Much as I love gardening with my daughter in tow, the time I catch out there after she’s in bed on summer evenings is very precious.
If I’m lucky, I get an hour or so of weeding, deadheading, watering or whatever jobs need doing. Totally uninterrupted.
The garden takes on a whole new personality in the half-light.
Some flowers seem disembodied from their plants – beacons to passing moths.
The borders are less defined; everything is a bit blurred about the edges.
But it has its own quiet beauty.
This week M asked me what ‘blissful’ means. I think pottering in the garden with the bats is as close as you can get.
Tonight I tried to capture it on film. These pics were taken around 9pm, just before the garden descended into darkness.
A couple of days ago we took part in Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count.
You spend 15 minutes in a sunny spot, count how many butterflies you see, and submit your sightings online.
I knew the buddleia outside the kitchen would be teeming with nectar-lovers desperate for a late afternoon fix. But I couldn’t face spending quarter of an hour breathing its sickly scent. Instead, I set my almost-four-year-old up with her identification sheet between two borders stuffed with rudbeckia, dahlias, gaura lindheimeri and verbena.
Last year’s verbena bonariensis survived the winter and has come back as tall and willowy as ever. We’ve also grown verbena rigida for the first time. What it lacks in height (ours is about a foot tall) it makes up for with an intense, almost glowing purple haze of flowers. Both varieties are popular with butterflies. After watching closely for 15 minutes, you notice how they are repeatedly drawn to the same plants.
M thinks she counted 23, but there was a bit of doubling up as she’d count them twice if they fluttered off and back again. The true total (I think) was 10: 1 green-veined white, 1 peacock, 1 painted lady, 2 commas and 5 small tortoiseshells.
Her enthusiasm, and the fact that she completed the full 15 minutes without flitting off herself, made me think M might be ready to have a go at raising a butterfly from a caterpillar. We’re probably too late this year, but perhaps we’ll try next summer.
Plugging the hungry-gap
It was good to take some time out to look at the garden. The dahlias and verbena have been in full swing for a couple of weeks now, and seem to have plenty of life in them yet. There are lots of other nectar-rich flowers around the place too: cleome, cosmos, eryngium and sedum are all blooming – or about to. We’ve managed to close the hungry-gap between early and late summer.
If you live in the UK and want to take part in the Big Butterfly Count, it’s running until Sunday (10th August). Find out more here: http://www.bigbutterflycount.org/ .
At one time I had a hundred or so didiscus blue lace seedlings coming on in the greenhouse. It’s a half-hardy annual, so I chanced a winter sowing then did a second batch early spring.
It’s the first time I’ve grown them, so when the winter-sown ones stopped growing soon after developing their first true leaves, I thought maybe they were waiting for the weather to warm up. But when it did, nothing happened.
Before long the second batch overtook them, so the early ones were consigned to the compost bin.
Unfortunately it seems wild rabbits are rather partial to didiscus. When the second batch were ready I planted a row out in the cutting garden; they disappeared overnight. I put most of the remaining young plants on a bench outside the greenhouse; slowly but surely they also vanished.
I learnt the hard way that rabbits can jump pretty high for a favourite food.
In the end I had just one healthy plant left. Fearing for his safety I put him in a terracotta pot on the wall outside the back door.
He started flowering this week, and I think he’s quite lovely.
Sweet pea season is in full swing here. Every room in the house has a fistful stuffed into any vase, jar or bottle we can find.
1. soak the seeds, then forget about them for a few days
We’re overrun with lavender Lady Grisel Hamilton and pale pink Nelly Viner. I only sowed one pack of each but they had the best germination rate of all the varieties we’ve grown.
The secret? I popped the seeds into water one Friday night, intending to sow them the next afternoon. But my daughter had swimming, then we met up with one of her buddies… I finally remembered them on the Monday morning, and found them looking fat and bloated. They were swiftly transferred to damp kitchen towel and when I got round to planting them the following weekend most of them were sprouting.
