Saturday, May 23, 2009

Technical difficulty...

I've had a technical setback - also known as a senior moment. I've lost my b****** camera cable somewhere between my house and Chelsea so can't upload pictures. The irritating thing is that I'm sure I packed it into my bag before I left, in fact I have a distinct memory of doing so. But then that may have been Thursday. Or indeed Tuesday. They say you lose about 9,000 brain cells a day after the age of 19 (which seems a little young to start on the senility trail, but then I suppose you must have a lot to start with). Right now, I am mourning my lost neurons. What it is to get old.

Delayed last two days of Chelsea will arrive when I've ordered a new one. Harrumph.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Postcard from Chelsea: Thursday

Small gardens today, and I'm going to betray my soft spot for the Courtyard Gardens here. I loved the Fenland Alchemist - the one that won - but for my money this was at least as pretty. It's Entente Cordiale, a little Franglais garden with a red, white and blue colour scheme that looks so lovely in the sunshine. The girls who built it - Patricia (French) and Janet (English) are hilarious - they're having a ball and seem to be giggling at something or other nearly all the time.

A little bit of in-show gossip - those clipped yews at the back are actually from Chris Beardshaw and his mentoring scholarship team. Patricia and Janet brought six of their own but only two were any good - they needed four so set off around the showground with only a few days to go, scouting for likely possibilities. Chris, bless him, not only saved their bacon but also delivered the trees right to the garden gate. Awwww....

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Postcard from Chelsea: Wednesday

This is the ravishingly beautiful planting in Luciano Giubbilei's garden for The Daily Telegraph: gold medal winner but in my opinion robbed for the Best in Show award (with respect to Ulf - actually if you're talking objective analysis and proper assessment instead of gut reaction, it could no doubt have gone either way).

On paper I didn't think I'd like this garden - I just don't do minimalist - but in fact, all those clean lines and tiered hedges just acted as a backdrop for two blocks of wonderfully rich planting that totally took my breath away.

Here's a rollcall of all those lovely, lovely flowers he's used: take it away and do it at home (though give the plants a bit more space, perhaps ;D)

Paeonia 'Buckeye Belle'
Aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata 'Ruby Port'
Astrantia major 'Claret'
Astrantia 'Hadspen Blood'
Iris 'Black Swan'
Iris 'Superstition'
Foeniculum vulgare 'Giant Bronze'
Salvia nemorosa 'Caradonna'

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Postcard from Chelsea: Medals day

The Daily Telegraph's garden by Swedish landscape architect Ulf Nordfjell: this year's top garden, winning one of just three gold medals and Best in Show, by a whisker from Luciano Giubbilei's garden next door, so they say.

Here's one of his plantings: Iris 'Superstition' over carpets of Stachys byzantina, with those firework-like Eremurus shooting up above. It's elegant, mannered, exquisitely beautiful... I confess, it didn't do it for me. A bit too cool and restrained, I think. But it's absolutely perfect, and an extraordinary creation.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Postcard from Chelsea: Press Day

Celebrities galore, very large hats, people in strange costumes and flowers, flowers, flowers. Must be press day at Chelsea, then...!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Postcard from Chelsea: Build-up day

David Domoney watching as the last of 15 piranha fish is released into the tank on Aqua Hortis, his underwater plant biotopes in the Great Pavilion. The guy holding the bag actually put his fingers in there to slit it open and let the fish out. Brave, brave man.

This was the picture a nanosecond after the bag was open. Fish was to bottom right about 2cm out of the picture. These little beggars move far, far faster than the speed of a camera shutter.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A taste of the Caribbean: The Tower

One of the last gardens we went to see was also one of the most beautiful. The Tower is an extraordinary relic of the past: an old Victorian house built by an Englishman purely so that his wife would feel at home when she came out to the West Indies.

He perched it as high up on a hill as he could, 250m above sea level, to keep her cool, and filled it with every comfort of the day, from stained glass windows to great airy dining rooms so that she would have nothing to complain of. You can only guess how much he must have missed her while he waited for her to arrive.

Unfortunately she didn't feel at home at all and hightailed it home in disgust after a few months. He was probably well shot of her - anyone who's not capable of falling in love with Grenada is a few sandwiches short of a picnic if you ask me. But you try telling him that. Obviously addled by the wonky logic that is love, he was so broken hearted he couldn't bear to live in the house and moved back into the town at the foot of the hill. A few decades later, in the 1940s, he sold it to the father of the current owner, Paul Slinger, for a mere £4,000. It's now home to Paul and his wife Victoria, plus three more generations of their family: at last it's being lived in as it should be.
The house is preserved almost exactly as it was built, even down to the stained glass, made of individual grains of coloured sand held in place between sheets of glass. But even more spectacular is the garden: eight acres of beautifully landscaped tropical paradise.

