Summer 22: In the garden

It’s been a summer of two halves. 

Looking back, it’s hard to believe June was only two months ago. The garden is barely recognisable as the same place, let alone the same season.

Everything, back then, was so green, so lush, so fresh and perky. We’d not had a particularly wet spring, but it had been a cool, gentle start to summer. Everything looked so happy, so at ease, so contentedly at home. I can’t help look back with an impatient longing for a repeat of this time much sooner than the allotted 10 months.

I’m never not going to be amazed by what appears in spring and early summer in this country. From nothing in March, the pond margin suddenly becomes the most complex habitat. All I did was sprinkle seed on top of bare soil three years ago and this has happened. No herbaceous border, however grand, can ever beat this, to my eye.

And where once we had nettles where the mower couldn’t reach, geraniums and ox-eyes now fill the strip along the fence line. All I’ve done is pull nettles and add a few tiny ox-eye seedlings from Mum’s garden – the rest has happened by itself. How can such perfection be created by such little effort?

I love the layers that spring up and fill out at this time of year. Sitting on the little bench by the pond, you see the water-loving marginals at your feet in front of the clear mirror of water to the wildflower meadow, then the openness of the lawn leading on to more colourful borders beyond. 

The contrasts of the more wild and more tended; the mass and the void; the soft, restful green and the bright, vibrant flowers; all sitting under the comfort blanket of a mesh of established trees.

For a moment in time, all is perfect. Nothing jars, nothing fails. Everything seems to be nestled into its place; snug, happy and serene.

At the end of June, I was lucky enough to spend a few days with friends from Sydney, just south of Bergerac. It’s hard to describe how idyllic this was. 

The old, blue-shuttered, stone house a picture of perfection, looking out across farmland to the village church. 

Each morning, we’d start the day with freshly baked goodies from the local patisserie, before feeling perhaps we needed a little rest by the pool with a good book. Lunch might be assembled following a trip to the local market or could be sitting in the shade of a café in one of the old, narrow streets. 

A walk through the sunflower fields might take our fancy in the afternoon, before a gin and tonic on the warm terrace and a long, lazy, laugh-filled alfresco meal as the stars appeared above. We made so many happy memories that week.

Lovely Sally, who I met through a love of plants at the David Jones Flower Show when I first moved to Sydney, then came back to stay with us in Oxfordshire.

There are few things nicer than sharing your special space with someone like-minded and we spent hours in the garden, just chatting about the different plants or me trying to convince Sally that she wasn’t here for hard labour!

She also taught me how to watercolour – or at least tried to – I have a bit more work to do on that! It was so sad to have to say goodbye to her, but she left me with the most beautiful painting of Harry, who’d she met during her stay. What could be more special?

It was after France and Sally that the garden took an about turn. Within two weeks of hot temperatures and no rain, it was a changed landscape.

Yet there is never a moment where the garden isn’t giving in one way or another.

Darylena arrived with her two new babes and all was well again. Whilst having time to munch the roses, she kept them tightly under supervision those first few days, nervously taking them back to the woodland at the slightest sound.

But one day, as I weeded, I looked up to see Mum heading off to her favourite patch of ivy, Daryletta following, at first. But then she stopped, a tiny little figure, all on her own. She looked from Mum to me and back again. 

Then, not taking her eye off me for one moment, she slowly walked towards me. What was this large, kneeling animal she’d not yet come across?

We literally locked eyes for a good minute, until she was just a few metres from me. There was no question, she had come to say hello. Her inquisitive nature overcoming her fear. 

It was one of those moments you wanted to never end. An experience you couldn’t quite believe was happening. 

But then off she went – running to Mum and to safety.

We still play peek-a-boo in the meadow.

Harry has also got a new playmate and the two of them are quite inseparable.

As the ground has dried out, we seem to have reached the perfect equilibrium – the grass grows just enough to feed the residents, whilst not actually needing to be cut. Which was all rather perfect timing for our lawn mower breaking down. I really rather like have pet lawn mowers, rather than noisy, smelly, petrol versions.

There are little pockets of respite from the browning off plants, with the pond and stream supporting almost a metre of lush green growth, before the straw colours reign.

Whenever I start to worry about the dryness, the animals distract me and reinstate my joy. For the first time ever, I saw the baby roes suckling.

Sitting in the kitchen early one evening, I looked out and there they were on the haha. First one baby, then the other too. It’s hard to comprehend what we see from our house.

You get a real sense of their personalities, watching them grow and develop day by day. They are still in that super cute phase, such close siblings: clearly twins at times. Watching the whole family, grazing and playing, completely oblivious to us, is an amazing thing to observe.

The haha is also a favourite spot for Freddy, who can get a good view of potential dinner options. He, along with Sammy the stoat (who’s never around when I have my good camera!), have been about so much more since the rabbit population expanded; to the point where we now rarely see rabbits. It’s incredible how nature balances itself.