We had a 100% success rate with these – they all grew into strong, healthy plants. Usually I’m lucky if 50% germinate and survive long enough to be planted out.
2. winter-sown sweet peas are tough as old boots
Semi-disaster struck in April when a passing wild rabbit feasted on the seedlings from our first sowing last November. They looked like they might be goners but I planted them out anyway and they’ve recovered well enough. Their roots were far more established than the ones we sowed later, so I think they could have survived almost anything.
3. pinch the tips out for a bushy plant, let them be for longer-stemmed flowers
My neglect of Nelly Viner and Lady Grisel Hamilton continued once they were growing. Instead of pinching out their tips – as I thought you were supposed to – I let them grow long and leggy. They tangled so much that I had to spend ten minutes teasing them apart before planting them out. But they’ve gone on to produce long, strong-stemmed flowers that are perfect for picking.
According to Gardeners World this is the best way to grow sweet peas for the vase – and if you can be bothered to pinch out their side shoots they’ll be even better.
4. don’t plant them in a wigwam
Our daughter’s sweet pea castle was only meant to be a bit of fun. But it’s become one of the loveliest features of the garden this summer.
However, the ones we planted in smaller wigwams are top-heavy and so congested that the flower stems grow twisted and misshapen as they try to find their way towards the light.
It turns out some sweet pea experts don’t favour the traditional wigwam method either – I found this advice from Bunny Guinness in The Telegraph’s online gardening pages:
…the wigwam shapes generally advocated are not ideal. All the growth generated from the bottom ends up concentrated at a thin area at the top. Stakes with a coarse netting (such as pig), set into the ground in a circle (perhaps 500mm/20in wide and 1.2m/4ft high) are better; or use bushy twigs of hazel or birch as pea sticks – anything with long stubble to cling on to.
So it seems that most of the so-called rules of sweet pea growing are there to be broken. I’m beginning to wonder if most gardeners make it up as they go along, just like we do.
Several of our roses didn’t flower last year, despite growing like mad. We wondered if they didn’t have enough sun.
But they must have just been finding their feet (or roots) as they’re making up for it now. I’m beginning to wonder if some varieties, especially the ramblers, only flower on the previous year’s growth.
We’re learning as we go with the roses. There seems to be a lot of strong opinion out there about things like how to prune, when to prune, whether to prune at all… The same goes for deadheading. And (gasp) whether to spray them.
So far we have been quite laissez faire in our approach. We’ve given them a good start, preparing the soil with manure and fish blood & bone. But then we’ve stepped back and left them to it, apart from an occasional tying-in for the ramblers and climbers.
Some of them have a few unsightly leaves (I think it’s blackspot) and a couple of the blooms look a bit ropey where the buds were damaged by pests. I picked up a Rose Clear spray gun in the garden centre the other day. But it went straight back on the shelf when I read that it shouldn’t be used when bees are about.
I’ve heard that some otherwise organic gardeners make an exception when it comes to roses, but for now I’m sitting on the fence.
The first roses we bought were simple, single-flowered varieties, like Rambling Rector and Bobby James. I used to dislike the fancier ones. But my tastes must be shifting as we now have several fuller-flowered ones in various girly shades. I love them all. And it turns out Steve is quite partial to a flouncy pink rose as well.
It’s strange to think that we never grew roses before we lived here. Now we have them all over the place. Clambering up trees, climbing over arches, in borders, in pots and dotted here and there at the edge of the garden. Even the flouncy ones have a relaxed charm that feels right at home here.
But their prettiness is only half the story. I’m sure there must be such a thing as a connoisseur of rose scent. The range is quite astonishing, from the fruity Jude the Obscure to the clove-like Rambling Rector and the musky Cariad.
We’re only just getting to know our roses. But since they live for around 35 years I’m sure they will all become old friends.
What’s your favourite rose? And where do you sit on the spraying debate?