What a very strange year it has been in the garden. For the first season ever – and I’ve been growing outdoor tomatoes for the best part of 30 years – our crop has been a complete failure. I sprayed for blight every ten days with the only spray our minders in Europe allow us to use (a sort of watered-down copper sulphate) and it simply didn’t work: like the early potatoes, they all got blight. Most of my fruit has been very poor. The strawberries were large and fat, but tasted of nothing; red currents and black currents were almost non-existent, as have been most apples and pears. But there was one exception: our blackberries – and we grow a splendid cultivar known as Merton’s Thornless –have been superb. The fruit are fat, black and hugely plentiful, if not always very sweet – and out in the hedgerows it’s the same story. Maisie has been boiling up saucepans of blackberries for jam and puree; yesterday she even made a litre of blackberry gin. It’s wonderful stuff because you don’t throw any of the fruit away when you strain it off after a year; instead, you pour it over ice cream and subside in a miasma of forbidden fruity pleasures. Sin, purest sin!
But as I said, this year has been strange. Take the blackberry plants. In most years when the crop has been good, the plant itself has grown weakly. In other words, the good crop is a way of compensating for poor growth. But not this year. We’re still picking berries, but to do so we have to fight our way through a tangle of new growth and we can’t just cut this back, or else we’d lose next year’s crop. I sometimes wonder whether the plant doesn’t know that and isn’t having a quiet chuckle up its sleeve, as it were.
Another plant that seems to be showing signs of cunning is our bay tree, which seemed to have been killed by those two terribly cold nights (-16⁰C) last winter. All the leaves went brown and I wrote the tree off as dead. I knew I had loads of Time Teams to film over the summer, and besides, there were other more urgent jobs on the farm and in the garden. So my chainsaw stayed in the barn. I thought no more about it. Then one day about a month ago I noticed a few green shoots that it had concealed underneath all the dead leaves. So it hadn’t died. It was alive. But again, there was something odd: it was almost as if the tree didn’t want me to know it hadn’t been killed.
But the strangest plant behaviour of all has been shown by the wisteria on the front of the house. It was very feeble in spring, when it’s normally a mass of scented blue flowers. It was also late to come into leaf and showed no signs of real growth for most of the summer. So I more or less gave up on it. In fact I more or less gave up on the whole of the front garden which reverted to overgrown annuals and weeds. Basically we couldn’t compete with the wet weather.
Then about a month ago I decided to take things in hand, before seeding became too much of a problem. I hacked my way through the undergrowth with a scythe, hook and mechanical hedge-cutter. It was like the Brazilian jungle. And to complete the picture the wisteria was a blaze of colour high above my head. One day I decided to use the front door as my plant clearance had almost reached it. I suppose to urban readers this might sound a bit odd, but in rural area people often don’t use their front doors, except on weddings and funerals. Instead, life takes place round the back, or in our case the side, leading onto the yard.
Anyhow, I opened the door and to my amazement there were thick strands of wisteria heading towards it. They weren’t going anywhere else: they were all aligned fairly and squarely on the doorway. Now I’d been cutting back the previous evening and I could have sworn those long shoots weren’t there then – otherwise I’d have chopped them off. As I looked down, I could have sworn I saw one of the sway slightly. Instinctively I moved my foot out of the way.
Isn’t it odd how things as inoffensive as plants can make one jittery? I’m writing this at five in the morning. Maisie has been away on a job and will be back later in the day. This is ridiculous, I can’t allow mere vegetation to make me nervous, so I’ve decided to take my chainsaw to that bay tree directly after breakfast. That’ll give it something to think about! Dawn’s just starting, but it’s later than yesterday. Must be overcast. Oh no, it isn’t: all the windows are covered with wisteria…