Front of House

If truth be known, I would always far rather be working or just relaxing behind the scenes. I have never been much of a centre stage or front of house person. I confess that some people might find that admission a bit odd, as these days I seem to spend much of my time standing in front of  audiences – and sometimes quite large ones – at literary festivals and bookshop signings, when I tell the world about the glories concealed in my latest book. I must also admit that I do like doing such talks, but for me the real reward comes after the front-of-house lecture, when I retreat to a desk, quite often behind the scenes outside the lecture hall, to sign copies of my books. This is where I get to meet my readers face-to-face – and I really have been missing those occasions. In the spring of 2020 we had to cancel about 25 signings because of the pandemic and I suspect we might not get back to the ‘old normal’ in 2021. I don’t like the idea of meeting my readers with a Perspex screen separating us, but I fear it may come to that. I’ve had two jabs, as, I suspect, have most of my British readers, but even so, the new highly infections Delta variant of the disease might well infect a few of us.  Maybe we should hold future signings in swimming pools, where we all wear flippers, masks and snorkels. Sorry, that’s a silly idea.

I do apologise for that introductory paragraph, which was completely irrelevant to the subject matter of this blog post, but it did allow me to vent my feelings about something I care about deeply: namely, meeting my readers. It’s one of the main reasons why I like writing books – or indeed, this blog – and it stimulates me to try out ideas that some might find a bit controversial. One day I’d like to write a blog post on raised vegetable beds, which to me seem a very expensive excuse to prize vast sums of money out of well-intended younger gardeners all in the name of supposed soil health.  With land becoming increasingly scarce, it seems crazy to box it up into tiny little raised beds, none of which could produce enough potatoes to feed a healthy family for more than a week. But enough of that: I’m about to embark on a second rant and we haven’t yet been treated to a single picture.

Again, apologies for the first two paragraphs. Time to bite the bullet. This blog will largely be about the garden in front of the house. It’ll end with something a bit more reflective. But now to that first picture which I think for once in my life looks good enough to grace a coffee-table volume about a classic country garden. Almost Great Dixter standard – or is that going just a bit too far? Incidentally, when I was a child and was getting carried away with enthusiasm, or just showing off, my mother would calm me down with: “Steady darling, you’re going too far!” She was always smiling, so I don’t think she really meant it, and as I know, she loved it when people went too far. Anyhow, before I digress for a third time, the next picture is a view of the garden in front of our house taken, like all the others in this blog post, in the second week of June. It shows the front garden in all its early summer glory: not so much a bed, as a floral battle field. Originally we intended the front garden to resemble a cottage garden, but as the picture shows, it’s slightly more anarchic. I took the photo through the cheap-and-cheerful hazel arch out of the herb garden. We have to replace the hazel every couple of years, using rods I cut from the wood you can glimpse in the background.

The rose over the arch is the Hybrid Musk ‘Daybreak’ and she smells as good as she looks (I can’t refer to roses as ‘it’!). The small dark green shrub in the foreground is a rarish privet, Ligustrum rotundifolium, which Maisie spotted in a specialist nursery. I was sceptical at first, but as usual her choice proved right. Maisie was the main inspiration behind the front garden’s general arrangement and the selection of plants – and this year she has been the principal weeder as well. I don’t know how she managed to get on top of those weeds, but she did. I’ve never known such a year for weeds: it has been appalling!

This is a close-up of the flowering perennials visible in the first picture. To the left are our own hybrids of the pale blue delphinium ‘Summer Skies’, together with peonies and lupins. Most of the lupins are our own hybrids and I cannot be certain about the peonies’ names without leaving my desk, putting on a waterproof and dropping to my knees in search of labels. So let’s move onto the next picture.

This is a view down the path linking our back door to the barn (in the background). During lambing this was the route we used to collect milk for lambs or injections for sick and ailing ewes. So it was straight and direct – and certainly not picturesque. Shortly after we built the farm, sometime around 1997, we bought the fig tree in the mid-background, a reliably hardy and delicious variety known as Brown Turkey. An old friend advised us to plant it over the body of a dead sheep, which we did when a poor ewe died during lambing. It was sound advice and that magnificent fig tree is wonderful memorial to her. This year the fig leaves were very late to appear – I reckon at least 4-6 weeks behind what you’d expect in a normal season. I do enjoy the Loch Ness Monster box hedge.

For some reason the warmth and damp of early June really suited the Oriental Poppies in the border beneath the back wall. Often the deep shade thrown by the fig leaves means that the poppies (Papaver ‘Goliath’) below aren’t quite as good as those in the sunnier parts of the border. But not this year: they are looking splendid.

My final picture is of the bamboo garden on a warm, sunny day. I’m sitting on a deck chair sipping a cup of tea and listening to the yaffle of green woodpeckers shaping their nests in the nearby and recently pollarded willows. It’s taken our garden a long time to acquire dappled shade and now that we’ve got it, we plan to cherish it. And that brings me to my final point.

Gardens are about more than plants, lawns and borders. Gardeners too spend their time doing a lot more than merely tilling the soil and pruning shrubs. I think Covid has certainly shown that gardens and gardening are vital to both mental and physical health. But there is far, far more to them than even those huge benefits. Gardening is an art and a craft: a good garden is a vehicle for expression and creation. We gardeners must never under-estimate the importance of what we are doing. If I may adapt the famous line by John Keats, for those of us who garden – who have to garden – our gardens are ‘a joy forever.’ It was thoughts along these lines that prompted me to approach my publishers (Head of Zeus) for a follow-up to my last book, The Fens. And to my delight they have agreed. So when I’m not in bookshops signing and promoting my very next book (to be published in early August), Scenes from Prehistoric Life, I’ll be out in the garden taking photos, or tapping away furiously at the keypad of my laptop writing the first draft of Our Fenland Garden. The current deadline for the manuscript is the end of May 2022, with publication a few months later. I’m so excited!!

And finally, this morning I went out into the veg garden and picked a good supply of petit pois, which have been delicious this year. Maisie loves them too, especially with minty new potatoes and she thought both the potatoes and the peas would go very well with two duck breasts we had in the freezer – and which needed eating up. So she Googled ‘Duck with green peas’ and was about to press Return, when she noted her spell-checker had changed it to ‘Duck with green beaks’! Isn’t technology wonderful?

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