That Norah Barlow is having a good time

There's a lot to be said for promiscuity in the garden. Anna Pavord admires the progeny of those illicit couplings
Click to follow
The Independent Online
It is every man for himself in our garden at the moment. One path on the bank is entirely closed off by arms of the pale pink rose 'Felicia', all tangled up with strands of the pinkish-mauve clematis 'Comtesse de Bouchard'. That is an abundant flowerer even in average years. This year it is going potty. Opportunistic pink opium poppies have pushed through the jumble and are serenely flowering in the chaos.

Another path is thickly carpeted with seedlings of aquilegia which I have not had the heart to destroy. Each one might be a marvel, a new cross, for the most extraordinary aquilegias have been popping up ever since I introduced 'Norah Barlow' into the garden. This is a shaggy aquilegia with a double head of pink and green. It is evidently about as promiscuous a plant as you could wish.

Promiscuity generally gets a bad press, but there is a great deal to be said for it in the garden. You never know what has been going on until you see the elegant progeny of some illicit coupling waving at you between the weeds.

Some plants, such as foxgloves, breed backwards, as it were. Even if you start off with a fancy variety, the seedling progeny gradually drift back towards the wild pink norm. The beautiful pale 'Apricot' foxglove breeds true, though, and there have been a good many of them again this year, bobbing up unexpectedly in the garden. I would guess they have come from the compost I have been spreading on the bank, for they disappeared entirely for a few years. Now I am putting twists of green wire round their stems to remind me which plants to leave for seed.

Last night we had the first new potatoes from the garden with mint and lashings of farm butter. The first crops are special, so special you do not need to mess around with them. New potatoes, new peas and a couple of rashers of thick farm bacon. Bliss. These potatoes were what my mother used to call "moochers", tubers that I never found when I was digging last year's crop. They were, of course, faster into growth than the potatoes I planted this spring and miraculously escaped the late frosts. The variety is the first early 'Concorde' with pale yellow waxy flesh. I am growing it again this year, along with 'Accent', another first early that is quick to mature.

Potatoes are not what you could ever call high-profile plants. You do not call up friends and tell them they must come now, immediately, and see your crop. But like peas, which were a staple crop long before Raleigh ever whisked the potato over the Atlantic, they remind you, bind you to the original point of gardening, which was to keep your family fed.

I like that feeling. I like wandering down the path at the end of the day with a bucket to collect things for supper. It should not be a bucket, of course, it should be a wicker basket trimmed with a little posy of lavender and I should have a straw hat swinging from the other hand. Another failure.

This weekend we will have the first feast from the new strawberry bed, planted out in one of the quadrants in the fruit garden. We made this in the big square where we used to grow dahlias and the ground had been well fed and mulched for years. The strawberries love it. The new plants have been pushing out masses of runners, but I have cut all these off. A row of parent plants in another place will provide the new plants to set in the second quadrant at the end of this summer.

For years we did not grow strawberries because there was a good pick- your-own place quite near; now that grower has given up, so we have had to plant our own. There is no point in buying the brightly coloured cottonwool that passes for strawberries in our local supermarkets. They buy fruit that is bred to travel well. I want a strawberry that tastes of the sun. Supermarket produce tastes as dynamic as the expanded polystyrene in which it is packed.

The herb patch is in a state of flop. Great stems of sorrel have fallen over the path and the tarragon is lying on top of a row of rocket sown on the advice of our eldest daughter. She is our style expert and if she says rocket is the thing, then we know we cannot be seen without it. Given the ease and speed with which it grows, I do not understand why it commands such a premium in the shops. You need to sow it little and often, like radish.

While I was chopping back the sorrel to liberate the rocket, I was thinking about a herb patch I saw a few weeks ago, divided into four small beds, each one containing plants of the most useful common herbs with a centrepiece of a taller, shrubby herb such as a sage or rosemary.

The point of having the four beds, explained the gardener, was that you could cut down the herbs in each bed, turn and turn about, so that you always had a fresh supply of growth coming on. One lot of chives was newly sheared to the base, the second was beginning to resprout, the third lot was almost ready to pick and the fourth was at its peak. Tarragon, sorrel, mint and chervil also respond to this kind of handling, though of course you would not treat shrubby herbs such as rosemary, thyme or sage in this way.

At the end of this season I am going to reorganise the herb patch, divide the clumps of chive and try a similar rotation in my own garden. I do not want a formal herb garden, but I do want something more than the rampant mess that exists at the moment, although the pale terracotta- pink flowers of the sorrel are rather lovely. I was wondering whether to plant some in the patch of long grass that we let grow up after the primroses and bluebells in it have flowered. I am not trying to run this as an ecologically correct meadow, though there are some good orchids flowering in it at the moment. But it is a useful experimental patch.

Occasionally I resettle a plant there, just to see how it copes in long grass. Gladiolus byzantinus looks stunning in this situation. So do many of the cranesbills, and the advantage is that nothing grown in this way needs staking.

This is partly because, competing with the grass, no plant grows as lushly as it does in an open border. It is also partly because there are so many strong, upright stems of grasses around it to provide support. Toughest are the narrow-headed ryes, softest the feathery foxtails and pink-tinged Yorkshire fog.

The big question is whether we should or should not try a huge, hairy oriental poppy in the long grass. How would it look? We had better wait to see what the style monitor has to say about it.

Comments