I now find myself in an uneasy position for a Yorkshireman: I have lived in Hampshire for longer than I lived in God’s own county. Missionary work, I call it, by way of defence, but life and love and family and friends keep me here, and I visit the land of my birth several times a year to make sure that it remains a part of me, and I of it. ‘You can take the man out of Yorkshire, but…’ well, you know the rest.
Having first put down Hampshire roots in 1981, we moved, nine years ago, just a couple of miles from our original converted post-Boer War ‘colonial’ dwelling, to a mellow-brick Georgian farmhouse. It was familiar to Jane Austen, who lived in the nearby village of Chawton. She wrote to her sister Cassandra when its owner, Sir Thomas Miller, faded away: ‘I seem to be bringing you news of a dead baronet with every letter.’ It’s a curious claim to fame.
To the two acres that surrounded the house when we bought it, we’ve added another two, for wildflower meadows, parkland trees, a wildlife pond and a copse. We keep chickens and quail and a fat, black-and-white cat called Spud. I garden organically; the place teems with wildlife and birds thanks to the lack of chemical sprays and Spud’s indolence.
The rolling Downs might not be as dramatically sculpted as the Yorkshire Moors, but they’re home now; my second home (along with the Isle of Wight) and my garden-my sheet anchor-are here. ‘You can take a man out of his garden…’ Well, actually, in my case, you can’t. It was Ronnie Barker who opined that the secret of good comedy was… timing.
The same is true of gardening. But whereas the accomplished comic can be pretty sure in the placement of a punchline, we have to contend with nature putting in her oar and throwing everything out of rhythm. Ordinarily, early March would have been a good time to plant a double avenue of hornbeams, but this year? Bad timing. With no rain to speak of for the best part of 2½ months (except for one weekend when manna descended), I find myself a slave to the sprinkler.
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Guiltily. I resist using them except in extreme circumstances, not least because one good shower is worth five sessions with the sprinkler. But rely on the water board I must, in the temporary absence of the Almighty. Of the 36 10ft trees that were planted, only one is steadfastly refusing to come into leaf. Its buds remain fat, but my hopes are slim. Fortunately, I bought another four to act as replacements in the event of fatalities.
This quartet, infiltrated among a young copse of knee-high saplings planted three years ago and now growing lustily, serve as a reminder that small, young trees get away far better than taller, older ones, and easily outstrip their growth within five or 10 years.
The greatest and most ignominious proof of this is the set of four mature oak trees I rashly spent a fortune on three years ago when we bought the extra land. Twenty feet tall, and from a highly reputable supplier who advised on the mode of planting (massive rootballs to which stout timbers were attached to act as ground anchors), they were committed to our flinty earth overlying chalk and-again-ministered to with the sprinkler in prolonged dry spells (with warnings that many transplanted trees of this size are killed by well-intentioned drowning). Three years on, they’re still alive, but sparsely foliated.
I know that beeches might have been a safer bet. I know I should have planted smaller oaks. I know they would have established faster (given tubular shelters to protect them from rabbits and deer), but I’m now over 60-aye, there’s the rub. Old age, when patience is supposedly more in evidence, is, in reality, tempered by the irrational actions borne of those ever more frequent intimations of mortality. Never again. From now on, I’m assuming that I’ll make the century, and with that in mind, I intend to grow all my trees from seed.