MY CLEMATIS DIARY

May 2000


May 1st
Today I saw two excellent examples of C. armandii 'Snowdrift' in bloom. Both produced a wall of white blossom. A sight to behold. My armandii 'Apple Blossom' will not be in bloom for some time yet. This is for two reasons. Firstly, we are elevated beyond the village in my garden here. Elevation makes a considerable difference in flowering time. Secondly, to avoid the strong cold winds, I have had to put it in a sheltered corner; the semi-shade tends also to retard the time of flowering. But when it comes it will be a glorious sight, probably blooming at the same time as red Cydonia japonica and growing into it.

May 2nd
We could reasonably call May the month of the Montanas. This group, Group IV in my classification, dominates the garden in May. There must be very few gardens without the Clematis 'Montana'. The stems look so dead in the winter. Then comes April and the extra warmth precipitates a greening of the stems. This soon becomes a profusion of leaves and from the axils of the leaves come clusters of blooms, many of them scented. However, they may not be completely hardy in the winter. Going around my garden I can see that I have lost some - 'Vedrariensis Hidcot', 'Vedrariensis Highdown' and 'Vedrariensis' itself. Montana 'Alexander' looks weak, as does 'Perveril'. The great danger now is a severe frost. In some years in the UK virtually all the buds on the montanas were destroyed by frost. The plant itself is rarely killed. The montanas are free of most troubles. They are never affected by wilt. Of course, stems on montanas can wilt but not due to stem rot. My 'Montana Mayleen' wilted. Careful examination showed that there must have been a lesion low down on the plant, perhaps due to frost or physical damage which caused the sap to leak. In no time at all organisms are attracted to the sap and then you get a sticky mess. This is called 'flux' and has nothing to do with stem rot (clematis wilt). It was pruned below the damage and new shoots quickly appeared. Research work has shown that while you can get the fungus of 'stemrot' growing on the leaves, the plant repels any attempt by the fungus to invade it.

May 3rd
Today I had to spend some time tidying up Montana 'Warwickshire Rose'. In the winter two years ago I put strong wire horizontally along the wall, to which I could attach the clematis. But this winter I had neglected to tie it in. This clematis is now strong growing and I noticed a new phenomena behind the clematis. In crevices in the wall were healthy families of snails. Mum, dad, and a battalion of youngsters. I must have picked out a hundred in half an hour. What to do with them? I throw them either on a nearby road or on the paths. In other words I am hoping the birds will profit from them. This epidemic of snails is due to the absence of thrushes in this area.

I had news today of a new humane rabbit control. Some company in England is bringing out this rabbit deterrent which seems to consist of material which you spray onto your susceptible plants. Any rabbit eating that material will experience a bitter aftertaste which is said to deter the rabbit from approaching that plant again. The spray does not cause any harm to the rabbit or any other animal. I suspect the rabbit, in no time, will learn to differentiate between the sprayed plants and the rest still available for its nibbling. Rabbits only go for young clematis shoots which it knows are harmless to eat for once the clematis stems mature then they become caustic and poisonous. The rabbit will not then touch them.

May 4th
On one wall I have a good specimen of the yellow rose 'Casino'. An ideal foil to the rose is Clematis 'Victoria'. This excellent clematis has been one of our 'Clematis of the Month' recently. It's deep mauve colour is superb with any yellow rose. 'Victoria' is a strong grower. It makes thick stems but these are very fragile and easily damaged. Like all clematis one stem will cling to another so you can quickly have a tangle. I take sharp scissors and, proceeding along each stem, I cut through any links it has with another stem. Then I gently tease them apart. Standing a short distance away I then look at the rose and decide where I am going to put the nine or ten stems of 'Victoria'. Starting one side I take a stem of 'Victoria', gently, and tie it to a branch of the rose. I go on doing this systematically until ultimately the whole of the rose has stems of 'Victoria'. Every week, or at the most two weeks, I shall need to come back and tie in the new shoots, right up to the point of flowering of the clematis. As the clematis and the rose are not included in my leaky pipe system, I make sure it is watered copiously once a week.

