Embedded in the heart of one of the quadrants of the ornamental vegetable garden at Osterley, I temporarily lose sight of the bucket into which I am putting the debris from this afternoon’s task. We are deadheading dahlias and pulling out Solanum nigrum, Black Nightshade. I have a vision of this large bed in December- its current plenty reduced to blackened stalks by frost, ready to be cleared away and the bed rotated. Standing in its centre, like the proverbial sore thumb, is a large plastic bucket full of rotting vegetation. My excuse for mislaying the bucket is that very plenty. Towering around me are Canna Lilies, some of whose vivid yellow and orange flowers have developed into seed-cases containing the black pea-sized seeds which give the plant its common name of Indian Shot. The red and yellow remnants of Mina lobata, Spanish Flag, cling to the large wigwam constructed from hazel poles. I remember a crisp day last winter in the park when we gardening volunteers graded into separate piles the hazel trunks and stems coppiced by the ranger team. Spanish Flag can be grown from seed and is a colourful annual climber for a sunny position.
From my position in the centre of this sea of plants I can see a tall Nicotiana, with creamy greenish bells clustered in a spire above large green leaves, the scale of which are a reminder of its cousin, Walter Raleigh’s tobacco plant. Clear pink Zinnia heads clash (in a good way) with the bright orange flowers of the Mexican Sunflower, Tithonia rotundifolia, whose flowers resemble the form of the Zinnias. There are fewer flowers than a month ago when they were a magnet for bumble bees.
The feathery claret flowers of Amaranthus wave throughout the bed, busily seeding themselves and eliciting enquiries from curious garden visitors. The ‘pseudo-grain’ produced from Amaranth resembles Quinoa, source of both protein and pronunciation debates.
Relieved to rediscover the elusive bucket, I continue to pull up the shallow rooted Black Nightshade which is doing its best to choke the surrounding plants by sending up stems closely packed together which entwine their victim. It is identified by small white flowers and glossy black fruits, and seems to grow at an alarming rate. Despite its sinister name, I have read that the berries are barely toxic and in some parts of India are regarded as a delicacy (William Edmonds’ ‘Weeds Weeding (& Darwin)’). On the subject of sinister plants, Ricinus communis, with its dark Burgundy hand-shaped leaves, provides a brooding contrast to the cheerful hues of the other plants in this bed. The seeds of the Castor Oil Plant are the source of the deadly poison Ricin.
Within touching distance are the large yellow dahlia blooms I am meant to be deadheading- carefully avoiding the tight buttoned buds and snipping off only the stems supporting the pointed (and confusingly bud-like) spent flowers, their inner petals still visible.
This morning we had the pleasurable job of planting tubers and bulbs for next spring. Into the front of ‘Dickie’s Border’, named for a long-time Osterley gardener, we planted the bizarrely shaped dark brown tubers of Anemone coronaria (of which more later). The central sections of Mrs Child’s Flower Garden were the locations for clusters of tulip bulbs, in my case ‘Couleur Cardinal’, which is a traditionally shaped Triumph tulip whose purple flowers open to bright scarlet as the flower matures.
Before finishing for the day, gardener Ed takes us to the cutting garden to see a row of the species of Anemone we had planted earlier in the day, which has confusingly started to flower this autumn. The label reads ‘St Brigid mixed’. The cerise, white and purple flowers are double with an almost shredded appearance around a dark purple stamens and ovary structure. I leave Osterley intrigued to have discovered a group of Anemone cultivars developed in Ireland and named after a saint The Penguin Dictionary of Saints describes as revered in Ireland ‘only less than St Patrick himself’! I haven’t been able to identify why this name was chosen. The saint’s feast day, 1 February, is too early to coincide with even a prematurely flowering specimen. Whatever the reason, St Brigid’s namesakes are undoubtedly pretty and I shall be looking out for those we planted when they flower next spring.