Many things have been proposed as the ‘new normal’, but I would suggest it’s when you repeatedly find yourself having to apologise. Quite often it’s due to things beyond our control, such as a madman in Russia or the insanity of Brexit, but occasionally it’s down to something you’d like to be able to control, but for some reason, you can’t. In my case I’ve found it’s completely impossible to write about our garden from two different perspectives. I’m aware, of course, that the two perspectives aren’t actually that different: the first is my current book (which is about the garden); the second of course is this blog. I suspect that one reason for this inability to write from two points of view is somehow connected with the subtleties of interpretation. This is something that journalists and other professional writers manage to cope with daily. I have to confess I find it almost impossible – and hence the rarity of garden blogs while I’m still in the process of writing a book about the garden. With luck I’ll have the book finished in a few weeks and then this blog will return to life. So I’ve briefly set book writing to one side so that I can concentrate on the upcoming opening of the garden for the National Gardens Scheme (NGS). This year the weekend we open is on September 17th and 18th. I do hope you can come. You can find out more here.
Inevitably in such a horrendously dry summer our main focus has been on keeping the garden as green as we can, without using lots of mains water. We’re quite good about catching rainwater, but we could and will do more. As our garden’s so large we always try to keep the application of water to a minimum – carrying a heavy watering can is very tiring. Most plants that have been in the ground for over a year won’t need added water, but not this year, when we’ve been wetting shrubs showing advanced symptoms of drying out after they’ve been planted for four or five years. But there is hope in sight. The day before yesterday (August 15th) we had 2mm of rain. Then yesterday we had 3mm. But last night we had thunderstorms and an astonishing 25mm of rain! And there’s more forecast for this morning (August 17th) and next Sunday (the 21st). The inundation last night wouldn’t have done as much good as one might expect, because the ground is still very, very hard and dry and much of it would have run down the deep cracks that are everywhere. Still, it gives us hope that the open weekend won’t be quite as grim as it seemed a few days ago. So here are some pictures of the garden during the worst of the drought. If you want to see how it has fared after the recent rain, you’ll have to visit us in September!
The main feature of the garden is the Long Border. In a normal year we would have cut back many of the herbaceous plants, leaving patches of bare soil at the front of the bed, where we could then plant colourful annuals. But even in early June the forecast was for a very dry summer. So we decided on a policy of minimum intervention: don’t disturb anything, unless it’s urgent. This also meant that we did less pruning and cutting back, although Maisie had to prune roses – especially if they were the kind that had a second flowering late in the season, as otherwise the open weekend would look horribly colourless and drab. Lawn-mowing was something I stopped doing early in June and didn’t resume until Monday August 15th when the thundery breakdown we have just had was being reliably forecast. Even so, I set the blades twice as high as normal. I only wanted to cut the thickest grass and any seeding weeds. I took the pictures shortly before I cut the grass.
The Bamboo Garden was the least drought-affected area in the entire garden. Certainly the lawn retained a good, even green colour, although the horse chestnut trees in the background look a bit brown and have shed about half their leaves. I don’t think it helps that they’ve been suffering from horse chestnut leaf blotch (a fungal infection), which turns the leaves brown in summer.
From green and fairly lush to brown and arid. This is a view along the narrow mown grass path that runs along the west side of the rose garden, close by a North American River Birch, a cut leaved alder (nearest to the camera, left) and our single plant of the common Leylandii hedging tree (Cupressus x leylandii), which I planted sometime around 1995. It is now a massive tree. Birches, alders and cypresses have root systems that extend to the surface, which explains why the mown path looks so very sad. I think it will recover, but having said that, I’ve never seen it looking quite so dead. Fingers remain firmly crossed.
The grass in the Serpentine Walk looks very dry too, which can easily be explained by the many birches growing nearby. But the irises and herbaceous plants don’t look too badly affected, with the notable exception of hardy fuchsias, which have proved difficult to keep alive, even with frequent watering. But three or four metres away from the birches, the grass rapidly becomes greener. This is well illustrated by the lush lawn of the Round Garden in front of the covered seat. I’d like to say that we planned for this effect when we designed the garden – but we didn’t. Like so much in gardening, it’s a happy accident.
Here’s another view of the Serpentine Walk, showing the deep cracks that have opened up in the clay-silt soil. I accidentally dropped a weed-knife into one of those cracks and I had to use a couple of canes to retrieve it. Some of them are about three or maybe even four feet deep. We’ll have to put warnings up when we open to the public.
And now for something completely different: the Vegetable Garden. Here I keep young plants wet using water from tubs fed from gutters off the greenhouse and tool shed. The two mesh-covered rows in the foreground contain the brassica plants that will supply us with green vegetables over winter: early and late Brussels sprouts, purple sprouting broccoli, Kalettes, Savoy cabbages and cauliflowers. Later, I’ll add spring/early summer cauliflowers and pointy cabbages. The main role of the mesh covering is to protect the plants from attack by cabbage white butterfly caterpillars. Beyond the brassicas are four plants of courgettes and a row of French beans. Beyond them is the cane frame for runner beans (which I like to plant for autumn cropping) and just beyond that is a row of San Marzano cooking tomatoes. I think we’re going to get a good big crop of these fabulous plum tomatoes. Gosh, but aren’t the Italians civilized people: delicious wine and heavenly tomatoes!
The next picture is a behind-the-scenes shot of our preparations for the Open Days Plant Stall, which will be managed and run by our friend and volunteer Linda. As everyone will be aware, we are living in inflationary times, with prices rising constantly. Last year we decided to raise our prices of admission in 2022, by 50 pence, to £5.00. We did the same for tea and for cake, which now together cost £3.50 (and a free refill!!). We will do the same for the plant stall but are still working out the details. It’s also worth mentioning that all our takings go to the Charities supported by the National Gardens Scheme – we don’t deduct our costs or expenses (nor do our volunteer helpers).
My final picture is a reminder that soft fruit can thrive, even in the hottest of dry summers. We have a large bush of the excellent blackberry, Merton Thornless which has been very prolific. Sometimes supermarket blackberries can be very bland and tasteless, but Merton Thornless never disappoints. What I particularly like about it (apart from the complete lack of thorns) is that it tastes just like the wild blackberries that grow in roadside hedgerows everywhere in Britain. The trouble is that these can be polluted by the lead and other emissions given off by modern cars and lorries. They’re also very thorny.
I always like to end a blog post with a bit of dramatic breaking news. So how about this: yesterday (Aug 17th) Holbeach recorded the highest rainfall in Britain, with 146.2mm falling in just 24 hours ! Our garden is five miles away, and we saw 30mm fall over the same period. There was quite bad flooding in Spalding, so I’m actually quite relieved we missed the main rain, which did look very spectacular indeed – from a safe distance. I think the garden will be looking much greener when we open for the NGS in a month from now. I do hope you will be able to join us.