May 5th
Each year we have a pheasant who regards our garden as his territory, moves in and soon becomes a pet. I usually talk to them. In no time at all they come up to you for a chat and will come quite close anywhere in the garden. Our pet this year I call 'Plucky'. This is because somebody has plucked some feathers out of his tail. He is a handsome bird except for his tail feathers. I am beginning to learn, however, there are disadvantages in making a wild bird too much of a pet. Plucky will come right up to me in the garden. This is alright as I am a friend of his. But it might be dangerous for him to be some close to some humans. Furthermore, these wild birds can become sort of 'housebound' and keep within the areas of humans. This too can be dangerous. Last year our very close pet pheasant was killed by a passing car on the road near the house. That could be another reason for not getting too attached. The pheasant is a very vulnerable creature. Somewhere near the garden, I am sure, is a female pheasant who, before long, will appear with her brood.

May 6th
We motored to Bath in the west of England today. It is always difficult to predict how long a journey is going to take because of congestion on the motorways. However we had an easy passage and so arrived in Bath in the middle of a glorious afternoon. Lying deep in the valley you have to approach it from the hills. The hot springs attracted the old Celts here, who built a temple near the waters. When the Romans came they were quick to see the value of the hot springs. They too built a temple and linked it with the Celtic god. The elaborate Roman baths are unique. Bath became a fashionable town and so the squares with its surrounding houses were built to a design by eminent architects. They are a joy, not only by day, but also in the peace of the night.

May 7th
As our friends were new to Bath we took a tour of the town on the top of an open bus. On the hills around the town are some very fine private gardens. They look glorious in the sun and after the green producing rain. There was clematis, mostly montanas, here and there. I have never seen a sward as green as that of the cricket ground. The Abbey, perhaps because of the finances that come from the many tourists, had been completely cleaned and refurbished inside. It looked as new. How could they have built these enormous places hundreds of years ago? It's difficult to believe that today we could build such a place given all the modern resources. What soaring minds they must have had in those days. The Roman baths had to be visited of course. The tea room is an institution; a truly English tea while visitors from foreign lands pass by wondering at this foible of the English. Tea was preceded by a drink of the waters. Not to be recommended for a long drink. From the rust in the baths it must be assumed that the waters contain iron. Anyone who was anaemic must have benefited greatly from the water taken every day for a time.

May 8th
We moved west today, to see friends in West Wales, beyond Carmarthen. This could be termed 'Dylan Thomas' country. I can still recall that remarkable voice, so rich and deep, reading his own poetry on record. No-one did it as well as he. So to Laugharne. That strange little town on the estuary of the Tawe River. The sea was no reason for this town being there for few boats could reach it. How do they live? Perhaps in some peculiar way they live off one another. The boathouse, the home of Dylan and Caitlin Thomas for a number of years, lies hanging from the cliff overlooking the estuary. The poet termed it "the house on stilts". The widow Caitlin in her will gave it to a trust so that it could become a small museum. Despite being so small it still has three storeys. The bottom storey just has a tiny kitchen and what was the living room of the family. The next floor has two bedroom for the three children. And the top floor, which has the entry door, had a bedroom for the parents and a drawing room for visitors. From the cliff path you go through a small garden and climb down into the top floor. The view is beautiful beyond description. The vast estuary with its sandbanks is just a natural reserve for birds - the cormorants, the curlews, the herons, the ducks, the geese, the swans. You can even feed yourself from the sands because they are full of cockles. Above the house, on the lane, is a tiny asbestos garage, the first garage in Laugharne. Here the poet wrote his masterpieces away from the noise of the children and with a bag of sweets supplied by Caitlin. On the way back I spied a clematis 'Freda'. I would have like to have photographed it with the background of the estuary. Whatever angle I tried it was not possible.

