In the garden

WHAT a summer it’s been so far. I can’t recall so many sunshine hours and such long spells without rain since the summer of 1977, our first one at The Lea.

That year there was no need to put the hay up into coles first, it was raked off the field and made into a large dess straightaway.

For the first time in 32 years, we repeated the exercise this July, sprinkling some coarse salt on to the layers of crisp dry grass from time to time just in case there were still a few under-cured bits.

Curing hay by hand is tiring work, especially when it’s hot. Between five of us turning, fluffing and raking, we managed to get the whole lot done within three days. On day four our neighbour Michael arrived with his baler – at very short notice – and we managed to pull a large tarpaulin over a stack of 120 small bales, just as the first drops of rain began to fall.

During the hay season the garden and nursery are neglected – sometimes with disastrous consequences. Given the heat and drought lots of plants, especially those in containers, were suffering badly.

Rather than going crazy on the watering front, we decided to follow the example of Beth Chatto, and gave them a short back and sides. Reducing top growth reduces water loss through evaporation, and even badly drooping plants recovered in no time.

Beth is without doubt one of our greatest living gardeners. She has a world famous garden in East Anglia and is the author of several gardening books, including The Dry Garden. East Anglia has one of the lowest rainfalls in England and, given summer-long hosepipe bans, as well as drought-increasing climate change, she came up with the idea of transforming a former car park into a garden for drought-resistant plants.

Her experiment was to prove that a large range of highly desirable plants could survive hot, dry summers without any artificial irrigation. To improve their chances she not only enriched the poor, gravely soil with copious amounts of coarse organic materials but also mulched the beds thickly in order to prevent evaporation from the soil surface.

Apart from a good soak prior to planting, none of the plants were watered and all went well for a number of years until one particularly dry summer, when leaves started to curl before drying to a crisp, and plants could actually be heard crackling in the relentless heat. As watering was out of the question, she had to observe this day after day, which must have been greatly distressing to her. There was only one thing to be done: she and her gardeners waded into the beds and borders, armed with shears and secateurs, chopping, trimming, pruning, in some cases removing all herbaceous top growth, until the plants could sustain their greatly reduced bulk despite the continuing drought.

Lea Garden’s 2008 maximum temperature so far was 26.5°C (81°F) in the shade on Thursday, 31st July.

Sunlight is fabulous for most plants; it helps them to ripen their wood and promotes flowering and fruiting. Prolonged drought is a different matter. My garden used to have an oxymoron, a vertical swamp on a steep bank behind the north-facing gable end of the house; dry for most of the summer, running with water all winter, while exposed to fierce north-easterly winds.

What on earth to plant in such a hostile habitat? I plumped for a fail-safe mix of hardy geraniums, ornamental comfrey, ground-hug­ging junipers, yellow potentillas, tougher than tough Hebe “Tarbert Pier”, and several willows. At the same time we established a Japanese larch hedge on top of the bank to provide shelter for the nearby Temple Terrace. As the hedge grew and the shelter improved, the habitat became at first less challenging, then decidedly des­irable, and I kicked myself for having wasted a sheltered, south-facing slope on a collection of such pedestrian plants.

The willows, huge by then, were especially irksome, and I promised myself year after year to coppice them so they could be dug up in moved during winter. Now the drought has done the job for me – sort of. It killed the poor things. There was a time when the death of every plant was suitably mourned, and I did have a nanosecond’s worth of regret before rubbing my hands in glee at the sight of all that clear south-facing space, soon to be occupied by far choicer subjects.

Heavy and prolonged rain following a long drought causes carrots to split. This can be avoided by mulching the soil generously while it is still damp. We use lawn clippings for this purpose. Laid down thickly, they also prevent the dreaded carrot root fly from laying its eggs. We were a bit slow off the mark this year and a few isolated plants already showed the telltale bronzing of the foliage, a sure sign that the maggots had started their work. To prevent the little blighters from hatching into flies, plants thus affected must be destroyed promptly.

Compared to carrots, parsnips are trouble-free in my experience, and one of my favourite root vegetables into the bargain. All the more vexing that we had an almost total crop failure this year. There are about nine, already earmarked for roasting with honey and sesame seeds to accompany our Christmas roast. And then the unthinkable: a long, parsnip-less winter stretching ahead.

Old seed of ‘Avon Resistor’, first blamed for this failure, turned out to be blameless. It was the growing medium that done for them. Two lovingly prepared, timber framed rectangular beds, filled with the finest seaweed granule enriched loam should have brought superb results, and didn’t for one very simple reason: the earth in them wasn’t firmed down well enough.

Seeds need to be in intimate contact with the soil in order to germinate. Sometimes this puffiness is remedied by a really good downpour, which removes all the air pockets. The late sowing combined with a lack of heavy rain proved fatal to newly germinating seedlings.

One can – just about – survive without parsnips (I’m going to experiment with Swedes as a substitute), but having to do without a plentiful supply of parsley is quite another matter, and more than I could possibly bear.

Before I started my horticultural career in earnest at the Knab cemetery, I worked on an ad-hoc basis for the late Barbara Hicks at the Haa in Sand. This lovely, gentle, and much missed woman shared one of her best-kept gardening secret with me. “Rosa,” she said, “parsley will only grow if it has been sown by the person who wears the trousers.”

As much as I hate to get out of my usual ball gown and stiletto gardening outfit, I changed into a pair of skinny jeans for the occasion – one has to make sacrifices at times. Armed with a packet of ‘Moss Curled’ and a packet of ‘Flat Leaved’ I drew deep drills with the edge of a hoe, watered my sowings with the contents of freshly boiled kettle, as is common practice, firmed it all in nicely – and nothing happened.

I’m not sure what went wrong. Barbara was a great gardener, but I’m convinced she was barking up the wrong tree with this trouser thing. In 2006 James sowed parsley while wearing white tights and his favourite pink tutu, and it came up like the proverbial mustard and cress.

Rosa Steppanova


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