And so to bed.

Before I was called to lunch by Rosie I had intended to mull over the business of putting the garden to bed. But an hour or so later, after idly picking up today’s Times Magazine to read as I ate, those four innocent words have quite a different meaning. Apparently a pair of New York comedians - female both - are the hosts of Guys We F***ed, a weekly podcast that’s been downloaded 35 million times on which they chat, no holds barred, about their sexual encounters. Threesomes, dick pics (which spell check has helpfully tried to correct to duckpins…sexting penis pictures apparently), orgasms, pussies, dildos, rape, blow jobs…you name it, they’ll talk about it. I must admit I spluttered over my porn sandwich…sorry prawn (they’ve got me at it now). If you can bear to listen to their NY accents you can hear their escapades at .

But perhaps it would be better to revert to the much more innocent topic of the garden’s bedtime. At this time of the year there’s so much to be done, and quite a lot that’s depressing knowing that it’ll be another five months before the garden begins to perk up again. Collecting up all the garden furniture and trying to stow it away in the shed, knowing the inevitability of needing something in the far corner no sooner than you’ve done so, protecting tender terracotta statues in bubble wrap, bringing plants into the conservatory, de-figging the fig tree of the second crop, deadheading the dahlias to squeeze another fortnight out of them, picking the last of the tomatoes, finally accepting the courgettes and autumn raspberries have finished, raking up the autumn leaves, knowing that the current rain and warmth will keep the grass growing and the mowing necessary till, probably, early December…it’s all part of the fun and routine of gardening. 

As, of course, is preparing for next year. The murkiness of the pond is an ongoing project: we’ve tried Aquaplancton, barley bundles and oak logs to clear it but none have solved the problem so now we’re going for a filtration unit. Which means digging trenches for electric cables and all the expense of the unit, the pumps and the installation. Still, the fish will be pleased if the pond becomes gin-clear (as Aquaplancton boldly claimed their product would do), but so, I’m afraid, will the local herons (“all the better to see you through, my dear”).

And then there’s planting 2000 bulbs in the paddock, chain-sawing the pile of logs nicked from the forest for the wood-burner, deflowering the pots on the terrace and replanting with spring bulbs, planting the broad bean seeds and garlic bulbs…and on and on till bedtime. And thence to dream. But of what?

A mixed bag

Why is it that August has the reputation of being a sunny summer holiday month when in reality it is infuriatingly unpredictable and almost always disappointing? This year’s been no exception, so why should we be surprised. Partly because we’re all optimists I suppose but mainly because our brain is wonkily programmed to tell us that August was always hot when we were young.

But in between the rain, the chill and the bank holiday heatwave there were many jobs to be done: the wild flower meadow behind the house had to be cut, allowed to dry, raked up, transported to the bonfire and burnt, the lawns needed mowing every week and the two beds in front of the terrace needed a complete renovation. All this sandwiched between my continuing obsession with butterflies and visits from our grand-daughter, to whom, for some reason, I am God.

The meadow job is, in decent weather, hard work but fun. My trusty Tracmaster cuts the long grass to snail height, the sun and wind dries it within a few days for it then to be raked up and burnt though not before leaving the best bits to be deposited elsewhere in the meadow to drop their seeds.

But the job that really needed doing was replacing the lovely but ancient lavenders, rebuilding the retaining wall of one of the beds and digging to remove hundreds of allium bulbs of various sorts, the Japanese anemones and the knackered topsoil. What we didn’t anticipate was the extent of the task nor what we’d find within the two beds. Cue photos:

Whoever made these beds twenty or so years ago hid a multitude of sins: an ancient brick path, an unprotected main water inlet, a rusting but disconnected tap, lumps of concrete, many and huge flints and worst of all an old rubbish pit containing years of rusting metal, old bottles and broken glass. In those far-off days there weren’t council rubbish tips so a hole in the ground was the only answer. The one thing there wasn’t was treasure: no coins, no jewels, no gold bars, just a few clay pipe stems. Not surprising really as the inhabitants a hundred years ago were impoverished farmworkers, toiling their socks off for the lord of the manor in order to pay their rent. 

And here’s me complaining about the lack of treasure when the same house is today worth half a dozen gold bars. How times change.

News Flash: the green luminescent beetle-y thing.

My many blog readers - all three of them - will be overjoyed to know that the green beetle-y thing has made a surprise reappearance this afternoon, and here it is:

I’ve struggled to name it (no, not Arthur, that’s a silly name for a beetle) but I think it’s a Rose Chafer. Or Cetonia Autata if you want to be nerdy. But if anyone reckons it isn’t then please let me know. If you can be bothered.

