If you live, as we do, where Winter extends into Summer and we have little or no Spring, and then suddenly Autumn creeps upon us unawares, it seems highly sensible to take advantage of all possible gardening opportunities. By which I do not mean out in the garden on days when you can, and potter in the greenhouse, shed or conservatory when you can’t. I mean open your mind to help from elsewhere. It seems highly sensible to take advantage of online-catalogue offers – seedlings, young plants and potted specialities to fill gaps, or to populate a complete bed.
Taking advantage of adversity
Gardening opportunities without number have presented themselves this year. Enforced inactivity in our acre as old-age manifested itself has meant that the wilderness took over – the state of our vegetable plot particularly upset my husband, whose sole province this is; potatoes were doing fine, as were the broad beans, carrots and beetroot. But, as he succumbed to yet another bout of illness, I determined to surprise him. Over a week in June, I cleared the second half of the plot and laid out two flower beds – there was an ulterior motive in all this, as I had ordered so many herbaceous plants and young seedlings from the Dobies website and had not had time to clear space in my eco-plots to accommodate them. Here was the perfect space.
I had already decided that the ground was too wet and cold to sow vegetable seed (all that winter rain) so ordered seedlings, again from Dobies. Rhubarb Chard is a must – the stem colours glow and are worthy of planting in a flower plot. It does not worry me that my husband will not eat it (nor will he touch spinach!) as I feed it to the hens in their shed when it’s too wet for them to be let out. How it improves the eggs – yolks as golden as the sun! So the little seedlings arrived; I was busy and simply pressed the plugs into compost in trays on the kitchen window-cill. Eventually they went into the ground – what could be easier? The same with beetroot; not the variety that I usually grow, but long- rooted ones that subsequently graced many a lunch when boiled, skinned, cubed small and topped with a balsamic vinegar dressing.
There was still some considerable ground to be planted. I could not be forever hoeing and weeding so decided to add a quantity of squash plants and grow them vertically up frames that were easily slotted together and not so high as to obscure other parts of the garden. Wether we ate the squash was a moot point (husband has very conservative tastes!) – but I rather fancied that when ripe, the small but bright marmalade-orange fruit would make a marvellous still life (the photographer in me took over). They are a deep bottle green right now, tied into the supports, whilst the remaining part of the plot has been close-planted with courgettes and dwarf runner beans – the colour combination is glorious.
Gardening opportunities cannot be passed over; I decided not to plant runner (pole) beans in the usual long 20ft row – how many beans can one elderly couple really require? No matter how well staked are the supports, a heavy crop means they usually reach a state of partial-collapse when the Autumn equinoctial gales arrive at the end of September. In any case, I wanted to trial some different varieties, so positioned four different sorts around a wigwam of bamboo canes. Raised from seed in poly-cups on our kitchen window cill, I do not plant them out until early June as our garden – 450ft amsl in the north Cotswolds – is often beset be late frosts. And I also remembered to identify the varieties, actually wiring plant labels onto the supports! Trials of purple-podded ‘French’ beans were treated in a similar manner; and how tasty they were, lightly steamed and tossed in a little vinaigrette when cooled to top a dish of pasta.
A fruity story
We do love our fruit and planted part of our acre as orchard when we first arrived here in 1969. A labour of love – apples, pears and plums, plus walnuts and hazel (we coppice the hazel so as to provide stakes for various requirements). The damsons are almost ripe and by next week should be ready for preparing as a spiced condiment to accompany duck or pheasant. I always add orange peel to the pan as it adds an extra tang which offsets the richness of the meat. Bare root fruit trees will soon be available again. We have room for more and have ordered a Mirabelle tree (Prunus family). I will have to wait to turn the tiny plums into a slurpy jam, and will never forget former visits to France where breakfast crocks seem out of fashion. The Brits were somewhat non-plussed by having to eat flaky croissants with runny jam – and only the tablecloth as a plate!
The standard peach we ordered would not have survived our climate, so last winter – when RQ (my husband) was still fit – he decided to grow it as a fan against his workshop wall. Warmth from summer sunshine reflected off the stone wall would surely ripen the fruit. It did, and the white-flesh streaked with crimson was a juicy delight. The fan has grown considerably, with new shoots ready to train along the wires drilled into the supporting wall.
With the garden fast becoming a wildlife wilderness, parts of my perennial herb garden have been overtaken by brambles. They long stems are so vigorous that they have arched way over the beds, rooting down at the tips when their weight sends them earthwards. The thorns are vicious and catch you unawares as you pass – reminding me of John Wyndham’s ‘The Day of the Triffids’. The plus point is that they are not lethal, and are smothered in fat blackberries – we need not walk the lanes looking for fruit this year. I will soon be making blackberry jelly – but not after Michaelmas (29th September) which is, by legend, the day the Devil spits on them, making them inedible. The best blackberry-picking time always coincided with the start of the new school year when, after a (usually) wet August, the weather improved and the children and I would take buckets onto the Surrey common as we walked to what was then home.
Pleasure in store by the back door are the lemons on my young standard tree. Last year they all fell off; this year they are swelling and look likely to succeed. I’ve had to prevent the blackbird from routing the soil out of the pot, and I will have to bring the tub indoors come Winter, as the porch-to-be did not get built. It’s a perfect sheltered corner for potted plants – including the floriferous hanging basket with weeping petunias. I stood the basket on an upturned pail, the better to see the mixture of purple, yellow and blue whenever I opened the back door.
There has to be borage …
Being passionate about encouraging bees and other insects to assist in crop pollination – and just to help them survive – I have to have borage. Not only is it a heavenly blue (and can be seen decorating the pages of medieval manuscripts), it is a haven for bees. It self-seeds freely – RQ cannot stand it, I do not know why, but I replanted some self-set seedlings in the flower patch I had created. The moment they flowered, the bees came; indeed it has been alive with honey bees for weeks. Young leaves have a cucumber flavour – perfect for a Spring glass of Pimms!
How pleased I am that I grasped these gardening opportunities and did not let adversity hold back an idea that came to me in early summer. The flower-patch has flourished, the buzz of insects reminding me just how easy it is to encourage beneficial wild-life. Crops have been higher than anticipated. Soon I’ll be planning what to put into the space where the squash has been – maybe a winter cutting garden (with wallflowers and spring bulbs), or early over-wintering garlic, or …. Who knows? Out with the latest catalogue; plus a visit to the forthcoming Malvern Autumn Show at the end of September, for more gardening opportunities will surely present themselves. The possibilities are endless.