Weather the weather

Image of Robin Lane Fox

Between the rain clouds and the puddles I have been rethinking last year and learning from all its turbulence. The main lesson is the same for all of us the world over. Seize any good day for gardening and use it to the full. Recent weather patterns have taught us all that we may be blown over, drenched or beset by drought if we let a good day pass in the belief that another good one will be coming along as usual. I look with a rueful smile at those old calendars of work for every single appropriate week in a garden. Such calendars have had to become more flexible, not only because the spring seasons so often speed up nowadays and make a nonsense of advice on choosing magnolias for late April. There are also blocks of time when the garden is off- limits, unplantably dry or unimaginably wet. Weekends are no longer a dead certainty for keen gardeners’ best efforts. In Britain I see it all as the balancing-out of a 25-year pattern that began with those unwelcome dry summers from 1990 onwards.

Last year was the year to be a camellia, a wild orchid or a dahlia. It was not at all a year to be a vegetable, let alone a gardener-cook. Most of my edible plantings came to nothing in the wet summer, except for a brief flurry of proper spinach, always a good one to sow now that the shops so often fob us off with feeble “spinach beet” instead. I wish I had grown celeriac too. It makes twice as big a root if it is thoroughly watered. The rounded root is a challenge to scrub when fresh from the wet ground but as the tough, rough skin has to be peeled it does not matter if some of the earth is left sticking to it. Rinse it first under a garden hose. I have just enjoyed it at a friend’s lunch instead of routine mashed potato. What a subtle pleasure, and I will pass on the advice of a great grower, that seedlings should be kept moving promptly forwards into ever bigger pots or boxes before going out and that when they are planted out, the collars of green leaves should be severely reduced every 10 days so that the plants put their energy into the edible root below ground and not into the foliage above. It is extremely easy to grow but not so easy to grow with massive roots like footballs. Leaf-stripping helps it to swell.

Dactylorhiza fuchsii

How many of you now remember how desperate we all were in Britain by mid-April 2012 with hose bans everywhere and not a drop of rain for at least six weeks? Everything was coming out and going over within a week. My late-season tulips were supposed to please any undergraduates in the college who have even half an eye open for such things in mid-May but they had all flowered and dropped by mid-April. Cherry blossom beat its previous records for evanescence, even on double-flowered varieties. The wallflowers were gone by the start of May. London’s roses were flowering against walls in Chelsea by late April. It seemed desperate.

Were there then more than six wholly fine days in all May and June? Water companies were made to look idiotic. Cuckoos were flooded off their usual nesting pattern. Apple blossom drooped in late May and went soggy just after being fertilised. Fields of wild orchids took fresh heart and flowered magnificently. Those of you with fine rhododendrons and gardens you like to open or show off in mid- May had plenty of flowers to enjoy through the rains. It was all the sharpest turnaround in living memory. I have vowed to try to avoid terminal gloom if we have an unbroken dry spell again in the first half of next year. But I am glad I do not have to guess the best time to open a garden to the public nowadays.

Phlox paniculata Skylight

Even in the rains of June and July roses were prolific. I think they revel in our warmer springs and the relative rarity of spring frosts to damage their young buds. On a muddy day in the gardens at Glyndebourne opera house I admired a big line of a creamy-yellow floribunda rose called Tynwald which is grown in part for cutting. I remember Tynwald’s debut on the stage at a Chelsea show nearly 30 years ago. It looked good but perhaps unlikely to reappear after its launch. In fact it is a clear winner, softly coloured, solid and upright in shape and blessed with healthy dark green foliage. I noted it as top class and I have not noted a better choice since, especially for picking and showing indoors.

By the time I remet Tynwald garden phloxes were in top form. 2012 reminded gardeners in southern England why phloxes are so good in the cooler north. They love to have enough water and a cool day temperature. My personal winner was a superb blue called Skylight but it was hard in a royal Jubilee year to criticise the better known Sandringham too, another free-flowerer but this time with flowers of cyclamen pink and a dark eye. I will be dividing my best phloxes late next month but I will also be taking early cuttings from the first young shoots that show off the root crowns. They root very easily indeed and if 2012 is a warning of the weather we can now expect we will all need as many phloxes as we can find.

Helianthus annuus

Bedding plants hated the wet and even my basic calendulas, or pot marigolds, all caught mildew. Morning Glory plants were a catastrophe, hating the cold and wet that are so untrue to the sunny Mediterranean conditions they love. In August I saw them flowering all over wire netting fences in drought-affected Greece, while mine had yet to grow three feet high at home. One compensation was the hollyhocks, which seemed taller and less rusted on their leaves than ever before. In mid-July I saw a self-seeded line, artfully kept in order, in the fine garden of Rosanna James up at Sleightholmedale in Yorkshire. They remain one of the sights of my year, definitely an idea to copy.

Camellia japonica

After a wet start in June outdoor dahlias put on strong growth and looked so fresh and happily green. In September they celebrated with a spectacular season, reminding us that they like to have masses of water at their roots if they are to grow to a full height and put on such a show so quickly. My resolution for 2013 is to soak the dahlias daily if we have a dry spell in July when they need to be growing at full speed. Late September and early October then had some exquisite days, as perfect for weekend gardening as I remember. My advice to anyone starting a new garden is to plan heavily for a mass of flowers in this later phase, using helianthus, all sorts of asters and fine dahlias. It regularly shows Britain at its best and it gives you so much more choice than a florist for flowers to display indoors.

Dahlia Classic Poeme

To those of you who were desiccated in central Europe or central America these rain-soaked memories from Britain may seem quaint. Over here my ultimate lesson from 2012 may come to you too next year. It is how much our shrubs and trees will grow if they are spared long intervals of drought. Whole corners of my garden became a sudden jungle needing hard pruning. For at least 20 years woody plants had been waiting to show their true vigour. They all looked lusciously planned after such a long misleading wait. In fact, like teenagers, they will look a dreadful mess if the same growth spurt happens again this year. Everything needs pruning and reshaping, but that, of course, is where a happy 2013 comes into play.

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