For a couple of weeks in April, white damson blossom looked as if it was promising us a heavy crop. Then as spring became summer, it was obvious that only the oldest damson tree in the orchard was going to bear fruit this year. Peering up through the branches, it is hard to spot many damsons amongst the foliage that is now beginning to show its first yellowing hints of summer dreariness. I always look forward to these days when local acquaintances of the garden, some with family links to Rose Castle that go back for generations, come to pick the fruit. Shortly after damson collecting time, occasional jars of jam are left on my doorstep, but this year there are barely enough damsons to fill the pastry of a couple of fruit pies.
So, I am missing the flavour of home-grown damson jam, but there is a much more serious omission afoot in the garden. Never has there been a summer since I have been here when bees have been so scarce. They are on my mind during every season; in summer and early autumn when the garden is usually alive with their presence, in winter when I am planting new trees and shrubs that will bear enticing blossom in future years, at seed-sowing time in spring when seedlings are months away from flowering. So many rainy and cool days have played a part in the lack of bees this year, but there is fresh hope. Sydney and Peter, the garden’s new beekeepers, will bring a few hives of bees here in spring. This is something that should have happened years ago, and the fact that it has never been organised before now is something that makes me feel shameful because I know only too well what a bees’ paradise this garden is, and it is a shame not to be sharing it with as many bees as possible.
In late summer, as growth on young trees ceases, I breathe a sigh of relief. This is not because I think they grow too much; quite the contrary. As each young tree becomes taller and slightly larger in girth, each one is also more likely to secure its expected life-span. Phases of uncertainty will come and go – especially during 800 years of a castle’s history – but the future of the garden’s young trees becomes more assured as each year passes.
While I am delighted with this summer’s rain-fuelled growth, Bill the hedge-cutter who comes to the garden in mid-September for two weeks probably doesn’t agree, but he whistles and sings all day long, keeping in tune with Radio 2 through his earphones, trimming rampantly overgrown hedges and shrubs to the music. Four years ago, he decided on a whim to trim the row of silver-leaved weeping pears into toadstool shapes, rather than continue with the usual haircut of conical mounds of silvery foliage that sweep down to the ground. I would love to know what he was listening to through his earphones that day. These neat tree-toadstools, created one sunny afternoon on the spur of the moment, have now become an admired feature in the garden.
In grassy areas, real toadstools are appearing in quantity, another welcome result of this summer’s high rainfall. Their presence is so distracting and I want to photograph, identify and record them all. Nature’s cycles are often unpredictable: a dearth of damsons, but a flurry of fungi.
Queen’s counsel for September
The rowan tree, Sorbus aucuparia, is a British native species with neat and compact growth ideal for smaller gardens. Flowers in May attract insects, and berries in early autumn can be harvested and used for making jelly – if the blackbirds don’t get them first.
Quinces, Cydonia oblonga, are fragrant fruits with an ancient appearance; they are lumpy and roughly pear-shaped, and their yellow skins have a thin layer of felt. On a mature tree they are extremely decorative, but they can also be collected and used for making quince-cheese.
Flowers for butterflies and bees
By September, the blossom of Helichrysum monstrosum is fully open, and bright yellow centres of flowers attract butterflies and bees. If grown purely for cutting and drying, stems of Helichrysum should be cut earlier in summer while petals are still closed.
Setaria italica ‘Hylander’ is also known as fox-tail millet. Spikes of purple millet provide late colour, and foliage changes from green to dark brown as the season progresses. I grew this as an experiment, and while it is attractive, the birds show no interest in the seed heads so far.
Box hedging should be clipped for the last time this year before the middle of the month. ‘Suffruticosa’ is the variety most often used for low hedges bordering beds and parterres. It responds well to clipping, but left alone to grow, it can reach 120cm in height.