When we arrived here, we took back some of the field to make a trial garden. It was workmanlike in its layout, with dirt paths between manageably sized beds and functioned as a test ground to see what the conditions here were capable of. We grew a range of perennials to see what would feel right and do well on our south-facing slopes as well as vegetables and flowers for cutting for immediate rewards in that first exciting growing season.
The annuals were the immediate litmus, rearing out of virgin ground where they were bathed in sunshine. The response was immediate and immediately rewarding, the cabbages bulking up to a couple of feet across and letting us know exactly why this had once been a market garden and that, yes, it was right to turn field back to garden. For fun, and as a celebration of this new space, we planted a bed of five or six types of sunflower. They grew like you remember things growing as a child, the seedlings popping through the newly turned dirt and not looking back as they raced skyward. I hadn’t seen growth like it and before long they were standing literally twice as tall as me and rejoicing as we were in this wonderful new ground.
We picked them by the bucket and took vigorous bunches back to the studio in London to tide us over during the week and stop us pining for the hillside. They kept us going through July and were at their peak in August, reminding me by the end of the month of that back to school feeling. The time of the year when the summer is nearly done, but still caught in their energy.
In September we let them form seed and those that didn’t get ravaged by an October storm stood blackened by frost, the seed cases scattered at their feet where the birds had feasted. Seedlings returned in the garden and I left them where I could work around them in the following years, but when we developed the kitchen garden to the east of the house and then the perennial garden to the west, they temporarily lost their home.
Last year’s response to the pandemic saw us putting up a polytunnel so that we could extend our season of growing to eat. This year I extended a new growing area around it to make an area for continued trials and a spill over for vegetables that need more space. Potatoes were planted to ‘clean’ the ground in this first year of transition from pasture and to repeat the experiments from our first years here we planted a new bed of dahlias, annuals for cutting and sunflowers. It has been so very good to have them back and in generous amount, once again letting us know that, yes, this is a good place for growing.
We have three varieties of Helianthus annuus that have done splendidly. ‘Lemon Queen’, ‘Velvet Queen’ and ‘Chocolate Cherry’. This will be the last year though that we grow ‘Italian White’, a more demure variety that has proven once again to be a shadow of its cousins. Perhaps it is my own experience and I have been unlucky, but every time it germinates poorly and then limps through life. Shy is appealing sometimes, but when you have such boisterous cousins that literally throw you into shade, it makes comparison difficult.
As a complement and for the saturation of pure orange, the Mexican Sunflower, Tithonia rotundifolia, has been easy and rewarding. Grown from seed sown inside and planted out after frost, we have combined it with lime green Nictotiana langsdorfii. The new ground is here to spur ideas and a few plants, the Tithonia included, have already found their way into the perennial garden to punch some late indelible colour. Annuals are good for that, taking this month as their own with no apologies and covering for anything that tends to that back to school feeling.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 21 August 2021