Sunday, 29 September 2013

F₁ Hybrid Gardening Contortionists

Gardeners are extraordinary hybrids of the here and hence. Our feet are firmly planted in the fine tilth of today, but our brains keep galloping off to the future. My body is currently in autumn (which sounds like a comment on my age rather than the season), but my mind has been bouncing around like a lamb in spring ever since the bulb catalogues started dropping through the letter box in July, which was, of course, when the rest of my body was luxuriating in mid-summer. 

It may sound improbable when we stand up, stiff-backed after a long weeding session, but gardeners are marvellous time-flexible contortionists with futuristic heads grafted onto gardening bodies (I am now getting an image of Sarah Raven rootstock with a scion of The Jetsons). This arrangement means that we have the capacity to escape from the more challenging aspects of any season. The very notion of winter without seed catalogues makes me shiver; but if my head is in high summer, cold weather becomes more bearable.

Last winter (the one which seemed to last forever), my mind was abuzz with autumn pollinators and as a result, butterflies and bees are now enjoying Asterfest in the farmhouse garden. I have been particularly impressed with Aster amellus 'Veilchenk├Ânigin', which is short (around 35cm), stocky and a strong violet colour; but at the moment the pollinators seem to prefer Aster amellus 'King George'.

Small Tortoiseshell on Aster amellus 'King George'
Autumn is the season of butternut squash, brambling and bulb planting. I mention butternut squash since my fondness for it may shortly be put to the test. Unless there is a catastrophic squash meltdown, we will soon be harvesting 10 socking great fruits from three 'Sweetmax' plants grown from seed sown in March. It is the first time that I have grown this variety and if it tastes good, I shall certainly sow it next year (head in spring again). 

I am unable to work out whether I am becoming more clumsy in the garden or if my manners are improving with age, but I seem to be spending an increasing amount of time apologising to plants for accidentally deadheading perfectly good flowers, or digging up bulbs. Last week, while my mind was mulling over springtime sources of nectar and pollen, I inadvertently dragged a daffodil bulb from the soil. I don’t know who looked more shocked: me; the daff; or the passers-by who overheard me begging a bulb’s pardon. Once the daff was tucked safely back in bed, I scurried, red-faced, back to the house to add Crocus tommasinianus to my plant list. Come February, the lawn will be awash with purple; bees will be blanketed in pollen; and with any luck, my blushes may finally have faded.

The hedgerow fruits are looking resplendent in the autumn sunlight and as usual the plumpest, juiciest blackberries are just out of reach. This is no bad thing because they can be enjoyed by winged wildlife and my sense of guilt about gathering berries is assuaged. Recently, I have been leaving fruit on the lower branches too, as there have been several sightings in the farm hedgerows of a rare species which migrates from its natural habitat to feast on ripe blackberries. One of my proudest photographic achievements has been capturing two of these shy creatures on camera. 

Please remember that the Lesser Spotted Onesie Brambler hunts in packs and should only be disturbed if you are in possession of a fully prepared crumble topping and custard. 

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The Great Escape.... Gardener Style

Is it any wonder that gardeners love visiting gardens? Other people’s plots provide us with inspiration, confidence boosters, tea, cake and shopping opportunities. We return home fizzing with ideas and cradling the must-have plants which leap into the trolley we unwittingly drag behind us whenever we enter a plant sales area.

The Exotic Garden at East Ruston Old Vicarage
We all have our favourite kind of garden. I particularly enjoy newer gardens because I like to return and see them as they mature. I have visited the garden at East Ruston Old Vicarage over many years and have delighted in watching it develop. On a recent tour I was intrigued to spot a patch of bare soil and an array of splendidly funky obelisks. A plot under construction is the gardening equivalent of a cliffhanger and one thing is certain: I will be back to see how these borders come along. 

There are exciting developments at Holkham Hall too, where the 6.5 acre walled garden is being renovated. This year, gardeners and volunteers have planted in the region of 5,500 plants which are already attracting plenty of pollinators. Holkham Walled Garden has a blog*, so even if you are unable to visit, do follow the progress of this ambitious project. 

Arena of Plants, Holkham Hall
Piet Oudolf's Millennium Garden at Pensthorpe underwent extensive work in 2009 to re-establish two-thirds of the garden and look at it now!

Arranged in large groups  - don't think threes; think thirty-somethings - this is high-impact planting for humans and wildlife alike. It is not the only garden at Pensthorpe;  Julie Toll's Wave Garden is a serene and tranquil space and the Wildlife Habitat Garden is a lesson in providing for the needs of butterflies, bees, dragonflies, damselflies, amphibians, reptiles, beetles and bats. 

Common Blue Butterfly at Pensthorpe
There is something reassuring about seeing other gardeners gardening. When I visited East Ruston, Alan Gray was planting Sedum; at Holkham, volunteers were weeding; and at Pensthorpe, there was a gardener toiling in the Millennium Garden. To non-gardeners, the concept of a gardener taking a day out to a garden to watch a gardener garden might sound a bit like a cross between a busman's holiday and a bad tongue twister, but we return from these gardeners' getaways raring to tackle the weeds, or tweak a planting scheme and create space for the plants which slipped so cheekily into our shopping trolleys. 

 One-year-old border in our Farmhouse Garden 
We have a lot of landscaping work ahead of us at the farm and since this is our soon-to-be courtyard garden (I hope your imagination is firing on all cylinders), I am going to be in serious need of inspiration, confidence boosters, tea, cake and shopping opportunities.

Perhaps it's time for another day out.