Don't you just want to sit in those chairs? This was such an informal, homely garden: artless, in fact. A sure sign that a great deal of care has gone into every last detail.

See those philodendrons just behind the chairs?

At least, I think they were philodendrons. They might just be alocasias - I got a bit fuzzy about the distinctions. But they looked very nice there.

Now I was going on about John Criswick's ability to weave coloured foliage through the greenery in the rainforest at the St Rose Nursery the other day: well Victoria has done something similar here. A little more deliberate, perhaps, but nonetheless effective: she's a painter by trade, which explains the very colour-led approach. She's threaded coloured crotons through different types of Graptophyllum pictum - yet another plant new to me but the ones I liked best were deepest green with subtle white splashes on the leaves.

Another example of Victoria's fine planting sense: bougainvillea, crotons, and that's a juvenile fishtail palm in front there.

Now these are definitely alocasias. Or maybe colocasias. They're all over the place in Grenada - they eat the leaves of colocasia (a bigger-leaved variety than this one, if it is colocasia, which I doubt) like spinach, and call it callaloo.

This confused me no end. I'd always thought that callaloo referred to amaranth, and in fact I'm positive I've heard people on allotments on the telly here referring to amaranth as callaloo - but everyone was adamant here, it refers to colocasia.

Anyway, these were growing in a copper - the same as the one the pond was made of at Sunnyside (and countless other gardens too). Lovely, aren't they? The kind of thing your average architectural salvage merchant would eat his own arm for.

I loved this group - a huge torch ginger, around 30ft or so high, with those bright bromeliads flowing across the ground in front. There were blooms like fat orange tulips coming up, rather wierdly, straight from the ground among those huge great stems, too.

This was a beautifully flowery garden all round, in fact - just the right balance between foliage and blooms. Here it's the heliconia - a flower so ubiquitous here as to be common. Nothing common about this: Victoria tells me it's the variety 'She', and I was very taken with those oh-so-subtle green-tipped flowers. The bright orange bits are bracts - it's the sticky-up bits which are the flowers (usually much smaller than in this variety). They're pollinated by hummingbirds. Obviously.

Another nice vista (despite the hosepipe: we were coming into the dry season so they have to water things endlessly if they're not to look out on a brown and crispy desert of sleeping plants). Bougainvillea to the left, palms to the right: and they had some nifty crotons along here which had half the leaf missing in the middle:

Wierd, huh? Another very beautiful flower along the same stretch:

My note-taking powers failed me on this one and I have no idea what it is but I liked it (and the photo didn't come out too bad either).

One last one to finish: this might look like a greenhouse, but it's actually a chicken shed. Some chicken shed. The disastrous hurricane, known as Ivan, which struck the islands in 2004 and flattened much of the vegetation (as well as countless houses, several churches and a lot of people's livelihoods) did for most of it and it hasn't been repaired since. I quite liked it as it was, in fact: spookily atmospheric, somehow.

Thanks to Paul and Victoria and their family for giving us such a very memorable day, and to Paul's father who makes a mean rum punch. They do occasional tours, though you have to go through an agent to organise it: Suzanne's web page has the details, just scroll down to the bottom.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A taste of the Caribbean: St Rose Nursery

Sometimes when gardens have a powerful resonance with natural landscapes - I'm talking about wildlife gardens, very "naturalistic" planting and a lot of woodland gardens - there's a fine line between it being a garden or countryside that's been tweaked a bit. This garden teeters delicately right on that line, and on occasions falls off - in places, it's more rainforest than garden. But then that recognition and respect for the natural beauty of the forest is why St Rose is so special.

The owner, John Criswick, is a consummate plantsman, but one with such sensitivity to his unique surroundings that you can often barely tell where his hand has been. St Rose is perched on a mountainside, in the foothills of the dense rainforest reserve that covers Grenada like a green blanket. Here, foliage is king.

The word 'jungle' could have been invented for this garden. The density of the planting is mind-boggling: not only is there no bare earth (the very idea is laughable here) there isn't enough room for hard landscaping either. We clambered down this steep hillside on a narrow path that would have been a sheep track if we'd been in Yorkshire (though of course quite a lot would have been different if we'd been in Yorkshire.)

