17th October 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

In the garden

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What happened to the June we used to know and hate? The month of fog, tattie blight-inducing sea mist, rain, drizzle, grey skies, chilly winds and unseasonal temperatures, low enough to make all the leeks and kohlrabi bolt?

It’s been boiling here of late. In the tropics of Lea Gardens we’re used to a bit of additional heat, but this has been truly exceptional. Last Saturday we recorded 27.8C in the shade – the thermometer placed on the ground on the north side of a large Spiraea japonica ‘Snow­mound’. Even my gardener, who is used to much higher temper­atures in his native Turkey, was complaining of the heat.

The vegetables are making little headway, and for the first time ever I had to resort to artificial watering. It’s not at all what I was led to expect from the weather, as according to global warming rules, the climate for the areas close to poles was going to turn wetter, colder and windier. The opposite seems to be hap­pening, and we’ve decided to try growing tomatoes out of doors!

The “industrial estate”, hidden from view by a black wooden fence, is our pot and sundry store as well as a potting and standing out area for young plants. It is by far the warmest part of the nursery and a south-facing strip of it has been converted into a “tomato house” by nailing some bubble film onto the northern face of the fence and by fitting a couple of sheets of polycarbonate sheeting to provide shelter from the east and west. Fingers crossed.

In the nursery things usually slow down dramatically towards the end of June, giving us a chance to tidy up, pot on autumn-flowering plants, and start propagating for next spring. There’s been no let-up this year, and I’m sure it’s all thanks to the weather. Everybody out there seems to be digging new beds and borders or starting new gardens, which is great for business.

I’m no exception, and, having overcome a long spell of planter’s block, have been transforming bare brown earth into green spaces, mak­ing the best of the long, light even­ings. Planting in the eastern part of the garden late in the day is almost like returning to winter, as the flans off the hill blow icily over the garden and call for jumpers and jackets.

During the day the Lea Gardens dress code is shorts, vest and bare feet. Instead of bluish white, clean and unblemished legs, I now have brown, dirty and scratched ones, with black feet to match. It’s all rather nostalgic and has brought lots of flashbacks to my childhood, especially the black feet. My mother always kept a large block of cheap margarine for our evening ablutions. During hot summers, the tar on roads melted, and margarine re­moved it in a trice, even between the toes.

The house has an almost Mediter­ranean feel to it, as the west-facing conservatory traps the heat, render­ing my bedroom and study almost too warm for comfort until well into the night. As a child I used to escape the unbearably hot house and sleep on my parents’ balcony during high summer. Here, we keep temperatures bearable by lowering the blinds and, midges permitting, throwing all windows wide open.

A small collection of South-African plants, mostly watsonias, agapanthus, crocosmias, schyzo­stylis, kniphofias, gladiolias, and nerines, imprisoned in their pots for almost a decade, are getting a sniff of freedom at long last. Later on proteas and restios, still in their seedlings pots, but enjoying life in the great outdoors, are going to join them, once the bed has been enlarged.

This little planting did the un­blocking for me. I’m always trying, perhaps trying too hard at times, to create plantings that look good for as much of the year as possible, which means paying close attention to floral colour coordination as well as harmonies or contrasts on the foliar front. Proteas aside, all the plants mentioned above are mono­cotyledons with linear leaves like grasses – not much scope for contrast there, which is great, as it allows the gardener to throw all caution to the wind and just get everything planted.

There is a little light relief from the linear theme in the form of a couple of large and very exotic looking Aeonium ‘Schwartzkopf’, a long-stemmed, branching succulent with rosettes of black succulent leaves, and a thicket of Phygelius capensis (Cape figwort), a small, suckering sub-shrub with large branching heads of red trumpet-shaped flowers with yellow streaked throats.

There are also a few osteo­spermums, colloquially known as Cape daisies. Osteospermum jucun­dum makes a wide mat of congested stems clad in evergreen leaves and produces an all summer long display of large, long-stalked pink daisies. That sounds a bit too mundane. The daisies are perfect, with thick, over­lapping ray petals and blue-tinged centres. ‘Lady Leitrim’ flowers in a sophisticated pale pinkish lilac, while ‘Blackthorn Seedling’ pro­duces daisies in a darker, more intense pink.

What they really love is a hot south-facing bank and poor, dry soil; they’ll happily grow in pure sand or gravel. They also have the potential to grow quite large, with a mature plant taking up about a square metre of ground. After a particularly harsh winter they can look a bit of a mess, a state of affairs easily remedied by a severe pruning. You can cut them to the ground in April, and they’ll be back in full splendour six weeks later. Flowering usually starts in early June, but a drastic spring pruning will delay the display by a good month. To create close to ideal growing conditions for our South Africans, we incorporated a lot of coarse sand, semi-composted woody shreddings and a good dose of perlite into ordinary, well-drained garden soil. For the restios and proteas we’ll dig in a few bags of semi-rotten pine needles for additional acidity.

When planting during hot, dry weather it is essential to plunge every plant, with the water reaching above the rim of the pot, and to leave the plants there at least until air bubbles have ceased to rise to the surface, preferably overnight.

Plants, given this treatment, usu­ally settle in well and start into new growth, but not this year. Despite a saturated rootball, newly planted shrubs have shown signs of stress three or four days after planting and needed frequent, thorough watering for at least another week before they got into their stride.

If yours start to droop, soak the soil above their roots thoroughly every evening, do this slowly, so the water reaches the parts it is meant to reach. On level ground this is easy, but when planting on a bank a little more effort is called for to stop the water from running down the hill. I dig out a small hollow behind the plant and use the dug out soil to build a little dam in front of it. This keeps the water exactly where it’s needed. Allow for at least a gallon per plant, and let it seep in slowly.

Applying a thick mulch imme­diately afterwards greatly reduces evaporation and helps to keep the ground moist. We use anything that comes to hand: fresh grass clippings, shredded prunings, even sacred, not quite ready yet, leaf mould, a scarce commodity usually saved for potting up rare and temperamental wood­landers, but what use are rules if they can’t be broken from time to time?

When planting up a new bed I always find it tempting to stick in everything and anything that I hap­pen to have standing around, especi­ally new plants, and those just com­ing into flower. To make it easier to resist that temptation, I try to have more then one bed or border at the ready at the same time. What can’t easily be fitted into one, usually finds a suitable spot in one of the others.

When I’m not quite sure about where to put a plant, or how to combine it with others, I usually dig a hole and stand the plant, pot and all, in it for day or two. If I’m still happy with the result after that, I plant, firming in each individual really well with either my feet or my fists. This removes air pockets and allows the roots to make close con­tact with the soil, essential during hot, dry weather.

Whenever Mr G is absent from home, sometimes touring the world with Society Lady, he regularly sends us postcards. This time there was deafening silence; not a word for two whole months, and I was getting increasingly worried. This wasn’t like him at all and I was sure something was very wrong.

I’m on good terms with SL but, worried to be seen as a controlling parent or interfering future mother-in-law, I usually keep contacting her to a minimum. This time I made an exception, but no matter how many messages I left on her answerphone, none of my calls were returned; and I received no answer to any of my emails.

There was nothing for it, but to book a flight to Edinburgh, and to pay a surprise visit.

Rosa Steppanova