Garden Diary: May 2020 Part I

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Where, oh where did May go? No sooner had it started than June was upon us. Now it’s midsummer, the longest day is almost here, and I am way behind with my garden diary. As I explained to our allotment neighbour at the weekend, May is a month where doing takes priority over writing about doing ….. and there’s been an awful lot of doing both here at The Watch House and on the allotment. So much that I’ve split May’s diary in two.

Together with the ever-tolerant Beau, I’ve tackled jobs that would have been left indefinitely had I not had the benefit of the extra time bestowed upon us by working from home and cancellation of the Chelsea Flower Show. Interestingly I felt more relief than loss at Chelsea 2020’s demise. More time for real, hands-on gardening is always a gift.

Asked to choose my favourite spring flowers, Anemone coronaria ‘De Caen Group’ would always feature in my top ten. I adore the velvety petals and mascarred stamens.

Judging by our experience of shopping for plants, compost and other gardening materials during our incarceration, we are not alone in having more time to spend outside. While others have been saving, I’ve been sating my appetite for plants by shopping online. The results have been very mixed and there will be full disclosure in my next post. Long delays and stock shortages seem to be the norm. I have been waiting 2 months for deliveries from Primrose (still waiting) and Sarah Raven, reaching the point where I no longer have room for what I ordered but have not the heart to cancel.

The Beau and I literally jumped for joy when garden centres reopened, not least because it provided us with an excuse to venture out in the car again. Our local garden centre was among the first to open, but after a deluge of customers had no terracotta pots left and only multipurpose compost, although plenty of it …. for the time being.

Although we’ve grown thousands of plants from seed this year, more than a handful have arrived via mail order, including Calceolaria ‘Calynopsis’ and Coleus ‘Henna’.

Plants and mail order are not easy bedfellows. No amount of bold or witty ‘This Way Up’ labelling is going to penetrate the consciousness of the average delivery person. We have had some beautifully prepared parcels arrive from Cornwall (Treseders) and Wales (Dibleys). They were packed with such care and attention that any damage could only be blamed on the carrier. We have also received some absolute shockers. I’ll name no names here, but Covid 19 offers no excuse for packages that have no hope of making it to the recipient in a respectable condition. And why, oh why, does everyone seem to hand parcels over to the Royal Mail on a Thursday when they know they won’t deliver them until Monday? Several humid boxes packed with lightly mashed specimens have arrived at The Watch House after five warm days in transit. The contents have required the horticultural equivalent of the kiss of life, followed by careful nursing administered by yours truly. It is no wonder that until the current crisis only 5% of plants were sold online in the UK. I imagine many gardeners are overjoyed to get back into nurseries and garden centres now that it’s safe and practical to do so.

The Gin & Tonic Garden after our first round of spring sprucing. A month later everything has filled out beautifully.

Meanwhile I am trying to buy ferns and lily bulbs online and am finding most specialist nurseries have sold out of their choicest cultivars. It’s hard to tell if this indicates a bumper spring or whether nurseries have simply struggled to propagate and prepare plants for sale. For so many sectors this has been an unimaginably tough time and particularly so for horticulture where timing is everything, margins are slim and many people are in it for the love rather than the financial reward. We must all do our bit to support small nurseries and growers as lockdown is lifted, for our own future benefit as much as theirs.

The Gin & Tonic Garden from above. Note the banana, Musa ‘Tibet’, getting accustomed to life outdoors.

Back to May and I’m afraid I was very slack when it came to keeping a record of what I did and when. I will no doubt regret that in due course, but I never regret seizing the moment. This spring broke many records in terms of sunshine hours, but the record to trump them all is that May 2020 was the sunniest calendar month ever recorded in this country, with 266 hours of sunshine, beating the previous record of 265 hours in June 1957. Here in Broadstairs we did rather better than average with 322 hours. That’s over ten hours of sunshine every day. Here’s how we took advantage of the uniquely un-British weather.

We’ve been like excited children watching neat rows of seedlings appear on the allotment. We are trying to minimise the use of plastic, hence the wooden plant labels.

Friday 1st

I firmly believe that preparation is everything, hence we have been putting an enormous amount of effort into readying the allotment for planting. Sometimes I look at the expanse of brown and wonder what the hell we’ve been doing, but the answer lies beneath the surface. Three trailer-loads of five-year-old horse manure dealt with half the plot and the rest has been steadily improved by incorporating compost made from wool and bracken. As manure and compost have been gently distributed through the soil by an army of worms we have noticed a profound difference in texture, water retention and colour. The earth at the allotment is generally light in colour with a tendency to dry to a fine powder on the surface. The additional organic matter has rendered it darker, richer and easier to work.

We begin the month by planting the cut-flower beds with calendulas, helichrysums, cleome and salvias. It’s a little early but the weather is set fair and the plants have been hardening off for weeks. It’s good to furnish the carefully prepared beds with plants and to fuss over the tiny green plumes of foliage.

