August 10, 2018
I suppose if there is an opposite to gardening, or rather an occupation as different as it could be, it is sailing. What the two have in common, though, is of course their dependence on the weather. Both take their cue from it; absolutely depend on it for their functions. To gardeners and sailors weather is existential. Having just been blown about the Solent, on glorious days of blue skies perfect for admiring roses, I’ll admit to being torn between the two. If sailing wins this time it is its added spice of excitement, the commotion of competition, the regatta rush of crowding boats in touching distance rounding buoys in churning water, setting a new course, the pull of the spinnaker and the rushing foam astern. Cowes Week brings together 800 boats, from dinghies to towering yachts and catamarans that slide along like skaters. Thousands of sailors speaking their strange language. It is an alternative civilisation.This August the garden, in contrast, is immobile. Cocooned in trees the air barely stirs. The burning sun makes shadows too dark to penetrate. Streams have dried to an inaudible trickle. The suspense is palpable: when will it rain?
It is the time of hydrangeas; those dowdy pink knobs that clash happily with orange montbretias in dusty front gardens by the sea, and deep in the woodland the majestic domes, purple or sky-sapphire, nestling in deep-green leaves. Their name suggests water, although it seems Linnaeus was just fooling about with the Greek for a water jar they supposedly resemble. They certainly appreciate moisture in the soil. More important is its acidity – and much less easy to adjust than textbooks suggest. I have taken cuttings of a truly sky blue one and grown them in compost identical to the parent, only to achieve a washed-out mauve. You see H. Annabel everywhere these days; such an eruption of foamy white that without support it collapses in a heap. Now I’ve taken to planting the rather more realistic H. paniculata: no Fra Angelico colours, but eventually something approaching a small tree. In fact the arborescent version on a one metre trunk makes one of the great summer eye-catchers.