Over Christmas I was telling someone about my 2.5 metre high stocks. "Stocks?" they said, a strange look on their face. "Yeah! Over two metres tall!" I thought they really must be super-plants, judging by people's reactions.
The first day back, after ten days away, was a bit of a shock. The regular rain had ceased just days before we left and the countryside around was a lovely beige colour. But a look at the garden revealed that dozens of plants in the rockery and in other gardens had died or burnt off. The delphiniums had finished and looked awful. Just about the whole garden looked awful, washed out, tatty and unloved.
So came to an end my pre-Xmas experimentation in drought strengthening of the garden. It hadn't been all bad. Just before we went away, the rockery had gained a kind of roadside wildflower charm, with lupins in the background, and a band of godetia sprawled through the middle.
I was a little disappointed however, that all the January visitors have come to the garden when it's looking shabby.
June, who arrived the day we got home, took the garden tour, which is currently featuring the giant stocks.
"They're hollyhocks," she said.
The biggest hollyhock, at least, was in its prime. About three metres tall, beautiful crimson rosettes, like silken crepe paper, an exquisite kind of newborn-damp delicacy. Next to it, a beautiful garnet one, almost as tall. She gave the hollyhocks first prize.
The swan plant, on which had hatched dozens of yellow-and-black-striped monarch caterpillars, had no leaves left, all of them eaten, and the caterpillars were either building their gold jewelled, pale-jade cocoons, (even caterpillars which were still half the full-grown size), or hotfooting it off in all directions, in search of more food. Following June's advice, we put slices of pumpkin on the ground and herded the refugees to them, and in the following days, they seemed quite happy to sit on them, munching and dozing.
Now, two weeks later, several perfect butterflies have emerged, big ones and little ones, and fluttered off to their new adventures, and a number of cocoons are darkening, the transformation still in progress.
A new busy-ness has come to Tapanui Downs. Subject to a state-standard water supply being installed, Timothy's family will become the new owners, and they have wasted no time in beginning the face-lift, starting with a five day working bee. Old bits of cars and machinery which have been rusting just out of sight behind walls and in corners for nigh on twenty years have gone, so has all manner of debris from fallen branches and general scattered junk from generations of rubbish dumping. Even the thistles have gone.
There are plans to paint the house, even put in French doors, open up interior spaces and add some metropolitan style. An architect is being consulted.
After three years of ignoring the garden in favour of the great outdoors beyond the gate, Francis has become interested, and aided by a new stash of tools left behind after the working bee, has cut back the privet hedge by two-thirds. This, combined with the clearing of some scraggy bits of wasteland, trimming of some overgrown trees, and chopping down of a raggedy river poplar (one of many springing up by themselves round here) has released a huge amount of light into otherwise forgotten corners.
If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't have believed it, all that new light and space created, and not without one leaf of the flowering cherry being lost.
All this inspired me to take the secateurs to parts of the flower garden, cutting away dead bits, and chopping back the delphiniums and aquilegias and anything else which looked like it would spring back to new life, aided by light and water.
The delphiniums had not been looking good, but I'd been waiting for their seeds to dry before I cut them back, and now they have been scattered far and wide, with a proportion saved for my next garden.
In the week since, new growth has been leaping forth, promising a second spring before the winter. The rockery, aided by an updated watering system, is turning green again, and new little blossoms are popping up. This garden is also benefiting from the privet being chopped back, although I wonder how it will feel having a new exposure to the wind.
I read this article about getting in tune with your plants by talking to them, which to me, revealed a whole new world of potential. I tried by talking to my favourite rose, which at its best has big crimson red blooms - velvety bunches of petals which hide their golden centres, and have a smell that is pure rose. It's leaves are as beautiful, a mossy matt green with an air of burnished bronze about them.
This poor rose has been having a struggle and after the first flush of spring, succumbs to diseases and the heat. At its base it is a thick old trunk with several dead limbs which were too big for the secateurs. The second round of blooms are quite different, almost without smell, cerise, with fewer petals, and opened out to reveal the golden center.
I asked it what it needed, to hear what would happen, and in my mind got a petulant reply. The voice was whiny and embittered, quite negative and not very polite. Something like, "well, you could try giving me some water for starters, and a bit of food wouldn't go astray. And I can't breathe because this hedge is suffocating me!"
Sure, I thought. If plants could talk they wouldn't be so ignoble. But I gave it the benefit of the doubt, thinking maybe plants are a bit like humans who go sour from years of neglect. I didn't have the tools needed to cut back the privet, but I gave it some water and food, and next day, it was noticeably happier.
