• kenneth.norrie

Gardening in a Time of Isolation - 5th April 2020

Gardens ought to be self-sustaining. You shouldn’t need to go to the shops for supplies. But we all do. Seeds, plugs, bedding plants, new pots and trays – one of the simple joys of life is wandering around the nursery or garden centre so see what is available. Being a fully paid up member of what Joe Orton once called the “lobelia growing classes” (What the BS), I am seldom happier than when hoovering up basic good value and long-flowering plants, like fuschia, petunia, and viola. Sometimes you spot something rather special, and grab it (if you can afford it). Last year I snapped up a liquid amber at a church fair – though, the church knowing a non-believer when it sees one, it rather spitefully withered and died. Last month at our local nursery they had something I have been craving for years, cornus controversa variegata (the New Zealand Wedding Cake tree). It was pricey, but April is Royalties month and Children’s Hearings, though seven years old, is still selling.

That, I think, was the last day the nursery was open. It’s heartbreaking to think of all the annuals going to waste. I doubt we’ll have hanging baskets this year, unless I can fashion something out of ivy. Though in truth that is a minimal concern compared with the nursery men who lose their businesses, and the workers who lose their jobs. There was a news report a couple of days ago of companies in the Netherlands bulk-buying cut flowers from the growers there, and simply giving them away to their workers, hospitals, care-homes, and passers-by. That is fabulous. I’d love the Netherlands if it weren’t so flat.

Anyway, work in the garden this year is, like everything else in life, quite transformed. Instead of sowing seeds (no compost), I am scavenging the ground for self-seeded plants, for perennials that can be split, for bushes whose low hanging branches have rooted into the ground: anything that can multiply the stock. St John’s Wort, astilbe, and various sedum and saxifragia, which I would normally have hoed back into the soil, I’ve lifted and potted. I have found self-seeded dogwood, black-current and even a small conifer. This is all quite satisfying, rather like finding unexpected gems in a second-hand bookshop. I once picked up a Bell’s Principles and a McDonald’s Criminal Law for a fiver each in a bookshop in St Andrews, next door to Auchterlonie’s as you go towards the R&A Clubhouse.

But there are plants for sale: you just have to be quick to take them when you see them. Though garden centres are closed, supermarkets are not. In the past I have been rather sniffy about supermarket plants (even when much cheaper than nursery prices). Grown in the soft south and lorried across the country, they are not (I told myself) a patch on the plants grown in the local nursery. You KNOW that if it can grow three miles away it ought to grow here; but something propagated in a greenhouse in Kent? And what about that carbon footprint? (Boy, was I superior). However, pelargoniums, chrysants, pansies and semper vivums (semper viva?) are actually tough old things and, while a tad samey, can add a sparkle of colour where no colour was before, even if bought from Aldi (while out buying your porridge, of course). This week’s hot tip: central aisle in Aldi has bird feed!

Another task which in normal years I neglect is pruning bushes. Apart from a cursory clipping of the longer stems I tend to let them grow as they will: I am not keen on the manicured look (in either gardens or gardeners). But removing dead wood can open sight-lines as well as encourage bushier growth and this has been quite a large part of my efforts in the past week. The soft fruit bushes, all of which are as prickly as a comment attached to a Family Law essay, have needed this for some time. In truth we don’t get much fruit from them, because the thrushes always get up in the morning earlier than we do.

Perhaps the biggest loss from the lockdown is compost. I normally get through around a dozen large bags of multi-purpose, but this year all I have is half a bag that overwintered in the garage. Even scavenging requires potting soil, so I have to make my own. The compost heap could have been a source, but I emptied it in November and spread it as a mulch around the garden. But there are some resources to call upon. I have finally found a use for my enemies, the rabbits. When they dig their burrows they throw back good soil, usually from too deep for weed roots. So I take that and mix it with some fertilising pellets that I normally put in the hanging baskets. Added to the mix is the used compost from last year’s pots: no goodness left there, but this provides structure and bulk. After last month’s massacre of the conifers next door, I have collected pine needles to bring a little acid, and beech mast for mulching the pots. But the greatest boost of fertility comes from the bags of chicken poo our friends in the village, who have chickens and ducks, allowed us to collect. Not the dry pellets that come in large plastic cartons from B&Q: instead this is something much wetter, smellier and stickier. So the lockdown is making us all organic in our habits. You need to use your hands to break down the clumps of poo to ensure it is properly mixed with the old potting compost. Social distancing will come to an end, but however much I soap my hands – far beyond the 20 second rule – the whiff of chicken and duck droppings will be with me long after we start socialising again. But I do have a lot of good compost now.

Other than the work, what is looking good at the moment? The browns of late winter are more and more turning yellow, and not just with daffodils. The forsythia is a yellow sunburst, and the marsh marigolds at the pond are looking lovely, set off as the flowers are with their deep green leaves. The leaves of golden spirea (all over the garden) are filling out nicely. Away from the yellows we have blues appearing in the pulmonaria and, stunningly, in shop-bought hyacinth which are attracting both bumble bees and honey bees.

Other wildlife spotted this week: Mr and Mrs Pheasant, a yellow wagtail, and jackdaws building a seriously untidy nest in a hole in a tree.Who can believe that I once had to explain to Therese O’Donnell how to sex a pheasant? As the (other) Brian Cox once said, things can only get better.

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