Category Archives: Gardening

Close Encounters

You know how it is: the movie’s just getting to its climax when two shouty people in an air balloon crash into the hedge at the bottom of your garden.

It’s distracting.

What to do?

Most people would have carried on watching, of course. Natural human emotions take over and eyes become even more firmly glued to the TV screen. But I’ve never been one for following the herd. So grabbing my mobile and switching it on I hot-footed it through the conservatory and down to the scene of the action.

Gardens and balloons may not seem likely bedfellows. And you might be forgiven for thinking that by September 5th, 2021 balloon technology would have moved on somewhat since the early days of Montgolfier et al. (You might also have thought that my phone would have been ready for photographic action by the time I got to the scene; but no, still loading). The only thing that had moved on was in fact the balloon itself.

By coincidence, a few days later I happened to be thumbing through our family archive compendium of 1836 editions of Bell’s Weekly Messenger, and there, in the September issue – almost exactly 185 years ago – was an account of the ballooning exploits of one Mr Charles Green (excerpt below).

Far from crashing into a garden, Mr Green chose Vauxhall Gardens as the launch pad for his ascent, which the Messenger’s reporter described as “… most magnificent: directly the word was given to cast off the last rope by which the balloon was restrained, it shot with velocity from the earth , and mounted high in mid-air, in the direction towards Tunbridge, shifting its course from east to south-east. The shouts of the multitude, and the clang of the military band which was stationed in the grounds, accompanied its flight. The aeronauts waved their hats and flags and continued rapidly to rise. A grander sight can hardly be conceived”.

The first we knew of “our” balloon was a whooshing and grinding sound, which I later put down to the basket dragging along neighbours’ hedges and the basketeers switching on the flame-thingy to try to regain height. But then the almighty sight of this huge balloon came slowly into view from stage left, just about blocking out the sky between the two birch trees completely. Shame I didn’t get a shot of that but here’s a photo of the area in question … 

I gather, by the way, that the tactic of “planned collisions” with hedges is accepted by the hot air ballooning community as a routine way of reducing touchdown speed in times of trouble, albeit that, when used, it doesn’t always have a happy ending. And I’ve found no research on the opinion of hedge owners!

In the field, the balloonists seemed to be having problems taking back control …

Meanwhile, back in 1836, Charles Green hadn’t finished. He undertook more airborne adventures in the ensuing weeks and, by November, was ready for the flight that would ensure his name entered the history books. The Royal Vauxhall Balloon Ascent took place on Monday, 7th November, 1836, and set a world record for manned flight which would last until February 1914, almost eighty years.

Accompanied by fellow intrepid aeronauts Robert Hollond (who funded the enterprise) and Irish writer and musician Thomas Monck Mason, together with over a ton of supplies and ballast, Green piloted the balloon some 480 miles, eventually landing about six miles from the town of Weilburg in the Duchy of Nassau in Germany. Such was the skill, bravery and vision of Green and his colleagues that his flight has been commemorated in a host of different ways, as described in this excellent account on the Vauxhall History website.

The momentous flight didn’t escape the attention of the journos at Bell’s Weekly Messenger, either. In the November 12th edition, they published this update …

Intrepidness (intrepidity?) seemed to be in somewhat short supply in the meadow, as the balloon finally came to a bumping halt. There had been much digging-in of heels, many random bursts of flame, much yanking on guy ropes and eventually numerous calls to onlookers of the “Can you give us a hand, please?” variety. (Looking back, I take some comfort in noting that our trees weren’t set alight).

I’ll never know if the pilot and passenger felt that they had let themselves down. But I’m pretty sure Mr Green would have been less than impressed.

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June-August, 2021: garden diary

Shhhhh … don’t tell anyone, but our garden’s full of drugs!

For a start there’s the Poppy, a well-known source of opium and morphine. I’m fairly sure ours are the wrong variety, but I will confess to currently being addicted to some rather crunchy bread rolls produced by Tesco, with poppy seeds scattered all over their tops. Could it be true that “Poppy seeds contain small quantities of both morphine and codeine”? [source: Wikipedia]. Hmm … makes you think.

Then there’s Feverfew. It can create a bit of a headache for gardeners, as after a few years this herb spreads quite widely around the garden, with seedlings proliferating until eventually they have to be treated as weeds. It’s quite a pretty plant though and, according to folklore (though not yet confirmed by science, apparently), it’s a very effective cure for headaches, including the ones it causes. Just try to ignore the possible side effects of dermatitis, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, flatulence, mouth ulcers, etc., etc.

If the use of Feverfew sets your heart a-flutter, you can always talk to your doctor about some kind of medication to restore your pulse to its normal rate. The pharmaceutical world seems to have narrowed down the production of products derived from Foxgloves (Digitalis); but ‘Digitalin’ is still prescribed for a number of heart-related complaints such as atrial fibrillation. But I don’t think I’ll be getting out my test tubes just yet.

