Tipping it down

It’s raining, it’s pouring. Finally, and not a moment too soon. I cannot remember the last time I left my house in the morning rain to have it still raining when I returned ten hours later. 2018? And—cherry on top—we just got a few good cracks of lightning and some blessed rolls of thunder. Summer thunder and lightning, so rare in Britain, are two things I really miss from home.

After last summer’s drought, we had a pretty dry winter, a very dry spring, and just last week the whispers of the dreaded hosepipe ban gained volume. The plants—both those I tend and those growing wild—had a drawn-in and dusty look I associate with conservation of their most precious resource. When the plants feel stressed the gardener feels stressed, no two ways about it. No amount of hosepipe watering, an emergency measure at best, can make up for a good long soaking rain like we’ve had today. Tonight, I can physically feel the plants relaxing, stretching and unfurling as their leaves grow turgid again. Now, if they could only pick themselves up from where they’ve fallen face-down in the mud…

I never dreamed when I moved to England that I’d go through two summers in a row anxiously watching the live radar, willing the little green blobs to move over my garden. I suspect this unease is new to many gardeners in Britain, some of whom may have taken rainfall for granted. I come from a place where hot, dry summers are more typical than not, and where browned out grass in August is the norm. So I’ve lived it, but that doesn’t mean I like it, especially now that I live in a country where the high quality of horticulture has traditionally been possible because of naturally copious rain.

Today we’ve gotten a bit of a reprieve, and I’ll turn the central heating back on and pour myself a wee whisky to celebrate. It’s not your typical summer tipple, but as temperatures head back into the 40s tonight (single digits in Celsius), it seems appropriate. Thank goodness for this rain.


We're getting the first real rain today in two months, to the day, and not a moment too soon. Eight weeks without water combined with near record-high temperatures has turned the lush green England is known for into a dry brown so extreme it's visible from space. British gardeners are wilting right along with their charges, and head gardeners such as myself are trying to balance responsible irrigation, the plant well-being and production we are paid to deliver, and the health of our staff. And the garden I'm not paid to tend and can't afford to water--my own--well, that's just sailed off into the sunset of the 2018 summer season as console myself with the spring bulb catalogues. 

As difficult as this summer has been for ornamental horticulture, I am really feeling for local farmers whose lives depend on rain. At work I'm doing my best to keep the high-value plants (in terms of money and years invested in their growth) such as trees, topiarized hedges and large shrubs alive, knowing full well I may need to replace some smaller herbaceous material. The most obvious effect on production I've known this year is my glasshouse tomatoes have failed to set fruit due to the sustained high temperatures over 120°F/49°C despite total ventilation and twice-daily damping down. Sustained days over 90°F causes pollen to become nonviable, leading to the abortion of flowers and any potential fruit. 

Not producing a home-grown tomato for one family is a luxury I can afford to lose, but local farmers who've seen their crops brown and shrivel weeks early, or fail to set fruit entirely, and whose income is directly tied to mass production have it much harder. Already there are reports of increased food prices this year tied to poor yields. I see the effects on wheat in the field just steps from my house. Where the mud on this path was deep enough this winter to pull my welly off my foot, a week ago it was so parched a full-grown man can insert his arm, up to the elbow, in a crack in the earth.

Today's gentle rain is a lifesaver, but won't be enough to make up a two-month deficit. And we're due to be warm and dry yet again next week and into August. I never thought I'd complain about weeks of hot and sunny weather in Britain, and if my vocation weren't horticulture I still probably wouldn't, but with so much on the line in terms of my livelihood, that of our farmers, and the viability of our entire food supply, I really just wish it would rain. 

July 13

July 21

Benmore Botanic Garden

The second year of the HND/BSc at the Botanics has hit hard, and between the group presentations, endless Latin names, specialist project research, and revision there hasn't been much spare time to update the blog. I did, however, spend last spring and summer and even this fall visiting some pretty spectacular gardens in England, Scotland, and the United States. Eventually I will get around to sharing them here, but in an effort to be moderately timely let's start with one I went to last week: Benmore Botanic Garden.

Benmore is one of four gardens in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh portfolio, and as part of our class on managing and designing plant collections we popped over on the Dunoon ferry west of Glasgow for a couple days. Benmore is the wettest of the RBGE gardens, with more than three metres of rain each year, and the garden spreads up a steep mountain slope. The weather, topography, and sheer size of the trees (e.g., Sequoiadendron giganteum, or Giant Sequoia; and Pseudotsuga menziesii, Douglas Fir) in this collection make gardening there especially challenging, necessitating heavy machinery and skilled arborists.

The garden had a taxonomic layout until 1980s, when geographic areas were developed beginning with the Tasmanian Ridge, followed by the Bhutanese Garden, Chilean, and Japanese sections.

The garden is known for its fine collection of Rhododendron sp., and Magnolia sp., but in autumn the brilliantly colored Acer sp. steal the show.

The fernery, nestled into a gorge above a stream and grotto, was built in the 1870s by James Duncan, then owner of the estate. After Duncan's bankruptcy and sale of the estate, the fernery lay in disrepair until 2008, when it was sympathetically restored and reopened the next year. More information on the fernery and restoration is here

The combination of original stone gable ends and modern steel and glass roof is compelling and one of the nicest updates of a historical structure that I've seen. 

The Enkianthus campanulatus were a new discovery and stunning. 

 I like this photo because it's a pretty honest representation of what studying horticulture in Scotland is like: walking around an absolutely magical landscape...in the pouring rain. 

You'll get no complaints from me as the day it chucked down rain at Benmore the quality of light and fog on the mountainside made for some pretty good picture taking. And of course, all that rain makes for some of the lushest mosses I've ever seen. 

Finally, a little close-up of a lovely new-to-me tree, and one that's been a favorite through-line of several garden visits this autumn: the white-flowered Eucryphia.