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On a Chalk Hillside September 2020

Gardening in lockdown - 1

Gardening has a rhythm of its own irrespective of what is happening in the wider world – the seasons change; certain plants come to the fore or go over; certain jobs have to be done at certain times.  This has been EXTREMELY reassuring to me during these uncertain times - that there is a semblance of normality somewhere in my life!  We have been very grateful to have our garden to occupy us during lockdown.  
You would have thought that having no other places to go during this time it would have been easier for us than normal years being able to focus only on the garden.    However, other challenges were immediately apparent to us – getting the materials and supplies we needed for the gardening jobs, none of which counted as “essential” supplies; not being able to swap materials/equipment/labour/seedlings with our neighbours (who were shielding) as usual.  This became a recurring theme during lockdown – the nation suddenly “discovered” gardening, and it became impossible to get gardening supplies on line before the local garden centres re-opened, and then when they did either their supply chains were broken or local demand for plants/seeds/compost meant that they did not have stock when we needed it.
As lockdown started our herbaceous plants were just beginning to shoot – here’s the Echinops ritro ‘Veitch’s Blue’ in the first week of lockdown:-

From mid-March I start cutting down the old stems on the herbaceous plants that I have left overwinter either to protect the plant (as above,) or for the birds/bugs to have food and shelter.   A continuation of the winter clearing that I talked about in my March article.  To end the section on cutting back overwintered leaves, here is a shot of one of the compost bins on 6 April with a layer of all the old overwintered fern fronds covering it.  I waited until I could see new frond buds at the base of each fern before cutting them back:-

For us as with so many gardeners, March is the start of our super-busy time - particularly as vegetable growers - March til early June is our very busiest time of the year for sowing, growing, preparing veg beds, all whilst keeping the ornamental garden going too.  Our usual work pattern on dry days during end March – early June is to be outside from about 07.30 – 09.30, in for breakfast, then back out til lunch (with a flask of coffee for essential sitting and contemplating.)  After lunch back out with another flask, this time of tea, til we pack up about 17.00-17.30.      
Rather like Christopher Lloyd we normally try and appreciate each day the plant that is “of that moment” in our garden as we sit and contemplate with our well earned cup of tea or coffee.  This was particularly helpful to us to focus away from the pandemic news swirling all around.  On 3 April we appreciated the grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum) that are naturalising round an apple tree in the orchard, and noted the camassia leaves coming up in the foreground:-

Our first job for lockdown was emptying and washing the greenhouse.  Then, luckily, we had just enough materials already as we couldn’t go anywhere to get any more, to construct our hotbed in the greenhouse so I could start the major seed sowing programme of the year:-

We did not have quite enough sharp sand, so as you can see the hotbed cable was kept in only part of the bed, and that part covered with another 2.5cm of sharp sand.    I had fortunately just before lockdown been to collect some more potting compost so had enough of that, though vermiculite was more challenging to stretch to meet my requirements.   As most of us gardeners do, I had had some happy times during the winter perusing the seed catalogues and making my order, which had been delivered and put aside during January, so I thought I was all set for the sowing season.  However, the seeds and the weather had other ideas – it may have been very hot and dry during the March/April days, but the nights were cold.  Even with a hot bed the extremes of temperature in the greenhouse meant I had great difficulty getting some seeds to germinate.  Leeks failed completely, swiss chard and perpeptual spinach were very patchy indeed; Tagetes a failure.  The sweet basil germinated ok but after being potted on rotted away in the cold nights in the green house, even though the tomatoes were fine.  Note to self – basil is more tender than tomatoes!  Even at the beginning of May the courgette seeds were a very poor show.  I had to sow three lots of green bush courgettes of various sorts – using up all my seed reserves and getting nowhere.  When the garden centres reopened in early June we had to go to both local ones to find any seed – and bought the last packet of seeds the second one had (only haif of which germinated!!) and three plants, which are cropping well.  I also bought some grass-like leek plants – much younger plants than are usually on offer!  The leeks have grown on ok, but were later to get in the ground, about 3 weeks behind where I would expect to be.   Here they are in pots still at the end of July:-

