Rainy days 

It’s an inevitable part of being a gardener in the UK. Somedays it will rain. Water is essential for life, and without it everything would quickly wither and die. I would prefer it to rain during the two thirds of the day I’m not at work, but unfortunately the weathers schedule cannot be chosen. We must therefore find ways to continue working, despite the best attempts of Mother Nature to thwart us. 

There is a popular saying in Scandinavia which my Norwegian brother-in-law is very fond of; “there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing”. It is very true that with the correct apparel, most weather conditions will become much easier to cope with. 

Staying dry is fundamental to this. Once wet, it can become impossible to get warm and dry again without a change of clothes. A good set of waterproofs is always a worthwhile investment. Modern fabrics are waterproof and breathable, so I hopefully don’t end up dripping with sweat, and just as wet inside the waterproofs as outside. It’s also a good idea to get a tough set. The garden is full of thorns and branches just waiting for the opportunity to snag your jacket, and a coat with holes offers very little protection.  

Good footwear is also an essential. A warm, comfortable and waterproof pair of steel toe-capped boots will always work wonders for morale. Damp socks means cold feet and a grumpy gardener, and a grumpy gardener won’t make a good garden. 

One of my most essential pieces of kit for dealing with bad weather is my shed. It is a refuge where I can temporarily retreat from the rain for a quick break and a cup of tea. It could be in the glass house, the car or even under a big tree, but as long as it provides shelter, so I can spend a few minutes out of the worst of the weather, warming up and drying out a bit, and I will soon be ready to go back out again. 

Occasionally it is too wet to be in the garden. Wet soil is prone to compaction and sometimes it is best to let it stop raining before undertaking any work. On days like this it is time to take on inside jobs. In the glasshouse there is almost always work that can be done, sowing seeds, taking cuttings or repotting plants. I often take wet days as a rare opportunity to tidy and reorganise my shed. A few hours spent finding a sensible home for items will save me hours locating them when I finally do need them. A bit of time spent sharpening and maintaining the tools will pay dividends when I next need them and they are razor sharp and ready to go. Cleaning and stacking pots doesn’t feel important now, but when I need them next, I will be glad I did. Sometimes a wet day is the impetus I need to sit down and deal with paper work. It may be the only time I get during an otherwise action-packed week to deal with plant orders, accounts and planning future work. These are easy to overlook while the weather is good, and I can be out on the ground to doing the work I love, but can quickly become critical when deadlines start to loom. 

Once in a while there is nothing left to do but to just look out at the garden, watch the rain drenching everything and relish the fact that at least I won’t need to do any watering this week.


Scent in the garden

Gardening is a very sensual activity and it engages all of our senses. Our vision is continually excited by the changing forms, textures and colours. Our ears are alerted by the chattering of birds in the hedgerows or the sound of wind rustling through the leaves. Our instincts urge us to reach down and feel the ‘fur’ of the leaf covered in tiny, downy hairs or run our fingers through tussocks of soft grass. Our tastebuds are teased with the flavour of fresh strawberries warmed in the sun. For myself, the smell of a rose in bloom will always remind me of the warmest days of summer. 

Gardens are full of scents, some pleasant, and others less so. Sweet peas have to be one of my favourites. Just a small bunch of the strongest varieties can easily fill a room with their delicate perfume, evoking memories of early summer. One of the best is the pink-picoteed ‘High-scent’, though the bi-coloured ‘Cupani’ and ‘Matucana’ are also very potent. 

Jasmine also has an impressive fragrance. The winter flowering types will struggle to put out much scent in the cold days of January, but the summer flowering types, like ‘officinale’, produce a beautifully delicate aroma late in the evening. The chemical responsible (methyl jasmonate) is also thought to help protect plants from attack. 

The shrub Philadelphus also has an incredible scent. It’s white flowers open during June and can often be smelt from quite a distance away. It’s bouquet has been likened to orange blossom and it is, in my opinion, one of the best shrubs for scent in Summer.

There are also lots of shrubs that have scented flowers in winter like the Viburnums, Witch Hazel, Mahonia or Sarcococca. They have to work very hard to spread the news of their flowers far and wide so they can draw in any pollinators bold enough to brave the cold at that time of the year.

It is not just flowers that fill the gardens with scent. I also enjoy the ‘fresh’ smell that comes from pine prunings, the scent of freshly mown grass and I have even been known, on the odd occasion, to savour the deep, earthy odour of a well-rotten compost heap. 

There are of course, some scents which I would like to be able to avoid. I am always wary of the ‘almond’ smell given off by fresh clippings from a cherry laurel hedge as they start to release cyanide. The whiff of the dark anaerobic sludge from the bottom of the pond seems to soak into everything when I have to remove the pond weed and the foetid stench of a compost bin, after its contents have been ‘cooking’ for a week, can turn my stomach from 30 paces.

The aroma of some plants can be a clue to their properties. The intoxicating perfume of elder flowers is a sign of their sleep inducing power. There is an old tale which states never to fall asleep under an elder tree, or you won’t wake up. I haven’t ever fallen asleep under an elder, but only recently I was struck by the scent from an avenue of silver lime trees in full bloom. This late flowering tree produced a nectar so potent any bee partaking of it was knocked unconscious and you had to tread carefully to avoid stepping on all the ‘sleeping’ bees.

When using scented plants in the garden, we must consider their potency. Smells can travel some distance, so a garden filled with lots of different scented flowers can, rather than being a pleasant experience, become confusing and overwhelming.

