weather

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.

Prunus 'Accolade'

Three unseasonably warm days in February jump-started spring this year, bringing blossom and birdsong when last year we were still held firmly in the grip of the Beast from the East. Those three warm days, however, were followed by three weeks of back-to-back storms that brought high winds, downed trees, and restless nights. And then we hit a patch of middling grey. No rain, no wind, just flat grey for yet another week.

Overcast days can suck the life out of gardens, but there are some plants that fight back with a seemingly internal light. One such plant is Prunus ‘Accolade,’ an incredibly early flowering ornamental cherry that even kicks out the occasional bloom in deep winter. The specimen in the garden I tend for work has been the object of my fascination this past week as it has begun to bloom in earnest. This tree is planted on a slope in an area we call the wild garden, and its unique position means I can easily get underneath to stare up into its blooms, offset by dark yew behind.

Prunus ‘Accolade’ is a hybrid cross between Prunus sargentii, a species cherry that offers something interesting in all seasons, and the small, winter-flowering Prunus x subhirtella. Majestic Trees describes ‘Accolade’ as “breathtakingly luminous on the dull days of March,” and having been through a run of just such days I could not agree more. This tree glows. Even next to other beloved cherries, such as Prunus x yedoensis, which was the first tree I planted at my farm, ‘Accolade’ has something special.

The color of the blossoms ranges from soft pink to white, depending on the age of the flower, and it never steps over the line into lurid as some cherries can. Viewed from below on an overcast grey day, the lighter blossoms blend into the sky in a captivating visual trick.

The evening after taking these pictures I was reading Dan Pearson’s recent book, Natural Selection (Guardian, 2017), in which he wrote:

What I like about writing is the act of capturing the process of gardening, of distilling these experiences into words. Some thoughts draw to conclusions and are satisfying as a result, but others are equally interesting for remaining in flux. The writing might interrogate a colour, a feeling or a place. It might capture a moment that I know will only happen once, perfection existing for minutes and then passing: the experience of standing under a cherry when the very first blooms are opening, or the perfume of a solitary lily. Writing helps to keep these experiences present and alive and in the memory.

Well, this year I’ve stood spellbound under ‘Accolade’ as she opened her first buds, and I don’t think I will forget this tree any time soon. It provided my first transcendental gardening moment of the new year, fittingly on the first week of spring, and it is all the more appreciated because I know it is already almost over. When I left work on Friday the cherry petals were beginning to carpet the lawn, and by Monday there may be more on the ground that overhead. But for those few days, ‘Accolade’ was perfection.


Indian summer at Great Dixter

We’ve been experiencing a beautiful long autumn here in southeast England. Temperatures have remained well above average, with no killing frost yet, and no rain. The later, while not ideal for germinating grass seed during lawn renovation, is fine by me as it means clear skies most days and abundant sunshine of that low, liquidamber color that brings out the beautiful warm tones in all the fading foliage. Despite not usually being a fan of hotter colors in the garden, I love this time of year with its golds, russets, and earthy browns. I like the plants as they die and their characters change so dramatically from their all-green summer guise. I think it’s called a swan song, their final performance that’s just as pretty as the freshness of spring or the fullness of summer.

Maybe it’s also the working gardener in me who recognizes that each of these glorious autumn days is stolen from Father Frost, who will visit one night soon and render many of these tender plants piles of blackened mush. And then the real winter graft begins, cutting back and cleaning up, another growing season over as we layer up against the next six months of laboring in the cold, dark and wet. Lights out is coming, but today let’s enjoy the sun.

Drought

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

Happy Solstice

The summer solstice, the longest day of the year, is always a special holiday in our household. This year we stayed outside as long as possible, enjoying a sunny 9 p.m. walk through fields growing head-high crops. Back home, we made a bonfire and sat around it talking as the twilight stretched out above our heads. The solstice is all about the sunlight, and this year we swam in it. 

Happy Solstice, wherever you are celebrating. 

Early purple, spotted

I was walking near my house tonight when I spotted my first native British orchid of the season: an early purple (Orchis mascula). It was growing in a small patch of woodland between two farm fields, right beside a public right of way. This orchid was a welcome distraction from faceplanting in a sodden field not two minutes before, my boots stuck six inches in mud and impossible to extract without sacrificing my dignity and clean clothing.  

Further up the path I spotted another of springtime's pleasures: lambs. There's nothing quite like standing in a (still muddy) field for the better part of an hour watching these little creatures kick their heels up and jump about, playing on hillocks and downed trees. From where I live the sound of ewes calling to their lambs is a constant background noise that punctuates the spring songbird chorus. 

All may look well, but this harsh and prolonged winter has really taken its toll and these lambs are lucky to still be frolicking. A local nursery man speaking at the Great Dixter spring plant fair last weekend said the weather we've just come through was a once-in-a-lifetime event for this area of England, and some experts I follow say the season is running up to four weeks behind usual. I am facing a lot of plant damage in the garden where I work, and it will require patience in order to assess its extent in the next few weeks and then possible removal and replacement of large, established plants. 

Damage to ornamental gardens is one thing, but more importantly the British food supply and the livelihoods of farmers will take a big hit. This article explains more of what we should expect in the months to come. For now, though, its definitely a watch and wait situation as spring tries its best to shake off winter. Thank goodness there are orchids and lambs to distract us in the meantime. 

