Monday, 31 August 2015

Too early for the A word

This is the first year I can recall where I’ve not risked the ire of my fellow human beings with a premature mentioning of the A word. Hot weather saps my energy; while I’ll put a brave face on it for work, I’m keenly looking for the first signs of the change in season from the end of July. In recent weeks there’s been a stampede of people throwing up their hands in despair at the early onset of autumn, but while I’d be delighted to find their angst justified, I think it more likely that we're having a bit of a wet end to summer after a protracted hot, dry spell. It is, after all, still August. And this is, after all, England.

That’s not to suggest we shouldn’t expect to see signs of the approaching season; the night-time temperature is beginning to drop away from the uncomfortably clammy, while several mornings this past week have seen me pulling up the blinds to discover a fresh, chill mist knocking at the glass. Above all this, the thoughts of the gardener are beginning to turn from what can still be achieved in the beds and borders this year, to how best to prepare for the next.

One thing in particular will help with my own garden in a year from now – I need to face up to the truth about molluscs. I’ve been in denial, having evidently been at pains to create the perfect environment for snails in particular, although slugs too are well represented. Over the past few years I’ve adopted a fairly hands-off gardening style here; fine as long as I was happy to stand back and watch the dynamics within the borders, leaving the plants to their own devices, though it does naturally favour a survival-of-the-fittest scenario. Consequently, I have a late summer bed of flowering thugs – solidagos, Japanese anemones and crocosmias – while most of the charming asters, echinaceas and heleniums have been grazed to the ground by the battalions of snails emerging nightly from the heaps of lush foliage encouraged by my neglect. One tiny pocket of resistance against the endless onslaught is being offered up by Aster divaricatus. Rain battered and, by now, going over, it must taste disgusting to snails, for which I am immensely grateful. Its presence is a minor reprieve I surely don’t deserve.

Aster divaricatus, bravely soldiering on, albeit a tad dishevelled
From hereon in, then, a more interventionist approach is called for, which means gardening here in the same way I garden everywhere else. In other words, tidily, or at least being strategic about which areas I allow to become untidy. The forest of under-performing acanthus is to go – who knows, it may even flower better if I stick it in a less luxuriant spot – which will have the dual effect of removing a vast snail hotel, whilst freeing up a whopping great spot at the end of a bed into which I can plant something exciting. The geraniums will also be cut back – I don’t have anything too invasive (in the ground, at least – I have a specimen of the ridiculously vigorous pink flowered 'Claridge Druce' confined to a large pot), but they’ve been allowed to sprawl a bit this year. Except the phaeums, which I did subject to a Chelsea Chop.

I’m starting to get concerned that things might begin to look a little organised; will I in a few months – horror of horrors – find myself in the position of having “put the garden to bed for winter”? I think I should perhaps just take this one step at a time.

Anemone x hybrida 'K├Ânigen Charlotte'. A right bruiser.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Enchanter’s nightshade

As fond of weeds and wildflowers as I am, it wasn’t without a wry smile that I acknowledged the arrival of this plant in a bed from which I’d only recently been congratulating myself for liberating from ground elder. Circaea lutetiana, or enchanter’s nightshade, has a similar creeping habit to that carrot which fills some gardeners with horror, but which I’ve always found myself able to tolerate, as long as it doesn’t object to a triple whammy of vigorous forking and pulling out, and a good strimming of its aerial parts when the urge comes upon me.

The botanical name possessing twice the magical power of the common (Circe being the sorceress of Homer’s Odyssey, and Lutetia referencing an old Latin name for Paris, the ‘Witch City’), Circaea isn’t part of the nightshade family (Solanaceae) at all, but rather a relative of willowherbs and the evening primrose (Onagraceae). It’s generally described as being “not particularly toxic”, so you probably won’t want to be dashing out to gather it up by the armful for pesto. As a plant of woodland glades and edges, it revels in slightly damp, light shade, and can establish large colonies if allowed to grow unchecked, in which situations it might reach its full height of around 60 centimetres, though I’ve rarely encountered it in a garden at more than a third of that size. While its underground rhizomes will take it only so far, its hairy oval seed capsules facilitate any designs it might have on wider conquest; towards the end of summer, it’s not uncommon for the dog owner to find several in the coat of their furry friend.

Although it’s not tiresome to pull out, it’s probably not something the gardener would want to encourage, unless in a woodland setting. That said, when in flower, I find it rather pretty – above the spear-shaped, opposite green leaves a spire-like raceme, rather openly (some might say ungenerously) populated with tiny flowers (reminiscent of some of the less abundantly-floriferous heucheras). The flowers themselves are white, sometimes with a pink tinge, and have two, deeply divided petals.

A large patch of the stuff in your borders is probably not be what you want, then. But if you should catch the odd plant out of the corner of your eye, flowering daintily away in some forgotten leaf litter under a large shrub, you might want to leave it be. Noone likes to run the risk of upsetting an enchantress.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

A perfect time to trim the lavender

Work in someone else’s garden for any length of time, and you soon become familiar with the rhythms of your clients domestic life – part of them, in fact. So I took in my stride the arrival of a lorry to empty the septic tank. “He usually comes very early, even before you get here”, my client told me, almost apologetically. Whatever the reason for the tardy arrival of the night-soil porter, it was enough for me to know I’d be present for the duration of the fragrant operation. I planned my day accordingly, intending to be as far as possible from the area in question when the time came. Or at least upwind of it.

What a stroke of luck, then, that I should have returned after a week's break to find the lavender going over. In this exposed garden – windy, often sun-baked, with a thinnish layer of soil over flinty clay – Mediterranean plants like to grow leggy. To mitigate this I try my darndest to be ruthless in removing flowers as early as possible so the plants can concentrate on arranging themselves into pleasing, fat pebble shapes. I just have to be convincing when explaining to the client why this is necessary. Nothing convinces the bees – just the one sting today though, and that was only because I knelt on the poor thing.

The first lavender bed was a bit too close to the action. We planted Lavandula angustifolia 'Imperial Gem' – it reaches 40 to 50cm in height, with a deep purple colour to thumb-length flower spikes atop grey green foliage. It also has a good scent, but not that astringent note that you get from the hybrid L. x intermedia hybrids. Today, I think I would have been glad of that. Instead, I made a tactical retreat, and found something to do in another border.

There’s more spiraea to grow up to the right of the hedge at the back. A bit short just now.