Thursday, April 26, 2012

Bluebells and the great British 'drought'

You've probably read in the papers, or seen on the TV news, that Britain is experiencing a drought at the moment, and seven water authorities have instigated a hosepipe ban. What does this mean for British gardeners?
Well, it means we're experiencing constant rain. As I write this, there are flood warnings right across the UK, with the worst expected to be in the South-west. It's been raining for most of April, and the rain is set to continue into May. Hmm. Funny kind of drought.
The water companies say that, despite all this precipitation, it will take more than a few weeks of rain to replenish the supplies of groundwater. The rain, they say, is good, but most of it will evaporate or run off. I say we need to take a very close look at how we manage water in this country.
In typical fashion, your average stoical Brit is turning the whole thing into a joke. (This could be because it is a joke.) "What drought?" is the usual greeting as two sodden passers-by meet.
Today is expected to be recorded as the wettest day of the year so far, so naturally it was the ideal time (in the Alice in Wonderland world that is drought-stricken Britain) to visit the bluebell woods of south-east England.
Every year, I vow to visit a bluebell wood. Every year, I fail to do so. So this year, I booked myself on a tour with Janine Wookey that took in Emmetts Garden in Kent, Great and Little Earls Wood in Surrey, and Nymans - one of the most beautiful gardens in England - which is in West Sussex.

We started with Emmetts, built by Frederick Lubbock in 1890 as a family home high on the Kentish Weald. The garden slopes down to a deep valley, where bluebells, which like a moist, shady, undisturbed  place in which to grow, carpet the lower slopes.

Although bluebells don't particularly like hot, dry conditions, they don't like to be totally bereft of light either. Deciduous woodland is their idea of heaven. Mine too.

The view from Emmetts, across to Bough Beech reservoir. I should imagine it's spectacular on a clear day. It's not bad on a rainy day either.

There are other things to see at Emmetts apart from bluebells. I particularly like this way of growing tulips, where instead of having one variety only, or perhaps two toning colours, you have this random effect. It looks like a tin of sweeties, although I'm not sure how you would lift the tulips. (Apparently the badgers do quite a good job of lifting them at Emmetts.) I think it would work just as well in a border, though.

The colours of the spring foliage have been spectacular this year, helped by the stormy weather which provides an ever-changing lighting effect.

The monster trunk at the front of the picture above is Genista aetnensis, and behind is the young copper foliage of a maple.

I'm quite happy with the lime-green of young birch or beech leaves as a contrast to a misty sea of bluebells, but I had to admit that these coral-coloured azaleas looked superb.

Great and Little Earls Wood, just 20 minutes away by coach, is managed by the Woodland Trust, and admission is free. Here the bluebells were punctuated by the flowers of the wood anemone, Anemone nemorosa. 

 I am not going to offer any apologies for showing you so many pictures of bluebells. The bluebell season is a "moment", like the first cherry blossom in Japan, when you just have to stand and pay homage to this wildflower phenomenon, even if you have rain dripping down your face.

 After squelching through the bluebells, we had lunch at the pub over the road. No, we didn't eat oak leaves, but the food was very good.

From Surrey, we headed further west to Nymans, in the village of Handcross. I've always loved Nymans - Craig and I went there the day after we got married, and we used to take the children there when they were small, so it has quite sentimental memories for me. It was the first time I'd been back since Craig died.
Luckily, Janine had laid on a tour of the woodlands there, so I didn't have time to mope. We were swept off by Michael and Don, two of the volunteers who help manage the woods, who gave us a guided tour, provided all sorts of information and lent an arm to those of us who were slipping and sliding about in the mud. (You get a lot of mud when there is a drought in the UK.)
Nymans used to be the home of the Messel family, including Anne Messel, later Countess of Rosse, the mother of Lord Snowdon. Don told us that he used to be Lady Rosse's dentist, and she would only consent to be examined after he had consumed two sherries. His examination was somewhat incommoded, apparently, by her refusal to remove her headscarf.

 I always think of this as quintessential West Sussex scenery: a view of rolling hills and majestic trees

Wild violets growing in the grass beneath the oaks

Five minutes at Nymans is enough to turn anyone into a tree hugger. Just look at these leaves

And beneath them, the woodland moss, Polystichum formosum

See that water running down the hill? That's a little stream. You get them in the UK, apparently, when there's a "drought". (OK, OK, enough with the drought jokes.)

Not only bluebells, but primroses!

 And a beautiful little Asplenium scolopendrium growing at the foot of a ruined wall.

