Imagine being woken from a deep warm sleep by someone wielding a shovel. This was the experience of the four toads we unearthed from a mature leaf mould pile in the gardens at Osterley two weeks ago. We were excavating the leaf mould to use as mulch in the Winter Garden. The amphibians had snuggled themselves into this dense and dark environment presumably with a view to remaining in hibernation until next spring. Each time we found a toad we carefully deposited its plump brown and understandably trembling body in the neighbouring leaf compound where last years leaves are slowly rotting down into a rich dark substance which will be ready to harvest in a year or so.
Recent work at Osterley has been varied and very satisfying. We have cut down to ground level the Asters and Heleniums in the American Border, the long deep area which backs onto the Tudor Walled Garden planted with specimens of shrubs and herbaceous perennials originating from North America. One of these is the towering herbaceous perennial American pokeweed, Phytolacca americana, which bears racemes of crimson-black berries in the autumn. This too was cut down to the ground. After weeding we planted a scattering of tulip bulbs between the crowns of the plants we had cleared, which in some cases were already fringed in the first of next year’s leaves.
A week ago, in one quadrant of the Tudor Walled Garden, we grubbed out the Castor Oil plants, Ricinus communis, which provide height and drama amidst the Dahlias and Mexican sunflowers which two months ago were still thriving colourfully in the glorious open location. I described working in the midst of this bed in a blog post a couple of months ago and at its height it is truly a kaleidoscope of varying shades of orange, red and yellow. One of the Osterley gardeners explained that the Castor Oil plants have been particularly successful this year, having been started under glass in February in preparation for planting out after the frosts have ceased. Their success was demonstrated by their unwillingness to be extracted from the soil. Each spot plant had formed a tough knuckle of root from which radiated several anchoring roots necessitating some persistent spade and fork work for every plant. The waste material was shredded that afternoon in the work yard area near the Gardeners’ Bothy ready for composting. Out too came a few remaining stands of Rainbow Chard, a reminder that the planting in this bed deliberately mixes culinary and decorative specimens. Over the coming months the now empty bed will be rotavated and spread with a leaf mould mulch, toads optional