Catching up

Drier weather has helped many head gardeners to make up lost time but there are still problems to overcome, Jonathan Tilley reports.

Wrest Park: work has been flexible due to restoration - image: Wrest Park
Wrest Park: work has been flexible due to restoration - image: Wrest Park

Earlier this year, HW reported on the difficulties head gardeners were facing with wet conditions, having already suffered from the poor weather of 2012, which reduced visitor numbers and made garden maintenance more difficult. Historic and botanic gardens in many areas of the country were having to cope with saturated grounds, making work difficult to complete and raising concerns about problems such as turf damage, moss growth and algae on hard surfaces.

A few months on and conditions have improved. Drainage was not an option for these gardens, both because of the costs involved and the difficulties of using modern equipment on historic sites. However, a period of much-hoped-for dry weather allowed the ground to drain naturally and gardeners have generally been able to keep damage to a minimum and ensure that they have not fallen too much behind on the maintenance jobs made more difficult by the wet.

Continuing challenge

But erratic weather is continuing to throw up challenges, from unusual flowering patterns to storm damage. At Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, a number of areas were affected by saturation and the gardening team was having to be flexible about what work they did, while using techniques such as planting new hedging on a ridge to keep the roots out of the water table.

Head gardener Chris Slatcher says the ground has dried out quite well. "There is still some underlying water in the ground but it is reasonably good now," he adds. "Nature has run its course. It's now a case of watching and waiting to see how the plants grow and amending our planting if necessary."

He explains that being a restoration project as opposed to something like a contract job means it was possible to be flexible with work and not get behind. "It hasn't put us back because we've been doing other jobs," he says.

"If you try to get on with things when it's wet you make much more of a mess. It's more difficult for those that don't have other areas they can work on, such as contractors who have to do a particular job, but that's not always the best horticulture." Slatcher adds that the weather is still erratic: "We're looking forward to more spring sunshine. One minute the grass is growing like mad and right now it's cold and wet again."

Saltram House head gardener Penny Hammond agrees that the weather is continuing to be unpredictable. "We do seem to be getting more extreme weather events," she notes. "Whether it's the new normal is hard to say. The weather always throws new things at us and no two seasons are alike. It feels like we've had increased wind too. We've had some very strong winds but it's not exceptional."

Saltram had been one garden where the wet was getting in the way of routine work, but Hammond explains that the garden generally dries out relatively quickly. "We're on a promontory about 30m above sea level so the ground drains quite naturally and we've been welcoming the rain over the last few days."

However, she adds that there has been an effect on work patterns. "We're limited on what we can do when it's wet," she explains. "For example, we didn't mow as early because the ground was sodden. We have mostly caught up. The rain has not been a problem. There has not been too much path run-off and it has opened up the ground. We needed the moisture. It was wet in March-April time but we've also had a spell of very dry weather. We're hoping things are going to get back on course."

But the erratic weather is affecting the plants, she says. "It is an unusual season in terms of what is flowering. Some things are flowering as normal, some are earlier and some are late. It's totally mixed. It's a very unusual season."

Extreme conditions

Trewidden Garden in Cornwall has seen some of the most extreme weather, with storm-force gales bringing down two trees including a 130-year-old Turkey oak. "It's the time when everything is leafing out so it's all quite top heavy," head gardener Richard Moreton explains.

"We had quite a dry period and now it's got wet again. It rained all day this morning. We had the same stormy weather last year in late April instead of May, with trees down. It's the same but a couple of weeks later." The dry period was very dry indeed. "We started to get cracks in the ground - it was really dry. It wasn't drought conditions but normally the ground is moist and the trees come into leaf quite quickly."

Moreton was having to come up with makeshift solutions to issues such as the gravel on the garden's 19th century paths being washed away. He points out that the storm damage will put work back. "It's happened for the last two or three years that we've had weather we should get later in the year," he notes. "Now is the time we're trying to get weeding done and cut the grass."

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