Thanks a lot, Mr Attenborough

A few weeks ago David Attenborough suggested we take 15 minutes out of our busy lives to sit in the garden/park/countryside and count how many butterflies we could see and if possible identify. What a nice idea, I thought, and what a pleasant way to relax after the busy month and a half of garden openings. So one fine morning, when the sun was shining, the birds singing and butterflies flitting hither and thither I popped into the garden via a buddleia bush at the top of the steps. Ah-ha…three Red Admirals and a Peacock immediately. This is going to be a doddle.

But no. Once I’d gone beyond into the land of wild marjoram, carrot and basil, knapweed, viper’s bugloss, field scabious and so on the whole venture took a different turn. Not only were there dozens of butterflies dashing from one plant to another, but some were large and others tiny, and they wouldn’t stay still for an instant. And none were recognisable to anyone but a hawk-eyed lepidopterist. So what to do?

Time for my trusty camera: set the ISO to 1600, select continuous shooting (5 shots per second) and auto focus, and hope to shoot a butterfly with wings open. That did the trick but another problem immediately presented itself: hunting the butterflies down and taking their pictures then became obsessional. Whenever the sun shone I was out there snapping away, chasing what I hoped would be a new species usually to find later it was one I’d already got plenty of pictures of.

And finally of course I needed to identify everything which meant ordering a couple of books from Amazon, waiting for them to arrive and then trying to distinguish, for example, a Gatekeeper from a Meadow Brown or the undersides of a male Common Blue from an Adonis Blue. Not easy and extremely time-consuming.

l-r: Common Blue male, Common Blue female, Small Copper female   

Wall Brown male, Marbled White, Dark Green Fritillary.

 To make matters worse still I found I became even more obsessional. I began chasing pictures of anything that moved: dragonflies and damselflies, bumble bees and wasps, even hanging around for ages for a wonderful luminescent green beetle-y thing to reappear on a wild carrot (it never did).

l-r: Six Spot Burnet, Hummingbird Hawk-Moth, Dragon Fly.

So thank you Sir David, for inveigling me to waste so much time. On balance I think I prefer weeding. 


Phew...what a scorcher!

This is the tabloid’s favourite headline for an hour’s worth of warm sun but this time, well, what a scorcher. The longest spell of heat since 1976 and the hottest too. Rosie remembers that particular summer because she was pregnant with Sophie and she recalls flopping around for weeks like a grounded whale. (Sophie now has her own daughter: more of both later.) 

But it’s been an odd year altogether even before this heatwave: a very dry winter, late frosts, a rainless April, early warmth in May and now a hot June. It’s played havoc with the garden and the poor plants hardly know whether they’re coming or going. Some things had fewer buds than usual because of the dryness in April so flowered really quite feebly - campanulas and hardy geraniums for example - others, like the roses, performed like divas, singing all the right notes in all the right order but, this season, rather too quickly and burning themselves out before their time. In general, the garden for our first opening on June 17th looked more like the garden should in early July. What it’ll look like for our NGS opening on the 6th, I dread to think.

Because the real problem is now a lack of water: garden watering is done from the 3500 litre underground tank we had installed to collect rainwater from the roof and it’s now empty. Once before that happened and we topped it up with water from our well but this time that too has dried up. So until it rains again properly (and today’s drizzle is a complete waste of time) we have to resort to watering cans and water from the outside tap, which, for a thirsty garden, is both time-consuming and expensive and will be frowned upon when we get the inevitable hose-pipe ban.

Two good things about this heat were that the summer solstice was, for once, idyllic and Sophie and 22 month old daughter Bay came to stay to get out of London’s furnace. Sophie, incidentally, is a top London DJ so if any of my three readers needs one for a function - corporate or private - contact her on .

So we’re deadheading like mad in the hope that a second flush will bring some colour and praying to any rain god that’s listening for some serious wet stuff to fall soon. 

But why complain? It’s always a battle with the British weather. Too warm, too cold, too wet, too dry. This time though we can definitely say: it was the sun wot won it. (Sorry!)

The miracle of May (not Theresa).

