Gosh this has been a strange summer and I don’t know if readers have shared our inability to tie down which day of the week we are currently living through. Yesterday was Friday, but all day Maisie and I were convinced it was Saturday – and this despite the fact that I had just gone to Long Sutton market, which only takes place on Fridays … creepy! Today (August 8th) the Olympics end, which will be good as I’m not sure I can cope with many more ecstatic radio interviews with over-excited skate-boarders. Gosh, I do sound like a grumpy old man: sorry! Time to turn to books and gardens.
And first to books. Sadly Heffers had to cancel their late summer signings, but it looks like autumn events will be taking place. My friends at Toppings Bookshop in Ely tell me that tickets for my talk and signing on September 6th are selling well and unless there is yet another health emergency it will certainly be going ahead. Other events to promote Scenes from Prehistoric Life are currently being arranged and I’ll report on any progress. I was also glad to hear that booksellers tell me that The Fens is still selling briskly, which is very cheering, as I really enjoyed writing it. I hope these late sales will help compensate for the fact that Covid-19 struck Britain at precisely the same time we launched the paperback; we had to cancel over twenty bookshop events. I think I’ve said this before, but it can’t be over-stressed: signings are where authors get to meet their readers and they are SO important. I can’t wait to do Ely!
I really do think that we are starting to feel the effects of climate change. Laying aside global floods and wildfires, the day-to-day weather seems to be getting more extreme. I called the early summer torrid – and it has been, but in both its senses: hot and turbulent. Britain has had a summer of successive wet weather fronts from off the Atlantic, interspersed with hot spells when high pressure predominated. So we’d remove barrowfuls of weeds in the warm weather, only then to watch as new ones sprung up when the next spell of wet weather arrived. Some parts of the garden have been thoroughly weeded five times. I can’t recall a summer like it.
I want to start this blog post with a photo of a corner of the orchard I took on August 4th. Basically, amateur orchard keepers fall into two schools: pruners and non-pruners. I tend to favour the latter, with the exception, of course of the espaliers in the vegetable garden. But when I did the first cutting of the long grass beneath and around the trees in the orchard I found it very difficult to drive the mower beneath the long, dangling branches, many of which were laden with fruit. I could deny it no longer: it was time to do a summer prune.
The big advantage of a mid-summer prune is that it doesn’t stimulate as big a regrowth as a winter prune. There are other advantages, too. This year has seen huge numbers of apples and I must confess I’ve usually got better things to do in early summer than to spend time thinning them out. So a late June/July pruning can be used to remove surplus apples. I also use the summer prune to let more light and air into those trees that are getting a bit congested. As the next photo shows, after the pruning I always think the orchard looks far more businesslike.
On the same day I took the ‘after’ view of the orchard I took four other pictures of the garden. The first is a view along the main double border, looking west, towards the large oak seat. It shows how well the various herbaceous plants are starting to blend together. Having been so warm and wet, it has been a particularly good year for day lilies, the red one in the left foreground being Hemerocallis ‘Alan’. The tall, golden dawn redwood Metasequoia glyptostroboides, ‘Gold Rush’ has grown particularly well this summer. Like the hemerocallis it has really thrived in the wet. I love the way its golden leaves contrast with the colours of the border plants below it.
I turned round to take the next view of the main border, looking west, towards the pergola, which is largely hidden by shadow. When she drew up her initial planting plan Maisie wanted the two halves of the border to contrast, but in hopefully quite a subtle way. So the previous picture is dominated by reddish/purple hues whereas this is a scene of whites and yellows and gold. The yellow trumpets of the hemerocallis to the left belong to the named variety, ‘Marian Vaughan’.
Another group of plants that thrive in wetter conditions are the various types of New Zealand flax or phormium. The long leaves of phormiums are very fibrous indeed and have been known to stop the blades of rotary lawnmowers when they get wound around them. This year most of our phormiums have also put out a magnificent display of flowers which remain tall and stately for the rest of the summer.
The last of my recent views of the garden was taken round the back of the barn. I rather like the rather sinuous mown grass path which only gets sunlight in the morning. So hostas thrive there. This year their leaves have been attacked by slugs, despite all our efforts to keep them at bay. So I thought I’d take a picture of them in flower, when the leaves are not quite so evident. I can’t recall a better show of hosta flowers – and again, it lasted twice as long as normal.
And now, as they say, for something completely different. Over the years I’ve been trying to improve the way I store potatoes. This is largely because our heavy soil means that slug damage can be a constant problem, especially in wet years such as this. In the past I would often find that slug-damaged potatoes had started to rot and had spread the rot to the potatoes near them in the storage bag. I very quickly learned not to keep potatoes in plastic bags. So I tend to use cardboard boxes, or, more commonly, double-thickness brown paper bags. Happily for us our chicken pellets come in such bags. Good, frost-free but well-ventilated storage helped cut down the spread of rot, but the development that made the greatest difference came a few years later when somebody (a visiting potato farmer, perhaps?) suggested that I should let the spuds dry in the open air for a few days, before putting them in their storage bags. This allows them to form protective skins, but it’s important that they be shielded from direct sunlight, which will soon turn those skins tough and green. The green skins taste nasty and are not very healthy, especially, I gather, for expectant mothers. So this next picture shows the potatoes I’ve selected for keeping arranged by variety on my workshop floor. I’ve only retained the larger ones. All the smaller ones and those with bad slug damage will go into boxes for immediate consumption. When I shut the double doors the sunlight will be excluded, but I’ll also cover the potatoes with a sheet of brown paper, just to be certain. Just for the record, this year the best slug resistance was provided by the second early variety Kestrel (I grow it every year) and the pink-skinned main crop Desiree. I need hardly add that both have excellent flavour. Given the chaos caused to the food supply chain by Brexit and Covid, it’s good to know that we have more than enough potatoes to see us through the winter.
In mid-July our neighbours cut the hay meadow, turned it twice and baled it on July 18th. They told me the hay was excellent and it certainly smelled very sweet. When we kept sheep ourselves, the dozen, or so, large round bales provided by the meadow, together with another dozen or so from the grass along the dykeside brinks around the edge of the wood and garden, would feed our in-lamb ewes for the couple of months in late winter/spring when they were housed in the barn for lambing. Our meadow has never been a garden feature alone. It has always had to earn its keep.
And finally, a view of the Rose Garden taken on the 4th of July, during a brief dry spell when I somehow managed to cut the grass. Everything looks wonderfully lush and luxuriant, including the pink flowers of the sweet-smelling Hybrid Musk rose, ‘Cornelia’. The heavy rains of July washed out many of the older roses, reducing them to shrivelled-up brown paper parcels. Modern roses have been bred to be rain resistant, but I have to say I’m less keen on their bright colours and lack of scent. Everything comes with a price. The three trees along the back of the picture are (left to right) an American river birch, a cut-leafed alder and, biggest of all, a golden Leylandii. While we were planning the garden I had read somewhere that the hedging Leylandii could be grown as a tree. So I bought a small cutting of the slower-growing golden variety and planted it, sometime around 1995. It’s now a substantial tree that casts such a deep shade that it’s difficult to plant beneath it. I often show this tree to younger gardeners who might be planning to grow a Leylandii hedge. Yes, they do provide an instant barrier, but they need cutting at least twice a year and draw huge amounts of nutrients from the soil. I like my single tree, even if the gold colour has faded, but I’d hesitate before I planted another one. And as for a hedge! Please think twice.