Welcome to my garden, which I have been cultivating for a quarter of a century. At five intervals, from early spring in 2010 to late winter in 2011 Sarah Blunt, BBC Natural History Unit Senior Radio Producer, visited to record the highs and lows of a single gardening year for the Radio 4 series Elegies from a Suburban Garden. When you have been cultivating the same patch of land for so long it becomes an important part of our life. Over the years it has been a place for our children to play, a source of food and aesthetic pleasure, a laboratory for studying plants and home to an amazing variety of wildlife. Every annual cycle is unique and as each year passes the garden evolves. Why Elegies? Well, when you are a gardener you tend to look upon the passing of time as the cycles of seasons, rather than as minutes, hours and days and when you look back on each cycle you cannot help but reflect that another has passed so much more quickly than you anticipated - which makes those that will follow all the more precious.

Thank you for visiting.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Exuberance: High Summer

If the dawn chorus of bird song is the soundtrack for the garden in spring, then the drowsy hum of bees is its counterpart in summer. There are bumblebee nests amongst the woodpiles under the hedge and under some of the paving stones around the pond, and the garden flowers in high summer provide plenty of nectar and pollen. Cosmos flowers are a great favourite with bumblebees.

June is the peak month for roses. This is the apothecary's rose, Rosa officinalis, surely one of the most attractive medicinal plants.

Individual Cistus flowers don't survive for very long, but the plants provide a long succession of flowers and thrive in the sunniest corner of the garden, near the house.
The fat buds of oriental poppies burst to produce one of the brightest displays, with a dense mass of blue-black stamens loaded with pollen set in an amphitheatre of scarlet petals. Bees buzz as they crawl around the stamens, releasing a shower of pollen that they comb into their pollen baskets. These poppies seem almost indestructable and are easy to propagate from root cuttings.
A single packet of seed, germinated last year, produced over forty Russell lupin plants in a  wide range of colour combinations. When you pull down those purple wing petals the tip of the keel petal between them exudes pollen like toothpaste from a toothpaste tube.
Throughout her life, my grandmother saved sweet pea seed at the end of every growing season - and so produced her own strain that she grew every year. She always had a vase of these fragrant flowers on the table in summer. This year I grew mine on the site of last year's compost heap and the ultra-fertile soil produced exceptionally vigorous plants with long-stemmed blooms throughout the summer.
Herbaceous Geranium species look especially fine when they're used to underplant the roses. I've lost the label for this one and can't remember what it's called - but it's very similar to the wild meadow crane'sbill that grows in the Weardale haymeadows, not far from home.
Allowing plants to self-seed means that flowers like this little Viola turn up in unexpected places. Any that are unwanted can easily be weeded out, but many colonise crevices and gaps and help to fill the garden with colour.

By early summer the wood pigeons that nested in the weeping pear tree had produced their first pair of fledglings and were already sitting on the next brood of eggs. They raised three broods this year. Their soporific cooing is a feature of warm summer evenings and seems to have sent this fledgling to sleep.
Every evening this wren scolded me while I worked in the garden, while it searched out small insects to feed its nestlings. I didn't find its nest until autumn, in the hedge under the silver birch tree.
These tall gladioli 'Black Star' were originally planted as cut flowers but they looked so magnificent beside the path that I let them bloom in situ along the edge of the raised vegetable bed, where their flowers could be admired at eye level. Rain and wind tends to do a lot of damage to the lush vegetation in the garden in July, so these and most other tall plants needed tying in to canes to keep them upright..... a pleasant job for a summer evening.
By July the cucumbers in the greenhouse had already produced the first crop and their tendrils were tying the plants in knots and lassooing everything within reach - so no need for a lot of laborious tying-in by me...
For a week or two in July and August entering the greenhouse was a hazardous business. These squirting cucumbers, normally found around the Mediterranean coastline, swell on their stalks until the attachment is so fragile that they fly off, squirting out a stream of mucilage laden with hard seeds that ping around the greenhouse like bullets - the ultimate novelty plant, adding a frisson of danger to gardening.
I also grew African horned melons for the first time and thought that they had failed to set any fruit until I found this one amongst the forest of leaves. Those spikes are hard-tipped, like a Medieval mace.
Gooseberries are no trouble to grow, except in years when gooseberry sawfly or magpie moth caterpillars consume their foliage. In our garden they produce a reliable crop every year, but there's a limit to the number of fresh gooseberries that it's wise to eat. They do make excellent chutney, though.
Why grow vegetables that you can buy in every supermarket when there are so many interesting and unusual varities that you can grow that are never on sale? This is the first of our crop of  Ryecroft Purple maincrop potatoes, which were not only colourful to look at but also seemed to be very resistant to slug damage - and had an excellent flavour.
I can't pretend that growing your own food is cheaper than buying it in the supermarket but it's a lot more satisfying. Being able to harvest and eat vegetables like this cos lettuce, that just a few moments before were growing in the garden, is one of the greatest pleasures of gardening - with the added reassurannce that it has been grown under pesticide-free conditions. Nothing was killed during the production of this lettuce.

