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Wednesday
August, 10

BITTERSWEET MEMORIES OF 2020

The year 2020. Where to begin? It’s tempting to dive straight into the obvious negatives – and let’s face it that would be rich territory – but I’m prepared to stick my neck out and say that in many respects it has been a good year, for us at least. I hope you won’t think me perverse if I admit there’s much about the lockdown way of life I have enjoyed. To begin with, I have gained five productive hours every day, not to mention £500 a month, by not commuting to my office in London. I’ve also experienced my first October in the UK for eight years as a consequence of cancelled travel to Hong Kong and China. Whilst not all of this time has been completely freed from the shackles of work, I have gained considerable flexibility in my life, quadrupling the time I get to spend at home in Broadstairs with my little family. Many hours have been redeployed in the garden or on our new allotment, out in the fresh air, getting exercise and tackling jobs that would otherwise have waited indefinitely. Our companionable dogs, Max and Millie, appear to imagine all their Christmases have come at once: they love having me around and I love giving them attention. Our bond had grown inestimably stronger as the year has worn on. Instead of feeling rushed and stressful, tasks such as watering have become a pleasant, unhurried ritual at the end of a working day. It can be no coincidence that this is the first year in nearly thirty that I have not suffered from a single bout of tonsillitis. Could it be the clean sea air, the lack of pressure or the benefit of eight hours’ sleep every night? I know not, but I am glad to have banished this tiresome affliction for now.

The Jungle Garden reached new heights this year with the addition of several colourful caladiums, bromeliads and brugmansias.

In Broadstairs there has been a noticeable change in the environment. There is much less nocturnal noise as a consequence of pubs and restaurants being closed, yet considerably more birdsong by day. The skies over Thanet are no longer criss-crossed by vapour trails as a result of air traffic to Europe, India, Asia and Australasia being curtailed. A significant number of those flights leave UK shores directly above our heads. On the flip side it’s been incredibly tough for local businesses in the town and this makes me very sad. We’ve experienced more gratuitous littering than I can ever recall (some unbelievably selfish people clearly feel unable to take their detritus home with them), especially coffee cups and fish and chip wrappers. I have most missed seeing friends and family as well as visiting gardens, but by-and-large I have not pined for travel, dressing up for work and going out as much as I thought I might. It’s interesting how quickly one adapts to a different way of life.

Alex in the Exotic Garden / Rose Garden at Great Dixter in 2014

We lost dear Alex, affectionately referred to as ‘Him Indoors’, shortly after the first lockdown began. Alex developed an especially predatory form of Motor Neurone Disease in the autumn of 2019 and it took hold with unrelenting pace. I suspect I share a deep sense of feeling, along with others who have lost someone dear to them during the last ten months, that I have somehow been cheated of the opportunity to say farewell as I’d have wished. I’ve never properly understood the notion of needing ‘closure’ until now, when it’s lacking.

The Beau had his brush with Covid 19 early on and still experiences some ‘long Covid’ symptoms now. Otherwise we are both in reasonable shape physically and mentally and are very thankful for that.

One garden I did manage to visit was West Dean. This photograph of Harold Peto’s superlative pergola was my most liked image on Instagram this year.

As I write it seems unlikely that the first part of 2021 will be a lot different to the end of 2020. In many respects it will be tougher because we have the coldest and dreariest months ahead of us. (I am thinking of moving my birthday from January 12th to August 12th, or even celebrating it twice, as the chances of living it up in the next fortnight seem rather slight!) However, we all know the drill by now; we know what to do and where to get stuff, which at the beginning of lockdown was a complete puzzlement. Perhaps by the end of 2021 we will have regained a degree of normality, whilst holding on to a few of the benefits of a quieter and less sophisticated lifestyle. One lives in hope.

