The longed -for rain finally arrived though the meagre and fitful drizzles hardly moistened the soil, and were interspersed with unseasonable blustering winds for a week. With the last two years of dry summers and this Spring’s heat, even established plants are beginning to show the strain.
July is all about suspension and extension in the garden. To preserve the shape and lengthen the flowering of perennials and annuals for as long as possible. We deadhead, stake, tie in, feed, and try to hold on to that season of interest and invertebrate nectar source before the inevitable autumnal die–back. We’re still looking at the garden as horticulturalists, manipulating nature. As we build up layers, and learn where there are blank spaces, the aim is for the plants to take over much of the work. The planting choices should fill those gaps, provide food for us and all life in the garden for much of the year.
Topiary, the most formal element of the garden
The most formal element of the garden by the house continued to occupy us; the curves and shapes of the box topiary emerging as the crisp lines were carved out. We aimed to try and improve on last year’s timings which thankfully we’ve managed, almost finished after five weeks. So much relies on dry days, of which we’ve had plenty.
The encroaching tide of weeds seem undeterred, appearing to gather and attack suddenly like a stealth army from every side. The gravel paths burgeon, back of borders multiply Fat Hen and Enchanters Nightshade, Oxalis spill from the beds and Hypericum perforatum sneak between the acid yellow of Euphorbia ceratocarpa.
There is a constant see-sawing between garden and wilding. In preparation for the replanting of the South Garden next Spring, we must try and control the weed seed bank. Yet Graeme Lyons in his monthly invertebrate survey tells us the most biodiverse part of the whole garden is where weeds proliferate along the hoggin path margins, between the bare stones and the old Peach House wall.
Of course, we are investigating our weed stock for edible or medicinal uses. Fat Hen is a passable spinach substitute, the young inflorescences can be eaten like broccoli spears and the crushed roots can be used as a mild soap. Enchanters Nightshade [Circaea lutetiana], in fact a type of willow herb, is named after the Greek goddess Circe famed for her potions and enchantments, notably that of turning unwitting sailors into pigs. It can be used for treating wounds nowadays, but not eaten. The small white flowers are actually two petals deeply cleft, a rare occurrence in plants which normally form between 3 and 6 petals.
The new planting in the Walled Garden
If we have more weeds, we go back to the idea of finding plants to compete and fill those spaces. As always there were more pumpkin and squash seedlings than capacity in the vegetable beds so we scattered them through the North facing border where their large leaves and fast-growing, spreading habit act as a weed suppressant and help retain moisture in the soil. The new planting is on the whole thriving and we noted how much better the sweet peas faired in the areas we had dug in large quantities of grit, compared to the clay and compost cutting bed by the greenhouse. The Nicotiana mutabilis is thrumming with bees and has done a fantastic job of filling gaps against the wall while the new plants get established, reaching almost two meters without support.
Suzi and Yas have been undertaking the ongoing soil survey in more depth. On a very basic level, setting out small samples taken from different beds, paths and under lawns, the colour difference was remarkable. With the Soilmentor App, each location was mapped with GPS and photographed. They timed measured amounts of water into an infiltration tube to understand how well the soil takes rain and how much is stored in the soil profile or runs off. Earthworm numbers were counted, and slake tests were made. Slake refers to how well the soil structure holds together in water; healthy soils are full of microorganisms that secrete glues. These, together with organic matter bind soil particles and create an aggregate crumb that retains its bonds even when agitated in water. It’s a very quick and easy way to measure the general health of your soil. In the Autumn, we’ll measure the presence of mycorrhiza, [ a fungus which has a symbiotic relationship with plant roots], mesofauna, [small soil invertebrates 1-2 mm long] and more earthworm counts. We assume the very low numbers this time are in large part due to the dryness of the soil.
We were just beginning to feel we could all take a few holidays. The pink plumes of the Tamarix ramosissima were starting to break, waving over the lavender in full swing, alive with honey and bumble bees. Immature grapes clustered like whispering children beneath the pergola. Then Penny broke the news: Sir David Attenborough would be filming in the garden the following week in a programme about garden songbirds for the BBC.
We were in a state somewhere between hysterical excitement and agonising fear over the appearance and safety of the garden, not to mention what we could possibly say should we actually meet him. Luckily, we were spared that particular turmoil due to the intense Covid 19 safeguards in place. It certainly focuses the mind, and we’re considering having a ‘Sir David’ week at around the same time next year, when all those small jobs we have been meaning to do get done, the paths get swept and sharpened up, the beds spruced and tidied. It was a satisfying week and as we saw his characteristic measured walk crossing the lawn, we felt very fortunate to be in the presence of an advocate who has done so much to highlight the challenges facing the natural world.
It reminded us that we can share our experiences with greater ease than ever before, and we can all be ambassadors for nature whatever the size of our plot.
Moy Fierheller, Joint Head Gardener