Golly, doesn’t time pass quickly in May. There’s no doubt (in my mind at least) that it’s the best month of the year but it’s also a very busy one. The flower beds that were mainly bare earth at the beginning of the month transform into a riot of colour, growth and smells by the end but that of course brings problems as well as pleasure along the way. Hiding in the undergrowth are slugs, snails and lily beetles while there’s staking, weeding, edging, deadheading within the beds and elsewhere there’s the mowing, watering, planting out, not to mention the daily chore of cutting of the asparagus and now the picking of the strawberries.

And on top of all that there are other distractions. In this neck of the woods in May we have the Charleston Literary Festival with visiting authors keen to flog their books but at the same time providing our little grey cells with stimulating talks and discussion. And treats in the case of Vanessa Redgrave and Barry Humphries with two remarkable and memorable performances. There’s Glyndebourne to book as well as the Alfriston Summer Music Festival’s pre-concert to attend. And perhaps the best thrill of all were the nightingales singing their little hearts out every evening right here in the village (if you’ve never been lucky enough to hear or see one click onto this link ).

May is also the time when panic begins to set in: our first public garden opening is on June 17th but before that we’ve got various groups booked to come. The first of these was a few days ago, when a tour party of 50 Austrians visited us, led by Austria’s answer to Alan Titchmarsh, Karl Ploberger.  Their itinerary comprised Great Dixter, Sissinghurst, Borde Hill, Pashley Manor, Chelsea Flower Show and The Long House. (Just thought I’d mention it.) Oh, and they also brought with them a television crew and a drone to film the garden and to do an interview with Karl and celebrity gardener Rosie. 

One visitor we could have done without though was a heron, determined to get at our goldfish and orfe despite the nylon threads strung across the pond to deter him. Needless to say the stupid bird got tangled up in them and we returned from one of our literary excursions at Charleston to find him/it helplessly flapping and squawking and pleading to be released. Which, an hour or so later, he was. But it wasted precious time, which in May we haven’t enough of. And is why I’ll stop now so I can complete the trimming of the box balls…I know you shouldn’t do them till after Derby Day but surely we’ll not get another frost now. Will we?

An update on this topsy-turvy springtime.

This photo of The Long House was taken on May 4th and shows the rosa banksiae Lutea fully out and looking quite spectacular (and I have to admit much admired by walkers coming along the South Downs Way). But it’s premature! When we first saw the house, on June 4th 2010, it looked identically splendid but that was then and then is now…30 days ahead of schedule. What is particularly frustrating is that we were banking on it being at its peak on May 28th when we’ve a large party of Austrians coming here on a garden visit (complete with camera crew and led by Austria’s answer to Alan Titchmarsh). Irises are also flowering now and they’ll be over too by then.

That’s not all: Rosie’s doing her Chelsea Chop now, three weeks ahead of the show actually taking place, yet, on the other hand the broad beans have stagnated since those damn frosts and the cotinus Grace in the shrubbery is suffering from frigidity (poor dear). So there’s no pleasing anyone this year. Least of all the poor wine growers of England: Nyetimber, Denbies, Ridgeview and Rathfinny have all reported ‘catastrophic’ damage to their vines because of those two nights of recent air frosts. So who am I to complain when we just garden for fun.

Still on the subject of frost damage it was (marginally) interesting to see the effect of shelter on blossom: below are three pictures of one of our step-over pear trees: the left hand one shows the whole tree partly submerged between a cerinthe seedling, the middle picture shows the effect of the protection it gave from the frost and the right hand picture shows the total lack of fruit where it was unprotected. With luck the poor tree will divert all its energies into the remaining pears so that they become whoppers. And then the damn fox will come along and snaffle them, just like it did last year. You can’t win.

You may be equally uninterested by the origins of ‘topsy-turvy’: topsy is obviously an allusion to ‘top’ but turvy is less clear. ‘Tirve’ is a medieval word meaning ‘to turn or topple over’ but ‘turvy’ could also refer to ‘turf’, so that topsy-turvy could mean ‘with one’s head on the turf’. An early literary reference is from Richard Eden’s 1555 volume The Decades of the New Worlde: ‘They say that they see the houses turne topsy turuye, and men to walke with theyr heeles vpwarde’.

So that proves almost nothing. Just like the weather.

Ups and downs (and the meaning of life).

It doesn’t take long on this mortal coil to work out that success and a feeling of elation is destined to be followed almost immediately by the very opposite. It’s God’s way of keeping us grounded I suppose. And in a way He’s right…imagine how dull life would be if Arsene Wenger kept winning the premiership. Or Joe Root always got a ton. Or Mourinho accepted the ref’s decisions without complaint. (Sorry, ladies, if I’ve lost you.)

