The Garden in Late Spring

In a normal year the second half of May is to all intents and purposes part of summer. But not this year – oh no, certainly not this year…

As I write, bitter north-easterly winds, sharp showers and even thunderstorms are lashing the entire east coast from off the North Sea. It’s the coldest, most windy start to summer I can remember – and you can see it in the garden, where some spring bulbs (like bluebells) are still hanging on. Most of the trees are now in leaf, although ash, oak and alder still look rather sparse. A few very early roses are in flower, but the growth of winter-pruned varieties is well behind what I’d normally expect for this time of year. Taken together, I’d say we’re at least two to three weeks behind an average year (whatever that might be). One of the characteristics of this winter and spring has been the high energy of the weather: lots of strong winds, flash floods, fierce showers and more thunder than usual. This is precisely what climatologists say will happen as a result of man-made climate change. And some people still deny it! Leaves me speechless…

From a gardening perspective, this has been the season of weeds. I’ve never seen so many. They were bad last autumn and I waited for many of them to be killed off by the first frosts of December. But they never materialised – nor in January, either, which turned out to be the warmest on record. This meant that the annual weeds had all the time in the world to flower and seed, so that when the first sharp frosts did arrive – in later February – it was too late. On the plus side, all the rain has meant that weeding has been better – the roots come out more easily, but then one’s boots compress the soft soil. So it’s never a win-win (even if one did use such clichés).

Enough moaning. Let’s start with a look at the wisteria across the front of the house. It’s the common form of the unimproved species, Wisteria sinensis, and it’s invariably good. I gave it a very sharp pruning last August, as bits of it were getting rather tangled and straggly. But instead of resenting such treatment, it has rewarded my efforts with the best display I can recall. And they smell gorgeous!


Mindful of the ever-present weed problem, my next two views of the garden were taken at its fringes, where the surrounding countryside starts to enter the garden – or at least that was my slightly pretentious idea when we laid it all out, back in 1993. And I’ll start with my favourite native British tree: the Black Poplar. This particular stand of trees was planted from hardwood cuttings I took in the depths of winter and then simply shoved into the ground. It was a wet season and to my immense surprise they all rooted. It’s sobering to think that a handful of cuttings that could be carried in the back pocket of my jeans are now trees that weigh tons, each. This year the leaves are looking particularly fresh and green.

Black poplars

My next view is along the track that leads from the farmyard and muckheap to the main wood and the belt of black poplars that skirt it. It’s where our chickens have always liked to scratch about and hence it’s name: Chicken Lane. Earlier in the spring the grass is studded with cowslips that look lovely against the blackthorn and hawthorn blossom on either side. In May the cow parsley, or keck as it is generally known around here (its scientific name is Anthriscus sylvestris), takes over everything. In the past I’ve made efforts to control it, but I hate spraying blanket areas, and besides, the spray would kill the cowslips underneath. So now I let it flower, and when it’s finished early in June, I’ll cut it down with the tractor-mounted pasture-topper. Keck is generally regarded as a weed, but I prefer the old gardener’s definition of a weed: a plant growing in the wrong place. For my money, the keck growing so lushly along Chicken Lane is every inch a garden plant – and again, the scent, on a warm May day, is to die for.

Chicken lane

And finally, I come to a corner of the garden which we always keep hand-weeded throughout spring. It’s a damp, dark spot and often flooded in a wet winter, as this year. Hemerocallis and hostas thrive there, but so do bog or wet-loving Primulae. A few years ago Maisie bought some from a local nursery. Unfortunately, they’d been mislabelled, but they were very, very cheap. So what the hell: we bought two pots. Since then they’ve seeded themselves very freely. They’ve also arranged themselves into two zones, with darker flowered hybrids towards the back. The darker ones were once named Primula beesiana and the more yellow were Primula bulleyana. Today the vigorous hybrids are grouped together as Primula bulleesiana. I don’t think they’ve ever looked better. They die down over winter, but the patch is still spreading, so with luck the display next season will be even better.

Bog primulae

An old gardener once told me that if you can get on top of the weeds by the end of June, you’ll be OK for the rest of summer and into the autumn. As we’ll be opening to the public, under the National Gardens Scheme on September 17-18th, I pray he did actually know what he was talking about…

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