Gardening Ups ‘n’ Downs of 2020

Looking back at some of my horticultural goings-on during a tumultuous last 12 months.

We can all agree that 2020 was a messed-up year. It is an inescapable fact and one that makes trying to write a review without it getting all melancholy all the more challenging.

Horticulture was hit like every industry, however gardening as a past-time seemed to flourish as more people went out into their gardens, picked up their trowels and wanted to grow. There was a period where it seemed grow-bags were like gold-dust.

For me it all started so optimistically, in the early months we had taken on an allotment (an exciting yet daunting prospect) and at work I had put together plans for growing a veritable bounty of vegetables and cut flowers in the walled garden.

Trimming formal apple trees at Hanbury
However, then the pandemic struck and everything went hay-wire. The gardens, along with all National Trust properties, were all shut down, I was furloughed (along with pretty much all the garden team), all the plans I had put together were now in question, and hundreds of plants I had grown were now homeless.

The one bright ember at this point was the fact we had the allotment. It had been slowly getting put together and developed over a couple of months by this point. Gone was the weedy field and there were some beds and lots of ideas. I did manage to fill my little Corsa with as many as those plants I had propagated as I could, and they all found a new home on the plot.

Also, as visiting the allotment was allowed under lockdown measures, it meant I could go up almost daily to work on the plot. It was a god-send to have that luxury and I felt very lucky to be an allotmenteer at that point. Not only did it give us a project and some fresh air, but lots of progress was made in a relatively short time.

While I was furloughed I also took the opportunity to watch ‘The Farmers’ TV series that follows JM Fortier and his team at Ferme des Quatre-Temps in Quebec. It is a Canadian series following the life of the growers at the famous organic market garden. I found the series available with English subtitles on YouTube and found it inspiring and really enjoyable.

Come June I was called back to work and then spent the next few months desperately trying to look after the place, despite there being only me and the head gardener. That was no small feat, as there was a huge ever-growing list of tasks. At this point the garden started opening up the visitors again in small numbers and the public on the whole seemed delighted to be able to get out and visit.

Me at work trimming box cones

I was on a topiary cutting marathon at this point, the pinnacle of which was cutting all 218 of the box cones in the Hanbury parterre. At this point I must acknowledge my partner coming in to volunteer for a couple of days to help with this slog. It was a labour of love and felt a never-ending (and back-breaking) task, but I did get a lot of kudos from visitors when they chatted to me.

On top of the huge mountain of topiary, there was the usual suspects of mowing, weeding, watering and so much more to keep me busy. The only real disappointment was seeing all those beds I had envisaged full of veg and flowers being left bare in the walled garden. I did sow a green manure of crimson clover to cover some of the area and get some nutrients into the soil. Hopefully that explains why there wasn’t a follow-up to 2019’s monthly ‘Walled Garden Diaries’ series this summer, as it wouldn’t have made for such inspirational reading.

The allotment came into its own during the summer and definitely helped fill that void left by the walled garden. It was a such a rewarding experience growing and harvesting lots of veg up there, bringing back a bag of goodies for tea from the plot is a great feeling.

Looking back on the allotment, I would say it was hit-and-miss regarding the crops. We had some definite hits, most of the flowers, cauliflower and carrots in particular, however there was some disappointments. The potatoes failed to deliver and were hit by blight, the sweetcorn didn’t produce a cob, and whatever happened to the sweet peas is still a bit confusing. There was some experiments that didn’t really work out and keeping on top of weeds and pests was an issue. It was often a case of gardening all day at work, then finding time after to do watering, harvesting, or trying to do some bits on the plot. You can easily see how many allotment newbies end up over-awed at how much work is involved to keep on top of it.

The allotment in summer

All-in-all though I think it was good for year one and the learning from this first year will help going forward. From a blank field to nine beds, with room for more expansion in the coming months is reasonable going. At the start the plan was to only cultivate half the plot, but that is where furlough did help and it ended up being closer to two-thirds. There space for a few more beds, and I think all of them can be widened to create a smaller central path. And there is plans afoot for the allotment in this coming year, that I’ll probably spill the beans on in another post.

As the year moved on at Hanbury, finally the rest of the staff came back and that allowed up to get through the annual hedge cutting regime. Luckily all National Trust properties stayed open through the second lockdown and I managed to avoid being furloughed again and we even managed to get volunteers back (in smaller numbers that before of course).

Hardwick Hall

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to visit that many other gardens during 2020. But I did manage to get to the Trust gardens at Snowshill Manor, Llanachaeron, Stowe and Hardwick Hall. Fingers crossed I’ll be able to get out to lots more places in 2021 and actually get back in the habit of writing up my trips to places – something I hold my hands up to that I forgot to do this year.

I do hope that this coming year is a lot better for everyone. One unexpected plus seemed to be that the pandemic saw a mass of people turn to gardening, discover an interest in growing food, and try to enjoy nature and the outdoors more. Lets hope that trend continues in 2021.

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