeding. The large cut-leaf buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula ‘Asplenifolia), to the right, is over ten years old and it loved all the rain that fell last autumn and winter. I’ve never known it look better. Day lilies (Hemerocallis) also love the wet and this year they have not been attacked so badly by the pests that like to develop in their flower buds. This is probably because the water standing on the ground for so long over winter may have broken their life-cycle. The large pot (more correctly a jardinière) is featured in an earlier blog post.

Small border

My final picture in this rapid review of the more formal parts of the garden, features an corner in an otherwise formal area, which is starting to develop its own rather individualistic character. This is one of the working shots I use to record progress, or the lack of it, in the garden as a whole; so it wasn’t taken with publication in mind – hence the lack of mowed lawn and uncut edges. It’s an area immediately outside the back of the house, on the north side of a wall that runs part of the way from the back door to the barn. There are two fig trees on the other, sunny side and we thought that this side would be bitterly cold and hostile, but we were wrong. It’s actually very sheltered and does get a lot of reflected sunlight off the back of the house, in summertime. The tall verbascums at the front should probably have been weeded out over winter, but I do love them, and besides, we needed more seeds. The netted fruit tree is a Morello cherry, which gave us a splendid crop of fine fruit for cooking. Morello cherries make superb jams and compotes (fruit preserved in syrup). The large-leaved small shrub is a tetrapanax, which has taken about four years to get established, but is now starting to grow vigorously. We often find that plants take awhile to get established in our heavy, clay-silt soils. But once they feel at home, they roar away – which is what I hope and pray the splendid tetrapanax is about to do. Fingers crossed!

Tetrapanax etc

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Back to Abnormality!

It’s Sunday morning and for the first time in many weeks I’m not sitting down to write the last few chapters of my new book. Because they’re finished! Last night to celebrate we opened a bottle of Champagne which we cheered-up by adding a few wild strawberries from the garden. Trouble was, we haven’t had much sunshine of late; so they were a bit green and under-ripe. Still, it was the thought that counts and the wine was lovely.

Book-writing has been a major part of my life for the past twenty-five years and my daily routine has been the same throughout: I get up early (around 5.30 or 6.00), write for a couple of hours, have breakfast, walk the dogs, return to writing and stop before noon, when I grab a quick cup of tea, before heading out to the farm or garden. If I need to do research I tend to do it in the evening, or the afternoon, if it’s wet. That’s also the routine I have adopted during the Covid lock-down. So on the surface at least, life hasn’t changed much – except, of course, that it has. And profoundly.

I have to say, I find it hard to be my normal, fairly relaxed, relatively care-free self, during lock-down. In the past, the writing of a book has tended to rather dominate my thoughts. And Maisie says I get worse as a book is nearing completion: I even manage to screw-up simple tasks, like the soft-boiling of eggs for breakfast. Over the past month we’ve had to enjoy several hard-boiled egg and mayo salads, for lunch. And God alone knows how many emails, texts and phone calls I’ve failed to respond to. If anything, I think my late-stage-book-writing absent-mindedness has been worse since the pandemic struck. A couple of mornings ago I came downstairs around six o’clock and got on with writing. After about thirty minutes, I reached to one side to finish the last coldish sips from my cup of tea. Glancing up from the laptop, I couldn’t see it. I even lowered the screen and looked behind; but it had completely vanished. So I completed the paragraph and went through to the kitchen to make another cup. And there, alongside the electric kettle, was the cup I had made earlier: full to the brim with near-cold tea. So I had forgotten everything: the pouring of water into the teapot; the removal of a milk bottle from the fridge; finding the mug in all last night’s washing-up; pouring out the tea and adding the milk. Then I must have put the bottle back in the fridge, before returning to my desk, while forgetting to take the tea with me. And if that isn’t absent-minded, I don’t know what is.

