Life and Hope: Facing a Challenging Winter

Let me start with a profuse apology and then the good news. The apology is for the fact that it’s been over a month since I last did a piece for this blog. This was all the more unforgiveable given the huge success of our NGS Open Garden weekend on September 19-20. I know that Maisie has been in contact with those of you who were able to help us manage the visitors; you will already know the details of the weekend. MANY thanks to all of you – and to all our visitors! Warm thanks also to the people who weren’t able to come, but who sent us generous donations, instead. Visitors had to pre-book on the NGS website and to be quite frank we had very low expectations. Our garden is very rural and many of our visitors live locally, where broadband speeds are – to put it politely – pitifully slow. But in the event, we were proved wrong: we had about 60% of our normal, (i.e. unrestricted) number of visitors, but people spent far more freely. We weren’t allowed to sell tea; nevertheless, the pre-wrapped slices of cake were a huge success, as was the picnic field, where people (in groups of six, or less!) sat on bales of wheat straw munching lemon drizzle cake, with warm drinks from the flasks they had brought with them. I may even have spotted a bottle or two of wine. Or did I? No, I must have been mistaken. In previous years our garden opening usually has raised around £1,500 for nursing charities. This year, even with pre-booking only, we managed an extraordinary £1,055! And if ever there was a year when the medical profession needed our help, this was the one. So again, huge thanks to everyone involved: volunteers, visitors and donors. You’re all stars!

            While we were opening the garden, we were hugely encouraged by the enthusiasm of our visitors and of course by their generosity. There was no hint of the thuggish animosity that seems to be dominating contemporary public life and the social media. Admittedly, country people tend to be more easy-going than their urban counterparts, but loneliness is known to have been a problem among isolated farming families during the pandemic and rural areas have certainly had their own problems. We were so heartened to see how cheerful people were. When one got to chat with them, many visitors were finding hope and consolation in their gardens, I can’t remember his precise words, but one young man told me how much he had enjoyed growing vegetables for the first time. He was wondering about planting potatoes next year, so I discussed varieties of earlies, second earlies and main crop. And also how to fight those horrible slugs! I got the strong impression that he’d be a gardener for the rest of his life – and that’s so very heartening!

            I must confess that once we had removed all the signs, the notices and also the hurdles and other barriers we had used to keep people apart, we both rather collapsed: it had been quite an exhausting few days. Of course, this was when I should have written my blog. Then my publisher gently nagged me to return the corrected final proofs of my next book. If you’re an author, a gentle nag from a publisher is like a shot of concentrated adrenalin, which drives everything else out of you mind. The poor old blog post didn’t really stand a chance. Hence the delay. I blame others (maybe because I’ve seen too many politicians on the TV screen of late), but it’s my fault really. Grovel…grovel.

            On the positive side, The Fens book is continuing to sell very well. Of course it’s now in paperback and available at most bookshops, but if you want to get a copy by mail, I suggest you click here (or at the top of this blog). In my next blog post I’ll say a few judicious words about my next book, which I’m very excited about. Present plans are to publish it later in 2021, when the current huge wave of new authors might have subsided a bit. I gather over 600 titles were published in the UK in September, 2020. That’s an insane number! Better wait till things have calmed down, but I have to say I’m so delighted that publishing is doing OK and best of all, that real, printed-on-paper books are back in vogue. I’d hate my literary legacy, such as it is, to be handed on to future generations by way of floppy disks, CDs, flash drives and downloads, alone. What would happen if there was a nuclear war and all electronics were wiped out? Horrible thought.

            Meanwhile back to the garden. Autumn colour has been quite good, although strong winds have removed many of the leaves and recently rain has hit later flowering roses and asters, many of which have collapsed because their flower heads are heavy with water. So let’s go on a rapid tour – and don’t feel obliged to maintain social distance. Join me in large crowds and walk as close as you want![1] I took most of these photos last week, before the recent rains began.

            Every year we pay a local tax to the IDB, or Internal Drainage Board, who spend our money cleaning-out, straightening and maintaining the dykes in our area. The big clean-out (known in the old days as slubbing-out) used to be done by hand, but today is done by mechanical excavators fitted with huge buckets. The buckets are in turn fitted with mechanical cutters that mow off the weeds. The system was introduced by John Thory in the 1970s. John was an old friend (sadly departed) who used to provide us with earth-moving equipment when we were doing our first excavations at Fengate, Peterborough from 1971-8. His buckets were about two metres wide. This one looks about three times that! The driver is very skilled indeed. It looks easy, but believe me, it isn’t.

            The Rose Garden suffered terribly last winter, as a result of prolonged, continuous flooding throughout December, January and February. This caused about half the box hedges to die of the less common variety of blight, brought about by flooding. To draw attention away from the dying hedges we created a new bed, arranged around a series of old sinks, planted with house-leeks and various dry-loving Alpine plants. The plant with the startling flowers in the foreground is the hardy Bromeliad, Fascicularia bicolor. Make sure young children don’t cut their fingers on its razor-sharp leaves!

            The wider open spaces, such as the Meadow tend to be the subject of attention in autumn, but I also like the quieter, more intimate parts of the garden, such as the Dome Garden, which I suppose is the only ‘room’ – in the traditional gardening sense – in our garden. It used to house the wirework dome that now adorns the Front Garden, until we moved it about fifteen years ago, but the name had stuck. I think the asters and roses look lovely in this shot and I apologise for the long grass of the lawn, but the soil in this part of the garden is both low-lying and clay-rich. It puddles terribly when I drive over it with the mower.

            We try to make sure that the Long Border looks good throughout the year, but it is particularly splendid in autumn. I particularly like the fruits of the winged spindle, Euonymous europaeus, Red Cascade (in the foreground, left).

            By way of complete contrast with the Long Border, the informality of the mown path of the Serpentine Walk becomes even more pronounced in autumn. I suppose we ought to re-seed it every year, because the birch roots always cause dryness in late summer. Lack of water makes the lawn die back. However, it usually recovers by springtime. Moss likes the dampness of winter and this, too, helps to keep the path looking green. I think lawns and paths are about more than neatness: they should change with the seasons, too.

            We have two large asparagus beds, in which we grow – surprise, surprise – asparagus, which we harvest in April and May. We grow an old variety (developed in New York in the 1860s), called Conover’s Colossal. I love it to bits and as I’ve planted far too much of it, I spend happy days handing bags of fresh spears to our neighbours in late spring. But a benefit that is rarely reported is the lovely colour that asparagus fern turns every year. I’ll have to cut it back shortly and then burn it, to prevent the dreaded pest, asparagus beetle, from hibernating inside the hollow stems over winter. In the foreground, are the rapidly drying plants of Eryngium giganteum, Miss Willmott’s Ghost. Miss Willmott (a famous gardener of the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries) was supposed to secretly spread its seeds around the gardens she visited. The leaves are horribly sharp, so she must have had tough old fingers!

[1] He lives in a world of his own! (Ed.)

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