Restorative Autumn

I do apologise that most of my recent blog posts seem to have been apologies about not writing blog posts – and I suppose this is another one, but I also hope it’s a return to something a bit more normal. I hesitate to use the dreaded term ‘the new normal’, because nobody will be able to judge what that is until we’ve all been enjoying it for an extended period (anything else and it wouldn’t have had the time to become an established norm – or am I not making myself clear…?). Let me change tack, as I think I’m going nowhere with that one.

What I’ve been trying to say is that I think I can spot glimpses of light at the end of what has become a very long, dark tunnel, which began with the Brexit referendum, followed by the 2019 General Election, then Covid and a succession of mind-bogglingly incompetent Westminster governments, plus rather lacklustre, uninspiring Opposition parties. While all this was taking place we had to endure the hottest UK summer on record, which peaked on July 19th, when 40.3°C was recorded just up the road, at Coningsby, Lincolnshire (presumably at the RAF station). Meanwhile, as if to pour a mixture of salt and chilli powder into the wound, Putin had invaded Ukraine and the dictators running China and North Korea started strutting around in a rather threatening way – and as for Trump and his QAnon followers! Frankly there seemed no hope for the world: climate change was not going to be defeated by egomaniacs and thanks to Russia, economies everywhere were starting to inflate. Closer to home, the UK’s shortest-lived and arguably most incompetent Prime Minister, Liz Truss, told King Charles he was not to attend COP 27 in Egypt. I don’t know why he didn’t whack her with his sceptre. So what has turned up to improve things? And why the optimistic title to this blog post?

Various happenings have provided grounds for hope. Biden is doing a competent job as U.S. President. Bolsonaro is no longer in power in Brazil. With Rishi Sunak we now have a Westminster Prime Minister who seems to be taking his responsibilities seriously. I don’t share his very right-wing political philosophy, but at least he seems to be competent and on the whole (so far) trustworthy. The Opposition is also starting to get galvanised and people in the UK are starting to talk in a more positive way about Europe.

Much closer to home things are also looking up. I’ve been doing many local book signings, most of which have been sell-outs. People are definitely returning to printed books over e-books and audio books are also having quite a revival. The trend towards local shops, markets and services seems to be gathering pace and it’s great to see so many craft fairs in parish churches; farmers’ markets are also seeing something of a revival. I particularly like events that take place in parish churches. This morning Maisie and I went to one in Holbeach Parish Church, a stunning Medieval building. It’s great to see whitewashed Victorian severe reverence being replaced by smiling faces and children dashing through the pews – and nobody was whispering, as used to happen in churches when I was a boy. I’m sure its Medieval builders and worshippers would have approved whole-heartedly.

Things have also got better in the garden. When we opened for the National Gardens Scheme, back in September (17th-18th) we were both very worried indeed. I hadn’t mown the lawn for almost two months and as a consequence the grass still looked green. When I did mow it, I set the blades much higher than normal. Sadly many long-established shrubs were looking very poorly and the ground was starting to form wide cracks, which I marked with twigs and leafy branches (flags looked terrible). Still, on the whole the garden looked pretty good. This I think was largely due to a spell of heavy rain, following an exceptionally hot first two weeks of August. The rain continued until a week before we opened for the NGS  – and frankly it saved our bacon. Early October was quite dry and then the skies opened and between October 20th and 23rd we had no less that 65mm (two and a half inches) of rain. To put it very mildly, that rain saved the garden and it makes me very worried indeed about the survival of lush green English gardens in the future decades of global warming.

Cars in the meadow car park during our open weekend for the National Gardens Scheme in mid-September. The grass looks green, despite a long, hot summer.

The NGS Open Days were quite well attended – I say ‘quite’ because they were about 10% down on what we would have expected in pre-Covid years, but having spoken to other NGS members and people who organise events like village Fetes, this seems fairly typical for the summer of 2022, when many vulnerable people were still worried about catching one of the new variants of the virus. The good news is that although admissions were slightly down, visitors’ expenditure on tea, cakes and plants was well up, so that in the end we contributed about £2,300 to the NGS Charities. That was pretty pleasing.

The golden Metasequoia glyptostroboides ‘Gold Rush’ that you see when you enter the garden from the yard alongside the barn. This picture was taken in mid-October.