They eventually got into the ground on 9 August and have been growing away strongly:-

In the garden at the end of March I found the hellebore seedlings (Helleborus x hybridus) that had self-seeded round their parents and relocated them elsewhere in the garden:-

The plum blossom this year was spectacular – though the subsequent set of fruit was not unfortunately – here one of our old plum trees on 3 April:-

I don’t know if you remember before lockdown I said I had tried an experiment with cutting all the leaves off one of the clumps of my Epimedium x perralchicum ‘Fröhnleiten’.  My step-mother cuts all her evergreen leaves off her plants (my plants came from her garden many years ago) so that the flower spikes come up uninterrupted each spring.   Well, nothing happened for what seemed like ages – no leaves, no flowers, I was getting worried.  Then suddenly a flower spike, and a little while later the odd new leaf.  By the end of March I was much happier that the clump was surviving – here it is at the beginning of April with much more flowers visible than the clump with all the leaves still intact:-

I have tried several times to get a photo showing the relative growth of the two clumps, this is the best I have managed – I hope it shows you that even by 16 June the clump of Epimedium x perralchicum ‘Fröhnleiten’ that was cut down to the ground (nearest to you with white petals from the Philadelphus coronarius that grows above it scattered over) is about 15cm lower in growth than the one that was not touched (the next clump along behind it):-

There are lots of white petals above because with the drought and heat this spring during lockdown many plants flowered early, and by this point the Philadelphus coronarius had finished flowering and I was pruning it – here is the evidence of pruning looking the other way from the photo above:-

(You may also notice the leaves of the Weigela ‘Bristol Ruby’  in front that had gone over even earlier and been pruned at the end of May.  It reflowered at the end of August).  
Did you notice the wooden edges to the veg bed in the picture of the leeks?  This was one of our jobs during April/May, to actually create the vegetable beds and edge them with wood – another lockdown problem as we had bought enough wood for us to do this job LAST year when we actually relocated the vegetable garden but never had time to do it, just planting the vegetables into the ground in roughly the right spaces.   We used quite a bit of the wood on other projects over winter, and did not have enough to do the whole job as we (still at the end of August) cannot get more of this specific dimension of wood to complete all the beds.  Four vegetable beds have been created and edged, but e.g. the gooseberry bed that was put in to replace the Jerusalem Artichokes has no edging or definition.   I had purchased in the autumn last year two gooseberry plants Gooseberry 'Xenia' which are supposed to be an early season dessert type, with large red smooth-skinned gooseberries.  These had grown on in pots over winter.  We had had a cutting from my husband’s cousin several years ago that came from HIS Mum’s garden that was a red dessert gooseberry, and it was very tasty indeed.  It had been planted next to our Invicta Gooseberry which we had brought with us from London.  This green type had been bought because it was resistant to mildew to which gooseberries are prone, and by the time we came to relocate the gooseberries to the new bed, it had layered itself with several new bushes ready to be severed from the parent plant and moved to the new bed.   Not having access to our usual manure supplies (a stables), or be able to get soil conditioner either, we planted them out with some of our homemade leaf mould and compost in the planting holes, and mulched just round the bushes, rather than enriching the whole bed as we might have done.   Here it is all planted up on 14 April:-

I was quite surprised that the Invicta bushes actually set fruit even after being transplanted.  One of the jobs we didn’t manage to do this year was make the frame and put net over the bed (as I hadn’t expected the bushes to fruit this year I didn’t prioritise the job), and though we draped old net curtains over the bushes as the fruit swelled, we never got to eat any as the squirrels had the lot – net curtains, even tied down, are no barrier to grey squirrels!  
Our plant to appreciate for the week we planted out the gooseberries was the cowslips (Primula veris) in the orchard, also taken on 14 April:-

The aquilegias gave a good show throughout May – our star plant for VE Day was Aquilegia ‘Magpie’:-

By 20 May the scarlet oriental poppy (Papaver orientale) was our star:-

Next time, more gardening in lockdown.

Sheila May

Posted by Sheila May

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