14th August – capturing Summer

Trying to find more interesting ways of recording the plants around the place at certain times of year, I pressed some of the plants back in June.

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(Honestly, learning proper photography is genuinely high on my priority list – you will see an improvement at some point!!)

I think the delicate grasses and smallest, most fragile leaves came out the nicest.

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It’s not even a fraction of what’s out there.

It’s an absolute privilege to be able to stand out here, listening to the breeze in the grasses and the ticking of insects, and the high, mournful cry of a buzzard being chased around by skraking crows.

Butterflies, slow-worms, grass-hoppers, bees, frogs, toads, spiders, fleas, flies, dragon flies and birds… by the time the deer flatten the grasses with their evening gatherings, we’ve seen more business than Piccadilly Circus, and yet, tranquility reigns.

Only nature can be its most busy, its most industrious and still soothe the nerves and nourish the spirit.

Wildlife is great…

 

7th August – herbal mash-up

 

Someone took a comedy bite out of my courgette.

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I’ll be honest, we haven’t been overrun with produce from our new veg patch, but it was late going in, and the micro-climate here makes everything late on top of that, so I’m not worried. I’ve still got things coming along in the growing tent, and didn’t have unrealistic expectations for the first year.

The herbs are more than enjoying the new sunny spot, and I’ve been extremely grateful for them!

 

 

It’s gardeners instinct to grab hold of your own personal rescue remedy when you’re in a stressful situation. My go-to recently has been mashing fresh mint leaves and lavender flowers and taking a great big sniff when I need a bit of a brain bath after getting stuck in a funk, going over the same stale thinking that inevitably grinds everything to a total halt.

 

 

Nice when what you need is a reboot, a rinse out, a sharp smack to blast out the cobwebs. The menthol hits first, like an ocean wind clearing through a strip of thick fog, then the mellower tones follow through.

I find that the fresh plants are miles more effective than any essential oils – I wonder if it’s the inclusion of that Green that comes with a fresh plant that you just can’t bottle? That sense-connection between the ancient animal in you, and the foundational properties of a living plant?

It’s rescued me a few times of late. A little balm for the frayed nerves, or at least the introductory level to regaining my perspective.

I guess even brains need a spring clean. Especially if, like mine, they’re prone to ker-lunking along rather than easy riding…

 

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2nd August 2019

 

Roses are great. We have such luck with roses (none of my own doing I can assure you), that I’m guilty of taking them a bit for granted.

I’m always looking at the gaps and problems in the garden and thinking up ways to solve them; sometimes you literally do have to wake up and smell the… well, you know.

 

 
Also my pet project: a rescued Venus Fly Trap.

I love that the flowers have to be on such a long stem so that the plant doesn’t accidentally eat its own pollinators…

So charming.

 

 

 

Garden thoughts…

Sometimes I think I ought to stop referring to myself as a gardener. So much of the work I’ve occupied myself with has made planting a mere afterthought recently – a luxury to be indulged in when the real work’s done, and I find myself sitting with seed packets in hand, not quite remembering what to do.

But here I have the little greenhouse shelves, all ready and waiting for a much more orderly way of going about things. There’s no more heavy lifting to do. No more vast complexes of roots to get stuck into. I feel strangely light and a little disoriented – where are my tools? my weights and measures, by which I’ve eeked out the days? This is all so light and frivolous…

 

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Purple Foxglove Digitalis, Corn Snapdragon from Botanical prints by H. Isabel Adams 1907

 

I wanted to write about my favourite plants. Those childhood playmates; the foxgloves wavering in the afternoon sun, the roses that tore open my thigh when I was just young enough for it to mean something ritual, magical, sacred. I wanted to write about the herbs glimpsed in a grubby book, nicotine-stained by my grandfather’s armchair, and his beautiful metered handwriting on blue paper, spelling out words that meant nothing more to me at the time than any foreign language, except they were big, meaty words – the opposite of the familiar (primrose, petunia, allyssum – those feminine words with all that bite behind them). Slipped between the pages of his Egyptology books, I thought they must have been related. Chrysanthemums – Asteraceae – white pom-poms stuffed into the mouths of mummified God-corpses. Jars of amber, floating flower-heads, twisting roots, Darwinian specimens of something other than ordinary life.