In my experience the leaves of plants that are strongly coloured during the main growing season often lose their impact in autumn. One exception to this is the Golden metasequoia ‘Gold Rush’ whose tall conical form is so striking when you first enter the garden. Metasequoias shed their leaves in the autumn and normally this is quite a dull process: green turns to brown and the next thing you know is that you’re raking them into a barrow. But ‘Gold Rush’ is different: the brown somehow enhances the pale gold and gives the tree a subtle air of something a bit different – maybe solemnity?

There are one or two places in the garden where you can get a good display of autumn colour every year. In the past garden designers were well aware of such views and used to make the most of them in their new projects. In our garden the Long or Main Border is one good example and the trees around the meadow (such as the Red Oaks and Golden Ash) are another. I tend to use these set-piece scenes as a way of judging how the season is progressing. They can be pleasingly predictable. Speaking for myself, I get most of my enjoyment of autumn colour from those unexpected displays, which often appear for a few days in the most unusual places. This next picture is a good example. It’s hard to put your finger on precisely what makes it so appealing, but it’s very effective. I am very fond of those aspects of gardening that are hard to pin down or define. Arts and crafts should always have a bit of magic.

An early Autumn view across one of the soakaway beds behind the barn, towards the Birch Grove, with the tall trees of the Black Poplar Walk in the background.

The Long Border, which I have decided to rename the Main Border in my forthcoming book on the garden, to avoid confusion with the Long Walk, is one of those ‘set piece’ garden views, which can look spectacular at many times of the year – and early autumn is no exception:

The Long or Main Border, looking north-west towards the large oak seat and the tightly-clipped yew hedge, which is kept in perfect condition by Jason Gardener.

I suppose that most visitors to our garden would judge the Main Border to be at its most spectacular in mid or late June, when the roses are in full flower. And it does look very special, with delectable scents an added bonus. But to me the autumn border is the one that has special appeal. I love the second flowering of old roses, when the blooms are less faded by the milder sunlight, but their scents are as strong as ever.

A view across the Dome Garden towards the ‘doorway’ through the surrounding hornbeam hedge, with the meadow visible beyond.

 An embarras de richesses is a phrase one doesn’t hear much in these days of supply-side problems and Austerity, but it certainly applies to the Dome Garden this year, where the roses have grown hugely and the normally quite restrained asters are threatening to take over the lawn. Indeed, as you can see from this picture, those sprawling asters prevented me from mowing the lawn on at least one occasion. I can imagine a few readers might be saying that we should have supported the asters with wire frames – and we did, but this year they didn’t prove strong enough. But I also think there’s a limit to the extent that you can force plants to restrain themselves. Gardens are similar to family homes: plants, like people, shouldn’t be over-constrained.

The sink bed in the Rose Garden.

The sink bed is something that ultimately began over forty years ago when  Maisie was walking along a path in her old house and noticed that one of the stone paving slabs had a hole in it. Being Maisie she she dug it up, turned it over and yes, that hole was the drain hole for a large, shallow limestone sink. If you tried to buy a similar one in a modern garden centre it would cost you a fortune. Much more recently, our collection of dry-loving sempervivum house leeks, which we had slowly acquired for informal displays around the Poop Deck, had grown and given rise to many spare plants. We planted these in the sinks and various tubs in a very sandy, free-draining compost – and they have thrived. A few months ago we added plants of the grey-leaved Euphorbia myrsinites which now grows around the sinks and I think sets them off very effectively. Most of the work on the sink garden is done by our neighbour, Jessie Githiri, who has a great eye for such semi-formal plantings.

The wirework Dome in the front garden. This fuchsia (F. magellanica, var. gracilis) flowers from midsummer to the first frosts of late autumn and is at its peak this year (2022) in early-mid November.

When we first started laying out the garden at Inley Drove Farm, in the mid-1990s, the soil was in very poor condition and was very slow-draining. Many plants, including fuchsias, found it difficult to thrive and were particularly vulnerable to hard winter frosts. Over the years we have added mulch and manure to the flower beds and although the soil isn’t quite as good as it is in the frequently dug-over vegetable garden, it has improved hugely. Fuchsias now do very well and some of the best are in the front garden where they either grow as free-standing shrubs, or as informal climbers, such as the F. gracilis on the wirework dome, which I can’t remember ever flowering as freely as it has this autumn. I think I’d much rather remember 2022 for its gorgeous fuchsias, than its creepy politicians. And on that positive note, I’ll sign off!

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