My new book is an attempt to pinpoint moments when certain sites, finds, monuments and excavations have given me glimpses of what it might have been like actually to have lived at a particular moment in the prehistoric past. The sort of thing I was trying to nail-down was that temporary moment of madness with the morning teacup. Did people have such moments in the Bronze Age – and if not, why not? Archaeologists are very good at reconstructing the routines of every day life, such as peoples’ diets, the organisation of their households and the layout of their houses and farms, but routines, if anything, tend to de-humanize people for me. They were never machines and they would not have behaved in precisely the same way on the day grandma died, or when the baby had a nasty attack of runny bottom. It was those more spontaneous human moments that I have tried to isolate in my latest book. The basic idea was straightforward enough, but it wasn’t the easiest of books to write and I’m still not one hundred percent confident that I managed to pull it off successfully. I might have a better idea of its success (or lack of it) in a couple of weeks time, when I’ll do the final revision of the first draft. If I’m happy, I’ll say so in this blog. If not, the silence might be deafening…

Revising manuscripts is an integral part of the writing process and it’s one of the things that modern software allows one to do so readily. I’ll never forget when I first started to use a computer-based ‘word-processor’ package, back in the early 1980s, when I was writing the Fourth Fengate Report. I’m reasonably certain that I’d done some of the initial work on an electric typewriter, but I soon transferred the entire manuscript to my new Apple 2 . Soon after that, I transferred to WordStar, the predecessor of Microsoft Word, which I’ve used ever since. The great joy of computerised composition is that re-writing is a such a doddle. It’s so easy! It’s also quite pleasurable, because you don’t have to navigate your way through scorings-out, or follow branching, wobbly arrows or cut-and-pasted paragraphs. All of that’s done for you by the clever algorithms in those tiny microchips. The clean appearance of the page on the laptop allows me to form an immediate impression of how the piece is flowing. Or to put another way, will a certain passage appear rather ‘lumpy’ to my readers? Lumpiness is something I always try to avoid. If I’m reading a book I hate it when I have to re-read a sentence, or worse, paragraph. Sadly, much academic writing is indecipherable without at last three read-throughs, which is never any fun – or pleasure. Reading should always be pleasurable.

So the new book will be released to the editorial teams at Head of Zeus in a few weeks’ time. We’re still not entirely clear when it will actually be published. In normal times I would have said in 8 to 12 months, but these are abnormal times. So the best guess would be around 14 to 16 months, probably in time for Christmas 2021, but that’ll depend on the state of the market: quite often it’s better to publish what one might call serious non-fiction in the spring, because bookshops tend to fill-up with celeb rubbish and picture books (mostly about food or gardens!) at Christmas, when so many people seem to put their brains on hold. But maybe things will be different in 2021. I detect signs that certain attitudes are changing quite fundamentally, especially among more contemplative people. There is, after all, more to life than earning fast bucks, or watching rubbish on TV.

Meanwhile sales of The Fens have continued. A few hardback copies are still available, and the e-book and audiobook are selling nicely. The paperback came out in early April, just after lock-down, and I’m delighted with it and think it’s very reasonably priced (just under £10). Trouble is, I haven’t been able to promote it and have had to cancel signings in Peterborough, two in Wisbech, Chester, Boston, Stamford, Oundle, Wells-next-the-Sea, Downham Market and Leicester. And what about future signings? There is currently talk of halving social-distancing from 2 to 1metre and for easing lock-down; but I have to say I’m very uneasy about these measures, which seem to be determined more by economics and politics than by science. Unless we’re careful, we might find ourselves following in the disastrous footsteps of Brazil and the USA. Speaking entirely for myself, in my mid-seventies, I don’t intend to do any public engagement that involves person-to-person contact until (a) there is a reliable treatment for Covid-19, should anyone be infected, and (b) we can all be immunized with a safe vaccine.

To judge from my Twitter feed and from many emails I have received, The Fens seems still to be going down very well. It also appears to have lifted many spirits during lock-down – and I am so pleased. I had no idea when I wrote it that it could bring comfort to so many people in a time of grim pandemic.

During lock-down we have also had to cancel a number of pre-booked group visits to our garden, on behalf of the National Gardens Scheme (NGS). This has been a great shame, not just because the garden is looking great, but because it has deprived some very worthy medical charities of much-needed funds. So my next blog post, which I’ll try to do a bit sooner than this one has been, will be a tour through the garden using pictures taken over the past few weeks. I’ll also include a link so that if you’re feeling generous you can dedicate something to the NGS, who will then distribute it to the many charities they support. I know that video garden tours are currently very fashionable on the NGS website, but I have never felt very comfortable taking them. I understand still-picture photography and know what I’m doing. Every time I see an amateur video I think of the many professional film and TV cameramen I’ve worked with, and how they’d be cringing…

Last Sunday was June 21st, the Summer Solstice, or Mid-Summer’s Day and now we’ve moved out of Early and into High Summer. The next few days promise to be very hot and yesterday (Monday) our neighbour Charles came round in his large green John Deere tractor to cut the hay in our meadow. I think he’s going to get a very good crop for his sheep and cattle to enjoy this winter. Certain things never change: if this had been in the Middle Ages that green tractor would have been a gang of men with scythes, but the end result: contented animals in a sheltered barn in mid-winter, would have been the same. So here’s that picture of yesterday’s hay-making:

Hay-making 2020

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Dig for Victory!

