Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Happy Christmas!

I don't care what you call it - I love Christmas, and have been spending lots of happy days in the last few weeks... well.... spending.

I've even bought two plants, which I always swore I'd never do, on the principle that I hate it when other people buy plants for me. They're invariably the wrong sort or wrong colour, grow too rampantly or not rampantly enough, or would have gone in the last garden but not this one. Those who know me well only ever acquire horticultural gifts from an approved list, drawn up by me and revised no more than one week before said Christmas/birthday/anniversary. Draconian? Moi?

I absolve myself on this occasion though as both plants are Daphne odorata 'Aureomarginata' (one for each set of parents) and I'm seriously thinking about filching both of them and pretending I forgot to buy presents this year.

Anyway - I'm off to enjoy myself - hope you are too! May this Christmas/Winterval/Perisolstice be everything you wish for, and may the New Year bring you wonders of the horticultural kind galore.

I'll look forward to seeing you all again in 2009!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Recycled lavatories

The other week at my ever-challenging and interesting plant design course at Capel Manor, we got to talking about environmentally-friendly gardening.

Now, I'll nail my colours to the mast here and say I'm not entirely organic - I've been known to spray bindweed with glyphosate when nobody's looking, and my most heinous crime is to Pathclear my patio and driveway every year which I will no doubt have to account for in the afterlife. However - five minutes of talking to my very knowledgeable classmates has made me realise there's rather more to it than that.

We were talking about gravel. I've got loads of the stuff here - on my driveway, on the patio, and under my cold frame. It's cheap and easy as pie to use, I buy big jiffy bags of the stuff every few years or so to top things up, and until now I'd thought that was a relatively neutral material, insofar as I'd thought about it at all: the RHS promotes it as a good alternative in its "don't pave your front driveways" campaign, after all, doesn't it?

Not so. Marine-dredged gravel is the worst of all: "harvested" by something akin to Spanish trawlers only much, much more devastating. They suck everything up off the seabed to a depth of a couple of metres, killing all marine life that happens to be in their way, then they clean, grade and sort the gravel and spit back into the sea what isn't needed. Incidentally smothering all marine life that happens to have wandered into the area in the meantime.

So - you avoid that like the plague, and source it as land-dredged gravel, right? Well - if you can get companies to specify where they get their gravel from - this is certainly better. But the amount of fuel it takes to suck the stuff out of the ground, sort, grade and then transport it where it's needed requires a few aircraft-longhaul equivalents of carbon a throw.

This was all getting me in a real gloom. I was already having a conscience about using paving to hard-landscape the area around my shed and greenhouse (the garden makeover is proceeding apace, of which more later). It's not just the (itself not very eco-friendly) paving: it's also the sand and the cement-based hardcore I don't like having to use. Now it turns out the so-called 'better' options like gravel actually aren't.

The 'green' alternatives to gravel - bark chips, recycled tyres or bright blue recycled glass bits - are either too hippy or too horrible to contemplate. Or they wouldn't last five minutes. And then I discovered the wonderful world of recycled aggregates.

This is basically some of our rubbish that would have gone into landfill but is instead crushed down and sold back to us as gravel-like surfaces for pathways and hard standing. Surprisingly, for what might seem like an obvious idea, it seems to be a bit new, so there aren't that many people doing it yet. Long Rake Spar, in the Peak District, does a gravel made of crushed building materials that looks pretty good (and very like regular gravel), but the one I really like the sound of is sold as Traxmax. It's ceramics, either tiles or bathroom suites (I wonder if it's sometimes avocado-coloured?) taken out of the local tip, hopefully cleaned up a bit, smashed up into little bits and delivered in a big bag. The best thing about it is that because the original ceramic was made of clay, once it's broken up it becomes a little sticky again - so when you put it down on your path and it rains, it bonds to itself and becomes a solid surface.

You get it from this company - the only supplier I could find - and it's not even very expensive. There may be a catch: but I'm going to give it a go and I'll let you know what it's like. And anyway, I kind of like the idea of walking over second-hand loos on my way down the garden.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Perfect partners #1

Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens', Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola' and Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Silver Magic', spotted at Wisley on a frosty day.

(By way of explanation: We've been set an assignment for the Plant Design course I'm doing at Capel Manor to compile lots of plant combinations that we particularly like, so since it's going to take me all year to do, I thought I'd share them as I go along.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Winter wishlist

The moment has come - I'm going to have to opt out of Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day for this month.

This is because there are actually no blooms in my garden. Well all right, that's a bit of an exaggeration as the winter pansies are still struggling through, and the heliotrope in the greenhouse is in exactly the same state as when I put it in there in October. The pyracantha berries are still looking great, but that was kind of cheating last month anyway. Otherwise - zilch. Nada. Rien. Even the leycesteria which has been soldiering on right through since June has finally dropped its leaves and gone to sleep. To be honest I feel like joining it. I don't do houseplants (they take one look at me and die) so no joy there either.

