May 2021: Wet, Wet, Wet!

I’m starting to write this blog post on the last day of May, which happens to be a Monday and a Bank Holiday. More to the point, we’ve got some close friends coming to spend the day with us. They’ll be the first  official visitors we’ve had to our house since we went into the first Covid-19 lockdown, back in March, 2020. True, we’ve had plenty of people in our garden, including of course our friends and supporters who came for the National Gardens Scheme open weekend, last September, but even then, we couldn’t allow people inside the house. But much has changed since last autumn and most importantly of all, Maisie and I have both received our two inoculation jabs. So even if we do manage to catch the disease it’s very unlikely indeed that we will become seriously ill (and as I lift my fingers from the keyboard they will all instantly cross themselves, firmly).

I have the television on in the background (sound turned off), as I always try to catch the early morning weather forecast which is done by a real living meteorologist and is always more reliable than the BBC Weather App on my phone, which seems to change radically from one minute to the next. And I can never understand why the hourly summary predicts rain from, say, 10-11 AM, but list the ‘probability of precipitation’ as just 21%. Very odd. If I’d handled statistics like that as a student I’d have failed my exams. But I digress: the reason I mention the television wasn’t to rant about an App, but to tell my long-suffering readers, that all morning the screen has been showing pictures of vast crowds on beaches at resorts in Bognor, Bournemouth and Skegness, to name just three. People look very happy, but also rather sunburnt and – dare I say it? – slightly overweight. Gosh, we Brits are becoming a nation of fatties.

Maybe I’m just being a predictable old sexist, but I seem to remember that back in the ‘60s and ‘70s most overweight people were female – often ladies ‘of a certain age’ who had raised their children and were now relaxing and enjoying well-earned cake, cream and fish and chips. Meanwhile, of course their husbands were down at the pub doing something similar but with a very slightly less fattening brown ale. But the thing that struck me when I saw the recent footage of people on the beach, was that younger men were overweight too. Does this reflect the fact that much modern work is screen-based or power-assisted? I honestly don’t know, but I think we do need to recognise and address the overweight problem, because if we don’t, the younger generations will have to face complex health crises that will make Covid seem relatively trivial. And as a serious afterthought to a serious thought, surely the problem that lies beneath the phenomenon of increasing overweight isn’t sugary drinks or fatty, over-processed foods. They’re a symptom, not the cause which is Education. Simple as that. Poor or inadequate education is of fundamental importance. It has given rise to so many social evils, not the least of which is populist politics. I could never understand why it was that populist politicians like Hitler rose so rapidly to power in the 1930s. I think now I am beginning to understand. Populists espouse and believe in Quick Fixes, such as Brexit, but which often backfire, as Bolsonaro is discovering in Brazil. But there are no quick fixes to poor education, which is all about consistent standards and steady progress which can only be provided by well and kindly run local schools and colleges. Love, humour and tolerance – the three biggest enemies of populist bigotry – can best be taught to children and young adults by personal contact with their friends and teachers in classrooms and lecture theatres. You’ll be relieved to know that that’s the end of my late spring rant, which was largely triggered by the British Government’s pathetic response to the damage to education caused by Covid. Meanwhile, back to the blog and the garden, where I was talking about our first two visitors on the last day of May.

Our friends have two young children who love visiting the farm and garden and it’s great, because young children don’t recognise weeds: to them a dandelion is a lovely yellow flower and its seed-head is something to blow away with delight. To a gardener, of course, they are a pernicious weed with an impossibly long tap root. Anyhow, our garden is full of dandelions and of other weeds, including vast areas of grass, creeping buttercups and goosegrass, whose cleaving leaves, stems and seeds stick to one’s clothes and spread everywhere. I find they also irritate my skin. But the point I’m trying to make is that the weeds in our garden are ubiquitous. And why? Because it has been the wettest, coldest May on record and weeding has generally been impossible – because our clay-silt soil compacts terribly if stood upon in the wet. The frost damage has been quite considerable, too, including several apple trees, whose blossoms were aborted. So let’s retrace our steps through the month since my last blog post, starting with two pictures taken on May 5th.