From mysterious words, to drawn blood on the pathway – to a book chanced upon in a teacher’s office (who had an old wash-pot planted with woodland flowers and a Culpepper’s Herbal set out for reference or atmosphere) – an old lady teaching us our native tongue, catching a bee in her soft, padded palm to let it out of the window without the least concern… ‘he knows exactly what I’m doing’ .

 

Ao Matsuda

Ao Matsuda, tattoo artist

 

Now I keep planting purple things – as if the bees aren’t so much reading my mind as forcefully putting things into it. Verbena, scabeous, foxgloves and dianthus – open-hearted flowers that waft perfume and line up landing strips of leopard print salutations and welcomes. The bees who follow me around, sometimes resting on my bare brown shoulders with their little trousers laden with yellow swag.

A wild swarm descended one afternoon, and I’m ashamed of myself for running, but the noise was alarming, and I’ve never met one before, and I have a guilty conscience – the bees know everything, after all.

I wanted to write about particular plants – but there’s no such thing – no such thing as isolation in nature. Everything tumbles in, everything hangs on to the thing before and the thing coming after. We’re all so interwoven, if you pull one thread we all unravel.

They are all my favourite things in the garden.

Sometimes you just have to remember what a gardener really is.

Autumn: A Retrospective

 

Time scampers by us light-footed, while we are busy doing work. It was only this morning as I opened my curtains to an inexplicable dusting of white snow that I realised: Autumn has come headlong through its part, and I’ve not made comment on it here.

I haven’t missed a minute of it in the real world – I watch the leaves fastidiously, I rummage about for fungi, I even swift-finger my way through the seasonal crafts and chores, watching the skies for our departing friends, but it all swoops so quickly towards the Mid-Winter chaos, and I forget, sometimes, to take a moment.

So, here is one bright quilt of Autumn: a retrospective of the season in which I’m always happily too busy to whistle! I’ve planted trees, I’ve hand-dug landscaping mistakes of the past, I’ve repaired windows and painted walls – and I’m still pulling up that infernal bush thicket, which I thought would be a nice job to get my teeth into two years ago…

I’ve sown seeds and planted bulbs, but for now, colour.

 

All photos by The Compulsive Gardener

Fall Song by Mary Oliver

Another year gone, leaving everywhere
its rich spiced residues: vines, leaves,

the uneaten fruits crumbling damply
in the shadows, unmattering back

from the particular island
of this summer, this NOW, that now is nowhere

except underfoot, mouldering
in that black subterranean castle

of unobservable mysteries – roots and sealed seeds
and the wanderings of water. This

I try to remember when time’s measure
painfully chafes, for instance when autumn

flares out at the last, boisterous and like us longing
to stay – how everything lives, shifting

from one bright vision to another, forever
in these momentary pastures.

Long Term Plans…

It’s still all about trees here. Last week the oaks, this week, the orchard.

Orchards are funny things. I’m not sure how they can be mysterious and wholesome at the same time: homely, yet uncanny, but they are. Perhaps it’s their ancientness that whispers in even the jolliest of hollows, or perhaps it is the fruit with a star at its heart.

 

Rushed apple star illustration with added coffee spillage :/

I am cultivating a mixed orchard at the moment, eschewing the problems of which local apple variety to partner up with, in favour of tidying a more pressing problem with saplings in the lawn: the littered offspring of the old damson tree. It’s a project I’ve been working on for a couple of years – as all tree projects are – it leads me to thinking about time in abstracted ways. You’re free to think meanderingly when you’re working with trees – you’ve really got the time!

Tree work is a strange change of pace from the usual tasks which, more often than not, involve a dilapidated something cleared up, or a wild patch cut away (a mythic hero’s journey in bramble-form: lo, through the impenetrable darkness came the gleaming blade of a pair of secateurs…)

But working with trees is slow.

It’s a thorough lesson in patience, and putting reigns on the temperament of your thoughts.

I would have thought it would suit me, since I’ve always been naturally inclined to the big picture anyway (I tend to think in terms of ice ages rather than current affairs), but because I am working with ancient, native deciduous trees – monitoring sapling that won’t change for years at a time, or transplanting the children of fruiting trees who may not even prove to fruit themselves – it feels a bit scary.

The whole thing is a gamble, a lot of the time.