The Dig for Victory campaign was launched in 1941 at a time when food imports to Britain were being blocked by a very successful enemy naval blockade – mostly using submarines. Today, of course, the enemy is the Covid-19 pandemic, which is disrupting our lives in so many ways. But I have noticed one rather odd thing. All the news media are covering urban areas and rural communities are scarcely ever mentioned. I have to confess I’m getting rather fed-up with hearing about how ‘we’ can make short trips to the countryside to take exercise – and so forth. Trouble is, we never hear anything about the rather different problems that people living on farms and in rural villages face.

Many of the villages around us have organised groups of volunteers who do weekly shopping trips for pensioners and other at-risk people (as we’re both over-70, our shopping is collected by two such volunteers, for which many thanks!). There are also several village-based internet social groups whose posters are popping up in several local communities. I don’t know how the lock-down powers-that-be who rule the urban world would react, but many gardeners are freely exchanging fruit and vegetables (I do a daily asparagus round to local friends) and at this time of year surplus plants are being exchanged – especially to younger people who are only just starting to grow their own food. One good thing to come out of all this might well be a rise in the number of home gardeners. And once you’re hooked on gardening – be warned! – it can become a lifetime’s addiction. I’m well and truly hooked. Never will I forget that moment when I ate my first home-grown ripe tomato. There was an explosion of flavour! At the time (the 1970s) shop-bought tomatoes tasted quite literally of nothing. Every year you will find that that first tomato is special, but also slightly different, depending on the spring, the compost, the variety and a host of other variables. That’s another great thing about gardening: no two years are ever the same. You are never bored when you eat your own food!

The new heated greenhouse has been a godsend and I’m still learning my way around it. The interior may look a bit chaotic, but believe me, there is method in my madness. Here’s a glimpse through the door in early May:

Greenhouse

Next is a close-up of the tomato seedlings, freshly potted-up. In about a fortnight I’ll be able to pot them up again, into slightly larger pots. The trick is to wait till you see the first white roots showing through the water in the bottom of the tray. When all the pots are showing roots, it’s time to pot-on again. When they’re in 4-inch (10 cm) pots they’ll be ready to go into a grow-bag or the garden. Mindful of the need not to discard too many seedlings I’ve potted-on five dozen tomato plants, of different varieties. Normally I’d use about 18 – at the most. So I plan to give the rest away to anyone living nearby who needs them.

Tomatoes

Several of our neighbours have offered us joints of beef and lamb, but there seems to be something of a shortage of young point-of-lay chickens. I gather this shortage is universal and there are stories in the local press of gangs coming out from towns to steal them. We heard of a local man who always raises a few dozen chicks and we were able to buy three off him. The traditional breed, Light Sussex, is new to us but we’ve looked them up and they have a docile reputation and prefer being free-range. Our new chickens are strictly-speaking ‘a trio’ of two hen birds and a cockerel. I took this picture on the day they arrived, in late April and they should be laying eggs in later summer. By then we may also have bought two or three additional hens who will be kept in order and protected by the cockerel. In our experience, if there’s a cockerel, the hens tend to stray less and don’t fight among themselves so much.

Chicks

A few days after we had received the chicks I had been cleaning my teeth with my smart new electric toothbrush (which has done wonders for the health of my receding gums!), when my eye was caught by the sun on the golden guelder rose (Viburnum opulus, ‘Aureum’) outside the window and the view of sheep peacefully grazing on our land beyond. So if you live too far away to take my tomato seedlings, I thought I’d share a little piece of the countryside, instead.

