Monarda 'Cambridge Scarlet'

Above: Monarda 'Cambridge Scarlet'

Garden diary: July

6 August 2003 - Garden blooms under August heatwave

We've had a proper summer this year, like the ones I think we had in my childhood, the ones I remember through the usual rosy nostalgic glow, which never includes rain. I'm sure I'm not alone in remembering school summer holidays as being one long sunny interval between one school year and the next, with lots of running about happily in each other's gardens, getting shouted at by irate dads for kicking a football into prized rose bushes.

When we kicked a football into rose bushes, we could generally find it again. When some young people were playing football in the street here, and came knocking on the door asking for their ball back, we spent ages looking in the tangled growth that is my garden in summer, and found nothing. They assured me it was in the bushes on the boundary, the Forsythia shrubs that are between my garden and the street. It took many attempts, including climbing up ladders and viewing from various angles, to locate the ball, which was wedged in the upper growth on the pavement side.

"Him indoors" heroically agreed to do some pruning out there, as I realised that the boundary shrubs were now so thick that not only could you easily lose a football in there, but probably a whole football team.

Aside from the matted chaos of the growth on the garden wall, there's general abundance of growth everywhere, all looking rather wilted in the heat. Last night I watered everything thoroughly with the hosepipe, but this afternoon it was bone dry again. We're in the middle of a heatwave - but I'm not complaining. This is what summer should be like. I love it. Everything is so much easier, somehow, as long as you remember to slow down.

The heat is presumably what has caused the sudden appearance of algae in the garden pond, which had just begun to look clear. After fishing some out, I realised that my oxygenating plant, bought as a few strands from the local garden centre a few months ago, had grown like crazy and was threatening to take over not only the pond, but possibly the whole world. I fished out great handfuls of it, and returned a more sensible amount to the pond, after removing as much of the stringy green algae as I could.

To one side of the small pond is Woodland Corner, now all green, its flowering time being mainly springtime before the leaves are on the trees. Here the dicentras and ferns and ivy and hellebores all grapple for space, forming a mat of foliage alongside the bark-chipping path, which is just visible still, after I trimmed back some of the more exuberant leaves from either side. This shady corner is welcome in the kind of heat we've been having. Above, on the apple tree, good-sized cooking apples are forming, this year's crop.

Moving slightly to the right (for, despite the impression this site might give, this really is, I have to stress, a small garden) the more open parts of the garden host a tangle of various summer blooms. The sweet peas are prolific, now having reached the top of the cane supports provided, and flopping around sending up bloom after bloom, apparently oblivious to the powdery mildew that has covered the lower stems. Dahlia "Bishop of Llandaff" is the star of the garden now - two plants having spread to provide an impressive display of dark foliage topped by the truest red blooms. The plants have grown taller than I imagined, and should have been supported more effectively by stakes and string, but somehow I forgot to check the situation after the initial rather diddy stakes, so "The Bishop" has just done its thing and flopped its foliage rather extravagantly about the place.

Daylilies and anthemis and heleniums grapple with each other in the other flowerbed, below the fading crocosmias. Though the flowers of the Crocosmia "Lucifer" fade, their tall flower stems retain the developing seedheads, still green. Statuesque plants still, despite having dropped their blooms. Possibly more striking, even, than when they were in flower. A reassuring thought for those of us who are past the first flush of youthful bloom ourselves . . .

Wildlife sharing garden and house

For the last week or two I've been, most of the time, viewing the garden from a different angle - from an upstairs window. This is a good view in that the distance means the mildew isn't visible. By this time of year mildew affects certain plants, and makes them look rather sickly: the Clematis 'Jackmanii', the sweet peas and the newer growth of the rose Mme Alfred Carriere always succumb. I always wonder if I should have done something, but as this is a chemical-free garden, options are limited. I'm also lazy, which further limits options.

I've been viewing it all from an upstairs window while refurbishing the windows themselves - fine old timber sashes that are original to this Victorian house. The bottom half of both of the bathroom windows are no longer original - they're replacements, made by a local joiner, after the others were found to be rotten and beyond saving. These new timber sashes, once in place, made me realise just how paint-caked and decrepit the other parts of the windows were. They also made me realise that sash windows are supposed to be balanced by lead weights and not propped open by bits of wood. Our new sashes now actually stay open at any position you want! As it's summer, the windows are open all the time, but I think even if it was January I'd be opening them, just for the novelty of having windows that work properly.