Our sense of smell seems to be intrinsically linked to our memory, and a single whiff can send our minds whirling back to our childhood, our early experiences and the deep-seated emotions linked to them. Incoming smells are processed by the olfactory bulb, which starts in the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain. This has connections to two other areas of the brain; the amygdala and the hippocampus. Both of these are thought to have a strong effect on the generation and recall of memory and emotions. Sight, sound and touch do not pass through these processing centres, which could explain why scent can be such a powerful emotional trigger for us.


Hedging my bets

The first broods of birds have now fledged and the hedges are starting to reach into the borders at full speed. Before long the continuous cycle of hedge trimming will become a fundamental part of my daily labour. 

The endless miles of privet hedging that cris-cross the suburbs are ‘bread and butter’ for gardeners. The whirring of hedge trimmers can be heard daily as hoards of gardeners start to try and tame the hedges. The ideal of a suburban plot, enclosed on all four sides by a bushy hedge seems to be much less popular. Maintenance-wary owners now tend to replace them with fences. Hedges do need regular maintenance, but they will provide shelter for plants, homes for wildlife and border patrol duties, long after a fence has rotten to dust. 

The word hedge comes from the Dutch ‘Haag” meaning enclosure. The first hedges were planted in Neolithic times (4000-6000 years ago) to enclose crops, providing shelter from wind and rain, and protection from animals. Many hedges were established during the medieval period to distinguish the rights of way from the fields. Between 1604 and 1914 6.8 million acres of common grazing land were enclosed by landowners for agricultural improvement, protected by endless miles of hedges. Dr Max Harper’s 1974 book ‘Hedges’ contains a formula to ascertain the age of a hedge. He suggests that it is roughly equal to the number of species that can be found in a 30m stretch, multiplied by 110 years, although this is a very rough approximation. 

The primary constituent in most British hedgerows is Hawthorn. This hardy shrub is tough and spiky making it made an ideal barrier for livestock. In domestic situations many shrubby species can be used such as Box, Beech, Holly, Privet, Laurel, Yew, Thuja, Escallonia. Species such as Blackthorn, Roses and Brambles also have the added bonus of providing tasty fruit in the autumn. 

Hedges are a fundamental element in the landscape. They not only restrict the movement of livestock, but will also prevent soil erosion and reduce noise pollution. They provide shelter from the wind, rain and sun for crops and gardeners, and are even great as a screen, or provide privacy, by blocking views both in and out of the garden. They have long heritage in gardens forming grand avenues, intricately woven parterres or disorientating mazes.  

Hedge Trimming is an exhausting and time-consuming chore, but an essential part of hedge maintenance. Without regular trimming they quickly lose their shape and density and gaps will start to appear. In agricultural situations hedges are often ‘laid’. This is done by cutting most of the way through an upright stem which is then bent over and woven horizontally along the line of the hedge between upright stakes. This process stimulates vigorous growth at the base of the hedge ensuring it stays stock-proof. 

The quick-growing leylandii hedges, widely planted in the 70’s and 80’s initially provided dense cover, but if left unchecked, get quickly out of hand. In 2003 legislation on ‘high hedges’ was included in the Anti Social Behaviour Act. Hedges were deemed to be antisocial if they started to affect the light, access or reasonable enjoyment of the neighbours property, and could be subject to a removal order. 

It is unfortunate that in the history of hedges they have all too often signified division and separation. In ecological terms, hedges provides a way of joining spaces. They provide wildlife with valuable corridors of cover down which they can safely travel, forming green bridges and linking isolated habitats. If only they could do the same for us and unify neighbourhoods rather than dividing them.

Learning to love my enemies

For centuries gardeners have been engaged in battle against their nemesis – slugs. 

Nothing strikes fear into my heart quite like the thought of those slimy gastropods destroying months of my hard work. I have tried every technique I can to get the better of them from eggshells and copper tape, to wool and coffee, yet nothing seems to work. My current favourite weapon of choice is nematodes. I must confess though; all too often they breach my defences and end up making off with a large portion of my crop. 

Slugs have also been starring in the news, with reports of invasions of hordes of huge Spanish slugs which grow up to 10 inches long. I’ve never seen a slug that big, but if I did, I would probably run a mile. Only recently it was reported that the mild winter meant that slugs had not gone into hibernation. An army of sleepless slugs have been busy reproducing and reinforcing their numbers. Battalions of these marauders are now waiting in the borders, poised to pounce on any unwitting plants. I am starting to think that rather than trying to beat them, perhaps I should try to appreciate them, and accept I’m going to have to share my Eden, with them as my neighbours. 

The UK is home to around 30 different species of slugs and the average sized garden has around 25,000 slugs patrolling its borders. Approximately 95% of spend most of their time under the soil and those that we see are only the top of the food chain. While it would seem to me that my plants are top of a slugs favourite dishes, their diet consists mostly of decomposing matter, making them some of natures most important recyclers. Some are even known to be carnivorous, disposing of the odd decomposing body, even if it is another slug. They form the 2nd largest class in the animal kingdom, only coming runner-up to the insects (who are clearly the dominant force on the planet.) Some slugs can live up to 6 years, have around 27,000 teeth (even more than a shark) and even use the whole of their body to smell out potential targets. They are hermaphroditic (with both female and male reproductive organs) so can even give birth without copulation. 

Against such a perfectly evolved predator of plants, why am I even trying to beat them? These creatures are preyed upon by virtually every every major vertebrate group, with reptiles, birds, mammals, amphibians and fish all enjoying their fair share of the feast. Whilst I am not a massive fan of seeing slugs on my Hostas, I am a massive fan of having frogs, hedgehogs and blackbirds in my garden. So therefore, by extension I must also love slugs too! Who would have thought it?