Harry wasn’t overly happy to see Freddy. He stood up on his hind legs, as tall as he could, for as long as he could. Then, a few seconds rest before repeating his act to show how big and scary he was. Freddy wasn’t interested, fortunately, and just carried on his way. Poor Harry sat tall for ages afterwards, ears pricked, on high alert, but all ended well.

Whilst many trees have lost their leaves, the tulip tree faring less well than those in dry old Canberra, the vegetable garden reminds us how robust plants are: the crops keep coming, despite barely any moisture.

Paul’s Helianthus giganteus (what a boy plant!) are close to 4 metres tall and have had no water since the June rains; the courgettes have supplied most of Oxfordshire for the last couple of months; and Dahlias keep on producing, no matter how many I pick.

There’s little more reassuring than seeing nature cope in the face of adversity. It’s so stoic, no matter what the external world throws upon it. 

I do hope this hot drought is a once in a (few?) decade(s) event this summer. The last one like this was 1976 and we can manage with one every 46 years. But England is ‘supposed’ to be green and pleasant – it’s part of its identity and sense of place. We shall have to see, but I’m optimistic we won’t have a repeat next year. 

How can you not be optimistic when you garden?

14 thoughts on “Summer 22: In the garden

  1. Christine Gascoyne says:

    Thank you so much Janna.. I felt I was really in your garden. Our Spring has sprung here in Canberra and the magnolias are bursting into colour. Lots to do of course but I love every minute of it even if it does take me twice as long these days

    • jannaschreier says:

      Lucky you, coming into spring!! I will try and remember to appreciate autumn and winter but it is a bit of a challenge this year with everything looking so brown and crispy so early. Like you though, I still love the doing, even if the looking is slightly worrying/disappointing!

  2. Adriana Fraser says:

    I love your wild flower meadows Janna. I did a small one here last year and even though small isn’t meant to work – it seemed to for me. I love all you have done in your garden actually. I dread summer every year – it’s fine at first then as summer drags into early autumn and if that is coupled with a lack of rain – things soon brown off and shrivel. Watering is never the same as rain I have found. The past 3 years, and this one too is set to be the same we have had wet summers, what bliss. Your first and third photos remind me of the photos Jelle Grintjes does of his garden in the Netherlands. Such simple beauty and so beautifully captured. We move on Wednesday Janna – another full reno project. The small backyard needs a bloke to come and rip out everything with a mighty machine so I can start again without weedy horrible plants (bamboo, cabbage palms) that are taking over. Thankfully out front it is just lawn and a hedge of ‘Capital’ pears (Pyrus calleryana ‘Capital). Wish me luck. Your trip to France sounded idyllic and what a wonderful thing to be taught how to paint with water colours. Hope you are well now. Regards to Paul too!

    • jannaschreier says:

      You move on Wednesday? Wow. Gosh, there are lots of lucky people in Victoria who get to take on your beautiful gardens! I hope all goes smoothly – so much work involved, moving. But I think you are a world expert! I wish I could understand why watering doesn’t do the same as rain. Is it something in the rain or it is how it falls? I’m coming to the conclusion it must be the former as I’ve tried so many different variations on the latter. But now we have a hose pipe ban, it’s each plant for itself. I’m going with the theory that if they got through our hot, hot summer with no rain, most things worth keeping will cope with autumn. I’ve just had a look at some of Jelle’s photos. So, so lovely. I’m getting a bit impatient now to have lots and lots of plants. Wish I could increase the speed of my garden developing. If there’s one thing gardening has taught me though, it has been patience. We’ll get there! Best of luck for your new move, Adriana.

  3. Adriana Fraser says:

    Thanks Janna! Probably the main reason rainfall is better for plants than tap water is because the atmosphere contains nitrate – which is also the most biologically available nitrogen for plants. Also even more so if rainfall is coupled with lighting activity, as lightning ‘fixes’ nitrogen in the atmosphere, which then makes is available for use by plants, rather than it having to go through the process of nitrogen fixation in the soil, which is performed by micro-organisms living within the soil. A very simple explanation for a very complex process. We lived with years of water restriction and hose bans here in Vic during our 12 year drought which broke around March 2009, having started in 1997. Only good thing was we had amazingly sunny winters.

    • jannaschreier says:

      The thing I’ve never understood about that is that I don’t think my soil is deficient in nitrogen. My nettles certainly don’t think so! So if you add water, surely the plants can then take up nitrogen? We also very very rarely get lightning here. But you’ve prompted a thought: perhaps, by the time the plants are so dry that you are watering them, the soil microbes have also slowed down and the plants are crying out for a boost of nitrogen as well as water. And the nitrogen can’t be released fast enough before it dries out again. Could that be it? Vaguely? Sort of?!!