I find myself pondering outlandish scenarios, like passing the apple seeds through the digestive tract of a bird rather than potting them up on windowsills, to best replicate the way trees manage in the wild. But this leads to all sorts of delving questions about which animal is the best propagator of apples in the Sussex wilds, and whether or not a person can simply… borrow such a creature and have it relieve itself in one’s chosen spot…

This passes for the very cutting edge of horticultural thinking round these parts, and I wonder if I’m not over-complicating things somewhat. This sort of thinking is what the Winter months are for, surely?

 

 

There is a twist to this plot – warnings for mild peril ahead – the poor old damson tree is not well taken care of, and after the hard winter, a forced cut-back, and a flowerless Spring, this year heralded virtually no fruit. Not enough for even a single pot of jam, which is sad. I miss the rituals of this time of year (not so much the infuriating jar sterilising, more the harvesting with homemade baskets, like Ratty, Badger and Mole from Wind in the Willows). I feel the success of the tree’s offspring has a certain urgency to it, which does not sit well with the overall glacial pace of the endeavour.

In an ideal world, I would be content with nature’s ideas about sending an army of mini-trees out across the garden, but sadly, it’s not my lawn to give over to the wild.

Apparently living in the ancient and mysterious midst of a boozy fruit grove isn’t everyone’s idea of a blissful garden. Go figure.

 

The Wassail (Charles Rennie Mackintosh)

The Wassail by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

 

 

17th August

We are all custodians of our little patches of earth.

At the end of the day, whether we own them, rent them, or just work on them, we will not be here forever. I hear people talk about gardening legacies, and it strikes me how short a legacy can be: vast structures disappearing in a matter of decades, to be rediscovered like treasure troves just a scant generation or two later, or the sprawling cities of the ancients, just a few feet beneath tangled jungle.

Ten years in the wilderness is a lifetime to something as malleable and erasable as a garden.

The stories of these plots far exceed our own in both directions – far into the past, far into the future. It strikes me sometimes: this place is billions of years old, they say there were lions here once. Before them, great towering caps of ice. Perhaps one day it will be a flooded wetland – playground of millions of sore-throated whooper swans, or patchwork tribes of yet-to-be evolved ducks and waders.

 

David Parfitt

Painting by David Parfitt

Or perhaps, if my plans go as I hope, it will be a forest of mighty oaks –a haven for beast, fowl and all manner of creeping and slithering thing.

Field work

I go diligently about the field at the end of the plot, picking up molehills. It really makes you think. Especially when you overfill your bag – forgetting it’s still clay you’re carrying, because those little moles with their pudgy demon hands have kindly filtered and sifted it for you into pyramids of fine earth, and you forget how heavy it is. I think about the scale of my body struggling to drag bag after bag through the grass, and I think about their tiny bodies – fiendishly strong. The tonnes they must move in a day, their little minds set on what they do: experts of the dark. I think about them, and I’m glad to know them. I’m glad they do what they do, which so helps me out when all I need is good solid earth that I don’t have to cut out like slices of thick, impossible fudge.

mole by Notes from a Compulsive Gardener

Sketch by Notes from a Compulsive Gardener

After collecting as much as I can be doing with on a hot late summer’s day, it’s onto looking for saplings. We have a lot of oak saplings that never make it past ten inches or so – falling either to the field mowers or the deer, and I take their care seriously, even though I know they’ll outlive me to that strange scale again – where nothing makes sense from a human’s perspective.

I’ll be the one setting them up in pots, trimming their leaves to encourage their roots, but it will not be my generation, or even probably two or three that will really be able to relax about the fate of the tree. I will have to take good care of it – watch it for oak diseases, protect it from hungry mouths, or clumsy feet. All the while knowing they never used to need us at all, and there’ll come a time again when these trees certainly won’t miss us.

Majesty 2006 by Tacita Dean born 1965

‘Majesty’ by Tacita Dean 2006

But I want there to be oak trees in that potentially people-less future. It matters to me that these little saplings reach their future, which never really did have anything to do with us. Their ancestors have been great naval warships, and the beams of vast important houses, but they were always meant to be trees, and I only want them to be trees.

As long as they keep finding the light, I’ll keep taking them out of harm’s way, and I’ll put them back when they’re too big for mowers and deer.