IN THE NIGHT GARDEN
Midnight. A three-quarters moon. A gibbous moon, thinly veiled under a gossamer haze. Further south, on the horizon, cauliflower clouds drift eastwards to worry the Cotswolds – no threat to my nocturnal plan. It’s high summer, 18°C (65°F) and balmy, yet fresh.
I was in bed by 9.30pm (listening to Chopin), daylight barely diminished, the alarm set for two hours thence. I slept until the alarm squeaks woke me; the CD long since stopped, the moon riding high.
Drained of colour, the landscape portrayed itself in keen monochromatic tones. Moonlight lacks the intensity for our eyes’ cones to see colour properly; the rods that see shapes instead of colours work with very low light intensities compared with the cones. Hence moonlight’s near black-and-white affect.
Owls. I dress and pull on warmer clothes than I really need in the expectation of an hour’s foray around our five-acre woodland garden.
Mad? No. I’m off to rehearse my olfactory skills. Just me, the owls, flitting bats and flurries of pollinating moths.
My fragrance guru is Stephen Lacey, whose Companion to Scented Plants (2014) is among my library indispensables. More recently, and more relevant to these scribblings, I discovered American horticulturist Peter Loewer, whose earlier (1993) book The Evening Garden has prompted several after-dark meanderings. Subtitled Flowers and Fragrance from Dusk till Dawn, it’s written for the curious, like me, and for ‘the many people who work and only have time to … enjoy their gardens after the daylight hours’.
Among chapters on aspects other than purely sweet- (or, indeed, foul-) smelling plants, one numbers around 125 species that, according to the anonymous versifier he quotes, are ‘… flowers that keep/ Their odour to themselves all day;/ But when the sunlight dies away,/ Let the delicious secret out/ To every breeze that roams about.’
After this year’s frosty April and May’s dismal cold, wet weeks, many springtime plants were late in flower. Some – a bonus – held on to their eventual blooms for longer than usual. In June, as pinks and carnations began to emit their exotic, clove-like scents, fragrant azaleas continued to seduce the nostrils. Viburnums hung on as well, especially the fabulously scented V x judii and V carlesii.
Now the roses are at it. Any good nurseryman’s catalogue will highlight the most generously perfumed – in our garden, it’s the easily sourced, richly scent-endowed Rosa rugosa ‘Roseraie de l’Haÿ’ and the numerous gallicas, albas, damasks, bourbons and hybrid musks that Lacey’s book so lovingly describes.
Choices are endless, not only for summer: jasmine, some rhododendrons (I must find another ‘Lady Alice Fitzwilliam’ – ‘lily-scented with a dash of nutmeg’, says Lacey), philadelphus (mock orange), pineapple-scented Cytisus battandieri, many of the daphnes, sweet Williams, lavender, honeysuckle, buddleia, lilac, freesias, Cestrum parqui (a supreme after-dark wafting – though potentially poisonous – shrub from Chile), heliotrope, numerous lilies and – a signature plant in our garden – Elaeagnus ‘Quicksilver’.
This untidy, deciduous muddle grows about eight feet tall and across, with shining, metallic-grey foliage and minute, highly charged yellow flowers that any parfumier would give his eye teeth to replicate. From names like these, voluptuous, night-fragrant gardens are made.
You don’t have to emulate my routine before heading out for a nocturnal sniff (with its worries about the less agile among us tripping over and being left unfound). Simply set a couple of night-scented and blessedly soporific, flowering plants below the bedroom window and throw open the casements. Beware: hay-fever-suffering, sleeping partners will rightly protest.
Victorian gardeners growing fruit for grand houses were fond of their melon hothouses, and some developed their own varieties, such as Blenheim Orange.
If you want to grow melons today, on a much smaller scale of course, the cantaloupe is the one most likely to be successful in this country’s climate. The cantaloupe group includes charentais and ogen melons, which are best grown in a greenhouse or cold frame, although there are varieties – one is called Outdoor Wonder – that suggest otherwise.
When Monty Don conducted an experiment with Outdoor Wonder, the plants that he grew outdoors, in a raised bed, were, in his words, ‘a total disaster’. Melons need heat, which he provided in a greenhouse, and in a cold frame with compost and leaf mould on a bed of horse manure.
Seeds should be sown in April under cover, in a temperature of about 20°C, and the plants moved to their final position in June. When they are in flower, ventilation is important for the plants to be pollinated. When the fruits are gooseberry size, select the best four on each stem, remove the rest and pinch out any more flowering growth.
Regular watering is important, plus a weekly feed of a liquid fertiliser, until the fruits begin to ripen and the foliage dies back. If the plants are grown up a trellis, the melons may need the support of netting when they swell. The best way to judge a melon’s ripeness is with one’s nose.
I’m not a great fan of watermelons, but they too can be grown in Britain. Of the cantaloupe melons, Honey Bun grows as a compact bush; so it’s suitable where space is limited. Emir F1, which has an RHS Award of Garden Merit, is a charentais-type bred for northern climates, with a special interest for me.
Charentais melons originated in the part of western France, Charente, that my Huguenot family, who lived on an island off La Rochelle, was compelled to leave towards the end of the 17th century, thanks to Louis XIV when he outlawed the Protestant religion.
DOWN MEXICO WAY
Exotic holiday destinations are unlikely this summer. So wrap up warm, light the barbecue and head into the wilds – thanks to Mexico artist-illustrator Corinna Sargood’s story of love and learning in the 1980s, The Village in the Valley.
No recipes are included; it’s the exquisite pen-and-ink drawings that make the book such a joy for the armchair traveller.
Read all about Mexico’s traditional tortillas, griddle-baked scooping breads, made with masa harina, a dough prepared with lye-treated cornmeal. Join the hunt for grasshoppers, chapulines, to toast as a crisp little high-protein snack, washed down with a swig of mescal. Uncover the secret sex life of the vanilla orchid, and explore the ancient Aztec art of fermenting cocoa beans. Irresistible.
Barbecued pork, sweetcorn and green peppers
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