Autumn came here in the first week of August, unbelievably early. By the third week of the month, some of the beech leaves showed signs of changing colour. A substantial order for spring bulbs has gone off to dapple them into the newly planted areas. Thought is being given to introducing some repeat-flowering roses into the Rose Garden, which tends to be fantastic for a fortnight but dull thereafter.
Opening the garden regularly to visitors does affect what we plant, because there is no doubt that I now give far more thought to selecting flowers that will prolong the season. In spite of the very dry period of early summer, by late July we noticed everything had grown prolifically in the newly planted areas.
Meanwhile, the Kitchen Garden has been sinking beneath a cornucopia of produce. In the current economic climate, I can’t view crops going to ruin with complacency. This means that, when a particular fruit or vegetable is in abundance, I have to turn the kitchen into a factory. Supplies of Tuscan broad-bean stew were deployed to the deep-freezer in July, followed by broccoli-and-cheese soup, and cabbage-and-smoked-bacon soup, all for winter lunches.
Soft fruit has been made into individual summer puddings; a bumper crop of plums stoned and turned into compote. The apple trees are groaning beneath an explosion of fruit. Everyone helps themselves, but each night I core and quarter (but leave the skins on) a pile of them, placing them with a sprinkling of cinnamon in a large earthenware crock in the lower oven of the Aga overnight. In the morning, it is heaved out and stirred into purée, left to cool and then frozen. A daily dollop of that on my breakfast muesli sees me through an entire year.
By the time you read this, we will have closed the garden until next April. Our main opening season ended in mid July and, much to my surprise, we all felt quite sad when it happened. By ‘we’, I mean the gardeners, Shaun and Philip, and someone who has developed a role as my PA in running the whole venture, Fiona. What it brought home to me was that successful garden-opening has to be a team project with everyone, including me, enthusiastic and ready to turn a hand to most things.
Of its financial success there can be no doubt; overall, we will have recouped half the running costs of the garden; the other half coming, I hope, from The Folly, the holiday-let cottage in the grounds. People who have stayed there sing its praises and are thrilled to find awaiting them vases of flowers from the garden and a basket of local farm-shop produce instead of the usual packet of spaghetti and a Loyd Grossman sauce in a jar.
Shop sales initially disappointed me at just below £2 per visitor, but then I discovered that visitors to the national collections part with less than £1 on average. Our top sellers were plants from the garden. All of them had been multiplied by Shaun and all are sold at exactly the same price, £2.95.
I was advised by a nurseryman who rented The Folly not to charge £3, as it was a psychological barrier, and he was right. They walked off the shelves! And now we have to think of new items for 2011. We’re exploring the idea of producing metal picnic plates, along the lines of the wonderful ones in the Royal Collection shops.
We can’t compete with those, but the idea here is a series of six ‘Flowers and Fruits of The Laskett Gardens’. All my garden-design books are out of print, so there’s the question of whether any are worth reprinting, or are they just too dated? They sold in vast quantities in the 1980s and 1990s. Turning the pages, it was interesting to see how dated some now seem, making me realise that any reissue, which I’d have to pay for, would call for careful consideration.
Horticultural aide memoire
No.37: Harvest Apples
Some apples ripen early, some later, but late September through to October is the main period for harvesting. There’s no rush-leave the fruit on the tree to ripen further, especially if the season is mild and sunny. Ripe fruit comes away with a gentle twist, and a first bite will tell you whether the tree is ready to harvest. If it’s a good keeper, gather them all at once and store in a cool, dark, dry place. If not, pick them for eating straight away, and get the apple recipes out.
by Steven Desmond