Late February: The End of the Wet?

First let me say a few words of welcome to anyone who has had the sound good sense to follow this blog having read my short piece (‘I wouldn’t be without…’) in the Correspondence section of the March issue of the RHS magazine, The Garden. So if you’re new here, this is a blog that has lots of garden stuff, mostly written for the benefit of gardeners and garden lovers. Sometimes I make forays into farming, archaeology, nature conservation and landscape history – especially of the Fens. I like to believe there’s something for everyone – but having said that, there’s no pleasing some people. Anyhow, if you’ve just joined us: welcome aboard!

I am writing this in the first week of March and we haven’t had heavy rain for almost a week. A couple of days ago the Met Office announced that February 2020 had been the wettest February of all time (or since records began, if you want to be pedantic). And I think that says it all. I also think we’re all rather fed up with it. Yesterday the electrician who has been sorting-out our various problems in the house and farm had been fixing something in the fuse-box that was making a persistent loud hum. Apparently it was a faulty contact. Normally, as he runs a very popular business, we’d have expected him to be a hour or two in coming, but no. He arrived very promptly: he said he was going ‘stir-crazy’ – absolutely frustrated with not being able to get out and get on. I know exactly how he felt. And of course water and ambient dampness don’t help any electrical work.

Latterly the rain fell as sleet and snow and it gave the garden a rather menacing and slightly eerie look, which lacked the fluffy Santa Claus softness of proper snow. Here are four pictures I snapped through open windows during the storm. The first is the view across the main garden from upstairs:

View from window

The second is out of the front door, looking across to the driveway with the wirework dome. Three days ago Maisie pruned the fuchsias in the foreground down to the ground. They put on a lot of growth last year:

Out the front door

The third was taken out of the back door. This is a snap-shot, not a carefully composed picture for a book, so I apologise for the three prominent dustbins (the little bin is for vegetable waste to go onto the manure heap). The winter-flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera purpusii) immediately behind the bin with the snowy lid was particularly good this year. The flowers are just going over and the first leaf-buds are starting to open:

Front garden

The fourth is a view from the French doors leading onto the poop-deck, whose pergola-supports rather dominate the picture. All our bird-feeders now sport squirrel-proof mesh. The small border behind the central post is still too wet to walk along. You can’t see it very clearly, but there’s water in the gutters on either side. The bed on the right is filled with the highly scented, dark pink rose Madame Isaac Pereire. The plants are only just hanging on and we worry if they’ll survive all the wet. They’ll certainly need a good feed in a week or two’s time:

View from poop-deck

A couple of days after the last of the February wet, we actually had some sunshine. I was out walking the dogs and was heading towards the wood. At this point the wood is planted with hazel for coppicing and oak standards. But shortly after planting we found that strong winds were making it hard for the trees to get established, so we decided to sett a wind-break of black poplar (Populus nigra) tree cuttings, which has proved very successful and has drawn the slower growing oaks into fine upright specimens. What we hadn’t realised was that the poplar trees helped shade and drain the paddocks alongside them and this provided a superb habitat for field ants. At least that’s what I assume them to be. Field ants are famous for their anthills and these don’t seem to have spread into the neighbouring wood (which wood ants would have done). One day I must get an entomologist to identify them properly (hint, hint: Tweet me if you are one living locally). I noticed the first of their little anthills about fifteen years ago and they have grown steadily ever since. Now they have spread to the other side of the farm, where there’s another colony of at least half an acre. I reckon the one in the picture is slightly larger.

Anthills

And here’s a close-up of those anthills. As a prehistorian I can’t help thinking that they closely resemble tiny Bronze Age round barrows, complete with the slightly flattened or even depressed crowns. With barrows these depressions are largely the result of Victorian antiquarian-Vicars doing ‘excavations’. In the case of the anthills the excavators are far more welcome: they’re made by the sharp pointed beaks of green woodpeckers. We now have about four pairs of resident green woodpeckers who waddle about the fields, or fly over the garden, stuffed full of ants and making their wonderful, deafening calls, which are known in the west country as Yaffles.

Anthills

I first began to notice the ant-hills around ten years ago when I was topping the grazing in the autumn. By then they were tall enough to catch the revolving blade of my pasture-topper. For a few years I was ably to lift it by setting the tractor’s hydraulics up a notch or two. But now they’re too high even for that, so I’ve stopped topping the grazing. If anyone is going to dig into those ant-hills, I would far rather it was woodpeckers than my tractor.

My final picture was taken at the very end of February. It shows Chicken Lane, the little lane/footpath we planted when we laid out the garden, farmyard, wood, paddocks, house, barns and orchards in 1994-5. The various wild and semi-domesticated forms of plum (Prunus, sp.) were planted as a semi-formal line of rooted cuttings along the left-hand side of the lane (which gets its name from the chickens that peck and scratch their way along it, in summertime). On the right-hand side you can see more spaced out, taller alder (Alnus glutinosa) trees. Today the alders form part of a self-seeded and almost impenetrable hedge. Archaeologists still don’t believe me when I tell them that hedges can occur naturally: they don’t have to be deliberately planted. I think the emerging may blossom is particularly good this year – and it makes a change that the flowers are so well ahead of the leaves. As our climate grows ever warmer, the two often occur simultaneously – which spoils the effect.

Chicken lane

A final thought. Chicken Lane is acquiring a character all of its own. To be honest, I don’t think that either Maisie1 or I had a very clear idea of what it would look like when we planted it. But that didn’t worry us – we had more than enough to be getting on with. I think we both rather wanted the garden to come up with surprises that we could subsequently develop and improve. And that’s what has happened. So when we laid it all out, we were at pains not to cram the various features together. Plants need space – especially trees and shrubs. So is our approach less disciplined than that of a Capability Brown or a Gertrude Jekyll? No, I don’t think it is. But the English landscape – especially in eastern England – has become so open and impoverished since the war that traditional approaches to garden design have to be modified: nature must be allowed to return at its own pace: I fear that rapid tree planting or, just as bad, ‘rewilding’ will prove almost as aesthetically bland and culturally meaningless as the ‘grain plains’ that currently blight rural areas of lowland Britain. I have a double Golden Rule: respect landscape history and never force Mother Nature.

1 For new followers of this blog, Maisie is my wife, the archaeologist and gardener, Maisie Taylor.

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