It's practically impossible to get an idea of the scale in photos - probably best to assume that the smallest leaves you're looking at in these pictures are about half the length of your arm. The biggest are the kind of leaves you can comfortably stand underneath and still not be able to touch the end. Anyway - this gives you something of an idea:

The chap by the pond is slashing down kudzu vine with a machete - kudzu vine is like bindweed on steroids, and entire houses disappear beneath it within a few weeks if it's left unchecked. They say Grenadian guys are all lovely once you get over the fact that they're all carrying machetes: this is pretty accurate though it's hard to concentrate on pleasant small talk while ignoring the murderously sharp knife.

As I said before, this is a garden that's all about foliage. John uses coloured foliage to spectacular effect, weaving it in to the predominantly green rainforest with aplomb. Here it's a river of purple cordylines trickling through the green. (By the way - yes those are cordylines. I'd always thought they were sharp, pointy sort of things. Not so: Grenadan cordylines are soft and the leaves are rounded, and most delightful of all, they come in a myriad of colours from green to yellow to purple to stripy. Altogether much, much nicer).

And in case you don't like purple: how about yellow. This is golden crinum (that clump is waist-high - told you it was hard to capture the scale). This garden more than any other has taught me that you don't need flowers for things to be colourful.

This is the nursery adjoining the garden. As you can see, there's a tad more hard landscaping but otherwise it's still a bit tricky to tell the difference. Look closely, though, and you'll see this rainforest is in pots.

And there are flowers! All sorts, orchids and gingers and tons of things I hadn't a hope of recognising - this garden stretches your plant ID skills to the limit and well beyond. These were my absolute favourites: elegant racemes about a foot long, growing across a pergola-like grid so they hung down gracefully. Here's that flower close up:

We were told it was a Thunbergia, at which I thought, "nah - they've got that wrong". The only Thunbergia I'd ever come across before was Black-eyed Susan, an annual climber with small, single orange flowers - no racemes and not a great deal of elegance, though it's quite sweet if you like that kind of thing. Then I got back and googled it - well I should have known. The one lesson I learned in Grenada is that everything I think I know is as a grain of sand compared with the beach of stuff I don't. Thunbergia mysorensis, or Red Glory Vine, is from India, and you can even get plants here - though you need a greenhouse or conservatory to grow them well.

Just before we left, Derek, the head gardener, brought this out. Have you ever seen a flower like it? It's an aroid of some kind, but nobody knew its Latin name. They did, however, know its common name. Men of a certain age - look away now.
It's called 'Old Man's Balls'. I expect you can see why.

Thanks go to John Criswick for sharing his fabulous garden and nursery with us - it was an unforgettable experience. The garden is open to the public, and the nursery sells rare and unusual plants, trees and palms - it's stocked half the gardens in Grenada. If you're ever over that way - don't, on any account, miss it.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

A taste of the Caribbean: Sunnyside Gardens

One of the lovely things about blogging is you can write about what your editor hasn't asked you to write about (whether for space reasons or just cos they wanted something else), yet which you're just bursting to tell someone about.

So - at the risk of making everyone look at my holiday snaps with accompanying stifled yawns and glances at watches - there follows, over the next few posts, just a soup├žon from the 250-odd photos I took at the amazing gardens I went to see while I was in Grenada recently. I can't include all the gardens - there were about ten of them and I wouldn't inflict that on you - but I'll pick out a few favourites.

The first is typical of some more formal gardens we went to. A lot were designed by a Venezuelan garden designer called Chris Baasch who seems to have a monopoly on the island's gardens. Sunnyside, near the capital, St George's, is a fine example of his work, as well as a tribute to the gardening skills of owner Jean Renwick and her son Randy.

Aloe, scarlet spikes of the red ginger, Alpinia purpurata and mango trees - this is a densely-planted garden of island beds separated by that tropical grass you get that's a bit coarser than an English lawn. It's on a hill, like nearly everything in Grenada, so there are views everywhere:

That little pond to the bottom left houses a tropical waterlily, just coming into bloom when we were there.

The copper basin it's in is about 5ft across - they're used everywhere on the island for all sorts of things, mainly ponds though. They were used to 'tread' cocoa beans to help fermentation, a bit similar to treading grapes - three to a copper and bare feet. Since cocoa beans are slimy and squishy it must have been akin to dancing in the flats of Portsmouth Harbour at low tide. Only warmer.