A couple of years ago I planted two apple trees - I wish I'd planted some when we moved in but better late than never: there's an old horticultural saying that you should plant as though you expect to live forever. I need to hang on for about another decade to really enjoy a good apple crop but this year the Orleans Reinette (a russet type) produced its first fruit..... just one very tasty apple. It's a start.
The Concorde pear was planted about ten years ago and produces a very heavy crop of fruit - but they need to be stored before they soften and develop some flavour. They do make excellent pear and ginger chutney, though.
Swiss chard, with its almost luminous leaf stalks, was the most colourful plant in the vegetable garden but we never developed a taste for its flavour. Most of it ended up in the compost heap.
Early summer in the raised vegetable bed, with courgettes, lettuces, onions and Swiss chard, edged with marigolds. It turned out to be a great year for courgettes....
By mid-smmer the path from the greenhouse up to the house had almost disappeared under luxuriant foliage. The hosta on the edge of the vegetable garden was there to deflect the slugs from the vegetables - that's the theory, anyway. In reality they tucked in to both.

Runner beans, French beans, broad beans - we were still eating harvested, frozen beans of one or other type in mid-winter. 

Mingling flowers with vegetables provides pollen for hoverflies whose larvae eat greenfly. The umbrella-shaped flower heads in the centre belong to Florence fennel plants that ran to seed rather than producing an edible bulb .... but the hoverflies loved them.

As summer wore on bumblebees turned their attention to the purple loosestrife flowers on the edge of the bog garden ....

... cabbage white butterflies carried out their courtship on the Swiss chard leaves ...

... red-tailed bumblebees collected pollen from the cornflowers around the edge of the vegetable garden ....

..... wasps were desperate to reach the rich supply of nectar inside the red-hot poker blooms (which attract sunbirds as pollinators in its native South Africa) ....

.... and peacock butterflies sunned themselves on the Phlox flower spikes.
Meanwhile, warm weather and an over-abundance of nutrients meant that even with my patented goosegrass method  for skimming duckweed from the pond, the duckweed won in the end and carpeted the water. Meanwhile the water level dropped, thanks to a heron whose beak punctured the butyl pond liner.

The end of July, and suddenly most of the garden seemed devoid of colour, except for the small patio near the house, a sun-trap filled with gaudy plants ...

... like Tigridia, whose leopard-skin print flowers remind my of the dresses of some of the characters in Beryl Cook paintings, and ...

... Gaillardia flowers, floral sombreros.

Meanwhile, further down the garden, the graceful arched inflorescences of angels' fishing rods (Dierama pulcherimma) dangled over the pond and ...

... day lilies produced an endless of succession of flowers whose life span was a mere twenty-four hours.

Crocosmia flowers are an early warning that summer is coming to an end...

... and these Ligularia blooms produced a final flourish. I can't remember the name of this species but I grew it from seed and the leaf undersides are a deep shade of purple.
Finally, as summer drew to a close, the cup-and-saucer vine Cobaea scandens that it grew from seed in early spring and trained up a drainpipe produced a few blooms.

Eucryphia, with its exquisite white blooms is one of my favourite late flowering shrubs.

I grew this evening primrose from a pinch of seed I collected from a plant that I found in a supermarket car park, two years ago. It flowered all summer and attracted moths at dusk....

.... which may be why this herald moth turned up in the garden.

Japanese anemones are late-flowerers that I've always struggled to grow well but this year they produced a good display.

Fuchsias in hanging baskets flowered on into autumn ....

.... but which time the burnet rose hips were ripening to a deep purple....
... and the cuckoo pint berries in the woodland garden were turning scarlet.

It was the white mulberry that showed the first signs of autumn. It's always the last tree to break into leaf in the garden and has a very short growing season. I germinated it from a seed when I was a botany student, back in 1971, with the idea that I'd make a living raising silk moths on its leaves. ... something of a gulf between expectation and reality, as it turned out.

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