I think last Thursday, July 25th was the hottest day I’ve ever experienced and at 38.7o Celsius (101.66o Fahrenheit) the thermometer in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden agreed with me: an all-time British record. But it was the humidity that made it feel so intolerable: at times I wondered whether I wasn’t about to drown in my own gravy. Yuk! Meanwhile, while I was sweating indoors (it was FAR to hot to be out in the garden), the plants in the borders were growing like rockets, including, of course, the weeds, which are now about to seed and are causing us moments of high anxiety. Remember the old gardeners’ adage: one year’s seeding; seven years’ weeding? But in this blog post I want to cast such gloom aside, and have a look at the non-weeds out there in the garden, First however, I want to bid farewell to an old friend and welcome a new, youthful helper.
My hip replacement operation has proved a huge success and every month I find I can lift heavier weights and do jobs that would have been impossible a few years ago, but having said that, there are things which are perhaps best not attempted. Fighting-off angry rams is an obvious one, but pressing down with my left leg on the incredibly stiff clutch pedal of my old International B414 is another. This is especially true because the PTO (Power Take-Off) for the rear grass-topper is only engaged at the bottom of the clutch’s travel. So you really do have to press-down extremely hard – and hold it there. I was finding it very painful indeed before my operation, but now I’ve decided it can’t go on. So I’ve bought a new tractor with much easier, automatic controls and no nightmare pedals. I said a new tractor, but in reality it’s a John Deere 4400 compact, which was built about 2000 – almost twenty years ago. It’s also fitted with smoother garden tyres that won’t leave the deep ridges of the old B414. It’s also vastly more manoeuvrable. Having said that, there was a large lump in my throat when the old B414 left us. It’s funny how attached one can get to rusting steel, solid seats, stinky fumes, leaky hydraulics and rigid pedals. But now back to the garden in high summer.
In a mad Trumpian world, where those who deny climate-change are not regarded as bonkers, it’s sobering to think that ten of the hottest UK summers have happened since 2002. And you can really see it in British gardens. We grow several varieties of Phormium, the New Zealand flax, which loves our heavy damp soils. It was always regarded as half-hardy, but not now. And this year the flowers have been breath-taking – so good, in fact that they almost look out-of-place: almost (and I do mean almost) too exotic!
Not surprisingly the borders have all looked magnificent, if somewhat over-blown. Some plants have become positively bloated and we’ve noticed there’s been quite a lot of wind-damage, with snapped flower heads and collapsed stems. The main double border looks very luxuriant, but then so does the lawn grass! I’ve never known such a season for mowing – my mower’s fuel bill is scary…
Because it’s much narrower, the small border, which runs parallel with the main border, to the south, seemed to close up as the plants along it grew so huge. We had laid the garden out following Christopher Lloyd’s principle of two-person access. He always assumed that most often gardens are visited by couples rather than solitary individuals and we made all our paths just that little bit wider, as a result. It’s always nicer to go round a garden with a friend, than alone.
And when it comes to lavish growth, the Front Garden must surely take the biscuit: the supposedly miniature rose, The Fairy (the pink flowers in the foreground of the picture), has grown way beyond her normal patch and is spreading across the paths. Currently she is threatening to take over the house. She will have to be cut back quite severely before we open in September 21-22, or she will be lacerating visitors’ legs.
But when you step back from the flower beds and borders, everything suddenly falls into place and forms a delightfully harmonious whole. I love this view from the bathroom window. Makes brushing my teeth even more of a pleasure (surely you don’t mean that? – Ed.). Most of the flowers you can glimpse – mainly shades of yellows and reds – are Day Lilies (Hemerocallis).
And finally, the garden that has benefited most from the warmth and the wet: the veg garden. Frankly, I can’t recall a better year for courgettes, onions, broad beans, tender-stem broccoli and lettuces. The main crop onions in the foreground (and here I have yet to arrange their stalks and weed between the rows for the tenth time – or so it seems) have grown vast and I’ll be giving half the crop away to friends and neighbours. But the earlies, which I planted in the first week of January are VAST! They’re the row just beyond the main crops in the foreground and they’re the size of small dogs! And you might have expected them to taste of watery nothing, but they don’t: they’re sweet and delicious and if you can find one small enough to fit on the BBQ, they are beyond description – ambrosial!
Oh yes, before I post this rather over-the-top account of the garden, I feel I ought to report that my first three book-signing events for The Fens were all totally sold out and that book sales are fantastic. My right hand positively aches from signing my name so many times. Many thanks to everyone who attended – I do appreciate you coming, especially when I saw how hot many of you were in that big hall in Ely! Still, it was a very good night with a wonderfully Fenny atmosphere. I do like Fen people.