Allotmenteers - eat your heart out. This is a calabash tree, and those fruits are about the size of a baby's head. They're not very tasty, but when dried, cut in half and hollowed out they make handy soup bowls.

This was one you'll probably recognise: the jade vine, Strongylodon macrobotrys. Here it was quietly strangling a cashew nut tree. They're heavy and rampant climbers which quickly overcome less thuggish plants but with flowers like that, you can understand Jean's reluctance to do anything about it.

This is a wierd and wonderful climber, too: it's the vanilla vine, of vanilla pod fame. Trouble is, it's not native to Grenada (it comes from a neighbouring Caribbean island - Trinidad, I think) and neither is the single species of bee that pollinates it. So if you want it to produce pods here, you have to get up before 8am and do it yourself with a paintbrush. It's testament to the obsession with gardening in Grenada that a lot of people do actually do this.

Cute little wendy house, but if you're wondering how they mow that humpy ol' lawn, they don't. That's because it's not a lawn: it's a Japanese hummock grass called Zoysia matrella. The amusing thing - for Jean, anyway - is that those hummocks are entirely hollow, so any visitors happening to think it might be a lawn fall in.

Another Chris Baasch composition: those palms are Travellers' palms, which I entirely fell in love with while I was on the island. Just look at those architectural stems.

Bromeliads cascading down (up?) a mahogany tree. The bromeliads have little cups of water in their hearts, colonised by insects: the Grenadan government decided they might be breeding places for malarial mosquitos so tried to get Jean to remove them all. You can imagine how well that went down. In the end, they decided the line of least resistance would be the dazzlingly impractical solution of anti-mosquito tablets to place in the centre of each plant. That's a philodendron scrambling its way up the mahogany tree.

The national tree of Grenada: the Flamboyant tree (Delonix regia). The flowers are bright orange, and you see them dotted all over the hillsides when they're out. We were there just afterwards, when they were loaded with pods: the kids here use them as musical instruments because the beans inside rattle. They call them "shack-shack" trees for the same reason.

Flamboyant wood is very weak, and if you look at the tree above you'll see it has a typically hollow stem. Luckily this is an ideal habitat for things like airplants, bromeliads and orchids - and this particularly fine staghorn fern:

I have one of these in my greenhouse at the moment but... well, suffice it to say it doesn't look much like this!

Thank you to Jean and her irrepressible son Randy (and his alarmingly active koi carp) for their generous and warm hospitality. I can't hope to do proper justice to their garden here, so either go visit it if you're ever over Grenada way - it's open to visitors by appointment - or read on at their own website here.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Back from my travels

Well - that's what you call a lengthy spell out of the country.

I've been spending a lot of time on aeroplanes in the last few weeks - some of it planned, some unplanned (or at least, planned at the last minute). The result was, I just disappeared over the horizon for the whole of April. Sorry about that, but I'm afraid not only am I back - I'm back with holiday snaps...!!

It wasn't all holiday - the first bit was what has to be said was really quite a swanky press trip. I had all of a week's notice and then found myself rather unexpectedly on a plane to Grenada, in the Caribbean. As well as some other journalists and a PR lady, all of whom turned out to be quite delightfully good company, we had the equally lovely Suzanne Gaywood with us - she's the lady who creates that vividly colourful exhibit of tropical flowers for Grenada every year at Chelsea, and the reason for my being there. About which - more later (a lot more).

Then I came back and spent a few days unpacking, washing and packing again in between trying to do some sensible work, then went to a different airport, this time with my family, and jetted off to Florida for a couple of weeks. Not so many gardens this time - there are some fabulous gardens in Florida but most of them were over the other side - but lots of wierd and wonderful plants in their native habitats, as I went to the Everglades. About which... you get the gist.

So I've turned all tropical just lately and my plant vocabulary has expanded by several dozen palms, a few exotic flower species and a swamp plant or three. I came back thinking two things: a) why do we bother with tropical plants - whatever we can persuade to grow is a shadow of what they're really like, and
b) why have we concreted over our little island? This after returning from Grenada, which is a properly green and pleasant land. Ours is mostly grey these days, and all the leaves are small.

Don't worry, I'll get over it. I already have to some extent as I returned to a garden full of tulips and forget-me-nots, and who couldn't fall in love all over again with such prettiness.

So that's my carbon emissions sorted for the next six decades. Lucky for the future of the planet that these chances don't come along very often - in fact these two flights have been the first time I've been on a plane at all in nearly 10 years. Last time, too - it's holidays in Bognor all the way...
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