May 9th
I did succeed in the photography of clematis in Laugharne. Just near where I parked the car I spied clematis 'Mayleen' coming over the porch of a gate. Beyond it stood a disused house in a shabby state of repair. I photographed 'Mayleen' while the locals watched me with interest'. Later, in a recent book, I read that this was the spot where Caitlin had given herself early one morning to a gang of labourers bringing water to the town. I learned also that the porch I had photographed led to the house 'Sea View'. This was the home of Dylan and Caitlin for the happiest period of their lives. He would lie in bed with his arms round her and read his poems for her and her alone. Little did they imagine the tempestuous years that were to come.

May 10th
As we journeyed back to the east of England I reflected on the personalities of geniuses. Dylan Thomas was a master of words. As unique as Mozart in his way. But his gift which came from an early and continuous input from his father, was part of a wretched personality. A prodigious liar, a continual thief, and monumentally selfish. Our East Anglian composer, Benjamin Brittan, had his genius wedded to a miserable personality. I once lectured for many years on the psychopathology of Dylan Thomas. There was plenty of rich material. So interested in him was I, that I spent a couple of days at the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street in New York, from where he was taken to hospital to die. In the early morning he came back to the hotel and made the famous statement "I drank 18 whiskies straight off. That was a record". However, he was such a liar that even that was an exaggeration. It is more likely that he drank eight whiskies, but that would have been enough. He had to get into oblivion to escape the harrowing letter he had just received from Caitlin. The Chelsea Hotel was running down by the time I stayed there. The rooms were large, and not only was there a bedroom, but also a sitting room and even a kitchen. One chap in the hotel had a menagerie in his room. It was much frequented by the artistic including the writer and poet, Arthur Miller, more famed for his marriage to Marilyn Monroe.

The poet helped me out of a fix once. I was at an international conference in Manila, the Philippines. In the festive evening it was arranged that the representatives of each country should do an act. I was the sole representative of the UK so I had to do a solo act. I recited Dylan Thomas's poem on the death of his father. The start is gently lit - "Do not go gentle into that good night" - but ends in a blaze - "Rage, rage against the dying of the light". Great words, like great music, crosses national boundaries. His poem was well received.

May 11th
Barry Fretwell introduced a fine new clematis which he called after his wife 'Patricia Ann Fretwell'. I have had it for three years. During the last two years I have been disappointed to find that it did not produce a double flower. To my joy I can see that this year a number of double flowers are forming. I can also see that the insects have also seen the target and they are already damaging the big globes. To frustrate them I have sprayed the plant with an insecticide. Furthermore I have put several of the large globes into plastic bags and then tightened the end of the bag with a tie. No snail should be able to get in there. Nor, indeed, should any pest.

May 12th
Hoeing away today, I reflected on the need that comes with advanced years, to have an occasional sit-down. In the garden there are seven different seats specifically put there for one to have a sit-down. But how rarely one sits down! That is the nature of being a gardener. My favourite seat is in a remote corner of the garden under an evergreen oak. The tree gives shade throughout the year. There you can sit and contemplate almost the whole of the garden but be well away from any interruptions. Not only do I appreciate the peace but so do the birds it seems.

May 13th
Today an essential job had to be done. The pond had reached a point when it needed a thorough cleaning up. All the baskets were taken out. Each one had its weeds removed and grit was put around the plants in the pot. Each was then carefully put back with a discreet brick or stone to hold it in place when the wind blows. The surface of the water was cleaned of algae. My son-in-law had already installed a new pump. The previous one had done valiant service and been on almost continuously for a number of years. The new pump has more power. We decided to dispose of the pipe that makes an elaborate fountain effect. Instead we would just let the water fall over a figure and splash into the pond. If I had my time again, I probably would not have a formal pond. Instead I would have a much less formal one with water, in the form of a stream, coming in and out of it. The azaleas around the pond are just coming into bloom and soon there will be a dramatic splash of colour.

