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Diary of a Cultural Gardener - May 2020

When I think back to the beginning of May it seems to me a different age altogether and almost a different garden, for May is the most metamorphic month. May began peppered with tulips, symbols of spring and herbaceous perennials only knee high. Steadily and magically over the course of the month the green has risen and now it is high to your waist, the hedges are wild, the trees are verdant, and the flowers of summer are charged with colour.

The first year in a newly planted garden is a curious one, as some herbaceous perennials establish more quickly than others. There are plants like Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ which confidently knit into a cohesive group and flower furiously as if they have lived there for years. There are others, such as Amsonia hubrichtii which are slower to settle in and just like some people, they need a bit of time to come into their own. They quietly work on their roots and might only be a foot tall this year, but once they are well-grounded, they will romp upwards, becoming confident, resilient and hard to unroot, supporting other plants and providing astonishing colour and texture.

The effect of the herbaceous perennials establishing at different rates is that in the first year a new garden can look a little patchy. Some areas are already pockets of brilliance, with the plants naturally weaving together as our designer Tom Stuart-Smith intended and in other areas you can still see some soil. Before training in horticulture, I studied at art college and I was remembering how we once went on a day out to see some paintings in Edinburgh and the art tutor intriguingly asked us to bring a toilet roll tube with us. We weren’t sure why, but when we got to the gallery the tutor asked us to look at the artwork through the cardboard tube. As you can imagine, it isolated an abstract circle from the whole and focused your vision on all the parts that made up the entirety. I feel that this approach to looking could be applied to the garden, not in the sense that I walk around looking through a cardboard tube, but rather that being a gardener means constantly assessing how every part contributes to the whole. As the garden develops this will be an evolving conversation with Tom. As the seasons turn, I will make notes about the planting and each year we will edit and revise certain elements, seeking to make all areas as beautiful as the whole.

Throughout the month the weather has been a real challenge as we have had no significant rainfall to speak of. Once the garden is established the perennials, trees and shrubs will be resilient and they will cope with periods of dry weather, however in the first year, they are still reaching their roots into our soil, anchoring themselves here and adjusting to our situation, so they need a bit of extra care and I have had the hoses and sprinklers out. We were fortunate not to be hit by the late frost that many suffered, but we did have a spell of extremely high winds towards the end of the month. People sometimes ask me if we will stake the perennials in the garden. My thinking is that once the garden is fully established the various plants will support each other on the whole. However, one Friday recently the wind was so strong that it was starting to knock over some of the taller Cenolophium denudatum and Knautia macedonica. I had to think on my feet and luckily the builders on site had lots of steel rebar hoops that happened to be left over, which they generously gave to me. I hammered them into the ground quickly as stakes behind each plant and they have done the job! Next year we’ll stake these particular specimens a bit earlier in the season.

The gallery has remained closed throughout May and as for so many of us, my day-to-day life has become its own routine, I live close to the garden and am able to run home for lunch and for virtual meetings on the computer. I must admit that the repetition of it all, without the break for get-togethers and socialising has been cyclical, yet oddly focusing. I was thinking that if my May was a film, it would make a great montage – I always liked Rocky’s training montages – only instead of boxing, I would be weeding, setting the sprinkler, rushing home, washing hands, zooming, weeding, watering, washing hands – I am not sure what the soundtrack would be.

I am very fortunate to work outside and amongst all these activities the biggest pleasure has been speaking to our garden visitors. It is always heartening to watch people enjoying the garden as we hoped they would, children looking for ladybirds, people taking their daily exercise and now friends meeting up here for socially distanced picnics. It is humbling to hear sometimes just how much the garden means to people and as one lady from the nearby apartments said to me “We knew we’d use the garden when you were building it, but we didn’t know how much we needed it”.

Katy Merrington
Cultural Gardener