Plot 64a, Culmer’s Allotments, Late Summer 2020. Photo courtesy of our allotment neighbour, Amanda Pick

5 Highlights of 2020

  1. A Plot of Gold – A call early in the New Year took us both by surprise. Having waited just four and a half months for an allotment, there were suddenly four plots available. After dismissing one that was cute but small and another that was too much of a project, we were left with a choice of a shady-but-sheltered plot or a large, open square at the opposite end of the site. We went large and never looked back. It’s not the prettiest location – the security fence makes it look like a prison compound – but we have lovely allotment neighbours and a constant stream of passers by to talk to while we work. Our dogs love being outside, lying in the sun, skirting around Mr Findus the allotment cat and occasionally barking at a comrade on the other side of the railings. The soil is in reasonable condition, the weeds are manageable and we are gradually learning how to deal with an exposed site. In the space of a year we have achieved far more than I imagined possible. My garden has always been a personal project and that, I think, is a hard habit to break. However the allotment is very much a joint venture and I have enjoyed working on it alongside The Beau. The beauty of the allotment is that it’s large enough for us both to find something to do, yet be on hand when the other needs assistance. Perhaps it was always a case of needing a bit more space, but for me it’s also acknowledging the need to leg go and accept someone else’s help and ideas.
  2. Dahliaholics, not so Anonymous – We are both a little bit in love dahlias. I think we always have been and always will be. We both have a penchant for cultivars that are slightly unusual and The Beau leans towards the species. Alas, it’s fair to say that dahlias are not in love with our garden. It is both too shaded and too crowded to provide optimal conditions for most flowering plants. The allotment with its rich soil and open, sunny position has given us the opportunity to grow almost any dahlia varieties we would like. They are such easy and rewarding plants, flowering for months on end and providing endless quantities of blooms for the house. We found room for about sixty varieties by the end of this summer and next year that might rise to over one hundred. I can visualise us growing dahlias and other cut flowers for a living one day. The thought crossed our minds several times over the summer but we decided that we are not quite ready to take the plunge. Who knows, the events of 2021 may yet force our hand.
  3. Garden Open Today – It was a pleasure to open for the National Garden Scheme again this August. For a long long time it seemed that this might not be possible. Thanks to a jazzy new pre-booking system we were able to welcome around 150 visitors to The Watch House in an safe and orderly manner. In many respects it was a nicer experience for all concerned; virtually a private view for each pair of visitors and considerably less work for us. In 2021 we hope normal service will be resumed with openings scheduled on July 31st and August 1st, 12-4pm. If lockdown constraints are eased in the New Year we may also have a flash opening in late April to show off our bulb display, which occupies well over one hundred terracotta pots.
  4. As seen on TV, and Other Media – Thanks to the restrictions on creating new content, a segment about The Watch House filmed in 2018 was broadcast for a second time during Gardener’s World in May. We also welcomed film crews for a couple of other shows which should be on air this coming spring. The Gin & Tonic garden featured on the front cover of The Garden in August. This pleased me all the more because this area is never normally the main event. The brilliant Marianne Majerus can make any garden look special and she certainly worked her photographic magic on ours. Throughout the summer The Beau and I tried our hand at Instagram Live with varying degrees of success. We had a ball, but our clunky WIFI let us down here and there. A definite case of ‘must try harder’ and technology getting the better of us, but now we’ve got the bug there will be more in 2021 for sure. January will kick off with the publication of ‘Fearless Gardening’ by Timber Press. Loree Bohl, author of popular website The Danger Garden, was kind enough to include The Watch House alongside many North American gardens. Loree’s three commandments – ‘Be Bold’, ‘Break the Rules’ and ‘Grow What You Love’ – resonate strongly with me. I know it will be a sensational book packed with ideas that I can, and will, steal. Preorder your copy now and it should be with you by the end of next week.
  5. Black Gold and Seaweed – In all the time I have lived at The Watch House I have had very little need to involve myself in the pursuit of composting. I have nowhere to put a compost heap and spend a great deal of time encouraging plants to grow less rather than spurring them on to yet greater luxuriance. Gaining an allotment changed that altogether. There we need an almost continuous supply of compost and manure to condition the soil and keep the crops coming. After lockdown, much to the The Beau’s annoyance, I took to filling carrier bags with cast seaweed on our daily dog walk, then barrowing it up to the allotment to fill trenches where we would soon plant potatoes and squashes. I can report that it was worth every effort as our potato crop was splendid. Making compost is an art. Whilst I have purchased multiple books on the subject, I still have an awful lot to learn. Another blessing was a plentiful supply of five-year-old manure from our friends’ stables, generous dressings of which encouraged bumper crops of tomatoes, beans and sweetcorn.
The Gin & Tonic Garden with Lobelia tupa in the foreground