May 14th
Today is a special day. The swallows have arrived! They are late this year. This, I imagine, is because the prevailing wind has come from the north-east. It's so cold and it doesn't invite one to produce a brood of swallows. Furthermore, the birds would have been battling against a strong north-easterly wind. Anyhow, they are here. At first I spied one on the telephone wires, then there were two. Later there was a dramatic incident. One of the swallows, probably the male, had been doing a reconnaissance around the house looking for a site for a nest. He saw the open door of the house and slipped into the kitchen. My wife was able to catch him and gently held the bird in her hand whilst the three grand-daughters were called. They were utterly fascinated by this beautiful little creature that had just arrived here after a two thousand-mile trip. He is one of us. This is his home. When released he flew high into the sky but then wheeled around and hung about the house and the outhouses, still looking for his nesting site.

May 15th
The glory of the south-west corner of the garden is the montana 'Grandiflora' climbing into Ginkgo 'Biloba' (the Maidenhead Tree). This is an interesting tree inasmuch as it is a deciduous pine. It has been here many years and is now a huge tree, almost the size if the Scots Fir alongside. The montana 'Grandiflora' is in its third season and has climbed approximately a third of the way up the tree. The large white flowers of the montana are perfect against the light green foliage of the tree.

May 16th
The peacocks seem to be going mad. They are in a state of great restlessness. That is to say the cocks are in a state of great restlessness. They are dashing here and there, seeing off any intruder into their territory. They display at the slightest excuse - a pheasant, a cat, a rabbit, even a mole-hill! The peahen seems undisturbed by all the excitement, munches quietly and goes about her business. Some of the Early Large Flowered clematis are now in bloom. One of the finest of all clematis, 'Lasurstern', has produced some really large blooms. The contrast of the deep blue tepals with their curly edges and a fine contrast to the light centre. Nearby there is 'Dawn', 'Nelly Moser', 'Mrs Cholmondely' and 'Miss Bateman'. But most wonderful of all is 'W.E. Gladstone'. This is an old clematis from the last century and named after a prominent British prime minister. Arguably the largest of all clematis in size. One bloom is, without doubt, at least 10 inches across - a "dinner-plate" clematis. This clematis has the habit of dying off to the ground in the winter if the winter is harsh. It always comes up again but, of course, there is then a delay in flowering. This winter it kept going and so now we have these magnificent blooms early on.

May 18th
There is no sign of a nightingale yet. We look out for them. We look out for their song in the late evening. But no sound as yet. Perhaps they are delayed like the swallows, by the cold weather. Nightingales sing in the mating season. It is not always realised that they also sing by day but their song is lost amongst the others. The number of the swallows is increasing and they are busy throughout the day - dashing amongst the trees, no doubt gobbling insects as they go by.

May 19th

The misnaming of clematis can be a disappointment. It's a pleasure, of course, if the clematis proves to be rather more exciting than the one ordered. But more often it is a disappointment to find that you do not have the plant you required for a position you had in mind. Reputable nurseries spend endless time trying to avoid this problem. With the very best it occasionally occurs. However, any sound nursery will gladly replace the plant. Of course in practice it may be some time, usually when the plant flowers, before one realises it is the wrong plant.

May 20th
Honey fungus is one of the most destructive diseases in my garden. It was possibly endemic in the garden or it may have come from a nearby large tree which had succumbed to it. Matters were made much worse by the hurricane some years ago. A number of trees were blown over and their branches penetrated the soil leaving deposits of wood in the soil, excellent material on which the fungus grows. Today I found two new trees that had succumbed to it. One was a eucalyptus which I kept short for its delightful foliage. The other was a conifer reaching for the sun. Some trees are particularly susceptible. The most susceptible in my experience is the weeping willow. I lost two young trees and one established tree to the fungus. It is almost impossible to prevent its actions. One is advised to take the whole soil area of the tree away. Not always easy if the tree is very large. Then the area around that has to be disinfected.