It’s the same with gardening. We get a dry February, a sunny March and a warm April and everything ought to be hunky dory. But is it? Is it hell! For a start it meant everything began early under the delusion that spring had sprung: grass started growing like the clappers, birds decided to begin nest building, blossom blossomed, buds broke before their time, dahlias poked their periscopes up. With the inevitable downsides of course: the mowing season began on February 5th, two of Westdean’s famous rooks decided to leave the rookery and construct their new abode in one of our chimneys, pigeons gorged themselves on the damson blossom, and we got two wicked late frosts that singed if not scuppered all that early season sprouting. It’s so unfair!

But it wasn’t all disaster. Rosie’s colour combinations for the terrace pots worked a treat. The flowering in the paddock lasted for over nine weeks. The cowslips are spreading. Some of our english bluebells have retained their virginity. And I have de-ivy-ed our beech hedge.

But I know that round the corner there are things lurking: lily beetles, aphids, snails, slugs, plagues of frogs, drought, tempest, monsoons, herons, kingfishers. Kingfishers? Come to think of it, I’d happily sacrifice a goldfish or two for the regular sight of a kingfisher here. Which goes to illustrate that every downside has an upside, that there are two sides to a coin and that on balance it’s better to be a glass-half-full merchant to get the most out of life. And especially gardening.


The Blackthorn Winter

Rosie and I popped along to our favourite nursery this morning - Marchants Plants - to replenish a few winter casualties and rootle around for a few extras, and found Graham Gough (the owner and plantsman extraordinaire for those that don’t know) in his usual chatty and informative mode. As well as suggesting chalk-loving plants, discussing the depopulation of frogs and toads locally and the virus afflicting aquilegias, he said the current chilly winds were all down to the blackthorn winter. What? Apparently ‘Beware the Blackthorn Winter’ is an age-old country expression borne of many years of observation because, once the blackthorn is in full bloom its pale blossom is often matched by frost-whitened grass or snow covered fields and almost invariably bitter north easterlies.

And to prove the truth of this, the Cuckmere Valley is awash with blackthorn trees in full throttle and winds so bitter that they have banished the summer shorts that I happily wore a week ago when the blackthorn buds were first appearing.

It prompted me to google blackthorn winter when we got home: I discovered that nightingales favour dense thickets of blackthorn for nesting, that blackthorn should never be brought into the home lest certain death would follow, that if blackthorn spikes (long and sharp) puncture the skin it will lead to poisoning and the crucifixion’s crown of thorns was almost certainly blackthorn. But don’t confuse blackthorn with the much more amiable hawthorn which blooms later with prettier pale pink blossom and is a much better harbinger of summer than its duplicitous cousin.

Talking of harbingers of summer, the first swallows arrived here today. Rosie heard the familiar twittering while she was kneading the dough for her hot-cross buns and immediately popped outside to see and there sure enough, were three of them (swallows not hot-cross buns) flitting hither and thither to check that they’d arrived back safely. Their return is more than enough to counter the chill of the blackthorn winter.

Springtime in the paddock.

After my mini-rant over the Cuckmere Meanders I’m back to the Long House garden, more particularly the paddock. Before we bought the house in 2011 our predecessor Raymond (after whom Raymond’s Retreat is named…see Garden Tour elsewhere on the website) was mower-happy and gave the paddock a short back and sides all year resulting in a lack of anything apart from a few early snowdrops and a crop of wild violets that were low enough to escape the blades. When we arrived we planted a few bulbs we’d brought from Bankton Cottage only to have most of them scraped up during the building works six months later. In the immediate aftermath we were left with what might be termed a blank canvas:

So we decided to give the indigenous wild flowers their head, lend a helping hand by planting a cacophony of daffodils and narcissi over the next few autumns and quit the mowing routine. The springtime result is now rather pleasing and will only get better as they all naturalise. 

And as spring turns to summer the grass grows, hides the dying leaves of the bulbs and the paddock turns into a wild flower meadow threaded with mown paths and alive with butterflies and insects and the buzzing of bees. But that you can see and hear that for yourselves if you visit the garden in June or July.

Talking of mini-rants, Rosie was at it again this morning: why is it, she moaned, that us ladies can’t get insulated wellies and fleeces that are warmly lined like gents stuff is? Do the men who run these companies think that women don’t go out in the cold and wet? They should damn well try a bit of gardening instead of sitting at their desks doing bugger all. At which I put the kettle on and kept my mouth shut. But she has got a point.