This cloud-pruning is both charming and eccentric. I love the way the new growth on the box seems to glow at this time of year.
Despite the rain, I had a wonderful day out. It was so relaxing not to have to drive, or to act as a sheepdog, or make all the decisions about where to go, what/where to eat and so on. My fellow passengers were a very jolly bunch and I really enjoyed sitting chatting over a glass of wine in the pub, or gossiping on the journey back while Chris the driver negotiated the motorway traffic jams.
Thank you, Janine!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Time to stop and eat the birthday cake

The work in the garden is continuing slowly, punctuated by thunderstorms, RHS conferences and social events. I had this week off (I worked over Easter weekend, so wanted to use up my lieu days before I forgot about them), so the idea was to get as much done outside as I could.
That plan didn't really come to fruition (when do they ever?), but I got a bit done. Most of the hard graft is now pretty much finished, which leaves the fun part of putting the plants in. But there are still decisions to be made.
In the meantime, I went to a fascinating conference hosted by the Royal Horticultural Society on the looming skills gap in the horticultural industry in the UK. It was chaired by Alan Titchmarsh, who did a fantastic job - particularly when it came to making the younger speakers feel at ease. I found all the speakers' words very moving and I know VP, who was with me, agreed. You can read her report here, and my column for the i newspaper here.
And last but not least, it was my darling daughter's 18th birthday, so the Summerley clan assembled for "fam-din" (family dinner), and tonight, as I write this, her friends are assembling for a party. They're hoping to use the garden, so I hope the weather gods are in a benevolent mood.
Birthdays always prompt you to take stock and I must say, I find the idea that my daughter is now a grown-up makes me feel a bit wistful. (She'll always be my baby, though - but don't tell her.)

Friends were commiserating with me about the weather this morning, but although we've had lots of thunderstorms, and it has been quite chilly, I rather like that intense light you get just before or after a storm. Everything looks as if it has been digitally enhanced.
I love the contrast, for example, between the blue of my neighbour Ruth's ceanothus, and the new green of the leaves on my fig tree. The misty green of trees coming into leaf makes me feel wistful too - it's such a beautiful, fleeting moment.

It's been a good year for Clematis armandii in the garden - this one is 'Appleblossom' and it looks gorgeous against the cherry blossom in Ruth's garden behind.

The new leaves of Cotinus cogyggria glow against the green of a fatsia.

These pots of tulips are allegedly 'Prinses Irene'. They look a bit washed out - perhaps it's all the rain. I was expecting orange merged with pink, but they look more like very weak orange squash. My friend Pattie Barron says it's my fault for buying cheap bulbs from B&Q, instead of buying from a decent nursery and potting them up myself. I think she's absolutely right!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Building a better Backyard

I haven't posted about the garden for a while, mainly because I haven't had to time to post, or even to garden. However, things are slowly changing and this post is as much to remind me that I will eventually get there as it is to tell you what's going on.
Major changes so far have been the new tank and the new benches. Still to come is the new shed. In progress is the replanting of the Trampoline Border (as I still think of it). This had lots of Libertia formosa, which is a fantastic plant in many ways, but can start to look scruffy after a while. After a lot of effort with fork, spade and swear words, I managed to remove one clump today. Only four more to go...

The trouble with a garden rejig is that when you straighten up and look around, there seems to be mess and stuff everywhere. I sometimes feel that my gardening life at the moment involves moving things from place to place, to get them out of the way. And then having moved them, I trip over them.

This bench, for example, is waiting to go to my neighbour, who wants to put it under his tree. He and his wife are away seeing the grandchildren for the Easter holidays, so I'll have to wait until next week before I see the back of it.

Hurray, here's a bit that's done (well, nearly done). This is my new (old) water tank, which I'm very pleased with. The big green leaves either side of it are Aspidistra elatior - yes, the houseplant favoured by boarding house landladies and Victorian drawing rooms. It's really hardy - the one on the left has been growing next to my shed and has survived extreme dry shade all that time. I felt it deserved a better life.

The bench is a new acquisition, replacing the one that's going to my neighbour. The old one was fine, but I wanted a new bench for the other side of the garden, and I wanted a lighter colour, so I got two to match. I got a good deal on them because I bought them last autumn, right at the end of the season.

Part of the reason the garden makeover has taken so long is because I get distracted by other things. Here's a selection of succulents I bought at the RHS Great Plant Fair on Tuesday (I nipped in for an hour before going to work.) Have you ever seen that old television programme Supermarket Sweep, where you had to race down the aisles loading up the trolley with as much stuff as possible? It was a bit like that - Sempervivum Sweep. I had an extremely enjoyable time planting them up.
I bumped into Clive while I was there, and you can read his post here. And Fennel and Fern has posted about it here. It's a great show, but full of temptations.