May 21st
You need a nice lawn to set off your clematis. The most disfiguring visitor here is the mole. In the spring they come out of the ground to mate. They are such delightful little creature that it is difficult to plot their death. A nimble cat at that time of the year can help some gardeners. I have known of many efforts being made to control them. A friend of mine used a shotgun. He would wait until the mole was working near the surface. When the piles of soil were mounting, he would shoot with his 12-bore into the ground. While he killed the mole, he discovered that in no time at all, another mole moved in. There are various noise making appliances you put into the ground. They don't work. If you really want to be rid of them you have to use poisoned worms. This is what the green keepers do. The only other way is to live with them as I do. In fact, the fine earth they throw up makes excellent soil for containers. Also spread on the lawn it fertilises the turf. I draw a rake through the mole hill, carefully lifting any stones out, and then scatter the soil on the turf.

May 22nd
We have had a bonfire site for many years but have decided to use this area for some other function. So today was our last bonfire. I have had to wait some days for the wind to blow from the south-west, carrying the flames away from a precious, enormous, holly tree. The wind was good and everything burnt down to the ground. After all the fires of years we have a mound of excellent ash. Now began a tedious business. Each spadeful of ash was put into a sieve and the contents sieved into a wheelbarrow. The debris went into another wheelbarrow. In this way we had about eight full wheelbarrows of ash. These were deposited between the herbaceous clematis. We also had two wheelbarrows of debris that were "lost".

May 23rd
Depositing the ash amongst the herbaceous clematis yesterday reminded me that they all needed support. They seem to have done particularly well with all the rain we have had. But they are all falling over one another. I have a mixed menu there. They are integrifolias, heraclefolias, diversifolias and texensis. I have a special support for the texensis, the Hill House Texensis Support. This does an excellent job in displaying the plant. For the remainder I use short canes or long canes and sometimes more than one cane. They look good this year but next year, after that wood-ash, they should be stupendous.

May 24th
Someone has seen a rabbit in the garden. This was confirmed when I saw that the black and white cat from next door was in the garden. He is a great hunter and it is uncanny the way he knows when there is a rabbit about. In all probability it is a small rabbit, very small, it hasn't yet developed "neighbourhood sense". He's blundered in through some tiny hole. Cats are very patient and will sit quietly for hours waiting for their prey to appear. He will almost certainly get the rabbit and then he will set off with an extraordinary growling noise in his throat to take the rabbit home to his patrons. He keeps well away from the house in our garden as if he was aware that he is trespassing. In his own garden, however, he is a most amiable chap.

May 25th
'Plucky' is getting friendlier by the day. When I come down in the morning to make a cup of tea he immediately spies me in the kitchen. He comes at a great pace towards the door. He never flies and he must walk miles and miles in the course of a day. His walk is a very important one. As if he were on serious business. His feet are put down very deliberately as if he were walking on hot coals. We had a long chat today about this, that, and the other. Now I detect a sound in his throat, not the usual clucking, but a different one as if he were trying to involve himself in a discussion. The nice thing about talking to a pheasant is that they always agree with you. Of course it may be that the noise is nothing more than a request "What about a crust of bread, mister?"

May 26th
I was wondering in the garden today what plants are making the big show at the moment. Of course the montanas are still at full blast. Amongst these a very impressive show has been put up this year by Montana 'Broughton Star'. This has a double flower. The outer ring of tepals are pinky-red. The inner ring are a darker pinky-red. Thus there is a most attractive contrast between the two rings. It is making a great show over the pergola.

Competing with it for display is a climbing rose on the wall of the house. This is the climbing rose 'Cecile Brunner'. It has only been in three years and it is covering the wall with a tremendous display of small light pink blooms. The flower is a gem. It is a perfect button-hole rose. It also has a pleasant perfume. The rose, however, is essentially spring flowering. It is a one-display rose largely. There will be some blooms later but they will not make together the show that we see now.