Forget colour coordination. Spring is about colour, however it’s served up. Here, Geranium maderense clashes playfully with Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’, Beschorneria yuccoides and Tulipa ‘Lasting Love’.

Saturday 2nd

The Jungle Garden is now a riot of colour. Five Geranium maderense plants – three pink and two white – are pumping out clouds of blossom against a backdrop of Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’. A Beschorneria yuccoides that had been shaded for far too long is producing two enormous coral-pink spikes that will soon bear hundreds of coral and green flowers. It’s an unconvential scene, but we embrace all kinds here at The Watch House.

This corner display of potted plants was one of the first to be arranged. It has developed beautifully as the weeks have gone by. Fresh compost and a good feed has worked wonders on my tired old succulents.

Saturday 9th and Sunday 10th

May is change-over month in our two gardens; a phasing out of tulips and other spring bulbs in tandem with the steady introduction of tender tropicals. How fast the process goes is dependent on the weather and our energy levels: if either is lacking we very quickly fall behind. In such a confined space, getting everything in the right place is rather like solving a rubik’s cube. The only way to solve it is a little at a time, responding to when each plant is over and another ready to take its place. The process of summerfication is normally complete by the end of June.

The garden table is now completely covered by dahlias grown from tubers and with seedlings being hardened off. How I’d love to have space for cold frames so that we could keep the gardens free from clutter, but having plants close at hand means we can keep an eye on them and judge when they’re ready to be planted out. Of course we have grown far too much, but rather that than not enough.

One freshly made bed!

We remove all the yellowing tulips from the raised bed and take them to the compost heap. The soil in the bed is dry and light so we add as much farmyard manure as we can without it tumbling over the sides. When these beds were first made the soil level was well below the top. Now I have to create a ridge in the middle if I want to mulch. We want to make sure the raised bed is not obscured this year, so there will be no gingers on this side of the garden and we’ll put much more effort into planting it up.

Stone Bay, Broadstairs on one of countless fine day during May. Centranthus ruber (red valerian) is just starting to dust the clifftops with pink as Smyrnium olusatrum (Alexanders) fades.

Wednesday 13th

Whilst I’ve been working at home I have been trying to join The Beau on his afternoon dog walk as often as I can. As a result I have seen as much of Broadstairs over the last two months as I have seen in the preceding fourteen years. It has been wonderful marvelling at the bridal whiteness of hawthorn trees in St Peter’s churchyard, to watch the carnival of flowers that appear on the cliff edge and to catch the long forgotten scent of honeysuckle in the hedgerows.

The sweet scent of honeysuckle reminds me of Cornwall and my maternal grandmother.

There are some very attractive front gardens along our walking routes, but many that are less so. The BBC reports that access to a garden is now the number one requirement for anyone wishing to buy or rent a property. Turns out that a well-tended garden is more likely to sell a home than a fancy kitchen or bathroom. It will be interesting to see if this raises the standard of gardens across the country and puts those homeowners who elect to turn their front gardens into ecological deserts at a disadvantage. One can only hope so.

Hats off to the seafront homeowner who encourages this swathe of Scilla peruviana to grow in front of their property. A joy to behold every year.

Friday 15th

It was a lovely surprise to receive an email telling me that the short film made at The Watch House in 2018 was to be repeated on tonight’s episode of Gardener’s World. It is strange to see myself without a beard after two years! Sadly the repeat coincides with a tribute to Monty’s charismatic sidekick Nigel, who passed away earlier this week. The presenter’s gentle canine companion charmed and amused us all each Friday night and will be sorely missed by viewers. Our own dogs are not so much interested in gardening, but like Nigel they love to doze in the sun, trot around behind us or play with a random stick. We’d be lost without them. Our thoughts go out to Monty and his family.

You can watch the episode on the BBC website here or on You Tube below. The segments begins around thirteen minutes into the programme.

Saturday 16th

I try not to mix work with pleasure, but just occasionally the two worlds collide. As part of an initiative called ‘Feel Good Friday’ our press team at John Lewis & Partners asked me to make a short video about how to look after houseplants. After a little coaxing The Beau agreed to be my camera man and we recorded about twenty minutes of footage which was quickly edited into the video below. It’s a little on the pacy side and some of the sense of what I was saying got lost in the editing process, but considering we’re both amateurs it’s not a bad job.

Sadly the Streptocarpus saxorum behind me in the opening shot decided to hurl itself onto the floor a couple of weeks later, crushing everything beneath it. It’s now been repotted and given a brutal haircut, so it may be a little while before it looks this good again. Meanwhile I have acquired four new Streptocarpus since lockdown – S. ‘Harlequin Lace’, ‘Polka-Dot Purple’, ‘Falling Stars’ and ‘Crystal Ice’ – all from Dibleys. They are together on the hearth in the library covered in flowers and giving us daily pleasure, especially on days when we can’t get outside.

Coming soon, Part II, our Grand Spring Staycation and yet another glorious Bank Holiday. TFG.

Geranium maderense ‘Guernsey White’