Spring view

Whenever I’m out by the pond, whether I’m pruning shrubs, weeding or just taking the dogs for a walk, I listen-out for the distinctive ‘yaffle’, the loud, sharp repeated call (I hesitate to call it ‘song’!) of the green woodpecker. We have several pairs of these birds, which feed on ant hills in the nearby meadows, and who make their homes (again, I hesitate to call them ‘nests’) in the trunks and branches of pollarded willows we planted back in 1995. By now these fast-growing trees are fully mature and many already have heartwood rot, which those clever woodpeckers seem to know about instinctively. So with loud machine-gun pecks they bore neat, circular holes through the outer sapwood and make their homes in the soft, dry rotten wood at the centre. Sometimes when you’re passing close-by you can hear quieter pecking sounds coming from the centre of the tree, as they enlarge and add the finishing touches to their new homes: a tasteful Gothick archway here, a louvred sitting-out space there.

Woodpecker holes

As a keen gardener I’ve long-since discovered that Mother Nature likes to tease. We have just endured the wettest winter on record, but back in March and early April, when I wrote my last blog post, I didn’t like to mention it, but I’d been surprised that we hadn’t lost more plants to root-rot. Then we had a sunny, dry April and Mother Nature revealed her hand. So far, I’m fairly convinced that two mature apples have been killed, one of them a lovingly pleached tree in the vegetable garden. The wet has also hastened the demise of shorter-lived shrubs, such as Viburnum and one or two elderly roses, not to mention several Buddleia – although this wasn’t a surprise as our land is a bit wet for them anyhow. I’ll keep an eye out for seedlings in the next few weeks and pot them up as replacements to go in later. The big horror has been the large box hedge which surrounds one of the beds in the rose garden. It’s growing (or dying) in the wettest part of that garden and I’m fairly certain it isn’t the dreaded box blight, as we haven’t bought-in any box plants for at least 15 years. If this was a professional garden we’d grub-up the entire hedge, but we’re less ruthless so we’re going to try alternatives, once we’ve removed the dead plants. The live box bushes are full of insects and other life, which is why I don’t want to kill them unnecessarily.

Dead box

We can’t be absolutely certain at this stage, but it does seem very likely that our annual garden opening for the National Gardens Scheme (scheduled for the weekend of September 19-20) isn’t going to happen – thanks to the Covid pandemic. In my next blog I’ll have more to say about what the NGS is planning to do to raise funds for those mostly medical charities it, and we, support through our garden open days. But Maisie and I decided back in March when the lock-down was announced that we’d use the potential lack of visitors as an excuse to do some root-and-branch garden improvements, such as the cutting down and rejuvenation of the rose hedge that runs along the drive on the other side of the pollarded willows, which are home to our woodpecker friends. We had contractors help us (all working at a safe ‘social distance’) and it only took a day to complete, but that hedge had terrible die-back. I’ve given it a good feed and it’s already (just three weeks later) starting to recover.

Cut hedge

There’s been a fair bit in this blog post about death and destruction, so let’s end with something positive: probably my favourite garden plant, Wisteria. I don’t think the Wisteria on the front of the house has ever looked better. Ok, so it may be bending the gutter in a few places, but who cares, when every night it’s in bloom the garden and the rooms above it (including our bedroom) are suffused with that delicious scent. The bees, including honey bees, love it, too. Some unpleasant things may recently have come from China, as that nice, disinfectant-drinking Mr Trump likes constantly to remind us, but Wisteria sinensis is certainly not one of them.

Wisteria

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PLEASE NOTE: This Blog Post is NOT About Covid-19

This blog post is for any followers of this blog who are confined indoors and cannot get out. It’s also for anyone whose spirits are starting to flag. I think we’ve all been affected to a greater or lesser extent and so I’ve dedicated this blog post to cheering us up. Come and take a rapid stroll with me through bits of our farm and garden that are starting to look and feel spring-like.

After the wettest February on record, March turned out to be dry and quite warm, but it took the best part of three weeks for our vegetable garden to dry out enough to become workable. By the end of the third week in March I had planted the potatoes. To be honest, the ground was wetter than ideal, but I couldn’t see it getting much drier any time soon. So I went ahead. Fingers crossed.

The four ridge rows beneath which lie my seed potatoes. The two shorter rows are for the first earlies and the maincrops. Over the years we have found that our early potatoes mature quite fast and don’t store very well. At the other end of the season maincrop varieties tend to get attacked by slugs, especially if left in the ground into August. So the two longer rows are for second earlies, which store well and seem to resist slugs. My favourite variety of second early is Kestrel, which stores well, has an excellent flavour and good, firm texture.

