It has been an embarrassingly long time long since I posted an update on our garden and allotment. Fear not, everything is coming up roses. Like you, we’ve been adjusting to this crazy, post-pandemic world we’re living in. To get you back up to speed, here’s a quick round-up of everything that’s happened here over the last few months.
East Kent experienced another uncharacteristically cool spring, although it was nowhere near as chilly as 2021. Last year will always be remembered for pots of daffodils flowering in June. In autumn we went overboard with the bulb planting, ordering more than ever and thinking we’d devised the most cunning, sophisticated planting scheme ever. Unfortunately, no amount of careful planning could compensate for being sent the wrong bulbs. To give an example, we ordered Narcissus ‘Blushing Lady’ and received a bag labelled Tulipa ‘Blushing Lady’. When the erroneous bulbs flowered, they turned out to be neither of the aforementioned. That just about set the standard for this year’s service from a leading bulb supplier. Favourites such as Tulipa ‘Attila Grafitti’ turned out to be inferior or cheaper varieties and the size of the bulbs was poor compared to previous years. I understand that substitutions sometimes have to be made, but suppliers should be upfront about it and not hold their breath in the hopes that no one will notice. In the end, I was too busy to complain. I shall simply take my business elsewhere and so should you if had a similar experience.
Bulb size matters less when planting in pots than in the garden but it does have an appreciable impact on the size and stature of the resulting plants. A representative from Blom’s Bulbs (completely in the clear vis-à-vis the fiasco above) explained to me that the size of a tulip bulb is directly proportional to the size of the flower at the point the bud colours up, getting larger from there. If that sounds complicated, the gist is that large bulbs equal large flowers. But a large bulb will also produce stronger, taller and more upright stems and often brighter blooms. There can be a significant cost differential as bulb size increases so when shopping from a catalogue it’s worth making sure you’re comparing like for like. This autumn I have resolved to buy fewer, better-quality tulips, plus I’ve saved a number of daffodils and hyacinths from my spring pot display.
We were very happy to have leading garden photographer Sarah Cuttle here not once, but twice this spring. Sarah is the loveliest person to have around – she knows exactly what she wants and gets on with it. Her photographs, some of which I have used (with permission) to illustrate this post, might well be appearing in a garden magazine next year. I was quite ashamed of some of the unplanned colour combinations but in Sarah’s photographs they look tolerable.
I cannot be alone in giving myself a completely unrealistic list of jobs to do in the garden? This year I have excelled myself, just when I am busier than ever. Almost all of our boundary fences are overdue a fresh coat of paint or preservative. The problem now is that there’s too much greenery in front of them to make this an easy or enjoyable job. I will start (and probably finish) on the front gate, which has been wearing white undercoat for over a year. If I get any further, it will be a miracle. The workshop, which I had intended to use as a studio for making videos, fills up with ‘stuff’ as fast as I can dispose of it. Perhaps if I worked out there I might keep it tidier?
Allotments are funny things in that they go from 0-60 in just a few weeks between mid-May and mid-June. One moment they’re a sea of bare earth and the next there’s nowhere to squeeze in one spring onion more. It’s a shame that allotments don’t have elasticated sides! In an attempt to make more space for crops we dug up three short paths in spring, thereby creating one very large, long bed and another squarish one. There’s a real trade-off between the convenience of paths and maximising productive space. Perhaps there’s a golden ratio I’m not aware of, but I think we have it about right now. We also removed the ugly green netting from the fence that borders the carpark. We lose a few raspberries and loganberries to greedy hands, but gain a lot of admiring glances and kind comments. I know which I’d rather have.
For the first time, we left all our dahlia tubers in the ground over winter. I would like to claim this was calculated but we realised in December that we neither had the time to lift over 100 dahlias nor the space to store them. Instead, we covered each tuber with a couple of shovels full of old potting compost and waited for nature’s verdict. Expecting to lose a few to the cold we ordered 20 cuttings from Halls of Heddon in late November and ended up losing only 5, so we’re now growing dahlias on an industrial scale. A few older plants looked sick when they reappeared so we dug them out and replaced them with young, vigorous ones. Despite what we imagined, the consequence of leaving our dahlias to fend for themselves is that their development is almost a full month ahead of last year. We enjoyed our first flowers in late June and some are already as large as they ever were in 2021. This weekend we will start feeding so that they don’t run out of steam too soon.
Will we leave our dahlias in the ground again this winter? Yes, absolutely, not least because it saves us about a week of work in total. You might want to do the same, so it’s worth noting that our soil is very well drained and we have half the rain that falls on most parts of the UK west of London. In wetter, heavier soils I’d be more reticent about not lifting. If you’re keen to see what varieties are doing well for us, keep an eye on our Instagram accounts @Monty_John and @thefrustratedgardener where dahlia pics are posted daily.
Elsewhere on the allotment, I’ve dabbled with sweetpeas for the first time in many years. It’s a dalliance that started well and descended into disappointment. I sowed my seeds in November and kept the seedlings pinched out and compact before planting out in April. They eventually got going but no sooner had they started flowering than they began to look sickly. They’re displaying all the symptoms of a virus – stunted, deformed growth and streaky flowers. Goodness knows where it came from; no allotment is an island and the disease could have arrived from anywhere. I might try again with sweet peas next year, or I might just grow runner beans instead!
The Beau and I resolved not to open our garden for the National Garden Scheme in 2022. The idea was to take the pressure off us both whilst I got Dan Cooper Garden up and running. It was the right decision, allowing us the freedom to keep things a little simpler. It’s amazing how much money we’ve saved too – all the fussing and finessing needed to keep the garden ‘just so’ cost more than I thought. I miss some of the refinements and indulgences we usually make, but there’s also more space and less to water. The Jungle Garden continues to be filled with bananas, gingers, brugmansias and begonias; all plants that tolerate sun for only part of the day. The Gin & Tonic Garden becomes steadily more tropical with the addition this year of Paulownia kawakamii ‘Sapphire Dragon’ and Impatiens macrophylla. Right now we are enjoying a cavalcade of lilies, including the heavily-scented L. ‘Beijing Moon’ and L. ‘Nymph’ and unscented L. leichtlinii. We planted more bulbs in late spring so that we’ll have another flush of flowers in August and September.
My long-term experiment with Clematis along the back fence is ready to reach a conclusion. All the cultivars of Clematis viticella, including ‘Etolie Violette’, ‘Dutch Sky’ and ‘Kermesina’ have done splendidly and the rest have not. The foliage of the large-flowered hybrids starts off green before turning yellow and then browning to a crisp. I thought this may have been down to chlorine in our tap water, but having spoken to experts I believe it’s our shallow chalk soil and the plant’s root run being too restricted. I can’t do anything about either, although a dose of seaweed might help the plants to take up the nutrients they need to stay healthy. I think I’ll just remove them in the autumn and replace with more viticellas: there are so many lovely cultivars that I won’t feel deprived of choice.
Finally a word on watering, which for anyone resident in the South East has been a burden all summer and will only continue to be so as we encounter highs of 40ºC for the first time since records began. On the coast we might escape the highest highs but we really don’t know how plants will respond in the short and long term. Watering early in the morning is the best approach, although for many of us that’s not practical. We water in the late afternoon when there’s less chance of precious water evaporating from the soil surface but some chance of wet foliage drying before nightfall. That way we’re not inviting moisture-loving pests and diseases to move in under the cover of darkness. At the moment watering is taking us between 2 and 3 hours a day so we are monitoring the weather forecast for any suggestion of a good downpour.
And there we are, four months condensed into just a few paragraphs! I won’t leave it for so long next time. Have a great weekend and try to stay cool. TFG.