unknown relations among familiar genera, like holly (Ilex), mountain ash (Sorbus), silver birch (Betula) and rhododendron.
Conditions vary so much according to the site, aspect, soil and climate that each of us has to discover, by trial and error, which plants will grow best in our individual situations. Here, in dry and windy Essex, average annual rainfall is generally around 51cm/20½in, divided equally between winter and summer, making us possibly the driest part of Britain. During the mid-1970s one year’s total was 35cm/14in, and in several years in the 1980s the annual total was less than 48cm/19in. Between October 1999 and March 2000, we measured just over 23cm/9in of rain, very little compared with many parts of Britain. Generally, rain falls in light showers, rather than steady downpours, rarely reaching the lower strata, and in most summers, after weeks without rain in July and August, I am obliged to irrigate the Wood Garden, especially areas that contain ‘mother’ plants needed for propagation. In winter even small amounts can give a false impression, with mud and puddles everywhere and the soil surface soggy; but deep digging to, say, 1m/40in for trenches or fence posts reveals the ground beneath dust dry.
Global warming is disturbing weather patterns all round the world, and during the mid-1990s we had exceptionally high temperatures in July and August, reaching 33C/92ºF, with winds from the Sahara leaving a coating of red dust over the cars in our car park. The rainfall remained the same, worryingly low. Since 1998 summers have returned to normal average temperatures, 18–24C/65–75ºF, comfortable for living and gardening, and winters have become milder and wetter. In 2000 and 2001, however, we had exceptionally high rainfall. We did not experience the distress, as did other parts of Britain, of having our homes and farmland under feet of water, but none of us could remember previously seeing our land at saturation point, as it was in the autumn of 2000 when the rainfall for October alone was 16cm/6½in. As a result, bulbous plants were busy underground throughout the winter and many flowered early, whereas in past years snowdrops and daffodils were often late, and we prayed for snow to melt and trickle down through dust-dry soil to plump up their bulbs. In 2001 we recorded an unheard-of annual total of 95cm/38in of rain, so trees and shrubs, provided they had not been waterlogged (unlikely in gravel soil), benefited, and bulbs too. In low-lying areas, where water cannot escape freely, some herbaceous plants were lost from root rot. It has been a strange experience writing much of this book during a period when there has been no call to voice
8 BETH CHATTO’S SHADE GARDEN