The four ridge rows beneath which lie my seed potatoes. The two shorter rows are for the first earlies and the maincrops. Over the years we have found that our early potatoes mature quite fast and don’t store very well. At the other end of the season maincrop varieties tend to get attacked by slugs, especially if left in the ground into August. So the two longer rows are for second earlies, which store well and seem to resist slugs. My favourite variety of second early is Kestrel, which stores well, has an excellent flavour and good, firm texture.

One of the great things about having a garden, especially one that isn’t over-designed or too controlled, are the surprises that each season brings. After such a horribly wet winter I wasn’t expecting many such happy moments, but as usual, nature proved me wrong. There’s quite a high wall leading up to the back door. We had it built (a) because there were several pallets of bricks left-over after the house had been finished and (b) because we had to shield the back garden from the fierce south-westerly winds that still cut across this area. The ground here proved much softer than we’d expected, so we filled the wall’s foundations with rammed brick and tile rubble. This rubble supports the wall very well, but it makes the bed at its base impossibly dry. But not this season. I’ve never seen the bulbs, flowers (and weeds) thrive so well in early spring.

The wall leading to the back door. The bed running along it is normally very dry and plants growing there rarely thrive, but the very wet winter of 2019/20 has had a magical effect.

The wall leading to the back door. The bed running along it is normally very dry and plants growing there rarely thrive, but the very wet winter of 2019/20 has had a magical effect.

Early in March we decided to tackle the main borders which were starting to look very dishevelled. This is a job that cannot be done half-heartedly or in short attacks. It requires a sustained, full-on assault and usually takes about four days to complete. But it’s one of those garden jobs that transforms the gardener, too. After four days of cutting and carting I’m feeling ready for anything – and as for the border. Just take a look:

The main double border during its annual spring-clean.

The main double border during its annual spring-clean.

It has been a strange spring. Some things, such as snowdrops, are well ahead and many have finished. Daffodils were also very early and have had quite a short season; but as often happens in short seasons, their flowering was intense. Here’s a view of the meadow garden taken at the very end of March. The daffodils are in full bloom and as I write this (on Good Friday, April 10th) they have already been finished for about a week. In this weird year they have been unable to live up fully to their old name, the Lent Lily. A week or so after I took the picture, the ground was dry enough for me to cut the pampas grass back.

A view of the meadow garden, taken in mid-March, with drifts of the wild daffodil, Narcissus pseudonarcissus.

A view of the meadow garden, taken in mid-March, with drifts of the wild daffodil, Narcissus pseudonarcissus.

Every day I try to take our two dogs, Baldwin the almost human Jack Russell terrier and Pen, the lick-happy black Labrador/Border Collie cross, for at least three brisk walks around the garden. These walks are good for both me (my replacement hip has now fully recovered) and the dogs. On at least one of the daily walks I take the dykeside path that skirts round the back of our wood, along its eastern side. It’s a bit exposed to winds from off the Wash (just eleven miles away), but as it’s all fenced for grazing I can let the dogs off their leads without the fear of them bolting. Sadly, Pen has grown up to be bolt-prone – I gather it’s a problem with some Labradors. On her last bolt she was recovered by a friendly farmer three miles away. When we planted the wood back in 1993 we put many flowering trees and shrubs around the fringes. Normally it’s the cherry blossom that steals the springtime show, but this year that honour must surely go to the wild pear trees. I don’t think I have ever seen them looking so magnificent. And when the wind does decide to ease off, all the air is delicately scented. It’s a great pity that the fruit are hard, bitter and inedible.

Two views of the dykeside brink along the eastern side of the wood, with the white blossom of the wild pear Pyrus communis.

Two views of the dykeside brink along the eastern side of the wood, with the white blossom of the wild pear Pyrus communis.

6 Wild pear blossom lo res

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Late February: The End of the Wet?

First let me say a few words of welcome to anyone who has had the sound good sense to follow this blog having read my short piece (‘I wouldn’t be without…’) in the Correspondence section of the March issue of the RHS magazine, The Garden. So if you’re new here, this is a blog that has lots of garden stuff, mostly written for the benefit of gardeners and garden lovers. Sometimes I make forays into farming, archaeology, nature conservation and landscape history – especially of the Fens. I like to believe there’s something for everyone – but having said that, there’s no pleasing some people. Anyhow, if you’ve just joined us: welcome aboard!

