Hi fellow gardeners – here we are in late summer, the heatwave is behind us and the days are for the most part sunny and pleasant enough and there is some welcome rain now and then. I now miss being one of the crack-of-dawn waterers group who for weeks on end fell out of their beds and onto their allotment plots in a daily struggle to water and keep everything alive in extreme heat. Allotment harvests vary considerably each year and are a major topic of conversation. This year is no different. I have had courgette-a-plenty but was pleased with my glut as this year I had planned for it. This wonderfully versatile vegetable never disappoints but if you don’t visit the site for a few days you risk finding military-sized torpedoes instead of the small and tender courgette you thought you’d leave just that bit longer. Last year the bean harvest was huge, this year I have struggled at times to make up one portion. However, I did a second late sowing into warm soil and these plants are now taking off so maybe there are more beans to come . . .
Brassicas are doing well and the onion harvest wasn’t bad. I am still waiting hopefully for the potatoes to swell up a bit before bringing them in as they have so far remained tiny, presumably because it has been so very dry.
In January I invested in more netting for my cherry tree and this was quite an outlay. My foresight was rewarded with one cherry. A plot neighbour had one plum on her tree – I had none. Apples, cookers and eaters, have both been plentiful and I had my first harvest of Kentish cobnuts. Due to some crops being very advanced thanks to the heat I was able to start bottling and pickling in July this year and a lot of my time in August was spent bulk-cooking meals, usually with a base of courgette, to divide up and freeze in portions.
The header image this month is a view of a garden I took from the hydraulic lift used to cut the larger topiary pieces shown, which indicates just how old and large these are. It brings back really good memories I have of an award that I was fortunate enough to get a couple of years ago from my professional body, The Professional Gardeners Guild and the Finnis Scott Trust. I was able to choose any gardening topic I wished to study anywhere I wished. I chose topiary as my subject and thought I might as well start at the top and so approached arguably the finest topiary garden in the country for a placement. The Head Gardener, Chris Crowder, said yes and so I spent a fascinating two weeks in the surreal world of Levens Hall’s topiary garden.
Levens Hall is home to the Bagot family. An Elizabethan house with a stunning garden full of interest and maintained to an extremely high standard, winner in 2013 of the Cumbria Tourism Small Visitor Attraction of the year Award, I saw it delight a large public, both local and national, plus large numbers of overseas visitors, particularly from the US. Each year people enjoy a day out there and many of them return regularly year after year. There is a very good restaurant and I still dream of Margaret’s Venison Pie.
This is a working garden with much more going on than history alone. The interests of all types of visitors are accommodated – when I was there Chris and the gardeners led garden tours, there is a childrens’ play area and a maze for smaller visitors. A disability scooter is available for those who need it.
The orchard produces four tonnes of apples each year which are made into Levens’ Cider by a local brewery and sold in the shop. There is a vegetable garden where the point is not only the practicalities of food growing but also to display how surprisingly attractive vegetables can be. The gardening team raise around 30,000 plants from seed each year and the clipping of the world famous topiary and all the hedging is a six month task for the team which begins each year in late August.
A Colonel James Grahme went to live at Levens Hall in 1688 where he engaged the services of a Frenchman, Guillaume Beaumont to lay out the gardens. Incredibly some of the existing topiary pieces date from that time. A notice board greets you on arrival –
The unique garden here at Levens is the best example of a topiary garden in the world. It was designed by Colonel Grahme’s gardener, Monsieur Beaumont in 1689 and completed in 1720. Beaumont was gardener to King James II and helped to design the gardens at Hampton Court. Topiary is the art of cutting trees and shrubs into shapes. The trees used here for topiary work are Yew, Golden Yew and Box. The borders to the beds are of Dwarf Edging Box.
The shapes are first trained and held in position using wire and are thereafter clipped annually. It takes four gardeners about a month to do all the topiary. The clipping, which starts at the end of August, is made more practical with the use of electric cutters and lightweight scaffolding.”