The first was taken near the wood and is a view across the meadow with the fastigiate English oak (Quercus robur var. ‘Fastigiata’) towards the centre of the picture, in the background. Every spring the carpet of cowslips gets more prominent and spreads a little further. There must be hundreds of thousands of plants there – and they all started from a handful of seed which I gathered back in 1994 from our old garden in Parson Drove. The ash trees in the wood haven’t even begun to leaf-up and yet the (supposedly) wild apple to the right of the fastigiate oak is coming into blossom. As I currently write, now in early June, ash trees are looking greener, but even now, one or two in open, exposed conditions are only just starting to open their buds. In June! Fully six weeks to two months late! What a weird season.

The second is a view from the rose garden, where the box hedging is starting to look a little sad (a form of blight took hold after recent wet winters, made worse by this May’s incessant downpours), but with the Tea Shed glimpsed in the background. The gorgeous crab apple Malus sylvestris ‘Evereste’ is just coming into bloom in front of it. One of the things I like about our garden is that we don’t have many secluded ‘rooms’. It makes me smile if one can catch glimpses of different areas, unexpectedly. We don’t plan these – they just happen, which makes them so much more fun! I hadn’t noticed this particular view until I took the picture.

This view was taken almost three weeks later, after a horrible spell of wet, cold weather. Honestly, we both thought winter had returned, with ceaseless freezing cold winds from off the North Sea. It was horrible…brrrrr! It’s a view over the front garden with the wood (seen in the first picture) in the background. The trees are a little bit greener, but not much. You can also spot that some of the ash trees are suffering from Ash Dieback disease – a deadly fungal infection known as Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. Woodland ash trees are particularly susceptible and many of ours are dying. By contrast, the garden in the foreground is full of life and the first flowers of summer are starting to emerge. As I write I can see the lupins in the front garden which are looking wonderful, and in full bloom.

The weather stayed dry and three days later on May 31st I took two further pictures. The first is a view along the main double border. The lawn hasn’t been mowed because the ground is still too soft and the border’s edges haven’t been trimmed (for the same reason: edges collapse if you stand too close to them). But I think this picture is full of promise for early summer. True, there are creeping buttercup flowers in the grass, but so what? I hate weed-free lawns almost as much as I detest the English obsession with striped lawns. Grass should be lush and healthy, not over-trimmed and stripy. Personally, I always think of those bloody stripes as the gardening equivalent of handcuffs; they tell me that this grass is captured, taken prisoner and bound-over to a permanent jail where control is maintained by tight mowing, synthetic fertiliser and hormone weedkillers. Freedom for lawns NOW!!

In the evening I took a stroll down towards the pond garden. The untrimmed lawns are still much in evidence, as are the recently pollarded willows, which are just sprouting into regrowth. But what is it about the low sunlight of a Fenland evening? There’s simply nothing like it. Sometimes when I’m doing an early summer barbeque, this light can be so distracting, sometimes leading to burnt chicken wings and singed sausages.

The final two pictures were taken on the following day, June 1st. The first shows a view across the meadow similar to the initial picture of this blog post, but taken with a slightly wider-angled lens. The grass has grown a lot, following all the May rain, but in this later picture the subtle pale yellow of the cowslips has been replaced by the much more vigorous tones of the meadow buttercup. I didn’t plant a single one of these; they all spread naturally into the garden from surrounding dykesides. So none of this is planned, but it also couldn’t be improved upon. To my eye that buttercup display is pure perfection – and it happened entirely by itself. It’s the sort of thing that gives gardening its very special magic.

My final picture is in complete contrast to that lovely buttercup scene. It shows a view of the vegetable garden with onions, peas and potatoes in neat, regimented rows. In the foreground, beneath mesh is a row of early summer cabbages and tender stem broccoli, and to the right, beneath netting (not mesh, as this prevents bees from pollinating the flowers) are this season’s strawberries, which I’m very pleased with. They’ve got lots of flowers and we should be blessed with a large crop in a few weeks. The raspberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants, largely hidden behind the greenhouse, are also looking very promising.

So that’s it. Lockdown looks like it’ll be easing and I’m delighted to report that nurseries and garden centres seem to be prospering. If this nasty pandemic has given us anything positive, let’s hope we find that more people are out in their gardens and allotments. Whatever else they’ll be doing, they won’t be wasting their time. And they won’t be putting on weight, either. Lovely buttery, home-grown potatoes make you positively lithe and slimline – at least that’s what I tell people. Time for a glass of Pimms with our own fresh mint and Alpine strawberries: bliss!

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