Summer Gardening Advice – The Colour Green
The Colour Green
by Barney Bardsley
The colour of the moment at Chelsea Flower Show this year was… wait for it… green! Original, ain’t it? But how refreshing. After years of decking, fancy hard landscaping and “concepts”, lurid purples and clashing colour schemes – at last we have fallen to earth. Back to brown dirt and green leaves. This is just as well, since the persistent cool and damp and cloudy days up North during May, June and July held back a lot of summer flowers and vegetables. One constant, amidst an increasingly mercurial weather pattern, with sudden cold snaps which could wither tender flower heads and fruits, even in the bud, was the sturdy background sculpture of leaf and stem. Fat green onion tops and the tangled mess of pea and broad bean on the allotment; sword sharp phormium and shimmery bamboo in the garden. A soothing green balm: as natural as breathing out.
So summer is at its peak. The solstice of June is already a wet and distant memory. Stonehenge was rained off (which did not stop the wondrous hoards of hippies and druids gathering at dawn); Glastonbury had bursts of unexpected sunshine. Hip hop moved the masses and Michael Eavis reigns victorious. Even Wimbledon had a mini heatwave, before the inevitable showers and thunder made that stonking men’s final even more thrilling and unpredictable. As July marches inexorably into August and beyond, the weather continues to be wobbly – sometimes even downright spiteful – but at least we have avoided the relentless horror of last year’s floods and disasters.
“The bigger the sprawl, the better”
From time to time I have even been able to sit at my rickety picnic table outside the kitchen window and eat breakfast, while birds in varying shades of speckled brown (Sparrows? Dunnocks? Wrens? Quick, call Bill Oddie) quarrel noisily over their morning feed. Sitting and eating outside is joy, pure and simple. Everything tastes better in the open air.
What do I love most about summer? Its sheer reckless profligacy. No matter how neglected my garden might be, in the headlong rush of daily life, and how changeable the weather, it still produces treasure on an almost daily basis, in this season of bountiful returns. Outside my back door there are salads, peas, strawberries, raspberries and herbs galore, all happy in pots and grow bags. There are tomatoes too – but they are sulking for lack of sun early on. In the borders the hollyhocks are fat and tall, the roses keep on coming – so does the bramble and bindweed. Beware the tidy garden: the bigger the sprawl the better.
“Best grown in window boxes”
Meanwhile, up at my allotment, the cabbages are fattening up nicely for slaughter; there are apples on my tiny tree and the plum has fruited for the first time in its young life. The herbs (more of them!) are running wild – lemon balm, mint, sage and rosemary – and these will all thrive in window ledge pots if you have no outdoor space. Fresh herbs: as essential to the cook as a glass of chilled white wine, while you are chopping and stirring. At this time of year there is always something to pick and taste and sniff and stroke. Plants do like to be touched and talked to, it’s true. (Prince Charles was unfairly maligned on that score.) My pleasure here, as you will gather, is entirely sensual. Summer is wanton. It brings out the Byron in me.
Foliage, soft and muted, may be the luxuriant backdrop to all this excess, but the hot colours of summer are a particular delight – even when the sun refuses to shine. These are all favourites of mine, and easy to grow: Crocosmia “Lucifer”, with its sharp mass of foliage and arching bells of vivid red flowers; the common old nasturtium – “Empress of India” in its scarlet finery is the loveliest; deep vermilion pelargoniums – best grown in window boxes, to make your house or flat look sun-baked and Mediterranean; and, undisputed champion of the season, the sunflower.
“All sprightly and new”
I don’t go for the ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ giant variety – which belong, in their multitudes, in the dusty fields of southern France, but look freakishly out of place as an individual planting – but I love their smaller relatives, which grow to a manageable five foot tall, and come in rich shades of russet and orange and ochre. This year I have grown ‘Girasole Evening Sun’, which has a dark eye and petals of sunset fire, but there are plenty of others to choose from, beautiful fireworks all.
Then it’s back to the green. Lying in the grass – weather permitting – and letting it tickle the back of my neck. Taking shade, when necessary, under a particularly immense mallow bush which has taken over the far corner of my plot. Planting little salad crops all through the summer months and watching them pop up – lime green – all sprightly and new, when the deadline has long since passed for other sowings. Swishing my hand through the giant oat grasses and watching out for the blackberries hidden in the hedgerows all along the edge of the allotment. These pleasures are ancient and precious. In a fast, sophisticated, virtual world, returning to this slow, green playground seems essential for our collective sanity.
No garden? Borrow someone else’s. Or a park. At the slightest hint of sunshine, sit in it. Too busy? Nonsense. On a train to somewhere important? Look out of the window. Don’t open that laptop. Look at the trees and the curve of the fields reaching beyond the horizon. The growth is abundant this year – and it’s there for a purpose. To soothe your mind.
Are you stuck in the city? If it’s Leeds or Bradford, then the urban planting is all around you. Or look down at the cracks in the pavement. There will be some little wild grass or flower pushing its way through, against all the odds. Get switched on and feast your eyes. The cool breath of autumn will soon be blowing down our necks.
‘A Handful of Earth’ by Barney Bardsley is published by John Murray