“The forget-me-nots are holding the garden together at this time of year,” said Head Gardener Fiona, when I joined her in the walled garden at Charleston farmhouse in East Sussex yesterday, where I volunteer one day a week.
After two weeks off for the Easter holidays, it seemed to me that an awful lot is starting to happen in the garden now. Not least the tulips which have popped up everywhere – sometimes in unintended colour combinations such as hot pink and red.
But it is true that the Myosotis are the star of the garden at the moment, seen above with a beautiful, but unexpected peachy, coral tulip, and below in the vegetable garden.
I started the day with a mistake. Fiona asked me to weed out the pesky annuals hairy bittercress and sticky willow. I decided to get rid of some of the ground elder at the same time, and then my automatic brain took over and I started digging up Japanese anemones as well as the ground elder. In our old garden this was an enemy and I spent many hours digging it out, although now I rather like it – the white variety at least. When Fiona spotted what I was doing I had to hastily replant it. Fortunately there is plenty of anemone to go round at Charleston, but I felt an idiot.
So I moved on instead to planting out sweet pea seedlings. Fiona has sown varieties that would have been around in the 1930s and 40s, including ‘Blue Ensign’ and the evocatively named ‘Air Warden’. I have not seen these clever seed capsules before, that come apart easily, allowing you to transplant seedlings without disturbing the roots.
In the afternoon we stopped for a real treat: Richard and Hazel Ramsey had come over from their West Sussex dahlia farm Withypitts to advise Fiona on growing heritage dahlias, and I was allowed to listen in. They told us that the key to storing tubers over winter is to make sure they are fully dried out – it is a good idea to turn them upside down for a few days first – then pack them in a dry material and store them somewhere not too warm, but not too cold: 4-6C is ideal. If they get close to freezing they will turn to mush and if they get too warm, they will shrivel up. Apparently in a wine cellar underneath a couple of oriental carpets is ideal, if you have such things.
We sat in the sunshine (and breeze!) on the piazza, with the little fountain trickling in the background. Here it is for anyone in need of a moment of calm:
They talked us through some of the varieties that might have been grown at the time when the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were creating their garden at Charleston. Many of these varieties are no longer available, but there are more modern cultivars which might be able to stand in for them. One or two can still be found with individual growers or the National Collection. I particularly like the sound of Arabian Night, which Richard remembers growing in the nursery when he was a child. Withypitts supply some of the top florists in London and Edinburgh and they specialise in growing slightly larger than life blooms.
While we were talking, a female duck who had laid her eggs in the walled garden flapped past us noisily. It turned out that her ducklings had hatched and were swimming in the little pond on the lawn. You can see them in the top right hand corner of the pond, with mother duck standing guard over them.