I am writing this in the first week of March and we haven’t had heavy rain for almost a week. A couple of days ago the Met Office announced that February 2020 had been the wettest February of all time (or since records began, if you want to be pedantic). And I think that says it all. I also think we’re all rather fed up with it. Yesterday the electrician who has been sorting-out our various problems in the house and farm had been fixing something in the fuse-box that was making a persistent loud hum. Apparently it was a faulty contact. Normally, as he runs a very popular business, we’d have expected him to be a hour or two in coming, but no. He arrived very promptly: he said he was going ‘stir-crazy’ – absolutely frustrated with not being able to get out and get on. I know exactly how he felt. And of course water and ambient dampness don’t help any electrical work.

Latterly the rain fell as sleet and snow and it gave the garden a rather menacing and slightly eerie look, which lacked the fluffy Santa Claus softness of proper snow. Here are four pictures I snapped through open windows during the storm. The first is the view across the main garden from upstairs:

View from window

The second is out of the front door, looking across to the driveway with the wirework dome. Three days ago Maisie pruned the fuchsias in the foreground down to the ground. They put on a lot of growth last year:

Out the front door

The third was taken out of the back door. This is a snap-shot, not a carefully composed picture for a book, so I apologise for the three prominent dustbins (the little bin is for vegetable waste to go onto the manure heap). The winter-flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera purpusii) immediately behind the bin with the snowy lid was particularly good this year. The flowers are just going over and the first leaf-buds are starting to open:

Front garden

The fourth is a view from the French doors leading onto the poop-deck, whose pergola-supports rather dominate the picture. All our bird-feeders now sport squirrel-proof mesh. The small border behind the central post is still too wet to walk along. You can’t see it very clearly, but there’s water in the gutters on either side. The bed on the right is filled with the highly scented, dark pink rose Madame Isaac Pereire. The plants are only just hanging on and we worry if they’ll survive all the wet. They’ll certainly need a good feed in a week or two’s time:

View from poop-deck

A couple of days after the last of the February wet, we actually had some sunshine. I was out walking the dogs and was heading towards the wood. At this point the wood is planted with hazel for coppicing and oak standards. But shortly after planting we found that strong winds were making it hard for the trees to get established, so we decided to sett a wind-break of black poplar (Populus nigra) tree cuttings, which has proved very successful and has drawn the slower growing oaks into fine upright specimens. What we hadn’t realised was that the poplar trees helped shade and drain the paddocks alongside them and this provided a superb habitat for field ants. At least that’s what I assume them to be. Field ants are famous for their anthills and these don’t seem to have spread into the neighbouring wood (which wood ants would have done). One day I must get an entomologist to identify them properly (hint, hint: Tweet me if you are one living locally). I noticed the first of their little anthills about fifteen years ago and they have grown steadily ever since. Now they have spread to the other side of the farm, where there’s another colony of at least half an acre. I reckon the one in the picture is slightly larger.

Anthills

And here’s a close-up of those anthills. As a prehistorian I can’t help thinking that they closely resemble tiny Bronze Age round barrows, complete with the slightly flattened or even depressed crowns. With barrows these depressions are largely the result of Victorian antiquarian-Vicars doing ‘excavations’. In the case of the anthills the excavators are far more welcome: they’re made by the sharp pointed beaks of green woodpeckers. We now have about four pairs of resident green woodpeckers who waddle about the fields, or fly over the garden, stuffed full of ants and making their wonderful, deafening calls, which are known in the west country as Yaffles.

Anthills

I first began to notice the ant-hills around ten years ago when I was topping the grazing in the autumn. By then they were tall enough to catch the revolving blade of my pasture-topper. For a few years I was ably to lift it by setting the tractor’s hydraulics up a notch or two. But now they’re too high even for that, so I’ve stopped topping the grazing. If anyone is going to dig into those ant-hills, I would far rather it was woodpeckers than my tractor.