May 27th
The new flock of squirrels seem to have arrived. I saw two youngsters on the lawn today. The squirrels, of course, always follow a set course. These two youngsters did, more or less, follow the usual course. However they dashed off it and climbed up into a conifer. You could follow their progress by the way the leaves and the branches were moving. They soon found that of no interest and instead dashed to the joy of all squirrels - the oak tree. This gave them an enormous area to explore. They dashed here, there, and everywhere, having a game with one another. They always have to be quick, moving from one safe area to another and hoping not to meet a cat in between.

May 28th
I am very impressed with the show 'Mrs Cholmondeley' is giving this year. She really is in the most wretched spot in the whole garden. She is on a wall facing north and in front of her is a large cherry tree giving continuous shade. What is more, the soil at that point is very poor. But there she is, nine gorgeous large blooms. Being in the shade of course the colour is retained. I shall make her the clematis of the month. As you know 'Mrs Cholmondeley' is pronounced 'Mrs Chumly'. These peculiarities of the English language must create problems for English speakers elsewhere. I am reminded of a kindly young Pakistan doctor. His task was to wash out the ears of an elderly lady. But she was apprehensive. He patted her arm and said "Don't you worry now lady. I am only going to pass water into your ear".

May 29th
The glory of our garden is the oak tree. Estimates vary as to its age. It is at least 200 years old and there have been estimates of 400-500 years old. However old age is catching up with it. Some branches are becoming de-nuded of leaves. Occasionally branches fall off. Some of these branches can be huge. They can come down unexpectedly. The dangerous time is in the spring when the sap rises and suddenly each branch is having to carry a new load. Then, even on a quiet day, a whole branch may suddenly collapse to the ground. At any time in a wind the branches may fall off. Oak being so heavy, then even a small piece can be enough to do serious injury to anyone below. People have to be warned not to walk under the oak tree in anything like a stiff breeze. If it could only talk. Even if it has only been there 200 years just imagine what it has witnessed during that time. It will, of course, easily outlive ourselves. It will see much that we will never see. Imagine the wisdom tucked away in that tree.

Virtually every bird coming into the garden uses the oak tree as a vantage point. Whether it be the crows, the pigeons, the starlings, the blackbirds. The squirrels rely on it for acorns for the winter. It has a thousand intriguing nooks and crannies. All of it holds a fascination for grandchildren.


May 30th
As we are going away a number of plants in pots have temporarily been put into trenches in the borders. They are far safer there than in the greenhouse. Each one will be put over a leaky pipe. Thus when the water system is turned on each pot will receive water from underneath. In addition, of course, if it rains they will be looked after for water. If the weather turned hot then the plants will not be scorched in the way they would be in the greenhouse.

The leaky pipe system is invaluable and, without doubt, the best way of watering clematis. As the water is released about four inches below ground none of it is wasted by evaporation. Working in the beds, one must always say to oneself "where are the pipes?" It is so easy with a spade, and particularly with a fork, to pierce the leaky pipe. It is not too great a tragedy. The technique is quite simple for coping with this. If the pipe has been damaged and you cut across at that point, you then slip a plastic pipe into the upper hole and the other end in the lower hole. It can be done in seconds. That is to say, if you have any spare plastic bridges. If there is difficulty in getting the plastic into the pipe then we have learned that if you pour hot water onto the end of the leaky pipe it becomes soft and it is easy to push the plastic link inside.

May 31st
The wet weather has produced a profusion of weeds. It is quite astonishing how quickly weeds grow and to what an immense size they get in a short time. Around the base of clematis I prefer to weed by hand to make quite sure there is no damage to the stems. Between clematis one can use a hoe. This is a quick way of getting rid of the weeds. In my case, I always have to be saying to myself "where are the pipes?" However, if I keep in the top inch of the soil I am unlikely to do any damage to the leaky pipes which are about four inches below soil level. When I hoe I just leave the weeds there to decompose and add to the nurturing of the soil. Where the clematis are very close together I would usually do all the weeding around them by hand. My technique is to shake the soil from the weed roots, turn it upside down and place them on the soil in a heap. In no time at all they will decompose, adding value to the soil.


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