Few things in crofting life are more frustrating than watching hay slowly rot away. The last, and only time we had to dump a third of our crop was in 1979, during the wettest summer I can remember. This one, the summer of 2011, started quite hopefully, but deteriorated rapidly towards the end of July, when it turned bitterly cold and the sun only came out for the briefest of spells.
The little hay we have cut so far is safe and dry in the loft, but two large fields still stand and, apart from a pleasant interlude this past Saturday, we’ve had nothing but rain, and heavy rain at that.
Most of our strawberry crop has been lost, the berries turning mouldy before they got a chance to fully ripen. Some of our trees and shrubs have succumbed to an ugly brown leaf-eating fungal infection, and several borders look too sad for words. They have been completely flattened by heavy rain, their inhabitants lying prostrate, and the arch formed across the Kitchen Garden border by a “white” fuchsia and Rosa ‘Albertine’, often described as romantic by visitors, is no such thing anymore. Rather than ducking under it one now has to resort to a sciatica-inducing stoop.
Is Lea Gardens turning into Cold Comfort Farm, where all is sourness and ruin? Not quite. And largely thanks to our WWOOFERS. The old saying ‘many hands make light work’ is true, especially if the helpers in question are conscientious in carrying out their allocated daily or weekly chores, which gives me a little leeway to ‘play in the garden’, weather permitting.
This always happens in the evenings. As an owl, my creative juices rarely start flowing before three in the afternoon, and are in full spate by about 7pm. These late sessions not only bear rich horticultural fruit, but also bring other rewards. Once the last visitor has left and the garden falls still, birds and their young come out to play – the other night I watched two families, one of Shetland wrens, the other of redpolls – tiny fledglings, tufts of down protruding from their new plumage, and their anxious mothers on what was perhaps the youngsters’ first outing.
There has been a lot of noisy wing flapping in the Sunk Garden’s cypress for some time. Wood pigeons had built a nest there. At first there were two parents flying in and out, but of late only one adult bird was feeding its squab – a fat little grey thing still without the distinctive white neck marking, waiting patiently on a horizontal willow branch.
As soon as the parent had left, the squab started its flying exercises. It took an inordinate amount of effort and flapping to propel itself from one branch to the next a few inches away. This continued until the parent returned with more food.
After the deluge last Sunday I found the squab walking the path of the Long Border in a bedraggled state. It made two feeble attempts at flying but failed to take off, its tail feathers too sodden to fan out.
Placed in a large cardboard box below the bathroom heater, it dried out quickly and was returned to its branch an hour later.
South Africa, despite the weather, looks wonderful just now. Gladiolus cardinalis is a splendid creature. It was given me by Tony Schilling a number of years ago, but refused to flower in a container, despite regular potting on and some mild feeding. Released from its confinement, it has never looked back. Its neighbour is a salmon-pink Gladiolus nanus. These little gladioli are of hybrid origin and make a great contribution to the August garden. Given the striking markings on their lower segments, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that G. cardinalis is one of their ancestors.
The planting has long since lost its geographical purity and looks all the better for it. Achillea ‘Terracotta’ mingles with Linaria purpurea and a pale yellow Anthemis contrasts well with the red tubular bells of Phygelius capensis.
These and the gladioli make the border, but it is two very humble plants, true South Africans, and barely visible amongst their flamboyant neighbours that set my pulse raising. More often than not it is the plants I have difficulty growing that get me excited. Watsonia bulbifera produces strong, evergreen foliage but rarely presents me with more than one or two spikes of its long, apricot flowers.
Over the years I’ve tried countless Angel’s fishing rods but none have lived for long. One arched stem, hung with buds and the first flared bells dangles above the planting, and moves with every breeze. It belongs to Dierama pulcherrimum ‘Blackbird’, which has survived two winters and looks healthy enough to survive a third.
The forecast for the next two days looks promising and I’m off to rescue some soggy hay.