Well, actually – this post is mainly about gardens… So, non gardeners, you can log off now. And anyone who has come here to read about my mother’s award winning patio garden, skip the first half of my musings about sedum roofs and move straight on down to ‘dead heading lobelia’….
I spent nine hours yesterday labouring in the garden. Well, I say labouring but it was so enjoyable that is think it scarcely counts as labouring. Enjoyable partly because I always find hacking things back and digging them out very satisfactory – and partly because it was such lovely day that the dreariest labour would have been enjoyable. However, one of the best bits was the hour I spent on the roof of the garden house – see ladder all ready for the ascent – micro weeding.
Most people think I am entirely mad but there is method in my madness.
Although you cannot really see it at the moment as the trees are not yet in leaf, the garden house with its green sedum roof is totally overhung by several large trees. This is completely the wrong place for sedum which is a rock plant and needs to be out in the sun, not shaded by, dripped on and generally overhung by large trees.
And worse, when it was first installed it was irresistibly tempting for the many squirrels who live in our trees. Although they are far too well fed in north London to need to bury nuts, digging is in their DNA and within days of unrolling my sedum onto the roof, the little wretches had gouged great holes in it! The answer turned out to be chicken wire, pegged out across the roof over the sedum so that when they dug they just caught their claws! It took the sedum a while to recover from shock but in due course it did and largely grew through the chicken wire and covered it.
It struggled manfully on for some years but as spring broke upon us three years ago, I thought I should take a closer look at the rather suspiciously large tufts of green on the roof. To my horror, I discovered that there were a great many more assorted weeds growing on my roof than there was sedum. So what’s the problem? They looked green, didn’t they? Yes, they did early in spring but what about in two or three months time? They would have died and what would be left?…. So, I started an intensive sedum regeneration programme. And hence the micro-weeding.
I now spend a couple of hours month sitting on the roof, with my glasses on, combing the sedum for miniature invaders. By now, I am glad to report that these are relatively few and far between. (A visit to the roof on offer to anyone who can tell the weed from the sedum here!!)
Moreover the sedums (both this green one and the even tougher reddy brown one) are looking very health and are spreading nicely. But when I first started they were looking very sad and there was a great deal more bald brown soil than there was sedum.
However, the point about this tale is that sitting on the roof spending an hour doing something as apparently anal as pulling out these tiny weeds, root by root, and putting them neatly into a plastic bag, is extraordinarily relaxing. Beats a yoga session any day! I think it has to do with the minuteness and precision of the task.
I remember that my mother, in her latter years, would spend hours, with a nail scissors, dead-heading lobelia – an anal task if ever there was one – but she maintained that it was extremely soothing. I now know what she means….
In fact, dead-heading lobelia with a nail scissors was only the final move in a very successful 30 year effort to down size her gardening aspirations.
She had started gardening in her early 40s in Jersey – in an acre and a half of garden! This included a very substantial rockery, a lengthy drive to the house lined with flowering cherries underplanted with annuals, a large semi circular lawn bordered by a box hedge, behind which was a 50 yard long, 6 foot deep herbaceous border; an area for growing ‘cutting flowers’ for the house (I remember lots of very spiky gladioli – very Constance Spry!) plus a substantial fruit and vegetable garden. And those are only the bits that I can remember. Just about keeping this all under control was a full time gardener, my nanny (who was a very keen and excellent gardener), my mother and my father. My father, however, maintained that he had done enough digging in the trenches in World War One to last him life time. So he retired to the greenhouse where he happily and sweatily propagated hundreds more plants to fill her bulging borders, but contributed nothing to their maintenance.
She never, as she said, got time to enjoy it. And even when visitors would compliment her on how wonderful it looked – all she could see were the weeds that she had not pulled up, the edges that weren’t trimmed, the plants the need cutting back, the fruit that needed picking….
The next garden was a lot smaller, the next one smaller still and they kept on shrinking until she ended up with a tiny patio no more than 12 feet long and less than 6 feet wide. But into that she managed to squeeze half of Kew Gardens! This was the entrance – the patio was behind the glass and wood screen.
At one point she had at least ten hanging baskets, a climbing rose and several abundant clematis, a super keen jasmine, three urns, a bed with three standard fuchsias, several boxes and an old coal scuttle – all brimming with flowers.
Pipes were concealed behind long bags which were planted with the trailing lobelias which she took such pleasure in dead-heading with her nail scissors. You can see one on the left of this photograph.
(Sadly, her garden pre-dated digital imagery so these scanned prints do not really do justice to the colours.)
She was handicapped by the fact that the patio faced west and was 4 foot below ground level so that it only got direct sun for a few hours a day, the evening sun shining into her flat rather than onto the flowers – but that did not stop her! She became an expert on fuchsias, coleus, begonias and bizzie lizzie all which flourish in shade, concentrating the sun lovers in her luscious baskets.
She travelled for miles around the countryside tracking down little known ferns which would grow through the winter, huge but delicate standard and trailing fuchsias, the latest begonias, the newest miniature trailing plants for her baskets. This was, of course, 30 years ago when hanging baskets had not really come into fashion and there were very few plants grown for them. (She pioneered a planting system by which she poked the little flowers through the bottoms of the baskets so that no scintilla of basket would remain visible! Despite the fact that they were upside down, they did survive and their efforts to right themselves and get to the sun mean that she had wonderfully thick curved flowery bases to her baskets. )
Every spring Sunday morning saw her trailing up and down Columbia Road flower market in the London’s East End, laden with bags and boxes brimming with plants. At one point she colonised much of the mews outside her door but as she got older that became altogether too much and she focused on the more immediate tasks in the patio. However, back to my point…..
In the last few years of her life my mother suffered from bad osteoarthritis which prevented her doing almost everything that she enjoyed. She found this extremely frustrating and depressing. Which this is where the lobelia came into their own.
Even though I now did most of the buying of the flowers and their planting out, she could still look after them. To keep everything in full flower in such a tiny area needed constant attention. So she could fill her days – and enjoy them – talking to her flowers, adjusting them, feeding them – and dead heading them. And the longer it took – and dead-heading lobelia with a nail scissors is no quick job – the happier and less stressed she was!
I am not suggesting that everyone should take to dead heading lobelia or micro-weeding sedum – but I am sure you get my general drift….