We all have different ways of dividing up the seasons. I’ve always thought of summer in three parts: Early Summer, High Summer and Late Summer. All three are about the shade of the colour green. In Early Summer (although not this year which was very late) all trees and shrubs are in leaf. Theoretically, spring ends and summer starts on June 1st, but as any farmer or gardener knows, that’s rubbish: it could be up to three weeks on either side of that date. Usually, in these days of climate change, it’s often somewhere in mid-May. Anyhow, in Early Summer the shades of green are fresh and varied: you could no more mistake an oak for an ash for a field maple; hedgerows and woodland fringes are full of distinctive colours and shapes. Then all of that changes in mid-July: the greens blend together and, yes, they harmonise, but unlike close harmony singing, the result isn’t fuller, richer and more satisfying. No, it’s just British mid-summer universal green. But don’t get me wrong: it isn’t at all unpleasant. It’s just green. Take it or leave it. It’s the green you drive by on your way to summer holidays by the seaside. It’s the colour of British summertime, along with the painful pink of sunburnt shoulders and the hazy blue of mid-summer skies. By now all freshness has gone from the scene and won’t be back until autumn. Late summer colours are a bit more varied: often there’s a hint of yellow in ash trees, and poplars turn a strange shade of grey.
In this blog post I want to look at other symptoms of transition from Early to High summer, which has been both late, and as often happens in a delayed season, abrupt. Two thousand and sixteen has so far been very strange – and oh so wet.
We started cutting asparagus very late in mid-April and because it rained so hard the crop was huge, if slightly less tasty than usual – which I put down to lack of sunshine. A bitterly cold March meant the crop was almost a month later than usual. I decided to stop cutting in mid-May as the spears were starting to get slightly fibrous and what taste there was was starting to decline. Sadly, it wasn’t the best year for my favourite vegetable. About three years ago, we decided to make more of the garden that fringes the asparagus bed. It’s unlike the rest of our garden, as that’s where we buried all the old bricks and battered roof-tiles, plus sand and anything else that was left-over from the building of the house, back in 1995. We did this deliberately, as we knew asparagus likes to grow in tidal sandy mudflats, which are better drained than our usual claggy stodge. So this well-drained bed has proved great fun to plant and has been colonised by some wonderful dry-loving annuals and short-lived perennials. The mullein, Verbascum olympicium, with the grey-green felty leaves and tall spikes of yellow flowers loves the dry edges of the yard, but must be thinned-out in the spring, or else it tends to dominate. Although I concede it is more than a little contrived (like most flower gardening), I love this rather chaotic screen which hides the asparagus behind it.
The path which runs from the yard and barn, to the back door of the house, was one of the first things we built once the house had been finished, as that was the route from the lambing pens to the house – and you soon get tired of squelching through mud when carrying syringes, or bottles of warm milk. I can’t say we planted the box hedge that lines the path at all deliberately. If anything we used it as a place to heel-in rooted cuttings and seedlings. But after a few years, it managed to establish itself and last year our neighbour Obie, who is a natural master of topiary and has now thoroughly taken over the management of our hedges, decided to reshape the emerging box hedge that separates the path from the asparagus bed. There’s a large box plant at one end, which is slightly off the alignment of the rest of the hedge. So Obie clipped this larger plant into the head (complete with nose, ears and eyes), of a very long Loch Ness Monster – which of course made clever use of the bigger and smaller plants of what had up until then been a very informal ‘hedge’. I like the way Obie’s Nessie is turning her head, as if looking around at people emerging from our back door. This view is taken from her tail, with the barn in the background.
The gravel path from the back door to the small, informal cottage garden-style front garden, is plank-lined and a tiny bit utilitarian. Essentially, we need it as access to the house. So recently we’ve tried to enliven the front garden with a Feet Path, leading to a small urn. If it sounds a bit odd, then it is. But at the point where the Feet Path springs off the main access path there’s a short, but tall, length of panel fencing, covered by a rose and by jasmine, which acts as a wind-break in winter. Last winter I had the bright idea of making a simple hazel arch, to bridge the gap between the tall fence and the house. I’ve trained a perennial sweet pea (Lathyrus latifolius) to climb the two hazel rods, which I’ll have to replace every few years, when the pea dies back, in winter. So it’s not a lot of work and I think the result is rather pleasing – though I say so myself.
If you follow the gravel path to the front of the house, you come to one of my favourite roses. It’s Rosa Mundi (more correctly, Rosa gallica versicolor), one of the oldest roses still currently grown in British gardens. Its precise history seems to be slightly obscure, but it is undoubtedly medieval and of great antiquity. One of its common names, Fair Rosamund, refers to the mistress of Henry II (1133-1189). It could have been introduced when troops returned from one of the early Crusades. We will never know for certain. It’s only drawback is that the flowers are damaged by rain, which of course has been terrible this year. You can see this in the sad brown-paper-parcels (which we should have removed, but there have been too many) alongside the central blooms in this picture. This bush flowers just outside my office window and I am admiring some flowers as I write this.
And now, a pair of pictures of the front garden, which we took in hand two seasons ago – and at last all that early work is starting to pay off. The popular ground-cover polyantha rose, The Fairy, has been particularly good this year, but its flower stalks will need quite a vigorous pruning, if it is to to look good when we open the garden in mid-September (17th-18th). We’ll also have to tie-in the fuchsia on the wire dome. We tried weaving the stalks into the lattice of wires, but they grew so fat and round that they began to distort the structure. So last winter we cut them out and replaced them with stems that were tied-in. That seems to have worked very much better.
Finally, a health warning. Last Friday I went to the Day Surgery Centre at Kings Lynn Hospital, where I had an umbilical hernia stitched-up. I’m still recovering, but it has meant that I mustn’t lift anything heavier than ‘a sheet of paper’ for at least a week – and then nothing ‘heavy’ for maybe three months. Somehow, but God alone knows how, I’ve got to stick to that rule. And then next week, the busy surgeons at Kings Lynn are going to have a second crack at a small carcinoma on my face. They say the skin op’s more precautionary than anything – but better safe than sorry. So with those two bits of surgery out of the way, I’ll be able to return to full vigorous health. I think my first job in the autumn will be chain-sawing logs for winter. And do you know what? I’m rather looking forward to it (the sawing, that is, not the winter!).