That was a year ago. The other day I showed Timothy's mother, and she told me we could cut it right back, almost to the base, but suggested I take some cuttings first, just in case. That hasn't happened yet, but Francis has opened up the air around it, taking three foot off the privet and trimming back the neighbouring shrub. Once again it responded immediately looking like a new rose within days. I have also given it a good watering and a feed of the most delicious looking earth with the texture of peat that we found under a pile of old conifer branches from a small snow crushed tree we removed three years ago. I mixed this lovely looking earth with some of Lucy's compost and some dry old chook droppings, and spread it round the base of the rose.
I love the colour of the paddocks at the moment - a buttery gold - and every time I look at them or the roadside wildflowers, it reminds me of embroidery cotton, and it makes me want to make a huge medieval style wall tapestry.
Despite this high-summer gold, there continues to be a surprisingly high amount of rain, and the front lawn is unseasonably green. Timothy says one day its going to be an all year round green lawn. There's going to be sprinklers all over the place. That's presuming there's enough water to go round, I suppose, - and that he wants to mow the lawns for four hours every week - and that there's an operative lawn mower. At the moment there are two broken ones.
The vegetable garden has had very little attention this summer and at the moment, there is nothing to harvest except herbs. That's not to say it isn't bountiful. I could supply half the country with seeds at the moment - celery and dill. Well dill, anyway. Today I chopped back the celery to see if there was such a thing as a resprouting celery, and the barrow-load of cuttings is on the compost heap, ready to be turned into nutrients for the garden. I'm not too worried that the garden hasn't been very productive from a dinner table point of view, because at least we know it's feeding the earth.
The three compost heaps nearest the house are full of woody debris cleared up by Timothy and his parents. "You should have a good heap of soil there by the year 2010," I told him. Every morning after I've fed the chooks, I fill up the chook bucket with water and dump it on the compost heap in question because I imagine that water will help speed up the process.
We've refined the recycling system. Instead of all the food scraps going to the chooks, we're separating out the edible stuff from the rest, so that now we have a bucket destined for the compost heap as well.
Which reminds me, the mice and rats have reappeared lately. Not in the house, but as bedraggled dead bodies on the lawn, presumably left there by Kitty. The obvious reason for their reappearance was the food scraps on the compost heap, but today I discovered another - the first harvest of apples, fallen off the trees out the back.
I was looking out the window the other day, watching Kitty inspecting a rat which she'd half eaten the night before, when I saw this dark shadow slide across the lawn, like a cloud across the sun. Kitty saw it too, and cowered. It was a huge, low flying hawk, the closest to the house I've ever seen one come. That could be another reason the rat and mice population is low - the hawks have to hunt something other than rabbits, now that the rabbits have been decimated by RCD. Mind you, rabbits are another thing Kitty has been bringing home, so there must be a few of them around.
I was collecting the apples, which are not great for eating, as a contrasting ingredient for the woody compost, but now they are cleaned up before they hit the ground by the neighbouring sheep.
The moment I feel stressed out about anything, I get my trowel and secateurs and potter in the garden for ten minutes. This way I manage to get in a bit of gardening here and there, and usually a few hours at the weekend, but it's never enough. This week I've been working my way around the vegetable garden behind the house, the one full of seeding plants and tomatoes. Yesterday, I found a patch of Timothy's wild white strawberries, which were loaded with big, juicy ripe fruit. When I say big, I mean big compared to the white strawberries we've had so far this year. On the whole, they are smaller than the red ones, and many ripen at about the size of large pea. Anyway, this was a good find, because none of the other strawberry patches are fruiting at the moment. Patrick and I ate them on the spot, for they couldn't have tasted better any other way.
On Sunday, I staked up my special tomato plant, the one that doesn't look like anything we've planted but may be the result of a cross-pollination, or perhaps a reverting hybrid. I read somewhere that seeds from hybrids were no good because the resultant plant may look good and taste horrible, or in some other way lose its intended properties. However, I can't help feeling that locked away in the genetic memory of these human concoctions might be a priceless lost primitive. This may have nothing to do with scientific veracity, but nevertheless, it inspires me.
The special tomato is giving a steady harvest of fruit, which tend to get picked the moment they ripen. I gave it a good soak along with a feed of Lucy's compost. That garden has barely been watered all summer, and it seems to have survived quite well.
Actually, I am now being a bit more generous with the water, within the limitations of our water supply, to see what, if anything, this will do to the plants. I suppose I know it will make everything look perennially spring like, or lush and tropical - especially if it was applied to the whole garden including the lawn (which it won't be). I also wonder things like whether less watering creates more colour variation on stems and leaves, or if more water creates more and better fruit, or if less water creates sweeter more concentrated flavours. I suppose it does make a difference, because seasonal variations affect the quality of wine.
I'm thinking about sweet and concentrated flavours because today the first of the Italian tomatoes were ripe enough to pick and I have to say they were the sweetest large tomato I have ever tasted. That was their defining characteristic. They weren't pretty and petite like the special tomato, which for lack of a better name I should call The Special Tomato. They are kind of big, ungainly and misshapen.
