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Garden Newsletter: March

There are signs of spring approaching! Take heart! Admittedly, it is raining as I write this, but nevertheless, there was sunshine yesterday and there may well be sun today! The big push will now start, to get things up together, to catch up all those things we couldn’t do because of the very wet winter. A very big thank you to all of you who have taken time to come and help us under very muddy conditions- at least there have been some sunny days, and the weekday and Sunday teams have come out in strength! Thank you, without your help this garden could not survive in its present form.

Welcome to several new Weeders that have joined us over the past few weeks, I hope you continue to enjoy being part of the team! The ‘We love our volunteers day’ at which they were recruited also gave well earned presentations to Derick, long time Wakes Weeder, Librarian, Book Binder, former Friends Newsletter editor and Professional Ornithologist & Natalie Mees, previously secretary to the Trustees (since 1969 I think) and long term Library volunteer and fellow historical researcher to the Wakes.

The Dining Room Shrubbery is resplendent in snowdrops and white crocuses, but is missing the Viburnums at the back due to the devastation caused by the Viburnum beetle. Up until recently, this damaging beetle (Pyrrhalta viburni) had not been a problem in the garden, but a few years ago the Royal Horticultural Society put it at the top of their most troublesome pest list, above even slugs and snails and red lily beetle. It’s not even mentioned in most garden pest books until around 2010. It seems to have attacked the ordinary Laurestinus more intensely than the shining form, ‘Lucidum’ at the bottom of Bakers Hill. Anyhow, re-planting should be possible soon, with vigilance in late spring- and spraying! So instead of colour at this time of the year coming from the viburnums, we have to be content with snowdrops and the crocuses. There is a fine show of snowdrops, which have been transplanted into gaps in the border, but there is also an edging of white and yellow crocus- the scotch crocus (C. biflorus) Miss Vain is an outstanding white one, and the yellow Cloth of Gold Crocus (C angustfolius, formerly susianus) has bronze outer petals and bright yellow inner ones.  There are only a few yellow ones surviving- they’ve been eaten, I should think, by mice.

Down near the old kitchen window the groundsel tree, although a little damaged by the winter weather, seems in good condition since its hard pruning last year. A layer of straw protects its roots. The snowdrops are now at their best in the early spring sunshine, and the clumps seem to be prospering next to the catmint by the back door. We’ve taken the ivy off the house, where it was creeping up and over the windows of what used to be the servants quarters (built 1910). In the last couple of years, ivy has prospered in gardens to a greater degree than ever before, no doubt due to the wet seasons. Gilbert White made careful notes about the flowering and fruiting of ivy, and its use to the insects and birds:

The ivy, hedera helix, blows in Sept:Oct & Novr. the berries are now full grown, & ripen in April: thus fructification goes on in some Instances the winter thro’. When the berries are full ripe they are black

[14th January 1774]

He goes on to say

Ivy berries afford a noble and providential supply for birds in winter and spring; for the first severe frost freezes all the haws, sometimes by the middle of November; ivy berries do not seem to freeze.

And on 11th October 1777

insects abound on the ivy bloom..

Despite this valuable ecological role, ivy is not always popular with gardeners (a very invasive and throttling ground cover plant, that’s difficult to remove once it gets a hold), foresters (can over power trees once it reaches through the canopy, and also makes tree surgery dangerous & difficult) or even conservationists, where by de-stabilising woodlands- we’ve seen in recent gales sheets of ivy act as sails, pushing trees over- it can be both dangerous & too dominant. Deer are very fond of browsing it, so it can be used as an indicator of deer activity in a woodland- they browse up to reaching height. It can of course damage brickwork if it is not in good condition, and leaves unsightly marks on walls when removed. So it’s not all good news, and many people detest it and cut it off every tree they see it on- we’ve even had visitors to the museum volunteer to come and take it off our trees….

To return to the garden, the young twigs of the Banksian roses against the house are covered in red shoots, Spring is on its way! Beneath them are snowdrops and the green flowers of the stinking hellebores, such a valuable plant at this time of the year.


