Monday, 30 June 2014

The reluctant bear’s breeches

I spoke disparagingly about the lack of flower on my acanthus in a recent post. I think I must have shamed it into action – this year it would appear that we are to be favoured with at least one flower spike. This is not quite a unique event in the history of our garden, but in the eight years since we’ve planted the thing it has flowered only twice, and on the first of these occasions it chose to do so in something of a clandestine manner. One late summer’s evening, having all but given up hope for another year, I parted the leaves and peered into the heart of the deep green foliage – the cool, dark shade home to an army of snails who, it seems, prefer the acanthus for the shelter it offers them, rather than for its nutritional value. Nestled modeestly and, it must be said, rather uselessly in the centre of the plant was the shortest inflorescence imaginable, clearly either too shy or too lazy to elevate itself above the foliage in the traditional manner. Hopeless.

Some years ago I found myself at a loose end in the middle of Athens, and whiled the afternoon away in a park not far from Syntagma Square. Here, acanthus romped away like weeds, great drifts of the things in full flower – hardly surprising for a genus so closely identified with its home in the Mediterranean that its leaves became one of the most common motifs to ornament the architecture of the classical period. But while they're clearly in their element in an Athenian recreation ground, there’s nothing particularly Mediterranean about my back garden in Kent. It’s not that the plant is unhappy here – reliably producing an architectural cascade of luxuriant foliage year on year, it may be that it is too happy. Sometimes, a plant needs to be panicked into flowering. With this in mind, I’ve completely neglected this part of the border for several years now, with the exception of weeding and clearing away the spent leaves in late winter; no feeding, no watering. Perhaps it’s the tough love that will yield this year’s flowers. Or perhaps it’s just fluke. That’s the thing about gardening; it’s all very well to make an educated guess. But you’re never quite sure.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

The longest day

Red poppies, deep pink valerian and the blue of vipers bugloss against golden grasses
The sun beats down, relentless. Fisherman’s huts rise up through the haze from a layer of shingle which radiates heat with such intensity you could be excused for wondering if the reactors at Dungeness B are simply here as a backup plan. It is the summer solstice, and there is no shade in this place.

Prospect Cottage
Strange to think that Britain’s only designated desert landscape reputedly contains over six hundred species of plants, frequently claimed to be a third of all the plants found in the UK. Whatever the statistics, the real wonder is that such an apparently inhospitable environment can support such biodiversity at all. That’s what makes Derek Jarman’s garden at Prospect Cottage such a wonder. That singular plot – driftwood sculptures, objets trouvĂ© and stone henges, wind-pruned elders and rings of gorse, embellished by the jewel colours of eschscholzias and marigolds, echiums and valerian – is remarkable for the manner in which it reflects and complements the natural flora of the ness.

Today we don’t even  walk as far as the cottage; parking by the only pub under the shadow of the power station we take the boardwalk to the beach, past the spiralling concrete of the new lighthouse, across the stretch of sea-rounded pebbles, dotted with tough grasses and sea kale Crambe maritima, to find the deep blue-grey sea crashing against the shingle ridges high up the beach. We have yet to experience low tide at Dungeness, or a sunset for that matter, both of which are rumoured to be worth the drive alone. But today is the longest day, the tide is high and sunset is many hours away. We’ll be back another day.

The vivid cornflower blue of Echium vulgare, Vipers Bugloss

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Evening in the garden

Paeonia 'Sarah Bernhardt', looking a little ragged, but beautiful nonetheless
The second week of June, and the spell of unseasonably dry and sunny weather continues. The ground is beginning to crack, especially in those spots where I might have skimped a little when mulching. The World Cup has begun, the great British public is getting out white wobbly bits that make you long for more decorous seasons, and there’s nary a drop of rain forecast for the next few days. But if I were to venture an opinion, by far and away the best things about these hot and sunny days are the early mornings, the late evenings and, if you absolutely must be out and about in the middle of the day, the shade. If you’re able to rustle me up a cooling breeze, a swinging chair and a cold beer, that would make things tolerable.

As it is, due either to being mad dog or Englishman – or possibly both – I’ve been working through the warmest parts of the day, and so it’s pleasant to stroll through the garden in the failing light, enjoying the slightly cooler conditions and serenaded by birdsong. The birds seem particularly chatty this evening and, now that presumably most of their broods have hatched, I wonder what it is they have to talk about. Nursery schools, childcare costs, tax credits – next door’s cat...

Floribunda rose 'Harry Edland', in reality a little cooler than here

Some years I worry that my garden suffers a little from the ‘June gap’ – but then I tell myself not to be so silly. True, many of the geraniums are going to seed, as are the aquilegias and the paeonies, and the blackbirds have been getting into all sorts of daft positions on the amelanchier in order to steel the tempting, red berries. It’s a few weeks before the lavender is in full flower and the crocosmia, solidago and anemones won’t bloom till July. The acanthus, true to form, is as luxuriant in foliage as it is wanting in flower. And the sweet peas this year are annoyingly tardy, probably due to being a little thirsty – the soil is cracking particularly badly around the tripods. But  before I’ve gone more than a couple of paces from the back door my nose is telling me where to find the greatest burden of flower this week. Raising my gaze to head height, both the leycesteria and the philadelphus are in full bloom, and the scent from the latter is exquisite; rich vanilla underneath, cut through with a sharper citrus tang. This is one of those scents for which you really have to make time to simply stand, eyes closed, and breathe in through your nose for several, peaceful moments; to hurry by regardless would be worryingly indicative of some deep malaise of the soul. So, I stand and sniff, while Bill looks at me as if concerned I’ve finally lost it. Silly human, he may or may not be thinking. No tail and the worst sense of smell in all nature. Still, he seems to know the best places to find sausages and cheese, so he earns his keep. 

Philadelphus coronarius. I think.

I was unaware until recently that philadelphus is a member of the hydrangea family, appropriate really, as another plant that’s looking particularly wonderful as the evening falls is the oak leaved Hydrangea quercifolia, its delicate white petals just beginning to open on panicles tightly packed with flower heads. I think if anything they’re more lovely just now than when they’re in full bloom.

Hydrangea quercifolia. A great value plant for year-round interest.