I think that means we've got four varieties of tomato this year - the Special, the super-spreading pea sized tomato which would take over the whole garden if it could, last years' standard seed packet variety which self-seeded and came up all over the place this year (producing a nice round average tomato, the first of which I picked the other day) and the Italian WWII tomato. I can see why Timothy's uncle bought it all the way back after the war.
This is a sweet time, tomato-wise, in more ways than one. At the moment, when we want a tomato, we can pop outside, pick it and have a moments pleasure. In a few weeks, however, if not sooner, we'll be inundated with them, like a tidal wave of tomato sauce coursing from a burst dam.
In the past couple of years, this tide of tomatoes has meant I haven't wanted to eat them for another six months, but I don't mind the boom and bust approach to life. If I can only eat something in season, then I really enjoy it
Of course there are time honoured ways of preventing waste and spreading the bounty of one season over several months.
You can give them away, which is a beautiful idea unless everyone else is reaping a great harvest as well.
You can preserve them. This is another beautiful idea, but one I haven't mastered yet. It's a shame too, because I was in one sense, born to be a great preserver. But I am usually too overwhelmed by all the things that need to be preserved all on the same day. Combined with an inadequate scales and a too small preserving pot, I just can't do justice to the season's bounty.
As mentioned earlier, Timothy's interest in tomatoes begins to fade out at harvest time. He's not the type to do something 'cause it needs to be done, only because he wants to. He likes to smoke the fish he catches. He likes to roast the wild chamois. In fact he has more finesse in the kitchen than any of us. But he doesn't do preserving.
Last year, I did give it a good try, but the results were pretty pathetic really. I made quince conserve, but the first batch was overcooked, and the quarters of quince ended up like leather (not the edible kind). The second batch of quince was better, cooked for a shorter time and cut up more finely, but the small size of the preserving pot and the novelty of home-made jam meant the batch was gone in a week. The apricot and apple jam tasted nice, even though slightly caramelised, but I got very suspicious of it, wondering whether there was enough acid to keep it safe given our dodgey scales. The crab-apple jelly I made was the most beautiful, all 250g of it.
I made two good bottles of tomato sauce (made with Indian spices) and they would have to have been my major success. They lasted all of three days.
This year, the most realistic option for us is freezing. Now that I know you can freeze tomatoes whole, that is what I will do this year, and then we can use them when we need them.
We have a little coterie of monarchs which seem to spend their entire lives flying in figure eights between the vegetable garden and the swan plant. They seem to come together in threes, and after a moment of excitement disband and then regroup, all the while doing their figure eights back and forth.
Their eggs have become caterpillars and are now in their chrysalises. There were way too many caterpillars for the size of the swan plant. I tried to boost it with water and compost but even by later that day, many of the caterpillars were much bigger, and there was little food left. It was only a matter of hours before they were leaving in droves, heading off across the garden, I suppose in search of more food or a place to hang for their transformation. They were taking off across the footpath which was like a dangerous highway, and I found one or two died that way. Whenever I passed a pilgrim, I'd pick it up and shift it across to the safety of grass and bushes. I don't know where they went after that, but some may have hitched themselves to a nearby leaf and started turning. Patrick got the spirit and was seen escorting a caterpillar clinging to a stick.
The problem is, there is plainly not enough food to support the local population as it is now, without a rapid multiplication in numbers. Do we step in or let nature do its thing? Timothy wanted to squash eggs at the beginning. I was in favour of leaving them. Perhaps those that were not the full size by the time the food ran out will not survive anyway. Some, judging on past generations, will not make it beyond the chrysalis stage. Which is preferable to a caterpillar - to be squashed or to take your chances with nature?
Francis continues his new relationship with the garden by creating new views, light and space. The other day he revved up his chainsaw and sliced off the seven-foot high, three foot thick wall of lilac and honeysuckle which creates a small enclosed space by the kitchen door. Then he tied it up with a thick piece of rope attached to the car towbar, and hauled it away. I expected dozens of little hedge-dwelling animals to come scurrying out. I always thought it would make a good place for a ground-nest. But actually, there was no sign of anything. Patrick helped, using his toy chainsaw, being at present very interested in anything chainsaws can do.
Originally, I didn't want the lilac and honeysuckle hedge to go, but Francis said the honeysuckle was strangling the wintersweet while the lilac was fast-growing, and there were still several other lilac bushes about. His idea was to open up the view from the lounge to the grapevine. He pictured the grapevine, which currently straddles a horizontal fence, being trained to grow over an archway, through which one would walk to the sheltered garden between the privet hedge and the cherry dell.
Monica's discoveries are the musings of an amateur gardener and should not be taken as serious gardening advice.