Ask any stately home gardener about the soil type in their garden and the reply will probably be a variation of “Who knows now, it has been worked on and added to for centuries.” For Chris Crowder drainage is the single most important factor in the preparation for topiary and after that the usual rules for soil improvement in any garden apply. Given the age of some of the specimens at Levens it is clear that maintaining a soil in good heart is fundamental. The garden is mulched each spring with spent mushroom compost and the general idea is to feed the soil and let the plant feed itself with supplements being used as and when necessary.
Add to the differing shades of green of the topiary the solid blocks of colour of the flower beds and you have two of the elements that make for a unique display. Only the subtlest of colour changes have been made over the years to these well-loved colours with all the flowering plants being grown in-house.
Fashions in topiary do change and it is the abstract, organic shape that finds favour now rather than the animals popular in the past. This task done with electric clippers and hand shears by enthusiastic trainee topiarist seen below.
The third element that makes this topiary garden unique is that it has survived as one of the oldest gardens in England. The appearance of a garden is also very much a matter of fashion and in the 18th century most formal gardens were swept away and remodelled in the trend for naturalistic landscaping. It is thought that Levens avoided this as it was not the family’s principal seat. The topiary garden at Levens Hall is a rare sight and something of a magical place. I enjoyed it so much that I went back the following year as a volunteer.
Do increase your plant stock by saving your plant seeds. There are many plants that display better en masse. This year I have saved seed from white Foxgloves, Gorse, Lavender (having found Lavender cuttings rather hit and miss), Eucomis, Acanthus mollis and a couple of species roses.
From time to time I mention worms and their beneficial work in our soil. Given that their bodies are made up of a very large percentage of water how have they coped during this year’s in weeks and weeks of heatwave? That is the question being asked by https://www.wormscience.org. The organisation has designed a survey for farmers that took place over the month of August. Results will be shown on the website on 15th September. We may be gardeners rather than farmers but soil is soil so if you’re interested do take a look. It will make you appreciate what the wrigglers do for us if you don’t already.
There are three types of worms apparently and all will probably be familiar to gardeners. The small matchstick-size red-bodied worm breaks down surface litter and provides a good food source for native birds, a small to medium size worm of grey, pink or dark green colour will mix soil and support growing by making nutrients available to plants while the large, pencil-sized worm with a red or black head are the deep burrowers. These are the “drainage worms” who can form channels of as much as 2 metres which helps with water infiltration and deep plant rooting.
In a similar vein I was pleased and interested to hear a spokesman for the Big Soil Community Project describing how we are moving from the chemical era into a biological one as regards soil. The use of chemicals in food growing became the thing to do during the war when feeding the nation became critical and was really an emergency solution that stuck around. Chemical use has diminished a lot during recent years with attitudes to healthy eating and the influence of the organic movement but people can still be found who don’t feel what goes into the soil is an issue of concern. The project offers soil testing for farmers from the point of view of soil health, something apparently which is a completely new departure, and the company running it says it is driven by a need to find sustainable solutions. To be applauded I say. For more information on the Big Soil Community visit https://info.fera.co.uk/bigsoil/
In artist Zarah Hussain’s piece on Radio 4 in early August, “My Father”, she described how she and her family straddled two cultures, her theme was the universal popularity of the rose. This was crystallised for her in the remembered image of her father, recalling the flowers grown in his boyhood in Kashmir, tending his roses in their “muddy patch” in Macclesfield.
I too have recollections of my father and roses in my parents’ final home, carefully chosen by them for the tiny garden which would avoid too many struggles with advancing age and gardening tasks. They pondered on the display they would have, discussed it at length, decided on roses for maximum effect, drew up a list of their favourites, bought them and then put them into the cool of the garage to await a day when they could plant them together.
My father must have decided to delight my mother with a fait accompli because it seems he did the planting while she was out. He then tidied away afterwards and disposed of all the plant names and care instructions. No one ever knew which roses were which and all the tall ones were at the front. Seated on the patio you could gaze out at stems.
The next time I post it will be October and we’ll be heading for colder weather and, as I’m sure you know, it is in the winter months that the real gardening gets done. Bye for now, enjoy the several weeks we still have of late summer and happy gardening to all.