Seasonal Observations at West Dean Gardens

Alitex Growing On

Contrary to what many people believe is expected of an Australian (of which I am one), I do not like unremitting sunshine. Endless days of heat and sun never made me chuckle as a child coupled as they were with sleepless nights and squinting all day in the sunlight; but to be honest, I could do with some of it now.

A beastly easterly is keeping the fleece, gloves and hat firmly in place while carrying out April activities added to which it feels like February not April. The kitchen garden remains bare as it’s just too cold to sow direct yet or plant out, although hundreds of plants are waiting ready in the wings for when we get some of that mythical spring warmth. It’s bare except, that is, under barn cloches and in the salad frame (which provide wind and rain protection) where young vegetables and salad crops are hoving into sight as I write.

Under glass however, in the still and calm, our nectarines and peaches are festooned with Barbie pink flowers and although appearing later this year than usual, the blossom is a welcome delight. Due to the lack of pollinating insects the flowers have been regularly attended to by garden volunteers armed with rabbits’ tails on canes acting as pollinating dusters – moving, like a bee, from flower to flower pollinating as they go. These trees look utterly spectacular in flower and again in fruit and because they’re grown under glass don’t suffer the indignation of peach leaf curl the fungal scourge of similar crops grown outdoors. 

Our nectarines and peaches make big trees when fan trained against a wall, taking up at least 6 metres in length and about 5 height metres in height - thus requiring a ladder to reach the further most branches. At West Dean they occupy our loftiest style of glasshouse, the ¾ span lean- to and here, the number of fruit trees is doubled with the addition of an ingenious curvilinear structure developed by the glasshouse manufacturer Foster and Pearson in the nineteenth century. It allows additional trees to be planted against the glass then trained over the frame, but still allowing sunlight to enter the house and hit the wood of the crop against the wall so that it can ripen. It’s a simple but effective system.

Our two fig trees at West Dean occupy their own individual houses and their impressive fan shaped canopy, established against the glass, occupies the whole house when fully established. Historically, with additional glasshouse heat and know-how, gardeners could expect 3 crops of figs a season whereas these days one crop each year is the norm. The big fig leaves in summer provide a shady environment underneath, which isn’t conducive to growing pots of flower and fruit bearing crops like tomatoes but would be perfectly fine for shade tolerant plants such as clivias. Understanding the individual growing environment for different cops allows wise choices to be made as to which plants can be grown together - get it wrong and you rue the day.

For more information about the West Dean Gardens click here.

Tags: alitex, west dean gardens, sarah wain, gardening under glass