5 things that 2020 has taught me

  1. Doing comes first – You will have noticed that I have spent much less time writing my blog this year. Whilst this genuinely pains me, the time I have not spent in front of a computer screen has been reinvested in the physical pursuit of gardening. From that I have learned so much more than if I sat at a desk typing or searching the Internet. Like many folk, my habits and behaviours defined by a busy life and overuse of social media, I frequently struggle with living in the moment. During 2020 the balance has shifted just slightly away from the virtual world and I feel a lot better for it.
  2. More haste, less speed – Spurred on by the allotment and with time on our hands we were far too eager to get sowing this spring. We soon filled the greenhouse staging, only to find that those seeds we planted straight in the ground or under cold glass a few weeks later overtook those we’d coaxed along indoors. Case in point were our tromboncino (an Italian summer squash known for its long and vaguely suggestive fruits): of all the plants we grew from seed, those sown outside in June were the most vigorous and productive, leaving the April-sown seedlings in their wake.
  3. Thin, thin, thin – No, this is not about our waistlines, although they do require urgent attention post Christmas. This is about vegetables. We both dislike waste and have a real problem with pulling up seedlings when they germinate too close to one another for the plants to develop correctly. Time and again we ignored advice to thin to 6″, 8″ or 12″ and let nature take its course. Not a good idea. Cramped plants, like cramped people, will not flourish. They need space to grow and air around them to breathe and stay healthy. After a year of making mistakes my advice is either to sow as thinly as you possibly can or get over the fact that you will have to sacrifice a few plant babies for the benefit of a good crop of fruit, vegetables or flowers.
  4. Stake early and stake well – I am getting very much better at practicing what I preach, but still there are occasions when I think ‘that’ll be OK’ and then along comes a gale and flattens the lot. It was particularly windy from late August onwards and those parts of the garden and allotment that I staked or supported properly survived much better than those where I hoped for the best. (Spurred on by my first draft of this post, yesterday we staked our kale and purple sprouting on the allotment. The forecast snow never materialised, but they’d have needed support at some point, so this is a good job to have done.)
  5. Seize the moment – I’ve always heeded Benjamin Franklin’s simple piece of advice – ‘never put off until tomorrow what you can do today‘ – yet still I look back too often and think ‘if only I’d taken the time to do that’. (My only caveat would be that where one’s back is concerned, it’s always wise to know when enough is enough.) Whether it’s sowing, transplanting, pruning, photographing or simply taking time to appreciate something properly, as a certain brand reminds us, don’t procrastinate, ‘Just do it’.
Having removed the large garden table, we are doubling the size of our spring bulb display in 2021. The fate of our Geranium maderense hangs on a mild winter.

With that last thought ringing in my ears we must, today, plant the last few tulip bulbs languishing in their brown paper bags. It’s certainly not too late to plant tulips, though if you have daffodil or iris bulbs hanging about you had better follow my lead and manage your expectations accordingly.

This year’s dahlia display has spurred us on to grow more and more and more of them!

Over the Christmas period we started making plans for a new season in the garden and on the allotment. Large orders for dahlia cuttings have been placed with Halls of Heddon and Pheasant Acre Plants, umpteen seed catalogues have been grafittied with stars and crosses, and ideas about growing more brugmansias in the Jungle Garden are developing apace. The future remains uncertain, but our hopes and dreams propel us forward into a New Year with uncompromised vigour. Wasting time worrying about a situation one can’t change is the biggest folly of all.

From all of us here at The Watch House we wish you all a very Happy New Year. TFG.

Happy New Year from both of us.

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