Thursday, March 27, 2008

Crossing over

It's not often you find a gardener who's a designer. Or, for that matter, a designer who will readily admit to being a gardener: the best ones will usually be keen gardeners in their own gardens, but professionally there's not much cross-over between the two.

As time goes on, though, I'm finding the lines are becoming increasingly blurred for me between professional gardening and designing. I've had two regular clients ask me to design their gardens, or bits of them: one is a clear-ground project which will probably take years as we're doing it mostly by hand; the other is a perfectly good garden at the moment which they're about to rip up for an extension, so it'll need a re-work afterwards.

What's more, a designer I sometimes work for as a gardener has now asked me to help her out and design part of two of her clients' gardens - they've asked for veggie gardens and she doesn't know much about vegetables.

So all of a sudden, I find myself being a professional gardener and a designer.

Well that got me thinking. I actually really enjoy designing with plants - not so keen on the concrete and garden furniture bit, but love the idea of putting my favourite plants together so that they really sing. I've started to wonder if I might be able to break the mould a bit, and wear two hats at the same time - professional gardener, and plant designer.

To that end (and so that I'm not entirely talking out of my backside when asked to do these projects) I've signed up for a college course at Capel Manor College in London. This is one of the better design colleges, and to its great credit has a garden design course that concentrates solely on plant design. I'm starting by learning how to draw (never a great strength of mine) - first lesson at the end of next month. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Plant of the month - March

Hyacinth 'Delft Blue'

I had always thought of hyacinths as the sort of flower your grandma grows. That is, until I saw them in the late great Christopher Lloyd's border at Great Dixter. As regular readers will know, I'm a big fan of Mr Lloyd's, so anything that's good enough for him is good enough for me. When I went, he had 'King of the Blues' in his Long Border, and it truly zinged out at you from among the spring flowers - not gaudy, as some over-bred primroses are, for example, but just pure, joyous blue.

I couldn't find 'King of the Blues' so had to opt for 'Delft Blue' - a more commonly-grown type but nonetheless superb for that. At this time of year its uncompromising china blue stands up beautifully to the butter-yellow daffodils all around it - this is not a wishy-washy plant, and all the better for it. You can force them to grow indoors - the usual excuse is to enjoy the scent at close quarters, but to be honest I find it overwhelming and a little sickly in the house. Far better to have it scattered on the wind so you catch a little puff of it as you pass by - one of those utterly blissful moments that gardening is all about. It seems grandma knew a trick or two after all.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Pruning as art

I'm well into the March pruning season now - have so far tackled dogwoods, coppiced eucalyptus, hebes, mahonias, hydrangeas, buddlejas and an overgrown berberis (that one was as truly horrible a job as it gets). I have yet to take the secateurs to a deciduous ceanothus or two, a cotinus, a small field of hypericum, and several pyracantha. I'm sure I'll spot a few more before I'm done.

It took me quite a while to realise that pruning is an art form (and I'm not talking about the really arty stuff like cloud pruning or topiary - just common or garden keeping your shrubs in check pruning). One injudicious snip and the balance of a shrub is ruined - usually if you chop off a branch you weren't intending to you actually end up starting again, as you then have to re-balance the shrub to make amends for your mistake.

So when I'm pruning I take my time. I do an awful lot of standing back and pondering with my head on one side, à la van Gogh (told you it was an art form). This is because once you prune out one big-ish branch, if you take a step back and look at the whole shrub, it suddenly becomes glaringly obvious which branch is now sticking out like a sore thumb and needs to be pruned out as well. Eventually - hopefully - you get to an equilibrium, where all the branches are evenly spaced, there's plenty of air and light in the centre of the shrub, it's not too tall or too wide, and looks just right (if considerably slimmer than when you started).

Of course there are shrubs which provide a little light relief to all this nailbiting judgement malarky - cornus, buddleja and coppiced eucalyptus you can just gaily slash back to a bud somewhere between 6" - 36" above ground level with no thought to aesthetic delicacies. But treat all shrubs with such reckless abandon - as, I find, most white van gardeners do - and you end up with a stubby stump of brushwood which does no aesthetic favours to anyone and won't help the health of the shrub, either. Take three, or even four times as long over doing it, and you'll have not a pruned shrub, but a work of art. It's a creative business, this gardening lark.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Blowing a hooley

I've spent much of today hunkered down in my office, looking out at a scene of wild and woolly weather.

We've had gales of about 60-70 mph here - not quite as bad as the coast, where it's got to 80mph, but quite bad enough. My heart is in my mouth on days like these: with the ground already sodden after a wet winter, the trees' roots are loose in the ground and so vulnerable to a big gust. Luckily - or unluckily, depending on how you look at it - the only casualty so far has been the cherry tree over the road: as you can see, it's lost most of its crown, and it was in full blossom, too. I hear one of the Scots pines in the woods nearby has gone down, too. We're surrounded by trees here, so it's rare that we have a storm and nothing suffers.

I'm old enough to remember the hurricane of '87, and though it's not exactly been that sort of thing today, it's quite bad enough. Then, most of Kew was flattened and we lost some of our oldest historic trees - grown men wept when they first saw the devastation. I'm hoping we won't have any reports of that sort of damage today, but I do also remember that then it was a time of renewal: a lot of plantings that had become stale and tired-looking were rejuvenated as new saplings, often in re-thought designs and in exciting new varieties, were planted to replace the old dinosaurs. As they say, it's an ill wind...