The new cold frame

This past winter my husband gave me one of the best presents I've ever received. Starting December 1, he presented me with an Advent calendar made up of a collection of brown paper envelopes embellished with beautiful dried leaves. I was to open one envelope each day throughout the month. Inside each envelope was a packet of seeds, carefully chosen to reflect plants that hold special memories or that we'd talked about growing before we ever had the space to cultivate. And thus, in the darkest days of winter, our first garden was born. 

Around Valentine's Day I got another nice present. We commissioned a local carpenter my husband knows through work to build us a cold frame. I never had a cold frame in Virginia, but I really came to see their value studying in Scotland, where cold frames helped nurture seedlings through protracted British springs. We have the perfect spot for one here, on a south-facing wall of the house with the solid concrete driveway base beneath.

When the base of the cold frame arrived we added a roof and some hardware then got to work sowing all those Advent seeds. It's a messy business done inside at the kitchen table, which sits on white carpet, so a glasshouse and potting shed are the next big items on our garden wish list. 

We pricked out a bunch of seedlings last weekend (above), and the image below taken today shows they are settling in nicely. 

The extreme (for England) cold and snow has really set spring back this year--some people saying by as much as four weeks--so some of our little plants aren't taking off quite as quickly as one would expect. But I'm sure that under the soil they're busy putting down new roots and as soon as the temperatures rise a bit they'll be off. In the meantime they are snug and protected in our beautiful new cold frame. It is a joy to watch them grow. Every evening when we get home from work we open the cold frame and gaze at our seedlings for a moment, then shut the lid and head inside. As my husband says, they're the best kind of children. I agree--if they misbehave we just toss them on the compost heap. 

Now if it would just stop raining so we could finally get our planting beds prepared, the 2018 garden season would be well underway! 

Pruning in the walled garden, February

The wind is blowing at 20 mph, making it feel like -5°C (23°F). I'm at the top of a 12-foot ladder as first rain, then snow, then sleet blows around me, rocking the slender aluminum support that's the only thing holding me in the the air. My steel-toed wellies slide on the metal rungs, my five layers of clothing making me as graceful as a rubber-suited snowman. I clutch at wisteria, at icy wires fixed into old mortar by improbably slim metal vine eyes. My wet pruners slip from my hand and fall, the open blade thwacking two inches deep into the mud below. All I hear is wind. 

Down on the ground to retrieve my pruners I give up on ladder work and turn toward a climbing rose that needs pruning. I untie it and carefully tease the long canes out from where they'd been stuffed behind wires. My mouth is full of muddy lengths of flexi-tie. It's the easiest place to store them when it's too wet and cold to root around in pockets.

My gloves are soaked through and anyway it's impossible to bend and tie stiff rose canes wearing them. I take off my gloves and throw them to the ground. In just a few moments my exposed hands become so cold they burn with pain and I'm having trouble feeling what I'm doing. A rose cane under pressure springs out of my wet grip and lands a thorn into the back of my finger, right into a vein. I'm too cold to feel it but a bright stream of blood spouts in an instant. It flows down my finger, down my hand, then down my wrist. I stare at the blood, fascinated that one thorn could unleash such a torrent. My hands are so cold. I want to put my gloves back on because even wet at least they'll block the wind. But do I really want to wear a glove full of blood for the three and a half days left in this week?

It's too cold to think straight. I smear the blood across my dirty waterproofs. Later I'll wipe mud from around my mouth. Even later that night my husband will take my hand and notice the purple discoloration of internal bleeding puddled under my skin the entire length of the thorn-stabbed knuckle. When I examine it I'll find next to the bruise another rose thorn buried a quarter inch deep in my skin. We've been pruning roses since October; by now I know the drill. I'll sterilize a sewing needle, rootle around in my flesh, and the blood will run down my hand again.   

Hoar frost!

I've always wanted to see a hoar frost, seduced by the amazing photos I've seen of plants made otherworldly by what looks like a light dusting of powdered sugar. I got my chance this morning, when I opened the wooden shutters to find every detail of my front garden picked out in white. 

It's very cold out, but I bet the gardens at school look amazing. Might bundle up and take a donder down there...once I have that second cup of tea... 

Perfectly simple: The Campbell-Stokes sunshine recorder

The reason behind last week's venture to the top of the Palm House was check the sunshine recorder mounted on its roof. The irony of tracking hours of sunshine in Edinburgh does not escape me, but it's something staff at the Botanics do every day as part of the observations they collect for the Met Office, the U.K.'s national weather service.

You'd think there would be some sort of technologically sophisticated gadget to record this data, but the reality couldn't be further from that:

This is a Campbell-Stokes sunshine recorder, and in it's analog simplicity it's one of the most beautiful things I've seen at the Botanics. It is just a crystal sphere, held in place with two metal clips, positioned in front of a paper strip. Any sunlight hitting the ball is concentrated by the sphere and burns a mark on the paper behind it. By retrieving the paper each day and measuring the length of the marks one has a fairly accurate record of the day's sunlit hours. Or minutes--this is Edinburgh after all. Different-sized paper strips are used in summer, winter and around the equinoxes to allow for the changing altitude of the sun throughout the year.

Pretty simple, but it works perfectly.