My final picture was taken at the very end of February. It shows Chicken Lane, the little lane/footpath we planted when we laid out the garden, farmyard, wood, paddocks, house, barns and orchards in 1994-5. The various wild and semi-domesticated forms of plum (Prunus, sp.) were planted as a semi-formal line of rooted cuttings along the left-hand side of the lane (which gets its name from the chickens that peck and scratch their way along it, in summertime). On the right-hand side you can see more spaced out, taller alder (Alnus glutinosa) trees. Today the alders form part of a self-seeded and almost impenetrable hedge. Archaeologists still don’t believe me when I tell them that hedges can occur naturally: they don’t have to be deliberately planted. I think the emerging may blossom is particularly good this year – and it makes a change that the flowers are so well ahead of the leaves. As our climate grows ever warmer, the two often occur simultaneously – which spoils the effect.

Chicken lane

A final thought. Chicken Lane is acquiring a character all of its own. To be honest, I don’t think that either Maisie1 or I had a very clear idea of what it would look like when we planted it. But that didn’t worry us – we had more than enough to be getting on with. I think we both rather wanted the garden to come up with surprises that we could subsequently develop and improve. And that’s what has happened. So when we laid it all out, we were at pains not to cram the various features together. Plants need space – especially trees and shrubs. So is our approach less disciplined than that of a Capability Brown or a Gertrude Jekyll? No, I don’t think it is. But the English landscape – especially in eastern England – has become so open and impoverished since the war that traditional approaches to garden design have to be modified: nature must be allowed to return at its own pace: I fear that rapid tree planting or, just as bad, ‘rewilding’ will prove almost as aesthetically bland and culturally meaningless as the ‘grain plains’ that currently blight rural areas of lowland Britain. I have a double Golden Rule: respect landscape history and never force Mother Nature.

1 For new followers of this blog, Maisie is my wife, the archaeologist and gardener, Maisie Taylor.

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Digging the Vegetable Garden: One of My Favourite Jobs of the Year

I know there’s a big danger about droning on and on about a wet season, but whenever I meet other gardeners that’s all we ever want to do. And it seems to make us all feel just a little less frustrated. I suppose it’s a bit sad. But anyhow. Recently, however, the weather has got a tiny bit drier – I think we’ve just enjoyed a full week without heavy rain – which is bliss! But I know it won’t last. Right now I’m sitting at my desk because I daren’t spend long outside. There’s a 70 to 75 m.p.h. storm force wind blowing and heavy rain is forecast in a couple of hours. It’s all part of an Atlantic storm – bequeathed to us by our American and Canadian friends, which has gathered force while crossing the ocean. Everything hereabouts is blowing and flapping in the gale – puts me in mind of a Trump tantrum. So I thought I’d do some writing while the storm (given the name Ciara by the UK Met Office) does her worst.

The vegetable garden stood up quite well to the wet, and most of the water drained into the path around it, where it remained stubbornly, looking more and more like a canal. I lifted the gravel with a heavy-duty fork and it worked for a bit, but while I was pruning the espaliered apples I trod it down again – and now we’re back to a canal. I took this photo exactly a week ago, on February 2nd, the day I started digging.

Flooded veg garden

Right now the ground’s so wet you can’t get on the borders without compacting the soil, which means we can’t cut-back last season’s perennials and annuals, which we normally like to start about now. Some people prefer to do this in the autumn, but we’d rather leave the seeds in place for our huge bird population to feed on during the coldest weeks of winter. In fact it’s too wet to do almost anything, except prune a few trees and shrubs and dig the vegetable garden. So here’s my very first bit of digging, done late in the afternoon of Sunday February 2nd. I know it’s only a small patch of ground, but I felt as stiff as a board when I headed in for tea. But I knew digging would get me fit. And it did.

Digging veg patch

Just a week of digging is enough to get my limbs working again after Christmas. It’s a restorative process – and cheaper than a gym. While I dug I was visited regularly by a very friendly cock robin and a small brown hen (who has stopped laying for the winter). She was stuffing herself full of live earthworms – something I still find hard to watch even after almost five decades of digging. I know it’s fashionable to have no-dig gardens and raised beds, but I find my potatoes taste better and better as time passes and I put it down to the well-rotted manure I dig-in every winter. Oh dear, just had a thought: does this mean that visiting Vegans can’t eat my vegetables? Anyhow, this is what the veg garden looked like this morning (Feb 9th). I finished digging late yesterday afternoon and found I’d left my camera indoors, so didn’t take a picture – and besides, the light was fading. Still don’t know how I managed to hold it steady enough for a picture in the gale, when I popped out an hour ago. But it was looking good – and today my back feels fine. Digging seems to reach every bit of you: makes you feel supple. Shame about the chicken eating wiggly live worms, though.1

