Day 209: cutting lavender

Is it too soon? The bees and the hoverflies, the butterflies and the moths are still loving the lavender but, come the end of July, I’m itching to get in there with my secateurs…

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Requiem for a lavender hedge

I’ve finally found the resolve to tackle a task I should have grappled with months ago – removing a lavender hedge past its best. But, as it was the very first thing we planted in our blank canvass garden when we moved here ten years ago, I’m allowing myself a little trip down memory lane.

It was the flood that did for it. Two weeks up to your neck in water is a less than pleasant experience for anyone, and when the chilly tide crept towards the house over Christmas two years ago, we wondered whether the lavender would survive the most un-Mediterrannean conditions. After a fashion, it did – but by the time of that damp event, the plants within the double hedge flanking the path were already eight years old, and had suffered a two year period where, busier at work than in the garden, I had foolishly permitted them to grow out of their soft, juvenile curves into lanky adolescence. Thus the lavender, not renowned for its longevity, limped through another couple of years on our heavy soil, looking like some frightful sculpture, twin rows of cadaverous angularity, bleached bones with sparse scatterings of blue-grey hair. Sentimentality can lead to cruel indulgences – I should have administered the coup de grâce last year. It would have been kinder.

Flood water subsiding, but roots still in the drink. Christmas 2013

Flood water subsiding, but roots still in the drink. Christmas 2013

Ten years isn’t a bad innings. A decade of colour and scent, of sharing our space with delighted bees. That wonderful week in July when the red Crocosmia breaks out and arches over the mauve stripes, that period in late summer where the flowers mingle with the metallic sheen of the Deschampsia in the evening light. The buckets of fresh lavender we cut – far more than we knew what to do with, the smell of bunches drying in the shed, the sweet scent of cuttings on the first bonfire of autumn. 

The lavender arrives - May 2006

The lavender arrives - May 2006

The first planting in the garden of our new home

The first planting in the garden of our new home

Taking shape...

Taking shape...

...settling in

...settling in

It’s gone now, grubbed out and waiting for a still evening and a swift blaze. Now I can get into the path edges and weed properly, something that had become increasingly awkward as the hedge lollopped around. Another reason to keep it in neat, disciplined, mounds – very controlled, very British. I’m toying with not replacing it – but I don’t fancy my resolve. I think we might try a different variety – Lavendula angustifolia 'Maillette' was the original, an oil-rich strain with long mid-purple flowers to 7 or 8cm, above grey foliage, growing to an overall height of 60cm – not far off some of the more vigorous x angustifolia, the lavendins. Perhaps we’ll opt for 'Peter Pan', a good 15cm lower, with considerably shorter flowers – it should knit itself into a perfect hedge. A few weeks yet till the nursery starts shipping plants, so time to mull things over. Let’s see if I feel like buying myself a birthday present.

Emma weeding between the lavenders

Emma weeding between the lavenders

Bill surveys the wreckage in the wake of the hedge being pulled out

Bill surveys the wreckage in the wake of the hedge being pulled out

Covered in bees*

The alliterative first line of Keats’ ode To Autumn gets bandied about with predicatable regularity at this time of year. And quite rightly too; it may be bordering upon cliché, but were there a more apt, evocative or economic description of the time of year now being ushered in than “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, I’m sure we’d all be using it. But, for the past week or so, it’s the passage at the end of the first stanza that I keep thinking of, those lines that describe the bees making the absolute most of the late-season flowers, drunk on nectar and basking in the late sun before returning to hives dripping with honey after the summer’s generosity.



This mental picture seems particularly apposite just now. The radio tells me we’re enjoying the driest September since 1960, while my ears tell me that the bees are certainly taking advantage of the weather. When out walking Bill in the fields I pass between two ivy-clad columns – heaven only knows what trees are providing the structural support, the climber is all-encompassing and glossy with luxuriant mature foliage, in full flower and cacophanous with all manner of flying insects. I identify wasps, several kinds of bee and hover flies among the cloud of voracious activity, before deciding to retreat to a safer distance. They all look perfectly preoccupied, but the sound is slightly intimidating, and I don’t really fancy hanging around in case the general mood should suddenly change.

Back in the garden, the dahlias continue to romp away in the borders, the asters are coming into flower and, while most of the lavender has now been cut back, there are a few patches which we’ve deliberately left. All of these late flowers seem to be enormously appreciated by the bees, our most welcome neighbours, and in a year when the plight of the bumble bee continues to be a serious concern, their presence in our garden in such enthusiastic crowds is both welcome and encouraging.

We’ve no immediate plans to have hives of our own, happy for the time being to let others do the hard work; it’s far less bothersome to get one’s honey from a jar, rather than a wooden box full of buzzing insects. In the meantime, I’m more than content that while we didn’t set out to plant a ‘bee friendly’ garden, by virtue of that fact that it’s brimming with flowers, that’s exactly what we have.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
and still more, later flowers for the bees
So that they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cells. 
from To Autumn by John Keats, 1819

Some bee related links:

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust
Friends of the Earth’s Bee Cause campaign page
The British Beekeepers’ Association


*The title for this post came to mind from a sketch from Eddie Izzard’s Glorious tour. Maybe not Keats, but more belly laughs.
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Handful


Emma’s Thursday posy, just cut from the garden. Quite a handful, with a knockout scent from a combination of lavender, fennel and sweet peas.

Need to find a better vase, though.

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