For half of the time since I last wrote I have not been tending my own garden because I have been able to take advantage of the gradual easing of Covid restrictions and my wife and I have been away for two weeks with our caravan just outside Chichester. It is a lovely area combining the attractions of the shoreline around Chichester Harbour and the beautiful South Downs centring on Midhurst …
For the last fifteen months my own garden has been a great solace throughout the difficulties caused by Covid but, now, I was able to savour the delights of visiting other people’s gardens and the Chichester area provides plenty of opportunities for doing this. Probably the best-known in the gardening world is West Dean near Midhurst. It is the home of West Dean College of arts and conservation which provides short courses on a wide variety of subjects and the gardens have been developed not only as a place of great beauty but as a superb example of a wide range of gardening techniques.
The centrepiece of West Dean is a walled garden with a fascinating range of techniques for training fruit trees, a number of glasshouses and cold frames demonstrating the many ways in which glass protection and heating vastly extend the range and time-scale of what you can grow in the open air. Within the walled garden there is also a lot of space for vegetables, cut flowers and herbaceous borders. Beyond the walled garden there is a famous rose and wisteria pergola, a sunken garden and a big, wilder but still well-cultivated, area exploiting the use of water from the stream running through the garden. There are wide lawns and everything blends beautifully with the surrounding parkland and the wider downland scenery. The standard of cultivation is, everywhere, exemplary. There is a very good restaurant and plants for sale.
A lesser known, but very beautiful garden also near Midhurst is Woolbeding (West Sussex) owned by the National Trust. Again, the setting is the parkland of a large country house, bordered by the river Rother and containing two well separated and very different cultivated gardens. The first is a formal garden with a magnificent herbaceous border and a number of different ‘rooms’ separated by manicured yew hedges. Here, as at West Dean, the water in the area has been exploited and, in a fine contrast to the formal garden, there is dramatic gothic landscape dominated by Neptune in his watery grotto.
Very close to West Dean is the Weald and Downland museum now well-known to TV viewers as the home of ‘The Repair Shop’. The museum presents a large collection of rural buildings and artefacts moved from all over the Weald and South Downs and rebuilt on a 43 acre site to demonstrate the history and crafts of the area. Many of the houses have cottage gardens where there is particular interest in the variety of herbs grown for culinary and healing purposes.. The Repair Shop is out of bounds but can be seen fairly close up, sometimes with filming in progress.
Returning to my own garden I find that the frequent rain in May has transformed the rather lack-lustre look created by the drought and cold in April into a vibrant green and things are growing at last in spite of the continuing cold.
If you haven’t yet managed it there is still time to buy bedding plants for containers or to fill gaps in borders. Keep feeding container grown plants with liquid feed like seaweed, tomato fertiliser or Miracle-Gro. When planting hanging baskets, mix the compost with some water-retaining gel. Flowering shrubs like camellias and clematis will also do much better with frequent feeding. Dead-heading can take a lot of time but it is well worth it to prolong flowering and prolific self–seeders like love-in–the–mist need flower heads cut off before making seed if you want to stop them becoming rampant. Containers and hanging baskets need frequent watering whether or not it rains and watering is also particularly important for roses, soft fruit, beans and sweet corn. Cut grass fairly high rather than shaving it and keep lawn edges trimmed. When the foliage of spring bulbs growing in grass has died down the grass can be safely cut.
Keep going with successional sowing of lettuce, radish and other salad crops and keep watching tomatoes other than the bush varieties to nip off side shoots. Biennials like wallflowers and foxgloves can be sown now to flower next year as can many perennial flowers. Take cuttings from perennial wallflowers and grow them on under glass as a precaution against existing plants being killed off by frost