So I thought I'd cheat. Here are the blooms I would like in my garden this month:

Clematis cirrhosa var. balearica 'Wisley Cream'

Garrya elliptica

Chimonanthes praecox (I do actually have this at the end of the garden but it's extremely shy to flower, so this isn't so much one to buy as one to cast a spell on)

Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata' (just)

Coronilla valentina subs. glauca 'Citrina'

No pictures, of course, as these are the flowers that are not blooming in my garden today.

I'll stop at five for now, though I'm sure everyone else has suggestions here. But let this be my lesson for 2008: by this time next year there will be no excuses!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Dead plants

At this time of year it's a blessing that some plants continue to look good even after they've turned up their toes. You have to experiment - I find a lot of the plants supposed to hold on to their seedheads, like Rudbeckia, Echinops and many grasses, actually collapse sideways into a soggy heap around November, which hardly counts as winter these days. But when you find the ones that work, they really are worth their weight in gold (which is the colour many of them are on a frosty winter's day, too).

Spiky seedheads of Cynara cardunculus towering overhead against a December sky.

Verbena bonariensis is one of the best for looking good all winter - as long as the bluetits don't tear the seedheads to bits first.

Perovskia 'Blue Spire' puts up a forest of ghostly silver stems.

And of course poppy heads: many of these do collapse sideways but there are always a few left standing. I wonder what critter chomped its way through the side of this one looking for seeds?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Avant gardening #2

The erudite and charming Tim Richardson got in touch with me after my earlier post about my doubts over "conceptual" gardens and so I've been having a very absorbing chat with him via email about what is, and isn't, a garden, the relationship between gardening and art and many other thought-provoking questions.

In case you've had your head under a hedge for the last few years, Tim is a stalwart champion of modern garden design, and the author of Avant Gardeners, which as I told him I have on my Christmas wishlist. He's kindly let me reproduce his thoughts in response to all my ditherings, since I thought they cast far more light on the subject than I ever could.

On whether conceptual gardens are actually gardens...
"I know what you mean about the 'garden' definition but in some ways for me it's like the discussion as to whether gardens are 'art' or not. Quite interesting but a bit of a cul de sac -- perhaps the definitions are not so important after all? In a way we need to call them 'gardens' because calling them 'art' or suchlike would be like trying to jump up on the coat-tails, like a puppy dog, of something supposedly 'higher' up the artistic hierarchy. We should be able to rise above such matters! Perhaps art should aspire to the condition of the garden . . . [faced as we are with a global ecological conundrum, I am not joking]"

And on garden history and modernism...
"At risk of sounding like a self-publicising lunatic, on the Jekyll gardens thing -- sometimes people imagine I am some kind of iconoclast dedicated to smashing down 'old' ways of horticulture [a recent letter to Garden Design Journal said I should be made to crawl on my belly all along the A road to Beth Chatto's garden and pay homage..] but in fact I think I am only qualified to make any suggestions having made a serious study of 20th c planting styles, to be found in an earlier book: English Gardens in the 20th Century, which includes a reappraisal of Jekyll as an avant-garde artist coming from the Aesthetic rather than Arts and Crafts tradition. That book is a decade by decade, careful evaluation of the development of planting styles -- so I am not in any way 'against' plants, which is what yet another leading designer [good -humouredly] accused me of only the other night. But designers are not always very interested in historical matters I find.

"For me, future potential can only be discerned via knowledge of the past; the two go hand in hand. But it is surprising how little crossover there is between contemporary garden/landscape design and garden history."

Those who stick their heads above the parapet unfortunately get shot at, generally speaking. But I for one am very glad we have people like Tim to make us think, and occasionally move forward from time to time.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Trying to get it all done....

Blimey, where did those weeks go?

Here's one answer: I've been a total slave to my leafmould bin since about mid-November. What with the painfully short hours of daylight, I've been grabbing my leaf rake every chance I get and not coming in till dark (that'll be when the kids get home from school, then). And on top of that I've been planting the remainder of the tulip bulbs, putting the last few plants mouldering on my patio into the ground at last, and finally getting on top of my legions of weeds.

I get very obsessed by autumn leaves at this time of year. The bottom part of our garden is pretty much a woodland, what with four mature apple trees and a boundary with next-door lined with hazel, oak and ash. So the result is a blizzard of multicoloured autumn leaves which starts some time around October and is only just starting to die down now.

I raked through the whole lot in November, and then turned round and started again. Now I'm on the home run with only a few stragglers thumbing their noses at me from the treetops and a leafmould bin piled high with lovely crispy leaves. It'll take a year to rot down into good soil conditioner (if you want it for mixing up potting composts, leave it another year) - and though it's a lot of work and a long wait, it's so worth it. Piles of the very best black crumbly perfection to add to your soil every autumn - you can almost see the plants plunging their roots into it luxuriously the moment you shovel it on.

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