Friday, March 07, 2008

Waxing lyrical

When I'm not out in the garden, or writing about it, it seems I'm listening to things about it... This morning it was a little gem on Woman's Hour, on Radio Four, that caught my attention. It was an interview with garden historian Jenny Uglow in her suspiciously neat-sounding shed (she could get inside it, along with a radio reporter, for a start).

Jenny's delightful book, A Little History of British Gardening, is one of the treasures on my bookshelf. It's full of interesting things, and so was her interview on garden tools - as regular readers will know, I'm a bit of an anorak where the tools of my trade are concerned.

Anyway, did you know, for example, that painting your tools blue keeps flies off? Or that one of the daily tasks for Victorian estate gardeners was squeezing ants?

The report also had a little ditty which I just have to share - I'm sure everyone else has come across it already, but I had the delight of discovering it for the first time:

"From where the old thick laurels grow along the toolshed wall
You find the tool and potting sheds, which are the heart of all.
The cold frames, and the hothouses, the dungpits and the tanks,
The rollers, carts and drainpipes with the barrows and the planks,

And there you'll see the gardeners, the men and 'prentice boys,
Told off to do as they are bid, and do it without noise;
For except when seeds are planted and we shout to scare the birds,
The glory of the garden, it abideth not in words.

Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made
By singing, "Oh, how beautiful!" and sitting in the shade.
Far better men than we go out and start their working lives
In grubbing weeds from gravel paths, with broken dinner knives."

I discover from Jenny's book that this is actually by Rudyard Kipling - it's called The Glory of the Garden. In case you're interested (the internet is a wonderful thing... but it does also encourage you to go on a bit) there's more:

"There's not a pair of legs so thin, there's not a head so thick,
There's not a hand so weak and white, nor yet a heart so sick,
But it can find some needful job that's crying to be done,
For the Glory of the Garden glorifieth every one.

Then seek your job with thankfulness and work till further orders,
If it's only netting strawberries or killing slugs on borders;
And when your back stops aching and your hands begin to harden,
You will find yourself a partner in the Glory of the Garden.

Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him sees
That half a proper gardener's work is done upon his knees,
So when your work is finished, you can wash your hand and pray
For the Glory of the Garden, that it may not pass away!"

That's quite enough of that - ed.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

How to make a cold frame #2

Hmm... photography never was my strong point, but bear with me here.

For my mega-coldframe I've adapted the design from Terence Conran's Garden DIY, a very handy little book which has lots of useful projects and explains things simply enough even for novices like me. I've made both my compost bins from a design in this book, and very successful they've been too (when I make the third, I'll put that on here too). So if anything in my description of how to make these doesn't make sense - get the book.

After getting the base right, it's time for some woodwork. This design centres around dividing frames, which are then held together using the cladding. I suspect it will have little structural strength in the long run - i.e. I won't be able to move it much - but that doesn't bother me: if it bothers you, you'll need to work in some stronger connecting pieces to hold the dividers together.

The dividers are made from 2x2 (5cmx5cm for the metrically-minded) treated timber. Measure the depth (front to back) and width (side to side) of the space you have available - the good thing about this particular design is that you can have as many or as few dividers as you like, so the coldframe can be whatever size you wish. Mine is made up of three sections, so I've made four dividers (two at each end, two in the middle), which will eventually be spaced a little over 2ft apart.

For each divider, cut a length to fit the depth, then two more for the uprights: one at 1ft (30cm) and one at 18" (45cm). Finally, cut the length that will slope across the top: it'll need to be the same length as the base, plus about 4" (10cm).

Nail the two uprights on to the base at each end, using 2 3" nails at each joint, driven in at an angle - this will mean the joint is much firmer and won't pull apart.

To set the top rail, lay it across the two uprights so that it rests lining up with their top surfaces, and mark off the angle it lies at. It'll only be a very slight slope. Saw this off so that the top surfaces of the two uprights are now at an angle (hopefully the same).

Nail the top rail across them, using the same angled-nail technique as before, and leaving a length of rail sticking out from each end. Finally, saw off the ends of the top rail so that they lie flush with the uprights.

Next: putting on support battens (you can see a couple in the picture above - sneak preview!)

Monday, March 03, 2008

Grape expectations

I've been digging out big clumps of grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum) from a client's garden this morning, where they'd formed great grassy swathes and looked a bit like hairy wigs.

Before you think I've gone entirely crazy - what, digging up spring bulbs in spring? - this is actually a great time of year to do this job. I happened to know from last year that a lot of these muscari were coming up blind - that is, lots of foliage but no flowers. It's a general tendency most spring bulbs have if they're doing a little too well and have formed big, congested clumps. The only remedy is to dig up the clumps and remove about 3/4 of the bulbs, then replant.

The thing about doing it at this time of the year is, you can see the flower buds forming at the base of the leaves, so you can tell which clumps are blind and which aren't. They don't mind being hoicked out and replanted, even in flower - just water them back in and they'll get on with things as if they'd never been disturbed.
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