Down by the little pond, we watched a plant with very large, coarse leaves appear from nowhere. Neither of us had ever seen it before but eventually Lynn identified it as Burdock (Arctium) which, as well as being a quite important ingredient of the beverage Dandelion and Burdock (which can still be found for sale, eg in Sainsburys), is taken by many to treat all manner of bodily ailments – as a diuretic, for instance – though, again, the medical profession beg to differ on its efficacy. Its prickly heads, known as burrs, have been known to trap small birds and condemn them to a slow and painful death …

Got a cough? Allow me to introduce you to our pot of Thyme. This is a herb with many genuine medicinal uses, and Thyme tea is sold commercially if you don’t want to go to the trouble of growing your own. It smells good, can be used as a disinfectant and, like the apples, pears, rhubarb, blackberries and other fruits in the garden, it contains vital vitamins.

Of course, many so-called remedies are simply passed on in folklore, with no scientific evidence to back up the claims made about them. Thus I will not be trying out our Elderberry (Sambucus) next time I get fever, rheumatism, a burn or the common cold!

But there are some plants that really do seem genuinely valuable in the manufacture of prescription drugs. Valerian produces bright red flowers in our garden – though I gather there are other varieties – and blossoms for many months during summer. Below the soil surface it forms a dense mat of closely woven roots which can be extremely hard to dig out. It’s Valerian’s roots that are widely used for the preparation of numerous products, including anti-convulsants and products to help with sleep disorders.

We’ve seen quite a few species of butterflies this summer; but none more so than the sudden clouds of Painted Ladies, which appeared almost overnight towards the end of August. They were everywhere …

… but most notably, as always, in the Buddleia (the “butterfly bush”).

I cut the buddleia back hard in autumn 2020. In the past, in previous gardens, I’ve pruned them in early Spring, but this one was so massive that I had to take action urgently.

Our Hydrangea in the front garden was hit by frost in the early part of the year, but it recovered really well and is showing no sign at all of lasting damage.

Our Mock Orange (Philadelphus), growing in partial shade, produced a spectacular fountain of fragrant white blossoms in May and June. The photograph doesn’t really do it justice.

If you follow my blog, you may recall my planting of the five old-fashioned David Austin roses in November 2019. I ordered them as bare root plants. The rose bed is finished now and the roses are maturing. I think one or two of them suffer slightly from not being in direct sunshine for long enough each day; but most put on a beautiful show and some are still in bloom months later.

This has been another great year for roses elsewhere in the garden, too. I love the pillow-soft, pink mottling of this one, for instance.

Here are some of the others, all growing in the front garden.

Here’s the climbing rose next to our conservatory door. Wasn’t quite as spectacular as last year because of the high winds, but we tied it up for support and it recovered fairly well.

Vying with the roses for attention in the front garden, along with the Cosmos, Canterbury Bells, Sedum and Petunias, the Achillea have maintained a vibrant display of reddish shades for months on end. These were amongst the various perennials I bought from Thompson & Morgan as plug plants (a great purchase at about £9.99 for 36 plants, by the way!). They’ve finally gone over and I’ve pruned them back, thinking I was dead-heading. Time will tell whether this was adviseable. Lynn thinks not …

Personally, I’ll think they’ll be fine. Plants just love to grow … see how a single Lobelia seed has grown up and spent the summer squeezed in between the courtyard wall and the concrete floor …

… and how these Japanese Anemones have performed a similar trick down the side of the house.

And below the birdfeeder, a single Sunflower seed made its own bid for freedom.

Above the Lobelia, adding more splashes of bright colour to the black-and-white of the walls and woodwork, are a couple of hanging baskets, which this year we planted up using bought plants and seeds. Our time has been limited because of preparing for our intended house move but we think the simple mix of Petunias, Lobelia and Begonias works quite well.

Meanwhile, back in the fruit and veg. patch, there are still some broad beans to be had, along with beetroot, tomatoes and courgettes, including one rather odd-shaped specimen. Now, at the end of August, we can watch the six sweetcorn plants as their corns swell and ripen on the stems.

The new flower border, full of the plug plant perennials that I nursed through the winter, eventually matured and reached a point where it looked quite dazzling. Here it is on the way to that point.

But the problem arrives when things won’t stop growing! A lesson for the future – plant sparingly at first, and add new plants only when longer-term gaps are clear to see. I do love the Gaura, a plant we’ve not grown before, which has continued to flower in the border through the summer months but it has eventually rather overwhelmed the area with its long, wavy stems carrying beautiful white flowers. It’s ended up looking rather straggly and untidy, unfortunately.

So, as Summer turns into Autumn, we begin final preparations for our planned house move. With property as with gardening, things don’t always work out as intended. But we’ll keep our fingers crossed.

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