I know this is a website about a garden, but the garden is wrapped around the back of a house, and the house is where I am most of the time when I see the garden, and when I see the garden from the house I'm looking through the windows. So they're important. Particularly these ones, which are in our newly-enlarged bathroom (still not plumbed in with a new bath and shower, but a plumber's quote is eagerly awaited).

The other thing about this house attached to the garden I've written about so much is that inevitably the wildlife out there sometimes ends up in here. Most obviously birds. After last summer's encounter with a swift in the front bedroom, this summer has seen a young sparrow accidentally find its way in through an open window, and most recently, a blue tit in the bathroom.

When we took out the old fittings, the removal of a water tank left a small hole in the external wall, where the overflow had been. I did joke at the time that we should fill the hole as not only was the outside world visible through it and it might get a bit draughty, but a bird might nest in it. Then as it's been a warm and pleasant summer, and no draught came through to remind us of the hole, we forgot all about it. Until one morning this week when I got up to find a blue tit flapping about in the bathroom, trying to get out of the (closed) window. It is rather alarming to have a bird trapped in a room with you, but particularly, I find, for someone like me who's not a morning person and needs food and cups of tea before dealing with anything difficult. Obviously I shouted for my other half, in an over-dramatic and panicky kind of way, thereby interrupting his "alarm clock's gone off but I'll have five minutes extra" part of the morning.

It was easy to get the panicky bird out of the room away from panicky me, and indeed I could have done it without waking A. from his slumbers, as it involved only opening the (now properly weighted and properly glazed) window. The bird flew off into the apple tree, looking visibly shocked at the state of our decrepit bathroom, and no doubt telling all the other birds around - "it might be a jungly mess out here, but you should see it in there! Holes in the walls and everything! Nice windows though."

Despite being alarmed at a bird flapping about in the bathroom, I wasn't surprised that it was a blue tit. Indeed, I'd almost expected that if any bird investigated the hole in the wall, it would be a blue tit, because from my reading I knew that blue tits have a thing about holes in trees. In an urban environment I guessed that a small hole in a brick wall would be equally explorable.

It must have been very odd though for this little bird, exploring this small hole in our brickwork, to suddenly find itself on the other side in a scenario akin to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, where what seemed small suddenly opened out into a huge big world - though in this case populated by nothing more glamorous than bits of old woodwork, dismantled immersion heaters and bottles of shampoo.

Meanwhile, downstairs, also this week, we found a tiny froglet in the corner of the kitchen. We have no idea how it got there, or why it wanted to come in. It was also safely escorted to the outside world it no doubt prefers, back in the garden.

As I haven't written reports for some weeks, I haven't told you about the froglets. After the worries about the frogspawn in the pond being rather late in developing, I went into the garden one day to find tiny things moving all over the mini-lawn, which on closer inspection were newly-wandering frogs, all hiding in the grass. A couple of these small but perfectly-formed creatures had been seen previously hiding under a rock, when I was tidying near the pond, but a mass exodus had obviously occurred since.

It was amazing to see these perfect miniatures of the fully-grown frogs I'm so used to seeing now in the garden pond. I hadn't realised until I saw them in my own garden (rather than seeing photos on the web) just how tiny the frogs are at this stage. I picked one up today, to move it out of danger when I needed to sit on the garden chair on the grass, and it was only about a centimetre long, a smaller version of the larger frogs that emerge from the foliage around the pond most sunny afternoons.

Every summer it seems there's at least one unusual, one-off visit. One summer it was a bee-swarm. Last year a bullfinch appeared, only once, on the trellis by our kitchen window. This year, it was a large insect.

I wasn't pleased, initially, when a large flappy-winged thing landed on my t-shirt while I was having a tea-break, sitting in the garden. Indeed it made me scream in a girly kind of way and jump up from my chair. This fluttering thing was the size of a small bird, and came out of nowhere, landing on my arm.

After initial panic, being out of my chair, I noticed that the thing had settled on the plants nearby. It was, I could see, some kind of dragonfly. Not blue, like the ones I'd seen before, but brown, with white markings. An amazing creature, its wings, golden-brown complex structures reflecting light, its mouthparts visibly moving. Bigger and more intricate than any insect I've seen before in the garden, and presumably attracted by the pond. It didn't stay long though, moving off onto foliage on the wall, and then away from the garden altogether. Identified, later, as probably a Brown Hawker.

The photo below, of the creature resting on a sweet pea plant, isn't brilliant quality, but the best I could do while balancing precariously in the flowerbed.

Dragonfly - possibly a Brown Hawker? - August 2003

Back to August highlights and diaries



Above: Heliotropium

Garden diary: September