Monthly Garden Update: April
In the latest instalment of our new monthly garden updates, Garden Manager Andrew Bentley tells us about the latest exciting developments in the gardens as spring comes to Chawton House Library.
“Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England – now!”
‘Home – Thoughts, from Abroad’ (1845), Robert Browning
I love this poem by Browning, one of our great poets who had a very intimate understanding of the natural world. It captures the sense of being caught unawares by the sudden change in nature during this key month of transformation. It is a time when many gardeners, young and old, can be tricked into thinking winter is long behind and summer is but a breath away, and we can confidently sow seeds into the soil without a care. But as I write this in the last few days of April, I myself was amazed to look out of my window in Winchester only two days ago to witness a heavy snow fall which briefly settled on my lawn. This after a day of seed sowing at work with all the brazen abandon of working without the need for a scarf!
The New Polytunnel
Our polytunnel that we erected last autumn is proving to be worth all the blood (literally!) sweat and tears we shed building it over a long week I won’t forget in a hurry. It is now a hive of young plant activity with rows and rows of seed trays and small pots nurturing hundreds of seedlings of so many varieties of plants: Rudbeckia, Nicotiana, Gypsophila, Cardoons, Cosmos, Zinnia… the list goes on. Many of these plants will be sold on my newly installed plant stall in the courtyard – complete with honesty box for payment because we trust our lovely visitors! Some of these plants will inevitably find their way into our garden somewhere as I’m very paternal about my charges and can’t stand to wave goodbye to them all…
The Walled Garden
The walled garden is doing exactly what it was designed for (by Edward, Jane Austens’ brother) – to shelter plants from cold winds, act as a suntrap and protect from grazing pests. The result of this is good strong early development of all the plants. We have Honesty and Wallflowers that have been flowering for weeks, and the Geraniums and Alliums are just about ready to put on a show too. Flanking our central path we have a number of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ Roses that have grown into wonderful bushes softening the hard landscaping and they have lots of buds ready to put on a display in a few weeks. The flowers are a beautiful pale blush peach with a rich aroma… I can’t wait!
In our central borders I permit one ‘weed’ to grow – Garlic Mustard. It is a wild plant, the only member of the cabbage family (of which there are around 2000 species) that smells and tastes of garlic. Its pretty white flowers are going over now and it develops long, very slender seed pods. Because of these pods, it is a host plant to the Orange tip butterfly, which lays its eggs on the plant and the caterpillars look just like the pods, thereby camouflaging them from predators! Nature is amazing.
Our Flowering Judas Tree
Talking of amazing, our Judas tree is now flowering. This might not sound special but… it is flowering directly out of the trunk as well as on the branches! The trunk literally has patches of flowers growing out of it – no stems, twigs, branches and so on. There is a botanical term for this – cauliflory – which comes from the Latin words caulis (trunk or woody stem) and floris (flower). It is an evolutionary strategy by a group of plants to ensure pollination or seed dispersal by animals that cannot fly or climb well to reach the higher tree canopy. Yes indeed, nature is amazing and that is why I love my work…