Tuesday 27 August 2013

August in the Garden

I seem to have amassed a stack of gardening books, old and new, read and unread, which I love
to browse through, along with seed catalogues, imagining the riot of colour and perfume that I could create – only I spend so long looking at gardening books, there is no time left to do anything! Really though, they seem to lend themselves to the ‘slow read’ method, and perhaps I should like at them month by month, to see what I should be doing.

This month, for example, in The Curious Gardener, Anna Pavord begins by suggesting I should trim my evergreen hedges and reshape the topiary: since I have neither, I feel I can carry on reading with a clear conscience, unless I can stir myself to tackle the buddleia, which are not evergreen, and are not topiary, but they are striving for world domination, which is a problem in our tiny garden. So, being a curious gardener, I’ve just looked these up, and discovered I should have hard pruned them way back in March. So what do I do, cut them right back now and hope they survive, or wait until next spring and hope they don’t grow during the winter?

Actually Pavord’s book is fascinating, with lists of tasks to be carried out each month, and a selection of short essays on plants, gardens, and life in general. August includes a moving account of how the ‘swoony’ perfume of sweet peas helped recover from an operation for cancer, and a discourse on the lengths some gardeners go to in a bid to attract butterflies to their plots. This last seemed a particularly apt choice of reading matter, since I spent a couple of days recently spell-bound by the kaleidoscope of peacocks fluttering around the dreaded buddleias, so maybe I’ll just let them be, because the butterflies are so beautiful.

Karel Capek, writing in The Gardener’s Year back in 1929, informs us that: “August usually is the time when the amateur gardener forsakes his garden of wonder and goes on leave.” He follows this with a detailed description of the many and varied jobs that must be undertaken by the friend of relative who is entrusted with looking after the garden. There is mowing to be done, watering, staking and tying, weeding… and finding suitable spots for the plants gathered by the absent gardener whilst on his holiday, and posted home!

But Capek has serious points to make about our lives. According to him: “All year round is spring, and all through life is youth; there is always something which may flower. One only says that is autumn; we are merely flowering in other ways, we grow beneath the earth; we put forth new shoots, and there is always something to do.”

Capek was a Czech playwright and novelist who, apparently, invented the word robot, and I must read some of his fiction some time. Meanwhile I am enjoying his gardening book immensely. It is easy to read, and is a light-hearted look at gardening, which captures the joys (and the frustrations) of ordinary gardeners, and the little line drawings which are scattered throughout (by Josef Capek, who I assume was a relative), are an absolute delight.

I also took a look at the wonderful Katherine Swift, who I’ve written about before. She is probably my favourite gardening writer. I love her prose style, and the way she mixes information about her garden with thoughts about life, medicine, herbal lore, ancient myths and legends, history, geography, great gardeners of the past and all kinds of other topics. The pieces gathered together in The Morville Year were all originally published in The Times, and are informative and entertaining – a combination which is not always easy to achieve. For August, you’ll find entries about raspberries, climbing plants, summer pruning, dew, the dog days (so called because Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, rises and sets with the sun at this time of year), and bees on lavender.  Did you know the Latin for bumble-bee is bombus? The word, she says,’ perfectly conveys the sound - a deep resonant hum – as well as their bumbling progress from flower to flower’.

She describes six different types of bumble-bee feeding on her lavender, including the wonderfully named little lion-maned Carder bee, and the large red-tailed bumble bee (they have red tails, like foxes, and ‘huge shiny black transparent wings like glossy fifteen-denier stockings’). Unlike honey bees, bumble-bees don’t store honey – the colonies die at the end of the year, apart from the young, mated queens. I’d already decided that I’m planting to attract birds and insects, and after reading this I’m even more determined. How could I resist when there such are wondrous creatures in the world? For next year the buddleias stay, and I’m planting lavenders alongside them, different species to flower from May right through to the autumn frosts. And Swift says if you are trying to encourage bees into a garden it helps if you are not too tidy, and I am certainly not, so I’ve got a head start there!


  1. I used to love reading Anna Pavord's columns -- were they in the Guardian? Can't remember now. Anyway on the subject of buddleias -- I think they will survive whatever you may do to them at any time. I have a monster of my own which I attacked just the other day, though I have left some still flowering branches for myself and the butterflies. I do plan to cut it right down to ground level at the correct time, and I know from experience that it will soon be a monster again.

    1. Thank you Harriet, that's given me a bit of confidence to tackle them. It is a dilemma, because they are so invasive, but they are pretty, and they attract a wealth of wildlife.

  2. Your horrible buddlejas :-) You might deadhead now to prevent the wretched things self seeding all over in the garden. They're especially fond of cracks in paving stones, and hard to get out. Then cut them right down in spring and they'll be eight foot tall again in no time, flowering on new growth.

    Anna Pavord not only writes good gardening books, she's a lovely person.

    1. You and Harriet have helped a lot. I'm all set to deadhead now, and I'll slaughter them in the spring (by which I mean I shall persuade the Man of the House to do all the hard work!). Thank you.