likemoles In the bulb border opposite, young bulb foliage is beginning to appear: this display is modelled on Gilbert White’s bulb border ‘next to Parsons’s’, his next door neighbour on the North West side of his property. Houses in the village in the 18th Century were called after the names of their occupants, rather than numbered, a Victorian invention. Thus the house Parsons’s was originally known to White as Kelsey’s, and later on as Benhams, after Parsons had moved out. This can cause confusion when tracing the historical geography of a village. The family of John Wells (who sold part of an orchard to Gil White so he could enlarge his garden and make the stone HaHa) seems to have lived in nearly every house in the village over time!! But I digress once more… the bulb border ‘next Parsons’s’ has hyacinths, jonquils, tulips and crown imperials emerging. These last are the most dramatic, heaving up soil like a mole making a molehill, six, seven or sometimes eight leafy stems from each bulb. As I made notes, some of the earth seemed freshly disturbed- I wonder what time of the day they force through, or is it random? A close observer like Gilbert White would perhaps have been able to tell me if it entered his zone of interest. These impressive and now somewhat unusual flowers with their whorls of drooping orange or yellow blooms have been with us a long time, they were introduced in the late 16th century from the Northern India /Persia /Afghanistan region, but they promote strong likes or dislikes. And most agree the smell of the plant is unpleasant! But they are stunning, I think, when in full flower, especially at the top of a bank when the sun shines through the petals.

The snowdrops are really wonderful on the side of Bakers hill- I’ve no way of telling whether there are more or less than in previous years, but they certainly do make a fine show. We’ve got a winding path marked with hazel hoops through them, but with so much rain all is very slippery. The benches at the top of the hill are being continually thrown over by the wind, which I find surprising as they are quite heavy and without a lot of bulk. We have planted a new quincunx of Christmas trees, small ones as they transplant most reliably from pots at this size. We have changed the position so that they look more like the ones in the Grimm illustration from the New Hermitage, but have kept the alignment of the centre one with the wooden Haha. The pedestal and urn will be moved to a new position, thus giving a possible marquee site with lovely views across the park.

Weeds are growing in the vegetable garden, but it is difficult to remove them by digging as so much soil comes out at the same time. And it’s not yet dry enough for hoeing, but…well it might stop raining soon. We need to have another attempt to remove the Jerusalem Artichokes, as they are rampant again, but once again, we need drier conditions. Parsnips and Leeks have been dug and taken to the tea parlour to be made into soup, an excellent use of produce! Artichokes and Cardoons are pushing through their straw (or rather hay) coverings, and the winter wheat that germinated well in the autumn has stood the winter well. The tortoise sculpture in the labyrinth has been scrubbed of green mould and now looks brighter and cleaner.

In the basons the Persian lilacs look to be budding for bloom, and in general the basons seem to be in pretty good order, with a lot of help from Len, our bason specialist volunteer. The wooden HaHa ditch has been full of water for some considerable time, the water table must be very high- in fact, a spring seems to have broken out in the Ewell field just beyond the metal gate between the fields. Never have I known it so wet, and indeed it has been confirmed as the wettest winter ever recorded since systematic records began in the 20th century. However, as I pointed out last month, Gilbert White records great inundations of rain in the winter of 1763/4, so in away nothing has changed! If it follows the 250 years ago pattern, there was 11 days of dry weather after the rain, and then a considerable snowfall and a hard frost. I really hope that doesn’t happen, as it would be devastating to many plants!

The last of the old hot bed needs to be dug out in preparation for a new one- the manure could be put straight into some sweet pea trenches in the cutting beds. The cutting beds need to be cleared, old calendulas removed and the biggest weeds removed before digging or rotavating. So much to do!

A good bonfire was had recently, it had really mounted up during the wettest weather, but thank goodness we’ve now had a good clearance. I have contacted a scrap metal man, and when things are dryer he will come and collect an old tractor and much more.

So here is this month’s selection of the hundreds of jobs to be done in the garden  

  • Weed the six quarters, purge couch grass everywhere, grass clumps from Arundo bed
  • Hoe bulb border when possible
  • Continue to Revamp Plant sales areas
  • Remove ivy from wall on corner by house/six quarters
  • Continue to collect/ process and packet seeds
  • Finish pruning the roses
  • Continue Weeding & Digging veg garden
  • Work out new veg garden plan
  • Plant broad beans & Garlic
  • Re-instate cold frame structure near site of removed walnut (by barn)
  • Mend tripod in six quarters
  • Continue to mend rotten pedestal from six quarters
  • Remove white plastic bags of soil in melon bed area
  • Plant new shrubs in Dining Room Shrubbery
  • Cut down elders in bottom of pond garden etc
  • Remove brambles under yew tree
  • Continue to re-organise Compost heaps
  • Sow Kiss me over the garden gate, or Persicaria orientalis, in the cold ground
  • Attach wires for greengage on Fruit Wall
  • Weed pits in Orchard walk
  • Continue to make illustrated labels for plant stand
  • Purchase new gate to replace broken one of six field gates

And much, much more!