After a day of back-breaking toil, it's great to see the leaves glowing in the evening sun as you sit down with a cup of tea.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Radical rejungling: part two

So, there I was, feeling a little dejected, with aching arms, a scruffy garden and a looming hosepipe ban. The hosepipe ban was particularly worrying - how was I to tidy up the garden, plant replacements for winter casualties, sort out ponds and pressure-wash the paving within the space of two short weeks?
Well, I wasn't going to achieve it by sitting around feeling sorry for myself, that was for sure. I decided to abandon my customary endless wrestling match with guilt. (Should I really spend that much on plants? Could I really afford a new shed? Was it extravagant of me to go and buy an old water tank at the salvage depot?)
First step was to hire some help in the garden. Normally, I do everything myself (my son Rory helps out with the heavy lifting if he's around), and I'm proud of this. It was quite difficult to give up that sense of ownership of labour.
Also, I didn't want someone who would come round and tell me I was doing everything all wrong. I just wanted someone to do what they were told!
I asked my friend Pamela Johnson if she could recommend someone and she put me in touch with her neighbour, Martin. He agreed to come round for a couple of hours a week.
The minute I made the arrangement with Martin, I felt much more positive about everything. Yes, I thought, I would buy some new plants. I would get a new shed. I would go and buy that old water tank I'd seen on the internet. Suddenly, it was all do-able. Indeed, it was difficult to see why I'd been so reluctant to ask for help.
I had no real reason to feel guilty about spending money on plants - I had the money, and I needed the plants. I needed a new shed - my old one leaks, the door doesn't shut properly and it will probably fall over in the next strong wind. (Besides, I've always hated it.)
To be scrupulously honest, I didn't actually need a salvaged water tank. But I liked it, I thought it would look good, and the idea of installing something that would hold quite a lot of water when we were in the middle of a drought seemed prudent.
Sometimes we need to stop as we trundle along our well-worn mental grooves, and ask why we are being so hard on ourselves.

Radical rejungling: part one

I owe the title of this post to Rob, who organised a very jolly day out to the garden centres at Crews Hill, near Enfield in north London, last Sunday. I really enjoyed it: the sun shone (unexpectedly), I bought lots of fantastic things, Julia and her husband came too, and I was able to meet Mark and Gaz for the first time. We even managed to fit in a pub lunch. Bliss.
However, I've sub-titled it "part one", because I know that before I've got very much further with it, someone (hang on a minute, that's the doorbell) will interrupt me.
This has been a bit of a pattern this spring. And it might sound trivial, but it has really affected the way I've thought about the garden.
The first problem is time. I work the equivalent of full-time (in total number of hours), so stints in the garden are limited. In addition, life has a way of thwarting one's plans - on Saturday, for example, I had to spend the morning waiting in for the television repair man, and the Saturday before that, it was the drains man. You daren't go out and get stuck into planting in case they decide you're not at home and go away again.
Then there are the other mundane tasks that must be fitted in - laundry, shopping, cooking etc. By the time you've given a child a lift somewhere and chatted to your mum on the phone, your day has been neatly chopped up into bitesize pieces that don't really allow for any big tasks to be started, let alone completed.
The second problem is physical strength. I just haven't got the energy to heave compost or plants around any more, or split huge clumps, or even (when my hands and arms are suffering from a heavy day on the computer) do a lot of pruning. I hate always to be dependent on friends and family for help - apart from anything else, they're not always there when I need them.
The third problem is partly a result of the first two, plus the very cold winters we've had here in the UK. Planting exotics is always a gamble in terms of hardiness, but last year I began to wonder whether I was just being plain foolish.
I started looking around for hardier alternatives, and this - combined with the fact that I didn't want to have to lug huge plants into place - meant that the garden started to lose its jungly character. Everything looked smaller, somehow and out of scale with the exotic survivors which are now much bigger than they were when I first moved in.
So, what to do? I began to feel quite downcast. I also began to feel quite panicky and stressed+ - was I ever going to get any time to get outside and sort things out? How was I going to manage everything?
I'll tell you what happened in Part Two.

Me, Gaz and Rob loading plants into my car. I now know that with the seats down, it will take one big Washingtonia, five small ones, one tree fern, one large aspidistra, one Japanese maple, one fairly sizeable Phoenix roebelinii, and various other assorted perennials.