In the eight years we have been here, the landscape has never bleached to this degree. In the most part our West Country moisture has kept the fields green, but the heat and month or more without rain has had its influence. A blond horizon backdrops the garden where the Tump hasn’t re-grown after the hay cut, and the high fields around us throw a September light which, at the beginning of August, has been disorientating.
Past summers have only required me to water once or twice during the season, but this year the new planting has needed it more often and I have worked the beds with a fortnightly drench to encourage the roots down by soaking each pass deeply. The watering has done nothing for the fissures which have opened up in the beds. Some are wide enough to put your hand down to the wrist and have got me thinking that, if I had the time, this would be a perfect way of working a summer injection of humus deep into the ground, if I could feed it into the cracks. It would plug the gaps that sometimes run straight through root balls and help to protect roots which must be feeling the drought more directly for this exposure. Deep in the beds, where the planting is already closed over, they worry me less, but in the new planting where the local microclimate provided by companionship is not quite there, I am seeing the damage.
Those plants that are adapted to a hot, dry summer have shown their roots in simply not flinching and the thistles have been notable. Miss Willmott’s Ghost, the biennial Eryngium giganteum, is luminous in the truest sense of the word. Firing starry outbursts amongst the Bupleurum falcatum the growth is platinum white in bright light. This is only the second or third generation of self-sown seedlings and, so far, the volunteers have not become a problem in the gravel garden. I have had them take over in thin ground, where they have seized a window amongst perennials that have not taken to the conditions as heartily, so we will yet see if they are going to make a takeover in the gravel by the barns. If they do, it will be where the seedlings find their way into the crowns of perennials that are slow off the mark in the spring. Like a wedge splitting a boulder, they can, and do, have their influence in their pioneering nature.
Look closely and the thistles are magnets for wildlife. The hum of the bees on the eryngium is audible long before you see them, and the butterflies are now working the platforms of nectar that are obviously suspended high in the artichokes. We have a variety from Paul Barney of Edulis Nursery called ‘Bere’ and those that escaped the harvest – within a week they are suddenly too tough to eat – are now in flower. Though this year they must be a foot shorter for the drought, they still rise above the trough behind them and draw the eye through the gauziness of the herb garden. They have had no water for they are adapted mediterraneans and follow the rainfall with leaves that flush in the autumn and spring.
Right now, the neon-violet buzz of flower has taken all their energy and we have cleared the lower limbs of old leaves to enjoy this moment and not be distracted by tattered yellowing growth that is obviously no longer necessary. Cynara cardunculus (Scolymus Group) (main image) is spectacular in every way, each plant needing a good square metre to reach up and out. When the flowers dim and I start to see September regrowth at the base I will fell the lot to put the energy into new leaf, rather than it going into seed production, so that we have them during the winter. A mild one will see a mound of new foliage sail through unscathed. A silvery architecture in the bare kitchen garden.
Though I could write at length about the other thistles that I have invited into the garden, the notable one that rises head and shoulders above the rest is Cirsium canum. Stand beside it and this Russian native will dwarf you, literally, the bright violet-pink flowers teetering on tall stalks just out of reach. I suspect, if I had not watered the perennial garden, that the foliage would have burned more than it has, for it is fabulously lush in the first half of the summer. Like a giant awakening, the energy in its new growth is audible in foliage that is shiny and squeaky with life when you corral it into hoops in May to prevent it from toppling. I do not know, if one was to grow it on ground that was less retentive, whether it would be lesser in every way and need less staking. I also don’t know yet if it will be a seeder. Derry Watkins of Special Plants says her plants haven’t seeded. Yet. Just in case, I cut them to the base last year after flowering having been stung previously by Cirsium tuberosum when I was looking for a thistle that would do the same job. I think I will do the same this year if they won’t leave too much of a hole in the garden around them.
Though Cirsium tuberosum is similar in appearance, being more glaucous and less glossy, this Witshire native is, in my opinion, not a plant to be trusted in a garden. Given open ground and a window of opportuntity, it proved itself to be a monster in my stock beds. The wind-blown seed parachuted some distance and, though the seedlings were easy and graphically visible in their lust for life, the unseen few soon wedged their way into the crowns of perennials to send down taproots that were all but impossible to remove and top growth that rejoiced in being alive. When I was preparing the new garden, I jumped my stock plants of them into the rough grass that lines the ditch and here the competition has seen them in check and in balance. Stepping through meadowsweet and willow herb they look good in appropriate company and your eye can travel from the Russians in the garden to the natives in the ditch and be happy, so far, in the knowledge that each has found its place.