I know we English endlessly drone on about the weather, but sometimes it’s justified – and this year it most certainly is. I’ve just checked the farm diary and so far we’ve only had one millimetre of rain in June, which is on course to be one of the hottest – if not the hottest – on record. April and May were cold and very wet and our heavy clay-silt soils have gone from sticky porridge to cement in a couple of weeks. ‘In that case add plenty of manure and compost’ the experts proclaim from radios and TV screens. Yes, that’s fine if you’ve a small garden, but heavy clay-rich soils will still crack. The soil in our vegetable garden receives regular heavy additions of well-rotted sheep manure every four years, as part of our rotation plan, so the cracks there are narrower and shallower than elsewhere – but they still occur. Cracks near to recently planted shrubs and annuals can dry them out with extraordinary rapidity. So far this season we’ve lost several – and one or two of them were quite choice (i.e. expensive at the garden centre).
We positioned the vegetable garden on the ploughed-out remains of an ancient tidal creek, known in the Fens as a rodden, where the soil is a bit lighter and more silty than the land around it. So most of the flower garden, including the meadow, orchard and wood is on heavier ground, which has retained its springtime moisture longest. Having said that, the cracks which are now opening up are starting to resemble canyons. Primulae loved the wet spring and were just as good in the meadow (cowslips) as in the garden. Strangely, the primroses in the wood were rather disapointing this year.
The Long Border has looked stunning, but the initial flush of colour is just starting to pass. The roses were in flower at least three weeks earlier than usual and some of the old-fashioned varieties are already starting to fade. With luck, there’ll be an early second flowering in time for our NGS Open Garden weekend on September 15-16. Weeds have been a big problem. It was far too wet to do much weeding in late winter and early spring, when normally we try to get on top of them, so over the past two weeks Maisie and I have been on our hands and knees, weeding like maniacs. Grass weeds seem to have loved all the wetness and on one day I managed to weed-out three barrowfuls. Needless to state, my hands are a mass of broken-off rose thorns, which remind me of their presence painfully from time to time.
Moving outside the garden and into the surrounding fen, I’m glad to say that some local farmers are reluctant to drench their crops with pesticides and weed-killers, with the result that sometimes we are treated to the sight of a field of poppies in growing corn. Such fields were common when I was a child, but sadly one sees them less and less these days.
Our farm is about six miles from The Wash, as the crow flies, so we have been spared some of the high temperatures that are setting records inland. The breezes from off the North Sea have been very welcome, especially in the evenings, but even so our poor sheep must certainly be getting uncomfortabe, with their thick woolly coats. So we sheared a few weeks earlier than usual. Harry Collishaw, who lives on a farm down the road and is at college on a farming course, did the hard work – for the second year running. Light rain was forecast so we did the first two days in the barn, because just a few seconds of rain can wet a fleece so much that it becomes unsellable or unstorable. Wet shorn fleeces are incredibly difficult to dry out properly. Harry had problems with some of the sheep because the wool wasn’t quite ready for clipping: the lanoline, which has a yellow colour and was known in the past as ‘yolk’ (as in egg yolks), hadn’t yet risen above the surface of the skin – as it does when a fleece is ready to be shorn. The following weekend the sun was shining and the forecast was set fair. So we sheared the final dozen or so ewes outside – and Harry had no problems. The warmth and sunlight had done their jobs.