Veg garden dug

There was another short dry spell at the end of January and it was then I decided that I would have to do something about the state of the lawns. The previous day I had done my usual trip to Long Sutton market to collect brown shrimps and mussels and on the way home I noticed that a lot of people were out in their gardens mowing their lawns. The Saxon founders of the town had a good eye for landscape and they placed their new settlement on the low ridge of tidal silts that bound The Wash along its southern shores. That’s why the town of Long Sutton sits maybe a metre or two higher than the fen immediately to the south and west, where we are. This means that our land takes a bit longer to drain – but those chaps with their mowers didn’t seem to be having any problems. So I thought I’d give it a go when I returned home. And this was the result.

Wet grass

I wouldn’t say for one moment that it was stripy perfection – and certainly not Wimbledon Centre Court standards. But if you compare the single mown stripe up the left-hand side of the Long Border, you can see just how very long the grass has grown. I’m aware the mowing did make a mess – and I even got the mower stuck at one point – but I simply had to do something. And now a full week later it is starting to recover: had I left it much longer it would have made the early spring cuts very much more difficult. Once our grass gets away it grows like a greyhound on amphetamines.

Towards the end of January Maisie and I decided we’d visit Cambridge University Botanic Garden, who have one of the finest winter gardens anywhere. I love going there and not just because it’s a fabulous garden, but because it also means I can have lunch in Yim Wah Chinese Restaurant. We used to visit Yim Wah when it was at Caxton on the old North Road a few miles west of Cambridge. I love that road with its trees set back and many 18th Century roadside inns. It’s also the world’s first turnpike (1663: see my The Making of the British Landscape, pp. 452-3). The Chinese restaurant was located at a cross-roads, alongside the Caxton Gibbet. Then the building burnt down and has been replaced by the ubiquitous clutch of look-alike fast food and burger eateries. I later discovered the Chinese family had moved to Cambridge – where their food is as fresh and delicious as it has ever been. Having said that, I do rather miss the gibbet: glimpsing death while you pig-out on noodles. But I digress…

To get to Cambridge we boarded a train at March station. I can’t remember what happened next: I think I might even have nodded off. Then Maisie woke me with a poke in the ribs.

We’re approaching the Welney Washes.’

That was all I needed to know. I whipped out my camera and grabbed several pictures. Sorry, I know there are spots of rain on the train’s window – but where else would you ever get such a fantastic view?

This huge expanse of winter flood forms between the two artificial and parallel channels of the River Great Ouse as they make their way in a dead straight line across the flat expanse of the Fens. Cornelius Vermuyden, who master-minded this drainage scheme in the 17th Century, realised that you must channel floodwater from the southern midlands across the Fen basin in the quickest manner possible, if you are to avoid further flooding. And this was the result: two wide artificial channels whose digging was interrupted by the English Civil war (1642-1651). The flood land between the two embanked channels is known as the Ouse Washes and from our train window I could see that they were deeply flooded. Note how the dryland beyond the bank to the right of the picture is far lower-lying than the water in the Ouse Washes. That drop was caused by drainage and the peat erosion that has happened since the land was initially drained three and a half centuries ago. You don’t need to be a hydrological engineer to known that it will pose major problems in the future, especially if sea levels continue to rise – as every respected climate scientist expects.

Welney Washes

And now I want to move away from the big picture to a couple of plants that have helped raise my spirits in these rather ghastly times. The first is the evergreen tree Garrya elliptica, sometimes known as the silk-tassel. It’s a native of northern California, but seems to do very well in England. We planted ours against the south-facing gable end of our house, about 15 years ago, and it has grown far more vigorously than we expected. One day I think I’ll get it under control, but every February the tassels descend and then it has a magic all of its own. You can’t beat it.

Garrya elliptica

My final picture is of the winter-flowering Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’. I love this plant: simple, elegant flowers, unfussy foliage and it blooms throughout most of the winter. Ours grows immediately outside the back door and it brings a smile to my face every time I walk past it. Winter flowers are often like that: they seem to speak to you directly.

Clematis cirrhosa Freckles

1 I posted pictures of the robin and the hen on my Twitter feed @PryorFrancis

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