      • Adriana Fraser says:

        Microbial activity decreases as the soil dries, so the drier the soil the less activity – this of course means that the microbes are not converting soil organic nitrogen into plant available mineral nitrogen. In almost all cases this conversion is done by either microbes in the soil or microbes in the root nodules of some plant species. That is why dry soils end up so lifeless if dry for too long Janna, so you are spot on. The jury is still out on whether prolonged dryness – meaning years rather than weeks, causes a severe decline in microbial anf fungal populations in the soil. Once soil is rewet though, after shorter periods of dryness, the microbes usually start multiplying quite quickly – even with 24 hours. And yes a higher level of miscrobial activity in the soil is directly associated with plant productivity.

        • jannaschreier says:

          Thank you, Adriana. It’s complex, isn’t it? I’m still not sure I really understand why the microbes can’t get to work after watering (as opposed to rain) – I’m sure there are more salts they don’t like in tap water, but it feels it should be a slight difference, rather than chalk and cheese. But you have packing to do…we’ll have to pick this up another day. Happy moving tomorrow!

        • Adriana Fraser says:

          No Janna I didn’t say they couldn’t get to work after watering, what I said in the earliest comment, was that plants seem to grow faster after rainfall as opposed to after watering. Observations of many years standing – this could be because of an increase in nitrogen that falls with the rainfall, that then is able to be activated by soil microbes to plant available nitrogen. Irrigation doesn’t do that to anywhere near the same xtent but it does help moisten soils to increase microbial activity too — you just don’t have that extra nitrogen you get with rainfall. In fact the nitrogen that is held in irrigation water, naturally, has not been shown to increase plant activity to anywhere near the same extent. As you say it is very complex and I only have the basics even though I have worked on numerous texts on the subject, I am certainly not a soil chemist.

        • jannaschreier says:

          I think that’s perhaps why it all makes more sense to me in Australia than in England. If there isn’t much existing nitrogen in the soil, it’s very logical, but if there is, it’s much harder to get your head around!

  4. Louise says:

    Another wonderful wander through your magnificent garden. I adore the wild flower meadows and pond. I hope one day to make my way over there before you leave and have a wander in it myself, just beautiful! Love the science lesson about rain, I never knew all that but have also believed my garden looks better when it rains, thank you both. Just coming into spring here and hearing it will be a wet spring and summer. My garden is constantly evolving Janna. I still think of you when I’m in it. I very much appreciated your ideas and thoughts when planning. I never thought at the time I would remain in contact, so grateful. Hope all is well with you. Look forward to the next blog x

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thank you Louise. You really must try and imbibe some English gardens one day! And I love that you still show me your garden every so often – after what, ten years? It sounds like it’s going to be very abundant this year with the extra rains – enjoy every moment!

  5. Suzanne says:

    I’m sorry for this very late reply but I have been away, enjoying the wonderland of Kalbarri after two good years of rain. You would love it Janna but such a very very different experience compared to your beautiful idyll in France.

    I do look forward to your posts, they always make me smile. You really do live in a piece of Eden. I do wonder tho’ how you manage the garden with all those extra mouths to feed, the year or so we had the visiting rabbit severely damaged many plants.

    I have been wondering how your garden coped with the severe summer heat but from what you showed in this blog it looked like a typical summer for me. Of course, our summers are not at all typical for the UK so it would not be a pleasant experience. I have finally accepted that summers here are definitely the garden’s off season and that it is during late autumn, winter and spring (if we have one) that the garden shines, which it is at the moment.

    Your poor tulip tree does look a bit scrappy. I would say that your Canberra tree had sent down very deep roots to find a permanent supply of water for hot summer survival but your Oxford tree would never have needed such deep roots in it’s less demanding environment. Hopefully it won’t need them in 2023. Happy gardening.

    • jannaschreier says:

      I am so glad you did find the time to comment after your trip – I always love hearing your thoughts. Although I am a little jealous of your spring trip to the outback and beyond! I’ve absolutely adored our drives along the Western Australian coast. Yes, the mouths in our garden do add another dynamic, but I always love a challenge and new learning, so that’s OK. I think it’s easier in a bigger garden – the detail becomes less significant. I’m quite sure you are exactly right on our tulip tree. Funnily enough, we have two: the one I showed in an extremely sunny, exposed, sandy soil location and the other, at the edge of the woodland but within the walled garden, close to the stream, looks absolutely pristine. Just goes to show the importance, and nuance, of right plant, right place. Gardening here, I have thought how difficult I would find gardening in Australia now, as I’m so used to mild temperatures. But I think there have only been 3 days where I have avoided work due to the heat this summer – find a shady patch and it’s all fine. As you say, it’s all about adapting your mindset and behaviours to the seasons and downtime: a snowy winter’s day here is hardly conducive to gardening. I’m happy hearing you are enjoying a ‘shiny’ season right now!

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